Authors: Perry Moore
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Social Science, #Action & Adventure, #Gay Studies, #Self-acceptance in adolescence, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fathers and sons, #Fantasy & Magic, #General, #Gay teenagers, #Science fiction, #Homosexuality, #Social Issues, #Self-acceptance, #Heroes, #Fiction, #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Superheroes
I NEVER THOUGHT I'd have a story worth telling, at least not one about me. I always knew I was different, but until I discovered I had my own story, I never thought I was anything special. My destiny began to unfurl during my very last game at school. What started with an accident on the court ended with the single most devastating look I ever got from my father. And it made me want to die.
At the game, I'd scored twenty-two points, which already topped my personal best by a basket, and I showed no signs of slowing down. Every time I sank the ball, I could hear a lone deep voice begin to cheer a full second before the rest of the bleachers chimed in. Dad's voice was hoarse from screaming, but I could still tell it was him, because no one else there would bother to remind me to follow my shot or get my hands up for defense.
I ran down to the other end of the court and posted up under the basket, and I caught him out of the corner of my eye. He was sitting in the remote upper lip of the bleachers, in his usual spot, away from everyone else. The crowd was sparse up there, which he said gave more room for a man of his considerable size to spread out, stand every few minutes, and stretch his back. The truth was that the extra room also made it harder to tell that people were uncomfortable sitting close to him.
I was surprised to see a young couple sitting near him that night. The husband would occasionally turn around to agree with my dad on a call or congratulate him when I made a shot. They were probably parents of one of the freshmen on the team. Didn't recognize my father yet.
But I got the feeling they found something about him familiar. Like someone they'd seen on TV, in a movie, a local politician, or someone vaguely famous. They would have recognized him right away if he'd been wearing his mask. My guess is he'd probably saved their lives at some point. Dad always ran into people whose lives he'd saved. I could tell because his left jaw would clench, just a smidge, a bicuspid ground into a molar—a telltale sign that he was either going to be ignored, maligned, or dismissed by someone who was only still breathing by the good graces of my father's actions. He never wanted me to see it, but kids aren't stupid. Even if Dad had ever possessed superpowers, invulnerability wouldn't have protected him from the shame of having people look down on him in front of his own son.
I looked over and saw that Dad had his bad hand in his pocket as usual. I couldn't tell from that far away if he wasgrinding his teeth. The minute the new couple would go to shake his hand, they'd figure it out. The hand always got 'em.
Usually the only person who sat alone at the games was Mr. Carrier, whose wife had shown up at a PTA meeting more than once with a black eye. He always tried to strike up a conversation with Dad.
"Hi, Hal, Bill Carrier. We met when we picked the kids up from basketball camp, remember me?"
Dad wouldn't shake Carrier's hand, no matter how many times he tried to strike up a conversation. And it wasn't because he was uncomfortable with his deformed appendage, either; it was because Mr. Carrier didn't deserve the courtesy after what he'd been doing to his wife. Dad was like that with his convictions, utterly firm, no gray areas.
Dad had a perfect attendance record at all of my sporting events, except for one game four years ago, and that wasn't because he didn't try to make it. He punched out of work at five on the nose, never a second later, when I had a game. That winter he'd been nursing a severe cough, and on that particular day, he finally collapsed in the parking lot after a nasty coughing fit brought on by helping my geometry teacher push her Tercel out of a snowdrift. In the examination room at the hospital, the doctor told us she'd never seen such an acute case of pneumonia where the patient had been ambulatory, much less alive. My dad came the closest he ever had to smiling when he heard that. He tied his hospital gown tightly around his waist, still the trimmest midsection he knew of for a man his age, and readjusted his shoulders as if he were suiting up to enter battle. He wasn't one to toot his own horn, but you could tell he liked to win, even if it was just against an infection..
He was so dedicated to my games that he even showed up the night he discovered Mom had disappeared for good. He just sat up there in the back corner of the bleachers, same as any other game. He cheered when we were up, he shouted at the ref to get a new pair of glasses when we were down. He waited until after the game to tell me the news.
"Why didn't you say something?" I lowered my voice, care-ful not to show too much emotion in front of my team.'
"No use losing a game over it," he said.
Since I was on such a hot streak this particular night, Dad didn't have a whole lot to say to the ref. Yet despite playing the most spectacular ball of my life, we were about to lose to the Tuckahoe Trojans. Before you laugh at the name, understand that this was the toughest school around. In fact, after some unfortunate postgame assault issues, they'd been banned from the schedule for the past five years. Rumor had it that if they lost a game, they'd break the fingers of the opposing team members, at least whoever they caught. One finger for every point by which they lost. An eye for an eye, a finger for a point.
Needless to say, things were a little rough in the paint that night. I'd been popped in the eye by an elbow during a mad grab for an airball, but I could tell that it wasn't a black eye because it hadn't swollen shut—yet. The jab took me by surprise, first because it hurt like hell, but also because after the guy who threw it popped me, he followed the ball down to theother end of the court, stopped, stared at me with contempt, and then did the strangest thing.
He winked. Like he was flicking me off with his eyelid.
A little on-court hostility wasn't uncommon. Sometimes it could be a great motivator, help get your juices going. But this was different. Somehow this was personal, and the more I thought about it, I knew I'd seen this guy somewhere before.
He was a good two inches taller than I was—a rare thing, particularly because he was my own age. The summer between fifth and sixth grade I'd had an agonizing growth spurt when I grew over a foot in the span of three months. Dad sat up with me during those long excruciating nights on the stretching block (i.e. my old twin bed). He brought me orange Popsicles and laid cool washcloths on my forehead and played cards with me until the pain passed.
About this time I started having the seizures, too. Although the doctor said there was no connection, you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the link between shooting up out of your body and losing control of it. Soon I would discover that seizures weren't the only strange things my body could do.
So it was pretty unusual for me to play against someone who was even taller than I was. The guy's shoulders were broader and more worked-out than mine, too, like he took the business of physical training much more seriously than most people our age. The line of his jaw jutted out straight and severe. There were deep pools of dark in his eyes, so you couldn't tell where the pupils ended and the irises began. When you looked in his eyes, you saw a darkness that went on forever to some faraway place, where neither you nor I nor anyone else was welcome to go. And I got this sense from the way he leaped up for the ball, just a hair above everyone else, that he was deliberately holding back. Like he could have touched the ceiling if he'd wanted to. When he sprinted, his breath was even and controlled, like he was saving it up for something else, something more important.
For all his size, he was faster than everyone else, too. I hadn't seen anyone come even close to him on a fast break. But even though he was the biggest guy on the court, his shoes barely squeaked and he never stomped the wooden planks of the gym floor after a dunk. You'd never hear him if he snuck up behind you.
Anyway, the most remarkable thing about this kid popping me in the face wasn't that he was bigger and stronger than I was. It was remarkable because it was clear he'd hit me on purpose. He wanted me recognize him, to know who'd thrown the elbow. And when he turned back to wink at me, I finally figured out how I knew him.
It was a memory I would have rather forgotten.
Let me backtrack for a second.
Even though I go to what our neighborhood association hails as a good school, I don't live far from the Tuckahoe Trojans. Years before I was born, when Dad had finally scrimped together enough money for a down payment on a house, he took out a map of the county and pinned it to the wall. With color-coded pushpins, he targeted the areas with the best school districts, and researched the cheapest houses in those areas. He came up with a house he could afford: a modest two-bedroom on the outskirts of what was then the toniest new neighborhood in the suburbs. Our home was also known to our snottier neighbors as "the shiftiest house in the whole subdivision." But Dad isn't one to shy away from a challenge, and from the minute he moved in, he went on a tear of home improvements. A slick paint job on the front of the house, a well-manicured lawn, a new mailbox. I'm not sure what Mom did during this. I expect all she had to do was get pregnant and keep things orderly. Dad's sacrifices and fixing-up didn't really add up to much if you didn't have any children to pass on the Better Life to.
Despite Dad's many attempts to fix up the house, our neighborhood seemed to have its own plan to join the other side of the tracks. Last summer, I chipped the blade of our lawn mower on something hard. I turned off the motor, flipped over the machine, and saw a big chunk of the blade was missing. I emptied the contents of the grass bag and discovered the culprit stuck in a wet clump of crabgrass—a crack pipe.
I showed the crack pipe to Dad.
"There goes the neighborhood," he said. You could never tell when Dad was joking.
I wasn't driven to action until after the night those idiots broke in. They had to be on large quantities of drugs because they were evidently the only people in the tristate area who didn't know my dad lived there. God knows, if you counted the hate mail we received or how many times the yard was vandalized, you'd think we had my dad's name lit up in neon letters above the front door.
I'd just had knee surgery to repair some torn cartilage, so I was set up on the couch for a few nights because I couldn't make it up the stairs. Dad's car was in the shop again, so there were no cars in the driveway, no evidence of anyone home.
I'd just finished watching an infomercial about a new skin-care product, which, because of the painkillers, I'd found immensely entertaining and curiously emotional. I turned off the TV and let the darkness from the house seep into my head. High on the meds, I practiced my favorite method of drifting off to sleep. I filled my head with thoughts of the future, of infinite possibility. There's someone out there who will one day find me and fall in love with me and prove that all this watting actually meant something. . . .
There was a smile on my face when the back door exploded open. At first I thought the house had been struck by lightning. I bolted upright on the sofa and tried to get my bearings. I looked out the window, but I couldn't see any rain, and the trees weren't moving in the wind, either. Then I heard quick footsteps in chunky boots and hushed, hurried voices. I turned toward the direction of the voices, and in the doorway to the kitchen I saw the silhouette of two men. Very large men.
I thought about reaching for something to defend myself. The best I could come up with was the poker by the fireplace, but that was clear across the room. I froze. It was the most terrified I'd ever been in my life. When they stepped in the room, I saw there weren't two of them, after all. There were four. One of them had already begun to rifle through our hall closet for valuables. Valuable whats, I had no idea. A couple of old umbrellas, some mismatched mittens from when I was little, Dad's favorite old Tarheels hat? At least they hadn't seen me yet in the darkness. I tried to hold my breath and prayed they wouldn't hear me, but my heart was pounding so hard in my chest I thought they'd know I was there by the vibrations.
One of them walked toward me. I was sure he was going to grab me, but he passed right by and began to unplug our TV.
"Cheap bastards don't even have a DVD player," he said to himself.
I let a little air out through my nose and tried to keep myself from shaking. But there was a guy in the doorway who stopped and looked over in my direction.
"Hey, give me the flashlight," he said to the guy in the kitchen.
The guy in the doorway took a few steps in my direction and stopped for a moment. I saw his posture soften in a sign of recognition, and it sent a chill up my spine. His head tilted ever so slightly to the right, and I knew he was beginning to make out the shape of my head poking up from the couch. He took a step closer.
"Shit," another guy said from across the room. He'd found Dad's trophy case, his medals, all his commendations.
The moonlight reflected off an old medal the president had once given Dad for single-handedly fending off an invasion of telepathic starfish-shaped aliens and illuminated a very distinct impression on the thug's face. Panic.