High school junior Berlin Webber is about to reap the fruits of his hard work and land a football scholarship—if he can keep his sexuality a secret from his best friend, Trent, and their homophobic coach. Then Hiroku Hayashi swerves into the high school parking lot on his tricked-out motorcycle like some sexy comic book villain, and Berlin knows he doesn’t stand a chance.
Hiroku is fleeing his sophisticated urban scene to recover from drug addiction and an abusive relationship when he arrives in Berlin’s small Texas ranch town. Initially sarcastic and aloof, Hiroku finds in Berlin a steady, supportive friend who soon becomes more. As Hiroku and Berlin’s romance blossoms, they take greater risks to be together. But when a horrific act of violence tears them apart, they both must look bigotry in the face. While Berlin has always turned to his faith for strength, Hiroku dives into increasingly dangerous ways of coping, pushing them in opposite directions just when they need each other most.
Two very different young men search for the bravery to be true to themselves, the courage to heal, and the strength to go on when things seem darkest. But is it enough to bring them back together?
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One hundred and eighty days until the end of junior year and I’m already counting down. Not the best thought to be having on the first day of school.
“Berlin, check out the tits on that one.”
Trent knocks my shoulder and points to a girl walking by where we sit on the tailgate of my pickup truck in the high school parking lot. He eyes up the freshmen, or fresh meat as he calls them, while I pretend to do the same.
I grunt in appreciation, even though breasts don’t do it for me. Neither do girls, for that matter. But my reputation at Lowry High depends on me being a normal red-blooded American male. I don’t know for sure if I’m gay or not, but judging from my browser history this summer, it’s seeming more and more likely.
“I’d hit that in a minute,” Trent says, and I grunt again like a bullfrog. Ribbit, ribbit. Trent and I have been friends since fifth grade when we started playing peewee football together. He knows pretty much everything about me. Except this. I’ve been hiding it from everyone—my team, my friends, my dad, my girlfriend Kayla.
Kayla’s breasts, according to Trent, are prime.
I scan the parking lot for Kayla’s blonde head, and the whine of a motorcycle catches my attention. I point in that direction, noticing the bike first, a new Kawasaki Ninja, black with neon green fairings, then the driver. He’s in all black—jeans, T-shirt, high-tops, even his full-face black helmet. Like a dark, sexy comic book villain.
“Check out the crotch rocket,” Trent sneers. He sounds jealous.
The guy docks his bike and takes off his helmet. I’ve never seen him before—that much I know. I’ve never seen anyone like him before.
His hair’s long on one side, black and shiny. The other side’s buzzed close to his scalp, punk rock. The way his hair falls over his face reminds me of our horses and how their forelocks will sometimes hide one eye.
The new kid hitches up his tightfitting jeans and slings his backpack, also black, over one shoulder, then struts across the parking lot like he already knows where he’s going. He’s slim-hipped but on the tall side, an inch or two shorter than me. I’m full-on checking him out when I catch myself doing it and force my eyes away.
I have to be more careful.
Trent sizes him up like he’s surveying the field, about to throw a pass, or more likely, preparing to pounce. “The fuck….” he mutters.
I glance back at the new kid and see what caught Trent’s attention. It isn’t just the haircut, which I’ve never seen on anyone in real life, or the piercings climbing up his ear like rungs on a ladder. It isn’t even the fact that he’s Asian, which is pretty rare around these parts. It’s his eyes. He’s wearing eyeliner, thick and black, like one of those Egyptian pharaohs. And he’s smoking hot. Big, dark eyes, smooth skin, and a naturally pouty mouth. There’s a pucker just above his upper lip that draws me in. My lower half starts to ache in an awful way. I should stop staring, but I can’t tear my eyes away.
The new kid glances over at us: Trent first and then me. He looks bored, but then his eyes lock with mine, and there’s something there. At least, I feel it, under my skin and racing through my veins like an itchy, full-body fever.
“Aw hell no,” Trent growls. He must be reading my mind. I’m about to soil myself, but it’s not me he’s talking about. His eyes are still on the new kid’s back.
To Trent, a boy wearing eyeliner is an unlit firecracker on the Fourth of July.
A surge of fear races through me. What is this kid thinking, cruising into the Lowry Lions’ den wearing eyeliner like it’s New York City? Lowry might only be a stone’s throw from Austin, but it’s full-on Texas when it comes to its small-town prejudices. He must know that.
Trent jumps up like he’s going to follow him and whoop his ass right then. I grab his muscled arm to steady him, same as I’ve been doing on the football field since peewee league.
“Coach wouldn’t want us starting trouble on the first day of school,” I warn him. I say us, but it’s Trent who starts the trouble. I mostly try to stay out of it.
“Fuck if I’m going to let that faggot wear makeup in my house.”
I shake my head at that. Everyone’s a faggot to Trent—the geeks, the band nerds, the arts department… basically any guy who doesn’t play sports, and even some of the ones who do. Not me, though. I’ve somehow managed to dodge his faggot detector all these years, which is a relief. And also terrifying. I live with a constant dread that Trent will one day find out my secret and turn on me.
“You have the whole school year to sort it out.” I keep my voice even-keeled. If he knew how I really felt, he’d get suspicious. “He’ll figure out soon enough what’s what.”
Trent massages his fist like it has a mind of its own. Maybe it does. As our quarterback, his hands are magic on the field. He has so much talent and potential. If only his dad were a little nicer to him, maybe Trent would lighten up and not be such an asshole all the time.
As for me, my college plans depend on a football scholarship, which means I have to keep my sexuality to myself if I want to stay on the team and in the good graces of Trent and his dad, Coach Cross, the head of our high school’s football program.
It’s a tricky situation.
I lose sight of the new kid as Kayla and Madison, Trent’s girlfriend, come along. Kayla throws her bare arms around my neck and pulls me in for a kiss. She’s a little heavy-handed with the perfume. I always smell like a candy store after hugging her. Despite her love of PDAs, we’ve only ever made it to second base. Her parents are pretty conservative, and she’s saving herself for marriage. I respect her for that. It’s also part of the reason we work as a couple. She praises me for my willingness to wait, which takes some of the pressure off me. And we have a lot in common—same friends, same Christian upbringing, same small-town values and love of football….
“I missed you so much, teddy bear,” Kayla says in between wet, smeary kisses. Her lip gloss tastes like fruit punch, and instead of enjoying our reunion, I’m trying to figure out which kind of fruit that is.
“I missed you too.” I hug her tightly. It isn’t a lie. We’re friends, after all.
Next to us, Trent and Madison grope each other like nobody’s watching. They’re on and off again, but from the looks of it, it’s back on. At least Madison keeps Trent occupied and off my back.
“We’re heading in,” I tell them, picking up my backpack and slinging it over my shoulder. I guide Kayla’s back with my free hand.
“See you in third,” Trent calls. His stare follows me across the parking lot. Sometimes when he looks at me like that, it makes me nervous, like he suspects something. But it’s probably just my guilty conscience. I hate the lying and sneaking around, but I don’t see any other option.
Kayla does most of the talking on our way in to school. I say just enough to let her know I’m listening. It’s safer that way. I don’t want to accidentally let the wrong thing slip out. I scan the hallways for the new kid, but I don’t see him anywhere.
Kayla meets up with her girlfriends at her locker, and I make my way over to the administration building, where I’m an office aide during first period. It’s one of the perks of being a football player. Our fall semesters are pretty light, and we’re allowed to miss the first three periods if we have a late practice the night before. I try not to take advantage of it too much. I know it’s unfair, but I didn’t write the rules.
The head secretary gives me the job of sorting and stapling welcome packets for the freshmen. They’ll be handed out in homeroom, which is at the end of the day.
As I sort I keep thinking about the new kid. It’s only a matter of time before Trent catches up with him, and I can’t go around protecting every so-called faggot at Lowry High School. Maybe the new kid will fall in with the drama department. Not that they can offer him much protection, but Trent tends to leave the herds alone. It’s only when one gets left behind like a wounded wildebeest that he pounces.
The new kid doesn’t seem wounded, though, just out of place. Like his tour van up and left town without him. Even without the makeup, I doubt he’d ever fit in.
I glance up and there he is. My neck burns like I’ve been out in the sun all day, and my face is probably cherry red too. My blood’s always rushing to the places it shouldn’t. It’s probably racist of me to think it, but up close he looks like an anime character, especially with the makeup and crazy hairdo. The boys in anime and manga are pretty hot, one of the reasons I’m a fan.
“May I have a student code of conduct?” he asks, all proper-like. His voice is smooth as river rocks. He sounds bored.
The rulebooks are part of the freshmen packets, so I hand him one. I finally get up the nerve to look him in the eye, but he seems distracted. He sits in one of the hard plastic chairs, elbows on his knees, thumbing through the book. His dark eyebrows draw together in the center, forming a wingspan across his forehead. The muscles in his arms are well-defined, even though he’s a little on the skinny side. When he finds what he’s looking for, he marks the page with a pink referral slip and snaps it shut. He catches me staring at him. My neck gets hot again, and I try to think up something to say.
“Awful early in the school year to be getting a referral,” I tell him. He must have gotten it in the hallway before class even started.
“Are you a hall monitor?” he asks.
The hall monitors at Lowry are teachers, not students. Then I realize he’s probably making fun of me. His lip curls up on one side, drawing my attention to his mouth, and I forget what we were even talking about.
“Mr. Hayashi?” Mrs. Potts calls from her office. She’s the juniors’ guidance counselor, which means we’re the same year. He strolls over to her office, casual and cool. He wears those skinny jeans well, kind of low on his hips. Broad shoulders, cute round butt. He must play sports—soccer or maybe track. Black suits him, I think, but he’d probably look good in whatever he wore.
He doesn’t close the door behind him, so I move in a little closer. I’m not a gossip, but I do pick up some helpful tidbits from working in the front office. It’s not really eavesdropping. I just want to know more about this kid. Where’d he come from? What’s he doing here? Is he going to stay? I hope so. But maybe he’s not even gay. Maybe he just wears eyeliner as part of his getup. Like a rock star or a pirate. Maybe I’m not even gay.
The ache from down below disagrees.
His voice is too low for me to hear. Mrs. Potts is easier to make out. I mess with the copier just outside her office to hear them better. Whatever he did to get a referral must have been small potatoes. Mrs. Potts is using her nice voice.
“I don’t understand… I suppose you didn’t….”
I edge in closer.
“Lowry can be a fresh start for you, Mr. Hayashi. Your parents and I both want you to succeed here. You wouldn’t want to give other students the wrong impression.”
“What impression is that?” he asks in a deadened tone.
Mrs. Potts is quiet for a moment. “All I’m saying is you might want to try a little harder to blend in, for your own sake.”
Yes, Mrs. Potts, I want to say. Good advice.
“With all due respect,” he says, “I don’t want to blend in. I checked the dress code and there’s no rule against eyeliner. If there’s nothing else, I’d like to go to class.”
He got a referral for breaking the dress code? What teacher would make a big deal about eyeliner? Then I know who it was: Trent’s dad, Coach Cross.
I hear the squeak of Mrs. Potts rising from her chair and know she’s making her way to the front of the desk to sit on the edge and get real with him. This is my third semester as an office aide. I know Mrs. Potts’s go-to play.
“Hiroku,” she says, a little softer this time. “I know you’ve had a difficult summer. Your mother told me a bit about all you’ve been through. Your family moved to Lowry so you could start over. I think you owe it to them to give it a try, don’t you?”
Hiroku Hayashi. I try saying his name under my breath; it makes my mouth feel clumsy. It’s strange, just like everything else about him. And kind of hot too. Mrs. Potts made it seem like he got into trouble at his old school. Maybe he started a fire or brought a weapon to school. He seems like a deviant in that way. Maybe he got expelled and had to move to a new county.
I hear shuffling in the room and jump back to my post at the counter just as Hiroku comes strolling out of the office. He glances over like he knows I’ve been listening. But if he wants to survive Lowry High, he needs to try fitting in. I should know. I’m a pro at it.
“Mrs. Potts is right,” I tell him. “Your look won’t work here.”
He stops and turns a little, slides up to the counter so we’re facing each other. He tilts his head and looks at me from under his hair, smirks like I made a joke. Maybe he knifed someone at his old school. He looks kind of insane.
“How about you, cowboy?” he says in a deep, husky voice that goes straight to my balls. “Is that look working for you?” My own throat goes dry as the desert as his eyes rake over me, from my waist to my chest and shoulders, finally my eyes. No guy has ever looked at me like that before. My junk starts throbbing again and I’m glad the counter’s between us, giving me some cover. Something about this kid puts me in a tailspin.
He purses his lips and raises one eyebrow. “Well, maybe it is working. For me, at least.” The smirk is still on his face when he leaves the office. He has a light step, like a cat. I didn’t hear him come in, and I don’t hear him leave. I take a deep breath and tell my body to calm the hell down.
He’s a dude. I shouldn’t want him like that.
But I do.
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Laura Lascarso strives to inspire more questions than answers in her fiction and believes in the power of stories to heal and transform a society. She lives in North Florida with her darling husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. Her debut novel, Counting Backwards (Simon & Schuster 2012) won the Florida Book Award gold medal for young adult literature.
For social critiques, writer puns, and Parks and Rec gifs, follow her on Twitter @lauralascarso
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