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In Loving Memory by 94Smooth

Watching Sam run laps around the worn gravel track one afternoon, I realized there was a kinship between us that hadn’t existed with other boys I’d seen on the field. It wasn’t like I hadn’t noticed guys like me in any variety of combinations — athletic, self-contained, overly cautious, closeted. But none were compelling to me in the way Sam was that warm spring day.

I had, of course, seen him any number of times before. Sam had run track since his freshman year and was currently a junior and the third-best varsity miler on the team out of three — through no fault of his own. Two mothers had popped out superstars roughly a year before his birth. But he just had to wait them out till graduation. Next year would be his. Not that he was one to slack. His long blond hair bobbed in a ponytail behind him, his skin already golden from running lap after lap since before the snow had fully ended.

Now, don’t be confused. Sam was not my type at all. That position had been taken for quite some time by a certain quarterback and team captain. But that story can wait until a little later. My interest in Sam was strictly professional. Strictly personal, to be truly honest. He was on a path to making a mistake I’d already made. If there was some way that I could keep him from making it, too, then I, myself, could move on from this high school experience a fulfilled young man.

It wasn’t watching Sam, however, that had helped me realize my connection to him. It was watching another superstar on the team, an even bigger star, Tyson Washington. Ty, everyone called him. A senior, there was no event from the 880 on down that he didn’t dominate in the city, county, or region that year. His form was the model the coach taught the other boys to follow, his finely muscled ebony arms and legs swinging with controlled precision, his sleek, nearly shaved head tucked down, his eyes focused solely on the tape. He was fast.

And smart. Honor roll since kindergarten, practically, Student Senate president, Yale early decision. And popular, not surprisingly. Also, a really decent guy. Sam watched Ty the way most boys watch superheroes in a darkened theater, wanting to be like them, to befriend them, and knowing that’s impossible.

What Sam didn’t seem to realize was how, since the start of this season, Ty had been watching him back. Perhaps it was because people always surrounded Ty, and a glance in Sam’s direction appeared to be a simple escape from the constant demand for attention from others. Or it could be that high school boys are incapable of telling if someone likes them, in that way, unless told repeatedly by a trusted friend, sworn to secrecy.

Sam didn’t really know me, although he knew my name. But given the lack of other options, I would have to do in the role of trusted friend. And I had sort of a plan, or at least an idea for a plan.

The idea came to me one day a few weeks ago when practice was called early due to an incoming weather system. The school had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to electrical storms, after what had happened when the school first opened back in the late 1950s. There was even a plaque commemorating it under our old scoreboard. When the warning sounded, most of the kids bolted for the school or their cars, if they were among the lucky ones blessed with both a license and parents who provided them with a vehicle. But maybe half a dozen of us ended up in "The Shed," the decaying wooden structure just off the field where the sporting equipment was kept.

Sam was there, of course, having accepted the role of equipment manager for the track team " a position that was considered an honor and which perfectly matched his willingness to take on responsibility. What was unexpected was that Ty, followed reluctantly by a couple of his closest buddies on the team, also stayed to help collect the hurtles and batons and other tools of the sport before the rain hit.

"Bro, we should’ve left when we had the chance, bro," said one of Ty’s friend, a freckle-faced, red-headed high jumper who seemed enamored of the word "bro." "Do you see what it’s looking to do out there, bro?"

Ty ignored him, seemingly too focused on not being seen looking at Sam, now that they were just a few feet from one another in the rapidly darkening shed, a space no bigger than a two-car garage. Sam appeared to be doing much the same. Although he at least had the cover of a job to complete, sorting through and organizing piles of haphazardly gathered equipment.

The first clap of thunder shook the rickety structure, light flashing through the still open, oversized barn doors at the front. The boys all jumped and then fell immediately into peels of embarrassed laughter.

That also ended up being the only real excitement the storm had to offer as far as fireworks went. After a few distant rumbles, all that was left was a heavy May soaking that promised no imminent end. We settled in to wait out the storm, a bunch of bored boys. Except for Sam and Ty, of course, wired to each other’s presence. And me.

Although, it was funny. I almost thought I was wrong about how Ty felt about Sam. As much as he would connive to catch fleeting glimpses of Sam’s lean build, immersed in the process of restoring order to the equipment, he was spending almost as much time staring more openly at a freshman on the team, also a sprinter. A young man whose curly brown hair had recently been taken down to a sharp white skin fade on the sides, with a short, wavy pompadour on top.

When Ty finally spoke, apparently weary from the mindless jabbering of his regular acolytes, he called over to the boy. "Hey, man, I like your haircut," he said.

The boy seemed surprised to be noticed. "Thanks," he said, tentative. Clearly unsure as to whether one of the stars of the team and practically a man to his eyes had nothing better to do than make sport at his expense. Ty seemed to understand and followed up saying, "No, I really like." And he rubbed the back of his own nearly bare head in solidarity.

It was then I knew what I needed to convince Sam to do.

A few days had to pass, however, before I had the chance to be alone with Sam and tell him my plan. It was the end of the week, practice had ended, and no one remained on the field as Sam finished sorting and storing the equipment. Even the coach, who usually waited to padlock The Shed himself, had taken off early to prepare for a rare date night with his wife and entrusted Sam with the task. It was my opportunity, and I spoke to him just as he slid the lock through the metal clasps that joined The Shed’s doors.

"You know, Ty really likes you," I said.

Sam jumped. I had obviously startled him, and as he recovered he looked at me strangely. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Pete, you know," I said, deflecting the larger question of who were my friends and where did I fit. It was a big school, and that didn’t really matter. "I need to tell you that Ty really likes you."

He heard me that time. And what Sam couldn’t disguise in his expression was that particular mixture of unexpected hope married with fear of exposure that a closeted boy feels upon hearing for the first time that another boy, especially the boy about whom he has secretly fantasized, might actually feel the same. The protective distrust followed instinctively. "What are talking about?" he said. "Get away from me."

Sam began to cross the track, making his way toward the gate on the far side of the field.

"No," I called after him. "You need to listen to me."

Sam kept walking. But he wasn’t moving fast. I was certain that part of him that held out hope wanted to hear more. But I had just a minute to convince him, or at least convey an idea that might take root on its own.

"Ty watches you all the time," I said quickly, wanting to get as many thoughts out as possible before I lost him. "No one else. Just you. When he sees you it’s like he’s holding his breath. Anyone can see that he likes you."

Sam stopped in the middle of the field, his back to me and blond hair hanging loose now, down to his shoulders, a thin curtain shielding him against my words. But he was listening.

"You’ve only got a few weeks before he graduates," I continued. "Then he’ll be gone. You need to do something now. Take a chance."

An airhorn rang out from the school below, a final call for the "late bus" that would carry the remaining athletes and extracurricular kids home to start their weekend. "Like what?" he asked.

In an ideal scenario, I would have set this up better. But I knew that I had Sam for only a few seconds more. "If you cut your hair really short," I said, "I think Ty wouldn’t be able to help himself and will tell you how he feels and you two can be together."

As soon as it came out it sounded so implausible, so stupid, that I couldn’t believe I’d said it that way. Even having myself uttered the words, in Sam’s shoes I’d feel like someone was setting me up for a truly humiliating practical joke.

Sam appeared to feel exactly that. He said nothing more and just ran the rest of the way across the field, out through the gate, and down the hill. The guys I had so wanted to help were now unlikely to connect before one of them was gone. A waste and a total tragedy, I’d say, if I were inclined to be dramatic.

Or so I thought.

The field was my usual place to be on weekends, the quiet a restful contrast to all of the activity during the week. Occasionally, grownups from the neighborhood would come to run-walk a few laps, sometimes talking on their phones the entire way. Others would stroll with their dogs just outside of the fence, many apparently believing that public property meant they didn’t need to pick up after their pets. Once in a while there would be a weekend practice, but most of the time the students stayed away unless they had to be there.

That’s why I was surprised to see a blond ponytail bobbing around the track early Sunday morning. Although, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Thursday afternoon would be the final meet of the season for the full team, only the very top contenders moving on to Regionals and then State. It would also be the final meet or event of any kind on the old field, lacrosse having already wrapped up the week before and football having finished back in November. A completely new set up with artificial turf surrounded by a high-tech composite track was already almost complete on the other side of the school building.

I watched Sam circle the track a few more time, as he pretended not to see me by the home team bench we football players used during our games. It practically touched the track. Sam then slowed to a jog for the last half lap before stopping a few feet in front of me.

"Does he really like me?" Sam asked, skipping any preamble.

I shook my head to affirm this truth, the certainty of my gesture appearing to reassure him.

"Does anyone else know?" followed, the fear appearing suddenly.

"No," I said. "I’m the only one."

Sam lifted one of his legs, bent at the knee and pulling it toward his chest to stretch out the warmed muscles. He repeated the stretch with his other leg, hugging it tight, half a fetal position as he clearly thought through whether to risk his next question. He returned his leg to the ground and looked at me directly. "How is a haircut going to change anything?" he asked.

Okay, I thought. We have a chance. And having had plenty of time to think about it, I was ready to make the case.

"Ty’s practically got a shaved head, right?" I began. "So, it’s obvious he likes short hair himself."

Sam was still, listening. Although a slight shifting in his shorts suggested that he might also find this particular feature of Ty appealing.

"I’ve noticed that he also seems to check out guys with short hair, like buzzed hair." I said, embellishing a bit with the "guys," since it was really just one.

"He’s checking out other guys?" Sam asked, immediately suspicious and obviously sensing there might be an easy out from having to act.

"No," I said. "You’re the one. Trust me on this. You’re the one he likes. It’s just the haircuts that interest him."

A warm breezed picked up, an early taste of the summer gently rocking the ponytail on the back of Sam’s head. "So," he said, dubious. "Ty and I will get together if I get my hair cut like yours or something?"

"That’s why I have my hair cut like this," I replied. "It’s called a flattop crewcut. Because of Billy."

"What?" Sam said. "That makes no sense."

And, so, out on the track that day I told Sam my story.

My family had moved right before the start of the school year. My junior year, just like Sam. At my old school my buddies and I would talk sometimes about who we would follow into battle, what qualities would make us willing to risk our lives and trust someone without question. A lot of the guys went for strong and silent, almost a martyr, straight out of the war movies. But I had been less clear about who could attract that type of unquestioning loyalty from me.

Until I met Billy.

It was the first day of open tryouts for the football team. I had been a wide receiver on school teams since junior high. Not the most gifted but not without talent, and my coaches always said that no one worked harder. A lot like Sam. It was August, a couple of weeks before school officially started, and the coach had us running drills to gradually whittle us down to just a couple of prospects.

I was pretty tired when he put me out on the field to run a few passing plays with the quarterback, helmet on and an arm like fire. Billy, I didn’t even know his name at that point, could throw a wicked pass. And, luckily for me, the bits of talent I did have were fully displayed that day. I’d made the team, albeit second string.

I was back on the sidelines, the coach telling me to report for practice on the first day of school, when the quarterback jogged over to us, helmet still on his head.

"You were pretty good," he said. I could see his bright blue eyes and perfect smile through the grill in front of his face. "I’m glad you’ll be on the team."

"Thanks," I said, a little curious but also quite exhausted and ready to get cleaned up and head home. I was going to be sore in the morning.

That’s when Billy took off his helmet, and I found myself staring at the most handsome boy I’d ever seen up close. He was about the same height as me but a little more muscle, and his features looked like they had been made for Hollywood. He was that good looking. All topped off with a sharp crew cut, his light brown hair a short bristle on the sides with the top aircraft carrier flat, front to back. "I’m Billy," he said, beginning a joke. "I’ll be your team captain."

I’d had plenty of easy friendships at my old school and never thought much about making them or keeping them. But I felt a tightening in my chest looking at Billy that day that. I had to be his friend. And luckily for me, despite having many, many friends already, I became the new friend he immediately prioritized above the others. In those weeks before school began, we hung out every day, going for food, swimming in the lake a few towns over that all the kids went to, laying around at his house or mine making stupid jokes and getting to know all about each other. His folks let him use their car whenever he wanted, and some nights we would just drive around with the windows down, feeling the hot late summer air blow over us.

Once school began, I saw less of him during the day, he being on a senior class schedule. But, as soon as the final bell rang that first day, he found me, and we walked together to the locker room to change for practice. By Thursday, a couple of the guys were joking that I was his "date" for practice. We all laughed, still so innocent.

Whenever my thoughts weren’t taken over by schoolwork or practice, Billy filled that space. The way he spoke with respect about everyone and always tried to see their point of view, the elegance and assurance he showed out on the field, and his amazing face framed by the perfect haircut. I wanted to be just like him, I thought. Which led me to the act that changed everything.

I suppose I’d thought about it since I first saw him. But the plan took root on Friday, the end of the first week of school, during my second period chemistry class. My attention had been drifting during the teacher’s review of the Periodic Table, which I’d studied thoroughly at my old school. As my fingers mindlessly traced the sharp edges of the graphic, I began to think about what the squared-off edges of Billy’s crew cut must feel like to touch, something I would never actually dare to do. I was so overwhelmed by the sensation that passed through my body at that moment I knew I would need to get my hair cut the same way as soon as I could.

When my final class ended up being canceled and replaced with a study hall, I had my chance. There would be almost an extra hour before practice, and Billy’s barbershop was at most a 15-minute bike ride away. Without daring to think too hard, I snuck out the side door nearest the bike racks and rode off as fast as I could peddle toward the shop that Billy had shown me one day, as he drove me around all the significant places in his world.

The shop was located in a residential neighborhood, wedged between two-family rental houses that had largely been taken over by students at the nearby university. It probably would have been busy at any other time. But the fact that it was still early afternoon meant that I walked in to find the barber unoccupied, sitting comfortably in his chair reading a paper.

"How are you doing this fine afternoon?" he asked, looking up and resting the paper in his lap.

"Good," I said quickly. "I haven’t got a lot of time. Would you be able to give me a haircut?"

The barber began to fold his paper and extricate himself from the chair. "That’s what I’m here for," he said. "Although you don’t look too much in need of a cut."

Which was true. I’d had my basic ivy league haircut trimmed right before we’d moved, and it still looked pretty fresh. "Yeah, I know," I said, sliding into the smooth leather seat, still warm. "I want something different."

The barber reached around me with a paper collar, followed by a striped cloth cape. "And what might that be?" he asked, beginning to comb through my hair.

"I have this friend," I said. "His name’s Billy and he comes here. He gets a flattop crew cut. And I’d like to get mine cut exactly like his if you can."

The barber turned the chair around to face the mirror. "Of course I can," he said. "I’ve been cutting Billy’s hair since he was little." He removed a larger pair of clippers from a hook beneath his counter. "We’ll get the sides cleaned up first and then get to work on the top."

Without ceremony, the barber tilted my head forward and ran the blades cleanly up the back of my head, stroke after stroke leaving only a faint black stubble in its wake. He then addressed each side of my head, removing all but a shadow of the hair that had been. Watching myself, I could already see the shape of my face changed with hair no longer softening my features. I looked more mature.

The barber then took a comb and began lifting up chunks of hair from the top of my head, taking rough passes to remove the bulk of what had moments ago crowned me. Less than an inch was left by the time he hung up the clippers and reach for a jar of butch wax on his counter. Rubbing it into my scalp, he said, "If you don’t have any of this already, I can sell you a jar when you go. You’re going to need it if you want to keep this cut looking sharp."

He took a thick brush and began moving it forcefully from my forehead to my crown, against the grain, get the hairs that remained to rise up and hold their position. Pleased at last with his preparations, the barber began to freehand a finely detailed flattop, each stroke bringing me closer to mirroring the look of the boy I already idolized.

The barber finished me up with a little shaving cream and a straight razor around my ears and along the nape of my neck. He’d worked quickly, and I would just be able to make it back to school in time for practice. As he loosened the cape, removed the collar, and began to brush away the stray hairs that had made it past this barrier, he asked, "What do you think?"

What surprised me is that I stopped for a moment thinking about Billy, even though he was the reason for my being there. The boy reflected in the mirror was serious, confident, really transformed in this unexpected way. I’d felt a moment of fear on the way over that I could end up looking like the worst sort of nerd, scalped and embarrassed by a bad haircut I'd copied from someone who could actually carry it. But what I felt instead is that I had found my way to something that was exactly right for me and for who I was now, who I wanted to be in my new school, and who I wanted to be for Billy.

"And that changed everything with Billy?" Sam said, bringing me back.

I looked out at the field. "It changed everything with me."

"Are you two together?" he asked, curious.

"No," I said. I had to be honest.

"So, you regret it?"

"Never, ever," I replied, thinking of Billy as always. "The only regret I have is that I waited almost three weeks to do it."

I felt pretty certain after our conversation that Sam would do something, while also realizing that my own role was done. Maybe Sam would take the risk and Ty would get scared. Who knows? If matchmaking were so simple, fewer people would be alone.

But I need not have doubted my persuasive abilities, or Sam’s readiness to take a chance. He arrived on the afternoon of the meet with the coach and a few other boys ahead of everyone else, to help get set up. I heard his companions before I saw him. "D’ya lose a bet?" one of the boys called out, with his remark followed by a round of good-natured laughter. Apparently, Sam had skipped his final class to head to a barbershop for a complete transformation. Wonder where he got that idea. And the idea for the haircut he got.

We were now twins. Well, not really twins, as we looked nothing alike. But Sam’s shoulder-length blonde hair had been buzzed down to a perfect flattop crewcut, topped off with a clean landing strip. And despite the whiteness beneath the nearly invisible blonde peach fuzz around his head and neck, he looked really good. His strong cheekbones and wideset hazel eyes were the perfect complement to the spare, angular cut. Sam had been handsome before. Now he was unmistakably hot. A few days in the sun to match up the back and sides with his tanned face and he’d be a god.

And I wasn’t the only one to think this. Ty arrived on the field just a few minutes after Sam, his own head razored clean and glowing. He must have decided to go all the way down to smooth for the last home meet. Or, perhaps, for Sam, I couldn’t help thinking. Either way, I watched as he homed in on the buzzed blonde head at the center of a group over by The Shed, clearly not realizing at first who it was.

Ty’s expression when the realization struck made all of my efforts worthwhile. The word "smitten" was created to convey the incredulous, enamored look he had on his face the instant he realized that striking, flat-topped guy was Sam. There were no more surreptitious glances at Sam that afternoon. Ty was flat out staring at him every moment he wasn’t competing. And Sam clearly knew it and returned each stare directly, projecting a confidence I’d not seen before on the track.

That Ty would stick around after the meet to help Sam put away the equipment was a foregone conclusion for them, me, and probably at least a few other people by that point, their attraction was by then so obvious. But even after every last shotput and discus had been safely tucked away, they still had not said a word to each other. It was in no way an awkward silence. Rather, there simply seemed to be no need to rush conversation that was inevitable.

Only after the coach had locked The Shed’s doors one last time and headed down the hill to his car, did Sam and Ty at last face one another directly. Just a couple of feet apart, the late afternoon sun beaming off the sleek white sides of Sam’s crewcut and the gleaming surface of Ty’s head, they looked at each other, minutes passing.

Ty ended up being the first to speak. "I like your haircut," he said, the beginning of a grin forming on his lips.

"I like you," Sam responded, leapfrogging the coy repartee. Whether it was the act of getting his hair cut, his overwhelming attraction to Ty, or a combination of the two, Sam had tapped the confidence that had always been there, a bit hidden.

Ty smiled wide at that point. "I like you, too," he said, simply.

Sam and Ty stood looking at each other a little longer, both smiling now. Then they slowly made their way across the field, their bodies not yet touching but electric, the charge between them so strong.

After they left, I stayed out on the field until well after it grew dark. Early Monday morning, crews would begin salvaging whatever was to be transferred to the school’s new facility and commence with demolition. It would be one of the last times I would see the field, and I wanted to remember as it was now, and as it was with Billy.

By the time I’d made it back to school from the barbershop that day, most of the guys were already on their way to the field. It was unlikely that I’d play but still needed to suit up quickly. Coach did not brook lateness.

Billy was there with some of the other guys, still in his school clothes. He’d strained a hamstring in practice the day before, and Coach wanted him to rest it, so he’d be ready for the first game next week. I didn’t make any real effort to catch his attention, figuring that I’d be seeing him " and he’d be seeing me " plenty before, during, and after our scrimmage. But he noticed me immediately.

What I had not anticipated was the look of embarrassment on Billy’s face when he saw me. I thought maybe he’d play it cool or make a joke about us having gone to the same barber or something, not knowing that was true. And I thought I would play it cool and just glance at him and then away, keeping it moving, as if nothing about me had changed. But his reaction made me feel like I had done something wrong, and I just froze, bewildered by his horrified expression. Our warped staring contest ended only when he finally turned away from me and walked out of the locker room.

I tried to make myself change quickly into my uniform, but I kept getting lost, wondering what was suddenly different between us. Whether I should just walk away from the team, the school, and never again see Billy. I certainly couldn’t stand to see him in the way I just had. The pain was crushing my heart.

That was when I realized that what I felt was something different, far more special than what you felt for just some friend. I had a crush. A huge crush. On a boy. On Billy. In fact, I understood right then that I actually loved him, had fallen in love with him in that first moment on the field. And what was even more surprising and calming to me in that moment was that I didn’t care that it was a boy. It was Billy, the guy I would follow into battle. There was no one else like him in my eyes, and if I was feeling my first real love, I was glad it was for him, whether he was capable of feeling the same about me or not.

I sat down on the bench in front of my locker to begin lacing up my cleats, turned away from the now empty locker room. The first was completed, and I felt my newfound confidence restored. I was capable of being in love with another person, someone exceptional and unique. As I began to lace up my other shoe, I felt something brush against the clipped bristles at the back of my freshly shorn head. Two fingers, tentative at first began to sway back and forth against the grain, testing, gliding across my skin. I held perfectly still, the laces still twisted in my fingers, fearing that any movement would lead this divinity to pause, to end. Those first fingers were soon joined by others, and I felt the full of his hand, sweeping slowly up to my crown, before descending again and resting, cupped around the back of my neck. "I like your haircut," Billy said from behind me.

I had learned in Biology that it’s the autonomic nervous system that keeps us breathing when we would otherwise forget. But there are other times we were not taught about, that adults know but try to suppress, when the systems of our body are overtaken and move outside of our conscious control. I stood and turned to face Billy, as Sam had faced Ty. Unlike them, I showed no restraint.

My arms were around him, and his around me. Gripped tight, no space dividing us, our bodies connected despite our clothes. The soft bristle at the nape of Billy’s neck gently brushed against my cheek as I inhaled the sweet, clean fragrance of his butch wax. And I understood that this was why men went to war, to be able to come home to a feeling like this.

Our embrace lasted only a moment more, but it was all we needed. "Finish tying your shoe," Billy said, smiling at me and giving my head a final, gentle caress. "We should get out there before Coach really reams us."

We climbed the hill to the field together, mounting the single-file path side-by-side. The sun had already disappeared by this point, with deepening clouds drawing the remaining light from the day. But nothing as unimportant as the weather registered at all in that moment. Billy was beside me.

And he stayed beside me throughout the game, we together warming the bench. It was only our team and the kids from a school across town on the field for the scrimmage. When the light rain began to fall on us, Billy said nothing but turned to me and smiled, bemused at our getting soaked without either having gotten to play.

We weren’t going to be out much longer as the first rumble of thunder announced itself in the distance, and the soft sprinkle advanced steadily toward a downpour. In fact, the game could have ended right then. But Coach was an old army man. A little rain and thunder wouldn’t keep him from running the kids through one more play. And for whatever reason I’m sure he long pondered, he signaled me to get up and join my soaked and muddy teammates on the field.

Billy’s hand brushed mine as I reached down to grab my helmet off the wet ground beside his leg. "Don’t go out there," he said softly. "Coach should stop. I don’t think it’s safe."

"It’s okay," I said, pulling on the helmet. He may not be going onto the field with me that day, but Billy was my leader. Without question I would go to battle any given day to prove my loyalty and devotion and worthiness to him.

"Then make me proud," he said, serious, sounding like one of our fathers. I paused just a moment to look back at him, less I incurred the wrath of Coach for delaying the game. The rain now clung to Billy’s crewcut, but the precise bristles atop his head remained defiant. A first flash of lightening before I ran out onto the sodden field illuminated each unique droplet, forming a glistening silver halo surrounding his perfect face and those sweet blue eyes, eyes seeing only me. It’s the image of him I carried onto the field that afternoon, the one I will always carry.

* * *

Sam parked his father’s car outside of the construction fence and looked around. The late afternoon sun remained remarkably bright, a harbinger of the long, eventful summer days to come. It had been only a week since he’d last set foot on the old field, when a simple haircut had transformed his life in a miraculous way. He couldn’t believe how little remained of the place where it had all come together.

The bulldozers sitting idle now had already done most of their work. The Shed was demolished, a lean-to of splintered wood awaiting a dumpster, the stands disassembled, the goal posts gone, even the scoreboard toppled and heaped amidst the various piles of rubble. The track itself was now an oval of turned earth, the gravel piled high in a corner, awaiting transformation into walking trails, places of peace and quiet reflection for the school’s neighbors to enjoy.

Sam got out of the car and walked over to the temporary barrier, the skin on the sides of his head again freshly buzzed and appearing golden in the light, the locks on top clipped precisely parallel to the ground. He wanted to see if Pete would by chance be there, to share how far he and Ty had come in that little time. To thank him.

As he rested an arm across the top of the barricade, he felt the phone in his pocket vibrate. Pulling it out, he gave the device a slight shake to bring the screen to life. "miss u," the message read.

Sam grinned wide and tapped the screen. "me2."

He still held the phone in his hand as he squinted against the descending sun, making one last attempt to see if Pete might be somewhere around, just beyond his line of sight. The phone buzzed again, once more bringing him back and connecting them through the ether.


Sam turned away from the field and walked back through a wave of new weeds to his car. Pete could be anywhere in the universe right now. And he’d probably run into him this summer at the lake they all went to or would definitely see him in the halls of school next fall. No doubt he’d have his chance to tell him what his words had meant, how they’d changed everything.

Sam got back in the car and tapped one final message before pressing the ignition. "yes."

Left behind the departing car, gently buried now beneath the detritus, was a remembrance for a student long gone, his commonly understood lesson that thunder is your warning and lightening is not to be challenged. But no one really knows what can be learned from those who came before and the forms those lessons might take. The sign itself could have provided a more pointed admonishment to future students, decreeing, "The time we think we have to realize our dreams will never be enough." But what high schooler ever invented would take that lesson to heart?

The actual plaque had taken a more traditional path, its faded message reading simply, "In loving memory of Peter Altruski." An exceptional young man who had put on his helmet as the thunder clapped, taking one final risk to impress the boy he admired and emulated and loved.

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