The Oak High Titans' penultimate practice went worse than Conner had expected. Dark clouds had rolled across the sky early, painting a bleak picture of the city as the young quarterback performed his perfunctory morning run from home to the football field. By the time he had reached Titan Field, his body was drenched with sweat, as if he were a sponge that had been somehow squished by the environment. The oppressive atmosphere spoke of rain to come, strange, he noted, because his weather app had forecast sunny skies all week. Conner checked the weather like an old man, Daniel Martin often said.
"You didn't tell me it was going to hail, shitface," he had said one day, almost angrily, after a particularly vicious storm. Conner, taken aback, had bucked up before Daniel broke into laughter. "Just kidding, numb-nuts. Lighten the fuck up, will you?"
At the thought, Conner was suddenly reminded of hearing the Weather Channel the night before. The sound had drifted in from the den, where his father sat—probably asleep—alone in front of the now-old TV: tomorrow we'll have sunny skies with a high of 90… Half right, as it turned out. It was hardly past seven o'clock in the morning, but it felt as if the temperature were racing to beat an all-time record. That, coupled with the threat of a downpour, cloaked the morning in a distinct sourness.
No matter, Conner had told himself. He was no stranger to discomfort. At the end of the day, weather was just an excuse; scouts didn't care how hot or cold it was outside. Results were all that mattered. I'd play in the middle of a fucking hurricane, Conner had once told Rachel, if it meant I could get better. Without thinking, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and wiped the screen with a moist shirt.
"Please no thunderstorms," he found himself saying. Rain was one thing; lightning was another. At the first hint of electricity, practice would be called off. And with the big game just two days away, Conner recognized that even the slightest of obstacles could become full-on roadblocks. In the clingy morning heat, he opened his weather app, only to see the same forecast: sunny skies. That meant his app had gotten it totally wrong or that the weather would do an extreme 180. Conner hoped it would be the latter; the last thing the team needed before the big match was another opponent.
Wasting no time, Conner sprinted onto the track, which formed a two-mile oval around Titan Field and had recently benefited from the addition of new workout equipment. His tennis shoes scuffed against the red asphalt, but it only took a second until he was back on soft grass. Still wet from morning dew, it crumpled easily under his weathered shoes before slowly springing back up. Just as he'd imagined—no, known—he was the only one on the field. In a quarter of an hour, a few guys from the cross-country team would come to the track, circling the field, circling him it almost felt like, as if they were in orbit. The whole school is counting on me, he thought as he began to stretch. With one hour left until class, Conner kept a wary eye on the sky above and began practicing his footwork.
When he returned several hours later, he was accompanied by scores of young men in navy blue jerseys and sheets of rain so thick he could hardly see three feet ahead. The field was soaked and steaming; clouds of low-hanging mist prowled around their ankles so that it almost felt as if the football team had wondered into Avalon. Conner silently cursed his app, which had still read "sunny skies" five minutes before the bottom had fallen out over Oak, Georgia. Conner had been staring out the chemistry building window on the second floor of the high school as it had happened, watching as the clouds overhead turned progressively more sinister.
"Does that look like sunny fucking skies to you?" he had snapped to Devin Bryant, who sat next to him and looked as if he couldn't care less if the storm swept them all up and transported them to Oz. The boy had simply shrugged and bent to take something out of his bookbag, completely ignoring the rain and the effect it seemed to have on Conner. Conner had spent the next three hours waiting for the rain to abate, but, if anything, it had only fallen harder. Now he stood up to his ankles in water as the team ran into formation. The football felt slick in his hand. He suddenly wondered if it might rain Friday as well.
Conner almost jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was firm and large, like his dad's, which could only mean one thing. He squinted through the rain at Coach Trainer, who was wearing a blue Oak High Titans hat and a frown so large he looked like an upside-down Joker.
"That was lightning, son. Time to pack it up." For a moment, Conner said nothing. He simply stood in a mixture of shock, anger, and a fair bit of surprise. He had seen no lightning. He went to reply when a large crack of thunder shook the sky. Coach Trainer removed his hand apologetically, leaving Conner to stand a moment longer in the unforgiving rain. With a yell, he threw the football into the darkness and then turned and began to make his way up the hill that would lead back to the school building. It wasn't long before he was surrounded on all sides. Daniel Martin, Tyler Haynes, Carson Williams, and Deandre Thompson, per usual. Even in the sleeting rain, Conner recognized the cadence of the young men; over the space of several years, they had grown into almost an inseparable group. Some unconscious part of Conner's mind regarded them as something deeper than friends. He wasn't sure there was a word that even described what they were. Caught somewhere between friends and brothers, the group had grown up together since any one of them could remember. They were the kids of sun-tan summers and neighborhood treasure hunts; as children, they had all shared the same community pool; all had been grounded for taking Conner's dad's Mustang for a spin that last year none of them had their licenses. Each would take to the grave the fact that it wasn't the first time they'd driven that car. They were all staples at the Moss Lane Community Christmas Party that was held every year, and they could all remember the time Tammy Turner had broken her arm trying to move the mistletoe over Dylan Jones's head. They could remember (and laugh, as Daniel often did) because they had all been there. They walked together now in a practiced rhythm, in the familiar formation that had carried them on many an adventure across the town of Oak. From childhood excursions into the woods (secretly, lest their parents find out) to more recent trips to and from their favorite hotdog restaurant downtown (none of them could pinpoint with any precision when exactly that had become their spot), it was a march as natural as laughing and as forgettable as blinking. It was a particular, wholly unremarkable luxury that was bestowed only on those fortunate enough to have shared a childhood. And so they walked up the hill almost as if they were one person, a three-headed creature of dejection sullied by the rain. Unspoken between them was the declaration that a hotdog from Mama's was next on their agenda; silently, each knew without yet knowing just where they'd be in one hour.
All except Deandre. He stood a little to the back, almost like a tag-a-long. Almost as if he didn't want to be there—or perhaps it was the other way around. Conner realized with a pang of guilt that he only recognized him because he was so unfamiliar. The boy lumbered behind them with an unmistakable weight. For the past two months or so, since about the beginning of football season Conner reckoned, he had begun to talk to them more. It had all started when he had come charging through the offensive line one practice toward the beginning of the season. It had been miserably hot, as the first few practices generally were in Oak, but more than that, Conner recalled, the sun had been directly overhead, so near that it felt almost as if Earth had been knocked off kilter and now occupied a new orbit several light years closer to the sun; it blocked his vision with jealous intensity and only disappeared when a barreling silhouette came spitting from the backfield. The reprieve lasted less than a second; Conner smacked the ground with a dull thud that radiated throughout his body. The force winded him and slammed his mouth shut. He let out a muffled cry as his teeth sliced into his lower lip. Two hundred pounds threatened to suffocate him. He turned his head and spat blood through his helmet.
The moment was over almost as soon as it had happened. He opened his eyes to find the sun still blazing overhead. The world spun around him as if he were being flushed down some strange toilet bowl. We really have been knocked off orbit, he thought stupidly before a cacophony of voices interrupted his delusions. Slowly, shapes began to file into his cloud of vision, blurry and half-formed. Aliens… and one of them had punted Earth like a football, so hard that Conner now felt the need to retch. He leaned over and spilled his lunch onto the grass. Breathing raggedly, he simply sat for a moment, gradually realizing that it was him and not the planet that had been knocked off his feet. The first thing his re-cooperating mind could discern was the sound of Deandre's voice.
"Are you okay, man?" Conner looked to the sound of the voice and was thankful that the boy was standing out of the sun. Deandre was squatting in front of him with his helmet off, looking as if he had just run over the family pet.
Conner had stared at him a hazy second and then smiled. Ignoring the blood that trickled into his mouth, he accepted the hand Deandre held out and rose to shaky feet. His knees had wobbled, perhaps more dangerously than he would have liked to admit, but Deandre was still holding onto his hand. A group of guys surrounded them now, spearheaded by Conner's gang, but none of them could have known just how close to falling Conner had been; none of them could know just how strongly Deandre was holding onto his hand…
It had been the beginning of a tentative friendship. Over the next few days, the two exchanged words whenever they saw each other. "Back still sore?" Deandre would ask when the two passed each other in the hallway.
"I really did a number on your lip," he had said one day before practice.
"Just make sure to do the same to Murray State," Conner had replied with a wry smile. It had all felt natural and unimportant until he had invited the defensive lineman to "come eat a hotdog with me and the guys" after practice. The five men had alternated between awkward silence and awkward conversation, leaving Conner to wonder what had gone wrong. There appeared to be some fundamental difference between them, though he found he had a hard time putting his finger on exactly what that difference was. They played offense, and Deandre played defense. That was true, but Conner knew there was more to it than that. They were rich, and Deandre was, as far as Conner could tell, poor. A little closer perhaps. Deandre was black, and they were white… Conner had thought about this one the longest. But try as he might, he couldn't believe that the guys—any of them—would let something like that come in the way of a friendship. Even the residents of Oak, Georgia had moved beyond that kind of petty prejudice. At its core, Conner supposed what it had to do with the most was that he simply wasn't one of them. He had never attended a Moss Lane Community Christmas Party or participated in the neighborhood hayride. He hadn't been there when the three of them had gone fishing for the first time alone, only to catch nothing but the sunshine and a cool breeze. Conner remembered the day clearly, mostly because it was the first time he had drunk beer. The guys had laughed when he spat it overboard. Do you shave your pussy? Tyler had said, and then it was Daniel spitting his beer, not overboard but through his nose and onto his chest. Yes, that was it. He simply wasn't one of them. There was nothing malicious about it. Thinking so made Conner feel better when the guys piled into their cars without telling Deandre where they were going or when he told him he had to study just minutes before going with the guys to check out something cool one of them had found. But Conner was thinking of none of this now. His mind was occupied with rain and visions of a total letdown on Friday.
"This sucks," Carson said through the rain when the group was almost back to the school. They approached a crosswalk that led across to the main building, a two-story affair that blocked the gym from view. Without looking to see if they had the right-of-way, they stepped into the road. Conner could detect no headlights either nearby or in the distance; he supposed the Titans had been the only ones foolish enough to brave the rain.
"Tell me about it," he said then, stepping on the curb on the opposite side of the road. "It's not raining in Burville."
"You checked the forecast in fucking Burville?" Daniel said then from Conner's left.
"Dude, you're such a fucking nerd sometimes." Just ahead, the Oak High gym came into view, and Conner found himself quickening his pace. He let Daniel's remark go undignified, making the remainder of the trek in silence. A moment later, the boys were filing into the gym, which felt cool and a little musty after the unfiltered humidity outside. Wordlessly, the team split in different directions, some heading for the team room for their phones and bags, and the others dashing off to the showers to change out of their wet clothes. Conner broke for the showers, heading up an old wooden staircase and through a set of double doors that led into the locker room. As he passed through the doorway into the room, looking somewhat dim in spite of the fluorescent lights above, he noticed that Deandre was the only one following him. It didn't last. Conner went straight and then turned right to his locker; his teammate took a sharp left and headed toward his own. With a sigh, he turned the dial on his locker and opened it to a familiar squeaking. He was soaked.
At that moment, Daniel came streaking through the door, ass startingly white in contrast to the rich tan spread across his back and arms. A few of the guys giggled; Conner repressed a smile. Daniel could be a douche, sometimes egregiously so, but it was a jackassery leveled in part by an inborn clownishness. It was all part of the Daniel Martin charm, a complex formula that Conner couldn't quite understand but that came as natural as blinking to his fair-skinned friend. A smile still playing at his lips, Conner turned to shove his soaked jersey in his locker and had shed his tights when a commotion behind him caused him to swivel back around.
"Get off me, dude!" Jack Wilson was batting at Daniel, who bent doggy in front him with a foolish grin on his face. He pressed his cheeks into the other boy's still-clothed crotch, wiggling, until a hard slap sent him jumping up. Daniel clutched his smarting ass, still wearing that goofy smile.
"Wooo!" he exclaimed in mock enjoyment. He wheeled to face Jack, catching Conner's eye as he did so. Conner realized then that he was laughing, and he wasn't the only one. A gaggle of guys stood laughing by their lockers.
"You like that, Wilson?" one of them snorted. He made as if to mock Daniel, but Jack wasn't listening. He simply stood in front of Daniel, looking, Conner thought, less than amused. Jack played center and would soon be taking reps with the University of Georgia. Unlike with some of his teammates, Conner found it hard to be jealous; he knew that Jack had saved his ass more than a few times under center. He held defensive linemen at bay like a dam and had been known to plow down up to three defenders at a time. That and the fact that the giant lineman squatted five hundred pounds put him squarely on Conner's don't-fuck-with list, but Daniel either lacked that sort of radar or simply didn't care. A part of him thought his friend actually liked the tension he created; he played it like a violinist on a particularly dramatic refrain. Conner regarded it as a crude form of art, like sword swallowing or lion taming. Still, he thought he'd rather piss off a lion than Jack Wilson, who had been nicknamed Giant Jack and had once broken a defender's arm on a nasty holding call…
Conner sighed. Daniel was a hair's breadth from getting trucked, but it wouldn't be the first time the speedy receiver had taken his antics a step too far. Conner remembered the time he had stumbled into his backyard with a swollen eye and busted lip for filling Tony Patrick's new truck with slugs he'd carefully picked from his mother's garden.
"Been trying to get them gone for weeks," he had laughed, swigging one of Conner's dad's beers on the Robertsons' back stoop—biding time, Conner had thought then, so he could put off the inevitable calamity that would ensue when he walked into his own house. To Daniel, it had largely been a win-win situation: he'd gotten back at the guy who fucked with his girl ("See if he rides her around in that piece of shit again," Daniel had said, almost choking on his beer) while saving his mother's begonias. He wore his wounds like proud souvenirs and had undoubtedly—or so Conner suspected—used them to weasel his way into a few more beds.
Now he was staring Giant Jack down with a playful expression. "Don't look at me like that," he said, almost sad. "It wasn't that bad… Robertson liked it." He cut his eyes toward Conner as another chuckle spread through the room.
"Fuck you, man," Conner said, secretly relieved his friend had redirected his efforts. The tension between the offensive lineman and wide receiver had grown heavy. It weighed on the room like humidity but seemed not to effect Daniel in the slightest. But though he didn't show it, Conner thought it had taken some Bond-level finesse for him not to get driven into the hard tile floor. Jack, looking as if he could compact a car with his bare hands, rumbled toward the showers without another word.
Paint him green and call him the Hulk popped unbidden into Conner's mind.
"Don't tease me, Conner," Daniel replied then. His full attention was on Conner now; the entire locker room seemed to inhale together as they watched the scene. A group exhale marked a momentary silence. Milking the moment, Daniel approached a few steps and looked Conner dead in the face. It was the look Rachel sometimes gave him before she leaned down and unzipped his pants. Daniel held his gaze for a long second; then, as a finishing act, he struck a glamour pose, legs crossed and arms above his head, before turning in front of Conner and spreading his cheeks. As soon as he did, he was racing off toward the showers, whooping and hollering the entire way. The locker room erupted into laughter, and suddenly the room was filled with the sound of slamming lockers and padding feet.
"You're a faggot, Martin!" Conner shouted after him, but he couldn't help but smile as he turned back to his locker and shed his own clothes. When he was fully naked, he turned and made his own way into the showers. Afterward, he and the guys would go to Mama's, where they would spend the rest of the afternoon talking about the weather, about football, and about region, which Daniel proclaimed to the entire restaurant they would win "COME RAIN OR COME FUCKING SHINE!" As he munched on his hotdog and picked dejectedly at his chips, Conner thought of everyone but Rachel, who waited in growing frustration in his room until she finally made her way back home.