"Mr. West!" the sixth grade science teacher fumed and spun around to face the class.
Chan, beside him at the back of the room, had to hold one hand over his face to stifle laughter. Wally already had on his blue eyed good boy expression but it was too late. She'd already guessed that it was he who'd made the joke. Didn't matter. It was worth it. The class still reverberated with laughter.
The teacher glanced around the room, silencing the lingering chuckles from the rest of the class. "Mr. West, you're going to have to-"
The teacher shuffled over to the phone beside the chalkboard still scowling at Wally.
"Hello . . . yes . . . "she looked down and then right at Wally again. ". . . right n- . . . yes . . . all-allright . . . 237? . . . Okay, I will."
She hung up. "Mr. West. Come here," she motioned to a spot beside the lab table behind which she stood. "And bring your books."
Wally got up from his chair, pushed a hand down into each of his back pockets to adjust his pants and then made his way to the front of the class with everyone watching. The teacher was scribbling on a yellow pad of paper. She tore off the top sheet and handed it to him.
"Go to this room. They want you there. I can't say the same here."
The class chuckled and Wally shuffled out into the hallway. The yellow hall pass said to go to Mr. Gromek in room 237.
Gromek? Who's that?
And, wait a minute. 237? Don't the rooms only go up to 232?
Wally walked calmly down the hall and then jogged easily up the stairs. Hmmph. It wasn't only good timing for her. She was really mad this time. Might've been a detention or more in it this time. That was good timing all around, that phone call.
He started down the hall on that wing of Jump City Junior High, glancing at the numbers on the doors, having to almost look around the corner to see some of the numbers on the rooms with open doors. In one room, an eighth grade boy much bigger than 4 foot 11 inch tall Wally and seated next to the door saw him and made a motion with one finger across his throat.
"Wait'll I get you, sixth grader bitch."
"Yeah, wait'll you learn to read," responded Wally and added, "Guess we've both got a long wait coming, huh?" He hurried away down the hall.
230 . . 231 . . 232. Wally stopped and stared down the hallway. He was right. The classrooms only went up to 232.
But then he remembered the 'hallway to nowhere' as he and his friends called it. Off to the side at the top of one of the main stairways was a dimly lit hallway that nobody ever seemed to head towards. Wally ambled over and saw a closely packed series of doors starting with 233. These couldn't be classrooms. They were too small. And the danger zones, the principal's office and, even worse, the vice principal's office were a floor down and back toward the middle of the building. So that wasn't what this was about. Pffew!
He looked at the name on his hall pass, again. Gromek. He knocked on the door.
"Come in," said a man's voice from inside.
Wally entered and closed the door behind himself. "Mr. . . Gromek? I'm Wally West. Mrs. Tanner told me to-"
"Yes, I know," he said with a smile. He was a big man, more in weight then height and middle aged. They all seemed pretty much the same age to Wally. This guy wore a typically bad teacher's suit. He sat back down behind a desk that seemed to take up half the space of the small bookcase lined room.
"Have a seat, Wallace," he said gesturing to the chair in front of the desk. Wally sat down and was immediately conscious that his seat was distinctly lower than this Gromek guy's chair. Sixth grade boys were especially conscious of such things.
"Wally," he belatedly corrected.
"Hmm?" said the man looking up from a file folder that was now monopolizing his attention.
"I said 'Wally'. I always go by 'Wally' not 'Wallace' or 'Wallace Rudolf' or-or 'Wallace Rudolf West'. Those only get used when somebody's mad at me. Did I . . did I do something wrong?"
"Nooooooo! Not at all . . Wally. We're . . looking out for you."
The man was so friendly it was a bit creepy. Wally only half caught his last words. "Huh?"
The man ignored it. His attention was on the file in front of him, again, as he flipped through the sheets within it for a few seconds.
"Do-do kids make fun of you for your hair?" he asked without looking up at said hair or even pausing in leafing through the file.
Wally shrugged. "Not much any more."
"But they used to?" the heavy man asked, still pawing through the file.
Wally shrugged again. "They did a lot when I first moved here from Blue Valley."
Still the man worked through the file and didn't look up. "I don't know if I've ever seen hair so . . orange as yours."
Wally just grunted.
"Ah, here it is," said the man with a smile of satisfaction. "Blue Valley, you say, where is that?"
"It's outside Keystone City . . . where the Flash patrols."
The man wrote something in the file but to Wally's chagrin, he didn't get to tell the man that he, Wally West, was going to meet the Flash.
"So . . Wally. You're probably wondering why you're here?"
"Um . . yeah. Look, if it's about Mrs. Tanner's science class, well, I didn't really mean that thing about the Vice Principal. It's probably anatomically impossible even for him. If-if the class just went a little faster I wouldn't-"
"This isn't about science class . . Wally."
"Noooo, Wally, it's not about any specific class."
Wally realized he'd been leaning anxiously forward in his chair and consciously leaned back to reassert how cool and calm he was.
"No," Mr. Gromek continued. "Ms. Glickstein and I are just very . . interested in your answers to the bullying survey everyone filled out last month."
Wally made a face. That stupid thing? 20 minutes of wasted time filling in ovals with pencils at the end of Prune Face's english class.
"You see, there were three distinct components to it, if you remember, Wally, and all your teachers say you have a terrific memory. There were questions related to whether or not students had experienced any aspect of bullying in the last year and there were a series of questions relating to students' home lives and their general . . frame of mind."
Wally made a face. Is . . . this guy a-a school shrink?
"Your reponses . . intrigued both Ms. Glickstein and I more than just about any other student's."
Wally sighed openly. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Should never have answered all those questions honestly! It was so obvious what they were looking for. He ground his teeth at how dumb he'd been to believe them.
How could I be so dumb as to trust teachers?
"So, we did quite a bit of checking on you, um, Wally. You see it's not only our job to try to head off the atmosphere at Jump City Junior High becoming hostile for any of our students but also to be proactive in addressing the needs of those students away from school."
He gave Wally a big smile.
He was, apparently, expecting Wally to ask some sort of question. But Wally was only trying to figure out what he should do and said nothing.
"Uh, yes," the fat man retreated into the file. "Your-your responses to our behavioral assessment array of questions gave the clearest indicators of the prevalence of a culture of bullying of any student's profile and the first half of your home assessment array was stunning in the bleak chances for emotional self-actualization depicted. Yet your answers to the second half of your home assessment array, concerning your . . frame of mind, were completely at odds with that."
Wally quietly groaned.
The man sighed and went back to the file. "First, do we have this right? Your best friend is . . Lee Chan? And you're also friends with . . Aaron Glass, Steven Kellner and . . Jeff St. Pierre?
Wally nodded. Chan, Aaron, Stevie and Jeff.
The man continued and asked Wally to confirm the names of his parents and sister and their address. Wally nodded to all of them.
"Interestingly, we cross-checked your responses to the school behavioral assessment with those of your friends and found that they all seemed to mention a portion of the incidents that you did, though all had more positive home assessment responses than you did. Do . . do you think that you and the other ner-the other . . intellectual boys in your class get picked on quite a bit?"
Wally shrugged. He was now filled with a deep suspicion that this guy was going to express a lot of pity for him. Poor boy Wally. Bullied Wally. Ugh!
"Don't be afraid," the man gave what he probably thought was a smile of great sympathy.
Wally suddenly remembered that word they'd learned in english class last week. Unctuous.
"We're here to help you, Wally. What you say won't go any farther than this room."
"I didn't think answering those questions was going to go this far!"
"Wally!" the man softly reproached him.
Wally just stared back not sure what to make of this. Why was it wrong for him to point that out?
"Nothing you say will leave this room, Wally."
"Unless that file does."
"Well, the file is only for Ms. Glickstein and me."
"What's the . . the point of this, again?"
The man was offended that Wally wasn't immediately accepting him as his friend. "I want to help you, Wally! Tell me about the bullying that you've suffered."
"It's hardly anything."
"Hardly . . !" The man gasped in lieu of continuing then gulped and went on. "Your assessment listed . . three apparent fights, two incidents of being locked in hallway lockers, one of those upside down, a . . swirly . . whatever that is, an atomic wedgie and enough other indicia of bullying to certainly constitute a hostile atmosphere."
Wally gritted his teeth.
Oh, don't worry. This will all be anonymous and confidential. It's only for a national survey. He shook his head slightly thinking of how dumb he'd been.
"You were-you were also in the center of that incident last Friday involving a boy named . . ," back to the file for a moment, "Freddie Simmons, weren't you?"
"Tell me about it."
"Not much to tell. A bunch of those same stupid eighth graders who pick on Chan and me and the others were going to beat up Freddie Simmons."
"Why was that?"
Wally sighed. "Oh, I don't know. Because they're idiots. And, it probably had something to do with it being one of those culture Fridays and the culture thing presented to us being a ballet . . recital or performance or whatever they call it and Freddie being maybe the only boy in school who takes ballet classes."
"Oh, so it wasn't at all you who was being bullied. You were . . protecting your friend?" he said as he wrote in the file.
"I kept him from getting hurt worse, if that's what you mean. Maybe he got that perfect beating."
"That . . perfect beating?" Furious scribbling in the file.
"Yeah, the kind that doesn't get him hurt too bad but makes him realize that he's gotta be able to protect himself and inspires him to do something about it."
"But why does he need to do it all himself."
"Because he can't rely on you."
"What do you mean?" Gromek complained, all offended again.
"I mean, no matter what you do you can't stop it. All you can do is make it happen somewhere else. If you really wanted to do something. You'd send everybody to karate class."
"That's how we should stop bullying, teach everyone to fight?" asked Gromek with a hint of condescension.
"Or give us all knives," said Wally just to annoy him. "Big blades like you could gut a deer with," he added with a hopeful nod.
To Wally's surprise, the man stopped the budding argument there and just gave a small sigh. "So . . what, exactly, is a . . ," he checked the file, "'swirly', Wally?"
Wally rolled his eyes. "It's when some stupid, mouth-breathing eighth graders jump you and your friends and they hold you upside down in the air so that your head's in a toilet bowl as they flush it over and over."
"Oh. So that's what that's called? And how did that make you feel, Wally?"
"How did that make you feel?"
Wally squinted at him. What the f-?
" . . . Angry, of course."
"And . . when they gave you an atomic wedgie?"
Wally sighed and made a face. Is he gonna go over every single thing?
"What about when-"
"I was angry then, too."
"At whom. You need an object pronoun. Whom, not who."
"That's-that's right, Wally. I saw in your file that you've done very well in Mrs. Cadwallader's english class. She seems quite taken with you. So-"
"Are these questions gonna go a little faster than this . . Sir?"
The man seemed flustered but didn't lose his cool. "Wally, I'm just trying to . . to get a sense of how all of this is affecting you. Ms. Glickstein and I were both struck by all the bullying you seem to have endured and how . . . emotionally sparse the home life you depict in your assessment answers is and then how paradoxically . . content your personal assessment answers portray you. It doesn't seem to fit."
"Why not, sir?"
"Wally, you're an average size boy for your age, skinnier than most, I suppose. Should you have to fight boys much bigger than you?"
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"Sure, but . . so what?"
"Hmm." He went back into the file folder, furiously flipping pages. "You filled in the oval that says your parents give you encouragement . . . never. Is that really true, Wally?"
"The last oval before that was once a month. It's been longer than that, so I filled in the 'never' oval."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"Wally!" Gromek pressed. "That's not good. And," he looked down at the file again, "when asked how often your parents said they love you, you said 'never'."
"Well, the last oval before that was once a month, too. So I'm in the 'never' oval."
Gromek gave him a pained look of sympathy that Wally found almost painful to be the recipient of. He had to stop this right away. Right now. He was not going to be Wally West, object of pity. Uh uh. Not him.
"What? I spend more time with Chan and my other friends and my Aunt Iris, Iris West looks after me, too."
"Iris West?" The man's eyebrows went up. "The-the writer, the reporter?"
Wally nodded. The guy's expression had totally changed. He sat up in his chair, his expression now interested not pitying.
"Wow, I saw her on cable news the other night. She tore that treasury department guy a new one. She's your aunt?"
Wally nodded proudly. "She's great." He pressed on, seeing that the guy had lost his train of thought.
"Would you like to meet her the next time she's in Jump?"
It was funny for Wally to watch him try to rein in his interest.
"Oh . . . if it's not too much-"
In the hallway outside, the bells rang marking the end of that class period. Wally jumped up and was immediately at the door.
"Not so fast, young man. I . . I want to talk to you again. We'll . . we'll be keeping an eye on you. So-"
"Yes sir!" chirped Wally before hurrying out the door.
He jumped down the last 10 of the steps in the stairway to the lower level in one jump and hurried down the hall to meet Chan and the others outside Mrs. Tanner's room, saying a 'Thank you, Aunt Iris!' to himself as jogged down the hallway.
An older teacher called to him from a doorway. "No running in the hallways, young man!"
"Yes, ma'am," said Wally as he passed her without slowing down and eventually sidled up to his pals.
"Hey, what was that all about?" asked Chan when he caught up to them, his interest seconded by glances from Aaron, Jeff and Stevie.
"Nuthin," smirked Wally. "Guy just wanted to ask me about my Aunt Iris. Just a celebrity hound. And it got me away from Tanner just in time!"
Chan laughed, "You're so lucky. She was just about to slam you with a detention!"
Wally smirked, "Not a chance!"
The others laughed at his certainty and they continued on to their lockers and then off to their last class. After that was over, they gathered their books and backpacks, checked for the presence of jerk 8th graders and, seeing none, started home. They had a standing invitation from Aaron's mom for a ride but they preferred to walk as long as they weren't going to get beat up or stuffed in trash cans or something.
The five of them were all among the smartest boys in the 6th grade but none were exactly fearsome fighters. Aaron was a little shorter than average. Wally, Chan and Jeff were just a little taller than average. Stevie was the tallest of them all by a couple inches. Wally and Chan were both very slender. Jeff and Aaron had average builds. Stevie was charitably described as stocky. Wally had bright red, actually orange hair. Chan's was black, Aaron's and Jeff's brown. Stevie was blond.
They'd been together as a group, since Wally's family had moved to Jump City five years ago. They were called the 'nerd mafia' by the 8th grade boys who tormented them and by some of the other 6th graders. The five of them never referred to their group that way. And though they were definitely a sort of a team, there were deeper friendships within the group. Wally and Chan were best friends. Aaron had been best friends with Jeff, then Stevie, now in 6th grade it was hard to tell which. But they were all good friends and they did as much as possible together. If you found one over at the home of another you were likely to find three more.
"You guys see that new clip of Batman and Robin?" asked Jeff as he threw an acorn down the street.
"The one at the bank?" asked Chan
Jeff nodded. It'd gone viral. Bedouins in caves had seen it by now.
Wally made a disapproving face. "Kind of went overboard, didn't they?"
Chan nodded. Aaron gave a glance of agreement. Stevie shook his head. The others stared at him in disbelief.
"What?" Stevie complained.
Wally just shook his head.
"Jesus, Wally, the guy wasn't out."
"Practically," objected Chan.
"You always agree with him," laughed Jeff to Chan nodding at Wally.
"A referee would've been counting the last few seconds of a knockout if that'd been a boxing match," said Chan as he grabbed an acorn off the ground and tried to throw it as far as Jeff had.
"Little douche freaking jumped on the guy from like 15 feet up, however high up that power line was he spun around," Wally noted.
"That was a pretty cool move, carrot top. Ya gotta admit that," said Stevie taking his turn at throwing acorns.
Wally nodded reluctantly as did Chan. But Wally made another face. "He-he acts like he's mister badass but he's probably smaller than any of us. And that uniform . . . my god!"
The other boys laughed agreement.
"I mean, a green speedo and bare legs and, what are those, elf shoes?"
"Gay thought!" shouted Stevie.
"What?" complained Wally.
"What? That's what it looks like he wears?"
"You noticed a guy's underwear?"
"Um, when they wear it on the outside I do. Superman wears, what, red underpants on the outside am I not supposed to notice that either?"
"I suppose," Stevie let him off the hook.
"Doesn't he just seem like a complete little jerk, asshole, Robin I mean?" asked Chan.
The others nodded.
"There's something wrong with both him and Batman," suggested Jeff. "Seriously. Even in Gotham City where they work, people don't really like 'em. We've got family there and they say that everybody sort of likes that Batman and Robin are there fighting crooks but that nobody actually likes either of 'em."
"Yeah, but it works," said Stevie now throwing a crab apple and hitting a mail box on the corner with a satisfying thud inspiring the other four to all grab crab apples off the ground and bean that same mail box. "The whole total badass thing is what they bring to the table," said Stevie.
Wally picked up an acorn as they all approached a street corner. All five dodged behind the mail box to be sure those 8th graders weren't waiting for them. Seeing that the coast was still clear they started walking five abreast again. Wally threw his acorn. It went further than Jeff's, Stevie's or Chan's had.
"I'll give you that," he said to Stevie. "They're not as lame as Green Arrow. What's he got? How is he even in the Justice League?"
"What about Green Lantern?" laughed Jeff. "The-the guy's power is jewelry. And where's the freakin' lantern? He's got a ring. There's no lantern!"
"That CNN special said he's got an actual green lantern that he charges the ring in."
Jeff made a scornful face. "How do you 'charge' a ring in a lantern? What the-? And, who would his sidekick be, blue ankle bracelet?"
"Wait, wasn't that a song or a group or something?"
"At least he's got some power," said Aaron. "Like Wally said, what about Green Arrow? I mean, he beat a crook the other day by firing an arrow with a boxing glove on the end of it. So, like, what do they do, beam him down from that Justice League satellite and say, um, go over there Green Arrow. They need someone to, uh, shoot a boxing glove at a bad guy. Really? That's a great use of resources."
They were all quiet a few moments before Wally broke in, softly, "Did you see that one with Wonder Girl?"
Aaron gasped. "Where she knocked that wall over?"
Wally gave a quick nod.
Smiles all around.
Except for Stevie.
"Gay thought!" shouted Chan.
"What? I have to think she's hot?" whined Stevie looking around the circle of the group. The other four all nodded. Yeah. You do!
"That . . ," Wally gestured a few feet downward with his chin.
"And those . . ," Chan grinned looking a little higher.
The others all grinned.
"Batgirl's hotter," said Stevie to escape.
Wally smiled and glanced at Chan who was grinning ear to ear. Batgirl. Oh. Yeah.
They joined the others in appreciative chuckles.
This was one of the boys' favorite topics of discussion though, despite their words of bravado, none of them actually had much idea what they would do if they ever encountered Wonder Girl of Batgirl. They didn't have all that clear of an idea what to do with any girl. But that didn't stop them from talking. They did so till the group started to break up as they reached each of their homes.
First was Aaron. His family lived in a huge brick mansion, something over 5,000 square feet surrounded by topiary and flowers and a lawn that had come from a sod farm 30 miles east of Jump City. Their giant Chevy Suburban and BMW suv's were there visible in the driveway as the other four kept walking. Wally shook his head slightly. Aaron's mother made such a point of bringing her reusable bags to the supermarket but the house that they cooled and heated year round was ridiculously large for just the three of them, as were their cars. She also made a big deal about never giving Aaron sugar. Wally had heard her boast to one of their neighbors that "processed sugar" had never passed Aaron's lips. He'd barely contained his smirk. Aaron was a regular at the candy machine at school and scarfed down every kind of villainous sugary treat at the others' homes. Still, she pushed that agenda. At Aaron's 11th birthday party, everyone had been served a cake which tasted like glue that she proudly announced had no sugar in it. It was heinous.
It was always a little weird for Wally at Aaron's house. His parents acted oddly deferential toward him. It took Wally a while but eventually he realized that in some bizarre way it was because they were rich and he was poor. He kept reminding himself to ask Aunt Iris about people acting this way but had so far forgotten.
As unnatural as that felt, it was worse at Stevie's house, the next one they reached. Stevie's parents, like him, were blond and seemingly always just short of fat. They were overweight but never in quite a sloppy, rolls of fat sort of way. They lived in an even bigger mansion than Aaron's family built in a combination of styles that was hard to describe but which had one consistent theme to it. It screamed "Look at us!". Stevie's family didn't feel guilty about their wealth. Quite the opposite. They had a sort of compulsion to constantly express it. They had to have the newest gadgets as soon as they came out. They constantly traded up their cars to newer models. They never bought anything without determining if it was the highest status, most sought after version of its kind. Simply being right for them wouldn't do. They were nice enough to Wally, though Aaron's dad was always remarking about how skinny Wally was to the point where it annoyed him. But they constantly showed off their wealth to Wally. "Hey, carrot top, have you ever seen a smart phone like this? Hey, West, did Stevie show you our new HD tv? 1480 ppi!" It was quickly overbearing yet they didn't seem to have any realization of it. For all the great stuff they had, it never seemed to satisfy them. They seemed to live in mortal fear that someone somewhere had a better TV or phone or computer than they did even when they didn't use half of the features of the ones they had.
The next of the five to veer off the sidewalk to his house was Jeff. Even though Chan was his best friend, Wally liked being over Jeff's house best of all. Jeff and his parents lived in an expensive, modern style house. But Jeff's parents seemed almost indifferent to money. They had some new gadgets but some old, hopelessly superseded things too. Jeff's dad drove a so-so 6 year old car and didn't seem to care. Stevie's dad would've writhed in pain at the mere notion. They had books all over their house. But what really set them apart from the others' parents was the way they took an interest in Jeff's friends. They didn't care whether they ate sugar or knew about what smart phone they had. But, one afternoon, Jeff's dad reeled off some long, clever movie quote that Wally had never heard. None of the five boys had. And Jeff's parents were distraught. It really bothered them. The next night they took the all five boys to see a movie at the huge old style theater in Jump City, the one where they ran old movies. Every month or two they would take the boys to an old movie. 'Passing down the culture' they eventually called it. The guys all made a bot of a show of this being against their will but some of the movies were great and Jeff's parents would take them to a coffee house or a restaurant in their exclusive Jump Ridge neighborhood afterward and treat them to desserts and talk it over. It was eye opening for Wally. This was how smart grown ups lived, wasn't it? Except for his Aunt Iris, no one else seemed to care what he was thinking. They saw The Third Man, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sting, Point Blank, A Face in the Crowd, The Train, On the Waterfront, Chinatown and others. And it took the boys some getting used to, at first. At times, these movies seemed slow. And Stevie, in particular, was completely thrown that Chinatown would end the way it did. Why let that happen? Why show that to people? Couldn't he have done something? Maybe not, explained Jeff's parents. And sometimes that's how life is. Stevie resisted. Jeff's dad debated it with him.
Eventually, Wally realized that that was the whole point. Getting the five of them to debate the ideas in the movies. Wally liked it. He liked it a lot. This was different. It was the grown up world. Jeff's parents weren't staying away from the five of them almost in fear that they, as adults, were inherently not cool. They didn't care. And they weren't trying to regulate every molecule of food they ate. They were treating them like real people. Wally loved lingering over desserts in an expensive restaurant talking about things like this.
There were definitely different styles of being rich. If he ever got there he wanted it to be like that. He wished something anything like this was part of his life. His parents barely ever talked to him except for his mother complaining about how much he ate or bemoaning that he'd "come out with that . . orange hair", as though it was his fault, if it could even be said to be a bad thing for which fault would have to be determined.
Jeff waved bye to Wally and Chan and they shuffled on to Chan's. Chan's parents were unfailingly polite and almost never braggarts about their wealth. They had a smaller home than Aaron or Stevie's family. And unlike Aaron's family who made a big point of how they used Kindles and Ipads and Stevie's, who didn't seem to read any books at all, the Chans had big bookcases in three different rooms. Though Chan was his best friend Wally was always a little uncomfortable at the Chan house. For one thing, Chan's actual first name was Lee. But everyone called him Chan, except at their house where Wally had to constantly catch himself and refer to him as Lee. "Yes, ma'am. Lee and I both got A's on that test".
For another, well, it took a long time for Wally to put a finger on it, but Chan's parents, especially his mother always seemed a little nervous around him. They never quite relaxed around him. He wasn't quite sure why. At first he thought it was because he was poor and they almost regarded it as something akin to a sort of virus he was carrying and which they must be vigilant so that he didn't spread it to Chan. They always watched him carefully. But that wasn't entirely it. Besides which, they were very generous to him. They were very big on neatness. Their house was much neater than Stevie's and even more than Aaron's. Anything with the slightest flaw had to go. When Chan accidentally made a mark that could barely be seen on a new pair of chinos with a highlighter, they insisted that Chan get rid of them and suggested that he give them to Wally. He and Chan were the same height with the same waist. The pants were tight in the rear but they immediately became his best pair for school, the only ones he hadn't gotten at the Goodwill store or the Salvation Army store in Jump City.
But Wally and Chan were perfectly relaxed with each other. Without saying a word, Chan peeled off toward his house and Wally followed him. Inside the door, Chan tossed his coat aside. "It's me, Lee, Mom!" he shouted.
"And Wally, Mrs. Chan!" Wally tossed his coat where Chan had.
They waited a moment but there was only silence. Chan shrugged. Wally shrugged back. They ran up to Chan's room, Wally easily catching up despite Chan's two step head start. In a minute, they were flopped down side by side at the footboard of Chan's bed.
First they played a game of chess on Chan's gaming system. As usual, they got the game 98 percent done and then paused it. It was going to be another draw, anyway. Chan had a white knight and his king. Wally had a black bishop and his king. They then switched the system over to Soldier of Doom 7. Stevie had given Chan his copy when SoD8 had come out two weeks before. They played for a half hour before both of them had been killed, furiously blowing up opponents and shooting them, laughing and shouting as they played.
Chan hit reset but didn't start the game right away.
He turned to Wally right beside him and sighed.
"Hey . . I can't go with you on that trip to Keystone City this Friday."
"What? Why not?"
"It's my mom. She's . . she's getting totally nutty with her freaking religion."
"What's that got to do with going to Keystone City with me? We're gonna get to meet the Flash. The Flash, Chan!"
"Well, yeah, how was that gonna happen, anyway?"
"My uncle. He's a police scientist with the Keystone City Police. They've worked with Flash. I-I guess he asked him if he'd meet with a couple fans and he said yes."
Chan gave a heavy sigh. "I want to, man, but my mom won't let me. She says I already . . 'see too much of Wally West'," he imitated her voice in a sing-song cadence, "and she doesn't want me getting 'molested' by some screener at the airport."
"Oh, come on. For once! For once I have something to offer. I never have a new phone or TV or game or gadget. I can't get my parents to take us all anywhere. I can't even have you guys over. But this once I have something to offer and . . !"
"I'm sorry. Why don't you take Jeff or Aaron or even Stevie?"
Wally sighed. "It wouldn't be the same."
There was a long pause.
"She really thinks you hang around with me too much?"
"It's . . it's totally ridiculous lately, with my mom and my aunt. She got my mom into all this religious stuff. They, like, see 'gay' everywhere, now. They-"
"They're obsessed with it. It's nuts. I think the way they see it is that every boy is straight unless he does like five or six things wrong and then he automatically becomes gay."
"Oh come on!"
"I'm serious. Remember that little league playoff game two weeks back?"
"I-I guess I gave you a pat on the butt at some point, like when you got to the dugout after scoring that time."
Wally squinted trying to recall this. "Are you sure? I don't remember that."
"My mom and my aunt did. They tried to be sort of low key about it but they were all 'what are you boys doing?' 'Why touch him there? Why did you do that? What's the point of that?" What . . what could I say? I didn't even remember doing it. Since then they're, like, always watching me. It's so ridiculous."
"Gay thought!" muttered Wally.
"Yeah, it's worse than Stevie."
"But . . wait. They think you . . and me . . ?"
Chan rolled his eyes. "I know."
"I-I didn't even know what gay guys did until Stevie and Jeff told us!"
Wally gave a half shudder thinking about it before adding, "You've got, like, 500 screen shots of Batgirl from every video that ever aired of her."
"Yeah, except that's secret. Don't go talking about that! It probably wouldn't even matter. They don't even like that we put our arms around each other's shoulders or do, like, anything even remotely touchy. If my mom saw us like this now . . "
Wally glanced back toward their feet. Their sides were pressed against each other from their ankles up to their waists where they lay on Chan's bed.
"Seriously. Separate a bit in case she comes in."
Wally sighed. So ridiculous. But he and Chan scrunched over toward the opposite sides of the bed.
"That was why I jumped in and said you had that bruise under your eye and a scrape on your head from 8th graders trying to bully us last week and left out the part about Freddie Simmons and the ballet. If they thought you were getting into fights to protect a ballet dancing boy they'd be all over you and then they'd be all over me."
Wally sighed, still trying to process the disappointment.
"Why'd you have to do that anyway? You're not that close with Freddie Simmons."
"I-I can't just let somebody get picked on. I . . I just can't. It bothers me. Doesn't it bother you?"
"Well . . yeah, but you gotta learn to pick your spots."
"It was so dumb and so unfair. He's . . he's Freddie, but he's harmless," sighed Wally.
"The-the irony is that that dancer dude didn't even seem really gay, somehow, . . . that ballet dude in the performance."
"Not for a guy jumping around in white, ass crack tights," muttered Wally. "When he talked afterward he sounded pretty normal."
"And the dude was a serious athlete. No wonder he can jump, looking like . . that."
"That jump where he came down and spun and . . . I tried to do that one at home. It's impossible."
"And the thing where he carried the girl overhead!"
"Why don't the girls have to show their asses, too?"
Chan nodded. Totally unfair.
"Imagine being a totally straight guy and you have to jump around in tights like that," muttered Wally.
Down below there was the sound of the door opening and the voice of Chan's mother. "Lee?"
"I'm up here, mom, with Wally!" Lee shouted.
"There's really no way?" pleaded Wally.
"They told me no."
Wally sighed. "Just once I wanted to be the one providing something for one of you guys. Just once."
Chan gave him a pat on the shoulder but quickly withdrew his hand as he heard his motherj's steps ascending the stairs. He switched the game back to chess. When Mrs. Chan opened the door to her son's room she saw him and his friend Wally separated by a foot or more finishing out a game of chess.
"Working on your chess for the chess team. Good!" pronounced Mrs. Chan.
Wally said he had to go a few minutes later and grabbed his backpack and coat and headed out to the street. He went through the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac where the Chans lived and down a hill to a railroad crossing. The Wests lived, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. He ducked under the red and white swing arm while the warning bells were sounding but there was still no train.
He made his way down one street, turned left and approached the dirty, tiny West home.
"Back to the 'never' oval," he muttered under his breath.