It’s pouring rain by the time my cleats hit the field. I run, splashing mud up my back. I get to the pre-game team huddle by the sideline bench and weasel my way in.
“Coach,” I say breathlessly, hands on my knees, “I’m here. I can play.”
He looks up from his clipboard.
“YES! EXCELLENT! THIS IS GREAT!” he roars, scratching everything off his notepad. “NEW PLAN. WE’RE GONNA USE OUR OLD PLAYS FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON. FORGET EVERYTHING I JUST TOLD YOU.”
The helmets nod. Calvin looks across the circle at me, happy surprise on his face.
“Justin, Calvin, lead ’em off,” Coach says. They put their hands in the circle center, and we all follow. Our wet gold helmets glisten under the stadium lights.
“WHO ARE WE?” Justin and Cal shout.
“PANTHERS,” we boom. Our voices form a cacophony of guttural, tribal masculinity.
“WHAT DO WE DO?”
“Victory on three!” Justin calls. “One...”
We bring our hands down and back up, keeping tempo with the count.
“Two...” down and back up.
“VICTORY!” Our hands shoot high, our voices shaking the stadium. I have to muster mine from deep in the diaphragm, low in the throat. Cowbells ring. The crowd cheers. We jog off the field, guys smacking each other’s butts and knocking each other’s helmets. It’s the same elevated feeling I had at the concert, only tinged with fear. Like sitting in a roller coaster car anticipating its takeoff.
“Hey, Stephanie’s back!”
“Look, it’s Stephanie!”
“Rogers is playing!”
I hear people calling my name from the stands. What starts as a few fans turns into crowd-wide chanting.
“Ro-gers! Ro-gers! Ro-gers!” They’re shouting it in unison. The arena thunders my name.
Josh and Gunner each take turns lifting me off my feet and crushing me in hugs.
“Good to have you back, Stevie,” Gunner says. His eyes are red and watery. He rubs his nose.
“Tractor, are you...are you crying?” I ask.
“Naw,” he sniffs. “It’s just allergies.” But he adds, “It’s real good to have you back.”
Josh thumps my back.
“Now we gon’ get ‘em. We gon’ kill it! We gon’ kill it!” he laughs, throwing his head back. “WOO-HOO-HOO!” He shrieks while pelvic-thrusting. “AW, YEAH! C’MON, SON!” He jumps, chest-bumps Gunner.
I laugh, reach inside my helmet, and wipe the perspiration from my brow. Excitement has me warm despite the chilly air.
“You sure you’re good to play?” Calvin sidles up next to me. His hands are on his hips. I nod.
“Yeah. All’s good,” I reassure. “My mom let me come tonight.”
“So she knows you’re playing?”
“Uh...” She just said I could go to the game. But she never said I couldn’t play. “I’m sure she has an idea.” Not technically a lie.
“Well...I mean, if she’s cool with it,” he says. He breaks into a smile. “Glad you’re back.”
“Me, too,” I say breathlessly, nodding. I put my hands on my hips. “Me, too.”
The referee’s whistle blows, and everyone clears the field. It’s half-time. And I’ve yet to score a touch-down.
The cheerleaders - Melissa and Kelsey included - take their place at midfield. Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” blasts through the speakers as skinny white girls in sparkly mini-skirts flail pompoms and attempt hip-hop dance moves. It gives me just enough time to sneak off to the press box above the stands before the homecoming court is announced.
I follow my team into the locker room, then dip behind a row and pull the tape recorder out of my backpack. I slip it under my jersey and slide quietly out the back door, resisting the handle so that it closes soundlessly. I dash up the rickety steps to the press box and burst through the door. There are two students inside, both looking out the foggy, droplet-streaked windows that span the length of the booth. One of them - a thin, black-haired junior named Kenny Chen - has headphones on and is speaking into a mic. His voice calls over the speakers, “And now for this year’s homecoming court...”
The other, a short, chubby, pale senior named Andy Wermer is standing, staring at me like I’m some kind of celebrity he’s shocked to see in person.
“Stephanie! Hey! What’re you...?” He cocks his head, squints, half-smiles, never finishing his sentence.
“Shhh!” I say, rushing to the window. I stand beside Kenny, watching the festivities on the field below and listening to his announcements.
“Freshmen Brian Schossberger and Bianca DeMarco!” The audience claps as the two ninth-graders walk onto the field and receive bouquets from Vice-Principal Pinkney. Principal Humphreys - a tall, thin middle-aged woman in a business suit - places a sash on each that reads “HOMECOMING COURT” in curly lettering. The freshmen stand in the pouring rain and wave, massive smiles on their attractive little faces.
“Sophomores Scott Zuckerman and Destiny Gewertz!” The two slightly-older, slightly taller attractive little sophomores repeat the motions of their freshmen counterparts.
“Juniors Ian Kohler and Leila Fields.”
Here it comes. The moment has arrived.
“Seniors Justin Brinkman and Melissa Hanson!”
I whip out the Talkboy and hip-check Kenny out of the way. I stand above the microphone, palms pressed to the table, elbows bent, leaning over it aggressively. I watch my arch-nemeses take their bouquets, sashes, and have crowns placed on their heads. The stadium is in hysterics. I’m one ‘press-play’ away from exposing Justin to the same humiliation he put me through.
I lift the tape recorder to the microphone, raise my thumb above the ‘play’ button, and -
I can’t do this.
I exhale all the air I’ve been holding tight in my chest. My shoulders slump. My thumb goes slack. I can’t. I can’t ruin another human being’s life, no matter how badly I want to make them hurt.
I look out the window. Parents of the homecoming court swarm the field, taking pictures with their precious babies all dressed up and soaking wet. Justin’s macho dad is down there, arm crooked around his son’s neck, beaming for the camera. Justin did his dad proud for once. I can’t take that away from him. I’d kill to get my dad’s approval.
I wish mine could see me out there playing football senior year. Put his arm around me and tell me I’ve done him proud.
I look at the Talkboy in my hand, now an object of shame. I shake my head and back away.
“Sorry, guys,” I say. They’re staring at me like I’m crazy and mentally debating if they should call the funny farm. I back out of the room. “Real sorry about that. Didn’t mean to interrupt. Carry on.” I dash out the door before they have time to react.
My cleats thunk down the steps. I sneak back into the locker room and stow the recorder in my backpack. I dash out to my team, now on the sidelines waiting for halftime to count down.
“Hey,” I say, sliding in next to Cal.
“Uh, hey...?” He looks around. “Where were you just now?”
“Excuse me, everyone, excuse me!” Justin shouts. While the rest of the homecoming court has vacated the field, Justin remains standing before the bleachers, crown and Homecoming King sash still on, bouquet still in hand. “I have an announcement to make!”
It takes a few seconds, but a hush spreads over the arena. Everything goes quiet. Even the rain lightens up.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you guys for a very long time, but I haven’t had the courage to say it...” he hollers so everyone can hear. My stomach drops. Oh, my God. Is he saying what I think he’s’ saying? “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys sooner...You deserve to know the truth...It’s about time that you all knew that...Jamal Davis and I are dating,” a collective gasp befalls the crowd, “because...well...I’m gay.”
My jaw drops. Oh, no, he didn’t. The place is dead silent for a second. Then -
Clapping and cheers erupt.
“We love you, Justin!” people shout from the stands.
“Jamal,” Justin calls, barely audible above the supportive ovation. “Will you go to the dance with me?”
Everyone’s heads swivel, searching for Jamal. He stands up amid the crowd. He nods.
“Yeah,” he mouths. I’m sure he says it, but I can’t hear him over all the clapping, whistling, and hooting. He walks down the bleachers steps onto the field and gives Justin a bear hug. Such an outpouring of support they have.
“Good grief,” I mumble. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t air that recording. I would’ve looked like such an ass. I don’t care that he’s gay. I just thought other people would. Turns out, I was wrong. I guess people love him so much, they’ll accept him no matter what. That’s what it looks like, anyway.
“Alright, alright,” Coach interrupts, “break it up, guys. C’mon, we got a game to play.” He waves his clipboard like a hand in a “come” motion. “Let’s go, moving on.”
I can’t imagine the look on Justin’s dad’s face right now. I gotta hand it to the kid. He’s got guts.
Halftime ends seconds later, and we’re back on the field.
Screw Justin, I think. Just get a touchdown.