“CASEY!” Al and Raymond came running at him. The two teenagers were usually way too worried about looking cool, so Casey was shocked when both hit him so hard that all three of them crashed into the gym wall. The noise in the gym dropped as the other kids stopped to watch. “Look! Look!” Al was waving something so wildly all Casey could see was that it was an envelope. “Look!”
Casey laughed and gave the boys a hug before he pushed at them. At twenty-six, he wasn’t old, but his body was getting to the point where it reminded him on a regular basis that he wasn’t a kid anymore. Getting body-checked into a cinderblock wall just didn’t hold the appeal that it had ten years ago, and tomorrow he would feel his back. Casey grabbed at the paper. “I can’t see it if you’re waving it like a flag!”
“It’s a scholarship!” Raymond said. “I got one, too. The congressman from the student congress weekend recommended us for scholarships.”
“He… what?” Casey’s mouth fell open. Immediately, the buzz returned as that news filtered through the groups scattered across the YMCA’s gym floor. Two of their own had gotten scholarships. Casey wondered how far this ripple would travel, but that was the thing about working with kids… you never did know how much you influenced them or if you influenced them at all.
Both boys had busted their ass on their projects, but Casey never expected someone outside the program to notice it. Hell, he’d been surprised that the congressman had even shown up to watch the kids take over the state capital and debate. Most of the time, the adults spent more time complaining that the kids had moved their damn stapler than they did thinking about making a difference in the lives of the youth. Casey’s delegation seemed to get more dirty looks than most of the groups, probably because they were poor kids who moved stiffly in poorly fitting business jackets from Goodwill.
“Give me that.” Casey grabbed the envelope, reading as the two boys laughed and gave each other high fives.
“See? See? I told you. Man, he thinks we’re hot shit,” Al did a dance that would have looked ridiculous on anyone over the age of eighteen. Because he was a kid, he just looked like an overgrown and excited puppy. Casey smiled.
“This is for half your state tuition. This is….” Casey stopped. Put together with grants, this could mean the difference between college and a life of scrambling to make ends meet on minimum wage. This made all the blood, sweat, and hysterics of putting the damn program together worth it. This was why he worked at YMCA with their shit pay and their long hours. “This is awesome!” Casey gave Raymond and then Al high fives.
“They have a ceremony next week. You’re coming, right?” Raymond looked at Casey with all this guarded hope that Casey wanted to find the boy’s father and beat the shit out of the man. The kids he worked with couldn’t even trust an adult to show up on a night as important as this was going to be.
“You know I will be. After all, I have to be there to say ‘I told you so’ over and over again,” Casey teased. “I told you that hard work pays off. I told you that you had a brain between your ears.” Casey bumped shoulders with Raymond.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Al rolled his eyes. “So, are you going to bring your new lady to meet us?” Al wiggled his eyebrows.
“Abby?” Surprise made Casey’s voice go high, but he was just grateful that he hadn’t forgotten what name he’d given the boys.
“I want to see what my home boy can catch. I mean, you aren’t as handsome as me or anything, but you’re not bad for an old guy. I want to see what this Abby is really like.”
Casey’s brain went on hiatus as panic set in. “Abby” was really Adam, a twenty-two year old man who studied at some fancy art school and who had a bad habit of parading his “gayness” in a way that sometimes made Casey cringe. He was creative and cute and exciting, and so very, very not safe to have around the boys under any circumstances. Oh, Adam would never do anything intentionally inappropriate… probably, but Adam was inadvertently inappropriate more often than not. The man seemed to pretty much say anything he thought without editing.
“Yeah,” Raymond added. “I want to meet this lady of yours.”
“The way you keep her away from here, I’m starting to wonder if she isn’t ugly.” Al gave Casey a wink, but this was one area that Casey really did not want the boys to tease him about.
Adam wasn’t ugly… not at all. Hell, most of the gay men in Adam’s art school pretty much hated Casey because he’d landed one of the most alive, vibrant men on campus. When Casey went to the campus parties, he knew how they looked at him.
Casey was handsome, but he was handsome in a kind of guy-next-door way. If someone described him to police, they’d say he was average height, average weight, brown hair, and brown eyes. He worked out every day, and he had a body that he didn’t mind showing off at the beach in summer, but he wasn’t ever going to be a muscled hunk. In his younger days, he’d been the bottom boy with the big brown eyes, but he was old enough that he couldn’t play the twink anymore. He wasn’t the most masculine man in history, but he had to keep up a certain appearance for his job. Overall, he wasn’t sure where he fit, and the guys at Adam’s school would look at him and wonder why the hell Adam had picked him. Sometimes Casey wondered that too. Maybe that was why he worked so hard to make things work, even when he felt like their lives were two gears that moved in different directions, always pulling and straining to break free of one another.
“Hey, do not go talking about other people’s partners that way. That is going to get you in big trouble,” Casey warned, pointing his finger at Al. When all else failed, distract and distort.
Al held his hands up in surrender. “No offense to your lady friend.” He backed up a step, but then he stopped, his expression taking on a careful indifference. “I’m just starting to wonder if she isn’t avoiding us vatos, is all.”
Casey hated that the kids even had to think that. “I would never date a woman that shallow. If she doesn’t like you, she doesn’t need me,” Casey said firmly. He loved these kids, and he lived for these moments when he could see that his work made a difference. He stayed up nights when chaperoning groups. He took kids up to the mountains where the forest ranger taught them about survival. He helped them with their homework and gave them the “stay on the straight and narrow” speech that a lot of these kids didn’t get from their parents.
However, if he brought Adam to one of these events, that would change. Al and Raymond wouldn’t tackle him when they were excited. Kevin wouldn’t show up right before closing and make some excuse to just sit and talk. Jose sure as hell wouldn’t go on the overnight trips up to the mountains. All these boys would wonder what the hell Casey wanted, and these kids had been knocked around by the world often enough that they probably wouldn’t believe the truth.
Casey wanted to help.
He’d had some hard knocks in life. Oh, it wasn’t like he’d been beaten on a daily basis, but his father had drunk a little too much and his mother had slept around a lot too much. Sometimes Casey had felt like he was on the edge of exploding. Back then, there’d been a handful of people who had kept him out of trouble. Helping these boys made Casey feel good about himself. However parents—even parents who voted for gay marriage—were a little less open-minded when a gay man came near little Johnny or Jimmy or Jose.
They wouldn’t care if Casey busted his ass to give their kids hope; they’d look at Casey and assume that if he liked men, that had to mean he liked boys. If they found out that Nathan, the ranger who donated his time to teach the boys how to fish was an ex-one-night-stand, they’d all end up on the six o’clock news. Wrenching his thoughts away from the fear that threatened to drown him, Casey focused on the boys and their good news.
“I’ll ask her. I just don’t think Abby will be able to make it. She works hard, guys. Unlike some lucky stiffs, she doesn’t have college scholarships to pay the bills.” Casey held out the envelope, and Al took it back, holding it reverently. “I’m so proud of you two. You earned that.”
“I can’t believe it.” Al held the envelope like a woman, reverently running his fingertips over the jagged, torn edges where he’d ripped it open. “We’re going to be college boys, Raymond. We’ll get all those college girls, too.”
Raymond smiled. “They won’t know what hit them.”
Casey slapped Al on the shoulder. “Well, if you two want to be college students, you have to graduate high school. Is your government class still giving you fits?”
“Nah,” Raymond answered for them both. “The teacher finally explained it so it made sense. Sometimes teachers… they make shit more complicated than they have to, you know?”
“I know,” Casey agreed. “School was never my favorite thing. I just did it well enough that I could get a job afterwards. But you two—you need to be ready for college.”
Al punched his friend in the arm. “Yeah, vato, we have to impress all those rich kids who have their heads up their asses.” Al started backing away. “But first, we have to go tell Philly. He owes us two sodas for this!” Turning, Al started running across the gym toward the door to the main admin building. The director would give them more than a couple of sodas for this one. With the publicity from this, Philly could beg, borrow, and browbeat thousands of dollars in donations out of the community.
Casey watched them go. He was supervising the gym, so he wasn’t going to get to see Philly’s face when he found out, but Casey smiled as he imagined it. Some of the kids were playing two-on-two ball on the far end, but on the end closest to Casey, the game had stopped. One of the younger boys was dribbling the ball, but little groups of two and three boys were standing around talking. Walking over to his chair, Casey sat and waited for one of them to come over and start asking questions. He’d learned a long time ago that trying to chase kids down didn’t work, but if one of them gave him an opening, he’d love to tell them all about college and opportunities and ways to escape poverty.
He groaned as his back touched the chair. Oh yeah, he would hurt tomorrow. But right now, he waited for one of the boys to wander over and ask if it was true… whether Al and Raymond had just gotten a big push toward a life outside the ghetto. Today was definitely a good day.