Thatch felt their eyes on him throughout the day. He kept his head down, certain if they looked too close, they would know about his dream.
Although he had new jeans, shirts, and sneakers, Thatch had not thought to get anything for gym. The instructor pulled some grey shorts and a t-shirt from a box of abandoned clothes. The shorts were too short for comfort and the t-shirt felt one size too small. He could not stop tugging them down as he walked out to the field.
Thatch had hoped that doing anything the coach shouted would be the best way to avoid unwanted attention, but it seemed to have the opposite effect: Bobby and his pack stopped tossing their football and leaned against the fence. They stared at him appraisingly, only looking away to speak to one another.
Tense and jumpy, Thatch trailed behind the class as they returned to the locker rooms. Between the whispering boys and his dream, he could not stop looking over his shoulder. He didn’t feel safe with his back exposed as he struggled with his locker combination. They never had combination locks at Flint Ranch, only padlocks. If they lost the keys, they would use bold-cutters; There was no method to it. His nerves and the newness of it all made him miss the combination three times.
“I’m gonna ask him,” he heard a voice at the end of the row. “Only if he says ‘No’…”
Thatch’s muscles twisted tighter. Bobby leaned next to his locker. The other boys crowded around. Thatch tried not to look at him.
“Hey,” Bobby asked, “where’re you from?”
“Flint Hill,” Thatch replied.
Bobby sneered, glancing at his friends. They all wore the same clueless expression.
“There the fuck is Flint Hill?”
Thatch took a deep breath, regaining control of himself. “I guess it’s near Meeker.”
The locker popped open. Thatch released a sigh of relief. “It’s on the Western Slope,” he said. The small victory fed his confidence. “Flint Hill, not Meeker. Meeker is North-West.”
“You’re a pretty big guy,” Bobby observed, looking him over. Thatch waited for him to continue, then realized he expected some kind of reply. Was he supposed to agree? Thank him? Share his height and weight? In feet or hands? Bobby relieved him: “You play ball?”
Bobby raised a hand. Thatch flinched. He glanced around at the boys surrounding him. None of them moved.
“We saw you on the field,” Bobby continued. “You should try out.”
Before considering whether it was a good idea, Thatch barked a laugh. “No, thanks.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Bobby shrugged. He dropped his hand. Everything fell silent. Thatch frowned. Before he could turn, he felt his borrowed shorts tighten, then get jerked down. An electric jolt of panic shot through his chest, up into his skull.
The locker room burst into laughter, but it was cut short by Thatch’s scream. The mouse-haired boy who had pantsed him had not bothered to move. Thatch grabbed him, raised him into the air, and slammed his body into the lockers. Once. Twice. Three times, before he let the boy fall.
The football players were too stunned to react. They stared, wide-eyed as Thatch gasped for breath in his too-small shirt, his shorts around his knees, his penis at half-mast. The other boys, attracted by the commotion, crowded around the ends of the rows.
“It was just a joke, man,” Bobby said, leaning down to help the mouse-haired boy to his feet.
“He’s crazy,” the boy sniffled. His nose was bleeding, and he clutched his arm close to his side.
Thatch’s body grew cold. He reached down and jerked up the shorts. The bell rang, making several students jump.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Bobby muttered. They began to shuffle away.
With shaking hands, Thatch pulled out his clothes. He tried not to listen to the muttering and murmuring as they passed.
“Wonder what happened to his face?”
“Did you see the size of his prick?”
“…could have broken his arm…”
Thatch sniffled. Tears pricked at his eyes, but he refused to look at them. He swallowed the lump in his throat, grabbed his books, and hurried to his next class.
“How was school today?” Wren asked as he entered the kitchen.
Thatch fell still. Did the school call him? Did he know? Wren did not fix him with a probing gaze. He pulled off the sleeves of his coveralls and washed his hands as usual, oblivious. Thatch relaxed with a shrug.
“Some guys asked me to join the football team today,” he said.
Wren bobbed his head as he dried his hands. “Football is a good way to get scholarships. What did you say?”
“I said no,” Thatch replied vaguely. “I need to catch up with my academics first.”
“That’s wise.” Wren patted his shoulder. “I’m glad to hear you’re making friends.”