Nate laughed and scampered down the beaten path that cut through the endless meadow, reveling in the breeze that blew through his hair and the feel of the warm spring sun on his skin. The boy ran his hands through the bent grass that lined the way, giggling at the tiny tickles on his palms. He looked up at the cloudless cornflower sky and smiled from ear-to-ear, his young body filled with life and his heart bursting with joy.
He turned back to see a man standing at the top of a hill. The boy grinned and broke out into a sprint, dashing towards him with all the speed his little legs could muster. The man reached and plucked him into the air, pulling him into a big hug, smothering the boy with his warm, strong arms. Nate laughed out of sheer happiness as he looked up into the man’s face and saw...
Nate’s eyes fluttered open and squinted at the sunlight that poured into his room. With a groan he slapped his alarm clock shut and stared straight up at the ceiling with a deep frown on his face. His sleep was usually dreamless but the episode he had just experienced had been so lucid that he could still feel the tips of the grass caressing his hands. Why was I so young?, he asked himself. And who was that guy supposed to be? I was just about to see his face when...
The quarterback shook the feelings loose and started getting ready for the day. It’s just a dream, he assured himself. They don’t mean anything. He repeated that idea to himself over and over as he drove himself to school and headed for his first class. To his surprise, he found all thoughts of the dream washed away the second his math teacher began his lecture on imaginary numbers. Though this class usually bored him to tears Nate found himself compelled to pay attention, as though it were very important he do so, as though goofing off or falling asleep - as he normally would - wasn’t even an option. The sensation continued all the way through lunch, and frankly, he was beginning to grow a little concerned as he grabbed his tray and sat down at his usual table. Its usual inhabitants - his friends from the squad - had already arrived and were talking amongst themselves as Nate picked at his lunch and pondered his situation. No matter what direction he tried to take them his thoughts always ended up coming back to Mr. Hollings. Though the idea seemed laughable at first Nate couldn’t shake the feeling that the teacher had somehow implanted his sudden studiousness in him...not that he was controlling Nate’s actions or anything but more that he had made it very clear what he expected of the young man and that to disappoint him would be -
“Hey man, what’s with you today?”
Nate snapped from his trance and looked up at his running back, who was regarding him with a raised eyebrow and a french fry jutting from his mouth. The quarterback offered him a feeble smile and shook his head.
“You sure?” The running back asked as he took a bite from his fry and shook the remainder at Nate. “Gotta focus, man. I know we’re playing a weak-ass team tonight but that’s no excuse to slack off.”
“It’s nothing.” Nate waved his hand dismissively. “I’m just bummed about this whole tutoring thing, that’s all.”
The running back frowned and nodded in understanding.
“Yeah, that’s a bitch.” He agreed. “Mr. Hollings is a grade-A asshole.”
Nate flinched as his hands curled into fists. He was a second away from standing up and socking his friend in the face before he caught himself, baffled at the sudden surge of righteous indignation he felt. What the hell was that? The way I reacted...it was like I was a little kid and he had insulted my dad. Nate frowned and rolled his eyes. Not that I would know anything about that. Luckily, nobody at the table seemed to notice his reaction, as they were so caught up in their own exchanges that his friends didn’t even look up when Nate grabbed his tray and scurried away from the table, not trusting himself to keep his cool around the teammate that had made the crack at Mr. Hollings’ expense. The strangeness of the scene lingered in the back of his mind throughout the afternoon, a tiny niggling itch that wouldn’t leave no matter how hard he tried to banish it. When he reached Mr. Hollings’ class the feeling only intensified and Nate found himself having to fight back the impulse to tell the teacher what his classmate had said. That’s stupid, he told himself as he took his seat. I’m no tattle-tale.
The young man froze and furrowed his brow. Tattle-tale? The word had crossed his mind so casually that he almost didn’t notice it - and that in itself troubled him far more than its usage. Nate looked up at Mr. Hollings as though he could provide the answer as to what was happening - but the teacher had already begun his lesson. Though that had never stopped him from speaking out in class before Nate felt compelled to remain silent and wait patiently until the period was over. Once the bell rang the young man waited for everybody to leave before rising from his seat and taking the desk near the front of the class.
“Ah, an eager pupil.” Mr. Hollings grinned as he erased the day’s teachings from the board. “That’s what I like to see. Go ahead and turn your book to - ”
Nate had to summon every bit of his courage to interrupt his teacher and even then the voice came out as a barely audible squeak. He felt horribly foolish - and that feeling only became stronger when Mr. Hollings crossed his arms and put on a look of mock irritation.
“Did you forget already?” He teased. “I’d like it if you called me Will.”
The young man blushed and looked away. Of course, he thought, chiding himself for his own silliness. It’s Will.
“Will...” He continued in a tiny voice. “Ever since yesterday, I’ve felt kind of...strange.”
The teacher smiled as he leaned against the edge of his desk.
“Well, that’s to be expected.” He assured his pupil. “When you actually pay attention in class - as I hope you’ve been doing...”
“I have!” Nate blurted out. Mr. Hollings chuckled as the young man turned red and stared at his feet.
“I’m very glad to hear that.” The teacher said. A shy smile crept onto Nate’s lips. “Anyway, I’m sure it’s going be kind of weird for you in the coming days...all I can say is that things’ll get better. Okay?”
Though he was still confused at his sudden burst of exuberance - why did I think it was so important that he know I had been paying attention? - Nate was consoled by his teacher’s words.
“Okay.” He said. “What page did you say you wanted to start on?”
Mr. Hollings seemed to chew on the question as he looked Nate up and down.
“I’ve actually got something else in mind.” The teacher said. “I know yesterday was difficult for you...so why don’t you tell me about some of the happier memories from your childhood?”
“There...aren’t a whole lot of those to talk about.”
“C’mon now. Nobody’s upbringing is that miserable.” He leaned forward and locked his eyes on Nate’s. “Think hard.”
The young man hesitated but did as he was asked, closing his eyes as he drifted back into the past. At first, the search seemed futile...but after a few moments he was a struck by an image, so clear and vivid that, for an instant, he felt transported into the scene. Nate’s eyes widened as he stared at his desk and focused on bringing the memory to the forefront of his mind.
“I remember...” He swallowed. “It was when I was eight years old. My foster parents at the time were...it’s not like they were bad people, or anything. But they had been taking in kids for a long time by that point and it was like they had just grown sick of it. The only time they seemed to notice my existence was when I did something wrong.”
“The father was the one who spanked you after you broke his camera, wasn’t he?”
Nate squirmed and nodded, feeling the phantom sting on his behind.
“They never really did anything with me or took me anywhere. But every once in a while...” A small smile crept on his face. “Every once in a while the woman’s younger brother - I guess you could call him my foster uncle - visited from out of town.”
The young man laughed and shook his head.
“He was so corny.” Nate chuckled. “Always telling these lame jokes and pulling quarters from behind my ear. But even though he was incredibly unfunny it seemed like I was always laughing when he was around. Usually he’d take me out to this family fun center where we’d play mini golf, race go karts and take turns in the batting cages. I used to watch with my jaw on the floor when he’d hammer the balls from the fast pitch machine - he played in college and I think he liked to show off. When me and the other kids that had gathered around his cage ?oohed’ and ?aahed’ at the line drives that came off his bat he would turn to us with this big goofy grin on his face, like we had made his day just by being there.
“Then one morning he showed up out of the blue and told my foster parents that he was taking me out for the day. Before they even got a chance to argue he grabbed me by the hand and led me into his truck. When I asked him where we were going he turned to me and spoke as though he were revealing the mysteries of the universe. ?We,’ he said, ?are going fishing’.
“It was great.” Nate grinned. “I had never gone fishing before so I didn’t really know what to do...but he said it didn’t matter, that catching fish was the least important part of the whole thing. When we weren’t trading jokes or telling stupid stories we just sat on the boat and enjoyed each other’s company. Neither of us got so much as a nibble...until we were getting ready to leave and I got a tug on my line. With his help I managed to reel in this tiny little bass - it couldn’t have been more than five inches long but to my eyes it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
“When he pulled it off the hook and placed it in my hands, it was like he was letting me in on this incredible secret that only a select few had been lucky enough to know about. I looked up and saw that he was beaming with pride, and for that one instant...I could imagine what it felt like to have a dad.”
Nate’s expression turned somber.
“Later that week I was transferred to a new foster home.” He murmured. “And I never saw him again. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that he knew the transfer was coming...and that the day he gave me was his way of saying goodbye.”
Silence hung heavy between them. A moment passed before Nate felt something on his cheek and realized that he was crying.
“Ah, jeez.” Nate laughed and brushed the tear away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to - ”
He was cut off when his teacher silently pushed himself off the desk and stepped in front of his student, his arms at his side and his expression blank. Without a word, he reached out with one hand...and placed it on the top of Nate’s head, running the palm softly through his short hair.
“It’s all right.” Will murmured. “Everything’s okay.”
Though Nate initially shrunk from the contact it seemed as though every pass of Will’s hand did away with another shade of sadness, calming and soothing the young man until he felt completely at peace. When the teacher stepped back Nate met his eyes for only a second before looking away, overcome with embarrassment at showing such vulnerability.
“Thank you.” He mumbled.
“You don’t need to thank me.” Will assured him. “I’m just happy that I could be here for you when you needed me.”
Nate sniffed and smiled. The teacher gave him a pat on the shoulder and looked up at the clock.
“Looks like we’re almost out of time.” He sighed. “But before we go, I’ve got a present for you.”
Nate’s ears perked up.
“A present?” He asked. The embarrassment he had felt a moment ago was immediately washed away by giddy anticipation. “What is it?”
Will chuckled at his student’s exuberance as he stepped behind his desk.
“Calm down, calm down.” The teacher said as he fished around in a drawer and pulled something out. “Ah, here we are.”
The young man’s anticipation hit a fever pitch...only to be replaced by a combination of confusion and disappointment when Will pulled out a multi-color pack of boxer briefs.
“I read that a lot of athletes are using these now - that they offer as much cover as boxers but provide better support.” The teacher explained. “So I figured you could give them a shot and see how you like them.”
Nate wasn’t sure what to say. Only the freshmen on his squad wore boxer briefs - and he knew that if he were seen in them he would be teased mercilessly by the other upperclassmen. But when he looked up and saw his teacher’s kind eyes and the warm smile on his face...he knew there was no way he could refuse him.
“Thank you.” Nate managed as he took the package from Will’s hands. “I’ll change into them before the game and let you know what I think.”
“I appreciate that.” The teacher grinned. “Though I don’t think you’ll need it tonight. Didn’t you guys beat Lancaster by thirty points last year?”
“Well, I’ll be there to cheer you on, so you better give it your best.”
“You’ll be watching?” Nate asked, with a little more eagerness than he had intended.
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss your game for anything.” The teacher smiled at the grin that spread across his student’s face. “Better get going, champ - you’re gonna be late.”
“Okay!” The young man chirped. “See you there!”
Nate gathered his things and headed for the door, looking over his shoulder to offer Will a smile and a wave on his way out. The teacher returned the gesture - and it put a spring in his student’s step that lasted all the way to the locker room. By the time he got there it was already buzzing with activity, every single member of the squad from the waterboys to the starting eleven amped up on the testosterone that pumped through their veins in the hours leading up to kickoff. Normally, Nate would dive right into the festivities - the enthusiasm he displayed while banging helmets and pounding lockers usually went unmatched. But as he entered the raucous scene the quarterback felt oddly intimidated by the scores of young men putting their machismo on display - it was almost as though he were a freshman entering the locker room for the first time, gripped with the fear of not being accepted by the bastions of masculinity that guarded its halls. He accepted the high fives and chest bumps that came his way, but as soon as the furor died down Nate grabbed his gear out of his locker and snuck away to an empty corner of the room. The young man stripped down to his boxers and - after looking over his shoulder to make sure that no one was watching - opened the package of boxer briefs that Will had given him and took a pair out. With blinding speed Nate swapped the undergarments, taking just a moment to check out his reflection in a nearby mirror. A perfect fit. The young man pursed his lips and looked down at himself. Not bad, he thought. Not bad at all.
“WHAT TIME IS IT?”
“WHAT TIME IS IT?”
“WHAT TIME IS IT?”
The exchange between the fired up lineman and the rest of the squad repeated itself over and over again, assuring everyone within earshot that it was, in fact, game time. The team was so entrenched in their pre-game ritual that none of its members seemed to notice that their star quarterback was hanging in the back of the pack, uninvolved in the ceremony, scanning the stands for any sign of Will. Ever since the gates opened and the steady stream of students and parents began filling the seats Nate couldn’t help but look over and scan their ranks for any sign of his teacher, a distraction that earned him a chewing out for failing to concentrate during the pre-game practice. The quarterback had cowered under his coach’s tirade - which was odd, since he usually shrugged off whatever bluster the old man could throw his way - but the humiliation he had experienced at being scolded in front of his teammates was nothing compared to the heartbreaking anguish he felt as he realized that Will had lied to him.
“CHAMPIONS ON THREE!”
Nate hung his head as he wearily put his hand in. He’s not coming.
“ONE, TWO, THREE...”
With that the mob broke up and dashed towards the field. As the rest of the team banged their chests and hyped up the already electrified crowd Nate was bringing up the back of the back, his eyes on the ground, practically dragging himself onto the turf. It wasn’t until he was on his team’s sideline that he finally raised his head...to see Will sitting in the front row, looking at his pupil with a mischievous grin on his face. Nate’s heart soared and in an instant it was like everything was all right with the world. The quarterback smiled so broadly that the corners of his mouth ached as he waved at his teacher and bounced on his heels, looking for all the world like a little kid mugging for a home movie. Will chuckled, waved back, and then pointed towards the field. Nate looked back and realized that they needed the team’s captains for the coin flip - with a sheepish smile on his face the quarterback gave Will a final wave before rushing out to mid-field, suddenly feeling as though he could take on his foes with one hand tied behind his back.
As it turned out, that might have been the only way to make things fair. Wellesley was heavily favored to begin with - and with Nate having the game of his life the opposition didn’t stand a chance. Normally, the young man’s play was motivated by pure spite and anger, his actions charged by his desire to shove the ball down the other team’s throat. But tonight, in spite of the chaos that surrounded him, his movements were calm, fluid, drawing from a serene sense of happiness that Nate had never before experienced. When the dust had settled the quarterback had thrown six touchdown passes. After each one, he looked up to the stands and found Will, beaming when he saw the teacher standing in his seat, cheering and clapping his pupil’s accomplishments with uninhibited vigor.
After the team had piled back into the locker room Nate found that he was the center of attention, with seemingly everyone from the head coach to the third-string freshmen coming by to slap him on the back or give him a pat on the rear. The young man plastered a smile on his face and tried his best to keep from squirming under all the attention. Normally, such an outstanding performance would only bolster his already-massive ego and he would stop just short of demanding tribute from his teammates for guiding them to another victory. But tonight he was humble and withdrawn - until he looked up and saw his teacher standing at the entrance to the locker room.
“Will!” Nate’s eyes lit up as he jumped from the bench. It wasn’t until he was within arm’s reach of his teacher that he realized that he realized he was about to give him a hug - which everyone on the team would have seen, as the outburst had sent every gaze in the room his way.
“Um, hi.” The quarterback grinned and scratched the back of his head. He looked over his shoulder and saw that most of his teammates’ eyes had drifted off of him. “What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to come by and offer my congratulations.” Will smiled. “Six touchdowns is a record for you, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah...” The quarterback blushed. He was delighted to receive Will’s praise but it embarrassed him all the same. His blush only deepened when the teacher put a hand on his shoulder and stared deeply into Nate’s eyes.
“Nate.” He said, his voice almost at a whisper. “I’m very proud of you.’
Nate’s lip quivered. Proud. He’s proud of me. No one’s ever...
“Nate?” Will cocked his head and frowned. “Are you okay?”
“...yeah.” The quarterback cleared his throat and shook his head. “Just, uh, just something in my eye...”
Will seemed unconvinced. Nate took a deep breath and met his eyes.
The teacher smiled, patted his pupil’s shoulder, and left without a word. Nate watched him go until he was out of sight...and then turned around to see a smattering of his teammates staring at him, gathered in a loose semi-circle, having witnessed the entire exchange. Though Nate wanted nothing more than to just turn and leave he almost felt as though he were being held down by their gaze, that escape would be impossible with their cold, humorless eyes watching his every move. Lifetimes seemed to go by before his running back spoke up.
“Dude...” He pointed in the direction that Will had gone. “What the fuck was that?”
“N-nothing.” Nate stammered. “It was nothing.”
“Bullshit.” A wide receiver declared as he rose from his seat and put his hands on his hips. “What was that asshole doing here, anyway?”
“He’s not an asshole.” The quarterback cringed at the word. “He’s...he’s my friend."
The members of the semi-circle looked at one another before bursting into laughter. Nate’s ears burned and his hands clenched into fists.
“?Shut up.’” His running back repeated in a mocking falsetto.
“I said shut up!”
Though Nate had managed to raise his voice to a shout things were already too far gone. As his teammates cracked up Nate felt the hot sting of tears forming in the corners of his eyes. Why are they being so mean to me?
“Aww, what’s the matter, widdle boy?” A lineman chimed in. “Are you mad ?cause we made fun of your daddy? Are you gonna go cry to him now?”
He gasped in mock horror.
“Are you gonna get him to beat up my dad?”
Their howling reverberated off the walls and filled the locker room to its brim. The tears were now running freely down Nate’s cheeks as the young men that he thought were his friends mocked him mercilessly. All of a sudden he was nine years old again, a small, powerless little boy, the same one that couldn’t do anything to prevent his foster father from spanking him silly, who bawled like a baby as he was stripped of whatever sense of pride he might have had. Had he not been racked with anguish Nate might have realized that something very similar was happening to him now, that with every passing second he suffered under their derisive, mocking laughter, his pride and his confidence - the very things that made him a man - were drifting further and further away, growing more and more distant until they slipped from his grasp entirely.
When the shame and humiliation became too much to bear the quarterback turned and ran from the room, the laughter of his teammates chasing after him like a vengeful spirit. Through bleary eyes he saw Will walking down the hall, and suddenly the young man was struck with the desire to throw himself into his teacher’s arms and tell him everything they had said, knowing that he would make it right - that he could make everything okay. But in the next instant he realized that if it weren’t for Will, they wouldn’t have made fun of him in the first place. As much as it pained him to do so - as much as it made the young man feel as though his heart had been ripped from his chest - he ran by his teacher, ignoring existence, ignoring the calls that came after him, not stopping until he was out in the bracing chill of the starless autumn evening.