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The dark halls outside the gym were just as still as the locker room. Save for the teachers—heads down as they sat at their desks, grading papers and whatever else teachers did. It seemed like everyone had left for the day. But maybe not. Ahead, Justin heard a rumble of voices; the unmistakable timber of guys somewhere close. Their voices rose and fell together, like the mob of shouts and jeering he’d heard the one time he’d been able to convince his older sister to take him to a professional soccer game.
The voices grew louder. They sounded harsh – like their words were spit in anger. Justin rounded a corner and nearly ran into the hunched, tensed backs of four students. He instantly recognized their practice jerseys—teammates. They were packed together with their shoulders touching, like they were trying to look like one big ugly brute to scare away a bear. They had cornered someone—they were always cornering someone, it seemed. Always laughing a bit too loud as they shoved against smaller kids. Justin couldn’t see who it was his teammates had picked on this time, but he could hear enough to figure it out.
One of his teammates, Bryce, swore loudly and growled a word that made Justin’s skin crawl. “You’re disgusting,” Bryce snarled at the unseen victim. “A little maggot who should just kill himself and make everyone happy.”
Justin tensed. He had always tried to keep his head down when he saw others being bullied, never spoken up to make it stop. It made his stomach twist in shame. A tiny part of him knew it was self-preservation, but it still disgusted him. He just wasn’t brave enough to call attention to himself that way—he didn’t want people to ask questions.
But this was different. The halls were empty. There weren’t teachers around to step in this time. He shouldered his way through the group, and they fell silent. They were younger—just sophomores—and more importantly, they weren’t Justin. They weren’t dating a cheerleader or playing soccer with scouts there to watch them.
Before him, Chris was pushed up against the bank of lockers, his narrow frame pulled up straight against the bullies. And he was alone. He was wearing heavy stage make-up and dressed in a ludicrous hunting outfit—dress rehearsals for the latest musical. But what struck Justin wasn’t the mascara or fake rifle slung over his shoulder, it was his expression. He stared at the bullies who loomed over him, his chin up and his shoulders squared against the slurs and hatred. Justin knew this wasn’t the first time students had made fun of Chris for who he was, but it was the first time he’d had to face it alone. He stood tall, yet Justin could see his hands were shaking. Chris’ eyes flicked to his for a second—only a second—but there was recognition there. Between Chris before him and the bullies at his back, Justin felt exposed and dropped his gaze to Chris’ trembling hands.
Justin stared at those hands, remembered what they had felt like pressed against his own. They had been just 12 the last time they’d really spoken, boys who had grown up down the street from each other. They had spent their summers barefoot, running through the woods behind their houses with the other kids of the neighborhood, playing kick the can and tag until the moon was up and their moms were flicking porch lights to come home.
It had been a summer night like any other. Chris and Justin were hiding from Carrie, who was “IT,” when Chris suddenly grabbed Justin’s hand and pulled him further into the trees, where the shouts from the neighbor kids grew quiet.
“Carrie’ll never find us here,” Chris whispered, his mouth so close to Justin’s ear it fluttered the downy hair curled at his temple.
Justin turned his head—he didn’t even mean to do it—and pressed his lips against Chris’ mouth. A chaste thing, a kiss between two kids who were just starting to grow up. But Chris’ lips on his made something bloom inside Justin, like fireworks and swirling water all together. Justin pulled back, afraid, but Chris kissed him again, a sweet peck that left a hint of fizzy drinks on Justin’s lips. Someone shouted nearby, and the two boys bolted in opposite directions, but all Justin could think as his feet pounded against the forest floor was that kiss. He wanted to do it again.
But they never did do that again, or really even gotten close enough to try. Chris’ parents moved across town, and their barefoot summers were over. Chris announced to everyone in Mrs. Schaeffer’s 8th grade science class he was gay, and they hadn’t spoken since. Chris made Justin nervous, afraid to face the truth that he only acknowledged in the deep dark of night. He told himself it was because they were simply different. Chris was into theater, Justin focused on sports. He told himself he hadn’t meant for it to happen, it just did. The athletes weren’t exactly sharing lunch tables with the theater dorks.
Now, years later, Justin stood close to Chris against the lockers and stared down the cowards in front of him. “Stop being such dicks,” he said, trying to keep his voice light, like he didn’t really care either way.
Bryce sneered, pulling his thin face into a grimace. He was the too-skinny kid, the one who was always the first to start wheezing when they were doing sprint drills. “Didn’t know you were gay for Chris, Justin. Bet Beth would love to know that.”
Justin balled his hands into fists. “So what if I were. I’d still kick your ass at soccer.”
Bryce’s face flushed an ugly red. “Whatever. You’re both fa—”
Justin stepped forward with a jerk, and his cleats fell to the floor with a clatter. “Don’t even think of finishing that word,” he growled. His voice had dropped the easy lightness, and his short fingernails dug into the palms of his hands. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard Bryce say these things before. Hell, his coach was known for yelling it to their face when they weren’t hustling. But now, in front of Chris, the word made his stomach clench painfully.
“Just leave, okay? We’ve got soccer.”
Bryce narrowed his eyes and glared at Justin, and Justin stared right back, his shoulders straight like Chris’ next to him. Bryce worked his jaw for a moment, then turned and sauntered off, his friends following. Justin was breathing hard, his heart thumping like he’d just run five miles. He watched the backs of his teammates disappear around a corner before he turned back to Chris.
He had slumped against the lockers, and his eyes were bright with a sheen of tears. “You didn’t need to do that,” he said, his voice quiet. “I know how to stand up for myself.”
Justin looked down at Chris’ hands again and remembered what it felt like to have their palms pressed together, hiding behind that tree. He remembered how it made him feel and how it frightened him at the same time as it thrilled him. He remembered that afterward, when his friends started noticing girls, he started noticing other boys.
Chris sighed and pushed away from the lockers, pulling the fake rifle up more securely over his shoulder. “But … thanks.”
Chris turned to go, but Justin caught his arm. “I- I’m sorry.” It tumbled out of his mouth before he could pull it back. He dropped his hand and squeezed it into a fist. “I’m sorry I never—”
Chris waved him away. “It’s okay. It’s hard … to be you, to be me. But you’ll get there.”
Justin looked up and met Chris’ eyes. He didn’t say anything, and neither did Chris, but there was something in the other boy’s face, a silent recognition.
Chris turned and walked away toward the theater, and Justin picked up his cleats to get out to the field. But as Justin pushed through the double doors and squinted against the setting sun toward where his teammates were warming up, he hoped Chris was right. That he’d get there. He hoped he’d be able to tell the world who he really was and stop hiding. To be brave.