The pair of teens sat in front of the garage on folding lawn chairs that Tony carried from the back yard. Mrs. Barnes poured each a glass of mint iced tea in tall plastic cups. It was a nice day and the humidity wasn't bad as the two waited for Courtney's father.
“What do you do for fun?” Tony asked to keep the conversation going.
Courtney took a sip from her pink tumbler. “I like to read, that's always fun.”
“Do you read those trashy romance novels that girls like?”
“No.” Courtney giggled. “My mom won't let me. She thinks they will corrupt me.”
“She's probably right. Pastor Bob always says 'garbage in, garbage out.'”
“I guess he wants you just to read your Bible, huh?”
“Not just,” Tony said with a sly smile.
“I read the Bible. They have those things where you read the Bible all the way through in a year.”
“What did you think?”
“I think a lot of people who claim to be Christians never read a word of it.”
“Unfortunately, I have to agree with you. I hope you don't think I'm one of those people.”
“No. You're probably different than anyone I've ever met,” Courtney said.
“So I'm a weirdo?”
“I didn't say that. I would never say that. But you're a different person than people think you are.”
The revelation took Antonio by surprise. “I am?”
“Before I met you, I thought you were some sort of Greek god. The way people described you I figured once you found out about me, fire would shoot out of your eyes and burn me alive.”
“Is that why you were scared of me the first day?”
“I was scared of everybody. I still I am. I knew going to school as the real me might be a bad idea if people figured things out. Turns out, I was right.”
“It will pass.”
“I hope, but neither of us knows for sure.”
“That's true. Only God knows, and He holds this whole ball of wax in place.”
“You talk about God and church a lot.” Courtney took another sip of her tea.
“It's important. I know you had a bad experience with the church you were at. They probably weren't expecting to see you in dress.”
“They never saw me in a dress.”
“Oh,” Tony said. “From the way you said they kicked you out, I figured you showed up one day and the pastor there had a conniption.”
“I don't operate that way. My mom and I went to speak to him in private, before I went full time as Courtney and had a discussion with him. He was upset we didn't come to him earlier to discuss my 'sin,'” the girl made air quotes. “He said I reveled in sin so long that it would be hard to give up, but if I didn't I was in danger of going to hell.”
“That's terrible. The only requirement to go to heaven is belief and faith in Jesus Christ. He really said that you being you was sin?”
“His exact words. He quoted something from First Corinthians about casting me out and having Satan have his way with me so I could be destroyed and then after I repent, they would accept me back.”
“That's an interesting take on the Bible.”
“He had verses and everything. We stayed an hour as he lectured me on how evil I was.”
Tony could tell the girl was upset. “Why did you stay? Did you try to argue?”
“No. I just listened and thanked him for his time.”
“And he kicked you out of his church?”
“He asked if I was ready to repent and give up my folly.”
“I take it you told him no.”
Courtney nodded. “It wasn't easy. I liked going to that church. But I thought it was a bigger sin living a lie. I was never the boy people thought I was, no matter what my body says. I tried hard to be that person, but I always felt like I was an actress playing a part, never letting people see the real me.”
“I know the feeling.”
“You mean being Tiny, king of Dunedin.”
Tony laughed. “That was your mom's name for me, but in some ways, yes. It's not like Tiny is a different person than who I am; at least I hope not. But there is the myth and there is the man. I try to live up to people's expectations about me, but I have doubts and fears like everyone else.”
“Am I one of those doubts?”
“No. You're one of the pleasant surprises that life brought my way. That's why I like you calling me Antonio. You're the only person who calls me that other than my mom.”
“I feel special.” Courtney beamed.
“You are special, and I'm glad you've let me see the real you.”
“Me too, Antonio.”
“Is reading the only thing you do for fun. Don't you do other stuff, shopping, ballet, gymnastics, those kinds of things?”
“Not really. I'm what my mom likes to call a homebody.”
Tony frowned. “You need to get away from your house more.”
“And go where. For all I know, Peter and his goons have my neighborhood staked out and as soon as I turn a corner. Pow! He's going to bop me right in the mouth.”
“I doubt that. I haven't heard much of him lately. Maybe he found someone new to pick on.”
“Or he's waiting for the perfect moment to strike.”
Tony wanted to tell the girl she was wrong, that he would be around to protect her, but he knew that no matter how much he wanted his words to be true, he couldn't guarantee them. “I was thinking you could come over to my place after school next Friday. You could swim in our pool and meet my mom, kind of like returning the favor.”
“Does your mom know about me?”
“Yeah. I don't keep secrets and you've come up a couple of times.”
“Isn't she afraid I might be contagious?”
“No. She thinks it's difficult for you to be going through what you are, but she doesn't think you're doing anything wrong.”
“That's a switch.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Courtney said trying to get the bitterness to subside.
“Do you think you're wrong?”
Courtney looked down at the ground, avoiding eye contact. “I am wrong. I don't think I'm wrong for being Courtney. I think my body is wrong and I wish things would match up.”
“It makes you one more of God's wonders. How about it? Want to come over my house next Friday? I can't promise steak, but my mom makes a good stew.”
“I'd like that. I'll ask my parents, but I'm sure they'll be glad to get me out of the house.”
“Cool,” Tony said as a Sedan pulled into the driveway.
“That's my daddy,” Courtney informed as she stood up.
“Nice wheels. I thought he would be driving a station wagon.”
“My dad wouldn't be caught dead in one. He wants a Corvette, but Mom won't let him get one.”
The car came to a halt and the door opened up. A lanky gentleman about forty years old got out of the vehicle. His salt and pepper hair was cut short and looked professional and though it was obvious he wore the suit all day, the pants and dress shirt still looked pressed.
“There's my girl,” the man said joyfully as Courtney ran to him and gave him a hug.
“Hi daddy, this is Antonio.”
“Antonio? I thought you were bringing Tiny home?”
Antonio stood a step away from father and daughter. “I've been called that as well.”
“I know. I was teasing my little girl here. So you're the famous Mr. Tiny,” the man extended his hand toward the teenage boy.
“I guess so,” Antonio said as he gripped the man's hand. The handshake was firm, and Antonio matched the strength of the grip. Then Mr. Barnes squeezed harder. Before Antonio knew it, he was in some sort of battle to see who could squeeze the others hand harder.
“You got me,” Mr. Barnes said as he released his grip. “Can tell why you're a wrestler.”
“It's the age old question, sir: What came first the wrestler or the grip?”
“Well said,” Mr. Barnes put his arm around the slightly shorter teen's shoulder. “Being a former athlete myself, I know how much you must love competition.”
“I never mind testing myself against another, if it's a fair duel.”
“Rightly so.” Mr. Barnes gave Antonio a firm pat on the back between the shoulders.
“You're not going to box him, are you daddy?” Courtney said in a whine.
“No sweetie, Daddy doesn't feel like getting his nose broken tonight,” Mr. Barnes said as he removed his arm from around the wrestler and faced his daughter. “But sometimes the best way to get to know a man is through competition, wouldn't you agree Mr. Tiny.”
Tony shrugged; at least boxing was taken off the table. “I suppose so.”
“See. It's one of those guy things that girls don't understand.”
“But he's dressed nice,” Courtney continued whining. “Antonio doesn't want to get sweaty.”
“Relax, Sweet Pea. I thought me and Mr. Tiny could shoot some hoops. If that's okay with him?”
“I have no problems. Besides, I thought you liked seeing me sweat, Courtney.”
Mr. Barnes shot his daughter a look.
Courtney turned red with embarrassment.
“At least you got good taste in men,” Mr. Barnes said to his daughter. “Come on, let's go shoot some hoops.”
“Lead the way,” Antonio said as he wondered if he should be getting his good dress shirt dirty.
“I'll keep score,” Courtney announced.
“I think your mother would appreciate help in the kitchen,” Mr. Barnes gave a nod to his daughter.
Courtney pouted. “Oh, okay,” she said glumly.
Tony and Mr. Barnes watched Courtney retreat into the house.
“Women!” Mr. Barnes said. “They never get the hint when guys want to be alone.”
“I guess not.” Tony was awed at how readily the man accepted Courtney as his daughter. The teen assumed there would be some friction in the relationship, but Mr. Barnes didn't show it. He followed the man to the back yard where a basketball goalpost was set up.
Mr. Barnes found a basketball by the fence and tossed it solidly toward Tony.
Antonio caught the ball without a problem, but wondered if the handshake competition entered a new phase. Was this a father judging a boy who was around his daughter, Tony wondered, or was there something more?
“Too be fair, basketball isn't my sport,” Tony said as he dribbled the ball against the concrete.
“I guess you'll be at a disadvantage.”
“Do you want to play one on one or something?”
“Nah,” Mr. Barnes smiled. “Let's just shoot around for fun. Playground rules; you make a shot, you get the ball back. I just thought this would be a good way for us to get to know each other without the women folk around.”
“That's good. If we did one on one I would have to ask for wrestler's rules to apply.”
“Wrestler's rules, I never heard of that one.”
“Since wrestlers stink at basketball, we have different scoring; two points for hitting the backboard, three points for hitting the rim, and five points if it goes in.”
“Must make for a quick game to twenty-one,” Mr. Barnes said.
“You'd be surprised,” Tony said as he took a shot that clanked off the front of the rim. “Games could last for hours. We'd never finish if we had to make real baskets.''
Mr. Barnes dribbled a fair distance away from the basket and took a shot. “I could see that,” he said as the shot went in. “You use different muscles for wrestling and a lot of basketball is muscle memory.”
Tony tossed the ball back to the man. “In wrestling we don't extend our arms or our bodies that much, we like to be compact and strike like a cobra.”
“A cobra, you say.” Mr. Barnes took another shot, banking it off the backboard and through the hoop. “Sounds dangerous.”
“Only on the mat, sir.”
“Good answer. My wife texted me that you're aware of Courtney's situation.”
“Courtney told me a few weeks ago.”
“And you didn't run for the hills.” The shot Mr. Barnes took barely missed.
“I didn't see a need to.”
“A lot of guys would have a problem with it. From what I hear, a lot already do.”
“I'm not a lot of guys,” Tony said as he made a free throw.
“Good shot!” Mr. Barnes returned the ball to Tony. “I can tell you're not like a lot of guys. We were banking on it when we let Courtney go to Dunedin. We never imagined that you two would become friends.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Tony said as he made a consecutive free throw.
“Yeah, but the most popular boy in school becoming friends with the outcast has to be in the top ten.”
“I don't view her as an outcast.” Tony got the ball back and dribbled to another spot on the concrete. “She's another person with issues. We all have issues.”
“Even you?” Mr. Barnes asked with a raised eyebrow and then took off to chase down an errant shot.
“Even me. I'm a performance junkie, got to be the best at everything I do. Some find it admirable.”
“I do,” Mr. Barnes interjected.
“But it gets to be exhausting. Courtney is another person trying to get by in the world. Can't fault her for that.”
“No, you can't.”
“You don't seem to have a problem with her condition.”
“Condition, huh? I guess that's one way to put it,” Mr. Barnes said as he lined up a shot. “I suppose some would think I was a failure as a father.” He let the ball fly and watched it sail over the backboard. “It's not every man who lets his son become his daughter, I've heard of some who are real jerks, even abusive; criminally so.”
“I could see some fathers becoming abusive or distant to their kids, but that's not you,” Tony said as he let the ball land in the grass and roll to a stop before retrieving it.
“At first I felt I was a failure as a father. I asked myself what I did wrong, what didn't I do right. Did I not roughhouse enough when she was little, did I not encourage her in sports, should I have bought more army men?”
Tony laughed nervously. “I can see fathers not understanding. I don't understand. I've tried to put myself in her position, but I can't.”
“I wouldn't stress over it. The more I learned about her and what she's going through; I figured that there wasn't anything anyone could have done differently. She is who she is; flaws and perfections alike. I had to accept that despite physical evidence to the contrary, I have a daughter. It wasn't easy at first, at times it's still hard to wrap my brain around it, but family life has never been better since I came to that realization.”
“She is happy around you,” Tony said as he took another shot.
“And I'm happy around her.”
“I'm sure you miss this part of having a son.” Tony watched the ball rattle around the rim and fall through the hoop.
“Courtney shoots hoops with me. It's one of the ways we bond as father and daughter.”
“Oh?” Tony was surprised. “I didn't think she did stuff like this.”
“You mean boy things.”
“I guess,” Antonio said sheepishly.
“It's not the same as the way you and I are going about it. You can tell she is all girl, and not because she has a bad shot. You should see how giddy she gets when she scores a basket. You and I go about it like it's natural, we expect the ball to go in. With her, it's like she's won the NBA finals every time she sinks one. If you had any doubt about her being a girl, you should shoot hoops with her sometime.”
“I don't have any doubts at all.”
“And that's what makes you unique, Tiny.”
The weekend didn't last long and Tony found himself wishing he invited Courtney over to his house one of the two days. He wondered why he hadn't.
“Did I think my mom might be judgmental?” he asked himself as he drove to school. “She already knows the situation and didn't say anything bad about it, but sometimes things are different when you are face to face then when you just hear about things. I don't think she'd have a problem, but she didn't seem thrilled about Courtney being a girl either. She seemed lukewarm about the whole deal.”
Antonio turned the volume up on his car stereo. He was tired of thinking, of over analyzing every little aspect. He tried to figure out why Courtney was a girl in a boy's body for hours as he lounged in the swimming pool and hadn't come across any reasonable explanation. In the end he would have to accept that some things were beyond him understanding why. He didn't like it, but there was nothing he could do. “Courtney probably doesn't even know why herself,” he said as he drummed on the steering wheel.
“When Mom meets Courtney she's going to think I made the whole thing up,” Tony told himself with a laugh. “She's going to see Courtney and think I'm horrible for making up such terrible stories. Then again, maybe my mom will see some evidence that there is a boy under the long hair and the dress. She would know better than me, because I can't see it.”
Tony pulled into the student parking lot. There were a few cars already parked there and some students milling around. Antonio pulled into his usual parking spot. John Sharp was waiting for him.
“You're here early,” Tony said as he got out of the car with his books for the first few periods. “I thought you liked to be fashionably late to school.”
“That was last year, Tiny. My dad said if I got any tardies he would take it out of my hind end. Look at me Tiny,” John turned around. “I ain't got anything there to lose.”
Antonio rolled his eyes. “I don't want to see your butt.”
“Admit it Tiny, it's cute. Let me hear you say it,” the boy egged on. “All you have to say is 'John you have a cute butt.' You can do it, Tiny.”
“Would you quit?”
“Makes you want to curse, don't it? Come on Tiny; tell me to get my ass out of your face.” John swiveled his hips. “You know you want to.”
“It's too early for this John.”
“Yeah, your defenses are weaker in the morning, huh?”
“I'm still not cursing. What do you want? I know you didn't come to school early just so you can shake your booty at me.”
“Oh yeah,” John Sharp said as if suddenly remembering something. He turned around and the large smile he was wearing left his face. “I got something important to tell you. You're not going to like it any, but don't kill the messenger.”
“I promise I won't get mad at you for giving me a message.”
“You didn't hear it from me.”
“Get on with it before we're late.”
“Okay, here it is. Peter is going to start making life for your little friend a living hell again.”
“You're my little friend,” Tony said as he processed what John was saying.
“You know who I'm talking about. The he-she.”
“Her name is Courtney.”
“Peter is planning a new set of attacks. He said he wanted her to get comfortable before he did anything so she wouldn't be ready for it. He wants her to drop out of school. It's like he's on a mission.”
Tony shook his head in disgust. “What does he have planned?”
“He didn't tell me the details. He said that there was going to be a lot of fun at her expense. Actually, he said, 'this will teach the little queer.'”
“Is he going to do anything physical?”
“I doubt that. There's no sport in beating her up, she's smaller than I was last year.”
“You're still small.”
“Hey, I gained 10 pounds of solid muscle over the summer.” John Sharp flexed his bicep.
“I don't remember you lifting over the summer.”
“I gained it naturally.”
“You're the only person I know who can hit a growth spurt and still wrestle in the hundred and three pound weight class. You sure you don't know what Peter has planned?”
“Honest, Tiny. He knows I would wind up telling you anyway.”
“I'm surprised you didn't help him plan something.”
John Sharp frowned. “That hurts Tiny. You know I have my ethics. Courtney is a friend of yours, that makes her off limits. I don't mess with friend's friends.”
“But you mess with me all the time. Interesting.”
“I only play around with you, Tiny. You know that. Besides, you deserve it.”
Tony chuckled. “Because I'm so mean to you.”
“There are other reasons. Anyway, you know I always got your back. That's why I'm warning you about this. I know you have a thing for her.”
“The same thing I have for you. I don't like people being bullied, or did you forget how we met?”
“I could have taken them.”
“All four seniors, while you were dumped head first into a garbage can?”
“I was giving them a false sense of security. I would have whipped them good, Tiny. It was a good thing you came by and kept them from an ass whooping.”
“You're too much.”
“Anyway. Now you know. I don't know what they're going to do, but it's something. I don't think it's a beat down, but it isn't going to be nice. Peter's been planning this for a whole week.”
“Something worse than making people sing that stupid song?”
“That's what he says. He was mad the song didn't work. Thought it would drive her to tears. And when people didn't get a response, it got old fast. I heard most people were afraid to sing it because they thought you might be around somewhere.”
Tony nodded. “Thanks for telling me. I better see if she is at her locker.”
“Remember Tiny,” John Sharp called out. “You didn't hear it from me.”
“Not a word,” Antonio called over his shoulder.
The halls were beginning to fill with students as time drew closer for the morning bell. With all the people that walked by Antonio as he waited in front of his locker, Courtney was not one of them. He saw Peter's brother, Henry, and was tempted to grab the kid by the collar and demand to know what was planned. He wasn't about to become one type of bully to stop another kind of bully.
Tony also saw Andrew, the chubby kid that he helped out the first day of school, on his hands and knees, still struggling with a locker that he couldn't get organized. Figuring he would see Courtney if she ever showed up, he made his way over.
“Hey,” Tony said as he towered over the freshman. “How's life been treating you, Andrew?”
“Okay, I guess,” the boy said as he looked up. “I've been busy with J.V. Football and all the homework teachers hand out.”
Tony was disappointed that the boy didn't say something clever to his question. It was a softball set up for a funny punch line, but sometimes freshman couldn't figure out the obvious. “Football isn't that bad of a sport. What position are you playing?”
“Offensive guard,” Andrew replied as he stuffed some papers haphazardly into his locker.
“Must be nice having ten other people around you to have your back, and those pads keep you nice and safe. Not much of a challenge for a guy your size.”
“I do okay.”
“After J.V. football is over, you can do Wrestling. Next year you could be the varsity starter.”
“I don't know. I never wrestled before.”
“Have you ever played football before you joined the J.V. squad?”
“Yeah, I did Peewee football.”
“Oh,” Tony wasn't expecting that answer. “See, you had to start somewhere. You should at least give it a try; see if it's something that could challenge a guy like you.”
Andrew looked at the senior suspiciously.
“You probably don't know this yet, but girls dig wrestlers.”
“Of course they do. And those guys on TV make millions of years play-acting, most of them wrestled in high school too.”
“I know. So you think you could give it a shot for a week. You're probably a natural.”
“I can try for a week.”
“Awesome. This school has a legacy of great heavy weights. I would hate for it to end with me.”
The first bell rang; the students had a few minutes to get to their classes. The hallway filled with the sound of lockers slamming and students clamoring to get where they needed to be. Tony joined the fray, upset that he didn't see Courtney to give her the heads up on what John told him.
The day was beginning to frustrate Tony and he was glad to be heading to lunch. He spotted Courtney in the hallways between each of the first four periods but was never able to make his way to her. It seemed as if life, or other students, was conspiring to keep them apart. Antonio thought a little paranoia was affecting his judgment. It wasn't as if the other kids from the school were creating a human wall to keep him at bay while something was happening to his friend. The way the flow of traffic went, it made it impossible to do anything but wave. From the looks of things, the girl was none the worse for wear.
Antonio sat down at his usual table. Since he no longer had to wait in line to get food, he was the first person to sit, even though he noticed Carl and Tracy beat him to the cafeteria. He pulled out a turkey sandwich and an apple from the brown paper bag and placed them in front of him. Even though his coach barred him from working out, he could continue to eat healthy.
“Hey, Tiny.” Carl sat down across from his friend with Tracy sitting right next to him.
“Hey, Carl, Tracy,” Antonio said after taking a big swig of Gatorade.
“Did you hear the announcement this morning?”
“Of course. All returning wrestlers are to meet after school on Thursday.”
“You know what that means,” Carl said with a grimace.
“We get our weight certified and I can work out again.”
“It means I have to cut weight before Thursday.”
“Better start running,” Tony said with a smile. “I would do it with you, but Coach would have a fit if he saw me out there. I gave him my word.”
“I liked you better when you were a fat heavyweight,” Carl said bitterly.
“You keep it up; you might be a fat heavyweight yourself.”
“Low blow Tiny, low blow.”
“Boys! Boys!” Tracy intervened. “None of that. We're supposed to build each other up, not tear each other down.”
“Yes ma'am,” Tony said apologetically.
Carl nodded in Tony's direction as a way of saying, 'serves you right.'
After a few moments of silence, Courtney showed up with her tray, much to Tony's relief.
“How's your day so far?” Tony asked, ready to hear some horror stories.
“It's okay. I got a B on my math test.”
“A B is pretty good,” Carl said.
“Carl had to take freshman math over in summer school,” Tony whispered towards Courtney.
“Only because my parents didn't want a C on my transcripts when I applied for college,” Carl informed. “Don't go making like I failed.”
“Boys!” Tracy reprimanded once again.
“Sorry,” Tony said.
“My dad will say the same thing he always says,” Courtney lamented. “I'm proud of you, but I know you can do better if you put your mind to it.”
“Ouch!” Carl made a sour face.
“Ouch is right,” Courtney said as she picked at her food. “My dad was never good at math anyway.”
“I thought he was an accountant?”
“He is,” Courtney said with a laugh. “Don't tell his clients.”
Tony laughed along with her. “So outside of the B on the math test, nothing else happening.”
“No. Same old, same old. School is boring again.”
“Sometimes boring is a blessing.” Tony was surprised there wasn't an attempt to harass the girl. Perhaps John had his information wrong or was using a new ploy to shake things up. He had a habit of doing things like that, but he never came off as sincere as he did that morning.
“Amen to that,” Courtney said.
“Amen to what?” Dave asked as he saddled up to the table.
“They started prayer meeting early,” Ted guessed. “Told you we miss out on stuff when we come late.”
“We didn't start the prayer meeting early,” Carl said. “Tiny said boring is a blessing.”
“I told you they talk about us when we're not around,” Ted said sourly as he sat down.
“Quit that,” Dave said sharply. “They weren't talking about us.”
“You're right,” Ted said with a huge grin. “We're the most unboring people in the school.”
“You're incorrigible,” Dave said.
“You're just upset because I use you as the setup guy for my punch lines.”
“Dave is playing it straight, trying something new?” Carl said a bit tongue in cheek.
Dave and Ted shot Carl a look which brought the conversation to a close.
Author's note: I know Tony mentioned the bit about how Christians believe people go into heaven before, but it isn't there by accident. I wanted to show his beliefs were consistent. If they are not your beliefs, that's okay, they aren't in the story as some sort of attack or suggestion or to debate people on beliefs, so take it with a grain of salt. Outside of that, I really like how the secondary character of John Sharp played out. I think if this was D&D he would be chaotic neutral. I don't want to give anything away, but what do you think his overall role in the story is?
Tired of waiting for the end to get here, beat others to the punch by buying you copy at Amazon.com (and leave a review when you are through, please). You can find me here: http://www.amazon.com/Wrestling-Against-Myself-ebook/dp/B00B... or by clicking the title art. Also, if you do not live in the us, go to your countries Amazon site and put in the book title so you can buy it there. I know the UK, US, and Canada have separate site (as does Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain, Brazil etc.)
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