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Perils of Youth

by Cole Parker

See that picture? Look closely. What do you see?

I've shown it to many people. Most of them say they don't like looking at it. That it makes their heart speed up. They see danger and stupidity and boys being boys.

Adults say it makes them think about how immature boys are. That they don't look ahead. That they're oblivious to consequences. That they live in the moment and think only about what they're doing right then—not about what'll come next.

When I show the picture to boys rather than adults, I get different reactions. Many of the boys get excited. I can see it in their eyes. They're thinking about what's going to happen next. Did the Orange-Backpack-boy push the other boy over the cliff? Did the boy die? Did Orange-Backpack-boy get sent to some sort of prison for doing that?

Other boys ask, why did Orange-Backpack-boy do that? What was the matter with him? Was he crazy?

Adults don't usually ask those things. They see the picture and mostly want to look away, not think about it. They seem to have their own problems and don't want to get involved in those of a bunch of boys.

I look at that picture differently. That's because I was there. I was part of what happened. I wasn't an adult; I was involved.

Which one of them was I? That comes later.

We were friends. All thirteen years old. All in school together. That's how we got to know each other. We all went to the same elementary school, then to the same middle school.

Like all boys, we were individuals. Individual personalities that tended to meld together when we were together. This'll go easier if an identity and personality is given each boy in the picture. I can remain anonymous longer that way, too. Just one of a group.

I'll start with Maroon-Pants-boy. Check the picture. He was the biggest of us but also the least adventurous, the least aggressive, the meekest. That came from his background. He had a bully for a father, and his mom was an alcoholic. He suffered at the hands of both of them. His name was Marcus.

Marcus was one of us mostly because he lived next door to the boy in white pants; that boy's name was Shaun, and he was really smart. That was the first thing you noticed about him—not his size; that came second. He had ginger hair and was the smallest of us. But he'd taken Marcus under his wing early on, back when they were in first grade. He saw what Marcus had to deal with at home and became his protector. A protector at six years of age. That's where being smart helped. When it came to dealing with troublesome boys of their own age, Shaun could find ways to defuse most situations, and when that didn't work, he had the courage to stand up for himself and Marcus. They became very close and spent a lot of time together.

Do you see in the picture that they're at the back of the group? You might not realize it or what it means just from what you see there, but Shaun is in front of Marcus; he's not much in front, but enough. He's sort of in a position to screen him from what's going on up front. That's a conscious effort on Shaun's part. It isn't accidental or coincidental. That's Shaun. And, in a way, that's Marcus, too, staying behind, feeling safer with Shaun in front of him.

The boy in front, peering over the cliff? That's Rudy. There's a lot that can be said about Rudy. A mass of contradictions, that's Rudy. He tends to be scared of a lot of things, but then tests his fears. Just like what can be seen in the picture. He's scared of heights. Not just a little bit scared. He's terrified of them; you can see it in his body language, how his top is leaning forward but his legs and butt are trying to pull back. Nevertheless, there he is, edging towards the rim of that cliff, inching closer and closer. How much closer will he go . . . and why?

His heart must be racing like a river rapids, and his knees are certainly shaking, yet he's still moving closer and closer to his possible doom.

Rudy says he's gay, yet is still the first one of us to ask a girl to dance with him at our weekly afternoon school dances. They're set up so we can get to know each other, so girls can meet boys, and vice versa. Most of our gang are pretty much awkward with girls at this point. We don't care much for them. Rudy feels the same, is on our wavelength about girls, and still pushes past that to dance with them, to chat them up, to flirt with them. But he enjoys the boy stuff we as much as any of us, and maybe more. He's the only one of us who says he's gay. Whether that's true, and whether he's the only one, time will tell.

Rudy might be the smartest one of our group, smarter even than Shaun. Shaun is street-smart; Rudy is book-smart, academically smart. Yet he often doesn't bother doing homework assignments. He is often in trouble with his teachers because of that, often has to serve detentions; he says he doesn't care, but I've seen him in detention where he sits with his head in his arms on the desk, and I know he's hating it there.

So why does he persist acting like that, knowing how it'll turn out? There's a lot I don't understand about Rudy.

He seems to argue with teachers just for the sake of arguing. Why? He's a mixed-up, emotional kid who's unsure how to navigate life smoothly. He likes to talk about gory stuff. Well, we all do, at least a little. He seems fascinated with it, though. He talks about dying, and what it would be like afterward. I don't like that. It makes me very uncomfortable just thinking about it. Rudy tells me he thinks about it a lot.

This leaves Orange-Backpack-boy. Greg. Greg is one of those boys who is always on. Full of life and nonsense, very little thought and all action. He's always in trouble about something, and he always laughs it off. Not a serious thought in his head. Just fun and jokes and doing whatever comes into his head at the moment. Always moving, always bedeviling boredom. A human dynamo.

Perhaps the best way to introduce Greg is to tell about an incident he was part of, something that is a large part of why our group is a group, of our history.

It was two years ago when we were all eleven, all in the sixth grade, our first year in middle school. One of the things different in middle school was there was no recess. No time to go outside and play. This was very hard for some kids, the more active ones, the couldn't-sit-still ones. Ones like Greg.

From the first day of middle school, we all ate lunch together. There were a lot of kids we didn't know at our middle school because kids from all the elementary schools in town were thrown together into one middle school. Eating lunch together seemed safer, especially as a group. Greg, from the first day, decided that, since we didn't have recess, we should still go outside whenever we could, and that meant during lunch. We tended to go along with Greg's schemes, and all of us liked the idea of getting out of the bedlam of the cafeteria, so us usual, we followed his lead. We all brought lunches from home, ate them together outside, and then had about forty minutes of free time.

Forty minutes is a lot of time for someone like Greg to come up with things to do. We were eleven. We liked rough play, shooting baskets, chasing each other around and wrestling. We were all beginning or into puberty. And we were boys.

There were athletic fields behind the school, and an area between the gymnasium and the school library that was screened from the rest of the school by the way the buildings were laid out. We'd found that space very quickly. We'd eat lunch there, and then, when we weren't out doing more athletic things, Greg would come up with something different. Early on, he discovered we were all as interested in our bodies and the interesting things they could do and the wonderful feelings they could generate as he was.

It started out innocently enough with us just pulling down our pants for a quick moment, but we got bolder as time passed. Much bolder. One time Greg talked Rudy into getting fully naked and running to the edge of the private area and stepping out to where he could have been seen if anyone was there and looking. Who knows how much trouble he and probably all of us would have been in if he'd been caught?

But usually it was just showing ourselves to each other and having peeing contests. Comparing boners, too, but just looking.

That was the beginning. That set the stage. And more importantly, it told Greg we were into whatever sexy activities he came up with.

It wasn't much later, only a month as I recall it, that Greg invited us all to his house one day after school. We all went, and he said no one would be home till dinner time, that we were alone, and he told us about a card game he'd just heard about. Strip poker.

So we played that. And eventually, of course, we were all naked. We all looked at each other, and we were all boned up. Greg said we needed to have wrestling matches. So we did that. Full body contact, with wiggling and writhing. Pretty soon, much sooner than anyone would think possible, it wasn't wrestling as much as a middle-school-kid orgy.

Fairly soon thereafter, we didn't bother with the card game.

But that one time which started with strip poker was the first time we'd ever done anything like that. It was not the last for sure. We all loved it. We all wanted to do it again and again. And we did.

As time passed, we moved from more innocent fun to playing with each other in twos and threes, to stroking each other off, and even to blow jobs. I loved watching the others doing that as much as doing it myself. We all did each other. We were a gang of pubertal boys, and we were discovering a world we hadn't known existed.

Greg said it was all just for fun. Marcus and Shaun did things with each other much more than with the rest of us. Shaun was quick to agree about it just being fun, but Marcus didn't seem as sure about that. He thought it might be gay rather than fun, and said his dad hated gays. He was worried. Shaun told him the fact Marcus enjoyed what they were doing didn't mean he was gay, and in any case, his father would never know. Marcus said he wasn't gay, and he said it vehemently. Shaun put his arm around him, and Marcus was pretty quiet the rest of that day.

So, that's who we were, a gang of five, very close, very much together. It was now two years later, we were now thirteen, and Greg decided we needed to go hiking with two nights of camping out one weekend. That met with our approval. We were young boys and liked the idea of proving how self-sufficient we were. We were thinking of what would be happening in our tents that night, too.

The first day, we got off to a late start. We soon left civilization behind and were out on our own, feeling good about that. We were following Greg. He'd hiked some before, and he said he knew where we should camp that night. That's where we headed. It was a long hike and took us some time getting to that campsite, and we didn't have time for much more than setting up the tents, gathering sticks for a fire and cooking our hotdogs. By then it was dark enough for us to settle into our tents. Rudy asked about playing around. We all knew what he meant, and we all looked at each other. Then Shaun said, "Tomorrow. I'm beat." We all nodded. Though the excitement had risen inside me at Rudy's question, I too thought waiting was a better idea.

We were up early the next day, fixed a breakfast of sweet rolls and bottled soft drinks and were ready for hiking. There were some rugged hills in our area, and Greg said that'd be the best place to go. We set out early. Rudy was acting a little strange. Generally fairly quiet, he was talking a lot that day, seeming higher than he usually was. His eyes were brighter, too. I'd have thought he was on something except knew he didn't believe in that. Although, with him, you were never sure of anything. He was like quicksilver emotionally, up one minute, down another.

Greg said he knew a place with a terrific view, and we headed there. He said it was a long walk and we should take our lunches. So, we left our tents and the small ice chest we'd shared carrying where we'd set up camp, threw on our backpacks with food and water in them, and took off.

Where we were walking, it seemed to be all slightly uphill. I could feel it in my legs. We walked and walked, and the trees around us spaced out and then were gone; we were left with a flat area around us and a lot of cloud cover masking the view. When, eventually, the clouds lifted, we saw we were high above a large grassy plain. The plateau we were on was broad and flat, but we could see where the edge of it was, where there was a sharp drop-off to the plains a long distance below. I hadn't been wrong: we had been climbing all through our hike.

We all moved as though being pulled toward the edge of our high plateau. We came within ten yards or so from where it looked like our world ended and a deadly plunge began and stopped.

I was off to the side of the group because I wanted to take a picture of the four of them. I took several, and as I was doing that, I was watching the group dynamics. I did a lot of that, watching.

I didn't mention myself when describing the group, but maybe that was my subconscious taking over. I never felt I was completely part of the group, not to the extent or with the closeness the others enjoyed. They'd known each other since kindergarten; I'd come to their school in fifth grade. They'd taken me in mostly because of Rudy who seemed to see something in me, some need, maybe, and invited me to be part of their group. The others were fine with that. It was just me and my reticence that made me feel somewhat apart. They didn't treat me any differently than they did anyone else in the group.

They were all standing together, looking out at the view, but I noticed Rudy wasn't as still as the others. Rudy kept inching forward. I knew he was afraid of heights. We all knew that. But now he was moving closer to the edge. Greg moved up behind him, a grin on his face. He looked back at the others and made a motion like he was going to shove Rudy over the edge.

Rudy was oblivious to what was behind him. To me, it looked like his focus was intense and all inward. He took one more step, then another very short one. His foot landed with the front of it hanging over space. I felt my heart speed up. Rudy stayed that way for a moment, then turned to look at me, me with my camera, frozen at seeing him standing as he was. He had the craziest look on his face, especially in his eyes, that I'd ever seen. My blood seemed to freeze in my veins.

I opened my mouth to yell, to yell "no," but nothing came out. I didn't seem to have any air in my lungs.

As I watched, Greg, with his grin, again reached out toward Rudy, and Rudy lifted his leg to take one more step, a fatal one.

My rising terror unfroze my voice. "Greg!" I yelled as loudly as I could, my voice a high soprano due to fear. "Grab him!"

Greg didn't stop to look at me. His hands were already reaching for Rudy, and instead of pushing, he grabbed Ruby's backpack just as Rudy stepped out onto nothing but air.

Rudy didn't weigh much, but his dead weight falling downward was too much for Greg to stop. Somehow, he kept his grip but started sliding toward the edge of the cliff. How he held on, I had no idea, but he never let go of Rudy's backpack. "Marcus!" I yelled in panic, but he was already moving. He took two quick steps forward and fell on Greg's legs, arresting his slide. I was racing forward by then, and I leaned over the side and grabbed one of the straps on Rudy's backpack and started pulling.

Somehow, Greg and Marcus and I, eventually with Shaun's help when there was room for him next to us, were able to pull Rudy up and back over the edge. He was white as a ghost and shaking uncontrollably.

We got him onto his feet when he'd calmed down a little and we all moved back, well away from the cliff's edge.

"What was that all about?" I asked. I didn't know whether to be angry or relieved; I was feeling both.

He sounded very shaky when he answered. "I went to see a shrink yesterday. My dad's been worried about me. The shrink gave me some meds. I took the first one this morning. Made me feel all crazy."

"Don't take any more," I said. Then they all looked at me and for some reason, we all started laughing.

We decided that camping out that night was better than going home. Marcus hated his home life; Shaun hated seeing him go there each night. Greg didn't seem all that affected by what had happened, though what had happened was he'd saved Rudy's life. Rudy had returned to being his usual quiet self. I stayed close to him as we returned to camp.

We had two tents. Shaun had brought a three-person tent and I'd slept in it with Marcus and Shaun the night before, and Greg and Rudy had been together in the two-person tent Greg had brought. This night, Rudy had a different idea. He told Greg he wanted to sleep in with me, and Greg had no problem with switching places with me.

Rudy moved his sleeping bag next to mine. We both stripped off. There was no embarrassment; we'd each done things with each other several times by now. Yet, somehow, the mood that night was different. It wasn't sexual tension. I knew what that felt like, and this wasn't that. This was something else, not something I'd experienced before.

Rudy broke the silence. "I told all you guys I was gay. I am. That's part of the reason for the shrink. It's not that I hate being gay. It's that I don't know how I'll be able to go through school being different from everyone else. I worry about that, and I sometimes think about ending it all. I have mood swings all the time. I know you've noticed. I see you watching me."

It was pitch black in the tent, so he couldn't see me nod.

"The shrink thought medication would settle the mood changes and stop the suicidal thoughts. Seems to have worked just the other way around. I, I'm sorry."

"You're apologizing to me?" I felt something queasy in my stomach. Where was this going?

"As I said, I see you watching me. I think, maybe, you might kinda like me, like I do you."

I sat up, my sleeping bag falling away from my upper body. "You like me?"

He snickered, changing the mood in the tent. "Uh, yeah. Have since I first saw you, although that was just because I liked your looks. I like more than that, now."

"Uh—" I had no idea what to say.

Rudy was always more forthright than I was. I was reticent, sure, but maybe shy was a better word for it. And introverted. Sort of afraid of my own shadow, if the truth be known.

"And I think you like me, too, even though you're not out and are afraid to be. If you don't, if you aren't, that's okay, but if you are, you need to tell me. I think if I had a boyfriend, I'd feel much better about things in general and probably wouldn't need meds at all."

This was a lot to take in. I was mulling it over when he sighed and said, "Tommy, for God's sake. Do you like me? Are you gay? Out with it, dammit!"

I nodded again, then realized he couldn't see me in the dark. So I said, "You don't need to swear. Yeah, I've liked you since I first saw you, too. No way I could risk telling you, though. And I haven't told anyone I'm gay. No one can know."

"Okay," he said, and that was the last thing said in that tent that night. There were noises after that, sleeping bag zippers being pulled down, shuffling around, groans and unpronounceable throat noises, like that, because the non-sexual attitude we'd started the night with had changed very quickly after my confession.

I giggled later when thinking how the last word spoken that night had been "Okay."

I still have that picture. It's on my nightstand. I see it every night on retiring, and every morning on arising. Rudy sees it, too, and shakes his head. We both know what could have happened and are overjoyed that what looks like is about to happen in the picture ended up entirely different from what actually did.

The End


This story is part of the 2021 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: A Walk in the Country". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 30 July to 20 AUgust 2021 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2021 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - A walk in the Country

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Perils of Youth

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