Charlie

by Hamen Cheese

Chapter 5: I Am NOT Gay

Lucas Crawford was evil. If you don't believe me, you will by the time I've told you everything. You remember Luke right? He's that idiot basketball player that I had to deal with, the one who made all those crude remarks about fags being in the arts table. Yeah, that's the one.

As a basketball player, he had to train like everyone else during our Saturday training sessions. Unlike our usual training though, every sport was pretty much in the gym on Saturday. On weekdays, it's usually just a few sports at a time while other students had to attend classes. However, there were no classes on Saturday so the gym was much more occupied than normal, a reflection of our dedication to be great in our fields.

Our school's gym wasn't so much a gym as a coliseum. It was a massive training center where there were three basketball courts, four badminton/volleyball courts, three matted sections for the martial arts sports, and one matted section dedicated to the cheering squad and gymnastics (which were pretty much the same in our school). There were four locker rooms for each gender and cafes on either side of the gym that had subsidized food and drinks for the members of the varsity teams, which was nearly everyone that went to the gym that day. All this was separate from the other gym we used strictly for interschool competitions.

At Southmore, we really did take sports seriously.

Charlie sat at the bleachers during every training session. He'd head over there as soon as I disappear into the lockers and he'd wait for me to be done with training. The bleachers were mostly empty during training except for a few scattered spectators, mostly people cheering for their boyfriends or girlfriends. I suppose it was a little odd that Charlie was there cheering for me. I never really thought about it. He never really did anything but watch. Every now and then he would bring a book to read but most of the time he just sat there and waited for me to finish.

I told him he didn't have to sit there all the time to wait for me. As much as it felt good to know that my best friend was there supporting me, I didn't want him to get bored out of his mind. I also didn't want him wasting away his Saturdays for me. However, he said he didn't mind at all. He even seemed eager to be there.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one to notice.

A few weeks after our Saturday trainings started, Charlie couldn't come. Mrs. C wanted to spend the day with him ("But I'm with you every day at home," he protested). Apparently being together at home wasn't the same as spending time together. Who would have thought?

Anyway, while they were out having lunch, watching a movie, or heavens forbid window shopping, I went to training on my own.

"Where's your other half?" my defender asked as I slowly dribbled the ball closer to the net.

"My other half?" I replied twisting on one foot. I leapt, fading away for a three point shot – nothing but net.

"You know, your boyfriend," Luke continued.

I spared him a glance as I ran back down the court. He followed me almost as if he was more interested to catch me than to catch the ball.

"Are you talking about Charlie?" I asked coldly.

A smug look came over Luke's face that clearly said one thing: I knew it. "Yeah, so where is he?"

"He's not my boyfriend," I replied as the ball got passed to me, like it always did. Everyone knew I was the best shooter. "And he's out, spending some time with his mom." That was the wrong thing to say apparently.

"Oh, so he's with mommy now eh?" Luke bellowed loudly. I could have sworn he was sneering. "Spending some time with dear old mommy? Getting some tips perhaps?"

I shot the ball and once again, it went in without a hitch. "What is that supposed to mean?" I asked as I made my way down the court. I sprinted, managed to grab the ball, turned, scored once more.

"Crawford!" Coach Henry bellowed. "You're supposed to be guarding Hampton!"

"I am, Coach!" Luke yelled and in a much softer voice just loud enough for me to hear, "oh, I am." He looked right at me as his lips curled into a wicked grin.

"And what is that supposed to mean?" I felt a little more guarded with is tone and my body was taking a more defensive stance.

"Don't you think it's weird," he continued as we danced our way to the other side, "that he's following you around all the time?"

"We're best friends," I said without hesitation, although I could feel my attention drifting a little away from the game.

"Best friends, huh? Must be really close friends then."

"We're tight like brothers," I said as I made a grab for the ball but somehow, I missed it and the other guy probably not believing his luck charged to the other side and scored.

Apparently, everyone else couldn't believe it too as they all stood there gawking at me.

"Hampton! What's wrong with you?" Coach bellowed.

"Sorry Coach. I got distracted." I went over to the other side in preparation to receive the ball from out of bounds.

"You know," Luke scoffed. "If I didn't know better..."

Whatever he was about to say, he was unable to finish. As soon as the ball was thrown to me, I turned it in my hand as though to pass it from behind. Luke who was more interested in talking to me than caring for where the ball was didn't even notice that the ball wasn't headed for my teammate but rather...

"Hampton, where's your head at?" Coach bellowed as he started walking over. Now, Coach Henry is one person you did not want walking towards you with a scowl. He's one of those people that walk the talk. He had the physique to back up his bellowing roars. Many likened him to The Terminator except Arnold was like his little brother in size. His hair free head was a clear testament of his developed muscles – they were so awesome they squashed hair follicles between them. Anything less than the size of a double-decker bus got out of his way.

"Sorry Coach," I said. "I thought he'd get out of the way."

Luke, pale faced on the floor, hands between his legs and grasping tightly, glared up at me. I'm sure he would have said something if he wasn't putting forth all his effort to make the pain go away. I smirked at him just before Coach pulled him to his feet with one finger, his hands still protecting his nether regions. At that point, I tried to look as concerned as possible.

"Why didn't you get out of the way?!" Coach roared at Luke. Luke looked disbelievingly at Coach and released a whimper of protest. "No excuses! You're benched! Young! Take Crawford to the benches. And get Lee in here, now!"

Andrew Young, the gentle giant in our team, took Luke's arm from the coach. Andrew was nearly as big as the coach (though a few decades behind in muscle) so he had no trouble supporting Luke's weight as the latter limped to the sides.

"What are you all gawking at?!" the Coach yelled back. "Get your head in the game!"

Needless to say, I felt much better after that.

"Dude, you did not accidentally hit his balls," Michael Lee, my new assigned guard said. He was this short somewhat hyperactive guy with quick feet that could turn circles around our opponents. His size and childlike demeanor earned him the fond nickname "Mikee".

"No, I didn't," I grinned.

He flinched as though he had felt echoes of the pain. "So, what did he do to piss you off?"

"Just said some shit about Charlie."

"Aah, Charlie," he smiled.

I gave him a pointed look. "Why, do you have something to say about Charlie?"

"What, me? No! Of course not," he said. I could have sworn his hands slowly moved protectively towards his shorts. "Charlie's cool. He's friends with my sister."

"He's friends with Angela?" I asked surprised.

"Well not friends friends. I've seen them talking."

I smiled. "So, you don't mind that Charlie's interested in your sister?"

He gave me a confused look just before he tried a fast break to their side. I managed to steal the ball from him, eliciting the expected groan of disappointment. Normally, I would have done my own fast break but I was more interested in continuing the conversation so I passed it to someone else who was startled as though he never in his wildest dreams expected me to ever pass the ball to him of all people.

"I don't think Charlie's interested in her that way," Mikee said when he noticed I no longer had the ball.

"Why? You don't think Charlie's good enough for your sister?"

"No, of course not, dude." He faltered as I gave him a glare. "No, I don't mean he's not good enough. I told you I'm cool with Charlie. I just don't think he's interested. You know what I mean?"

"No, I don't know what you mean."

He gave me an uncomfortable look. "Well, you know about Charlie right?"

"What are you talking about?"

Whatever he was gonna say next was interrupted by Coach's whistle.

"Okay! Everyone hit the showers! Now!" Coach shouted so loudly you would have thought he was telling everyone in the gym to leave.

Mikee shrugged apologetically before walking towards our locker room. I followed in with everyone else.

Now, our locker rooms were no different from any other school's except for the fact that there is a booth at the entrance where they give free rehydrating drinks and small packets of protein bars. It was free of charge of course (well, actually you paid for it with your tuition but of course they wouldn't say that). I grabbed a Gatorade for myself before I headed in.

I stripped out of my clothes and put them in my locker. I was supposed to meet Charlie at the mall after practice so I was somewhat eager to get out of there. My mom would "rescue him" from his mom as the two would have their usually coffee and tea together. You'd think they were married at the rate those two met up!

As I stepped into the shower room, there were already a few of us in there. The rules in our shower room were the same anywhere else. It's communal such that there were no dividers between the shower heads. We were also required to be fully naked when taking our showers. No briefs, nothing but our pride. We didn't have any of that awkwardness crap. Well, at the very least I didn't. After all, I did stand tall above everyone else.

I took an empty shower turned it on. No sooner had I started lathering myself did the last person I want to see at that moment decide to take the spot next to mine.

"You just can't take a hint, can you?" I asked irritably.

"Is Charlie gay?" Luke asked. The entire shower room fell into a dead silence. Every hand slithering over a naked body stopped short of what they were doing. No one turned to us but it was clear that everyone heard the question. More importantly everyone was listening for the answer. Only the water pouring forth made any sound. "Well, is he?"

"Charlie's not gay," I replied seriously. My temper was flaring and it was taking every ounce of self-control I could muster not to just gut Luke senseless.

"Then what's will the pet names? Why does he call you Hero? And why do you call him Big C?"

"It's something from when we were kids. We've been calling each other that for as long as we've known each other."

"I dunno but that sounds a little gay to me," he said as he began lathering himself up in the still room. I would have punched him then but he decided to turn to another person in the room. "Doesn't it, Mikee?"

Mikee looked surprised and squeezed the slippery soap in his hand making it fly away. It made a loud plop on the wet floor. "What?"

"Don't those pet names sound gay to you?" Luke asked our surprised teammate.

"Uhm, uhh," he murmured nervously as every eye turned to him. "I dunno. I guess. Kinda." He paused and almost took a step back as he caught sight of the glare I must have been giving him.

Luke turned back to the wall and continued lathering, looking quite satisfied with himself. "You keep hanging around him, calling each other pet names and people might get the wrong idea..."

Sphlock!

Now, I don't forget things. However, that was perhaps the first time I've blacked out because I don't quite remember how it happened. But according to some people who were in there, I suddenly lunged at Luke, grabbing him roughly by his neck, and smashing him against the shower wall. A few had apparently tried to wrestle me off Luke as he slowly turned purple. However, they couldn't move me or perhaps didn't try hard enough. I swear all I remember was gently pinning Luke against the wall.

They could have been right though because I still remember the warning I gave, clear as daylight.

"Now, you listen to me," I said in a deadly whisper. "I am not gay. Charlie is not gay. Neither of us are fags. And if you think of ever, EVER trying to insinuate that again, I swear I will break your neck, do you hear me?"

He might have responded. He might not have. I don't really know but the next thing I remembered was a very big arm pulling me easily back against my will.

"Come on now, D," Andrew said calmly in a voice that reminded me oddly of the matting call of a killer whale. "None of that now." He pulled me slowly back, one arm draped against my chest, pulling me along like a ragdoll. Luke collapsed to the ground in a broken heap, coughing, and spewing water out of his face. The others stood around him, almost afraid to touch him as though they might get burned.

"He deserved it," I said absent-mindedly.

"Nobody deserves that," Andrew said as he continuing pulling me along. We must have looked weird. One fully naked but completely hot dude being pulled limply by an oversized muscular guy in nothing but... uhh... spongebob boxers... anyway... Soon enough, Andrew deposited me on an empty bench, one that must have been at the very back of the locker room, because I couldn't hear any sound other than his footsteps. "I'll go get you a towel," he said before disappearing.

He was back in less than a minute with a towel in one hand and a bright colored bottle in the other. He also put on a white shirt though he was still just in boxers. He handed me the towel and bottle.

"Is this Gatorade?" I asked.

"We don't need more energy in you now," he said as he took the seat next to me. "No, that's just water."

"Coach doesn't want me drinking just water after practice," I said automatically.

"Well Coach isn't here. I am. So, drink up."

As strong as I was, I had a feeling even Andrew could bend me like a pretzel. Besides, I was suddenly feeling so tired and I didn't feel like arguing so I drank up.

"Want to tell me what that was about?" he asked.

No. I seriously did not want to talk about it, not to Andrew, the quietest person on the team of all people. However, the image of a Derek pretzel kept popping into my mind. "Luke was implying some things. Kept saying that people would start thinking that Charlie and I were... that we were gay if we kept up some things we did."

"Things like?" Andrew lumbered.

"It was nothing really."

"Must have been something if you got worked up like that."

"No, I mean," I said as I tried to wrap my head around exactly what just happened. "He was just saying shit about Big C calling me Hero and me calling him Big C. He said people would start thinking we were gay if I kept that up."

"Does it matter to you if they do?"

I stood up and glared at him in shock. "I am not gay. Charlie is not gay. We are not fags. And if you're going to start thinking that then this conversation is over."

Andrew just looked blankly at me and I realized he was giving me an analyzing look. For the longest time, I always thought that that was his I'm sleepy look but apparently that was Andrew in thinking mode.

"I didn't say either of you were gay," he said carefully. "I was asking if it mattered to you that other people would think you were."

I had to think about that. Did it matter? Of course it did. Being gay or even thought of as gay was social suicide. Nobody was gay and popular at the same time, at least not for the right reasons.

Being gay was a one way ticket to being excluded. My dad said so.

"Yes, of course it matters. Gay people aren't important. I mean how many gay people do you know became famous? Hardly any! And those that do, they're like... not important. They're outcasts. I'm not an outcast. I'm famous. I'M IMPORTANT. People in this school want to be me. Do you think they'd want to be me if I was gay? No, no they wouldn't." I stopped because I couldn't breathe anymore, that and my behind felt unusually sore as though I had sat on it all day on a hard wooden plank.

Andrew just looked at me with an almost sad expression. I could have sworn he looked like a teddy bear who was accidentally left at home in bed while the family went on a vacation abroad.

"One more thing," I continued as Andrew just sat there staring. I could feel myself getting worked up which meant I was getting annoyed by something – something that again needed to be fixed. "People shouldn't think we were gay because we aren't. There's absolutely no reason for them to think that. We're just two good friends, two really close friends that share everything. We've been together so much we're practically brothers. We hang around each other when the other was sick. We didn't care if we both got sick. As far as we were concerned, it was something we should share even if it made both of us miserable. And it's not only the bad things we shared. We shared all the good stuff too. I mean like when Charlie wanted something that my mom gave me but his mom wouldn't give him, I'd share whatever it was with him."

"You said Charlie," Andrew interrupted.

"What?" I asked annoyed. I was on a roll.

"You said Charlie," he said again as if I was slow. "Not Big C."

It took me a few seconds to realize what he was talking about and when I did, I surprisingly felt confused, something that rarely ever happened by the way. "Oh… Well, I don't have to call him Big C. You and everyone else call him Charlie. And, everyone calls me Derek anyway so I don't see why the two of us should call each other by any other name. I mean if people get the wrong idea then maybe… then maybe I should stop calling each other anything other than what other people call us."

Andrew looked at me as though he expected me to say more. He had that dumbfounded expression on his face that said and then… or perhaps it was more like are you kidding me?

I, however, had nothing more to say. I mean it was just a name, right? Whether I call my best friend Big C or Charlie shouldn't really matter, right? The names we call each other don't define our being best friends. That stuff shouldn't be that important.

Andrew heaved a heavy sigh and I could feel the air slowly disappearing from the room. It almost sounded as if he was disappointed at me. It was rare for me to get that kind of reaction as I tended to please people naturally. So seeing that and knowing it was directed at me was… I dunno, unnerving, I guess?

"Look," he said. "You and Charlie are very close friends."

"We're not gay," I interrupted.

"I didn't say you were," he said in a way that clearly said if you interrupt me again, I'm turning you into a pancake. "I was just saying that you and Charlie are really good friends. You hang out together. From what I hear, you practically grew up together."

"We did," I said and then decided to remain quiet as Andrew seemed to grow bigger before me.

"People will see what they want to see. They can see two best friends talking to each other, patting each other's backs, being supportive and all that crap. On the other hand, some people, probably a minority I might add, can see something entirely different. They can see malice in what you do and will go to any lengths to fit your actions into the mould of their theories. The question is if you will let yourself and your actions be defined by their judgments or your own."

I was surprised to say the least not because of what Andrew had said but more of the fact that people like Andrew did not say things like that. For one thing, that was probably the most number of words I have ever heard him string together in one go. For another (and I mean no offense by this), Andrew certainly didn't seem like the type to have been invited into the school based on any extraordinary cognitive standard but rather based on the skill (or perhaps sheer size) he has that gives him a huge advantage in playing the most important sport in this school. His observation seemed almost out of place, though it made perfect sense.

I must have sat there looking dumbfounded because after awhile Andrew took another deep breath. "I'm saying you shouldn't let others push you into doing something you don't want to do."

"I know what you were saying," I said slightly miffed that I gave off the impression that I didn't understand. "And, I don't let people push me around."

Andrew nodded. "You certainly don't seem like the type, which is why I'm hopingyou will make the right decision." At this, he stood up. I stood up too, because on or off court, I wasn't comfortable with the thought of Andrew towering over me. "Now, as much as I would like to spend all afternoon talking about your life, I do have my own to live and I should get back to living it."

"Uhh, sure," I said as he started walking away towards his locker. "Uhm, thanks."

Without looking back, he raised his hand in a wave as if to say it was nothing. Within a few more seconds, his enormous size vanished behind the lockers, and I was left asking myself the question he had left hanging in my head.

Was it important?

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