When I finally opened my eyes, I was lying on my side facing the bedside table. My alarm clock read eleven minutes after two in the morning. I was dirty, sticky, uncomfortable and really needed to take a leak. As humiliating as it had been, sometimes I missed that bottle they had me use at the hospital. I pushed myself up and off the bed and made my way carefully to the bathroom.
When I was done, I used a washcloth to rub some of the worst of the dried sweat from my body. I hadn’t quite mastered the art of showering with a cast on yet, so that would have to do. I’d just turned off the water and stepped into the hall when the door to my parents’ bedroom opened, flooding the corridor with light. My father stood in the doorway, his back to me. “If that’s what you want, fine,” he snarled. “I’m not going to argue.” He pulled the door shut with a snap and stormed down the hallway. I tried to back out of the way, but wasn’t fast enough and he plowed right through me, knocking me off balance.
Unfortunately, I was standing right in front of Trent’s door when he did it. I crashed into it and it flew open, dumping me unceremoniously on the floor at the foot of Trent’s bed. I hit my head on the footboard – hard – and found myself blinking back tears of pain.
“Darrell?” Trent was beside me, trying to help me sit up. “Are you okay?”
I didn’t want to shake my head, not with the way I was feeling. I opened my mouth to answer but clamped it shut as a wave of nausea washed over me. I swallowed. “Trent,” I whispered. “I think…”
Trent hoisted me to my feet as though I didn’t weigh an ounce and hurried me into the bathroom. I barely made it to the toilet when my stomach churned and twisted, forcing me down on one knee.
I didn’t have anything to throw up, having missed supper, but that didn’t seem to matter. I dry-heaved over the bowl as Trent wiped the back of my neck with a cool cloth.
My father’s sneering voice drifted in from the open doorway. “God, when did you turn out to be such a fucking wimp, Darrell?”
“Leave him alone!” Trent shouted. “Haven’t you hurt him enough?”
“Don’t you talk to me that way,” my father snapped. “I’ll say what I want, when I want to whom I want. This is my fucking house, you little shit.”
“It’s our house, too,” Trent countered.
He was going to get the shit beat out of him. Even I knew that, and I couldn’t see my father’s face. “Trent…” I whispered.
Trent was back at my side in an instant. “You okay?” he said, wiping my neck again.
“You are so fucking pathetic,” Dad went on, his tone dripping with contempt.
“And you, Trent – playing Florence Nightingale. I always knew you were too soft. Sometimes I wonder if you aren’t a goddamn faggot.”
The air grew still. I struggled to get to my feet as Trent turned to face our father. “Just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” he asked in a low growl.
“All that art shit you’re always doing, the way you’re always reading or hiding in your room. And this…” He waved a hand at me. “Just like a fucking queer.”
“I have a girlfriend-” Trent began.
Dad interrupted. “Wouldn’t be the first time some fag tried to pretend he was normal.” I almost laughed at the irony of that statement, given that Trent had said pretty much the same thing earlier. Almost.
Trent’s fists balled at his sides. “You’re the pathetic one,” he snarled. “Picking on Darrell for something that wasn’t his fault…”
“If he hadn’t been in that goddamn car-”
“I’m not talking about the accident!” Trent yelled. “I’m talking about you!”
I had to stop this. “Trent,” I said, reaching for his arm. My vision wasn’t too good, though, and I missed. “Trent, no…”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Dad said, taking a menacing step forward.
Trent didn’t back down. “It’s not his fault you didn’t make it in football, Dad, any more than it’s his fault he was in that accident. All my life I’ve watched you try to make him do what you couldn’t.”
“And now that he can’t do it either, you treat him like shit. He feels bad enough about what happened – just leave him alone!”
I looked over my father’s shoulder to where my mother had appeared in the hallway. She was watching the exchange and I waited for her to say something – anything – but she remained silent.
Dad didn’t, however. “How dare you talk to me like that!” he sputtered. “After everything I’ve done for you-”
“You’ve done nothing for me!” Trent countered. “It’s all been ‘Darrell this’ and ‘Darrell that’, and ‘Darrell’s going to be big someday’ and ‘Darrell’s gonna make a hell of a quarterback’. You never even acknowledged my existence unless I got in your way.”
“And that made you jealous!” Dad snapped.
Shaking his head, Trent replied, “No, Dad. It didn’t make me jealous. I felt sorry for him. As long as he was performing to your expectations everything was perfect. I just knew something like this was gonna happen.”
“Something like what?” I asked. I was more than a little confused and the room was tipping crazily.
Trent turned to look at me. “Darrell,” he said sadly. “I don’t mean the accident – I meant… something else. I knew if you ever told Dad you didn’t want to play anymore that he’d act like this. You were supposed to succeed where he failed, bro.”
“Failed?” Dad advanced on Trent. “Who you calling a failure, faggot?”
“Martin…” Mom finally stepped forward, grabbing his arm, but Dad just shook her off.
“Well, Trent?” Dad demanded. There was a dangerous glitter in his eyes – even I could see that. “Come on, boy. You were spouting off that faggot mouth of yours a minute ago – what happened? Where’s all your bullshit now, you pansy-ass?”
I couldn’t take anymore. I knew he was really going to hurt Trent. Not that we’d ever been spanked much as kids – but then this topic had never come up before, either, and I knew Trent had hit a sore spot with Dad. “Trent,” I began. “Dad – stop, please.”
“You can just shut the fuck up,” Dad snapped, finally focusing his attention on me. “I don’t even want to see your face anymore. You don’t exist, got that?”
I blinked. My vision had cleared somewhat but was now swimming with tears. “You don’t mean that,” I whispered.
“You bet your ass I do,” he growled. “You’re nothing but a waste of skin now.”
“That’s enough,” Mom cut in, grabbing him again. “Martin – you’re leaving. This minute.”
Dad slapped her so fast none of us had seen it coming. Hell, none of us had expected it. Mom and Dad practically never fought – and he had never, ever hit her. “It’s your fault,” he spat. “Your fault they’re both losers. A cripple and a faggot. That’s your doing.”
The look on Mom’s face brought blood rushing to my ears. I stepped forward. “Don’t hit her.”
“What did you say?”
“I said…” I stepped closer. “Don’t touch her again.”
His lip curled in contempt. “Who the fuck do you think you are, cripple?”
“I think I’m the one that’s going to beat the living fuck out of you if you ever touch her again,” I replied. My voice was low and cold. “Get out.”
“Who’s gonna make me?” he asked. “You or the fag?”
I took a deep breath. “Trent’s not gay,” I said quietly. “Get out.”
“I’m not going to tell you again.” I glanced past his shoulder. Mom had disappeared. “Even crippled I can beat the shit out of you.”
Dad looked past me to Trent. “You got something to say?”
“Get out,” Trent repeated.
“A queer and a cripple, throwing me out of my own house,” he laughed. “That’ll be the fucking day.”
I glanced at Trent. It turned out to be the wrong move. The next thing I knew, stars exploded in my head and I was down on the floor, retching. Trent leaped over me and began grappling with my father. He was no match for him, however. Even in my dazed state I could see Trent was losing rapidly. I got up on one knee.
Dad managed to twist Trent’s wrist up behind his back and slammed him up against the doorframe. “You’re so fucking pathetic,” he hissed in Trent’s ear. “What makes you think a limp-wristed cocksucker like you could ever beat someone like me?” He banged Trent against the frame again. “Answer me, faggot!”
I struggled to my feet – not an easy task when one of your legs is held straight by plaster. “He’s not the faggot, Dad,” I panted, hoping my next words would distract him. “I am.” I leaned heavily against the sink.
It worked. He looked at me, disbelief written on his face. “You?”
I nodded. “Me.”
He shoved Trent into the hallway, stepped inside the bathroom and closed the door, locking it. He looked at me. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?” he asked, his voice menacing. He began moving forward slowly. “You did this just to spite me.”
I barked a laugh. “Yeah, that’s it – I decided to be gay just to get even with you.” I shook my head. “That’s gotta be the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.” I looked up at the sound of leather sliding through cotton. He was taking off his belt. “What are you doing?”
“No son of mine is a fag,” he said in the same chilling tone.
“Well, that’s good then,” I snapped. “Considering how you just disowned me.”
I’d forgotten how fast he was. Whenever we practiced, he’d always lob the ball at me with a snap of the wrist that blurred his hand. I’d tried for years to copy it but never quite managed it. I remembered it all in a flash, however, when that belt lashed out and cracked across my back. I cried out in surprise. The belt came a second time, leaving a line of fire across my shoulders. I tried to get away from him but I didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver. The anger I’d felt when he slapped Mom was almost gone now, replaced by abject terror. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew he’d snapped and if I didn’t get out of there he was going to seriously hurt me.
I tried to reach the door but he blocked me, bringing the belt down on my left shoulder. My whole arm went numb for a second. I caught a glimpse of his face and what I saw shocked the hell out of me: he had a wild look in his eyes and his blood pressure had gone up so much his skin was almost purple. “Dad,” I said, fighting back tears. “Dad… please…”
“No!” he practically screeched. “You’re not gay!” The belt came down again.
He doubled up the strip of leather in his hands almost absently and my eyes widened. He was holding the loop and if he hit me again, it was going to be with the heavy steel buckle. I reached up just as he brought it down, catching it on my already-numbed arm. The shockwave resonated up into my shoulder and my arm dropped, deadened.
“You’re not gay!” he yelled, bringing his arm back. With one hand on the edge of the sink and the other one useless, I knew the next blow would be to my head and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Suddenly the door crashed open and two policemen in uniform grabbed my father. He began fighting with them, screaming at them to let him go. I hoped to God that they didn’t. I held on to that sink with everything I had until they pulled him out of the room, his hands cuffed behind his back, struggling and swearing the whole way. When they were gone, Trent appeared at my side.
“Easy, bro, easy,” he murmured in my ear. My head was ringing and I could barely see. “Come on.” I felt a second pair of hands grab my other arm and try to pull me away from the sink. Trouble was, I had this funny idea that if I let go I’d pass out. I didn’t want to do that in case Dad came back. Fingers began gently prying my hand off the porcelain.
“Darrell,” my mother said. “Let go, honey. We’re going to let you sit down for a second.” I heard other voices – ones I didn’t recognize – and my mother and brother replying. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. “Darrell,” she said again. “Let the medics take a look at you, okay?”
I lifted my head and blinked at her. For some reason, her face kept swimming in and out of focus. “My arm doesn’t work,” I told her.
“We’ll get them to look at that, too, okay?” she said, smiling at me. “Just let go of the sink, honey.”
Against my better judgment I let go. I was right about what would happen.
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