As I followed the Kinneys out of the room to go downstairs for dinner, I locked eyes with Meric. He slowed and then stopped in the hallway outside of the hospital room and placed a hand on my shoulder to stop me as well. I saw Mr. Kinney glance over his shoulder at us, but he just slipped his arm around his wife and continued on towards the elevators. I turned to face Meric, wondering what he was up to. It didn't take long to find out.
"Brandon...I want to be honest with you for a minute. My parents have a few reservations about allowing you to come stay with us. I don't. At the restaurant...it was like...like you were a completely different person from the one we had been with all day long." I stood there, trying very hard to control all of the different, conflicting emotions running rampant through my body. Things seemed to be going well for me, I was getting to go live with the Kinneys, who seemed really nice, and I was gaining what I was sure would be a best friend in Meric. But this same best friend to be just couldn't leave well enough alone. He kept insisting on bringing up exactly what I was trying to put behind me.
"Meric, I..." I began. "I really can't talk about this...not yet. But I promise, if...when I'm ready, you'll be the person I come to." He seemed to be disappointed by this, but a smile almost instantly flashed back onto his face.
"Okay, when you're ready. Let's go get some dinner." With that, he turned and started walking down the hallway towards where his parents were waiting in the elevator. I glanced one last time at the hospital room where I had slept for the past week, then turned and walked down the hallway towards my new family.
Dinner in the cafeteria was...well...dinner in a cafeteria. Slightly better than airplane food and miles below home cooking. Mr. Kinney was eager to get going back home, so we were going to leave that night. I had never been on a long car ride before, and 7 hours seemed like an eternity to be cooped up in the back of a vehicle. I wasn't really looking forward to it, but I'd have Meric to keep me company and hopefully I'd be able to sleep part of the time. Before we left, though, we had to stop by the hotel to pick up the Kinneys' stuff. As we pulled into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes, expecting to rest a little while the Kinneys carried down their bags and checked out. It was not to be.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing? You don't actually think you're getting out of helping us, do you?" I opened my eyes to see Mr. Kinney looking over me, grinning. I smiled back, sheepishly, and unbuckled my seatbelt. He patted me on the arm and turned to walk into the hotel. Inside, I saw Mrs. Kinney and Meric as they stopped at the door to their room on the first floor. Mr. Kinney was at the front desk, talking to the person working there. I wandered down to the room and went inside to see if I could help.
"Everything's already packed, Brandon...we just need some help carrying everything out to the car," said Mrs. Kinney as I walked into the room. Meric walked past me, pushing a large duffel bag into my chest and then patting me on the back as he left the room.
"Hey, wait a minute," I called out to him, following him out into the hallway, realizing that he wasn't carrying anything himself. He was already standing at the desk with his father, and seemed to be ignoring me as I walked up behind them, carrying the bag over my shoulder now. When I got up to him, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and looked at me questioningly. I gestured towards the bag.
"It goes out in the car...but be careful, don't break my MP3 player," he said, before turning to face the counter again. As he did, I caught the faint glimmer of laughter dancing behind his eyes. He didn't really expect me to be his personal bellboy, did he? I was about to drop the bag right there at his feet, but I stopped myself. I realized that I didn't really mind carrying the bag out for him, even if it wasn't mine. It had been a long time since I had had a friend who joked with me. After everything the Kinneys were planning and had already done for me, this was the absolute least I could do. I went out to the 4Runner and put the bag into the back, careful not to damage anything in it. As I was finishing, I saw the three of them coming out of the hotel with two more bags.
"All set?" asked Mr. Kinney as he put the other two bags in the back.
"Sure am, Mr. K," I replied. We all piled back into the car and I settled in for the long ride. I realized that I was pretty tired, and I drifted off quickly, the swaying of the car easing my transition into sleep.
I awoke from a rough poking on my left arm. I tried to brush it off, my mind still not fully aware, eager only to return to sleep. But the poking was insistent, and was now accompanied with a soft whispering of the name Brandon. "That's me," my mind said, quickly rocketing back up to the conscious level. My eyes snapped open and I jerked upward in my seat only to be stopped short by the seatbelt, digging into my shoulder. I looked around frantically for a moment, feeling a little disoriented. The car was no longer moving, and there was a hand resting on my shoulder.
"Brandon, it's ok...we're here." A voice came out at me from the dark of night. It was Mrs. Kinney. "I thought you'd rather sleep inside the house instead of in the car." I looked over at her and returned her smile.
"Thanks, Mrs. K. Did I really sleep the whole way?" I asked.
"Yeah, and you snore too," said Meric with a chuckle from behind me where he was unloading his bag. I turned to Mrs. Kinney for confirmation of what he had said. I didn't snore. Only old people did that. She shook her head slightly, still smiling.
"Come on, let's get inside. Not all of us got to sleep for over 7 hours and we'd like to fix that," she said. I unbuckled the seatbelt and stepped out of the car into the driveway, my legs feeling a little wobbly after being in the car for so long. I leaned against the car for a moment to allow my legs to become reacquainted with normal ground before stumbling after Mrs. Kinney and Meric up the driveway to the front door. I stopped just in front of the car, rubbing the last of the sleep out of my eyes. I turned on the spot slowly, taking in the neighborhood I was going to be living in. The Kinneys lived in a 2-story rather large blue house with a bright yellow door and a well-kept landscape. I looked down the street in both directions to find many similar houses, yards, and driveways. Fairly standard practice for American suburbs, I thought. But, I liked it. I smiled to myself and walked the rest of the way to the door, where the Kinneys were all standing.
"Welcome home," said Mr. Kinney, smiling broadly at me. I could feel the tears rolling down my face to crash onto the upturned lips of the largest grin that had ever graced my face. I entered the house and was immediately accosted by the most rambunctious dog I had ever laid eyes on. I knelt down, realizing that it must still be a puppy, and gazed into its two different colored eyes.
"And now you've met the last member of our family - Striker. He's a huskie. We just got him a few weeks ago from some friends I know at work," said Mr. Kinney from behind me.
"He's great!" I said, wrapping my arms around his neck in a hug. I stood back up, stretching my back a little. Striker seemed to have given me his stamp of approval as he quickly greeted everyone else before crashing out the room in a blur of gray and white fur.
"Meric, will you show Brandon up to the room? Your dad and I are both exhausted and want to get some sleep," said Mrs. Kinney, yawning. "We've got a lot to do tomorrow, so make sure you are both well rested." With that, the two of them headed down the hall and up the stairs. I turned to Meric who seemed to be the walking dead.
"Didn't sleep at all during the ride?" I asked.
"No, I can't stand trying to sleep in something that is constantly moving. It makes me ill." He looked a little queasy even as we were speaking.
"Well, show me up to the room and you can get some sleep," I said. He nodded and headed towards the stairs, leaving his bag in the pile at the door with the rest of them. I followed him up, dodging Striker as he darted in and around my legs. I can't believe it - a dog! At the top of the stairs, Meric turned left and headed down to the end of the hall. He opened a door on the right hand side and stepped into the room behind it. Following him in, I saw him stagger to the king size bed and flop onto it. I looked around the room, seeing the TV and stereo against one wall and his computer resting on a desk against the other. Striker brushed against my leg as he rushed into the room and leapt onto the bed, running up and beginning to lick Meric on the side of the face.
"Ugh, I can't sleep with you drooling all over me," he said, picking up the dog as he stood up from the bed and headed towards the door. After tossing him outside, he closed the door to ensure that Striker wouldn't return.
"Where am I sleeping?" I asked. I had only seen one other door in the hallway, which I assumed was where Mr. and Mrs. Kinney slept. Meric was back beside the bed again and was stripping off his shirt. I stood there, staring at his back, unable to focus on anything other than the newly revealed skin. He had such a perfect figure. No, damnit...not this time. I tore my gaze from him just as he was flopping once again onto the bed. He pulled the covers up over him. I guess he hadn't heard me so I repeated the question. He patted the other side of the bed, meaning I was to sleep next to him. I gulped and forced myself to take one step at a time towards the bed, fighting a plethora of strange feelings that threatened to engulf me. I managed to get myself under control just as I was slipping into the bed and I pulled the covers up as well, trying to stay as far away from him as I could.
It was becoming obvious to me that no matter what I told myself, I was still going to feel a certain way towards men until I was able to fix whatever was wrong with me and be normal. Until then, I had to control myself at all times and avoid any situations that would cause me to feel like this. Surprised to realize that I was still tired, even after sleeping so long in the car, I closed my eyes and drifted off to the soothing sound of the shallow breaths coming from Meric's still form.
When I woke up, daylight was streaming through the half closed blinds on the window. I rolled over onto my side and saw that Meric had already gotten up. I could hear a shower running and I realized that there was a bathroom that connected directly to this bedroom. I sat up in the bed, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and looked around the room once again. Yep, still the same. I swung my feet out of the bed and stood up, contorting my body into a stretch that would rival the greatest of cats. Realizing that I felt pretty dirty, wearing the same clothes through a day and night, I figured I would wait for Meric to get out of the shower and then take one myself. On cue, the water stopped and I could hear a shower curtain being drawn back. After a few minutes, the door to the bathroom opened and Meric stepped out fully dressed but still toweling his hair dry.
"Oh, good morning. I was wondering if you were going to sleep the whole day away," he said. I looked around for a clock to see what time it was. 11:36 AM.
"It's not even noon yet!" I protested, smiling back at him. "Umm...could I borrow some more clothes so I can take a shower. I feel nasty."
"Yeah, you look nasty too," he said, a mocking smile on his face. "There's already a towel, wash cloth and a fresh change of clothes waiting for you in there."
"You really do think of everything, don't you?"
"Except when I forget something," he said, tossing his towel onto a hook behind the door and leaving the room. I quickly went into the bathroom and showered, eager to get downstairs and see everyone again. I couldn't think of a previous day when I was eager for it to continue. I was only ever eager for them to end.
Striker greeted me once more on the stairs as I headed down to the kitchen I had seen the previous night. As I entered, the Kinneys were all seated at the table in various stages of eating breakfast. Meric looked up at me while slurping the milk out of the bottom of his bowl of cereal. Mrs. Kinney glowered at him before offering me the choice of a couple different cereals. I chose the Golden Grahams and sat down to enjoy the crunchy goodness.
"Well, we've got a lot to do today," said Mr. Kinney as I was seated. "We need to get you registered at the school, buy you some clothes and a couple other things for your room, stuff like that."
"Mr. K...I...thanks. I'll repay you for all of this, I promise," I said, feeling a little uncomfortable that the Kinneys were giving so much and receiving only me in return.
"Nonsense," he scoffed. "Look, Brandon...money isn't an issue for us. I don't say that to sound arrogant or anything, it is just the way it is. And we are always thankful for it. If we can share some of our good fortune with someone, especially a member of our family, all the better. And that is what you are...a member of our family." I broke down again and started crying. I was beginning to think something was wrong with my eyes. They seemed to be dripping water more often than not. I stood up from the table, walked over to Mr. Kinney, and then Mrs. Kinney, and gave them both big hugs.
"Thanks," I said again, heading back around to my seat.
"Oh, no you didn't," said Meric, looking hurt. I felt terrible and quickly walked over to hug him as well. "That's better, now eat your breakfast, bro. We got sh...err, stuff to do." This earned him another glower from his mom as I sat down and finished my breakfast, not hiding at all the grin that was permanently on my face.
The rest of the day can only be described as spectacular. We spent a little over 4 hours at the mall, rummaging through Abercrombie, Structure and several other stores. It's amazing how many bags it takes to hold a full wardrobe! I still couldn't fully believe everything that was happening. I kept looking around for hidden cameras and obnoxious hosts to jump out and confirm my fear that it was all an elaborate joke. But, it never happened. After stowing all the clothing bags in the back of the 4Runner, we started driving again.
"Wow, I can't believe all of this. Thank you all so much!" I said, feeling extremely happy.
"You're very welcome, Brandon," said Mrs. Kinney, turning in her seat up front to grin at me.
"It ain't over yet," said Mr. Kinney from the driver's seat. I wondered what he meant by that as we pulled into the parking lot of a Best Buy. We all piled out of the SUV and headed inside.
"Go pick out a computer and TV, Brandon. And try not to take too long, we still have to go to the school and get you registered. Classes for both of you tomorrow." I barely heard anything he said beyond my name. I just stood there, my mouth hanging open and a look of utter disbelief stamped on my face.
"You're liable to have some bug or something fly right in there if you stand there like that. Now, hurry up," he said, grinning at me. "And don't worry about the price, like I told you earlier." This was all too much. Meric grabbed me by the arm and pulled me further into the store. We spent about an hour looking at all the different models they had, before I picked out a nice Hewlett Packard system with 17" monitor and a 27" Sony TV. Mr. Kinney didn't even flinch at the price of everything even though I felt a little guilty, as I had picked things that were pretty expensive. Mr. Kinney had said that he was a lawyer and Mrs. Kinney owned a small restaurant downtown, but I never imagined that they would be this wealthy. I know my dad had had a lot of money, but he never spent it beyond what he had to, hoarding it all to himself. This was a huge change.
"Well, I hope you like everything, Brandon," said Mr. Kinney when we were once again in the car and on our way to the school.
"Like it? I love it, all of it!" I couldn't think of anything else to say and even that seemed inadequate to express how I felt about everything that was happening.
"Well, good...because we won't be able to eat for about 2 weeks because of all of it," he said. I froze. "Kidding, kidding! Don't believe everything I say, it will definitely get you in trouble." I nodded, still a little shaken, but smiling all the same.
We drove up to the school at about 1:30 in the afternoon. It looked like a pretty normal high school...a couple large buildings with a full parking lot in front and stadium lights rising in the background. The words "Thomas Jefferson High School" were visible on the building behind the whipping American and Arkansas state flags. We pulled up in front of the building on the left and parked the 4Runner. I was a little nervous about this. Entering a new school is always hard, but entering in the 11th grade several weeks into the school year was even worse. I swallowed my fear as best I could and followed the Kinneys into the building and through a door marked "Office."
"Hi...we're here to see Mrs. Jackson about Brandon here...we called earlier," said Mr. Kinney to the person at the front desk. She smiled and nodded before picking up a phone and saying a few words to someone on the other end.
"She'll be right with you, Mr. Kinney. If you like, you can have a seat while you wait," she said, gesturing to the chairs arranged around the room. Students and official looking people were pouring in and out of the office on different errands. Not one of them even looked at us until...Wow. Standing at about 5'11" with shockingly black hair and dark eyes that portrayed an anger at everything around him, this student seemed very out of place when compared with everyone else I had seen thus far. He must have caught me staring at him, because he stopped what he was doing and stared at me, anger flashing behind his eyes. I couldn't tell if he was angry because I was staring at him or if he was just angry all the time and I was unfortunate enough to be currently caught in that gaze of hatred.
"You got a problem or something?" he asked, his voice brimming with a power that belied his frame. I shook myself out of the daze, surprised he said something to me and then shook my head slightly. He rolled his eyes and walked away, muttering to himself.
"Justin Benton," said Meric from next to me. I turned to him, surprised to hear the tone of dislike in his voice. "The resident asshole. Stay away from him, he's just trouble." I half-nodded, assimilating this new information. I wasn't sure what exactly about him had caused such a reaction, but I was fairly sure there was more to Justin Benton than met the eye. Just then, an elderly woman wearing a hideous gray dress walked out and motioned to us to follow her to the back of the office and through a door marked "Guidance Counselor." After everyone was seated, she clicked a few times on the computer, pulling up some information that I couldn't see.
"Brandon Oswald, correct?" she asked. This woman was all business. I nodded. "All right, we've received your transcript from your previous school. I've taken the liberty of doing some preliminary placing for you based on what you've taken before and how you did in those classes. If you don't like it, we can change it. Here at Jefferson, we try to encourage all of the students to do the best they are capable of. We are on a block schedule, meaning you have 4 classes a semester for 90 minutes each, with a 45-minute lunch in the middle of the day. I signed you up for Honors Pre-Calculus, AP English, Physics and French 3. Does that sound all right?" I was still processing what she had told me and it took me a little bit to think about the classes she recommended. I realized that they sounded fine to me and I told her so. She nodded, appearing as if this would have been my schedule regardless of what I had decided. She pulled a thin blue book out from a pile and handed it to me along with a computer printout of my schedule, complete with classroom numbers and teacher names.
"Is there anything else I can help you with?" she asked. I turned to Mr. Kinney, who shook his head. She shook all of our hands and then waved us out of her office. What an unpleasant person. Counselor my ass.
On the ride back to the house, Meric turned in his seat and grinned at me.
"What's the matter with you?" I asked?
"We've got three classes together...all except French. I'm taking Japanese instead."
"Awesome! Wow, Japanese...isn't that hard?"
"As hell, but it's neat. I'll teach you some sometime if you're interested." I nodded eagerly, thinking it would be cool to speak Japanese. I had already taken 2 years of French, which I enjoyed a good bit.
We got back to the house a little after 6:30 and I realized I was starving, not having eaten since lunchtime. Striker felt the same way, and let us know as soon as we walked in. It took several trips to get everything in, but we managed. It turned out that there was a guest room downstairs, which hadn't been ready yesterday, that was going to be mine. After dumping everything in there, we sat down to eat some dinner. I thanked the Kinneys again and again for everything, still not quite able to accept everything that was happening. After dinner, Meric and I headed to my new room to get everything set up. He seemed to know a good deal about computers and electronics, so I let him do most of that while I took all the clothes out, removed their tags and placed them in the closet and dresser.
"Ahh...there we go," he said, sliding out from underneath the desk where he had been assembling the computer. He reached down, pushed the on button, which lit up a light blue color. "Cool."
"Definitely. Thanks for your help." I walked over to watch it boot up while he sat down and got the stack of CDs ready that he would need to install the extra software we had gotten for it.
"Anytime. I actually enjoy doing this kind of thing, so it's no problem. We've got a wireless router for the cable modem, so you should be ready to go online with almost no problem." I patted him on the shoulder and walked over to sit on my bed. It had been a pretty hectic day and despite all the sleep I'd had yesterday, I felt tired. Besides, tomorrow was going to be my first day at this new school. On one hand, I was very much looking forward to it. I was going to get a chance to start anew and this time I wasn't going to screw it up. On the other hand, I was absolutely terrified of what the day would bring. It helped a lot that I knew Meric would be with me for most of the day. I didn't want to only talk to him and no one else, but it was good to have someone I knew that I could lean on. I was glad everything was going as well as it was. Beneath this fašade of happiness that I had plastered up, I could feel the anger, self-loathing and despair swimming around, eager for a chance to resurface. I was determined not to let them rule my life this time.
I woke up the next day to the horrendous siren of an alarm I had gotten. It was the most God-awful sound ever heard, but it was what I needed to wake me up in the morning. Striker had been asleep at the foot of my bed when it went off, but he leaped up when it went off, barked once, and bounded out of the room. I yawned, rubbed my eyes a couple times before forcing myself to get up. I didn't want to be late, not on this day. Grabbing some of my new clothes and a towel, I trudged into the bathroom to prepare for the day.
Feeling much more alive after a nice hot shower, I headed over to the kitchen for breakfast. Mrs. Kinney had made French toast for us, which was delicious. I glanced over at the clock and realized that it was just about time to go.
"Ready for your big day, Brandon?" asked Mr. Kinney.
"I think I am. A little nervous, but I think I'll make it," I said, gulping down the last of my orange juice.
Mr. Kinney drove us to school, dropping us off about 10 minutes before the first bell for homeroom rang. I didn't have that with Meric, as it was assigned based on last name, but he showed me to the room before hurrying off to his own. We would be in pre-calculus together in just a little while. I figured I could survive on my own until then. Committing the directions to my first class that he had given me to memory, I took a deep breath and walked into my homeroom.
The teacher, a Mrs. Smith, waved me over to her, checked my schedule, welcomed me to the school and then pointed to the only seat still open, which was in the front row. Great.
I slid into the seat, dropping my book bag onto the ground next to me and trying my best not to be seen or heard. It worked pretty well as no one in the room even looked at me that I could tell. Perhaps when I felt a little more comfortable here I would be interested in trying to make friends, but for the moment I was happy just to get through the day.
After the morning announcements and the pledge, the bell rang again. The classroom exploded as kids all around jumped up and headed off to their various first classes. I was one of the last to leave the room and I entered the hallway hesitantly. I recalled what I had been told about how to get to the next classroom, and I headed off that way. I rounded what was supposed to be the last corner right as someone else did coming the other way. We slammed into each other. He had been carrying a couple books that were now sprawled out on the ground next to both of us. I stood up shakily and leaned down to help pick up the books. However, the other person grabbed them before I could and when I stood back up, I found myself staring right into the brooding face I had first encountered the day before in the office.
"Oh, great...it's you," he muttered, rolling his eyes. "Watch where you're going, asshole." With that, he pushed past me and continued on down the hallway before ducking into a classroom on the left hand side. I just shook my head, brushed my shirt flat against my chest and walked the last 10 feet or so and entered my first class of the day. Meric was already there, sitting in the second row, with his book bag reserving a seat next to him. He waved to me a little and I grinned back before heading over to plop down next to him.
Mr. Fallon's math class proved to be fairly dull and probably fairly easy. I had always been pretty good with math and I had no worries about pre-calculus. This was the first time I had seen Meric in a group of his peers, and I was amazed. He seemed to know everyone by first name, no matter who they were or what they looked like and they all knew him as well. It wasn't that he was Mr. Popular or anything...he just had a natural charisma about him that allowed him to talk to anyone about anything. I was very thankful that this was the person to be my new brother.
The next class was more of the same, just a different subject. I knew that I could do well in all my classes, like I always had, with just a bit of work. About halfway through the class, Mrs. Pierce announced that we would be doing a research project on a famous author with a partner and that it would be due in two weeks. I immediately turned to Meric, who was also looking at me and smiling. I reached down to get some paper out of my bag, but when I turned back to him he had scooted his desk closer to the person on the other side of him. I felt hurt and just sat there staring at my desk drawing small figures in the top corners of the paper.
"All right, everyone find a partner?" asked Mrs. Pierce. I was about to raise my hand when I heard a voice from the back of the room.
"I didn't." I turned in my seat to see Justin sitting back there, looking sullen as ever.
"Yes, well...anyone else?"
"Me," I said, both trepidation and excitement running through me. Did Meric intend this to happen, knowing that Justin wouldn't have a partner?
"Well, there you go...Justin and Brandon, you can be partners," said Mrs. Pierce before she sat down behind her desk and began grading some papers.
"Fantastic," muttered Justin as he got up from the back of the room and came and sat down beside me in an empty desk. "We're doing Kafka." I had never heard of this particular author, but I was eager to make this work so I nodded in agreement.
"Do you want to get together some-" I started to say.
"Oh...well...how do you want to do this then?"
"I'll tell you what to do for research, you do it, and I'll write the paper."
"Oh...ok...I guess that works." It was actually depressing to talk to him. He exhibited nothing that would hint at anything positive about his attitude, and after having said what little he did, he didn't speak for the remaining half hour of the class. He pulled out a book, "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card, and started reading. It happened to be one of my favorites, and I filed that piece of information in the back of my mind as a possible future topic to talk about with him. Maybe he would lighten up when talking about something he enjoyed.
After what seemed an eternity, the bell finally rang, releasing us for lunch. I had brought some money, hoping to buy something small to eat. I wasn't a big fan of lunch as I was generally still full from breakfast and tended to eat a large dinner. Usually, a small bag of crackers and a drink was enough for me, which I picked up from the cafeteria. I headed outside with Meric, as it was a nice day. Some students were throwing a football around on the front lawn area and I sat down at a bench where I was able to watch them.
"I used to play football," I said to Meric in between bites.
"When I was younger. My da...well, let's just say I played quite a bit. I guess I was all right, but it's been a little while." I had to catch myself. My father had basically forced me to sign up for football, and I played for a few years. Eventually, I came to love it even though it had originally come from him. Probably the only thing I enjoyed that involved him. I didn't really want to bring him up, probably never again. Meric either didn't catch what I was doing, or pretended not to.
"Awesome...our team sucks, though. I don't think I've even gone to one of their games since I've been here."
"I miss it, I guess...it was a large part of my life back then. Maybe someday I'll get back into it." As I finished talking, the football that the other kids had been throwing around bounced and stopped right at my feet. I looked up to see someone jogging towards us, probably to get the ball back. I put down my can of Coke and reached down to pick up the football. I looked back up to see that the guy had stopped about 10 feet away from me and had his hands out ready to catch the ball. I looked past him to where everyone else was standing about 35 yards away. What the hell.
I planted my feet, raised my arm and gunned a pass over the head of the nearest kid towards the group of the rest of them. The tight spiral of the pass cut through the air, landing right in the arms of one of the kids, who quickly pulled it against his chest. I grinned a bit to myself, happy that I still had the arm I remembered. I looked back at the boy who had come to retrieve the ball. He was just standing there staring at me, his mouth agape. He stood there for a few moments longer, before turning and sprinting through the door that led to the cafeteria of the school. I shrugged, and sat back down to finish my drink.
"Damn dude, you've got a fucking cannon," said Meric from beside me. I shrugged, brushing it off.
"It's no big deal, lots of people can throw a football."
"Not like that, and not around here." I shrugged again, a little embarrassed by the attention. I looked up and saw that the group who had been playing were now standing around and talking to each other and every once and awhile one of them would point in my direction. I got scared, thinking they were going to come try to beat me up for showing them up. I stood up, ready to run into the school.
"Where are you going? We've got a good 20 minutes left," said Meric, also standing, but looking like he didn't really want to leave. I didn't say anything, but began gazing around, assessing the situation. I saw the boy who had come to get the football coming out of the school again, but this time he was followed by an older man who was wearing a ball cap.
"Hey...Hey!" I turned to face them completely as he called out to me. I wondered if I was going to get into some trouble or something. Why else would he have gone to get a teacher?
"Tom here tells me you know how to throw a football...that right?" asked the man who had come out with the boy. I turned to see the other group of kids had started moving towards us.
"Yes, a little," I said, turning back to the man.
"Little my ass," said the kid who I assumed was the Tom that the man was referring to.
"I'm Coach Thomas. What's your name, son?"
"Brandon...Brandon Oswald," I replied, wondering where this was going.
"Well, Brandon...have you ever played any ball?"
"Yes, sir...when I was younger for a few years." The coach turned to the approaching group of kids and looked them over for a minute.
"Bryce! Get over here. The rest of you, move out of the way," yelled the coach. One of the boys broke out of the pack and jogged over. He was tall and looked fast. The coach turned to me. "Do you know what a post pattern is?" I nodded, finally beginning to see what was going on. What Meric had said and the way these boys all reacted to me was all fitting into place. I grinned a little. Bryce handed me the football, which I gripped firmly, my fingers sliding familiarly in between the laces. The coach and Tom stepped back away from me, and I looked downfield to see that a long strip had been cleared of students. In fact, quite a few of the people who had been eating lunch outside were now looking at us, trying to see what was going on.
"Go!" I said, taking a 5-step drop, the football held up in my right arm. I watched Jackson sprint about 15 yards down the field before cutting diagonally inward. I launched the ball and watched it sail toward him. He caught it mid stride about 25 yards down the field and continued running.
"Holy shit," said the coach. I turned to him. "Hot damn, you've got an arm boy. Look, we haven't been able to field a team because we haven't had a quarterback worth a damn for about 3 years now. Why don't you come play ball for me, son?" I stood there for a minute, making it seem like I was seriously considering his offer. I had already figured out what was going on and had already decided, but I didn't want to seem overly eager. Finally I nodded and smiled a little. The gathered people gave a bit of a cheer and the coach smiled for the first time.
"Great, come to the locker room tomorrow afternoon about 3:30 and we'll get started," said Coach. He turned and walked back inside the building, leaving me surrounded by half of the Jefferson football team. It was a little intimidating. But, they seemed genuinely happy to meet me. All except one, who glared at me from the back of the group. I shrugged to myself. Can't win them all. The team wanted me to come throw with them, but I declined, wanting to just finish off my lunch and spend some more time with Meric. They seemed a little down but I promised that I would play some with them the next day.
"Fucking awesome!" said Meric after they had all left. "Your first day here and you're going to be quarterback for the football team. I'd say you're fitting in well." I grinned at him, feeling great.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I had two further classes, which went by pretty quickly and when 3:05 rolled around and the final bell rang, I hurried down to the parking lot to catch the bus with Meric. The ride home was quick as we were only the second stop. I passed the next couple hours checking out my computer and playing with Meric and Striker in the backyard. It felt good.
Mr. and Mrs. Kinney came home a little after 6:00. She headed to the kitchen to start working on dinner while Mr. Kinney went upstairs to change. Meric and I brought the dog back inside when we heard them in the house.
"Hi mom...dad!" yelled Meric as we came in.
"Hi honey. Have a good day?" Mrs. Kinney smiled at us from where she was cutting up some carrots next to the stove.
"Yeah, but Brandon's was better," he said, a huge grin on his face. I could tell he was about to explode with the news.
"Nah, it's not that big a deal," I said, hiding the smile on my face.
"Not that...not that big a deal?!" sputtered Meric. "Tell her or I'm going to."
"Oh, all right...if you insist. At lunch today, some other kids were playing football and the ball they were using bounced over to where we were sitting. I threw it back to them and apparently they thought I was good and Coach Thomas offered me the quarterback spot on the team," I said, trying to act like things of this nature happened every day.
"No shit?" I turned to see Mr. Kinney standing in the doorway of the kitchen, his tie off and the top of his shirt unbuttoned. "Sounds like you're fitting in just fine here, Brandon."
I returned the smile he gave me. Mrs. Kinney walked over and gave me a big hug before returning to what she was doing at the stove. I helped to set the table for dinner, all of the fears I had felt earlier in the day washed away by the happiness that radiated from everyone in the room.