*A story I wrote inspired by the song "Superman" by Five For Fighting.*
The football field is completely deserted at 6:30 on Sunday evening. The washboard sky is stained a buttery amber and I'm sprawled on the hood of my station wagon, waiting for my best friend, Ryder.
He called me that morning, asking to meet him behind our high school, and the nervous tone of his voice worried me. Ryder's dad had been on his case a lot in the lately; mostly about his future and the fact that he didn't seem to be making an effort with the AP classes Mr. Beck had forced him to take in order to get into Lamar University. Ryder and I haven't seen each other in about two weeks so I assume he finally gave in and cracked a book open. For my part, I'm not really concerned, as I'm going to a local junior college thanks to winning a scholarship for playing softball and having no life.
My stomach flips as I recall the last time Ryder and I met on a weekend. We drove out to a diner on the other side of the highway. He reached across the sticky table for my hand when the waitress's back was turned. Although the memory is sweet, it also makes me angry. I'm in love with my best friend and I can't show it, at least not in public. We live in Caddo, Texas, where every move you make is fodder for gossip. To make matters worse, Ryder's dad is an important business owner in our town. Most of the men here work at his hardware store. It's nothing short of a miracle that Ryder just so happens to be gay and interested in me.
My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a car approaching. I turn my head and see Ryder's trendy Honda Civic rolling over the bumps in the road, nearing the field. He parks beside my used Ford and cuts the engine. Fora few seconds, he just sits there, staring out the windshield at the bleachers and goal posts, and I realize something is wrong.
Hopping down from the hood of my car, I make my way over to him. He slowly unbuckles his seat belt and opens the driver's side door.
"What's up?" I ask immediately, caught off guard by the sullen expression on his face.
Ryder gives me the saddest grin I've ever seen. "How are you, Nate?"
I shrug, not liking the emotionless tone of his voice. "I'm fine, but what about you? We haven't talked in awhile.."
The sentence trails off and I can tell that he knows I mean we haven't talked or done anything else in awhile.
He rubs the nape of his neck; a nervous gesture. "I'm sorry I've been distant."
I step closer and place a careful hand on his shoulder. "What is it?"
Ryder barks out a bitter laugh. "My father. What else?"
"Oh," I murmur. "Is this about that C in algebra?"
He shakes his head and anger suddenly flashes in his eyes, surprising me because Ryder is usually so laid-back and doesn't get riled up. "It's not just that anymore," he huffs. "The man is jackass."
"What did he do?"
Ryder peels my hand off his shoulder gently and rolls up the sleeve of his shirt. My eyes widen at the sight of his forearm, which is yellow and purple.
"What the hell?!" I lock my fingers around his wrist, examining the bruised skin. "When did this happen?"
"A few days ago."
I glare at him.
"I'm sorry I didn't call earlier," Ryder exclaims quickly, his words almost jumbling together. "We got into another fight about college. I told him I don't want to go to Lamar next year..or work for him."
My ears start buzzing. I drop his arm and brace my hands against the window of his car, my breathing coming up short. I feel so disgusted and stupid.. Why couldn't I have called him first?
Ryder has his hands on my shoulders but it's awhile before I can turn around and face him.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I demand, my voice trembling before I can control it. "I was probably writing some stupid essay while your dad was beating you up!"
"It's not your fault."
I shake my head. "No, it's his fault. You have to tell someone!"
Ryder's reaction only makes me angrier.
He laughs humorlessly. "Nathan, in case you haven't noticed, my dad is one of the most important guys in this crappy hick town! Who am I going to tell?"
I officially can't breathe.
He pulls me against his chest, sweeping his hands up and down my back. Slowly, my body starts to give in to the soothing sensation, but I'm far from relaxing emotionally.
"I'm done, Nate," Ryder whispers as he holds me. "I'm done with this crap. I'm not letting him put his hands on me again."
"What are we going to do?"
I purposely say "we" instead of just "you" as a way of apologizing for my earlier selfishness. I want him to know that he's not alone with this secret.
He cups his hands on either of my neck. "I need to tell you something, but you have to promise not to freak out or cry or yell, okay?"
I roll my eyes, frustrated. "When have I ever cried?"
A real hint of a smile appears on his lips. "When you were twelve, remember? You were teaching Hannah how to play baseball and she hit you on the head with the bat. Your ear starting bleeding and you were bawling."
"Okay," I can't help grinning. "That grueling incident was the only time in ten years, I swear."
"Don't be a douche," he says, his blue eyes electric. "You're honest. That's why I like you."
I glance away, awkwardly, my chest tightening. "Really? I thought it was because of my hazel eyes."
Ryder punches my arm playfully, then runs a hand through my hair affectionately. His smile fades.
"I'm going to my mom's house in Memphis."
"No, you're not," is all I can respond with.
Five seconds ago, I thought that seeing evidence of his father's mood swings was the most shocking thing in my world. Now I don't know what to think or feel anymore.
"I can't stay," Ryder continues. "I know we're graduating soon but things are already so messed up. What if my dad finds out we're-"
He doesn't finish and I bow my head, defeated. He's right. I can't be mad at him for being scared. If Mr. Beck reacted violently to his son telling him he doesn't want to meet his expectations after high school, how is he going to react to discovering the truth about Ryder's sexuality?
"Ry-" I start but he cuts in.
"Look, I don't want you to think that what happened in January and before that didn't mean anything," he pauses, sliding his hands over my arms. "I don't regret it."
"I don't either," I whisper fiercely. "I felt like I was alone before you-"
"Yeah, same here."
Ryder's hands drop to my hipbones and he drags me closer to him, pressing his cool lips against mine. My arms instinctively fold around his back, and I feel the sinewy muscles hidden there.
In January when the temperature had finally dropped below 70 degrees, Ryder and I had had sex for the first time in his room with the furnace raging.
"Do you remember what you said?"Ryder asks when we break apart.
My jaw hardens because it's bad enough having my world collapse, but to be reminded of a time when I naively thought a relationship with him was possible is downright humiliating. He must know how it's tearing me up inside.
"Why are you bringing this up?" My voice sounds irritated, even though I'm not. I'm hurt, just like him.
His expression doesn't change, however. "Tell me what you said that day," he insists.
"I said I loved you."
"Yeah." He grins, almost childishly, as if being handed a big birthday present or something.
"But you're leaving,"I point out. "When?"
"Tomorrow morning," he replied reluctantly.
"Does your mom know?"
"She thinks I'm just visiting." His tone is a little evasive but I don't push for details.
The air gets cooler as the sky darkens. We stand there, watching the sunset gracefully die.
Ryder reaches for my hand and I let him take it. His grip is strong, just like everything else about him.
"Hannah's going to miss you," I mumble, referring to my sister who also thinks he's Superman.
Ryder smiles sadly. "It's a shame I won't be here to take her to her first Sadie Hawkins dance."
I scoff. "I always knew you liked her better than me."
He chuckles, then says dreamily, "You know, when we leave home, we can tell anybody we want."
"Yeah," I agree. "College must be liberating."
I don't want to think about college without him, though.
"I'll call you when I get to my mom's."
"Do you promise?"
My pulse races when he leans over and pecks me on the cheek.
"Yeah," he replies calmly. "Who else am I going to talk to about this liberating feeling?"
He gives me one last hug and I smell soap and cedar clinging to his skin.
"I love you, Nathan."
When he says this, I think he stops being so intimidating. Even though I had him since the moment I told him my secret, Ryder always gave off this charming, self-assured air that made me think, like my sister, that he was some kind of Clark Kent in disguise. But now I see we're not that different; both young and nowhere near fearless. And I let a stubborn tear escape at the sight of his car speeding away.
Unbreakable or not, he's still the best thing that's ever happened to me.