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Discoveries - 5. Chapter 5

Part II Discoveries


Chapter 5 The Challenge

Jesse put on a light jacket, but I felt comfortable in my short sleeved shirt and T-shirt. After all, it was a bright sunny November day in southern California, and sometimes it stayed comfortably warm right into December. The reddish marks on my wrists were still slightly visible, although my watch covered my left wrist nicely. I don’t think anyone would notice the discoloration of my other wrist unless they stared right at it. Even then, I doubted that most people would think, ‘Oh, I guess that kid was tied up a little while ago...’

I was happy beyond belief, and had to keep reminding myself to rein in the silly grin that kept appearing unbidden on my face. We were mostly quiet, just enjoying each other’s company and reliving the morning we had just spent together, as we walked through the neighborhood, passing apartment complexes small and large. There were plenty of kids around of every age and ethnicity, and most ignored us as we strolled by. A little group dressed in gang style clothes glared at us suspiciously from a distance, but made no threatening moves.

I mentioned what my mom had told me about the computer.

“Helping out at the rummage sale was my idea--hehehe!” he said with a crafty grin. “We can spend the whole day together!”

”Yeah, but it’s a lot of hard, dirty work,” I assured him.

Jesse shrugged with an impish smile on his face. “So was this morning!”

How could I not blush?

At McDonald’s, Jesse wanted to pay, but I reminded him of the large wad of bills my mom had given me and he reluctantly acquiesced.

We both did our teenage bodies proud, eating like pigs--Quarter Pounders, shakes, fries, and apple pies for dessert. It was hard for me to believe that the thirteen year old boy sitting across from me, stuffing fries into his face and slurping a strawberry milkshake, had taken my dick into his mouth! I should have been disgusted, or angry, or at the very least, embarrassed, but...

"What are you grinning at?" Jesse asked, a playful smile lighting up his own beautiful face.

"I can't stop thinking about what you did--what we did this morning..." I said, shaking my head, and continuing to grin like an idiot.

Jesse glanced around warily, making sure we weren't attracting any unwanted attention. "It was better than I imagined--and I can imagine a lot!"

We continued stuffing our faces, but as we got to the pies, Jesse looked at me a bit nervously.

“So...were you tempted?” he asked quietly.

“By what?” I asked.

“You know...last night...Were you tempted?”

I felt myself blush and knew that I owed Jesse the truth--at least the truth as my confused teenage mind understood it.

“I’ve always been attracted to Katy,” I admitted, slurping my chocolate shake. “But it’s not like I have any feelings for her,” I shrugged, realizing that there really wasn’t anymore to it than that.

“And Jessica?” Jesse inquired, looking nervous and insecure.

The truth was that Jessica had taken me by surprise. Not only was she one of the most attractive girls I knew, she turned out to be quite different than the image I had of her before last night. Still, it wasn’t like I was torn between her and Jesse...“Dude, what are you worried about?” I asked with a reassuring smile, reaching over to pat his arm in what I hoped others would see as a ‘good buddy’ gesture.

I recognized that look on Jesse’s face by now. The tragedy and despair of his past threatened to overwhelm him and I wanted to get up and hold him tight. But I couldn’t in the middle of a fast food restaurant, so I just waited for him to work his way through it.

“I’m sorry...Perry,” Jesse whispered hoarsely, his eyes moist with unspilt tears. “I didn’t mean to ruin our day together--It’s been so great--you’ve been so great...” He was stumbling over the words trying to contain his emotions.

I resisted the urge to be overly empathetic, just trying to keep enough emotional distance from Jesse, so that I could be supportive and not simply feel sorry for him.

“It’s just that...I couldn’t bear to lose you right now!” he said with such quiet intensity that it shook me despite my best attempts to keep cool.

“Jesse, look at me,” I said seriously, leaning over the table to lock directly into his crystal blue eyes. “You’re not going to lose me! You couldn’t if you tried!” He seemed a little comforted by this, so I leaned back and gave him a sly little smile. “Besides, I passed up a chance to get a foot massage from Jessica Bainbridge, for chrissakes! What more could you ask for?”

Jesse hadn’t been expecting that. His eyes lit up and strawberry milk shake trickled from his mouth as he tried to hold in his giggles. “I think it went up my nose!” he snickered, brushing the sleeve of his jacket across his face (being sure to wipe the tears from his eyes as he did).

I noticed that a few people were glancing our way now, not because of our emotional conversation, but because we were both giggling like little school girls. As we stepped back outside into the bright afternoon sunshine, Jesse stopped and looked at me. I was afraid he was going to tear up again.

“Guess I owe you one mother of a foot massage!” he said with deadly earnest, and started walking towards the high school.

I breathed a sigh of relief. While it was important for me to remember that Jesse had a difficult and turbulent past--one that he had left behind just a couple of months ago--I also saw it as part of my responsibility as his friend to keep him anchored firmly in the present. Mom and I had a conversation about this not too long after that evening when she first met Mrs. Taylor at our house. She had gone so far as to call Jesse 'troubled.' I would never ever tell him that, but I was reminded of it whenever Jesse’s past seemed on the verge of overwhelming him. I realized that it would always be there, always be a part of him, ready to unleash its potent blend of pain, guilt, and even self loathing at the wink of an eye. (In fact, as I sit here writing this, I realize that Jesse’s past--his pain really--is part of what makes him such a great writer. His ability to convey even small doses of his own past experiences with such potent clarity, touches anyone who reads his stuff, including me.)

“Hey, I just thought of something,” I said as we headed towards Kennedy. “What are we going to use to shoot hoops?”

”No problem, dude,” Jesse assured me. “They have a little shack full of balls and other sports equipment. There’s an old guy--Mr. Ramirez, who’s always there on Saturdays. You give him a five dollar deposit and take whatever you need, and get your money back when you return the stuff.”

“That is cool,” I acknowledged.

“I heard that it used to be free, but kids were stealing too much stuff,” Jesse added resignedly.

There were a number of basketball courts, but only one was free. We got our ball from Mr. Ramirez and claimed our own court. Jesse took off his jacket and I slipped my shirt off, leaving us both in our T-shirts. Jesse asked me to teach him how to dribble, which was fun because it gave me an excuse to rub up against his ass without drawing any attention from passersby--hehehe!

As usual, Jesse caught on quickly, and I was soon working hard to block his charges as he moved towards the basket. While he was amazing at freethrows, he didn’t yet have enough technique to angle the ball in with someone defending him. The times he was most able to make baskets was when he was able to use his incredible speed and agility to dodge around me and then take his time aiming--and I thought I was fast! We were both having a good time and it was about forty minutes before we took a break. Since we didn’t bring any water with us, we were forced to seek out the public drinking fountain. Fortunately there were some on the grounds near the sports courts and we didn’t have to walk all the way to the actual school building, which was about a hundred yards away.

“Did you notice that kid in the next court?” Jesse asked, as he waited his turn to get a drink.

I wiped the excess water from my mouth and glanced back. I guess I hadn’t given much thought to the skinny Hispanic kid the next court over. He looked to be ten or eleven and was kind of cute, with big eyes and straight, jet black hair that fell nicely to either side of his face. I paused for a minute to watch the kid dribble furiously before leaping as high as he could, managing only to bounce the ball off the rim which was still well out of his reach.
“A little young for me!” I replied with a twisted smile.

“It’s not that!” Jesse said with exasperation. “He keeps staring at us--at me, like he recognizes me from somewhere. Does he go to St. Boniface?”

I shook my head. It was a small school, and it didn’t take long to recognize the faces of the older kids. I guessed this boy was probably in the fourth or fifth grade. “I don’t recognize him.”

The boy seemed to notice we were talking about him--maybe I had been too obvious--and picked up his ball and ran off.

“You freaked him out, dude!” Jesse teased. “Mommy, mommy, this really cute teenage stud just kept staring at my ass--he was making me sooooo hot!” he squealed in a childish voice.

“Yeah, right,” I answered with a playful nudge. We went back to our court to continue our practice. This time, I did notice when, about ten minutes later, the kid returned--and with someone I did recognize...It was the shortest of the three bullies that had assaulted us at the mall--the one who had stood lookout while the other two tried to beat us up! My heart just about leapt up into my mouth, and I felt a wave of cold panic envelope my mind as my body seemed to freeze up like a statue. The younger kid, who bore a close enough resemblance to the high schooler that I assumed he was probably his brother, pointed directly at us from the next court.

The guy, dressed less threateningly than he was that night at the mall, in a rock and roll T-shirt, baggy jean shorts and white sneakers--with only a few chains dangling from his neck, looked over at us for a few seconds before recognition set in on his face. I stood there like a deer caught in the headlights as he started to head towards us.

I remembered Jesse’s little speech, the day he had come over to my house. I had alluded to his impressive martial arts skills in a somewhat offhanded way, but he had taken the insinuation seriously. ‘You can’t just go around knocking the shit out of people, you know...Even in self defense. You can really, seriously hurt someone, and people don’t take kindly to that, whether they supposedly deserved it or not. They get pissed off; they want revenge...’ Revenge? I shuddered...

“What are we going to do?” I asked quietly, my throat constricted with fear. My heart was pounding so hard, I think you could see it thumping through my T-shirt.

“Nothing,” Jesse said calmly.

“Wh...what...?” I stammered incredulously. “Don’t you recognize that guy...?”

“Yeah, I do. But I don’t think there’s anything to get excited about...”

I was ready to grab him and push him right out of there, when the guy entered our court, closely followed by his younger brother, who had a look of curiosity on his face.

“What the fuck are two pretty little white boys doing down here?” he asked, the expression on his face making it unclear whether that was intended as a threat or not. I assume that, by calling us 'pretty little white boys,' he meant to suggest that we were from one of the more affluent parts of town, since there were definitely Caucasians living in the area.

Jesse just stood there impassively, so I stood my ground as well, drawing some comfort from the basketball I was cradling under one arm…

“I’m Julio and this is mi hermanito, Jose,” he said, stopping while he was still a couple of yards away.

“Joey!” his brother piped in. “Call me Joey!” I couldn’t tell if he was addressing us or his big brother.

“You’re the dudes that kicked Jorge and Rooster's asses at the mall, eh?” Julio asked, his voice sounding harsh but unthreatening, with a hint of an accent.

If I hadn’t been scared shitless, I probably would have laughed--Julio had also coincidently been the name of one of the fictional thugs in Jesse’s story, which had been based on our run in at the mall. Also, one of the guys that tried to beat us up was named Rooster?

“I’m Jesse, and this is Perry,” my friend said in a voice that sounded a little different than I was used to hearing. There was a little more of an edge to it, and for the first time, I recognized the slightest hint of an accent--a Midwestern accent, I guess it would be--that caused the endings of his words to be ever so slightly clipped.

“Cool...” Julio said, nodding his head and smiling slightly for the first time. He wasn’t wearing the wool beanie he had been wearing that night, and the sun glinted off his closely shaven head. While I had described him as short, it had only applied in comparison with his two buddies. Now, standing this close to us, I could see that he was about Morgan’s height, maybe five foot nine or so. His wide, round face was pockmarked with acne scars and, besides triple rings in each ear lobe, he had one ring going right through the corner of his right eyebrow.

“So, is there a problem with me and my friend shooting some hoops here?” Jesse asked cautiously.

Julio shook his head. “It’s cool, bro. I was just a little skeptical, when Jose--”

“Joey!” his brother insisted.

Julio gave his brother an annoyed shove. “When mi hermanito told me that he thought you were the guys...but shit, here you are!”

“Here we are,” Jesse echoed, keeping the edge in his voice. At the moment, Jesse reminded me a little of a cat with his back arched to warn off his enemies.

“Anyway, I wanted to apologize for the other night...” Julio said, spreading his hands palms up in an obvious gesture of peace.

“That’s cool,” Jesse acknowledged.

"I mean, I can't speak for Jorge and Rooster, but...you know..." He shrugged.

Rooster had to have been the big, heavy set guy that had punched me in the gut. The tall, sallow faced leader who had so violently slammed Jesse into that stall door sure didn’t look like he’d take kindly to being called a rooster!

“We understand,” Jesse replied. "Are they okay?"

“They was pretty sore for a couple of days after that--and really pissed...” Julio, grinning a tight lipped grin, shook his head slowly.

“And now?” Jesse asked.

“Now--who gives a fuck, man? It was a stupid thing to do, pickin’ on two little white boys in the can--I mean, what the fuck was that about?”

“But the others, they’re okay now?” Jesse persisted, and I detected his voice softening just a bit as he showed his genuine concern.

Julio nodded and shrugged, giving Jesse a curious little smile. “When we saw you cruisin’ round the mall over and over again, Jorge assumed you must be casing the joint, maybe liftin' some DVD’s or some music or shit.”

“Doesn’t he know that would set off the security alarms?” Jesse asked with a hint of annoyance.

Julio shrugged and laughed. “He thought, ‘maybe this little fuck knows something, some trick, to get by the scanners,’ ya know?”

“Little fuck, huh?” Jesse said, the edge returning to his voice.

I felt like putting a hand on his shoulder, as much to calm my own fear, as to keep Jesse from putting this guy in the hospital. At this point, I had no doubt that he could if he wanted to.

But Julio seemed to ignore the comment. “So where’d you learn to fight like that?” he asked, moving a few steps closer so he didn’t have to speak quite as loudly.

“Oh, I was a blackbelt at my old dojo in Illinois, but I’m out of practice now,” Jesse said selfconsciously.

“Man, you really kicked some serious ass...” Julio said with open admiration.

“I didn’t want to...” Jesse began to protest, when a voice called out from the other side of the chain link fence.

“Que paso, Julio?” I was stunned to see that a small crowd had gathered around our court. There were about a dozen or so guys strung out along the fence, apparently curious about us. They ranged from skinny boys of nine or ten to big guys already out of high school. The one who had made the inquiry was a tall, but muscular Hispanic, wearing a backwards baseball cap, wraparound sunglasses, and a wisp of a mustache, but still looking like a high schooler. He was holding a basketball tucked under one arm, and sweat was glistening off his high forehead. He was smiling broadly.

“It those guys, man!” Julio called out. “It’s the fuckin’ Karate Kid!”

There was some murmuring amongst the small crowd. Apparently the story had spread through the neighborhood. This couldn’t be a good thing...

While the rest of the new group hung back, the guy who had called out, pulled open the chain link gate and entered our court, the basketball still tucked under his arm.

He was wearing a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, and baggy shorts, along with hitop white Nikes. His legs were hairy, and he had some sort of tattoo on one arm. He walked right up to Jesse and extended a hand.

“Alejandro Gujtierrez,” he said, waiting for Jesse to take his offered hand. “Mi amigos call me Gus.”

Jesse cautiously took the hand of the guy who towered about eight inches over his silky blonde head. “Jesse, this is Perry,” he spoke quickly and without fear. I was ready to wet my pants. I disconcertedly made note of the fact that the little crowd that had gathered around our court was effectively barring our only escape route.

“So you kicked Rooster’s ass, huh?” Gus asked jovially. “That big fat ox--man, I would have loved to see that.”

"Rooster?" Jesse asked curiously.

"The big Mexican dude--Raul--we call him Rooster 'cause he's always bragging about the muchachas he's fucked!"

"Hope he's okay now," Jesse muttered uneasily.

Julio carelessly waved Jesse's concern away. “So you’re a blackbelt, eh?” he asked, pulling off his sunglasses and looking Jesse over with obvious skepticism.

Jesse just nodded, his eyes losing a little of their fire.

“Karate or Tae Kwon Do?” Gus asked, as Julio stood by, a somewhat smug smile on his face, as if he knew what was coming.

That unnerved me enough to finally speak up. “Jesse, can we go now?” I asked, touching him lightly on the shoulder.

“Just chill a sec,” he said, ever so subtly shrugging his shoulder away from my fingers. “Karate,” he replied.

“I’m a second degree blackbelt,” Gus said proudly.

“That’s impressive,” Jesse acknowledged.

Gus looked over at Julio, who just keptgrinning and gave a slight nod of approval. I didn’t know what degrees were, but I guessed that it meant that he was an expert of some sort. Jesse had never mentioned to me if his blackbelt came with any degrees or not.

“How ‘bout we have ourselves a little Kumite?” Gus asked, grinning like a Hispanic Cheshire Cat.

Jesse looked skeptical. “That’s ‘combat’ in karate lingo,” he explained to me.

“You a Karate Kid too?” Gus asked, pointing to me.

I tried not to shudder when he looked me over. I shook my head.

“What you think of yo’ little friend kicking those big Mexicans’ asses?” Gus asked me, that freaky smile never diminishing in the slightest.

“He saved me from getting beat up,” I said simply.

Gus seemed to find this an acceptable answer, and nodded his head in agreement. “Damn straight--Jorge can be a mean son of a bitch when he wants to--his papa beats him up all the time so's he's always lookin' to pass it on, comprende?"

We just stood there silently.

"That’s quite an amigo you have there!” Gus assured me. That was the understatement of the century, but I wasn’t about to go there. I just wanted us to be able to wave goodbye, calmly saunter off the court...and then run like hell!

”You’re preaching to the choir,” I assured him, trying to keep my voice from quivering.

“So what you say, Jesse? Just some sparring? First one pinned?”

“I don’t know...” Jesse said, looking around at the group of kids and young adults gathered around the court.

“We should get going, Jesse,” I said, trying to help my friend out of a tight spot.

“Yeah...” Jesse started to agree.

“C’mon, man! It’d be great for my training if we could just go a few rounds...” Gus said with a bit of a sneer. He didn’t seem particularly menacing, but I could also tell that he wanted to do this, to test himself against this thirteen year old kid standing in front of him. I wondered what kind of stories had been going around the neighborhood, and how exaggerated they had become. There was no way my five foot six, hundred and twenty pound buddy was going to go up against this well muscled, highly trained martial arts expert who outweighed him by at least eighty pounds and stood over six feet tall.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Jesse laughed harshly. “I’m just a thirteen year old kid!”

That’s right--you tell ‘em, Jesse!

“From what I heard, there’s a little more to you than meets the eye,” Gus declared in a clearly challenging way.

It was obvious that this guy wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and I heard the first hint of uncertainty in Jesse’s voice. “We don’t have any protective equipment,” he pointed out.

“Man, this is a fuckin’ streetfight, not a sanctioned event!” Gus insisted. Julio seemed to think this was funny, because he started laughing.

“Well...” Jesse said, glancing at me and then at Gus. He realized we were backed into a corner and he was no doubt more concerned for my well being than his own.

“How old are you?” Jesse asked, as if stalling for time.

“Seventeen--turn eighteen in a couple of months, ” Gus rattled off quickly. I saw Jesse flinch, but Gus never stopped grinning. He shook his head a bit in disbelief. “You know size and weight don’t mean shit in Karate,” he pointed out.

Jesse didn’t seem to have a response to that, so I stepped in.

“He doesn’t want to fight you,” I said as calmly as I could.

Both Julio and Gus thought this was funny, and they had a good laugh before Gus turned back to Jesse, the grin leaving his face for the first time.

“It’s up to you, dude,” he said. “Everyone says you’re really somethin.’ >From what I heard, I’m the one taking a chance here.” The slimy grin slowly returned to his face.

Jesse hesitated and I heard the crowd mumble.

“He’ll kick your ass across the fuckin’ border, Gustito!” Joey taunted confidently. The crowd all laughed at this, and I saw that Gus didn’t like this too much.

“Get the fuck away from me, muchita!” he said, clearly annoyed at Julio’s outspoken little brother. He shoved his basketball at the boy, who took it but held his ground.

“Go!” Julio barked, as his kid brother stared defiantly at Gus, having to look almost straight up to catch the tall boy’s gaze.

“Fuck off!” Gus added.

“You kick his sorry ass, bro!” Joey said pointedly to Jesse before stomping off the court with Gus’s basketball and sunglasses. He soon became part of the crowd, and seemed to be bragging to his friends about something, probably how he had defied both Gus and his brother.

“What’s it gonna be, bro?” Gus asked, returning his attention to Jesse. “Wanna maybe put some money down to make it interesting?”

Jesse shook his head. He glanced uncomfortably at me, and then looked Gus boldly in the eye. “When I say ‘yield,’ it’s over, right?” Jesse asked. The tone of his voice clearly indicated that he was saying this as much for our audience on the other side of the fence as for Gus. My stomach twisted into a knot, realizing that Jesse was going to fight this guy.

“Absolutely, bro. No problemo! “ Gus smiled, pleased that he was going to get his way. Why a big guy like that would want to beat up a thirteen year old kid was beyond me. And there was no guarantee that he wasn’t going to hurt Jesse--or me for that matter. I quickly glanced around, hoping to see Mr. Ramirez or some other authority figure in the vicinity. Other than some kids hanging out way over by the school building, everyone seemed to be gathered here to watch.

“No flips, no face or groin kicks, no blows above the shoulders,” Jesse rattled off his conditions.

“Got it!” Gus agreed readily, but that leering smile that had spread across his face seemed to be telling a different story.

“So, hombres, let’s mix it up, eh?” Julio suggested, acting as a makeshift referee.

“Just stand back by the fence near the others,” Jesse told me quietly. While I felt that I knew Jesse well enough by this time to read most of his facial expressions, the look he gave me left me more than a little confused. Did he think this guy was really going to stick to his word? Did he think he might have a serious chance against this huge guy who claimed to be a second degree blackbelt? Or did he think one or both of us was going to end up in the hospital?

I was reluctant, but Julio pointed me towards the fence, a somewhat reassuring look on his face. “Chill, dude, everything’s tight,” he assured me with something close to a friendly smile on his face.

I moved slowly towards the fence, my body stiff with fear and dread. Oh, to be safely tied to Jesse’s bed again…

When I got to the edge of the court, I stopped and turned towards the center. Joey came up on the other side, grasping the chain links in his hands as he pressed his face against the fence.

“This is going to be fuckin’ awesome!” he said excitedly.

Speaking as softly as I could, I turned to him. “Don’t you think its insane that a big guy like Gus wants to fight a thirteen year old kid?” I asked him, my voice almost pleading for someone to call a stop to this insanity.

“Shit man, from what I heard, Gus is going to have a rough time of it out there,” he said with a certainty that I didn’t feel at all. I wanted to ask him what kind of stories had been floating around the neighborhood, but just then, Julio let out with a yelp: “Fight!” He quickly retreated out of the combat zone, leaving the two grossly unmatched competitors alone in the middle of the basketball court.

Gus was first to strike a threatening pose, and Jesse reacted quickly. I couldn’t explain to you what was happening in technical terms, since even now I know so little about the whole martial arts thing, but at that moment, the look on the big Hispanic’s face left little doubt that he was taking this challenge very seriously. They began circling each other, their eyes locked, their stances occasionally changing, though it seemed like Jesse was the one reacting to Gus’s moves more than the other way around.

Gus moved smoothly. Where, moments before he had been all about cockiness and machismo, now he was all fluid, deliberate motion. Suddenly he lunged, making a loud shouting noise in his throat as his arms moved in a rapid and confusing pattern. Despite his relatively small stature, Jesse was able to block each attack with lightening speed. He was so quick and there was so little wasted motion in his moves, it seemed like he was hardly trying. Gus lunged again, then sprang away and brought his leg up for a swivel kick. Jesse leapt out of the way, continuing to stay on the defensive. All this happened in the space of five seconds.

“Damn, they weren’t kidding about you!” Gus said with an excited grin, realizing this was going to be a true challenge for him.

Jesse remained silent, moving slowly in a wide circle around his opponent, never letting down his guard, his eyes squarely locked with Gus’s. Gus removed his baseball cap and tossed it over to Julio.

He gave another chesty shout and attacked with both hands and feet this time. I wanted so much to close my eyes and not open them until this was all concluded in one way or the other, but I was as transfixed as the rest of the small crowd. Jesse deflected every blow and leapt as Gus’s leg shot out at him.

The two opponents quickly backed away from each other, and were soon circling again. Jesse’s long blonde hair, now in a state of disarray, glistened like gold in the afternoon sun.

“You’re good, man, real good...” Gus said breathlessly, his voice intense with concentration. He made a few false jabs, trying to throw Jesse off balance. For a moment, I thought that he had succeeded, because Jesse seemed to momentarily loose his balance, stumbling wildly backwards. Gus took this opportunity to pivot, his leg kicking out at the last moment, hoping to trip Jesse up. But in a blur of speed, Jesse just managed to avoid the kick while simultaneously spinning around to get behind Gus’s back. Jesse's apparent loss of balance had been a ruse. He grabbed Gus’s left arm and twisted it up against his shoulder blades.

The big kid's face twisted into a grimace and he sunk quickly to his knees, as Jesse, for the first time, looked down on his opponent. Gus made a few fruitless attempts to grab Jesse with his free arm, but Jesse remained just out of reach, his beautiful face filled with a fierce determination as he used all his force to lever Gus’s arm even harder.

“Yield!” Alejandro Gutierrez gasped from his knees, obviously in very real pain. Jesse immediately let go and backed off. The whole thing, including all the circling, took about three minutes.

The crowd cheered and hooted and applauded. I didn’t know who they had wanted to see come out on top, but they seemed genuinely pleased too see the little kid triumph over the big guy.

I looked at Joey, who was cheering along with everybody else.

“Is this Gus character really going to just let this go?” I asked skeptically.

Joey stopped cheering and the smile disappeared from his face. “Man, don’t you know nothin’ about honor?” he asked with a boyish scowl, as if I had been stupid to ask such a foolish question. I felt embarrassed despite my continued disbelief. He nodded his head towards the middle of the court. “You just watch...”

I did turn to watch, still tense with fear and concern. Gus was slowly picking himself up off the asphalt as Jesse looked on, red faced and obviously winded, but otherwise no worse for the wear. I tensed up when Jesse offered him a helping hand, but Gus refused and quickly got to his feet, brushing off the fronts of his baggy shorts.

“Congratulations, dude! That was fuckin’ awesome!” Gus said breathlessly.

“You fought most impressively--a worthy opponent,” Jesse said with a solemn face, giving the slightest of formal bows.

Gus returned the slight bow and stood to wipe the sweat from his brow. Julio came up grinning, and first gave Gus a complicated hand shake before slapping Jesse on the shoulder.

“You did it, dude. You’re the fuckin' Karate Kid!” and the way Julio said it made me suddenly think that this had all been set up some how. Not that the fight hadn’t been real--there was no way to choreograph something like that. But even if it had been the real deal, I had to wonder at the purpose of it all. Had it just been a coincidence that Gus had come along? What about the instant crowd? What about the stories that had been spread around about Jesse’s martial arts prowess? I started to head back to the center of the court.

“Hold on, dude!” Joey called.

“What?” I asked, the annoyance clear on my face.

“Give them some space. They need to talk.”

I had no idea what that meant, and as proud of I was of Jesse's remarkable performance, I was anxious to guide both of us out of here as quickly as possible.

"Just chill a sec," Joey urged me. I didn't sense any immediate danger from the upbeat crowd, so I did pause to observe a little more carefully what was going on between Jesse, Gus, and Julio.

The two high schoolers both towered over Jesse, but they stood casually as they spoke in low voices. Jesse also seemed fairly relaxed, with his arms crossed as he occasionally nodded or gave a short response to something one of the guys said.

Finally, Jesse shrugged and selfconsciously stuffed his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. One of the Hispanics touched Jesse lightly on the shoulder and the two walked off, giving me a brief nod as they walked past. Gutierrez was obviously spent, his forehead dripping with sweat even though it was only a mild November afternoon.

I waited for them to clear the court before I hurried back over to where Jesse stood.

“What was that all about?”

“Let’s head back and I’ll tell you on the way,” Jesse said, apparently still thinking about whatever it was the two guys had said. Jesse grabbed his jacket and I grabbed my shirt, surprised to realize that I had been clutching our basketball the whole time!

The small group who had served as an impromtu audience, especially the younger kids, all gathered around Jesse as he stepped off the court. They congratulated him and high fived him and looked at him with open admiration.

I could see Jesse was embarrassed by all the attention, and he just smiled shyly as we headed back to the equipment shack. We had pretty much lost our entourage by the time we reached the simple quonset hut with it’s peeling white paint and small, boarded up window…

Mr. Ramirez was a short elderly man with dark brown skin that looked like leather. He smiled at us as we approached. Several of his lower teeth were missing. “No fighting, eh? No fighting,” he said, half question and half statement as he leaned on the open doorway to the small shack.

Jesse nodded meekly. “Yes, I apologize. It’ll never happen again.”

“Si, you a good boy, good boy,” Mr. Ramirez said, handing Jesse a crumpled five dollar bill.

It was nearly 2:30 as we headed back for Jesse’s apartment. It was about a five block walk, and Jesse was silent for quite awhile.

“Sooooo...?” I finally asked.

“Guess we’ll have to find someplace else to shoot hoops, hehehe,” he said awkwardly, knowing that wasn’t what I was asking about.

“Jesse...” I pressed him, my voice serious.

“Those two guys?” Jesse asked, a little distractedly. “They said that if I was ever interested in doing a cage fight...”

“Cage fight!?” I asked, stopping in my tracks. Cage fights were those crazy, no holds barred, one on one underground events they did ‘Special Reports’ on for the local news. Anyone could show up and challenge the reigning champion--and either make some good money or get the bloody shit beat out of them while a chaotic crowd of blood thirsty spectators placed every kind of bet imaginable.

“Hello, Earth to Jesse,” I said, a little annoyed. “Those are illegal and people get really hurt and your not even fourteen yet...”

“I know, I know,” Jesse said, as if he had not been seriously considering the idea. He laughed uncomfortably. “They know a guy who runs a cage fight over in Escondido. They actually have a twelve to sixteen age group--can you believe that? They said I could probably defeat anyone there...”

“Jesse! You’re kidding...!” So that was what it had been about. Julio had told his buddy Gus about the incident at the mall, and they had put Jesse to the test to see if he’d be good material for one of those incredibly dangerous and gruesome spectator events.

”I didn’t say I was going to do it,” he said a bit testily.

“But...you’re thinking about it...” I said cautiously.

“You can make a lot of money--maybe a thousand dollars if you become reigning champ,” Jesse mused.

“You can’t be serious--people bring in hidden weapons: knives, pipes, clubs, whatever...”

Jesse shrugged my comment off. “They wouldn't allow that!”

I slapped my forehead with frustration. I looked Jesse squarely in the eye, put my hands on his shoulders, and looked him right in the eye. “Just tell me you’ll never do it!” I said pointedly.

Jesse looked at me a minute, as if he didn’t want to say it. My heart was beating furiously and I felt tense and a little queasy, the fear that I had been harboring since the moment I first spotted Julio, keeping my emotions at a high pitch.

“Dude, what are you getting all bent out of shape about?” he asked with a sweet smile. “Just because they made the offer, doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. Besides, these things take place over in Escondido--It'd take like three bus transfers to get over there!” he said, trying to make a joke out of it.

Somehow, that wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for and for once, I didn’t appreciate his skewed sense of humor.

“Let’s drop it, okay?” he said, turning on all the charm he could muster (and that was a lot!). He brushed my cheek gently with his fingers, seemingly unconcerned that we were out in public.

I felt my heart start to melt all over again. Jesse never had to try to make me love him--I just did. When he made an actual effort like this...It practically overloaded my emotional circuits. I had to remember to breath! Still, I had some sense left...

“If I ever find out that you’re going to do something like that--I swear I’ll tell your mom,” I said in the most threatening voice I could muster. And since that sounded rather childish, I added, “Or the police--if I have to.”

“You won’t have to do that,” Jesse assured me calmly. “Don’t worry about it.” We just stared at each other for a minute, Jesse with a sheepish grin on his face, me looking as serious as I could.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jesse repeated more sincerely. “Let’s just think about how we’re going to spend the rest of our precious day together.” He looked at me with those beautiful, crystal blue eyes, and I felt my determination waver. He started to walk again, but I stood still for a few more moments, trying to get a grip on the conflicting thoughts and feelings that were swirling around in my head. Jesse didn’t look back, and I had to jog to catch up to him.

Jesse gave me one of his impish little glances. “Did you like what we did this morning, 'cause I did--I really did!" he said excitedly.

I released a heavy sigh, trying to force myself to relax again. As frightened as I’d been back there, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that Jesse would get us out of it. Of course, it was hard for me to imagine if it had turned out differently. The idea of Jesse getting hurt--my beautiful blonde angel--made me shudder.

I felt weak, and stopped to lean against the nearest Maple tree. My heart was beating quickly again, and I felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my lungs. Jesse looked around, and seeing me in an obviously distressed state, quickly came back.

“You...could’ve been...hurt...” I gasped, feeling myself shiver even though the air was comfortably warm.

Jesse shook his head, his concern for me clearly written on his face. “You know what?” he asked gently, standing before me with his hands stuffed in his jacket. “I think it was all a set-up. I don’t think Gus was trying very hard--he let me win!”

“Huh?” I asked, the information Jesse was giving me not penetrating the thick cloud of emotions swirling around my head.

“Don’t you see--it was all a set up. I don’t know how the stories got started about our little run in at the mall, but obviously, they were extremely exaggerated. When Julio and Gus saw an opportunity to attract a little attention, they did. They used the stories about us, and Gus pretended to let me beat him so that it would generate interest in their stupid cage fight scheme--maybe they get a commission or something out of it.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But there was no real danger. If I thought there was, if I thought they might hurt you...” For the first time since we had run into Julio, Jesse’s voice cracked a little. He dropped his gaze to the sidewalk. “I’d never let anyone hurt you,” he said with unnerving conviction.

I wasn’t sure I believed Jesse’s explanation. The fight had looked very real to me. Gus seemed to know what he was doing; he was very fast, and very aggressive. Jesse had remained on the defensive the entire time. Only at the end, when he had done his little stumbling trick to throw Gus off, did Jesse actually make a proactive move. I guess it was something he had learned in streetfights back in Illinois. God, what a life that must have been...

“Don’t be upset,” Jesse pleaded. “I didn’t plan for that to happen, you know...” His eyes and voice were beseeching me to forgive and forget.

One thing I knew about Jesse for sure--he was smart, very smart. He would never do anything as recklessly dangerous as entering one of those cage fights, especially just for money. Jesse wasn't like that--he wasn't greedy (well, except maybe about me--hehehe!). He was devoted to his mom and sister. If he got himself hurt, he wouldn’t be able to take care of Miranda, leaving his mom in a serious bind. I knew he’d never shirk that responsibility because he loved them too much, and I tried to take comfort in that.

Jesse looked at me with a hesitant, expectant smile on his face, practically begging me to drop the whole thing. I slowly started walking again, keeping my head bowed, my eyes fixed on my sneakers, blindly following the narrow confines of the battered sidewalk. Jesse followed quietly. He was so complicated...

Finally, I turned to him, trying to show Jesse that I had confidence in his judgement. He had been in situations like this before, and he had said there was nothing to fear, and I had to believe him. He looked at me expectantly, like a small child waiting to see if he’s going to be yelled at or hugged by his parents. “Are you up for anther milkshake?” I asked coyly, driving all the unpleasant thoughts from my head and filling them with the sight of the boy I loved more than anything in the world.

"But we already passed...Ohhhhh..." he said, a big grin spreading across his face. Whenever he smiled, it caused his eyes to light up in an almost magical way.

“Sure, you bet!” Jesse smiled, happy and relieved. “One milkshake for breakfast and one for supper--and you’re nutritionally set for the day!”

“What about the one you had for lunch?” I asked.

“That one doesn’t count--it was made from milk!”

You’re gross,” I moaned, shaking my head helplessly.

Jesse gave me a playful shove, the serious discussion of a few minutes ago seemingly forgotten.

Still, it nagged at me. I had been truly frightened, maybe as much because the people we met were from a culture and class that I was unfamiliar with, as from any actual threat. I guess we all tend to fear what we don’t know or understand, and that made me flash on the whole gay/straight dilemma. Before Jesse came along, I hadn't even seriously considered the idea of calling myself gay. Homosexuals were shunned and berated, scorned and beaten, cursed and persecuted. Even if a person had some of those kinds of feelings, why would anyone in their right mind pursue them, knowing the stigma that went along with it?

“Jesse?” I asked quietly, as we got within a block of his apartment.


“You know I love you, right?” I stopped walking, and Jesse stood close by my side.

"I do," he said with absolute conviction.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you..." I said meekly.

"No, I'm the one who should be sorry. I could've walked away from Gus, from Julio..."

"Were you scared?" I asked quietly.

He stood there looking me up and down. There was something he saw in me that filled him with the same warm feelings I got from looking at him, though God only knows what it was...

“Of course,” he answered plainly.

“Why didn’t you just walk way?”

“Where I came from, if you walked away from a fight, you were just making things worse. It would get to be a bigger and bigger deal, with more and more people involved. The bad feelings would just keep escalating, until a little scuffle on the sidewalk could turn into a huge gang battle. I guess I just wanted to nip this one in the bud...” He stopped, looking around the neighborhood thoughtfully. “I guess I was kinda intrigued...”

“Weren’t you scared when he said he was a second degree blackbelt?”

Jesse shrugged. “Just because you can break a certain number of boards with your head, or master a few routines, doesn’t mean you’re good at streetfighting.” He started to walk again.

“But you are?” I asked, half question, half statement. Jesse didn’t answer.


It really helps to know if anyone is reading this stuff. If you've gotten this far, at least drop me a note and let me know that you're interested in the story...

comments and constructive criticism are always welcome: underthehoodster@netscape.net

Copyright © 2011 underthehoodster; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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"Homosexuals were shunned and berated, scorned and beaten, cursed and persecuted. Even if a person had some of those kinds of feelings, why would anyone in their right mind pursue them, knowing the stigma that went along with it?"

- gotta say, you're a very good writer

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