Authors: Shawn Inmon
Without a thought, Thomas threw an elbow straight out behind him. He intended to hit the guy in the leg, maybe give him a Charlie horse. Instead, he caught him square in the balls. The wisecracker fell to the ground like a string-cut marionette, writhing with both fists tucked into his crotch. He groaned. “Why’d you do that, man?”
Thomas stood, looked down, said, “Don’t be an asshole. Oh, and Pablo Cruise sucks. Ten years from now, no one will know who they are.”
Thomas left his tray behind and hustled out of the cafeteria, hoping to catch up with Carrie. He flung the door to the hallway open and dashed through it—and smack into Seth Berman. Seth wasn’t a man-mountain like Tiny Patterson, but he was an athlete—not just big, but solidly built. His sloped brow and slightly agape jaw indicated membership at the far left end of the evolutionary chart. His expression might have been worn by the first dinosaur who wandered into a tar pit. Surprise gave way to anger. He looked down, saw Thomas, and pushed him back into the cafeteria.
“Hey, homo, watch where you’re goin’.”
Homo? Seriously? I guess that was the go-to insult in 1976. The worst thing one man could call another.
Thomas glanced over Seth’s shoulder and saw Ben Jenkins, avoiding eye contact.
“Sorry. It was an accident.”
Thomas moved to step around Seth, but a single Neanderthal finger against his chest pushed him a step and a half backwards. Looking past Seth, he saw Carrie turn the corner toward the ladies’ restroom.
“I said, ‘Watch where you’re going,’ homo.” Seth emphasized the last word. For the second time that day, a crowd gathered to enjoy Thomas’s embarrassment.
Come on, Weaver. Get the hell out of here. Leave Cro-Magnon Man to his ancient prejudices and live to fight another day.
Seeing the crowd, Seth smiled. He pushed his finger against Thomas’s chest again.
Goddamn it, that hurts. Screw this.
“I don’t know what your problem is, man. I bumped into you by accident. I guess you need to accuse other people of things you think are embarrassing to make yourself feel better. Whatever. That says a lot more about you than it does anyone else.”
“Wha?” Seth cocked his head, like a dog hearing a sharp whistle. He said it again. “Wha?”
Seth’s friend Jamie Myers, who had been watching the proceedings from the sidelines, leaned over and said, helpfully, “He’s saying he thinks
the homo, Seth.”
Seth’s expression changed from confusion to anger. He pulled his finger away from Thomas’s chest, bunched his fist and swung. Any trained fighter could have ducked the blow. Thomas was not a trained fighter. The ham hock fist connected with his forehead.
Stars exploded in Thomas’s head as he pitched over backwards and landed near the trash cans.
When Thomas finally came around, he raised his head to look around and saw the back of Zack, with Seth and Jamie on the other side. Seth was half a head taller than Zack, but he looked uncomfortable, like a recalcitrant child scuffing at the ground.
“I’m gonna give you a pass this time, Seth,” Zack said. “I’m going to assume that you didn’t know that this was my little brother. If you had known that, I'm positive you never would have done something so stupid. Right, Seth?”
Jamie Myers said, “Right. Right, Zack. Sorry.” He reached up, grabbed Seth by the shoulder and led him away.
Zack turned, reached down, and helped Thomas sit up straight.
“Oh, man. Thanks
Zack. That guy kicked—"
“Yeah. He kicked your ass. What did you do to make him so mad?”
“I bumped into him. Then he called me a homo.”
"So you took a swing at him?"
no. I told him he was accusing me to make himself feel better."
Zack laughed. "In other words, you called him a homo. Yep, that’s probably enough with Seth. He’s an idiot. You’re not a homo, are you? I know you keep stealing my Playboys.”
Thomas flushed, but said, “No, I’m not, but what if someone around here is? How does that make him feel? It’s just not right.”
“I suppose so, but getting your ass kicked by Seth Berman probably isn’t going to fix that, is it? If you're on a mission to stick up for homos, fine, but your technique isn't working.” He gently touched the bump around Thomas’s forehead. “Hey. I can see his class ring imprinted in your forehead. Cool.”
Thomas shifted on the cold metal bench. The sky overhead was a dozen different shades of gray and black.
Or, as we like to call it, another beautiful spring day in western Oregon.
The organized chaos of a high school track meet spread out before him.
I get why track meets don’t draw the big crowds that football and basketball do. It’s too scattered, too much going on at one time.
At the southern end of the track, a dozen athletes from four different schools stood in a ring around a sand pit, watching a knobby-kneed boy attempt the triple jump. Another group of boys, in shorts so small they would have been laughed at in 2015, stood balancing long poles on their shoulders, waiting for the pole vault to start. On the northern end, Tiny Patterson whirled around and around, and with a bestial howl audible in the bleachers, put the shot almost forty-five feet.
Zack stood near the start/finish line, bent at the waist, stretching in preparation for the 880 yard race. He had already won the 440 by three strides, coasting the last quarter lap. He was his own toughest competition today, and he had saved his best for the 880.
A high school track meet is one of the few things that didn’t change much. Aside from the races being run in meters instead of yards, a meet like this would look almost the same in 2015, except for all the parents in the stands videoing their kids on their iPhones, of course.
Zack stood at the starting line, hands on hips, and surveyed the crowd in the bleachers.
He’s looking for Mom or Dad.
Thomas half stood and waved to catch Zack’s eye. Zack nodded, scanned the immediate area, then refocused on his stretches.
I know who he was looking for. My teenage brain wouldn't have taken it in, but somewhere in Zack's heart, it kills him that Dad isn't here
. He shook his head. Their dad hadn’t been back to the house to visit them for five years, since moving out in the middle of the night, but he had twice been spotted at the edge of the crowd as Zack ran. Today, though, that ghost of family past was not present, and Anne had been unable to get out of her scheduled shift at the hospital. Not that Zack was short on people to root for him. It seemed like every eye in the sparse crowd was on him.
Zack dropped down into his starting stance, fingertips on the ground, head up, eyes forward. The starter’s gun rang out and all eight runners leaped forward. By the first turn, it was obvious the only race was for second place. Zack was already six strides ahead, gliding comfortably, focused only on his own form, his breathing, and his internal clock. Coach Manfred stood at a spot on the other side of the track from the starting line, stopwatch extended. When Zack went by, he checked the time, scribbled on a small chalkboard, and hustled back across the track. As Zack loped by at the end of the first lap, the coach held the chalkboard up for him to see. Zack flashed the smallest of grins and seemed to pick up his pace.
He’s going to do it. I don’t remember him having the best time in the state his senior year, but unless his shoelaces come untied, he’s going to do it.
Thomas jumped to his feet, cupping his hands around his mouth, shouting “Go, Zack! Go!” before sitting back down.
How is it possible that he’s outrunning everybody when it doesn’t even look like he’s trying?
By the time he hit the final turn, Zack finally started to flag. His perfect form picked up a slight jerkiness. Most in the crowd didn't notice or interpret the change, but his teammates did. They ran along the inside of the track, shouting encouragement.
Turning his head from side to side, face flushed, Zack opened up his stride to gobble up the distance. He broke the tape at the finish line, stumbled, and would have fallen onto the cinder track if Coach Manfred hadn’t been there to catch him. He hugged Zack, pounded him on the back, and yelled something in his ear.
Zack looked up at Tommy from beneath his shock of hair and gave a quick nod of his head. Thomas jumped to his feet again, screaming, “That’s my brother! Yessss!”
The track announcer, carrying an oversized microphone and trailing a long black cord, conferred briefly with the official timer, then clicked on the mic and intoned: “Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention, please.” He paused. “It will be some time before the results of the Boys 880 Yard race are official, but if the preliminary results hold, Zack Weaver’s time of 1:51.2 is the fastest 880 time in the state this year.”
Thomas sat down on the bench, exhilarated.
The unfamiliar voice came from behind him. He half-turned to see who it was.
Thomas froze. His heart raced.
“I know you probably don’t know me. I’m Michael Hollister. I’m a senior, like your brother.”
“Oh, um, hey.”
Shit, shit, shit.
“I went for a walk in the woods behind the school the other day after school and I saw you come out just a few minutes behind me. You don’t look like the pothead type.” Michael paused and looked at Thomas, who shook his head, agreeing that he didn’t look like the pot head type. “But those are the only people I ever see out there.”
“Oh.” Thomas chuckled.
Lame. Come on, Weaver, get it together.
“I missed the bus home on Monday and had to wait for Zack to get done with track practice. I…just went for a walk in the woods, something to do.”
Lame, lame, lame.
Michael's eyes said:
I hear you, but I do not believe you for one damned minute.
He squinted into the setting sun, looking over Thomas’s shoulder. “Yeah, no big deal. I just never see anyone out there, other than the stoners. So, big race for your brother, huh?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
What the hell do you want?
“Best in the state this year, maybe?”
Thomas just nodded.
And you care...why, exactly? Where the hell is this going, you animal torturer and future serial killer?
“Not going to be valedictorian in our class, but not too far off, either, right?” Michael shaded his eyes with his right hand, stared at Zack. His eyes met Thomas’s for a brief moment, took his measure, then flitted away. “Must be tough, having a brother that’s so damn good at everything.”
“Lucky for me, he’s cool about it.”
The single nod again. “Even worse.” Michael said, smiling and tapping a two finger salute against his forehead as he stood up and walked down the bleacher aisle. Thomas watched his retreating back, his characteristic walk. When Michael got to the parking lot, he scissored his long, lean frame into a deep blue sports car that Thomas recognized as a Karmann Ghia.
Of course. What kind of a teenager drives a Karmann Ghia?
An asshole teenager with a rich mommy and daddy, that’s who.
As Michael drove off, Thomas let out a long, shuddering breath and sank back down against the bench.
That can’t be good. I never talked to him the first time around. I must be changing things.
Of course I am. How could I not? And now, I’ve drawn the attention of a serial killer and I’m in his sights. Awesome.
Thomas walked back to the Camaro to wait for Zack.
That's right. I am changing things no matter what I do. The longer I go, the less I'll be able to predict. In real life, I never had any interaction with Seth. Carrie's world is already a little different. It's like a map with a lot of detail near the You Are Here, then less and less, until it's just blurred colors and traces of lines near the edge