A short story

December 11, 2011

A discussion group I belong to on Goodreads about Young Adult GBLT Books has a monthly short story challenge, and December’s was on this picture.

I had originally intended it to be a short vignette, but my narrator had other ideas. By request, I’m posting the result for the Pharyngulite Horde to read.


Dramatis Personae (Provided because it might get a bit confusing.)

The Lorne Falcons:
Coach Bruce Trottier
Malcolm “Sammy” Sampson – Forward & Team Captain
Davinderjit Gill – Forward & Assistant Captain
Tyler “Buddy” Budd – Forward
Darryl Perry – Forward
Ryan “Perkie” Perkins – Forward
Jeremy “Arty” MacArthur – Defenceman & Our Protaganist/Narrator
Drake Connolly – Defenceman
Richard “Robber” Robertson – Goaltender

Cory Klassen – Jeremy’s best friend from school.
Leslie MacArthur – Jeremy’s mom
Kyle MacArthur – Jeremy’s dad
Rosalind MacArthur – Jeremy’s little sister
Joanna Budd – Tyler’s mom

Best Friends

©2011

The summer the accident happened, we’d been playing together as a team for three years, so Sammy’s birthday barbecue was, by then, a kind of tradition. Most of the other guys on the team had their birthdays during the season and we always did something to celebrate. But Malcolm “Sammy” Sampson’s birthday was in June, long after the hockey season ended. And that was a problem, because Sammy was the team captain. We couldn’t just leave him out. So every year since he’d turned fourteen, Sammy’d invited us all over to his house for a barbecue.

The first year, the gathering had started in the afternoon as a pool party and we’d all gone home by eight or nine. But now we were older. Malcolm’s parents were there to make sure things didn’t get out of control, but it was definitely a high school party. It was later at night. Girlfriends were invited. The beverages were BYOB, and most of us had at least a couple of beers or whatever.

It wasn’t a good night for it. It had been overcast since about noon, and not long after we’d finished barbecuing it started to rain. The pool and the patio were abandoned and we all ended up in the Sampsons’ basement, shooting pool, playing video games, listening to music, hanging out. A few couples were even making out here and there, but nothing too heavy. Despite the crummy weather, the party wasn’t working out too terribly after all.

I was having a great time, even though this wasn’t the same group of guys I usually hung around with at school, and my best friend, Cory, wasn’t there. See, you have to understand that we were all team mates. We’d been on tournament trips together, bussed to neighbouring towns for games, had gotten up at ungodly hours to practise together, shared losses and victories. We were close. That’s not to say there weren’t sometimes “issues”, both on and off the ice. Sometimes there was resentment about ice time or about someone not pulling his weight. Just a few months before, Perkie and Gill, linemates for two seasons running, had gotten into it over a girl they both liked. But that was all over with by then.

It was about eleven when things turned bad. I’d just finished texting with Cory who was out of town for the weekend at his older sister’s wedding, and I was in a good mood. Putting my phone back in my pocket, I’d then walked over to Sammy, who’d brought down a couple of trays of nachos that his mom had made for us. I was talking with him and Gill, so I can’t tell you what it was that prompted Darryl Perry to open his big mouth. Man, I really shouldn’t say that. I mean, he was wrong and everything, but I know he wishes he could take it back.

I just heard him laugh disdainfully. “That’s so gay.” I turned a bit to see what it was he was snickering at on the TV screen.

But it was Buddy who got my attention. He was taking a couple of steps closer to Perry. “When you want to say something is bad or stupid, don’t call it ‘gay’, all right?” he said quietly.

Buddy. Tyler Budd. He’d been my best friend all through elementary school. He’d lived two doors down from me and we were the same age. We’d done all the kid stuff together—playing at the park, building snow forts, riding our bikes. We’d even learned to skate together when his dad took us on Sundays to the outdoor rink when we were five. We’d drifted a bit, partly because his family had moved to a street in another part of the neighbourhood, partly because once we got to high school we gravitated to different groups of friends. We were still on good terms though and I was always glad that we were still in touch through the team.

On the first day of practice the year before, he’d asked us all to stay afterwards because he needed to tell us something. I couldn’t imagine for a minute what it was. Maybe he was moving? Joining the Ravens, our traditional rivals? Maybe he was sick. Leukemia or something? As it turned out, he wasn’t moving. Or sick. Tyler Budd stood up one of the benches and, only after he was sure he had everyone’s attention, announced that he was gay. He said he didn’t want to stay on the team if anyone had a problem with that. He told us to talk it over and let him know at the next practice. And then he hopped down, picked up his bag, and walked out. It was the bravest thing I’d ever seen anyone do in real life.

As for us, we were all kind of floored. We wouldn’t have been more stunned if he’d announced he’d been called up for a tryout with the national junior team. Even me, who’d known him forever. Maybe I was more surprised because of that.

Anyway, Sammy called on anyone who had anything he’d like to say to step forward. We all just stood there, no one wanting to be the first to break the silence. Sammy looked right at me. “What do you say, Arty?”

“Me?”

There was a knock at the door and the coach stuck his head in. “What’s taking you boys so long? Hurry up. There’s an Atom team that has the ice next.”

“Sure thing, Coach,” said Sammy. “We’ll be done in a minute.” The door was already closing. Sammy hadn’t taken his eyes off of me for a moment.

“Um. I say…I don’t care. Buddy’s my friend. He’s our team mate. Why should he leave the team just because he’s…different? I mean he’s different than us because he’s not into girls, but he’s not a different person than he was before.” At least that’s what I remember saying. I was a bit muddled, I admit.

Sammy just nodded. “Anyone else?” Some head shakes, no. “That settles it, then. Buddy stays.”

And so he had. There were a few guys uncomfortable at first but they got used to it pretty quick. There was only one, whose family was really religious, that ended up quitting over it. We all just went on as normal. No big deal, right? Once in a while, we teased him about having a boyfriend or about his sense of style, but not more than anyone else was teased about their personal lives. Nobody ever said anything mean or called him names. To us, he was one of us. I don’t know how he saw it, or if he ever thought someone had crossed the line.

But maybe sometimes we did, or maybe sometimes he just wasn’t in the mood for it at all. Now that I look back on it, I find it kind of weird that nothing like this had happened before. I keep playing it back in my mind. I can’t help it.

Now it was Perry’s turn. “Why not? I can call it anything I want to. I don’t mean anything against you. Just lighten up.”

“Just don’t do it.” He was still quiet, authoritative. No, not authoritative. Determined.

Now everyone was paying attention. The game at the pool table had stopped.

“Aww, poor Bunny. He’s just so sensitive.” Perry laughed at his own mockery.

“What did you call me?” Buddy lunged for Perry, drew his fist back to clock him. Now, Buddy was no goon, but let’s just say he’d spent enough five-minute stretches in the penalty box to make a guy think twice about getting on his bad side.

However, Buddy’s fist never connected. Two of the other guys intervened, holding him back. “Let it go, Ty. It’s not worth it,” said Drake Connolly, one hand stretching the back of Buddy’s shirt, the other pulling on his shoulder.

“You know something? Sometimes you’re a Class A fucking asshole, Darryl. And the rest of you?” He looked accusingly around the room. “Suck.” Then Tyler Budd shook off the restraining hands, turned away, and made for the stairs. No one said a word.

It had all happened so fast. Sammy, the one who was usually able to sort things out, hadn’t even moved. Now he passed the tray he was carrying to me, and went up the stairs two at a time after Buddy. I don’t know if he managed to catch him before he left, and if he did, what he said. I still haven’t had the balls to ask.

I went to put the tray down. I didn’t know what to do. It seemed like things were already being taken care of. Sammy had gone after Buddy and a few people, including Drake’s girlfriend, Sarah, were having a chat with Perry, telling him he shouldn’t have been such an ass. He was on the defensive, saying that everyone used the word gay like he had and Buddy shouldn’t take it personally. By the time Sammy came back though, he’d at least admitted that he had gone too far with the Bunny comment. He’d definitely and deliberately insulted him with that. Grudgingly, Perry agreed to apologise the next time he’d see him.

The incident was over. The party, now a little more subdued, continued for another hour and a half or so. My mom came to pick me up at about 12:30, and, once I’d texted to Cory again to let him know how things were, I turned off my phone and went to sleep listening to the soothing sound of the rain.

***

I was woken up the next day by my sister, Rosalind. I wasn’t keen, even though it was nearly lunchtime, but Rosalind was just the advance party. If she failed, my mother wouldn’t be far behind, and she wouldn’t be happy. So I rolled out of bed and headed for the shower.

I was feeling more like myself by the time I came into the kitchen half an hour later. Ros had disappeared, and I heard the TV on in the family room where my mom was having a coffee. My dad was working nights that week and he was sleeping upstairs. I was scrounging for something to eat, my head and shoulders practically inside the refrigerator, when I heard my mother’s exclamation. “Oh God. Jeremy? Jeremy come here!” My mother rarely raises her voice when my dad’s sleeping.

I hurried into the room where she gestured me to come to her. She was watching the screen. The city’s 24 hour news channel. A news reporter standing in front of a building, then a shot from a helicopter of a field by the side of a road. A road and a field I recognised. It wasn’t raining anymore.

My mother’s hand was clutching my forearm. “Isn’t that Joanna Budd’s car? Was Tyler at the party last night?”

Sure enough, that was Buddy’s mother’s car. What was left of it. “Yes,” I said. “Is he okay?” The building. That was a hospital they’d been reporting from. He was recovering in hospital. I felt like my stomach was on a planet with twice the gravity and my face was on fire. Dread and denial were waging a battle in my mind. The newscasters were on to some other story, but the image of the car wouldn’t go away.

My mom pulled me close. She was clinging to me, really. “No,” she replied. “No, if that was Tyler in that car, he’s not okay. I’m sorry, h-honey.” Then she started to cry. I’d never heard her cry like that before. It was eerie. She gripped my shoulders as though she thought I might go back in time and get into the car with my friend if she wasn’t able to hang on.

Ros came into the family room first, asking what was wrong. She sounded scared. My father was right behind her, his annoyance visibly shifting to worry as he took in the sight of my mother’s grief. “What is it, Leslie? What’s happened? Jeremy?”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” I said and pulled away from my mom. I pushed my dad aside on the way out of the family room.

I don’t know how long it was before I heard a knock on the washroom door. “Jeremy?”

“Yeah, Dad.” He swung the door open and looked down at me. I was sitting on the floor against the wall opposite him. I’d thrown up but I hadn’t cried at all. No one I knew had ever died before. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the concept even. I still felt hot even though I’d splashed cold water on my face.

“I just wanted to see if you were okay. Your mother told me about Buddy. I’m really sorry.

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. Thanks.”

“Okay. We’re here if you need us, all right?”

I knew he was trying but I couldn’t give him anything. I was still numb. I nodded.

He left the door open, but I didn’t move right away. I was playing back the night before in my head, trying to figure out what had happened, as though there was some link between the words that had been uttered and the wreckage in a field a klick or two away from where I was sitting.

I got up. I ran up stairs, grabbed my phone and my wallet and my keys, shoving them into my pockets. Back down the stairs. “Hold on. Hold on,” said my father, his hand raised up like he was directing traffic. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“The accident. I’ve gotta see the car.”

“The road’s closed off, Jeremy. If not, they’ll have the car moved already.”

“Moved?” That quickly? Like nothing happened? Like Buddy had never driven off from a friend’s party and flipped his car?

“Once the police have finished investigating, at the scene, they’ll take the car in to see if it was something mechanical that caused the accident.”

I knew that, but that’s not what I meant, not the explanation I needed.

Besides, it was beginning to dawn on me what had caused the accident.

I took a step or two backwards up the steps and then turned around, went back up into my room, and shut my door. Keys, wallet, phone went back on my dresser.

Phone.

I picked up the phone and sat on my bed, staring at it. Did everyone know by now, or was I the only one? Was everyone but me texting, phoning each other? Had Sammy found out? My phone had been off since the night before. Buddy’s parents knew. The police would’ve told them. The night before? Another wave of nausea washed over me. What if—what if he’d called me? Before? I hadn’t checked my messages. No, that wasn’t right. I’d been texting with Cory after I’d gotten home. No messages then. So then the last thing he said to me was that blanket condemnation of all of us. My eyes stung. It just wasn’t possible.

I didn’t want to talk to Sammy or any of the other guys on the team. Not then. I didn’t want to talk to my parents. I wanted to be alone, but not alone at the same time. What I wanted was Cory to be there with me.

Cory and I had met in grade nine. One day, he leaned across the aisle between our desks and made some funny comment about Julius Caesar that I don’t remember. When I laughed out loud, the teacher made me get up in front of the class and read Mark Antony’s speech. I hate that kind of crap. I didn’t sit next to him in English again. It was really the following year that we got to be good friends. We had math and physics together. We ended up as lab partners and decided to start doing our math homework together. On paper it might look strange: a stereotypical jock type and a cello-playing math geek being friends (He’s all “Isn’t the Pythagorean Theorem beautiful?” and I’m like “Yeah, whatever. Let’s go build a friggin’ bridge.”), but for some reason it worked.

Anyway, I don’t know what I expected him to do. I just felt like I needed someone to have my back, say the right things at the right time, and keep his mouth shut when nothing could be said. Cory was always good at that.

I slid the phone open. [Six New Messages]  Checked who they were from (two from Cory, two from Sammy, one from Connolly, one from Gill). [Two Missed Calls] Both from Sammy. I looked at Cory’s messages. The first was a good morning, the second an announcement that he was on his way home from his sister’s.

[Need 2 talk. When u home?]

[4hrs. whats up?]

I closed my eyes. Should I say? Should I wait to tell him face to face? It’s not like he knew Buddy much except for what I’d said about him and what he’d seen of him at school. I couldn’t bring myself to type it in. It would make it real but it would make it seem fake at the same time.

[Tell u in person.]

[ok. u alrite?]

[Not rlly.]

[call u?]

[No. S’ok. Will wait.]

[k. b thr soon.]

I put the phone down on the nightstand. I wasn’t ready for the guys yet. I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed, listening to my iPod. My mother came to check on me once and she told me that Malcolm had called the house phone since he hadn’t heard back from me. She told him that I knew about Tyler and wasn’t up to talking just now. “Thanks,” I said.

“There’s going to be a candlelight vigil tonight at the Plaza. Do you think you might want to go?”

The Plaza was a pedestrian square in the middle of town. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Are you hungry? I could bring something up if you like.”

“No. Not really. Thanks.”

“All right. I love you, Jeremy.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“If Cory calls or comes over, let me know?”

“Okay. I will.”

She shut my door and I went back to listening to music while the whole time, memories of Tyler Budd kept intruding into my awareness.

***

 [home. meet aftr dinner?]

It was just before six o’clock. I still couldn’t eat, but I was sitting at the dinner table. “It’s Cory. He’s home. Can I?” I motioned in the direction of the hallway.

My mom sighed, in a worried way not an annoyed one, and nodded.

I was texting as soon as I’d left my seat.

[Meet @ plaza]

“Jeremy? Are you going to want a ride somewhere? You can’t take the car because I’m picking Rosalind up from Luisa’s at nine.”

“No. I’m going to walk.”

“One more thing.”

“Yeah?”

She came around the table and hugged me. “I know you’re getting a bit old for this treatment, but you’re just going to have to live with it for a while, okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

***

 There was already a bit of a crowd when I got there. Someone I didn’t know was passing out candles. There was a shrine under one of the trees with candles and pictures of Buddy, and cards with rainbows on them. I couldn’t look at it. I wondered why I’d come. I could’ve just met Cory somewhere else.

“Hey. Arty,” said a voice to my right. It was Rick Robertson, our top goalie. He’d been one of the guys playing pool. “Hey, Robber.” I didn’t know what else to say. Apparently neither did he. Anything would have seemed like an effort to make conversation, like we were just making small talk. Or worse—gossipping. “See ya,” he said after we’d looked at each other for a minute or two. “Sure. Yeah.” We did that half-embrace clap-on-the-back thing that guys do, then he walked away.

I figured I should do the same. I needed to get out of there before anyone else from the team or school came by. I turned away from the centre of the square and all the people. Suddenly I was face to face with Cory.

“Jeremy. I’m so sorry.”

“You heard.”

He nodded grimly. “When I got home. It’s all over the news.”

“Right.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. “Tell me,” he said.

I shook my head. For once I was grateful that he was taller than me.

“You said you needed to talk. I promise I’ll listen.”

I took a deep breath. His hand was still on my shoulder. The murmur of the crowd was like a backdrop placed there to offset our conversation. “Buddy. Tyler. We were like brothers when we were little.”

“I know.”

“Last night. I told you there was a thing between two of the guys?”

“Yeah…”

“It was Perry and Buddy. Perry was making fun of him. Called him ‘Bunny’ instead of ‘Buddy’. Last year, you remember that fight I had with that Bruin guy? That’s ’cause he called Buddy a faggot behind his back. I never said, but that’s what it was. But none of us took Buddy’s side last night. Not really. I didn’t say anything at all, even when he said we all sucked. I could’ve gone after him. Maybe I could’ve convinced him to stay. Maybe I could’ve gone with him and he wouldn’t be…wouldn’t have crashed.”

Now the tears were coming, hot tracks down my cheeks.

“I don’t even know what happened. Why did he leave like that?” I found myself grasping at Cory’s shirt with both hands. I looked up into his face. “It shouldn’t…he…this isn’t right.”

“I know.”

“I should’ve been there for him. He was counting on me, and I let him down. He said so. And now he’s dead, and I can’t change things.”

I felt Cory’s arms wrap around the back of my neck. I gave in to him. Gave into the pain and the anger and the guilt. I started to sob and couldn’t stop.

“It’s not your fault, J. I know that’s what it feels like. It’s not your fault. People—friends, family—have conflicts all the time. Say things they don’t mean. Mean to say things they don’t. It was an accident.”

I heard him, but I knew he didn’t know the whole story.

Eventually, I couldn’t cry anymore. I pulled away—just far enough for me to catch my breath. It was like I’d played a five minute shift while suffering the worst cold ever invented. I was still shaking and my brain felt somehow both heavily compacted like a cube of scrap metal and floating dizzily above my head at the same time. I needed to tell someone or I was going to explode. And here was Cory, strong as a frigging steel post, the one I’d been most afraid to tell. The one I’d most wanted to tell.

“You don’t understand.” Breathe. “It was even more my place to stand up for Buddy.” Breathe. Just breathe. My voice sounded like someone else’s or maybe like an echo of my own. “I like girls. I do, but I’m into…some guys too.” I shuddered, trying not to lose control again. I waited, not looking at Cory’s face again, instead staring at his shoulder, covered in tears and snot. Under any other circumstances I would’ve apologised to him for that, right at that moment.

His hands were on either side of my face then and his forehead rested against mine. I could feel one of his thumbs gently stroking my temple in an expression of palpable affection and concern. “I love you too.”

“You’re not just saying that are you? To make me feel better?”

“No.” He actually kissed my forehead. “I’m not just saying that. Come on. I’m going to take you home, okay?”

I just nodded. He put his arm across the back of my shoulders and that’s how we walked back to my place.

 ***

 Epilogue

Cory stayed over the next few nights, and it’s a good thing too. I was a mess. Buddy’s funeral, spending some time with his parents, talking to my team mates—it was all too much, and I wouldn’t have survived it without him.

The report on the accident? Weather and speed were factors, alcohol wasn’t. Basically, they think Buddy took the corner too fast for the slick condition of the road and he, quote “lost control of the vehicle”.

When I asked Cory why he didn’t tell me before that he was into me, he replied, “I’d have said something sooner if I’d even suspected you were open to the idea, but as it was, I didn’t want to risk losing you as a friend. Eventually, I probably would have brought it up anyway.”

The team wasn’t the same anymore. A few of the guys, including Darryl Perry, didn’t come out for tryouts. A couple of others had aged out. Sammy couldn’t be convinced to take the captaincy again. After the first practice, I stood up on one of the benches in the dressing room and told the guys I was bi. At the first game, they raised Buddy’s sweater to the rafters.

One Response to “A short story”

  1. Hawk-eyed Interceptor Says:

    My friend that was a very beautiful and touching story.
    Thank you so much.

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