Jeremy slammed the basketball into the gym wall and caught it on the rebound. The booming smack of the ball colliding with the old cinder block bricks was satisfying in a way that nothing else in his day had been. After catching the ball he scooted a couple of steps to the left — as much for the sake of moving as to recenter himself — and hurled the ball at the wall again.
This whole day has been shit.
The nightmares had made for a bad enough start. Mr. Noyes’ blatant racism had piled onto that and pissed Jeremy off enough that he’d had to go find somewhere quieter to cool down. Somewhere quieter. In a library! Jeremy scowled. He had to jog to grab the basketball up from where it had rebounded to this time. He didn’t bother recentering before slamming the ball into the gym wall again.
Hiding out in the stacks at the library had seemed to be working. At least, it had until Jacob showed up.
Jeremy knew Jacob from the church youth group. Otherwise they would probably never have even met each other. Which was, in Jeremy’s opinion, the biggest argument against attending church he could think of. Because Jacob was a dick. Jacob liked to act like a big shot, but he wasn’t.
Jeremy’s friend Shantaya — another member of the church youth group — went to the same school as Jacob, and she had told Jeremy that Jacob was full of it plenty of times. Her sister was a cheerleader and actually hung out with the popular kids. According to Shantaya, though, Jacob was the leader of what she called the ‘second-stringer clique.’ Those were the kids that didn’t have what it took to be sports stars and bullied the losers and geeks to make themselves feel bigger than they were.
Of course, that made the fact that Jacob liked to pick on him a pretty severe blow to Jeremy’s ego. He wasn’t afraid to admit — at least to anyone he was confident wouldn’t tell her, which was basically just himself — that he had a pretty serious crush on Shantaya’s sister, Janiqua. It didn’t help his ego any that he’d always known she was totally out of his league. But knowing that she was one of the popular crowd — who were just this amorphous, intimidating blob in his head since he’d never met any of them other than Janiqua herself — while he was clearly one of the losers and geeks by merit of being Jacob’s preferred target among the church youth..? That actively stung.
And today, when he’d caught Jacob randomly swapping books between shelves in the library — because he obviously has nothing better to do than make life shit for other people while he waits for his tutor — Jeremy had finally snapped. After all, he was the one who was going to have to go through all the stacks trying to find everything Jacob had messed up and put it back. And of course the one time — the one time — he gave Jacob a piece of his mind, Mr. Noyes had to be the librarian on duty.
Okay, sure, I shouldn’t have started yelling, Jeremy admitted to himself. And backing Jacob into a shelf while threatening to twist his thumbs off had probably been a bit much. But come on, Jeremy mentally protested. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not like that. Even if Jacob would’ve deserved it. Jeremy threw the ball again, but this time without any fervor. The sound it made when it hit the wall wasn’t satisfying at all, and the rapid dribbling it made when it hit the floor and bounced away was downright pathetic.
Jeremy let the ball go. He walked up to the wall, turned, and sat with his back against it. He buried his face in his hands, then ran them through his hair and leaned back so he could stare at the ceiling. “Shit,” he muttered. From his friends, Jeremy knew that stuff like ‘shit’ and ‘crap’ didn’t even count as swearing anymore. From his mom, though, Jeremy knew it totally did. And swearing in church — even if it was the gym in the church’s basement, and not the sanctuary or anything — just left him feeling guilty.
I’ve got to apologize to Benny.
Or maybe that was why he felt guilty. After getting thrown out of the library, Jeremy hadn’t known what to do. He knew his mom would freak out when she heard he’d been fighting. His dad probably would’ve given him a stern talking to for doing it in public, all about how ‘the angry black man’ was a stereotype that he couldn’t afford to be cast into if he ever wanted to be taken seriously in life — not to mention how dangerous it could be, what with all the prejudice, racism, and general bullshit in the world. In any case, Jeremy’s emotions had still been too raw and too volatile for him to face that. The thought of yelling at his folks like he’d yelled at Jacob was horrifying, but Jeremy had been all too aware that he might’ve done it.
After all, it wasn’t like he’d meant to get in Jacob’s face. He couldn’t even quite remember how he’d gotten there, actually. It sure hadn’t been because of a conscious, rational decision to confront Jacob’s dickery.
So instead of going home after Mr. Noyes threw him out of the library, Jeremy had gone to the only other place he could think of. He’d run to Benny’s house.
Benny was Jeremy’s friend. Actually, Benny was everyone’s friend, including Jacob’s. He was also the unofficial leader of the church youth group. Not in a ‘let’s hold hands and sing Kumbaya’ sort of a way, but in that Benny always had something they could do and always managed to get someone enthusiastic about it. Benny got them organized for events, kept everyone from everybody else’s throats if an argument broke out, served as a moderator when emotions ran high, and gave a shoulder or an ear to anyone who needed it. In fact, back when Jeremy had been ‘that weird home schooled kid’ that nobody knew, Benny had been the one to walk up to Jeremy’s folks and ask if Jeremy could hang out after church. And Benny had been the one to keep him engaged at the youth group until the others started to get to know him. And Benny had done all that before he’d even gotten to know Jeremy, himself.
Basically, Benny was a fifties nostalgiac’s dream of what a pastor’s son should be, except he was a pastor’s nephew instead. He even had the blond hair, blue eyes, chiseled jaw, broad shoulders and wide, friendly smile for the part. At one point or another in his high school career he’d been a second stringer for the school’s football and track teams — currently football again — but never a part of the ‘second string clique’ because he’d been in with the geeks, since he’d been a member in good standing of the chess club since his freshman year.
Anyway, after Jeremy ran to his house Benny had listened when Jeremy spilled everything. Then Benny offered to hang with him at the church gym — because Benny had spare keys to the church since he was always helping his uncle manage something or other — where Jeremy could burn off some steam playing basketball until he got his equilibrium enough to face his parents. And that had gone great, until Jeremy had started getting frustrated with his arm being messed up.
They hadn’t even been playing competitively: Jeremy had been shooting three pointers while Benny fielded the rebounds back to him. And then…
And then I blew up at him, Jeremy thought. He was still breathing heavy from trying to burn off his anger and frustration, but now his chest tightened with something like the panic he’d felt at the thought of facing his parents. Because he hadn’t just blown up at Benny about basketball. In the moment it had been all weird and removed, like it was someone else doing it — but now that he’d slowed down enough to try and remember how it had happened, it was all coming back.
Holy crap. He’d blown up at Benny about Janiqua. About how she was totally enamored with him, and he was too dense to notice it, and he needed to get it through his thick ass skull that she liked him and either do something about it or turn her down, because no one else had a freaking chance as long as she was pining after him — so why would anyone else even bother trying when they were one hundred percent sure to get shot down?
Benny had taken it in stride. He’d held up his hands pacifyingly. He’d spoken calmly. He’d offered to give Jeremy his space, and told him to hang out as long as he wanted. And he said he’d stick around in case Jeremy wanted to talk after he’d calmed down. And then Benny’d left the gym.
“Aw, fuck,” Jeremy whispered. ‘Fuck’ was probably the worst word he knew, and that was just because he’d read it in a book once. He listened to the quiet word in the quiet gym and swallowed. Nope, not feeling guilty about cursing in church, he concluded. He was definitely feeling guilty about yelling at Benny, though. Worse, there was a sick, twisty fear growing in the pit of his stomach. Benny was definitely smart enough to figure out that Jeremy was the one who didn’t have a freaking chance with Benny in the way — and just enough of a bleeding heart to try and do something about it. And wouldn’t that just be the cherry on top of the nightmare this weekend was turning into?
“Yo,” someone called from the gym door. Jeremy jumped, then scrambled to his feet. Benny was poking his head in the door. “It got quiet, so I thought I’d check on you man. You calmed down now?”
Jeremy nodded. “Yeah,” he said shamefacedly. “Look, Benny, I’m… I’m sorry about yelling,” He hastily forced out. A teeny, tiny, angry part of him riled up at the apology, as though to suggest that he should’ve started throwing punches instead. Jeremy hastily shoved that down. He didn’t know what was going on with himself, but he was starting to get scared: this wasn’t like him. “And about what I was yelling about…”
“Hey,” Benny said. He stepped fully into the gym. “It’s okay. You had one heck of a bad day, and things spilled over. It happens. We’re cool. Right?”
“Yeah,” Jeremy agreed with a sigh of relief. Jeremy had not wanted to talk to Benny about the stuff he’d been yelling at him about.
“Good,” said Benny. “‘Cause I am your friend, Jer. But I can still get that sometimes I’m not the one you need to talk to, you know?”
Oh no, Jeremy thought. He’s done something to try and fix things somehow. “Yeah,” he said nervously.
Benny nodded. “Okay. Good. But anyway, what I’m trying to get to is that Lewis called while I was upstairs. I told him that I was hanging out with you, and that you’d had a rough day — no details, just that you were kinda angry and taking it out on the court, you know? Anyway, he and Demonte decided to come over for solidarity, or at least a game of two on two. And then one thing led to another, and, well…” He looked at least a little apologetic. “Most of the gang’s either shown up or is on their way over. I didn’t want you to go into the community hall and get caught off guard: I’ve made sure they know you’ve needed some space, okay? But I think we’re going to have an unofficial lock in, so hey: you won’t have to talk to your folks until tomorrow, and I’ll take the flak for you being incommunicado tonight. Only, if you do need to talk, don’t hesitate. You’ve got friends here.”
On the surface, it was a nice gesture. Jeremy should have been appreciative. He knew that. He even thought he was inclined to be appreciative. But somehow that didn’t stop him from stepping forward and grabbing Benny by the front of his shirt. Benny was bigger than Jeremy, but Jeremy had no trouble hauling him in close.
“If I have to spend the night locked in a building with Jacob because you invited everyone over,” Jeremy growled, “I swear I will rip out your tongue and strangle you to death with it.”
“What?” Benny yelped. “Whoa. No. Everybody who came knew better than to invite him, okay? Your friends are showing up because you need some kind of support, man, and I didn’t know what else would help.”
Jeremy let go of Benny and staggered back a step. “Right,” he said. He was more than a little horrified of how quickly his temper had flared — and how violently. That’s not me! “I’m sorry, Benny. I just… I’m sorry.”
“Hey,” Benny said. He sounded about as worried as Jeremy felt frightened. “It’s okay. But… are you okay? I mean, that dog last night didn’t have rabies or something, did it?”
Jeremy barked a laugh despite himself. “I… I dunno,” he admitted. His arm was throbbing again, but it had been doing that off and on all day. Usually after he’d gotten tense from trying not to blow his lid at someone, so that was probably just because it was hurt and he was putting strain on it. What had the doctors told him to watch out for? Fever, muscle aches, tingling or twitching around the bite… Violent mood swings hadn’t been on the list of symptoms he was supposed to keep an eye out for, and he hadn’t felt like he had a fever, but the muscle aches were dead on. “Maybe,” Jeremy said. “I don’t think so, though.” One symptom on the list probably didn’t mean anything. “I mean: my arm hurts and they said to watch out for muscle aches, but I have just been throwing the ball around… and it was just bitten last night. Shooting hoops was probably dumb of me.”
“Okay,” Benny said. “Just take it easy tonight, alright? And if you feel any worse, you tell someone. We can get you back to the hospital if you need it, Jer. I’m pretty sure Lewis drove.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy acceded. “I will.” Then he stepped around Benny and into the hall. He glanced at the door to the community hall, but he wasn’t up for dealing with anyone else yet. He turned and walked down the hallway he was in, instead.
“Jer?” Benny called after him.
Jeremy turned. “It’s fine,” he said. “I’m just tired, and I don’t want to snap at anyone else. I’m going to go sit somewhere quiet for a bit and just… rest. Alright?”
Benny still looked worried, but he nodded. “Okay, Jer,” he said. Jeremy turned and started walking away again. “Just don’t forget we’re here for you if you need us,” a very worried Benny very quietly concluded.