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God, hit me straight on

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It was a sticky afternoon near the end of August, the heat of the day worsened by the extreme humidity. Josh tugged at the collar of his shirt as he squinted up at the sun, not a cloud in the sky to offer some shade. The pavement was hot against his legs and back, even through his clothing, only adding to his discomfort. But these were the last days of summer and he couldn’t quite muster the energy to get up from his sprawl on the corner of the basketball court.

There was a nudge against his foot as the basketball his friends had been lazily playing with escaped from them. Josh nudged it with his toe and sent it rolling back across the pavement to the other side of the court. Brendon scooped it off the ground and tossed it to Jordan, who was still bouncing around enthusiastically. Josh had tuned out what they were chatting about a while ago, shortly after he’d lost interest in his halfhearted attempts to tone his basketball skills for the new school year. It was just too hot for it today.

Josh’s eyelids were heavy and he let them fall shut, arms behind his head as a cushion. There was the sound of steps approaching a minute later. He peeked through one half lidded eye to see Spencer collapse next to him, leaning against the base of the basketball hoop. He stretched his legs out in front of him and flicked Josh on the part of his lower stomach showing beneath where his shirt had slipped up. “Hey. You’re right, it’s too hot out here today, I’m done with the practicing for now.”

Josh smacked at his hand, but wasn’t annoyed. He made a noise of acknowledgement. “At least I don’t really need the practice. You on the other hand….”

“Not fair!” Spencer poked at his stomach again as the sound of another pair of feet approached.

“That’s it, I’m wiped out,” Brendon proclaimed, wiping sweat from his forehead. Jordan was still at the opposite end of the court, trying to make a basket by throwing the ball with his back to the hoop. Brendon shook his head in Jordan’s direction, chuckling as he sat down cross-legged on top of Josh’s outstretched legs. Josh kicked weakly at him. “What’s with you guys, get off me, there’s the whole court to sit on and you sit on me!”

Brendon acted oblivious to Josh’s complaining and picked at a weed coming up through a crack in the pavement. He sighed and said, “At least school’s next week. Then we can play in the indoor gymnasium.”

Spencer groaned. “Yeah, but is it worth the extra work? All those classes…eugh.”

Josh gave up his attempts of getting Brendon out of his space, resigning himself to the extra weight and heat against his legs. “You don’t pay attention anyway, Spence, why does it matter? Besides, it’s our last year. Then you never have to go again.”

“Yeah,” Brendon chirped. “Then there’s college.”

Another groan from Spencer. Josh and Brendon shared a bemused look.

A few minutes of lazy silence passed before Spencer asked, with only mild interest, “Hey, Josh, is your brother going out for the team this year?”

He had to shake Josh’s arm a little to rouse him; the heat was making him so drowsy he had almost dozed off. “Hm, what? Nah, I don’t think so.” Josh stretched, yawning. “I don’t think he’s good enough, honestly.”

As if to prove his older brother’s point, some whooping sounded from across the court. Josh, Spencer, and Brendon looked over to see Jordan jumping around, arms raised victoriously, the ball wedged between two branches of a small tree behind the basketball hoop. Brendon laughed, tossing Jordan a quick salute, and Josh held up his middle finger.

“So maybe he’s not good enough,” Spencer agreed, as the three of them continued to watch as Jordan shook at the tree, trying to loosen the ball from its grip. “Let’s see who we all know for sure’s gonna be on the team. There’s me, y-”

Brendon interrupted. “You sure?”

Josh laughed as Spencer kicked at Brendon, dislodging him off of Josh’s legs, and Josh took the opportunity to pull his legs away, sitting up. “Well I’m definitely on the team,” he said proudly.

“And me,” Brendon added. “And I guess if not enough people try out then we might let you join, Spence.”

Spencer ignored Brendon’s comment and Josh’s snickering and counted on his fingers. “You two, me, Pete, maybe Andy?”

Josh shrugged. “Maybe. But he hurt his ankle last year, remember, he might not try out again.”

“Shit, that’s right.” Spencer chewed the inside of his cheek thoughtfully as he stared across the basketball court. “Shit, I hope we don’t get any new kids trying out.”

Josh groaned just as Brendon made a noise of remembrance. “I think we can bet on at least one new kid,” he said ominously. He waited to elaborate until Josh punched him on the shoulder.

“Who? How do you know already?” Spencer pressed.

Brendon beamed and leaned in conspiratorially. “My mom was talking to the coach’s wife, and apparently there’s a new kid coming to school this year who was like, the star of the team at his old school. His parents talked to the principal and then even the coach about scholarships and opportunities to play in state competitions and shit. Kid must be really into basketball.”

Spencer elbowed Josh in the side. “Looks like you’ll have to actually work to be in the spotlight this year, Dun. That smile and colorful hair and tattoo can only get you so far, talent will count in the end, you know.”

“Look who’s talking, I don’t even know how you made the team last year,” Josh replied.

“Don’t pay him any attention,” Brendon said, animatedly turning away from Spencer to face Josh instead. “The tattoo will always get you fans, for sure. The freshmen just love it. They all want you to get them one. You’re like the local bad boy!”

Brendon and Spencer dissolved into laughter. “Ha ha ha.” Josh rolled his eyes at them.

In all honestly, Josh wasn’t anywhere near the best player at the school. He knew this. He could play moderately well, better than Jordan and not as good as Peter, but he could hold his own. Even though he had no serious hopes of getting a college scholarship from his playing skills, he was one of the more popular basketball players at Worthington High School. He’d gotten in trouble for it at the time, but the pink hair really drew a lot of attention to him during the tryouts of his first high school year. That and the tattoo he had been too young to have gotten anywhere legally. That fact alone made the other students interested in him. Not only physically did he attract people, but Josh had an electric personality, too; you couldn’t be around him without some of his energy rubbing off on you. He was a natural born star of a small town high school basketball team, and he filled the role well, had filled it for three years. This would be his last year of high school and Josh had been planning all summer to continue on in the spotlight as he had been.

Except now he’d have some competition.

Bring it on, he thought to himself.

“You okay?” Brendon’s voice floated through the thoughts in Josh’s mind. “Someone looks scared! I said I think, I don’t know if this kid’s gonna try out or not.”

Spencer waved a hand. “Sure you don’t know. The kid you just described to us? He’ll try out, guaranteed.”

Josh shrugged. “Whatever. It’ll be fun. Just dye my hair again before school starts next week and presto, I’ll be right back at the top of the team.”

“If just dying your hair is the secret to being a good basketball player, we should put some color in Spence’s hair-”

“Enough already about my basketball skills, I know I suck!”

Jordan appeared suddenly behind Brendon, bouncing the ball down in Josh’s lap, and Josh let out a muffled huff. “Mom just texted me, Josh, supper’s almost ready.”

Josh sighed lazily, not so eager to get home out of the late afternoon heat as he had thought; it was easier to just lounge and sweat on the court with his friends. But then he remembered that his mom was making lasagna for dinner and he forced himself up off the ground, tucking the ball beneath his arm. “All right, let’s head out. See you guys later, wanna do this tomorrow?”

Brendon and Spencer stood up, too. “Nah, can’t. I got a dentist appointment,” Spencer said, dusting off his shorts.

“I don’t think I can make it either, J, my cousins are going back home to Washington tomorrow and you know how it is, I was barely able to sneak off today. God, I hate them,” Brendon whined. “I wish they at least didn’t have to share my room while they were here.”

Josh laughed, patting him on the shoulder. “Life sucks like that. Guess I’ll see you guys around then. Next time I see you we might be officially seniors.”

Jordan had already started off down the road on his skateboard, and Josh hurried to pick his bike up off the grass and straddle it, still balancing the ball under his arm.

“See ya later, Dun!” Spencer called as Josh followed after Jordan. Josh didn’t reply, but smiled lopsidedly to himself. He liked his friends. He hadn’t been able to hang out with them enough over the summer, and in that respect, he was extremely thankful for school to be starting again. And the basketball. Those two things made school just about worth it.

Any secondhand thoughts Josh might have had earlier concerning the new basketball player who would possibly challenge his social level on the team this year faded quickly and dissipated in the back of his mind as his anticipation for homemade lasagna with garlic bread grew the closer to home he pedaled.

 

Saturday morning, the last day of summer that Josh could actually sleep in, and his mind woke him up before the sun had even risen. Maybe it was doing him a favor and just getting him mentally prepared for the start of the school year. Josh cursed anyways.

He flopped around in bed for half an hour, sheets tangled around his legs, tapping pointlessly on his phone. None of his friends were awake and texting yet, and he’d lost his headphones over the summer, so no listening to music before his parents and siblings were up. Josh sighed dramatically out loud and rolled off the bed to the floor, feet thumping loudly. He made great effort to be a bit more quiet as he changed, pulling on some shorts over his boxers and a sleeveless top. It was already warm in his bedroom, even before the sun was up and with the ceiling fan spinning, and Josh figured it to be another scorching day. He eyed the basketball in the corner of his room. His friends couldn’t join him today, but he might as well shoot a few baskets by himself one last time before school started. At least shoot a few baskets before Jordan was awake and ready to come with him.

Josh didn’t like apples but grabbed one off the counter for a quick breakfast anyway. He tiptoed through the kitchen to the door leading to the garage, apple in one hand, ball tucked under the other. He grimaced at the loud whirring noise the garage door made when he hit the button, but he’d rather ride his bike to the court than walk, and his bike was shoved in the garage beside his dad’s car. Hopefully his family would just sleep through the noise and he could escape without notice.

Pedaling a bike while holding a basketball and eating an apple was a little harder than Josh had originally figured, but he got down the driveway all right and started off down the road, hoping for the best. The sun still wasn’t up yet, and the sky was a muted shade of blueish gray, with a hint of a warmer tone- orange or maybe pink- forming behind a row of rooftops.

This is…actually kind of sweet, Josh thought as he eyed the sky and munched his apple, bike swaying dangerously for a moment before he straightened it back out. It’s not too hot yet, and no one else is even awake. This is actually really sweet.

He panted a little to get up the small hill and then coasted down the other side, basketball court within view. A strip of light was beginning to color the tops of the trees behind the court, the rest of the ground still cast in shadow. Josh finished his apple and rolled his bike to a stop across the street from the court, aiming and tossing the core towards a trashcan beside the sidewalk. It bounced off the rim and landed in the grass. Josh was standing with one foot on the ground to balance himself still seated on his bike, contemplating whether or not an apple core would be considered littering, when he heard the sound of a basketball smacking the pavement. He looked up and peered through the mesh wire fence lining the court on the street side.

At the opposite end of the court, Josh could see another boy dribbling a ball, rhythm steady, hands and feet quick. The ball shot into the air and made a perfect basket, metal net clanging joyously. The boy was tall and lean with brown hair and looked pretty nondescript, at least from as far away as Josh was. He watched as the kid caught the ball again and dribbled it while jogging in a wide circle away from the hoop. He turned suddenly and threw the ball again, without half as much time as Josh thought was necessary to calculate where to aim, and Josh was startled to hear the same metal clanging as the ball went in the net. The kid jumped in victory and did a small, quick jig that made a lopsided smile appear on Josh’s face. He grabbed the ball again and began doing some fancy dribbling, faster than anything Josh had ever attempted before. It was slightly mesmerizing.

Josh didn’t realize how long he had been standing there, halfway on and halfway off his bike, just watching this kid do impressive things with a basketball, until his crotch started to hurt from leaning on the rail of his bike. He shifted, unsure as to whether he should take his own ball and shoot baskets on his own side of the court, or introduce himself to this kid and see if they could shoot baskets together. He glanced over at the kid once more. He had just collapsed cross-legged onto the court and was spinning the ball on his finger, his back to Josh. He hadn’t noticed him yet.

Now on any given day, Josh would have been pissed that another kid was using his basketball court. No one had a right to be out and about at this ungodly hour of the morning, on a Saturday no less! Josh conveniently excluded himself from that statement. The basketball court was normally deserted, so this was rarely a problem, but the one day when Josh was awake early, someone else happened to be there. Yes, any given day and Josh would have been pissed. Any given day, and Josh would have marched onto the court to play on the opposite side, oblivious to the other person there, in the hopes they would eventually get the hint and leave. So Josh himself was confused when instead of playing alone or joining the other kid, he secured the basketball under his arm once more and turned his bike around, pedaling away down the road as quietly as he could.

The sun was getting high enough in the sky now that the relative cool the shade had provided was disappearing. By the time Josh coasted to a stop on the driveway, the shade was completely gone and a sheen of sweat had broken out across his back. His dad was rummaging around in the garage, and Josh saw with some dismay that he was pulling out the lawn mower. Resolving himself to his fate, he climbed off his bike and walked it up the driveway.

His dad turned when Josh entered the garage and leaned his bike against the wall. “Hey there, son. You’re up early! Last day of summer, I thought you’d be sleeping in.”

“I thought so, too,” Josh said, bouncing his basketball off the side of the car.

His father frowned at him and shook his head as he finished pulling the lawn mower out into the driveway. “Josh, would you bring me a trash bag from the box by the back wall? Thanks!”

Josh retrieved a bag and trotted into the yard, handing it out to his dad, ready to make a dash inside. Just as he turned-

“How about you mowing the front lawn for me, hm, champ?” His dad patted his back as he passed Josh and headed into the garage. “Your mother and I will really appreciate it. I’m taking her to the grocery store later….” his voice trailed off into muffled sounds as he disappeared from sight.

Josh stared out at the ankle high grass, even taller weeds scattered across it. He dropped the basketball to the ground and watched it bounce a few spaces away and then roll to a stop in the grass. He sighed.

So much for Saturdays.

 

Josh heard Spencer before he saw him, Brendon pouncing on Josh’s back with arms slung around his shoulders half a second later.

“Yo, Dun! Seniors, man! Here we are, we made it!” Josh turned around from his locker awkwardly with Brendon still clinging to him to see Spencer butting past a group of freshmen standing nervously by the water fountain. He punched Josh amiably on the chest and Josh staggered a bit.

Dude, get off me. Brendon, you too, you weigh a fucking ton.”

“Whoa whoa, teachers, remember?” Brendon chided, finally releasing Josh as he glanced around the crowded school hallway.

Josh just rolled his eyes as he turned back to his locker, struggling with the lock to get the combination correct.

“It’s so loud in here no one can hear anyway,” Spencer said, raising his voice as an especially loud group of teachers hurried past. “Man, first day of twelfth grade. That’s something, isn’t it? Hey, Joshua, my man, you dyed your hair! It looks sick!”

Josh shook his head, hair flopping back and forth to show off the bright red color.

“It looks great,” Brendon agreed, ruffling Josh’s hair. “When did you get it done? It was plain ol’ ugly brown on Friday.”

“Yesterday,” Josh replied, smacking Brendon’s hand off his head. “My parents were so mad. They were hoping I’d forgotten about coloring it.”

“The principal will love this,” Spencer laughed.

Josh shrugged. “Whatever, she’s used to it by now.”

Brendon leaned against the locker next to Josh’s as Josh continued twisting at the lock. “Do we have the same homerooms?” he changed the subject, smoothing out the schedule sheet in his hands. “I’m in room…eighteen. Physics is first thing, aw shit.”

Spencer pulled out his own schedule. “Room sixteen. History’s first for me. God, I’m gonna hate this class.” He waved the sheet of paper in front of Josh’s face. “How ‘bout you, Joshie?”

Josh batted his hand away. “Do not call me that. I don’t know, I just want to get my damn locker op-”

He gave it an exceptionally hard tug and the door swung open, Josh stumbling backwards into Spencer.

“Voila,” Brendon said dramatically, giggling at Josh and Spencer’s mishap. “It’s opened.”

“Shut up, you guys are the worst,” Josh complained with a smile on his face, shoving his bag in his locker as he decided to unpack his things later. They had classes to get to now. He grabbed his books from his bag and rummaged in his pocket for his schedule just as the first bell rang, students in the hall scampering for their classrooms.

Brendon patted Josh on the shoulder. “I gotta go, catch up with you later. Maybe I’ll see you in my homeroom. We all have precalculus during second hour though I think, so I’ll definitely see you guys then!” He slipped away into the crowd and down the hall.

Spencer knocked Josh’s books out of his hands before hurrying off in the opposite direction, waving over his shoulder. Josh glared after him but couldn’t help chuckling to himself. He picked up his things and began walking down the hall as he scanned the schedule sheet for the number of his homeroom. The hallway was emptying quickly, and Josh sighed loudly as he realized his homeroom was on the second floor. He bolted for the staircase and went up two steps at a time.

The last bell rang just as Josh burst into the classroom in a moderately disheveled state, struggling to keep a grip on his books and shoelace halfway undone, and he could see a red strand of hair slipping in front of his eyes. The teacher standing at the front of the room, a tall, trim woman with blond hair pulled back in a short braid and glasses with a pattern on the side gave him a hard look. The classroom was quiet except for Josh’s labored breathing, and he blushed a bright shade of pink he was sure probably almost matched his hair. He mumbled an apology for being almost late and made his way through the desks to the only remaining empty seat, in the middle of the room. Josh looked to the sky and sighed inwardly- of fucking course. How convenient. He slipped quickly into the seat and glared threateningly at the boy next to him who looked like he was about to laugh.

Despite the morning’s rough start, the rest of Josh’s classes that day went smoothly. Since it was the first day, none of the teachers gave any homework, except for the precalculus teacher. After joining his friends in precalculus, Josh went separately to his history class, meeting up with them again at lunch. The three of them sat with some of Spencer’s other friends, kids who lived in his neighborhood. Josh remembered from last year that their names were Ryan and Joe, and he smiled and talked with them a bit, but for the most part he spent his lunch break tuned out of the conversation and looking around the cafeteria, tapping his hands against the table in a made-up beat. Brendon gave him a funny look, and Josh knew he was acting restless, but truth was he was restless. This year’s basketball tryouts weren’t until Thursday, and Josh didn’t know how he was supposed to wait that long to just try out for the team. Granted, he already knew he would make it, but the wait still didn’t help his anxiety any.

“You cool?” Brendon asked quietly from across the table as Spencer was telling an animated story about the time his foot got run over by a car.

Josh shrugged nonchalantly. “Yeah, I’m cool.” He smiled appreciatively before looking away again out at the cafeteria. It was loud and crowded and hot and Josh felt a bit of discomfort forming in the back of his chest, but he forced the feeling back down. Snippets of conversations floated to his ears, a girl’s perfume wafted by as she passed their table, a pair of brown eyes met his from across the room. Josh turned away from the rest of the cafeteria and tuned back into the conversation at his own table, rubbing at his head, hair sticking up in the place he’d just touched. Spencer and Joe were laughing loudly at something Ryan had just said, and Brendon was sitting next to Ryan with his arms crossed in front of his chest, glancing nervously at Ryan. Josh squinted his eyes slightly but was too distracted by Spencer’s booming laugh to give it much thought. He was certain Spencer was the loudest kid in the entire cafeteria.

The classes after lunch dragged on, Spanish especially for Josh; he hated it. He finally felt like he could breathe again when the last class of the day turned out to be music. He had been itching all summer to get his hands on that drum set. Besides the basketball, music was what Josh looked forward to most at school.

The day eventually came to an end and Josh met up with Brendon outside by the bike rack. Brendon explained that Joe had rushed off to an after school job and Spencer had gone with Ryan to McDonald’s for ice cream to celebrate the first day of senior year.

“Spence said we could meet them there. Wanna go?”

Josh unlocked his bike from the rack and pulled it out from the tangle of bikes around his. He shrugged. “Fine with me. You wanna go?”

Brendon shrugged, too, though his cheeks seemed a little more flushed than the afternoon heat could be blamed for. Josh made a face. “Dude, you’ve still got the hots for Ryan, I can tell.”

Brendon’s face flushed more. “I do not, I just want a fucking frappe, okay, is that all right with you?”

Josh couldn’t help but to laugh. “Okay, that’s all right with me. Let’s go get a fucking frappe then.”

He climbed onto his bike and coasted down the sidewalk away from Brendon before he could punch him or something, looking over his shoulder to see Brendon glaring after him as he dug his own bike out of the rack. Josh stood up on the pedals and turned his eyes back to the sidewalk in front of him, swerving to keep from hitting a kid that hadn’t moved out of his way fast enough. He was about to stop and apologize when Brendon raced past, hand darting out to muss up Josh’s hair, and Josh found himself pedaling after his friend.

“I’ll beat you there!” Brendon called over his shoulder.

“Yeah, I bet you will!” Josh yelled back, voice hinting.

Brendon held up his middle finger without bothering to turn around, and Josh smiled.