EVERYTHING WAS perfect. My feet pounded the trail and my breath dug deep. Coach Allsup’s words echoed in my head—“Eyes on the prize.”
I got it. My times were decent. I was a junior, and next year I’d be even faster. Coach had staggered our starts, so Connor was running ahead of me, and I kept my eyes on the back of his red T-shirt and gray shorts. Connor was my boyfriend. No one knew. As I said, everything was perfect. We were in the zone, our kind of zone. Don’t tell me our zone had to be something else.
I picked up my pace. Up ahead in the woods, Connor rounded a boulder. His stride was wide as if he liked taking up more space, which he did. In Watermarsh High he was all swagger, his wide shoulders swaying, his brown curls catching flecks of light, and his eyes looking ahead as if anything were possible. Connor was popular and would do anything to stay the center of attention. We’d been best friends since the eighth grade and boyfriends since last year as sophomores. We used to be the same size, and I’d thought we’d stay that way. Now it was weird that I was shorter than Connor, less than six feet—okay, way less, I was five eight—while Connor had hit six on the dot. But I was sixteen. I still had time to grow.
On the trail I was gaining on Connor. His shoulders squared the back of his shirt, and a triangle of sweat darkened the top of his shorts but disappeared at the twin rises of his butt.
I focused on my stomach muscles as Coach Allsup had instructed, pulling them in to lift my feet higher. The trees sped past me. The air was sharp in my lungs. No thoughts… just my legs… my arms… my stomach… my body doing its thing… until I was beside Connor.
“Dude?” Connor kept his pace.
The two of us breathless in the woods. Yup. We knew about stuff like that. In truth we’d only done it in the woods a few times. The warehouse was a safer place. But not now. Now was running, now was practice. The team was all around us.
We stayed together for a few seconds, but then Connor changed. I knew him. He’d think my catching up, my looking good in practice, made him look bad. He tried to break ahead. Connor had longer legs, but he lugged more weight. My shorter legs were up for it.
Neither of us broke into the lead. The trees fell away, sunlight hit us, and we shot out of the woods and onto a sidewalk where Coach Allsup, stopwatch in hand and potbelly over his running pants, barked our midpoint times to Fresh-Clark, the only freshman who’d made the team.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” yelled Coach Allsup. “Eyes on the prize! This isn’t a race.”
But it was.
Connor and I bolted past him and down a street of small houses, chain-link fences, and cars crammed in front yards. We ran past a park, a mash of old shops, an explosion of weeds, and a peeling billboard: Cranberry is Your-Berry. Twenty minutes later we made it to a wide green space, the playing fields of clean-enough, big-enough, and ordinary-enough Watermarsh High.
Coach Allsup’s truck screeched to a stop. He jumped out and scrambled to the track as Fresh-Clark struggled to keep up. Coach whipped out a stopwatch, and Connor threw his arms up in victory. Yeah, of course Connor would want to take the win. It was a dead tie.
“Holy sh—” Coach choke-paused like he couldn’t think of anything to say. Principal McNally had come down on him for his language. I knew that because Mom led Coach’s Prayer Circle at Old Christ. Mom had also told me that Coach had once wondered aloud to the good Lord that if he’d cleaned up his act earlier then maybe his wife wouldn’t have gone back to Plymouth. “Shaving cream,” Coach finished. “What the… fudge were you thinking? No injuries. Don’t you get it? No injuries! What about building up don’t you understand? What about strategy? What about being good to your bodies, good to your spirit? We’ll be sprinting your… aspirins off later this week.” Coach Allsup shook his head. “That’s it, ladies, walk it off. At least remember that part of training.”
“Our times, Coach?” Connor wheezed. “What about our times?”
“You have a watch. Figure it out.”
“I want to know officially.”
“I’m not telling you,” said Coach.
“Well, who won?”
Coach Allsup tucked his shirt around his belly and shook his head.
Connor pumped his victory arms again, smiled to anyone who was watching, which of course was everyone, and collected high fives from the team. As if I’d conceded the race. As if I hadn’t started thirty seconds after Connor and I hadn’t caught up with him. As if I didn’t notice that he looked good, arms over his head, biceps popped for everyone to see, shirt half up his stomach and that thin trail of hair diving into his shorts. As if I didn’t know about stuff like that.
Our secret rocked.
THE NEXT morning, I sped out of the driveway and pedaled like crazy so I’d have time to chug an OJ with the team at Dana-Lee’s Diner for our weekly team breakfast, one I usually missed because my parents insisted I eat every breakfast with them. Our breakfast eat-n-pray was our compromise for my quitting their church. Breakfasts were manageable—my parents couldn’t tell what I prayed for anyway.
I hopped off my bike and flew up the stairs of the streetcar diner to join the team, but everyone was already standing, stretching, grabbing packs and scrambling out of booths.
“Hey, Zeph. Sorry, man.” Westy slapped my back. “It’s late. Coach made me promise we’d make it to school before the buzzer. He’s been getting in trouble again. We have to be there for him. We’re a team. Eyes on the prize.”
If Westy were a normal person, it would have been annoying that the blond, curly-haired captain of the cross-country team was a walking billboard for Coach Allsup’s Eyes on the Prize philosophy. But it was okay because Westy was a New England medalist and holder of a Watermarsh record. He was so easygoing, open-eyed, and listening that it was like he understood everything about you, and he was bizarrely nice to everyone—the jocks, the geeks, the unknowns. No one seemed to care that he kept regurgitating Coach Allsup’s line. Westy wanted us to be the best high school cross-country team in Massachusetts. He actually meant it. “How was the big guy this morning, the big J.C.?”
“Big,” I said. Everyone knew my parents were obnoxious sign-holding, protesting Jesus Freaks. And they knew I wasn’t.
“J.C. was a rebel, man,” said Westy. “Feed the hungry. Give away all your stuff. Love the unloved. Not a bad guy to hang with. He’d totally let you skip the family breakfast once a week to eat with us. Convene with the team, you know what I mean? Are you still coming Friday? Or have your parents outlawed parties too?”
“Friday is Varsity Club, so they think it’s official. I’ll be there.”
“Way to pitch it, dude. And wear that shirt. Very non-Zephaniah Fuller. Non-Watermarsh. Awesome.” Westy patted my chest and tugged the collar of the button-down shirt I’d found when I’d ridden my bike an hour and a half to the big mall on the way to Boston to see if I could. The shirt was red and fit well, unlike the T-shirts most Watermarsh guys wore and unlike the boring striped business shirts my mother kept buying for Dad and me, the future father-and-son duo of H. Wayne Roadworks. Dad would tell you his company did the best road repairs in southeastern Massachusetts. My new shirt wasn’t tight or shiny or crying for attention. And I wore it with my rattiest, most torn-up jeans in order to balance out the fancy factor. The shirt was stiffer and had form that moved with my shoulders and let you know that I held my own in the weight room. I hoped the shirt was the kind that a cool TV sitcom guy would wear to his cool high school. Couldn’t I be that guy? I had stuff going on. I was getting some. Connor and I knew how to play the game.
The team crossed the street to Watermarsh High, and we got all heated arguing about some hot actress in a movie I’d lied to my parents about seeing. Connor started howling and soon we were a pack of injured, yelping wolves in heat, or, in Fresh-Clark’s case with his changing voice, a dying guinea pig.
In the school lobby, Westy said, “Eyes—”
“Westy, chill. Practice is over.” Connor hitched his pack and scanned the crowd. Classic Connor. He was always checking who was around.
“Absolutely not. Practice is never over. Practice is life. You got to know what you want and keep your mind on it 24-7. It’s always eyes on the prize. Hey, Zeph buddy, say a prayer for me. I got a physics test today. Put in a good word with the big guy or big whatever. I can use all the help I can get.”
Westy sauntered away, the team disbanded, and then it was only Connor Carver and Zeph Fuller, kinda jocks and kinda popular. I thought it was funny, a joke on the school that nobody knew the whole story.
“Hi, boys.” Stephanie kissed my cheek and landed a big wet one on Connor. He grabbed her waist and pulled her in, the two of them beaming, Connor all broad-shouldered and white-toothed and Stephanie…. Well, Stephanie was Stephanie. She was Connor’s girlfriend. Of course Connor had a girlfriend, the perfect cover. Stephanie had long chestnut hair that she told people she’d never color because it would support the chemical industry, all toxins, animal testing, and preying on girls who thought they should be dumb blondes. Her brown eyes sparkled with flecks of gold. She wore tight shirts. Stephanie was an actress, the star of every play since Danielle the Dark Green Dinosaur in the second grade.
Connor and Stephanie had been together five months, half as long as Connor and me. He never looked at me in public the way he looked at her, but I didn’t care. I knew the truth, and this, Connor had told me, was how to play the game.
“Zeph, we look good, right?” Connor ran his hands over Stephanie’s shoulders.
“Of course,” I said.
She gave Connor another kiss and shrugged him off. “Zeph, I’ll see you in English class. We’re starting Shakespeare. It’ll totally help me get a role in Hamlet.”
“Steph, everyone knows you’re the best actor in town,” I said.
“Isn’t Hamlet a guy?” Connor hugged her waist. “You’re so not a guy. I dig that about you.”
“There’s Hamlet’s mother, but she’s pretty gross. Ophelia is the girl role. It’s smaller.” She kept rubbing Connor’s forearm.
“Wow, so for, like, the first time ever, Stephanie Goodman won’t be the star. You’ll survive, right?” Connor quick-kissed her neck.
“Ophelia is interesting. She goes crazy. But it’s a small part.”
“Is Ophelia hot?”
“I guess she could be.”
“Cool. So you’ll be the token hotness. That’s way better than being the lead.” He grabbed her.
“I don’t want to be token anything.”
“But I know you like token.” Connor nuzzled her neck.
“Connor, you’re half-black. Your dad’s white.”
“Still makes me one of Watermarsh’s token brothers.”
“True,” she said. Then her face brightened. Stephanie always bounced back to whatever point she was making. “I could be Hamlet. I could totally be Hamlet. They should do that, gender-blind casting. I’d be Watermarsh’s first female Hamlet ever. I’ll talk to the drama club. It’ll be great. Totally exploring the feminine side of the Danish prince.”
“The who?” Connor dropped his arms from Stephanie.
“Some say Hamlet was in love with his best friend.” She turned to me. “Hey, Zephy, hot shirt and the best jeans. You’re getting too old for your momma’s boy, Boy Scout look. I love it. You’re like Huck Finn hits the city.”
“Thanks, I think.” Cool, I thought.
“Bronson!” Stephanie yelled across the lobby at the front doors. “Bronson!”
We turned to see a guy in a pressed yellow shirt looking ignored as students flowed around him, hands in pockets, staring. He was kinda tall, sandy blond, definitely worked out, and he looked like he should be working in a store too cool for Watermarsh. He saw us and relaxed a little. Stephanie beamed.
“Bronson?” Connor skewed his face.
“Bronson?” I muttered.
“He left Watermarsh forever ago,” said Connor.
“And now he’s back.” Stephanie patted Connor’s chest and glided across the lobby toward Bronson.
“Why is he here?” I asked.
“He left boarding school,” said Connor.
“No one from Watermarsh goes to boarding school.”
“He did, but he’s back.” Connor cocked his shoulders. “You’re right. No one from Watermarsh goes to boarding school. Looks like he failed out.”
Stephanie reached Bronson, and by the way she hugged him, you could have mistaken him for her boyfriend—if you didn’t know about Connor, which everyone did.
Suddenly the five-minute buzzer went nuts and Stephanie and Bronson and everyone but Connor and me took off.
“What was it we called him before he left?” asked Connor.
“His nickname. What’d we call him in eighth grade?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Yes, you do.” Connor smiled big. “Little Women. Like the girls’ book.” Connor zipped his backpack.
“I don’t think he liked being called Little Women.”
“It was funny.”
“Probably not to Bronson.”
Connor hiked his pack over his shoulders to walk away but stopped and pulled at my shirt. “And kill your fag wear.”
“Don’t talk phobe.”
“Don’t dress gay.”
I rolled my eyes at him.
“But good jeans.” He tossed me a hint of a smile and turned to walk away.
IN ENGLISH class Miss Goodrich asked us to welcome Bronson. He sat beside Stephanie, who proceeded to ignore Miss G’s discussion about the homework. She kept arranging and rearranging Bronson’s books and handouts.
“Stephanie, I’m sure Bronson appreciates your help, but we’re talking about Romeo and Juliet, which will be the Shakespeare we’re reading this semester. Not Hamlet, by the way. That’s drama club,” said Miss Goodrich, in her usual black clothes and funky glasses. She had the thickest curls swept up and falling off her head in different directions. Natural, Stephanie had once insisted because it was impossible to create hair that dramatic. “I’m telling class to forget about the movies they’ve seen. Forget about your performance last year as Juliet in the Watermarsh spring play. It was quite nice, actually. Commendable.”
“Thank you….” Stephanie sat up straighter, probably to explain her concept of the performance. I didn’t think she’d mention the fawning review in the Watermarsh Weekly Mirror, but she’d come up with something to remind us of her “perfect embodiment of innocence and wisdom, beauty and strength,” in case Connor, practically her publicist, had allowed anyone to forget. He’d even had his dad mention Stephanie on his weekly cable show about life in Watermarsh.
“But at the moment, you’re not center stage.” Miss Goodrich turned to the rest of class. “I don’t want anyone telling me how she or he or some actor played a role in Romeo and Juliet. I don’t want to hear about theater you’ve attended. I don’t want to hear about movies. I want you to look at the text. This isn’t an acting or a film class. We’re not actors. Or if we are,” Miss Goodrich said, nodding to Stephanie, “then we’re going back in the closet and pretending that we’re not. The important thing in English class—and, in fact, life—is to remember where you are and who you are. As Hamlet is told in his eponymous play, know thyself.”
Miss Goodrich gave me that annoying teacher’s look, probably wondering if I knew what eponymous meant, which of course I didn’t. I was good on the fall cross-country course and the winter and spring track. I wasn’t a classroom kind of guy. Connor made fun of me for how much I read, but those were stupid spy books, adventure series, not school stuff.
“Know thyself.” Miss Goodrich raised her eyes to Russ, a thick-necked football player with an always-red face, as if remembering his name was tougher than benching two hundred or whatever pounds. But in September he’d read a paper aloud in class and had shocked everyone by how good it was. Now Russ set the curve. From meathead to English god in one day.
“But right now,” she continued, “we’ll start reading Romeo and Juliet, the world’s greatest romance.”
“Miss Goodrich?” Charlie raised his hand. Charlie…. You’d probably think I was a jerk if I called Charlie the school gay guy, (Connor would call him worse), but I wasn’t a jerk, just observant. And, come on, be honest. There were different ways to be gay. Charlie had something in the oddly aggressive way he moved, something about his hips that seemed, well, gay. Connor and I weren’t like that. “In the end of Romeo and Juliet,” Charlie said, “they’re dead.”
“I think most of us know that Romeo and Juliet ends in death.”
“That’s not so romantic. For me, personally, I’m hoping for something a little better than death,” Charlie finished.
Death. Death. Death. Death. I knew better, but suddenly the classroom morphed into the kitchen at home and I was listening to Mom and Dad insist that people like me ended in death. They got beaten up, murdered, became alcoholics or meth addicts with nasty teeth. And if they didn’t kill themselves, they died of AIDS or overdosed or finished their lives depressed and alone, which was worse than death, but not worse than the eternal damnation that awaited. Think flames. I knew not to listen to my whacked-out parents who’d never lived anywhere outside of Watermarsh, but I couldn’t help it if the crap they dumped on me sometimes bubbled up.
“Zephaniah?” Miss Goodrich was waiting for the answer to a question I hadn’t heard. “Welcome back from Zeph’s World. Anything there about Shakespeare?”
The florescent lights buzzed, and outside a leaf blower whirred. My brain shut off, as it usually did when a teacher asked me a question. I’d once asked my parents if the same thing happened to them, temporary stupefaction. Dad said it was time to learn to think on my feet because I wasn’t a kid anymore. I’d need skills for the real world, which was just around the corner. He would have winked at me. He was a winker, my dad, and, like me, not much of a classroom-thinker.
“No? Zeph’s World seems to be Shakespeare-free. So, Zeph, what’s your take on the reputation of Romeo and Juliet?”
Where had the conversation gone? My stupid shirt dug into my armpits. Did the shirt make me look as gay as Charlie?
“Or how about this…. Zeph, what do you want to say to Charlie about the nature of romance?”
All I managed was “Uh….” And “uh” again. Why was I stammering? I knew about the nature of romance. Keep it a secret. I knew that. Just ask Connor. And seriously, Romeo and Juliet would have been okay if they’d kept their thing a secret.
Then, for real, my mouth started moving. “Romeo and Juliet both saw what they wanted. They wanted each other. And they went for it. But, yeah, maybe they shouldn’t have sprinted from the start. Maybe they should have taken it slow and steady and built up for the big race. Maybe that was why they didn’t make it. They burned out too soon.”
“Who knew that Romeo and Juliet were athletes? Thank you, Zeph. If only Romeo and Juliet had trained better? Is that it?”
“They should have kept their eyes on the prize.”
Miss Goodrich let out a chuckle and looked at me friendlier than teachers usually did. Then I saw Bronson. He smiled too, the kind of generous smile you gave a good friend, the kind that Westy gave everyone, the kind that Connor gave me in private.
I smiled back.
Of course I remembered Bronson.