Warning: This story includes elements of bullying, physical violence, and homophobic slurs (however, our story’s heroes will fight back!)
“Aiden Rothe, are you here?” Coach Krake asks. He holds a singlet in his right hand and a clipboard in his left. Krake’s chest looks like a brick wall, and his broad shoulders could total a vehicle. He’s been the wrestling coach here at Washington High School for longer than I’ve been alive.
Freshman year has been rocky. It’s not that I give a crap about wrestling. I just want to get tougher. I’ve always been the skinny kid who bruises in gym class. When I was little, I asked my dad if I could take karate lessons. Of course, he said karate was for wussies and told me to play a real man’s sport like football. I didn’t want to.
But all my junior high friends did, and they have turned into football-playing jocks. It’s October, I have no new friends, and I’m as skinny as I was when I graduated eighth grade.
So here I am.
Staring at the singlet, I doubt my decision. Who in the hell would wear that? It’s white spandex, and my scrawny body will look ridiculous in it.
“Aiden Rothe?” Coach Krake asks louder. I step forward on a squishy wrestling mat, and a cloud of teen B.O. makes me cover my mouth. Coach’s nostrils flare like he enjoys the smell. “When I call your name, you move. Immediately. Understand?”
I nod, grab the singlet, and dart to the locker room. One at a time, each of the future Washington Hornet wrestlers gets assigned a practice singlet and goes to dress. I pick a locker in the far back, open it, and hide behind the door. The locker room makes me gag. I cough into a fist, trying not to think too much about the nasty odor, which I can only describe as hot, sweaty poop. My toothpick arms race against time to get this stupid thing on so I can get out of here and so no one sees me nude. Will there be other wrestlers as little as me? I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to face a big guy.
With the white spandex from hell covering my body, I look in the mirror. The spandex clings to every crevice. Grimacing, I try to pick it out of my butt. Then I run my hands along the side of my head. My hair is buzzed short on the sides, but on top I wear it in a short, spiky style. The spikes look like little caramel curls, but I think it’s too short. The only thing I really like about myself is my eyes. They’re emerald green and bright as the sea.
“Hey, new kid. Hurry up. Coach doesn’t like to wait.” It’s the junior varsity captain, Mateo Hernandez. Mateo’s also a freshman, but legend has it that he came out of his mother’s womb wrestling. What would he would be wrestling as a newborn? An umbilical cord? Placenta? I shudder at my own thoughts.
According to the rumors, Coach Krake worked privately with him all last summer. Krake selected Mateo as JV captain before our first official practice.
Mateo’s incredibly attractive. He has thick, wavy hair, parted down the middle and covering his ears. A tiny bit of stubble grows on his chin, and when he moves, his shoulders and arms rip with muscles. It’s simply not fair for a kid his age. That’s why I’m here. Not because of him, specifically, but because I want to get strong like him.
“I’m coming,” I say.
Do I really want to do this?
I shake my head. It’s not only about being tough. Maybe it sounds stupid, but I want to find a place where I can make a friend or two. Being alone sucks. I’m tired of browsing Instagram pics and feeling jealous of what everyone else is doing. If I have to wear this stupid uniform to find some friends, well, so be it.
When I return to the wrestling room, everyone stands on the edge of thick, black mats. I think about all the sweat those mats have absorbed over the years. I can’t wait to take a shower at home tonight.
Coach Krake stands in the center, wearing a red Washington Hornets polo and black athletic shorts.
“Mateo. Jordan. Come show them how it’s done,” Krake commands.
Mateo runs a hand through his thick hair and jumps in a wrestling stance. He faces Jordan, a short, heavy boy.
Coach blows his whistle, and Mateo wraps a hand around the back of Jordan’s neck. Jordan tries to swat it away, but Mateo is too quick. Mateo steps in with his right foot, his hip thrusting into Jordan’s gut. In a split second, Jordan’s up in the air, and Mateo flips him over. Landing on Jordan, Mateo’s right arm locks under his head, pinning him.
“That’s it,” Krake shouts. “Nice work.”
Mateo stands and smiles.
“What do hornets do?” Krake asks.
“We sting!” Mateo answers.
Krake faces the rest of us. “Hornets don’t wait to attack. Hornets sting fast. When that whistle blows, you don’t wait. You sting your opponent hard and fast. Got that?”
We nod, and Coach Krake’s lips curl into a sinister grin.
“Mateo, you take that half,” Krake instructs. “Jordan, you take the other. Show them how to sting.”
I’m in Mateo’s group. We get paired with a partner close to our own weight, and thankfully there are a few other scrawny kids like me. Mateo shows us how to throw.
I attempt the throw with my partner, but I fall forward on my knee.
“What’s your name again?” Mateo asks.
“You can call me Mat. Come here.” He puts his right arm on my shoulder and his left grabs my elbow. “Like this.” He steps in with his right foot and spins. I inhale a whiff of his cologne. It’s musky and masculine—the only good thing I’ve smelled today. He drives his hip into my groin, lowers his stance, and thrusts hard into me. His right arm grips the back of my neck. He scoops me up and tosses me down.
“Nice form, Mateo,” Coach Krake says.
I stand slowly. Then everyone laughs at me.
Some kids cover their mouths. Others point.
Mateo’s gaze sweeps the room and then settles on me. His eyes lower, and his eyebrows lift with surprise.
I look down.
Shit! This stupid singlet! I have a boner, and this stupid thing shows everything.
The kids keep laughing at me.
Coach Krake groans. “Aiden, is there any particular reason why you have an erection?”
What? How do I even answer that?
“I’m asking you if you happen to fancy another boy grabbing you,” Coach Krake barks. He steps closer to me, and it’s like staring at a truck about to run me down. “This school’s got policies that keep me from asking you certain questions, but that don’t mean I think it’s okay. So, I’m asking you. Am I gonna have a problem with you on this team? In the locker room . . . with my boys?”
My face turns beet red.
“No, sir,” I mumble. I feel vulnerable and exposed like I’m standing here naked and every single person in my high school is pointing and laughing. It’s every nightmare come true, and my knees wobble.
“Louder!” Krake commands.
“No, sir,” I shout.
“Good. Now go do one hundred push-ups and take a cold shower. Next time I see an erection on my mat, it will cost you one thousand push-ups. You understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Tears well in my eyes, and that’s all I need—to cry in front of all these boys, too.
I throw myself on the mat face down so no one can see me. I struggle with the push-ups. Coach Krake doesn’t say anything to the other wrestlers who keep laughing at me.
My ears fill with the laughter of dozens of boys, all directed at me.