by Cole Parker

Chapter 9

We won our next three meets, two of them against schools that had beaten us last year. We were unbeaten with only two races to go. We'd already qualified for the district championship. To win our own conference, we needed to confront the last school on our schedule, Columbian. They were also undefeated but with one tie. All we'd have to do if we both won our penultimate race was tie Columbian to win our conference, but none of us would be happy with that. Our school had never had an undefeated season. We wanted it bad.

What with all the emotion running through the team going into our next-to-last, regular-season race, which was against a middle-of-the-pack school that should give us no problem, I was distracted from thinking about how I was going to find out about Scott. I knew eventually I'd come up with a plan. A sneaky one; that's what I was good at: sneaky.

And eventually I did figure one out. I thought it a great idea, but we had to win our next match before putting it into play.

I was afraid our team would be overconfident going into our next race, which on paper was an easy one, and I kept telling the guys about not counting unhatched chickens before the fact, about tortoises winning the blue ribbon against a far superior but overconfident opponent—stuff like that. I could see in their eyes they thought they had it in the bag no matter what I said. With people rolling their eyes when listening to you, you know your pearls of wisdom aren't being taken seriously.

And then, the day before the race, Devin turned his ankle.

It wasn't bad, and he said he could run on it, but I told him no way. We'd need him at full strength for our final race. Luckily, all teams had a bye week in their schedule; ours would come before that final match. That would give Devin plenty of time to recover, but I wanted him to sit this next race out, not only to rest but to wake up the team. I spent a lot of time fretting in front of the guys after that, regretting that our season wouldn't be unscarred, that there was no way we'd win on Friday without Devin, that one of our other runners would have to step up to do so, and I didn't know if they could.

As a matter of fact, with Brian, Scott, Jensen and me all setting good times, we were going to win no matter who our fifth scorer was unless the rest of our team all died out on the course and we had no fifth finisher.

Coach had to pick a fifth man whose time would count, and after talking to me, he surprised everyone by naming Cary. Cary was good for a freshman, but I'd have picked one of the sophs.

No one died, and we won handily. The surprise was, Cary did great. He came in right behind Brian, his best time all year. We all pumped him on the back so hard I was hoping we didn't leave bruises. He was on cloud nine after that. That's when Jensen should have been in the shower. Maybe no one would have even noticed her! We were all that happy for Cary and spent the entire time telling him so. He ate it up and couldn't stop blushing. Cute as hell. A freshman, you know?

So now we had two weeks till our final race, and I was going to put my plan into place.

We had the first day of our bye week off. Coach said we could use some down time. I personally didn't like down time. I was a runner, and I liked to run every day. So, after school, I went for an easy five-mile run through the woods where I'd first seen Scott. Seen more of him than anyone could have expected to. I think I started to fall in love with him that day. By now, I had it bad.

I was on my way back, having run two-and-a-half miles out and having the same distance to return when whom should I meet coming toward me but the boy in question.

"Hey, Scott," I said, "glad to bump into you. I want to talk to you. Can we meet somewhere after you're done?"

"Better than that, I'll just run back with you now. I've already run five miles and was just starting out on a second five."

"Okay, I said, and started off again, with him joining me. We ran maybe a quarter mile with neither of us saying anything. I was just gathering my thoughts.

"What I was thinking," I eventually said, "was that with our meet with Columbian coming up, I could use a physical boost. Their top runner is a kid named Howie James. I check the times of all the runners we compete against, and he's the best one we'll meet all year. He's why their school is so good. He runs his 5Ks in right around 15 minutes. When I'm at my best I'm just under that, but who knows? A race like this one, he'll be super-psyched. I want to beat him. He's a senior and has come in with a better time than mine both years I've raced him.

"So what I was thinking was, as we don't have a race this week, what if I were to spend the weekend in Aspendell? You said it only takes a couple of days to feel the effects of the altitude, and the effects can last for some time. So I thought maybe I could do that. And if as you say there are cabins up there, do you think your dad could arrange that I could stay in one? Friday and Saturday nights are what I'd need."

There. I'd laid the bait. Would he take it?

Scott didn't answer right away, causing me to start to worry. I'd thought he'd jump at this. He wasn't doing that.

Finally, he spoke. "He might go along with it. I was trying to remember. I think he told me once that the rules were that only Forest Service personnel and/or family members could use them. Some sort of insurance deal. The cabins are sort of off in the wilderness and they worry about people breaking in, using them for hunting cabins or places for hikers as a base or something. He said they've even gone to the extent that they discourage overnight stays by having installed timer switches on the electricity so it's not available after ten at night. That means no heat, which is a big deal this time of year. What I'm getting at is, I'm not sure I could get permission for you to use it."

"Damn!" I said, and I wasn't feigning it.

We ran a bit farther and Scott spoke again. "Of course, if I were to go up with you, I'm sure he'd okay that. Maybe he'd even tell me how to override the power shutoff. I could use an altitude boost, too."

Whew! Okay, not the excited response from him I was hoping for, but he had taken the bait. The rest was going to be up to me.

"You know," I said, "this might be good. We don't know each other well, and if we go up there this weekend, just you and I, we ought to be able to see how compatible we are. Find out whether we could stay together up there for however long we end up planning to do next summer."

"Sounds logical," he said flatly. His lack of enthusiasm was killing me. I'd half been thinking he was as into me as I was into him. Maybe I'd just been reading him wrong.

"Well," I said, trying to keep my voice from showing my sinking feelings, "let me know what he says. I can probably get my mom to drive us up there Friday after school if it's a go."

"Okay," he said, and we finished our run with no more talking.

I spent until Friday fretting. I'd planned to go up to an isolated cabin with Scott, somehow turn the conversation around to his thoughts on things like global warming and immigration and gay rights and the bickering in Congress and whatever, and in the process, move the conversation to where he'd have a great chance to tell me he was gay. I thought it would be a cinch to do that.

But I'd thought he'd have jumped at the chance to do this, too, to spend the weekend alone, just the two of us, and he'd certainly agreed, but almost reluctantly and with no enthusiasm at all.

I guess, when it came down to it, I probably would find out if he was gay. Or that he wasn't. Which Jensen had predicted. Girls know about this sort of thing, don't they? In books they do. So he probably was straight; that was looking more and more likely. What a depressing way to spend a weekend with him: close, wanting him, and him being about as eager about going as a worm with early birds around—and not at all gay to boot. I almost didn't want to go.

It was the chance to better my 5K time that convinced me that no matter if he were gay or not, that was a good enough reason to go; it would be worth the trip.

So I packed what I'd need, clothing and food enough for both of us. I planned on cooking. Scott had said that of course there were facilities for that. I'd said since I would be the guest, I'd bring the food. He told me to be sure to bring warm stuff or I'd freeze without it. Aspendell had a listed elevation of 8,400 feet. This was late November. It would be cold.

Mom was a little worried about the two of us being alone up there, but she said as we'd both have our cell phones, she thought we'd be okay. I didn't tell her there'd be no bars and our phones would be useless up there. I wanted to talk to Scott about what mattered; I couldn't wait; but Mom was in the car, so I couldn't do more than chitchat about innocuous crap. As a result I wasn't in the best of moods when we got there.

I got out of the car to find it was 30° at 4 PM. I didn't even want to know the forecast for the middle of the night. It had been 57° in Bishop when we'd left. This was colder.

The cabin was certainly secluded. It was far enough outside the tiny town of Aspendell that all we could see around us were trees, meadows and hillsides. There was patchy snow on the ground, and it looked like it was deeper in areas where the wind had caused it to drift. I could see what looked like a narrow trail leading past the cabin that probably was for serious hikers or hunters or just people taking in the high-mountain scenery.

Scott had the key and helped me carry the groceries in after we'd brought in our suitcases. Then I waved bye to my mom, and we were alone together.

For the first time when I was with Scott, I felt uncomfortable. He had such a bubbly personality, always happy, always twinkling humor in his eyes just waiting to break out, always putting whoever he was with in a good place—it was difficult not to catch his mood and share it. Now, there was none of that. He wasn't grinning. Now he wasn't bubbling. Maybe it was because of that I felt some tension in the room. He unpacked the few things he'd brought, turned on the heater and lights because it was already getting towards twilight, and he never said a word while doing so.

I wondered if he was as uncomfortable as I was, and if so, why? This was so not like him. We weren't close friends; about the only thing we knew about each other was that we liked to run. But I did know what he was generally like, and it wasn't this.

"Want to go out and walk around, see what the area's like?" he asked. Very flat voice. No emotions at all. I realized he'd been staring at me without saying anything as I'd been seeing to my stuff.

"Sure. Let me put a sweater on. It's freezing out there."

"It was like this in Laramie, too, and even sometimes in the summer; same in Santa Fe, especially at night, too. I kind of liked it."

We walked out and investigated our surroundings. I hoped he'd start up a conversation again, but he didn't. The cabin was on the edge of what might be called a forest, but the trees weren't close enough together to look like the type of dense wooded forests that grew at lower elevations. It seemed most of the trees were coniferous ones. We could see a couple of lakes down the hillside below us. The air was very fresh and cold, and I was glad I'd added a sweater under my lined jacket.

We walked down the trail a bit, looking around, and when I saw he was shivering, asked if he'd like to go back. He nodded, and that's what we did.

It was late enough by now for me to fix dinner. I'd brought up some steaks and baking potatoes. I didn't want to take an hour and more to bake them, but there was a microwave in the cabin, and I used that. Used it for the broccoli I'd brought, too, and in only a half hour we were eating sauteed steak, microwaved broccoli and potatoes, and drinking the Cokes I'd brought.

He didn't say much at dinner, and I'm not the world's greatest conversationalist, much better at supporting someone who's doing most of the talking than initiating new topics to discuss. But I was very afraid that we'd fall into a silent meal if I didn't talk, so I did the best I could. It felt awkward, and the tension in the room kept building as it seemed apparent to me I was forcing the conversation.

Scott said he'd wash the dishes since I'd cooked, and I told him I'd dry. I hoped that shared experience would warm him up. It didn't. He was the same doing the dishes as he'd been at the table. Had I not spoken, I think the dishes would have been done in dead silence.

It was still a couple of hours till bedtime. I was wondering if I could ask him why he was being like he was, but if he'd just said he was like he always was, then what? So I thought it better to leave that subject alone, even if it was killing me, being together with him like this.

Looking around the cabin, I saw what looked like lifesavers in a bookcase.

"Hey, they have some games here. How about Scrabble? Or Monopoly? Or there's a deck of cards. We could play gin rummy or something you suggest. How about it?"

He said Monopoly would be better than Scrabble as he didn't have much of a vocabulary. Normally I'd have argued or teased or responded some way other than what I said, which was, "Great!" I might have overdone the enthusiasm a bit.

We played Monopoly. It's a game that doesn't engender a whole lot of conversation. This time it didn't, either. The good thing was, it took a long time to play, the bad was that I won because he didn't seem to have his mind in the game at all, and by the time we were done, it was reasonable to suggest going to bed.

We'd already chosen which of the twin beds we'd each sleep in by putting our suitcases on them when we'd first come in. I stripped down to my boxer briefs, then used the bathroom, brushed my teeth and came out to find him dressed the same as me and waiting for me to finish. While he was in there, I could have gotten into bed, but I wanted to do that when he was in the room. I always slept in the nude, and I wanted him to see that. I don't really know why. I just did. I probably was hoping his seeing me like that might provide a spark. But I was convinced by now that he wasn't gay. Maybe his mood was dark because he was afraid I was and was planning to do something about it while we were alone. I was bigger than he was, and there was no one here to help him. I sure hoped that wasn't what he was thinking.

I used the time he was in the bathroom to put away the Monopoly stuff. He came out, and I said, "Well, I'm going to bed. See you in the morning." Then I rather conspicuously pushed down my underwear, stepped out of it, leaned over to pick it up, stepped over to drop it on my suitcase, pulled down the covers in my bed and got in. All the while I was watching him peripherally. He never took his eyes off me.

I lay on my side facing him with my eyes open. His turn. Except he cheated. He'd waited till I was in bed, then he walked over to the door, turned out the lights and went to bed. With the lights out, the room was unimaginably black. No light whatsoever. Did he drop his boxers, too? I had no idea.

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