Disclaimer: I don't own iPods, Dasani, or Adidas.
Title is a spin off of Nickelback's song "If Everyone Cared".
Saturday morning. Really too early for a dual meet. I didn't even crawl out of bed until at least noon. That, my mother promised me, would change come my sixteenth birthday. Then I would have to get a job—and pay for everything myself. All of my parents' former expenses would become mine.
My parents treated, Nick, the oldest of us three, to everything. Now he was facing a bit of a harsh reality check as a college freshman. Over time, they had wizened up with Chelsea. Split costs fifty-fifty, to give her an idea of life in the real world. By the time I was coming of age, they had become considerably more tight-fisted. Of course things had become a lot more expensive, as they constantly reminded me, but my dad just liked me the least, so naturally he was going make me suffer.
Suffer for being gay. Suffer for being me. I hated my dad.
I spent maybe one-quarter of my life studying for the SATs, which weren't even until next year. If I wanted to get to college, I had to get there on my own.
I sat in the back of the bus—alone. The bus was almost entirely full—between my teammates and the cheerleaders. Jessica had, of course, invited me to join them, but I knew better than to intrude on my teammates, especially at this ungodly hour.
Consequently, I sat tucked away unnoticed in the back, a little cluster of the only unoccupied seats around mine. Nearly everyone was closing in on Brady, the golden boy of our team, hoping his skill might rub off on them. Brady, in turn, wasn't paying them any mind.
He and Jessica were talking and laughing together—for once behaving like a couple—and listening to his iPod. At present, Jessica had full custody of the iPod and Brady was asleep, head resting on her shoulder.
How he could be so calm as to sleep at a time like this? How could any of them be able to? Many of them were leaning against the bus windows. Jake Fletcher was stretched out across a seat all his own, hood jammed over his head and headphones in.
However, I was completely awake—in spite of not sleeping at all last night. I always was anxious and jumpy before a meet—and in the morning, got to experience the joys of heart palpitations.
I fished my own iPod from my bag and began to skim through it. The song count was up, undoubtedly Del's handiwork. All Zen music that she claimed "would help". All of the tranquilizers in the world wouldn't help me. Just knock me out. Faster than I ordinarily would in the ring.
With my help, the Wolves wrestling team had its most losses to date. I couldn't fully take credit; Nick contributed, if even indirectly. Everyone on the team had become dependent on his scores hauling us all the way to semifinals. Then it was every man for himself. Now that he was gone, everyone had to pull his own weight.
At first, I felt an unrealistic burden being laid on me. After all, I was Nick's brother. Riley's were born to wrestle, according to the coach. I dazzled them all with my impressive lack of talent, and the situation became virtually hopeless for us.
Such a good feeling that I let so many people down. They were among the first I'd disappointed, the first to have had expectations for me, but definitely not going to be the last.
I turned my attention to my music. A woman's breathy voice filled my head, accompanied by soft, sort of floaty music. Believe in yourself. You can do whatever you want, if you want it.
But if Del thought it would help, it might. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and dropped my head back on the seat, allowing the pure music and lyrics? to wash over me. I gained a tolerance of this sort of thing over time—and on rare occasion found it soothing.
Say it with me, urged Del's latest motivational speaker. I can do whatever I want. I am a winner. I am a winner. I am a…
"Jackass!" came a sharp, loud voice.
What the hell? How was this motivational? I wondered. I looked up and saw Brady standing over me. Oh. Just when I was beginning to believe the speaker, he reminded me how truly worthless I was.
Brady pulled one of my ear buds out, coming close to taking some of my hair along with it. The serenity that I had been building up was gone. I remembered where I was and my stomach plummeted.
"Ow, ow, ow!" I yelped. "Quit it." I was such a baby when people pulled my hair.
Brady looked disgusted. "You're not even in the God damn ring yet," he snapped, "and already you're being a pansy." If he wasn't pulling at fistfuls of my hair, I would have no need to yell. He always made me look bad, no matter what it was.
"Jason! What's the hold up?"
Quickly I assumed my best you-hurt-my feeling expression. Jessica popped up a lot more often in my life now, so I grew very prepared for these unexpected visits. Now he was in for it. But Jessica didn't come to my rescue. She just liked yelling at Brady, because the second after she did, she was gone.
That meant I had to deal with him alone. I was comforted by the knowledge that he couldn't actually do anything to me before a meet. Unless he felt he needed a little last minute practice? No, I was safe. Jessica had called him and now he no choice but to obey.
"Try that in the ring and see what happens," Brady warned me. "Nobody's gonna baby you." He slung his bag over his shoulder and shuffled through the bus to meet Jessica.
I picked up my bag and swung it indignantly over my shoulder. I got to where I was by myself—though perhaps that wasn't a good thing. I was the gay guy the world loved to hate and a favorite victim of one of the more influential guys at Central Valley. All my doing.
Maybe if I let people like Jessica hold my hand and guide me along behind, I would've gotten farther. But then, I wouldn't be the one earning the merit anyways. Downright shameful to have a girl fight your battles, as I had been getting away with as of braving a week at Brady's lunch table. If I became too dependent on her, I'd be fucked come graduation.
So many 'friendly' faces would leave—for good—in May. A large number of my teammates: Sebastian, Dan, Brady… No Brady. Yes! Freedom. I'd be free of my torturous feelings for him and his torture in general.
Okay, did any one want to explain how this worked? Brady was always disrespectful to me and openly hostile, and yet he was my obsession for years. Did I only like him for the shallow reason that he was gorgeous? He had proven he could be decent. Was arrogance a turn-on for me? Not likely. Sebastian was pretty high up there and I felt absolutely nothing towards him. Was his sheer loathing a stronger motivation to get on his good side?
He and Nick had been friends since infancy. He practically lived at my house, or vice versa. The strange thing was that Brady always seemed to like me when we were younger. Until he didn't.
And then I knew. As I watched Brady enter the ring it came to me. His power. His presence. His Brady-ness.
Oh my God. They had a place for people like me. It was called prison. Robbers, murders, and stalkers welcome.
And yet Brady, the first of the varsity to go, had the whole room's attention. (Never mind the fact his opponent was clad in a bilious shade of orange. Ugh. What was their mascot, anyways? Pumpkins?) His stance suggested nothing but utmost confidence, and I had no trouble believing it. A cocky smirk played with his features and he maintained unwavering eye contact. Already convinced he had it in the bag.
His self-assurance seemed to bring a new life to our slightly dispirited team. Our coach had already taken the initiative to give us a pep talk. Let's just say it wasn't his calling.
"Okay men, after the multiple losses…" He glared at me. "..we've had, we're coming in as the underdogs. But we're not dogs, damn it. We're Wolves. Some of you have yet to make me believe it, but as for the rest of you, make them believe it." It was both cheesy and accusatory.
"Wolves!" everyone chanted, well minus, the few of us accused. The veteran members of the team all howled. It came off as stupid to outsiders and probably most of the lower classmen—even in the school—but to the upper classmen, it was mandatory.
And then there were the beatings involved. So far the junior varsity was being used to wipe the floors. (Our division of the team should be called the Mops). Ragged, bruised bodies decorated the bench. I was so banged up I couldn't even sit properly.
My opponent kept trying to get in hold after hold. He threw me to the mat, very often and very hard. Some good had come out of my sessions with Brady. I had toughened up, even a little. I had become very used to getting slammed to the mat. Until I dealt with the other one. By then, I was too broken to even fight back—even if it was an exhibition match.
So, needless to say, the pressure shifted to the varsity: a few placeholders in the semifinals. They took this much more seriously than the junior division. They had had a few more years of "Death before defeat" drilled into their heads. To them, it was law. Or they were just better than we could ever hope to be.
All eyes turned to Brady, the soul savior of our team. Judging by the look on the coach's face, Brady would have to walk if he didn't win. Someone on this good-for-nothing team had better make it to finals.
No way in hell was Brady walking. He rarely lost a match; he practically lived at my house practicing with Nick, who was in his weight class. Even if for some mysterious reason Brady lost, he wouldn't be walking. Aside from Nick, he was the coach's pet: the son of another old college wrestling buddy.
Seconds after the referee blew his whistle, Brady's opponent lunged forward and caught him in a belly to double belly arm bar. Before he could attempt anything else, Brady managed to break out of it and the fight commenced! The whole place exploded with noise, both sides urging their team member on. The cheerleaders fought vainly to make their bouncy little cheers heard over the yelling.
At last they gave up and watched the guys go at it. Several joined in with the yelling.
My eyes strayed from the ring, where Brady and the other were grappling. I could never help feeling aroused when I watched Brady in action, but now I found myself completely able to over look him. I zeroed in on the rival team, the Cougars, I believed they were called.
They were succeeding in making more noise than my team, so they were easier to pay attention to. Most were dark-haired, in contrast to the namely blonde population of Central Valley. The red uniforms looked good on them. One in particular caught my special interest. His name was Corey Martin.
He had short dark hair and brown eyes, definitely different from what I was used to, but very good-looking. Slightly exotic quality.
His wrestling record was very impressive. He won state finals for his class last year. He placed second two years back, only because his opponent was cheap, or so Nick reported. It was Corey's first and only loss to date.
The best part? He was in my league. Wow, that sounded very conceited. He was in my wrestling league. Wiped the floor with the two who went against him. Apparently he was involved in some scandal and until he was ready to behave like a junior, he was going to be treated like a lower classman. All the better for me.
And then Corey vanished. Damn. He probably went to get a better view of his team mate and Brady. I sat back on the bench sullenly. Watching Brady fight wasn't anything special; I witnessed it all the time. First hand. I almost felt bad for his opponent. Brady didn't always play fair.
"Come on, Brady!" Andrew Cooper roared in my ear. I jumped about a foot in the air, not expecting that. All of the Wolves, it seemed, increased their volume. I wandered away form the noise, closer to the ring and I saw the impossible was happening:
Brady was losing… His confident smirk had faded and he was actually struggling. If he went down on the mat, he was going to stay there. Really, it had gotten to the point that whoever went down first was going to lose. The match had lasted so long that the ref offered to call it a draw, but neither coach would hear of it.
With one final burst of strength, Brady broke out his opponent's hold. Before the other guy had a chance to react, Brady caught him in a belly to back suplex and slammed him to the mat.
His opponent twisted and writhed to get free.
Face flushed and sweaty, Brady directed his gaze to the referee. He was fighting to keep the other down and pretty much praying that he could hold him for three seconds longer. He was so tired that even such a short time seemed like an extensive stretch.
The referee moved into the ring. "One," he shouted. "Two. Three." He blew his whistle. Brady stood and his arm was lifted into the air by the ref. "Jason Brady!" the ref declared. Brady was an interesting combination of smug, relieved, and exhausted.
He turned to his opponent and pulled him to his feet. Because of the ref's insistence, they shook hands. Brady probably would've anyways, because he was a decent sport, in spite of his many other issues. "Good job, man" he said generously and headed back to our bench. "Don't just stand there," he snapped. "Someone grab me a bottle of water."
But he was far from getting the breathing time he needed. Instantly the coach was up in his face. "What the fuck was that?" he snapped. "You almost lost…"
"But I didn't," Brady said heatedly. He popped the lid of his Dasani bottle, poured a little over his head, and took a grateful swig.
"I will not tolerate mediocrity, Jason," warned the coach. "Especially not from you. Now that Riley's graduated, you're the only half-decent wrestler I have left!" He had a habit of cursing and tearing people down, even to their faces, like he was doing now. "I expect you to make it to state finals and you had better place, God damn it."
"Could've fooled me," Brady retorted. "I mean, you have me fighting Riley as practice. Pretty stupid plan, if you want me to get better." If anyone else on the team dared to speak to the coach like that, he would have his skull crushed in a brainbuster so fast it wouldn't even be funny.
Oh, God. Called out. Everything that went wrong on this fucking team was always my fault. I wanted to feel betrayed, but it was too customary for Brady to throw someone—namely me—under the bus.
Maybe it was my fault, maybe it wasn't. My 'gayness' could serve as a major distraction. Then, again… I fucked up, I'd be the first to admit it, but you couldn't blame the entire team's inabilities on me. The coach hated me because I was exactly the opposite of my perfect older brother. Maybe it was nobody's fault, but the coach's. Maybe we just needed a new coach. A supportive one, who actually made wrestling fun and didn't show blatant favoritism.
Maybe this was wishful thinking and I just wanted to see the last of him because he was so horrible to me.
A referee approached tentatively and suggested that the coach step outside to get some air. He went, cursing all the way.
Lucky break for me. No doubt he had been preparing to bitch me out—as usual. I exhaled deeply, having completely anticipated the worst. And then suddenly, my lungs seized up and I found myself unable to breathe. My heart began hammering against my bruised ribcage. My face grew hot.
Corey was coming over to our bench, accompanied by a few of his teammates. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt now, because apparently he was good enough to change before everybody else, and a haughty expression. He swaggered grandly like he thought he was somebody. He was somebody…
The best damn wrestler in the district—and perhaps the state.
"Good God," I heard Sebastian grumble. "Here we go." He and a number of the others—Dan, Brady, Charles, most everybody on the varsity league—stood to face off against the Cougars. Bitter district rivalry at its finest.
"So, Riley graduated," Corey remarked, more to himself than my teammates. His arrogant tone matched Brady's.
He wasn't the biggest guy, but he appeared to be the leader of the assembled Cougars. "Too bad isn't it, guys," he asked the others, "that the Wolves won't be going to finals this year? Not like they were ever much of a threat, but damn. I'm going to miss that lame howl they do."
Corey threw back his head and gave a mocking howl. His teammates laughed uproariously. Corey gave another howl. This time it sounded like dogs having an orgasm. He, too, laughed at this.
While some of his friends bent double at his comedic gift, my teammates were less than amused. Nobody insulted the howl.
Now the lead Cougar decided to sink his claws into a new target. He had successfully degraded Central Valley's oldest and most beloved tradition. Time to begin picking people apart. But where to start?
"Everyone on your team seems to be taking your loss pretty hard," he said with a fiendish leer, "especially you, Brady." Dark eyes narrowed as the new victim was chosen. I watched the exchange nervously; Brady's hand was balling into a fist and things could turn ugly very quickly. Brady had at least twenty pounds on him and probably four inches.
"You almost lost today," Corey pointed out.
"I was having an off day," Brady snarled.
"You seem less motivated than usual," taunted Corey. "You were always on top of your game when Riley was around." His grin became horrible. "Why do you think that is?" He looked around at the others, open for suggestions.
All of us looked at each other. We all had the vague suspicion that Corey knew something we didn't.
Brady lunged for Corey. Sebastian and Dan caught him in time and held him back. Even still, Corey didn't even flinch. He looked flatly at Brady. "That's it? I guess all of those hours alone with Riley were wasted. I thought you might actually do something."
Now it was time for Brady's two henchmen to look confused. Corey clearly knew something that they, Brady's closet friends, didn't and whatever it was, it pissed Brady off.
All the others were glaring hatefully at Corey, but I wanted to jump up and shake his hand. Brady was being reduced to nothing. Not many people got to see or take part in such a pleasurable activity. Now he knew how I felt. Karma was a bitch. Not really thinking, I popped up from my seat and started for Corey, smiling.
Then I choked like a dog on a leash and Brady was dragging me back. "Stay out this," he threatened. I massaged my windpipe, indignant. Did he honestly think I was rushing to his rescue? After he treated me like garbage? Right. Like that would ever happen.
Corey raised a questioning eyebrow at Brady. "He's the best you can do?" he sneered.
"I think you'd be used to fighting sophomores," Brady seethed. "They're the only ones you get in the ring with. That's the only reason you're getting to finals. You're beating up fourteen-and fifteen-year-olds."
I saw Corey's fists clench and began to worry that the wrestling match would soon become a boxing match. And Brady hadn't let me go, so I would be caught in the middle of it.
"At least I'm not using one as a body shield."
I gave a yelp as Brady released me and I fell face first towards the floor. Only it wasn't the floor that I landed on. It was a pair of worn tennis shoes. Corey's worn tennis shoes, to be exact. "What the fuck!?" Corey shouted. He jumped back in surprise. His teammates weren't prepared, so when he fell back into them, they lost their balance. They fell down like dominoes.
I couldn't help feeling triumphant, if a little ashamed for being knocked around so easily—and more bruised. I had done what only one guy had done before: floored the undefeated champion—and knocked over several of his teammates in the process. Best of all, I now had something I could hold over Brady.
I, the worthless, useless Matt Riley had just won his fight. Okay, so that wasn't exactly how things worked out, but the Central Valley student body didn't need to know that. All that mattered was that Corey Martin was floored by my doing.
Brady might want to be a little nicer to me after this. Black mail was such fun.
At this point, the coach came inside, deciding that he was calmer, and rejoined us. The first thing he saw was a number of the Cougars scrambling to their feet, including Corey. His jaw dropped open in amazement.
"Riley, did you just…? I had no idea you had it in you!" He sounded positively delirious with excitement. "We may have our new state champion, men."
I swallowed. I was beyond nervous. First of all, the coach's 180º personality change scared me a little. He was never civil to me. Never. But I was even more afraid of what hell was awaiting me. The coach thought I had taken them all out. Nick couldn't even take out seven guys at once. The coach's obvious mistake would mean expectations for me.
Oh no. I never exceeded expectations…
"What?" Dan asked angrily. "Coach, this mother fucker was…" He stopped when Brady gave him a calculating look. "Right," he said, catching on. "He and his friends all attacked Riley. We ran to help, but by the time we got here, Riley had everything taken care of." The others murmured and nodded in agreement.
I groaned. Why, for once, did they have to side with me? Under normal circumstances, I would've been delighted at feeling accepted, but in this case they were supposed to rise up and make me feel worthless. I wasn't supposed to be the hero—and when I was, I was supposed to actually do it myself.
"What the fuck was that about, Brady?" I demanded as we all trooped off to change. "You made it sound like I actually did something. Now he's going to expect it out of me all the time. You know I can't…"
I'd just stop there. I couldn't afford to tear myself down in front of Brady. He knew all of my weaknesses and inabilities quite well. No need to remind him.
"Don't be so modest, Riley," Brady said loudly, slapping me on the back. "The way you put Corey in a back breaker rack was amazing!"
Once the coach and the others were out of earshot, he pulled me off to the side and slammed me up against the wall. In a dangerous voice, he hissed, "We both know that you're the most pathetic wrestler in high school history. You were just in the right place at the right time. It will never happen again. Oh, don't worry. I'll play along," he assured me, "but only because I want the coach to destroy you."
Literally or figuratively, I knew I was fucked. Earning the coach's approval was both rewarding and detrimental to one's health. At one point or another, he came pretty damn close to killing Nick. Pushed him way beyond his limits.
But Nick had a stronger will and personality than I did, so he fought his way through it. His endurance earned him a section of his own in the school's trophy case.
Brady grinned nastily and vanished along with the others.
Frustrated, I punched a nearby wall. No matter what happened, Brady always seemed to come out on top—or at least ahead of me. What was even worse was that a majority of the time, he used me or someone else on our dysfunctional team as a stepstool. While I didn't do much earlier, I still felt as if it was a private victory. Brady, however, triumphed. He would get to enjoy watching the coach run me into the ground.
I was so pissed off with Brady that I desperately wanted to do something to spite him. While winning over his girlfriend was the most obvious way, it was far from being the most logical tactic. What would I do with her once I had her? She was very sweet, but her gender was wrong.
So I settled for a lesser approach, one that would make any Wolf disown me: I approached the Cougars. More to the point, I went directly for Corey.
"Hey," I said tentatively. Normally I was more articulate, but the sight of many half-dressed Cougars was numbing my brain.
He looked at me with a strange expression, recognizing me as Brady's body shield and wondering what I could possibly want. And wondering why I was associating with them, while my team was on the other side of the locker room.
"Hey," he replied disinterestedly. He turned to go back to his business. I followed after him, wanting to talk to him. Corey seemed slightly annoyed. "Look," he said impatiently, "your team's over there."
He was still ashamed about me knocking him on his ass in front of everyone.
"I'm really sorry about that," I said cajolingly. "Complete accident. I'm actually a really shitty wrestler. My coach hates me so he pairs me against Brady at practice. Brady always throws me around, but he's never actually thrown me at someone. You get used to…"
I stopped. Fuck. That was supposed to remain confidential. The coach warned me to keep my mouth shut about it; it wasn't legal and he could be severely penalized for it—not that that was of any importance.
Nevertheless, it caught Corey's attention.
"That's not fair," he interrupted, pulling his Adidas bag closed with an angry-sounding zip. "He's not in your weight class, or your league." Like I told the coach time and time again. But when he put up a mental block, not even a construction ball could break through.
"He's a real ass," I confided. "My coach, I mean. And—and Brady too. Hates me and makes my life hell, but I've never done anything to him." What was wrong with me?! Why was I telling a complete stranger my issues with my crush/rival—and my coach? There was something oddly reassuring in those brown eyes.
I dropped my gaze and refocused on the floor. "Thanks," I said quietly.
"For what?" Corey asked.
"Putting Brady in his place," I explained. "It doesn't happen very often."
Oh, God. He shouldn't be hearing this, any of this. I was showing weakness, something you never should do in front of a rival and allowing him to glimpse behind-the-scene stuff. Cracks in the structure of my wrestling team. Cracks that could be potentially damaging and, with a little help, cause the whole team to crumble.
"Quit," Corey advised me. "You sound like you hate your team and the sport. From what I saw, you're not particularly good at it." He wasn't trying to be so blunt, but there was simply no nice way of putting it. It wasn't like he was telling me anything surprising.
Were I a better wrestler, I would've thought he was trying to sabotage my team. But since that wasn't the case at all, it led me to believe there was different reasoning.
Did he actually, dare I say it, care?
"Look out, or he might kick your ass," jeered one of Corey's teammates. "Again." I glared. Damn him. I was out a limb as it was: totally out of my comfort zone and talking to a hot guy—a rival of my school's nonetheless.
"Dumb luck. Nobody beats me," Corey said. He jumped up and caught his friend in a headlock. Then he crushed his knuckles into the friend's skull—a killer noogie.
And I ceased to exist.
I shuffled off, leaving Corey and his friend to wrestle each other. No matter how often I got ignored, I never got used to it. Stupid and naïve as I was, I probably expected it to happen until , miraculously, it didn't. I'd be waiting awhile.
"Hey, Riley!" Corey called.
My imagination began to go crazy with possibilities. Did Corey know I was gay? Was it at all possible that he was? He was much sweeter than any wrestler I met so far. Compassionate. There was the slightest chance that he might ask me out. My first real date—perhaps leading into my first real relationship. This would mean breaking up with Abby, but I led the poor freshman girl on for too long. It wasn't like we still couldn't be friends. Besides, she was an attractive girl; she would have no problem finding another guy…
After falling head over heels in love with Brady, I wasn't completely sure I would. But now…all of my doubts vanished.
What Corey said next was a mixture of being sympathetic and amused:
"I think your team left without you."
Author's Note: I can't think of much to say about this chapter. I know! Reviews! Reviews are goooood!
Thanks to awesomelyme, D.H. L'Orange, and Meadowcroft for reviewing.