A QB Grows in Lawndale

By Kristen Bealer

o O o

Kevin: Check out the new Kevin!

Daria: You'll note he didn't say "improved."

-"A Tree Grows in Lawndale"

o O o

"See, by teaching the kids about safety, I'm giving something back to society," Kevin explained to Mack at lunch. "I'm like a philanderest."

Mack didn't look very interested. "Yeah, yeah. How about suiting up and giving something back to the team?" he asked. "This new guy's got the receivers hiding in a dumpster."

"But the kids..." Kevin struggled to put into words why this was so important. All he could come up with was, "They look up to me, bro."

Mack looked at him thoughtfully. "Hey, we look up-" Mack paused, then said, "-we look at you, too. Now come on back, will you?"

Kevin sighed. Mack always had trouble understanding him, but Kevin figured that was because he was the QB and Mack wasn't. Sometimes Kevin's best ideas and smartest comments just confused Mack or made him walk away. Still, this was different. Kevin really liked helping those kids. Maybe as much as he liked playing football. Maybe even more.

Before he could try to explain that to Mack, Brittany approached their cafeteria table. "Hi, Kevvy," she said sadly.

"Hey," he replied. Things had been really uncomfortable between them ever since he'd left the team.

"Um, I was wondering," Brittany began, "can I borrow one of your crutches? Please?"

Kevin was confused, because Brittany hadn't been limping or anything. Also, he was pretty sure you were supposed to use two crutches, not just one. He shook it off and answered, "Can't spare it. I need it for my motivated speaking." Looking at her wistfully, he decided that it was time to mend the rift in their relationship. After all, he wasn't sure if he could swing any new dates for the weekend with such short notice. "Say, Brit," he mentioned casually, "you know there's no law that says a motivated speaker can't have a babe."

Brittany looked at him with hurt and frustration. "But there is a law that says cheerleaders can only date football players, remember?"

Kevin was surprised at himself for forgetting such an important rule. "Darn!" Desperate to keep the hottest babe he'd ever dated from slipping away, he argued, "You know, that's recrimination. I mean, just because I don't wear a uniform doesn't mean I'm not the same guy."

Brittany glared at him. "Yes, it does! My Kevvy is a football leader of men. My Kevvy wouldn't let the whole team down. My Kevvy wouldn't let Lawndale become a loser town!"

She walked away, and for just a moment Kevin thought about calling her back. Then he remembered what he'd said to Mack just minutes before. They look up to me. He thought about the football team, and then he thought about all those kids. He made up his mind.

"Sorry, Mack Daddy," he said as he turned his attention back to his friend. "I've just gotta do this, you know?"

Mack just looked sadly back at him, shoulders slumped. At a nearby table, Kevin thought he heard Daria say something about a plan that worked too well.

o O o

"...and even though blood and guts and stuff looks really cool in the movies, in real life it, like, hurts and stuff. So be safe, okay?" Standing at the podium, Kevin grinned at the kids in the audience. He was a little worried he might have gone too far when he told them about broken bones poking through skin, but they'd seemed to enjoy it.

Giving the kids one last thumb's up, he left the stage to the usual sound of enthusiastic applause and cheers. Backstage, he found Mrs. Cooper, the McKinley Elementary School principal, waiting for him. "Kevin," she said, waving him over, "you've done a great job with the kids here, and I've heard similar things from the other grade schools in Lawndale."

"Aww, thanks! I like helping kids."

She smiled at him. "I can tell. That's why I want to ask if you'd like to volunteer as a mentor with the Lawndale School District's afterschool program. You'd go to different grade schools around Lawndale and visit with the students. Talk to them, work with them, help them with problems..."

Kevin nervously scratched the back of his head. "Would I have to help them with school stuff?" Brittany had once asked him to help her little brother with a school assignment, and the kid had ended up laughing at him and calling him stupid. A headlock had taken care of that, but since that day Kevin had begun to suspect that tutoring wasn't his thing.

"Only if you want to," Mrs. Cooper assured him. "The program is really more for informal help. You'd listen to the children if they want someone to talk to, offer them advice if they need it, or just spend time hanging out with them. It gives the kids someone closer to their age that they can look up to. Would you like to sign up?"

"Sure!" Kevin replied immediately. He was running out of stuff to say about safety, and now that he'd stopped using his crutches it seemed weird to keep talking about his motorcycle accident. That mentor thing sounds like fun. And if it's not, there's always headlocks.

o O o

"I never thought I would say this," Mr. DeMartino said as he handed back the most recent history test at the end of the class, "but the grades on these tests were even lower than my usual expectations."

Kevin accepted his test and winced. A red "56" was marked in the corner, and he knew that was a failing grade. He'd actually had more time to study now that he didn't have to go to football games, practices, or keggers, but somehow the information in the book just wouldn't stay in his brain after he read it.

And without the football team, there would be no more byes.

Kevin gulped as the bell rang. The other students filed out, but Kevin stayed behind. "Mr. D?" he asked.

The teacher flinched slightly when he saw Kevin was still there, but all he said was, "Yes?"

"I, um, guess my grades aren't so good."

Mr. DeMartino's jaw muscles did something weird before he replied, "Your gift at understatement astounds me, Kevin."

"Uh, yeah. So anyway, I quit the team, so I gotta pass my classes on my own now." He stood up and approached the teacher. "But I need, like, help or something. If I promise to try really, really hard, will you help me?"

Kevin had seen Mr. DeMartino do a lot of things in his time at Lawndale High, but this was the first time he'd ever seen the man smile and cry at the same time.

o O o

Sitting at the school library, Kevin tried to keep his mind on his work but his eyes kept drifting toward the window. He could see the broken-off stump of the Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree from where he sat. He'd heard rumors that Tommy Sherman's ghost was now haunting the school, but that was silly. After all, reasoned Kevin, there were lots of cooler places to haunt than a school. Kevin had already decided that if he ever became a ghost, he was going to haunt the Super Mega Multiplex. Then he could watch movies for free.

Sighing, Kevin looked back at the study guide Mr. DeMartino had given him. He'd walked him through it step by step, showing him how to look up stuff in the book and pointing out some of the important things he should focus on, but it was really hard. There were so many years and places and names, and they all kept getting mixed up in his head. He'd made a really good breakthrough recently, though, when he figured out there were actually two separate presidents named Roosevelt instead of one.

Still, he was determined to do as much studying as it took to keep from failing the class. He just hoped he'd be able to pass all his other classes, too.

His thoughts were interrupted by the far-off sound of a whistle blowing. Kevin wondered when the team was going to start playing better. That scary guy hadn't helped, and now he was gone, anyway. Right before the last game, the police had taken him away, saying something about a bar fight and parole violations or whatever. The Lions had lost the game, and from what Kevin had heard the practices were still a great big mess. At least Mack seemed a lot calmer, and Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie weren't screaming in terror whenever they heard a loud noise anymore.

Kevin read another study question. "Wait, Russia was on our side in World War II?" he muttered. "But we fought against them in that Cold War in Space thing!" He flipped through a few more pages of his textbook, then squinted at his barely-legible class notes.

Another whistle sounded in the distance, and Kevin looked up from his studying again. This would be a lot easier if I could work on it at home, he thought. He immediately shrugged off the idea. He'd given up studying at home after the third time his father had burst into his room, eager to pull his son away from his homework and into a few hours of football drills.

Doug Thompson was apparently convinced that Kevin's motivational speaking was just a phase and that prolonged exposure to football would bring him back around. When it didn't, Kevin had to put up with hours of his father stomping around the house, swearing and whining to anyone who would listen. Other times, Doug would turn on the television and crank the volume up so that the Pigskin Channel blared through the house until the neighbors complained.

The worst was when Doug would call various friends or family on the phone and hold long, loud conversations about the ridiculous phase his son was going through. Sometimes Kevin suspected no one was actually on the other end of the line.

Now that practice was over, Kevin could hear the team walking past the library, calling out jokes and laughing together. Gritting his teeth, he turned another page in his book and jammed his fists against his ears as he forced himself to reread another chapter.

o O o

"You suck! Yousuckyousuckyousuckyousuck!"

Kevin leaned against the wall at the Lincoln Elementary school gymnasium and watched as one boy began to pummel another. Then it occurred to him that part of his job as an after school mentor might be to stop that kind of thing from happening.

"Hey, guys!" he called out, stepping forward.

The two boys looked up at him with annoyance. "What?" demanded the second boy from his place on the floor. The Pummeler was sitting on his back, but the Pummeled had twisted around to grab a fistful of his blond hair.

"Uh, I think you should cut that out," Kevin said hesitantly.

"Uh," mimicked Pummeler, "I think you suck!"

"Yeah!" said Pummeled, accidentally tugging on Pummeler's hair and eliciting a savage arm punch.

"No way!" argued Kevin. "I'm the-" Then he was silent. I'm not the QB anymore, he reminded himself. "I'm the safety guy, remember? And punching people isn't safe."

Both boys rolled their eyes. "Safety sucks, too!" said Pummeler.

"That's not cool, man!" Kevin said. "Why don't you guys do homework or something?"

"Already got mine done," replied Pummeled. Pummeler nodded his agreement.

Lucky, Kevin thought, remembering the piles of schoolwork he still had to do that night. "Well, stop fighting."

"Make us!" jeered Pummeler.

Kevin shrugged. Plan B, he decided.

One of the teachers came running as the sound of anguished squeals filled the gym. "What are you doing?" she exclaimed to Kevin, who now held a boy's neck under each arm.

"It's, like, extreme mentoring," he replied.

Having reassured herself that the boys were not actually in pain, the teacher relaxed. "I think you can let them go now," she told him. He released them, and the sullen boys hurried away without a word. "Chris and Jamie can be a little...rambunctious," the teacher explained. Kevin made a mental note to look that word up later. "I'm glad you were able to calm them down." She tilted her head and gave him a small smile. "Although it might be better to try something less physical next time."

Kevin looked over at Chris and Jamie, who were now sitting quietly on the other side of the room and casting occasional nervous glances in his direction. "Naw, I don't think I'll have to."

o O o

"So, class, your assignment is to pick something you know you'll fail at. To prove that failing isn't the end of the world."

I'm getting real close to failing this class, Kevin thought glumly as he listened to Mr. O'Neill. Does that count?

"Mack, what will you fail at?" O'Neill asked.

Mack sighed. "I could fail at getting Kevin back on the team," he said, glancing over briefly before turning his attention back to the teacher.

Kevin stared at the top of his desk. He was starting to think Mack had a point. He was enjoying the mentoring program, but he was barely passing his classes and his dad was really riding him about football. Also, he was pretty sure that if he flunked out of school then they wouldn't let him mentor anymore, anyway. And the Lawndale Lions had just lost yet another game, which was bumming out the whole town.

But if I get back on the team, I won't have time for the kids. And I really like mentoring. Helping people rocks!

Frowning slightly, Kevin felt the beginnings of an idea form. "Helping..." he muttered to himself. Slowly he began to put together a plan. I like helping people. The team-especially Mack-needs help. His head was starting to hurt, but things were starting to come together now. Helping the team might make my dad chill out. And didn't Mr. O'Neill say something about trying stuff for our homework?

"Hey!" he suddenly called out to Mr. O'Neill. "I know what I'll do for my assignment! I'm gonna teach Mack Daddy to be an awesome QB!"

"That's great, Kevin," Mr. O'Neill replied cheerfully. "But class is over now."

Kevin looked around the room at the empty desks. "Aw, man!" he groaned.

o O o

Mack seemed doubtful when Kevin caught up to him and explained his great idea, but he agreed to come over to Kevin's house after school. "Might as well get a head start on failing my assignment," he said.

At the Thompsons' house, Mack followed Kevin into his room so they could drop off their things. "I think there's a football in the garage," Kevin said as he tossed his bookbag on his bed. He turned around to see Mack staring in shock at the walls. "Bro?" he asked his friend.

Mack blinked and his eyes focused back on Kevin. "I see you...redecorated."

Kevin glanced around his room. Mack was right; he had made a lot of changes. One day, shortly after he'd left the team, Kevin had come home to find his father waiting for him in the kitchen with a box. "These are all your old football trophies," he'd informed his son. "Since they don't mean crap to you anymore, I'm going to hold on to them. Maybe I'll pawn them for beer. We'll see."

Although Kevin knew Doug Thompson would sooner cancel their Pigskin Channel subscription than sell those trophies, he'd had enough of his father's threats and jeers and complaints. He'd immediately marched into his room and removed every single thing related to football. The NFL posters. The Lawndale Lions pennants. The Green Bay Packers bed sheets. The souvenir footballs. Everything that had anything to do with football had been torn down, gathered up, and thrown out.

All that remained were empty walls, except for one sheet of paper near the bed, attached to the wall with masking tape. It was a messy crayon drawing of a dark-haired boy with a huge grin standing at a podium. Scrawled beneath the picture were the words, "Safety Guy Rules!"

Kevin looked at Mack again. "Yeah. I think this fits me better, you know?"

Mack was studying the drawing with a thoughtful look on his face. "Maybe..."

"Come on," Kevin told him. "Let's go practice!"

o O o

"...and then I remembered that in practice, Jamie's more likely to fumble the ball than Joey is, so I thought I should throw it to Joey instead, but I looked over at him and saw that he wasn't open." While they threw a football back and forth in the back yard, Mack was explaining the Lions' previous football game, which they'd lost 10 - 39. "I was just about to throw it to Jamie after all, but then I got sacked." He sighed and threw yet another perfect forward pass to Kevin. "I'm just not cut out to be the quarterback."

Kevin thudded the ball against his palm while he thought. School stuff was hard, but football stuff he could always figure out way faster than Mack could. "Look, Mack Daddy," he said as he threw the ball back. "You're a great football player, and you're awesome as captain 'cause you can plan stuff out real good. But you can't do all that thinking stuff in the middle of a game. You gotta go on instinct." He looked at Mack's doubtful expression and added, "You gotta trust your instinct."

Mack glumly threw the ball again, and Kevin could see he still didn't get it. "The problem isn't your skills, man," Kevin said. "You gotta have confidence!"

At that moment, a car door slammed at the front of the house. Mack turned his head at the distraction, and Kevin seized the opportunity. Hauling back, he threw the ball at Mack as hard as he could. Even having been off the team for several weeks, he could still throw the ball harder than anyone else on the team. Mack whipped back around just in time to see the ball hurtling toward him, and his arms automatically came up to grab it just inches from his head.

"What the hell?" he demanded.

"You see?" Kevin asked. "You saw the ball coming and you didn't, like, measure stuff or weigh your options or wonder why I was throwing it at you-you just caught it. That's being the QB! You stay in the moment and do what needs to be done right then. I know you can do that. I've seen you do it. You're just too freaked out about the whole QB thing."

Mack stared at the ball in his hands and nodded slowly. "You know, Kevin, sometimes I think you know a lot more than people realize."

"Totally, Mack Daddy! Sometimes I know stuff without actually knowing it at all!"

"...Or maybe not," Mack said, but he was smiling as he threw the ball back to Kevin.

"Hey, what's this?" Doug Thompson emerged from the house, grinning at the two boys. "A little football practice? I knew my boy couldn't stay away from the game forever!"

"I'm giving Mack some QB tips," Kevin said, trying not to look at his father.

"There's no need for that," Doug scoffed. "I'm sure Mack here will be happy to step aside and give you your old position back. Right, Mack?"

Before Mack could reply, Kevin spoke up. "No. I'm not rejoining the team."

"Sure you are!" Doug exclaimed, smacking him on the shoulder. "You just needed to rekindle that old football spirit, and now-"

"No." Kevin finally looked his father in the eye. "No." He dropped the ball at Doug's feet and walked toward the house. "Come on, Mack. Time for a break."

Mack followed him into the house and into Kevin's room, where Kevin dropped tiredly onto his bed and picked up his bookbag.

"Are you and your dad-" Mack started to say.

"-I really need to start my homework," Kevin interrupted. His tone was casual, but his expression made it clear: drop the subject.

"Sure," Mack agreed quickly. "Hey, how are classes going for you?" He didn't add "...now that Coach Gibson isn't fixing your grades," but even Kevin could put that one together.

"Okay, I guess." Kevin pulled some papers out of his bag. "Mr. D. gave me some study guides and sometimes when I don't have mentoring I stay after school to go over whatever I don't understand with him. He's actually pretty cool, you know?"

Mack looked surprised. "Mr. DeMartino is helping you?"

Kevin nodded. "Yeah, he's really good at teaching when he isn't yelling and stuff!"

Opening his own bookbag, Mack started to take out some books. The two studied in silence for a few moments before Mack spoke again. "If you want, I could help you out with homework. I could come over here-" He stopped as a door slammed elsewhere in the house, then resumed, "-or maybe we could hang out at my place."

"That'd be cool!" Kevin replied, brightening. "But you already helped me with my Language Arts homework. I, like, failed to fail at helping you be a better QB, right?" Mack nodded. "So if I fail to fail, then I pass, don't I?"

"I guess so," Mack said. "And I'd better do my part of the assignment by trying to get you back on the team."

Kevin's cheerful expression dimmed. "Oh."

"Kevin, do you want to be back on the team?"

"Not really," Kevin said apologetically.

"Okay then. I succeeded at failing." Mack gave his friend a smile and pointed to their books. "So how are you doing on those math problems?"

o O o

Kevin couldn't stop looking at the penguin. He was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to wobble like that, and he was starting to think the head might break off and hurt someone. Normally he'd never have noticed something like that, but his time as the Safety Guy had taught him to notice stuff that wasn't safe.

And that parade float was definitely not safe.

He spotted Ms. Li patrolling the crowd and walked over to her. "Hey, Ms. Li?" he asked.

She turned to him and smiled warmly. Although she'd been upset at first when he left the football team, she'd been really happy when Kevin's safety lectures and mentoring started showing up in the papers and on the news. "Yes, Mr. Thompson?"

He pointed to the penguin. "I think that float is gonna break or something."

She turned her attention to the float. "Hmm," she muttered to herself. "Potential lawsuit on the horizon. Delaying parade unfortunate but also necessary." Without another word, she hurried out to the float and flagged the driver down.

Kevin watched as the float stopped, halting the parade, and people began working on securing the penguin. He turned and walked away just in time to run into someone coming out of Drugs N' Stuff.

"Oof!" the person said, staggering backward.

"Saw-ree!" Kevin said, reaching out to steady the person. "Oh! Hi, Daria!"

She shifted the bag in her arms and sighed. "Hi, Kevin."

He noticed that she was looking toward the other side of the street. "Need help getting across?" he asked. "I'm good with safety stuff, so if you need help I can-"

"-I think I've got it," Daria assured him, gesturing at the stopped parade.

"Okey doke!" Kevin replied as she walked past him and crossed the street. Once she was out of view, he turned around and was immediately blinded by a camera flash.

Once his sight returned, Kevin saw Jane Lane smirking at him. "Busy guy, aren't you?" she asked. "Saving everyone from unstable penguins, rescuing damsels in distress...now if you could only conjure up missing princes."

"Huh?" Kevin didn't understand much of what Jane had just said, but the look on her face told him she was mad at someone. He'd seen that look on Brittany's face enough times to know. He just hoped it wasn't him that she was mad at.

"You haven't seen a brown-haired guy in khakis trying too hard to look middle class, have you? He was supposed to meet me here at the drugstore and he hasn't showed."

Something clicked in Kevin's memory. "Hey, do you think he's at the other drugstore? One time I was supposed to meet Brittany at the drugstore and I came here but she was at the other one, and then she got really super mad at me and I had to buy her, like, five million stuffed animals because otherwise I'd never get-"

But Jane was walking away. "That's more than enough information, thank you. I'll go see if Tom's there. You stay here. Please."

"Sure thing!" Kevin called after her. At that moment, Ms. Li and the others completed their last-minute repair work on the penguin and the parade finally began to move forward again.

As he watched, the football float came into view with Mack standing on it, waving next to Jodie. There had been a little confusion about Mack being on the float as the quarterback, because he and Jodie had also been elected Homecoming King and Queen. In the end, the school had decided to combine the two floats and make Jodie the Football Sweetheart as well. Jodie looked kind of frustrated on the float, but Mack was grinning and waving at everyone he saw.

Kevin wasn't surprised-ever since that day at his house, Mack had turned the team around and was leading them to victory. The cheerleaders were more cheerful, other towns had stopped making fun of Lawndale, and no one was talking about Tommy Sherman's ghost anymore.

Mack caught sight of Kevin and gave him a thumb's up, which Kevin returned. He was really happy for Mack, not just because the team was doing better, but also because thanks to his help, Kevin was passing all his classes. He wasn't about to become a brain or anything, but stuff from his classes was starting to stay in his head-at least long enough to get okay grades on the tests.

He watched the float pass by. As he did, he heard a weird sound. He turned around to see a little boy standing away from the crowd, crying. After a moment, Kevin recognized him from one of the grade schools.


The round-faced blond boy looked up at Kevin through his tears and broke into a smile. "Hi! You're the guy who gave all those safety lectures, right?"

"That's me! Are you here for the parade?"

Tad nodded. "I came with my parents, but now I'm lost. I saw a windmill in the toy store window so I went to look-"

"Yeah, windmills are cool!"

"And they're such a clean source of energy! But when I turned around, everyone was gone."

"Well, let's go find them!" Kevin took Tad's hand. "It'll be an adventure, like that time Ratboy had to rescue his sidekick Whisker Face from the clutches of his arch-nemesis, Mousetrap!"

"What?" Tad asked, distracted from his fears.

"Oh, haven't you read that one? It's awesome. See, Ratboy has to crawl those this maze of tunnels and defeat, like, a million bad guys, and just when he finds where Whisker Face is being held, Mousetrap jumps him from behind and..."

As Kevin described his favorite comic book scene of all time, Tad listened intently. They walked hand-in-hand down the street, scanning the crowd for any sign of Tad's family. Just as Kevin was getting to the part of the battle where Ratboy bites Mousetrap's tail off, a man and woman leading a young girl rushed over to them.

"Oh, there you are, Tad!" exclaimed the woman. "We were so worried about you!"

"I'm okay!" Tad said, running over to her. "Kevin helped me look for you! He's a mentor who visits us at school sometimes, and he used to be the safety guy!"

"That's wonderful," the man who Kevin guessed was Tad's father said. "We're big supporters of child safety, too."

"And he knows lots of cool stories about rats who kill bad guys," Tad added. Tad's parents looked a little less thrilled about that part, but they thanked Kevin warmly for his help.

"What does disemboweling mean?" Kevin heard Tad ask as they left. "Can that be tomorrow's vocabulary word?"

o O o

Kevin came home from the parade with a smile on his face. I helped tons of people! he thought as he walked through the front door. And I even found someone else who thinks Ratboy is cool!

"Where the hell have you been?"

Kevin's good mood vanished in an instant. He looked at his father, who was sprawled on the living room couch with a beer can in his hand. Keeping his voice level, he replied, "I went to the Homecoming Parade."

Doug Thompson snorted and took a swig from his beer. "Why? Parades are for winners, not losers like you."

"I still support the team even though I'm not on it," Kevin said. "Anyway, it was a good thing I went. See, there was this float-"

Gulping down the last of the beer, Doug clenched the can in his fist until the sides crumpled and then hurled it at his son. Kevin dodged it, but a few drops of beer hit his cheek as it bounced off the wall behind him.

"I said parades are for winners, not losers." His father scowled. "Now go throw that can away. And while you're at it, you can take out the garbage. That's what losers do. Garbage."

Without a word, Kevin picked up the crumpled can and walked away.

o O o

Kevin fidgeted in his chair as he looked around the nearly empty room. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and almost all of the kids had gone home right after school for the holiday weekend.

Except for one.

Ten minutes earlier, the boy had dragged himself into the gym and dropped into a seat on the other side of the room, dropping his bookbag on the floor at his feet as he slumped forward and stared at the floor. He hadn't moved or said anything since.

Kevin was starting to think he should say something, but couldn't think of anything good. So he tried the first thing that came to mind. "Do you like comic books?"

The boy glared at him through thick glasses. "No."

"Oh. Okay." Kevin went over the exchange in his head and decided it hadn't gone very well. "So, what do you like?"

"Being left alone."

"Um...what else do you like?"

He groaned slightly. "Look, if I give you my name, rank, and serial number, will you leave me alone?"

Kevin tried to pull what he could out of that sentence. "Cereal? You like cereal? Me too! What's your favorite? I like the ones with marshmallows."

The boy stared at him for a short time. "God, you're stupid," he finally snapped.

Kevin thought briefly of headlocks, but decided it wasn't such a good idea this time. Instead, he changed the subject. "What are you going to do for Thanksgiving break?" he asked.

"I'm going to sit in my room and see if my mom remembers I exist," he replied, staring at the floor again. "If I'm lucky, she'll be too busy with her new husband to care what I do."

"Hey, that sucks!" The words flew out before Kevin had a chance to think about it, which happened to him often, but this time he realized after the fact that there might have been better ways to respond.

Although he was still scowling, the boy's expression lightened very slightly with both surprise and something that looked a little like relief. "Yeah, it does."

Wow, that actually went okay, Kevin realized, but he couldn't think of anything else to add. "Uh. You know what else sucks?"

"Being stuck at an afterschool program because your stupid stepfather forgot to pick you up from school again?"

"Well, yeah, but I was gonna say Algebra." The boy only shrugged, and Kevin worried that the conversation was stalling again. "By the way, I'm Kevin. What's your name?"


"Oh, like a thing on a chain, right?"

"Exactly. Like a thing on a chain," Link grumbled.

Kevin had a feeling that that had been the wrong thing to say and desperately tried to fill the awkward silence that followed. "Links can be other stuff, too. Like, uh, sausages! Sausage links are cool. And those things you click when you're online are links. So that's cool, too. Do you do online stuff? One time I found this page where there's this frog and it's in a blender and you can, like, push different buttons to...well, blend up the frog," he finished lamely, having run out of things to say.

Link crossed his arms and looked away. "Whatever."

o O o

"Doug Thompson scores and lifts his buns high in the air!" Doug laughed and addressed the crowd in the Thompsons' backyard. "Hey, folks, welcome to the annual Lawndale High football barbecue! Grab some food, make yourself at home, and feel free to toss around the old pigskin. And if she objects, use a football." He shot a poisonous glance toward his son. "And if you need anything at all, tell the quitter over there and he'll get it for you. He might as well be good for something, right?" He laughed again, but no one joined in.

Kevin saw Mack giving him a sympathetic look from across the yard, but he waved him off with a smile and went back to pouring ice into the cooler. His father had been keeping him busy all day working on stuff at the barbecue, but he didn't mind. The busier he was, the less time he had to listen to the jabs and insults that Doug constantly hurled his way.

It also gave him a good excuse to avoid Brittany, but that wasn't difficult as she was spending most of her time hanging all over Robert. He was surprised to find that while he missed having a girlfriend, he didn't miss Brittany nearly as much as he thought he would. Still, it would be nice to have a babe again.

"Kevin!" Doug bellowed. "Get your ass in the kitchen and bring out some more chips!"

Nodding, he grabbed a few empty bowls and brought them inside. As he was opening up bags of chips, the door opened and Mr. DeMartino stepped into the kitchen.

"Hi, Mr. D!" Kevin greeted him cheerfully.

"Hello, Kevin." Mr. DeMartino's voice had lost a lot of its angry edge over the past few months, and his eye had actually stayed its normal size most of the time ever since Kevin had left the team.

"Did you need something?"

"No," he replied, although he was eyeing the bowls of chips hungrily. "I just needed a break from the...exuberant display of football fanaticism outside." He looked at Kevin through narrowed eyes. "Your father in particular seems very opinionated on the subject."

"Yeah," Kevin said. There wasn't anything else to say.

Mr. DeMartino watched him closely for a few more seconds before changing the subject. "I was just conversing with some of the other teachers," he said, "and it seems everyone is pleased with the improvement in your grades."

Relieved, Kevin grinned at his teacher. "Yeah! I'm even passing science class 'cause Ms. Barch said something about rejecting barber-ick male traditions and costumes and embracing a more lightened attitude." He tilted his head. "Hey, does that mean if I wear a barber costume then I can get extra credit?"

"I wouldn't recommend it."

"Darn. Hey, you want some chips?" Kevin held out one of the bowls and, after barely a second's hesitation, Mr. DeMartino snatched it and began eating enthusiastically. "Have as much as you want. There's plenty!"

Gathering up the remaining bowls and bags, Kevin carried everything back out to the yard.

"It's about time," Doug called over from his place at the grill. "Good thing you were never this slow on the field, or-"

"Oh, my," Charlene interrupted her husband, "it looks like we don't have any barbecue sauce. Kevin, would you be a dear and go pick some up for us?" Pulling her son away from the crowd, she whispered, "Here's some money. Take as much time as you want, okay?"

"Thanks, Mom!" Charlene had been surprisingly supportive of her son's decision to quit the team, although Kevin had a feeling it had something to do with his and Brittany's breakup. Whatever the reason, she had been doing what little she could to shield him from Doug's frustration. Unfortunately, Doug was not easily deflected.

"Try not to give up if it gets too hard," Doug grumbled as Kevin headed back inside for his keys.

o O o

"Barbecue sauce, barbecue sauce," Kevin recited over and over to himself as he walked into the Payday warehouse store. "Barbecue-whoa!" He looked around and wondered if he'd ever find what he was looking for with so much stuff everywhere.

He wandered the aisles, dodging other customers, until he spotted an employee. "Yo," he called out, running over. "Where do you keep your...hey, I know you!"

The employee turned, saw him, and groaned. "Oh, no. Not you," she muttered.

He smiled. "Andrea, right?"

"Yeah." She glared at him and brushed a strand of black hair away from her face. "Look, before you even say it, my lousy parents are making me work here to save money for college. Not that you'd understand anything about that."

"Hey!" Kevin exclaimed, suspecting that he'd just been insulted. Then he paused. "Wait, which part don't I understand?"

Andrea rolled her eyes. "All of it. Your dad probably didn't grab the first job application he found and make you fill it out when there's about a million other places you'd rather work. And who needs to worry about college tuition anyway when football scholarships will pay for everything?"

"I don't play football anymore." For a moment, Kevin thought it was weird that Andrea didn't know that. Then he realized she'd probably never gone to any games or pep rallies or anything, so it kind of made sense.

Raising both eyebrows in mild surprise, Andrea replied, "Oh. So your parents can afford to pay for college, then?"

He shrugged, then froze as the conversation finally had a chance to sink in. Wait. No football scholarships. Does that mean no college? Do I want to go to college? He frowned. I am so totally moving out after graduation. No way am I gonna live with my dad any longer than I have to. His stomach churned a little. Oh, crap. Would college even let me in? I mean, my grades are almost sort of okay now, but what if it's not good enough? Now his head was starting to hurt. And if I get in, how am I gonna pay for it? No chance Dad will kick in anything now.

Andrea was still looking at him. "So, did you need anything or...?"

"Oh!" Kevin snapped out of it. Focus, man. Think about everything else later. "Uh, yeah. Where's your barbecue sauce?"

She pointed. "Four aisles down. You can't miss it."

"Thanks!" Before he left, Kevin turned back to look at Andrea. "If it helps, I bet my dad sucks worse than your dad."

o O o

"...but then the guy totally ignored all the safety warnings and tried to jump the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle...without a helmet!" Some of the older kids started snickering, but Kevin noticed a couple of first graders near the front of the group looked a little nervous. "Don't worry," he whispered to them. "He'll be okay!"

Going back to his dramatic voice, he continued the story. "So he rode really fast all the way to the edge, but he forgot to look both ways before he crossed. And floating over the canyon, right in front of him, was the ghost of that girl who ran with scissors up a bunch of stairs without holding the handrails." He thought for a moment to make sure he'd remembered to put the part about the scissors girl in the story earlier. Reassured that he had, he went on.

"So the guy tried to swerve so he didn't hit her, but he couldn't and he ended up falling off the motorcycle and was about to go crashing down into the canyon where his head would get smashed open and his bones would be, like, pulverized and about a million cactuseses would stab his skin until he looked like a big mutant porcupine!" One of the first graders whimpered a little, so he winked at her.

"Just at the last minute, before the guy hit the bottom of the canyon and, you know, exploded with death or whatever, SafetyMan flew in and saved him!"

A few of the kids cheered. Kevin had made up the superhero character SafetyMan weeks ago and often made up stories about him to tell at his mentoring sessions. A lot of the kids really liked him.

"But right when SafetyMan put the guy down on the ground, the scissors ghost girl started chasing after them. She was doing all kinds of ghost stuff like howling and rattling chains, too." Chains made Kevin think of Link, and he found his mind wandering as he told his story.

He'd seen Link pretty often in the months that had passed since their last conversation. Every time, the boy had looked more and more angry. He always seemed to be at the afterschool program when Kevin was at his school, but he never talked to anyone and never did anything except sit apart from the other kids and glare at the floor. Kevin had tried talking to him a few times, but couldn't get more than a couple words out of him at a time.

I hope his spring break went better than mine did, he thought. Kevin's had been miserable. The only good part was that he and his father had barely exchanged more than a dozen words during the entire break. Kevin had never been so relieved to return to school after a vacation.

He was going to be back at Link's school again the next day. Maybe this time he'd finally come up with something good to say.

"And then what happened?" one of the kids demanded, bringing Kevin's attention back.

"Huh?" he asked.

"You stopped talking in the middle of your story," said another kid, "and then you just kind of sat there and stared at us for a while."

"Oh!" Putting aside his worries about Link, Kevin resumed the story from where he was pretty sure he'd left off. "Okay, so SafetyMan tried to punch the ghost, but his fists went right through her. And she was getting ready to ki-to hurt them and stuff, so he had to act fast. Then he remembered that the ghost had just had a really big meal of, uh, ghost food less than an hour ago, so he flew toward some water-there's water in the Grand Canyon, right?" Most of the kids shrugged. "Well, there's water there in this story. So the ghost chased after him and he flew right into the water and the ghost followed him in and drowned! The end."

A few of the students smiled, and one of the little kids even gave him some light applause. The group drifted away to work on homework and other activities. Mrs. Cooper walked over to him and said, "The kids do seem to enjoy your stories."

"Yeah, SafetyMan is pretty cool." Kevin didn't mention that he'd borrowed a lot of his stories from Ratboy-taking out most of the gory parts first. "Hey, Mrs. C.? Can I ask you something?"

Mrs. Cooper nodded and motioned him away from the crowded, noisy area they were in. Standing to the side of the gym, Kevin said, "I've been thinking about what I want to do after high school."

"Mmm-hmm." Realizing that no further information was coming, Mrs. Cooper added, "And what is it that you want to do after high school?"

"I, uh, don't know. That's what I wanted to ask you."

"I see." She thought for a moment. "Well, what do you enjoy?"

Kevin thought about mentioning football, but realized that outside of supporting the Lions, he wasn't actually all that interested in the sport anymore. He'd watched the Super Bowl, but mostly out of habit. "I really like action movies. Like last week I saw one where the good guy was being chased by the bad guy and he crashed through this window-fwoosh!-and then the bad guy..."

Smiling gently, Mrs. Cooper held up a hand to interrupt. "I meant things you like to do." She gestured at the kids all around them. "Helping these kids, for example. Do you enjoy that?"

"Oh, totally!" He grinned. "It's awesome!"

"Well, perhaps that's something you should explore as a future career."

"But," Kevin said slowly, "I don't get paid for mentoring."

"That's true, but you could take your passion for helping children-which you're very good at, by the way-and turn that into a career path."

Kevin blushed, both at the compliment and because he was a little embarrassed to hear Mrs. Cooper say the word "passion." "Aww, thanks."

She looked at him thoughtfully. "You know, the community college has an excellent teacher assistant program that might be perfect for you. If you wanted to apply, I'd be happy to write a reference for you."

"Be a teacher?" Kevin asked nervously. "I don't know..." His own grades had improved-he was now getting a solid C average-but he wasn't sure if he would be able to explain all that stuff to other people. And headlocks probably won't work, either.

"Not exactly. Teacher assistants help teachers by supervising kids, setting up projects, and other things. It would actually be a lot like what you do here. You might help students a little with their work, but most of the regular teaching would be done by someone else."

Kevin nodded. That didn't sound so bad. "The community college?" he asked. He'd heard of Lawndale Community College, but he'd never thought much about it because it didn't have a football team.

"Yes, it's a two-year program. I think LCC would be a very good fit for you. The requirements aren't as...stringent as at other colleges, and the tuition is lower. You'd also save money on room and board, since you'd be living at home while you went to school."

Living at home. Kevin felt like everything and everyone in the room had suddenly gone far away. All he could see or hear was his dad glaring at him and calling him "loser" every time he came home from school. Not just until graduation but for two years after.

But what could he do? He couldn't afford to move out, not even if he got a part-time job. He didn't want to go back to that nut stand, and he'd sworn to himself he'd never pump gas for a living. And if he got a job, he'd probably have to quit the mentoring program. No. Way.

Finally, he looked at Mrs. Cooper's friendly face and the room came back again. "Thanks," he said, and meant it. It's better than nothing, he decided. And nothing's what I'll get if I keep letting Dad push me around.

o O o

"All right," Mr. O'Neill said to his class the next day, "why did the soothsayer tell Caesar to 'Beware the Ides of March'? Who wants to 'take a stab'?" Laughing quietly at his own joke, he asked, "Kevin?"

Kevin almost responded with the first thing that came to mind, but he hesitated. "The Ides? Wait, is that what those senator guys who killed him were called?" He remembered reading that in the play, although at the time he'd mostly been thinking about how Ratboy would never have gone down so easy.

"Close, Kevin, but the Ides of March were the day the senators were planning to assassinate him. It's a time of the month."

"Wait, so the senators were all chicks?"

Mr. O'Neill laughed nervously, then addressed the whole room. "Oh, class, before we go, Brittany has an announcement to make."

Brittany stood and walked to the front of the classroom. "I just wanted to tell everyone that my dad and stepmom are throwing a party for me Saturday for getting a C- average last semester. There's gonna be a band and everyone's invited. Even the unpopular people!"

Kevin noticed that Brittany gave him a quick look as she said that last part, and wondered if she was trying to offer him one of those olive oil things. It didn't really matter, though. He didn't plan on going to the party. He had too much stuff to work on, like getting into that teacher assistant program. Graduation was over a year away, but Kevin had a feeling he'd need all the time he could get. He had to keep his grades up, put his application together, and-this was the really hard one-figure out what to do about his father.

He pulled out the LCC pamphlet he'd gotten that morning from the advisor's office. It had some pictures of smiling students doing stuff like taking notes in class, working on computers, or shaking hands with instructors, as well as a bunch of information about the college. It looked okay, but it confirmed what Kevin was afraid of: there were no dorms. If he wanted to go there, he'd have to live off-campus. And unless some crazy rich guy walks up and just hands me a big bag of money, that means I gotta deal with Dad for at least a couple more years.

o O o

The first thing Kevin saw when he walked into the elementary school gym that afternoon was Link. As usual, the boy was sitting alone with a scowl on his face. Huh, Kevin thought with a sudden realization. If I could see inside my own brain, I bet that's exactly what I'd look like in there right now.

And with that, he knew-or at least hoped he knew-what he had to do. Pulling a chair over, he sat down next to Link and said, "Hi."

Link looked up, briefly startled and then annoyed. "Oh. What do you want?"

"Just wondering if your mom and stepdad still suck."

The boy's expression softened, but only a very little bit. "Yeah." He glanced at Kevin out of the corners of his eyes. "Like you care."

"Dude, I do care!"

Link snorted. "Why?"

"Because my dad does sucky stuff a lot. And sometimes it's cool to know other people's parents are lame, too. You know?"

Link didn't say anything. As the seconds ticked away, Kevin began to get nervous. He had to force himself not to fill the silence with any random thing, but it was really hard. At last, Link turned toward him and nodded very slightly. "I guess."

Another silence. Kevin practically had to cover his own mouth to keep himself from talking, but he had a very strong feeling that it was better to stay quiet for now.

"What kind of crappy stuff does your dad do?" Link's voice was purely curious, with none of the sarcasm that he usually had.

Kevin relaxed a little. "Okay, so last weekend? My dad was all, 'Go mow the lawn, loser!' So I did, but then my dad goes, 'You're too noisy! Stop that, dumbass!' So then I stopped, and then all day he's like, 'The lawn looks stupid half-finished like that! How come you keep quitting stuff all the time?'" He rolled his eyes and looked at Link. "So I just waited until he left and then mowed the rest of it. What a dope, huh?"

"Your dad calls you a loser and a dumbass?" Link frowned. "Jeez. Even my stepfather doesn't do stuff like that. He just ignores me or tells me to go away when I'm being inconvenient. Why do you let yours get away with it?"

With a shrug, Kevin replied, "I dunno. Easier that way."

"Man," Link said, sounding angry but not at Kevin, "if it was my dad, I'd tell him where to go!"

"Yeah?" Kevin asked, not sure how to respond.

"Yeah!" Link's face was more animated than Kevin had ever seen him before. "You know what you should do? You should go up to the jerk and tell him he's the one who's a loser!"

Kevin tried to picture himself calling his father a loser and shuddered at the thought. "I'm not sure-"

"No, you should go for it! Imagine the look on his face when you tell the guy off!" Link leaned forward and pounded his fist into his palm.

Kevin could easily imagine the look on his dad's face and he didn't like it. "It's a cool idea and all," he said, "but I got it. You know?"

Link sank back into his chair, still eager but calming himself down. "Look, it's either that or letting him treat you like crap all the time, right?"

"Maybe." Kevin wasn't sure what to think of Link's sudden enthusiasm, but he figured it was still better than his usual sulking. "So what about your stepdad? What kind of stuff does he do?"

"Ugh," Link groaned. "Yesterday I was finishing this social studies project on Antarctica, but I needed to go to the library to look up some stuff. He said he'd drop me off there after dinner but then his buddies called and said they were going to some stupid concert, so he went out with them and completely forgot about me." He crossed his arms. "Again. Should have known better than to believe him, anyway."

Kevin winced. "What about your mom?"

Link shook his head. "She had to work late, and by the time she got home the library was closed. I told her that her lousy husband promised to take me there, but she just laughed and said he meant well and he'd drive me there on the weekend." He kicked angrily at the floor. "The project was due today!"

"Jeez," Kevin replied. "That's really crappy."

"I bet he doesn't even remember saying he'd do it. He never does." Link kicked at the floor again. "Someday I'll really let him have it. Look him right in his stupid face and let him know exactly what I think of him!"

Kevin didn't reply. Instead, he looked at the angry young man sitting next to him and wondered just which one of them was being mentored.

o O o

Later that day, Kevin came home to find his father waiting in the kitchen. "Still spending all your time playing with snot-nosed little brats, huh?" Doug demanded. "God, what a waste of time."

Kevin looked down. "It's not a waste of time," he muttered.

"What did you say?" his father, unaccustomed to getting any response to his insults, took a step forward.

Everything in Kevin's mind was telling him to walk away and ignore him like he always did...except for one little corner where he could still hear Link saying, "Tell the guy off!" and "He's the one who's a loser!"

Slowly, Kevin looked up. "I said it's not a waste of time. What, are you deaf or something?"

Doug recoiled at his son's hostile tone but recovered in moments. "No, I just have trouble hearing quitters," he shot back.

"Then you must not ever hear yourself talk," Kevin said. He felt really warm, even to the point of sweating. "When was the last time you ever did anything that worked out right?"

"Well, at one time I did a pretty good job of raising a successful football player," Doug yelled, slamming his fist on the counter, "but that ended up going straight to hell!"

Something inside Kevin broke. "You can go straight to hell, Dad!" he shouted. "Maybe if you didn't flunk out of high school, you coulda played football in college instead of ragging on me all the time!" Doug's face was turning red. Kevin knew that Doug didn't like to talk about dropping out of high school after Charlene got pregnant. He also didn't care. He just wanted his father to feel as bad as he did. "You screwed up your future, you screwed up your life, and now you wanna screw up me! But you won't, because I'm not gonna be a failure like you!"

Kevin regretted the words before he'd even finished saying them. Doug's face got even redder as he took a deep breath...and exploded.

o O o

Even sitting outside on the back porch, fifteen minutes after Doug had stopped screaming at him, Kevin's ears wouldn't stop ringing. He tried not to think about all of the things his father had said, but it was like they were super-glued in his brain.

It didn't work. He'd said everything he'd been holding in-and more-but his father was even angrier with him than ever. And he didn't even feel any better for saying any of it.

He dropped his face into his hands and sighed. Behind him, the door opened. He stiffened for a moment, but he was pretty sure his father wasn't going to be coming back out of the basement for a really long time. The quiet footsteps confirmed that it was his mother.

"Oh, Kevin," was all Charlene said as she sank down onto the steps next to him. The disappointment in her voice hurt almost as much as his father's rant.

"Sorry, Mom," he said. He stared at the yard. He could still see the scuffed-up places on the big maple tree where he'd chipped off the bark when his dad had taught him how to throw in first grade. Doug had chalked an X on the tree, told him to take a bunch of giant steps back, and had him throw the football until he hit the center of the X three times in a row. Then he'd had him back up a few steps and do it again. And again. And again.

Kevin bet he could probably hit that spot on the tree from a mile away, even now. But he didn't want to. What he did want was to see his dad give him a big smile like he did the day he'd managed to hit the target dead-on from thirty yards away. He hadn't seen that smile in a really long time.

He looked over at his mother. She wasn't smiling, either. "Anything else you need to get off your chest?" she asked wearily.

Shaking his head, he replied, "I didn't mean-"

"Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. But you said it all anyway. I guess I don't blame you. God knows there's a lot of times I've wanted to scream my head off at your father over the years. But I didn't. You know why?"

Kevin shrugged.

"Because it doesn't help. Sometimes it makes things worse. Like this time."


They both sat in silence for a few minutes, staring out across the lawn. Finally, Charlene sighed. "Well, I'll do my best to keep him from kicking you out of the house. But could you do me a favor, sweetheart?"


Charlene kissed him on the cheek and stood. "Just stay out of his way for a little while, okay?" And with that, she went back inside, leaving Kevin to his thoughts.

I'm not old enough. He can't kick me out. At least...not yet.

o O o

"Now, as you mull over the title, The Red Badge of Courage, who besides me hears the Cowardly Lion in your head singing, 'If I only had the noive?'" Mr. O'Neill chuckled, then noticed that no one else in the class had reacted. "Oh..."

Kevin didn't even look up. That's me, he thought. The cowardly ex-Lion. He'd avoided his father for over a week, and hated himself for it. He wasn't any closer to figuring out what to do about the LCC problem, and every day he was dreading the thought of living at home through college more and more.

The bell rang, signaling the end of the last class of the day, and he stood up to leave. "Oh, Kevin," Mr. O'Neill said, waving him over. "I'm looking for a volunteer to be a counselor this summer at the 'Okay to Cry Corral,' my day camp for sensitive children and those who'd like to be. I thought you'd be perfect, thanks to your experience working with children! Are you interested?"

"Um...sure!" Kevin figured that every minute spent at the day camp was one minute less he'd be spending at home.

"Wonderful! I'm so glad to have someone closer to the children's age for them to identify with."

"Whatever. Hey, I used to go to camp when I was a kid. There was this trick we used to play at night when some of the boys fell asleep with this bowl of warm water and-"

Mr. O'Neill's grin faded by a couple of degrees. "Um, that's...I don't...we'll talk about the camp later, okay?"

o O o

Man, Mr. O.'s camp sounds kinda lame, Kevin thought later that day at mentoring. Good thing he'll have me there! His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Link, who wandered into the gym, nodded briefly at Kevin, and sat down in his usual floor-staring spot. There weren't many kids at the mentoring program now that the school year was coming to a close, so Kevin went over and sat next to him.

Before Kevin could say anything, Link burst out with, "You know what my crappy step-dad did this morning?"

"Um...something crappy?"

"Yeah. He was supposed to drop me off at school today because my mom had to leave early this morning, and the moron forgot and left the house before I could even stop him! I had to go next door and ask Mrs. Rollins for a ride to school."

"I bet your mom'll be pissed." Kevin said it more out of hope than certainty.

Link snorted. "Right. She'll probably be mad at him for, like, three seconds until he gives her some lame excuse and she gets all mushy and giggly and forgets about it." After a moment's thought, he crossed his arms and glared into the distance. "So screw it. As soon as I get home, I'm going to tell him off good! There's stuff I've wanted to say for a really long time and now he's going to hear it."

Kevin froze. Something was very familiar about the things Link was saying, and he realized that he might have said the exact same thing about himself and his father more than a week ago. And look how that ended up. "Hey, man, are you sure you wanna do that? Because-"

"-Damn right I do!" Link continued to scowl at nothing in front of him. "That jerk has had it coming forever!"

"It's just that..."

Link barged on, not seeming to hear. "My mom's never going to tell him where to go, so it's up to me to do it. He won't even know what hit him!" Now smiling slightly, Link was growing tenser as he leaned forward eagerly in his chair. "I'm going to march straight up to that stupid waste of space and tell him-"

"-I don't think you should, okay?" Kevin raised his voice slightly to be heard over Link's rant, and the younger boy immediately trailed off. At last he turned to look at Kevin, and the smile had vanished.


"I...I don't think you should tell him off. I know you think it'll make you feel better-"

"-Hell yeah, it'll make me feel better!" Link narrowed his eyes at him. "After all the stuff you told me about your dad, I thought you'd get this. He deserves it, okay?"

"Maybe he does, but it won't help. Yelling at your step-dad isn't going to solve anything."

Link continued to stare at him. "You sound like the school counselors," he said accusingly.

"Yeah? Well, they're supposed to be good at this stuff, right? You should listen to them."

Shaking his head, Link replied, "They don't have a clue. Everybody's always like, 'Shut up and do what you're told,' but I'm sick of it! I'm not going to listen to them anymore, and I'm starting with my loser step-dad!"

Kevin shrank back a little at Link's anger. "It's just...not a good idea. Trust me."

"Trust you?" Link looked at him with disgust. "You're supposed to be on my side and now you're talking about how I'm wrong and all the adults are right." Looking away, he growled, "Just like everyone else."


Link abruptly stood, kicked his chair over, and whirled to face Kevin. "Just leave me the hell alone!"

Kevin watched him storm across the gym and wondered if he should go after him. No way, he decided. I'd probably just make things worse.

But then he looked at Link, who was leaning with his face against a wall, red-faced and occasionally slapping, punching, or kicking the surface in front of him as though trying to break through it and escape.

He stared helplessly. Right. As if anything could make that worse.

o O o

Kevin found it nearly impossible to pay attention in his classes the next day. He'd barely slept the night before, and now he was spending all his time replaying the argument with Link in his head. All he could think about was how badly he'd handled everything, and how much he had hurt Link.

For the first time since he'd first volunteered, he was dreading going back to the mentoring program. I thought I was really good at this. Mrs. Cooper and Mr. O. think so, anyway. And it was really fun, too. But what if I keep screwing stuff up? No one wants a mentor who pisses all the kids off. I bet no one wants a teacher assistant who makes all the kids feel like crap, either.

The bell finally rang, dismissing school for the day. After he left the classroom, Kevin watched a few guys in football uniforms walk by on their way to practice. Out of nowhere, a thought came to him.

I bet if I asked the coach, I could get back on the team for next year.

Trudging down the hall, he thought about his options. I'd have to quit mentoring. I'd have to give up on the teacher assistant thing. He frowned. I'd have to go back to how everything was before.

But maybe that's okay, he thought, slowing his pace even more. I mean, I kinda suck at mentoring anyway. Plus, then my dad might finally stop acting like a jerk. And even if he doesn't, maybe I can get into a football college somewhere really, really far away.

He finally stopped walking completely and leaned against the wall. Would that make me a quitter? Or an un-quitter? Kevin remembered a quote from one of his former idols, Vince Lombardi. "Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit."

Kevin kicked at the wall behind him. Either way, I'm quitting something. He sighed. Either way, my dad ends up being right.

"I'm not gonna be a failure like you!"

That, above anything else, was Kevin's biggest worry. Whatever I do, it's gotta be something better than what Dad settled for.

He stepped away from the wall and continued walking. I just have to find out what it'll be.

He passed Mr. DeMartino's classroom and paused. Making up his mind, he walked in. Why not? I've got some time before mentoring. If I even decide to go.

Mr. DeMartino looked up from his desk, where he was tiredly flipping through some papers. "Kevin?" he asked. "School is out. Did you get confused...?"

"Naw," Kevin replied. "Could I talk to you for a minute?"

Slightly wary, Mr. DeMartino nodded. "Are you having trouble with your classwork?"

Kevin waved off the question. "It's not that. Um, what would you say if I said I was thinking about going into a teaching-type career?"

Mr. DeMartino didn't say anything right away. He didn't even move. Then, his eye twitched very, very slightly. After almost a full minute of silence, he finally exhaled and said, "I would say that sometimes life is just bursting with irony."


The teacher shook his head. "Nothing. While I would probably be the last person to recommend teaching to anyone, I admit I'm curious about your plans." With that, he leaned back in his chair and waited for him to elaborate.

Kevin pulled one of the student desks closer to Mr. DeMartino and sat down in it. "There's this program at the community college," he began, pulling the battered pamphlet out of his pocket and handing it to his teacher. "It's for teacher assistants and I can't decide if I want to apply." Glancing at the pamphlet, Mr. DeMartino just nodded for him to continue. "It's just, well...my dad."

"Ah." Mr. DeMartino handed Kevin back the pamphlet with a knowing look. "I remember from the barbecue that your father had some very vocal opinions about the changes you've made."

"Yeah. And the program sounds cool and all, but since it's at LCC..."

"...your living situation would be uncomfortable." Nodding slowly, Mr. DeMartino leaned toward Kevin. "What are your options?"

"I dunno." Kevin toyed with the pamphlet in his hands. "I've been thinking maybe I should go back to the football team. Maybe Mack'll even let me be QB-"

"No!" Mr. DeMartino, who had been completely calm throughout the entire conversation to that point, suddenly leapt forward and grasped Kevin by the front of his shirt. His eyes were wide, and Kevin could see beads of sweat forming on the man's forehead.

"...Mr. D?" he said nervously, afraid to move.

In a moment, the teacher blinked a few times, released his hold, and sat back in his chair again. "I apologize, Kevin," he said in his normal voice, "but I must insist that you reconsider the idea of rejoining the football team. Please."

"Uh, okay," Kevin replied, still stunned by the outburst. "But I can't think of anything else. I mean, it sucks having to put up with my dad, and it hasn't even been a whole school year. How'm I gonna get through senior year and then two years at LCC?"

"Do you think your life would be easier if you gave in to your father's demands?"

"Well, after next year I wouldn't be there anymore, right?" Kevin asked.

"That's true. So where do you think you would be? Not next year, or even your time at college, but the years after?"

"I...I guess I dunno."

"I see. And where do you suppose your father thinks you'll be, years from now?" Kevin could make a pretty good guess at that one. Playing football until I can't anymore, then working for him until I burn out like he did. From the look on his face, DeMartino could guess it as well. He pointed to the pamphlet. "You've already come up with an alternative. I suggest you enlighten your father. Soon."

o O o

Over a week went by while Kevin continued to think about that advice. He kept going to mentoring, but found himself pulling back from the kids. He'd joke around with them or listen to them talk, but whenever any of them had a problem or wanted advice, he either kept his replies short and cautious or referred them to one of the teachers. The next time he was at Link's school, Link refused to look at him and Kevin kept his distance.

One night at home, Kevin lay on his bed and stared at the LCC pamphlet. He was starting to wonder whether or not Mr. DeMartino was right. He makes it sound all easy and stuff. But he's never heard my dad holler. What am I supposed to do, go up to him and say, "Hey Dad, screw your plans, I'm doing this instead. What are you gonna do about it, jerk?" I'd have to get some of those earplug things or something first.

Kevin could hear his father moving around somewhere else in the house. He was getting tired of avoiding and ignoring him, but he didn't know what else to do. He looked up at the "Safety Guy Rules" picture near the bed. I can't wait forever. Maybe I oughta go talk to him right now.

Suddenly a TV switched on in another room and Kevin could hear the Pigskin channel blaring through the house. "Or not," he groaned quietly and slid off the bed. Grabbing his shoes, he slipped out of his room and left the house without being noticed.

It was a nice night for a walk. The cool breeze helped Kevin relax as he wandered along various streets. I wonder if Link lives in any of these houses. Wherever he is, I guess he's probably told off his step-dad by now. Wonder how that went. Hopefully better than my fight with Dad went.

He turned another corner and looked at the patterns made by the streetlights filtering through the trees as he thought about Link. Why do I even want to pick another fight with Dad? It's not like I'm even sure I wanna do this, anyway. It'd be like I'm making a big deal about something I don't even want. Or at least I think I don't hey is that Daria?

As he got closer, Kevin saw that Daria was, in fact, just a block away. She was standing on the sidewalk next to a car, and as he approached he saw her put her hand on the passenger side door handle.

"Hey, Daria!" he yelled, waving wildly at her.

She looked up and stepped back from the car. "Great," she muttered. "My night just keeps getting better and better."

Kevin grinned. "Aw, I think you're pretty cool, too!"

As she gave him one of those weird looks she sometimes got when he talked to her, the driver's side door opened and a guy stepped out. "Oh, hi," he said to Kevin.

"Hi! Oh, wait, don't I know you?" Kevin thought for a moment. "I know; you're Jane's boyfriend...uh, Tom?"

Daria and Tom both looked kind of nervous and weird when he said that, and something twitched in the back of Kevin's mind. Looking uncomfortable, Daria said, "I'd love to stay and chat, but I think I'd rather go inside and participate in the Fashion Club Blush-a-thon. Bye now."

She turned and walked into the house, leaving Tom and Kevin behind. Kevin watched Tom curiously.

"I...I guess I'll get going then, too," Tom said awkwardly.

"Hold up, man."

Already starting to ease back into the car, Tom stopped and stepped out again. "Yes?"

"What are you doing?"

Tom gave him a small smirk and slowly replied, "Getting into my car."

Kevin shook his head. "No, dude. I mean, like, with Daria."

"You too?" Tom looked incredulous. "I don't believe-"

"Look, I know I'm not a brain or anything, but I do know a lot about guys and cheating on girlfriends." Kevin chose not to say why he knew so much about it. "I saw you looking at her, okay? And...well, that's not cool. You know?"

Tom started to respond, but just stared at the ground instead. Then, without a word, he got into his car and drove away.

Kevin shrugged and continued his walk.

o O o

"With a knickknack, gentle pat, give the dog a bone, this young person helps out at home!"

Kevin was on the bus to the Okay to Cry Corral, listening to Mr. O'Neill and the kids singing. The school year was over as well as, to Kevin's relief, the mentoring program. He'd considered backing out of the day camp, but decided he had to follow through on his agreement. He'd had second thoughts when he saw Link trudge onto the bus, though.

"Now just the counselors!" Mr. O'Neill called out.

"Hey, Mr. O.!" Kevin said. "I've got a song we can sing instead!"

Slightly disconcerted, the teacher said, "Well...sure!"

Kevin took a deep breath and began. "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall! Ninety-nine bottles of beer! Take one down and-"

"-Er, I don't..." Mr. O'Neill interrupted, "...perhaps, um, just a meditative silence would be best instead?"

Seated next to Kevin, Mr. DeMartino relaxed. "Thank you," he murmured.

"Uh, you're welcome?" Kevin replied, confused.

"I'm sick of sitting on this bus," complained a girl near the back. "When we get to camp, I'm going to run for like a million miles!"

Mr. O'Neill smiled at her. "Now, Ashley, remember that this camp is about an exploration of ourselves, not of the outdoors. Maybe there will be some time for limited outside play if the weather cools down and we can be sure it's safe, okay?"

A few grumbles throughout the bus told Kevin that most of the kids did not think it was okay.

o O o

When they arrived at the camp, Mr. O'Neill led everyone into the activity room for introductions. "Greetings, and welcome to the Okay to Cry Corral," he announced. "I'm Uncle Timothy, and together, we're going to take a journey to the land of self-discovery. A land where it's okay to laugh, and it's okay...to cry."

Kevin hoped none of the kids were going to cry. He never knew what to do, and their faces got all goopy and gross.

Mr. O'Neill continued, "And now, I'd like my co-counselors, Kevin and Uncle Anthony, to say a few words about what they hope to accomplish here."

"Yo!" Kevin said, immediately hopping forward and waving to the kids. "I'm Kevin! I've seen a bunch of you guys at your schools at the mentoring program, and I was also the Safety Guy!" A couple of kids cheered at this. "And I want to...uh, hang out and stuff, I guess." Giving the kids a thumbs-up, he stepped back as Mr. DeMartino came forward.

"Having regained a degree of satisfaction in my teaching career," he began, glancing over at Kevin for some reason, "I hope to discover more young people that can, in fact, be redeemed." In a low voice he added, "Maybe lightning can strike more than once."

"That's...certainly an interesting perspective," Mr. O'Neill said. "Now let's divide into three groups, shall we? One, two, three. Kevin, you take group one."

Kevin was dismayed to discover that group one included Link. "Um, hi," he greeted the kids. Most of them waved or greeted him back. Link folded his arms and glared at the ceiling. "So, how're you guys doing?"

One of the kids raised his hand. "Are there horses at this camp?"

Mr. O'Neill, passing by the table, chuckled. "Oh, my, no. You could fall off or get thrown, or maybe the horse would run off and you'd get lost...oh, dear! No, much too dangerous!"

The boy lowered his hand sadly. "Oh."

Kevin frowned. That sounds stupid. Horses are cool! Waiting until the teacher left, he looked at the boy and said, "Justin, right? You like horses?"

Recovering some of his enthusiasm, Justin replied, "Yeah! One time I got to ride a horse at a fair and it was awesome! I didn't fall off or anything dumb like that." He shot an annoyed glance toward Mr. O'Neill, and Kevin decided to change the subject.

"What do the rest of you like to do?" he asked. The kids called out answers, sometimes talking on top of each other or nodding their agreement with someone else.

"Riding my bike!"

"Building stuff with Legos!"

"Playing video games!"

After a minute or two, the kids ran out of things to add. That was when Link, who had been silent the whole time, quietly said, "Being left alone."

o O o

Back at home, Kevin decided to take a chance by eating dinner with his parents. For weeks he had been either eating in his room or waiting until he heard his father leave the kitchen and then going through the fridge for leftovers. He often found a plate already prepared and waiting for him in the microwave.

That night, though, he decided he'd had enough sneaking around and sat down at the table at dinnertime. His father looked mildly surprised, but otherwise didn't react. His mother smiled and handed him a corn dog.

They ate the meal in almost complete silence, with only the occasional requests to pass something or very brief small talk between Doug and Charlene. Kevin kept his attention mostly on his food, but the few times he looked up, his father wouldn't make eye contact.

Afterward, Doug shuffled away to the living room to watch TV, but Kevin remained behind to help his mother clean up. "That was, uh, weird," he quietly told her as he cleared the dishes from the table.

She shrugged. "It's an improvement; believe me."

Kevin winced, realizing that his mother had been putting up with his father's crappy moods while he'd been hiding in his bedroom. "Sorry."

Shaking her head, she assured him, "No, sweetheart. I'm sorry. I should have been pushing him more to talk to you again. But things are getting better. We'll get through this." She paused to put the ketchup back in the fridge. "How have you been doing?"

"Okay, I guess," he answered, then decided to go for it. "There's this program at the community college," he told her. "It's for teacher assistants. I was going to apply there, but lately I don't know."

Charlene put down the washcloth she'd been using to wipe the table and turned toward him. "Really? Why haven't you said anything before?"

He shrugged. "Figured Dad would say it was a waste of time."

"Oh, Kevin," she sighed. "I know it seems like all he wants is for you to play football, but it's more than that. When your father lost his chance to go to college and play football, it hurt. He's convinced that's the reason his life turned out...the way it did. So to see you giving up football, well, it's like watching his future go down the drain all over again." She looked at Kevin sadly. "Only it's worse. This time it's you he's scared for."

Kevin didn't know what to say. Dad? Scared? He's never been scared of anything! He tried to picture it and couldn't. "So what if that's true?" he asked her as he shoved some paper plates into the garbage can. "He still shouldn't have-"

"No, he shouldn't. I'm not making excuses for him. I just...wanted you to understand." She gave him a wavering smile. "Thanks for your help."

He nodded and turned to leave. "Oh," he said, remembering, "thanks for putting aside those dinners for me before."

She tilted her head at him. "Dinners?"

o O o

"Now, I want each of you to think of the blue lanyard as representing how you feel on the inside," Mr. O'Neill was saying, "and the green as how you present yourself on the outside. Picture-"

One of the campers spoke up. "It's a hundred degrees! Can't we go for a swim in the lake?"

Some of the other kids quickly agreed, and Kevin found himself nodding a little as well. Not only did the air conditioning in the activity room suck, but he was really struggling to understand how those lanyard things worked.

"Now, Kristin," Mr. O'Neill replied in that tone that Kevin really hated now because it always meant "no." "Do we really want to risk exposure to algae blooms? Maybe some other time, when it's not quite as warm out."

What the hell is an algae bloom? Kevin tried to cross one strand of the lanyard over another and found himself holding a great big snarl instead. He tossed it onto the table and stood up. "Mr. O.?" he asked.

"Yes, Kevin?" The teacher came over.

"I think that Kristin's right." Before Mr. O'Neill could argue, he pushed forward. "It really is hot, and this camp would be a lot more fun if the kids got to go outside and do stuff sometimes."

"I appreciate your concern for the children," Mr. O'Neill said in ithat/i tone of voice, "but it just isn't safe for them out there!"

Kevin almost considered putting the man in a headlock. At the very least, he felt like shouting at him for being so lame. Instead, he took a deep breath and thought for a moment before speaking again. "Since it's so warm and stuffy in here, I bet some of the kids aren't feeling too good already. I figure the best way to cool off would be to go swimming, right?"

"The welfare of the children does come first," the teacher said slowly, although Kevin wasn't sure if he was agreeing with him or arguing.

"I think I heard somewhere that kids are s'posed to get a lot of exercise. So if they just sit around in here and get too warm, it's probably not good for them. You know?"

Mr. O'Neill opened his mouth, then closed it again. "I...hadn't thought...but you have to understand that I'm worried-"

Kevin waved off the half-hearted protests. "You can trust me to take care of the kids. Remember, I'm the Safety Guy!"

"I...well, why not?" Mr. O'Neill finally said, eyes brightening. "I've always considered nature itself to be an excellent medium for self-reflection. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for the campers!"

Kevin grinned. "And if I see any of those itchy bloom things, I'll totally keep them away from the campers!" Before Mr. O'Neill could change his mind, Kevin turned to the kids, most of whom had given up on their lanyards. "Hey, guys! We're gonna go swimming!"

The room nearly exploded with enthusiasm as the kids sprang from their seats and ran for their backpacks. Several of them high-fived or thanked Kevin as they passed him, and one even gave him a hug.

The last to walk by was Link, who still hadn't said anything. However, as he came near Kevin he finally turned his head and looked at him for the first time since their argument. His expression was blank, but he made eye contact. It was only for an instant, and then Link looked away again and followed the others out.

"I am impressed, Kevin," Mr. DeMartino said as he dropped his own mangled lanyard in a nearby garbage can. "This may not only be the first time I've seen that man listen to logic, but also the first time you've been the one to wield it."

"Thanks, Mr. D.!" Kevin followed the excited children, now in swimsuits, as they headed for the door. "I just saw what the kids needed and wanted to make sure he saw it, too."

Mr. DeMartino gave him an appraising look as he fell into step beside him. "You know, perhaps there is something to that teacher assistant idea of yours, after all."

Kevin nearly danced the rest of the way to the lake. That was the best compliment he'd gotten all day-second only to Link's lessened hostility.

o O o

By the time he'd gotten off the bus later that day, Kevin knew he wasn't going straight home. Instead, he got into his Jeep and headed in the direction of the Lawndale Community College campus. He'd been the camp hero all day long. At the lake, kids were constantly looking his way and waving, and several begged him to get O'Neill to let them play outside every day. Kevin agreed to try, and was surprised to find that he actually felt confident he could do it.

After their swim, the kids had returned to the camp tired but happy, and they even went along with the meditation exercise that awaited them. The rest of the day was given over to free time, during which Kevin was almost constantly surrounded by pre-teen fans. It was like being a rock star, except he didn't have to know how to sing or anything.

By the time everyone got back on the bus to leave, Kevin was thrilled about mentoring once again. Although Link still wouldn't talk to him and hadn't looked his way again after that first glance, the dread had gone and one thing was certain: he was going to apply for the LCC program as soon as they would let him.

Pulling into the campus parking lot, Kevin found his way to the admissions office and asked to talk to an advisor. The next half hour went by in a blur of words like "FAFSA" and "transcript" and "credit hours," but in the end he walked out with a handful of paperwork and a pretty good idea of what he had to do next. He had a long time to go before he actually had to submit his application-although the advisor warned him that the time would go faster than he expected-but he knew he needed to start looking for scholarships and other money stuff as soon as possible.

Even before that, though, there was one really big thing he had to do. His stomach twisted around at the thought of talking to his dad, but he just couldn't put it off anymore. Mr. O'Neill I can stand up to. But my dad?

On his way back to his Jeep in the LCC parking lot, Kevin stopped when he weird tinkly music coming from somewhere. Looking around, he saw an ice cream truck slowly drive down the street and stop at the corner, where about half a dozen kids immediately swarmed around it.

Kevin glanced over and then did a double take when he recognized the face of the person in the truck. "Hey, Mack Daddy!" he called out, jogging over.

Exhausted, Mack gave him a small wave as he approached the truck. "Hey."

One of the shrieking and jostling kids looked up and saw Kevin. "Safety Guy!" one of them said, and the others looked over with varying degrees of interest. The noise level dropped and the kids relaxed into a somewhat more orderly mob.

"Hi, kids," Kevin said, smiling. He didn't know any of them, but most of them apparently either recognized him from his safety lectures or took the cue from their peers and joined them in watching Kevin with awe and curiosity. "Uh, getting ice cream, huh?" Several of them nodded at him. "Cool. Well, be good, okay?" A few more heads bobbed at him before the kids turned back to the ice cream truck.

Once all the orders had been filled and the kids ran off with sticky faces, Mack dropped his head in his hands and sighed. "How the hell do you do it, man?" he asked. "I've seen nothing but feral, demonic children since I started this job, but you walk up and suddenly they're practically human. What's your secret?"

"Dunno, bro," Kevin replied. "Kids just like me, I guess." He tried to think of some advice. "Look, you have the ice cream, and they want it. You've, like, got the power!"

Mack still looked doubtful. "I don't know."

"Hey, if it doesn't work, then just tell the kids Safety Guy said to stop it or he'd put 'em all in headlocks." Kevin turned back toward his Jeep with a wave as a fresh mob descended on the ice cream truck. "Don't be scared of a bunch of kids, Mack Daddy. Later!"

o O o

The next day, Kevin watched Link get off the bus at the camp and remembered his advice to Mack. Don't be scared of a bunch of kids. Or just one kid.

In the activity room, Mr. O'Neill agreed to let the kids go outside and play a game of hide and seek ("To represent the ways we hide our true selves and seek validation for our feelings!") after an hour of indoor painting in which the kids were instructed to paint "the child within."

Kevin wandered from painting to painting, talking to each camper as he made his way toward Link. He stopped at one painting of a football player and looked at the boy who'd painted it. "Hi, Josh. Football, huh?"

Josh grinned. "My child within wants to be a winner. Everyone knows football players are winners!"

Kevin didn't say anything right away. He studied the painting for a little while, then looked at the boy again. "Naw. Football's great and all if that's what you want to do, but winners don't play football just 'cause everybody else thinks it's cool."

Josh's expression drooped as he listened, but the kids around him smirked and giggled to each other. Kevin gave the boy a friendly smile, but moved on.

Link was standing at his easel, a little apart from the other kids. When he got closer, Kevin saw that his canvas was blank. He tried to think of something cool to say to break the ice, but all he came up with was, "No painting, huh?"

"No kidding," Link snapped. He picked up his paintbrush and glared at the easel.

Kevin winced a little. "Hey, man. Uh, I'm sorry about, you know."

Link jabbed a few blobs of paint on the canvas. After a minute or two of silence, he abruptly said in a harsh tone, "Okay, so maybe you weren't totally wrong about telling off my step-dad." Smearing the paint around, he muttered, "All it did was get me sent to this lame camp, anyway."

"Hey, it's not all bad. At least you get to go out and do stuff."

"Yeah." Some of the heat left Link's voice. "About that...thanks."

"Sure," Kevin said as he watched him paint. After a brief silence, he continued, "Listen...I think-"

Link lowered the paintbrush and stared at him with slightly narrowed eyes. "Don't. Okay?"

Kevin fell silent. "Okay," he finally said. Seeing that Link was now painting a little more calmly, he shrugged and moved on. So I can't fix stuff for him. But maybe he doesn't totally hate me anymore. And maybe his life doesn't suck as bad as it used to. Maybe that's okay.

o O o

At home that night, Kevin found that his mother had left to run some errands, leaving him and his father alone in the house together. He could hear the TV on in the living room. He took a deep breath and made his decision.

I gotta do this. If I wait any longer, it'll never happen.

Kevin came into the living room to find his father watching the news instead of the Pigskin Channel. "Dad?" he asked quietly.

Doug glanced briefly at Kevin, then looked back at the TV with slightly widened eyes. After a moment, his hand came up with the remote and the TV switched off. He didn't speak, but his eyes kept darting between his son and the floor.

"Dad, I want to tell you about this thing I'm thinking about-that I'm going to do after high school."

Still looking down with his lips pressed tightly together, his father gave a small, brisk nod.

Kevin held out the LCC pamphlet, now severely dog-eared and creased in various places. "It's a teacher assistant program, and I think it would be a real good fit for me."

His father hesitated for what felt like hours, then slowly reached out and took the pamphlet from him. He flipped through it, frowning slightly as he read. He still didn't say anything.

"My grades have been pretty okay, and I think I can do even better next year. There's a bunch of papers I can fill out and stuff to maybe get some money for tuition, but it's at the community college. I'd have to stay here...if that's okay."

Doug's head snapped up as he stared open-mouthed at his son. "'Okay'? Jeeeesus Christ."

Kevin wasn't sure what to say to that outburst, which was the first thing his father had said to him in weeks. Although loud, it hadn't been angry.

Now staring at the pamphlet in his hands, Doug began speaking slowly and quietly. "It is never-never-going to be not okay for you to be here, boy. Do you understand?"

Although it took a couple of seconds for Kevin to work through the double negative, in the end he nodded.

"I'm not going to bullshit you here. I've been ticked off. I'm still kinda mad. But you...I...we're..." Doug closed his eyes in frustration. "I still...you know. Okay?"

Kevin nodded again. This was the most emotional he'd seen his father get since that time he lost over a thousand dollars betting on the Super Bowl several years earlier.

Looking up, Doug continued. "I don't get why you quit football. Maybe it was a big mistake. Maybe it wasn't. But I'm gonna deal with it." His face hardened a little. "But if this is what you wanna do, then it's your problem. You fall flat on your face, then no one can say I didn't warn you. I ain't gonna pay for any of this crap, either. You can live here, we'll feed ya, and all that. But this-" he paused and held up the pamphlet, "-this is all you. Got it?"

"Uh...yeah." Kevin thought about the scholarship applications and student loan papers in his room. If it's not enough, I'll figure something out then. Even if it means that stupid nut stand.

Still holding up the pamphlet, Doug said, "You sure about this?"

"Totally!" Kevin realized he was smiling. "Helping kids rules! And I'm really good at it."

"No kidding?" Doug snorted. "Guess it's about time somebody in this family was good at something."

"Dad..." Kevin began, "...what I said before? I'm sorry. You aren't...like that."

"A failure?" His father gazed levelly at him. "I know what I am. The important thing is, what are you gonna be?" He handed Kevin back the pamphlet. "Look, I ain't going to try and stop you from doing this. You seem pretty goddamn sure you can do it, so fine. We'll see how it goes. But if you quit this, too, well..."

Kevin's eyes widened. Oh, crap. Is he gonna kick me out after all? "Then what?" he asked nervously.

"Then this!" Doug yelled, leaping out of his chair and throwing his arm around his son's neck to hold him in the strongest headlock Kevin had ever known.

"Dad!" Kevin protested, half-choking and half-laughing. "Okay! Jeez, I said okay!"

When Charlene came home half and hour later, she found the TV off, Kevin still rubbing his neck, and the father and son finally sharing an uneasy peace.

o O o

Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.