Gus Skimmer knew absolutely that he was just an ordinary guy. No question about it. All you had to do was look at what he wore. Until it got cold he wore jeans, a tee shirt, and Reefs. Then he added a collared shirt and winter boots. The fact that he played three sports, soccer, basketball, and baseball, might have set him apart, except that while he played just well enough to make the teams, he never got into a game. He didn’t even have a nickname. Just Gus. Not even Gussie, though, as he thought about it, if anyone called him Gussie, he’d … he’d … well, he probably wouldn’t get into a fight because he wasn’t much good at that either. He lay on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, thinking things over, thinking about making changes. But what could he change, especially now with summer having only a week to run before school started again and he fell back into the same old routines. It was like being stuck in mud as thick as the goo his sister had stuck the car in last spring during mud season. She’d stuck it right to the frame so he’d had to twitch it out with the tractor, which, now that he thought about it, had been pretty cool. It also meant Daphne owed him big time because he’d gotten the car out and up to the house where they’d washed it down and then he’d gone back down to the road and put up sawhorses so when his parents got home they’d park on the hard gravel turnout and walk to the house. He didn’t think he’d collect on the debt, though. She knew she owed him and that was enough. Besides, she’d gone off to college at Harvard and he wouldn’t see her again until Thanksgiving. But at least that had cut down to one the number of people in the house who got their jollies by nagging him about not working hard enough, about not living up to his ability. How did anyone know what ability he had? So what if both his parents taught at the college in town and they both had Ph.D’s. That didn’t mean he was smart. All it meant was that they thought he was smart. It was just like everything else he did. His grades were good enough to make the honor roll but he always fell short of making high honors. He’d run for class treasurer and missed by four votes. Just an ordinary guy. He rolled onto his side and looked at the David Ortiz poster on the wall. Now there was a guy who’d broken free. But how? How did you do a thing like that? Dumb question. You did it by being better than anyone else. The next answer he knew before the question came up. It was simple. You worked harder than anyone else. Well, he’d heard that often enough. "Ugggh!" he groaned and rolled onto his back again. It was a lie. He hadn’t really tried it. Hadn’t he read somewhere that even guys like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird never stopped practicing? Yeah. He’d read that all right. It meant hard work, and hard work meant taking time away from video games and hanging out with his friends, and once you did that your friends found other friends and pretty soon you didn’t have any friends. No way could he take that risk, not him, not a guy who was five ten and a half and spent every game in every sport, riding the bench. What it all came down to was that he lacked something to set him apart. He rolled off the bed and looked into the mirror over his dresser. "Geez," he said to the blond-haired, gray-eyed guy who looked back at him. "I’m not that bad-looking, just kind of pale." He looked more closely, noticing that his cheekbones were sharp and his nose was thin and straight like a knife blade. His hair was almost white and so were his eyebrows. What he saw was a stern, almost hard face. He thought maybe he even looked a little scary. And then he laughed and his face softened, the change so radical that it startled him. "Whoa," he said, "like Jekyll and Hyde." He let the smile fade and tried to look normal. It was impossible, first because he didn’t know what he normally looked like and then because he was sure that anyone looking into a mirror never showed a normal face. He was, he thought, just what his name implied … he was a Gus. No more, no less … just Gus, well, really ... Gustavus Aldophus Skimmer, but only his mother called him Gustavus because she’d gotten it into her head that her family was somehow descended from the kings of Sweden instead of the Swedish immigrants who’d come here and produced three generations of bureaucrats. And whether he’d been named for a Swedish king or not, would make no difference if the kids in school had ever found out. Fighting was not a good career path. The only guys who picked fights were the guys who knew they’d win. He’d never won, though back in grammar school, after a couple of fights, the bullies picked on other guys because fighting with him meant that even though you won, you paid a price, and bullies lost status quickly if they got hammered, even when they won. He shook his head, sighed, and headed for the kitchen to get something to eat. But when he got there he decided he wasn’t hungry. Instead, he walked across the kitchen and stood looking out the window at the lawn rolling up to the hay field and the woods beyond. It was kind of weird how the kids at school separated into groups of one kind or another. Guys who played sports hung out with guys who played sports. The brainy types hung out with other brainy types. Then you had student leaders and guys who were interested in cars and even some who thought they were hippies. Now and then the lines crossed but for the most part once you were part of a group, that’s where you stayed. And within each group you had a kind of order based on who was best at whatever that group was known for. Gus shook his head and then stuffed his hands into his pockets. How come he’d never thought about stuff like this before? Was he trying to tell himself something? Did things like that happen? No way. Not a chance. Never. Well … maybe. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the basketball backboard that stood to the side of the paved driveway. Most people thought it was weird that they had paved the end of the driveway by the house when they lived on a gravel road. But that was because it helped keep dirt out of the house with the dogs going in and out all the time. Three of them. Labs: Captain, Sissy and Camille. He and Dad had named the male, Captain. Mom and Daphne named the females. For years there had been puppies all over the place but the females were past their prime now and Captain was slowing down. So now they were just pets, but he couldn’t imagine ever finding better dogs. He looked at the basketball hoop and decided to shoot around a little. Then maybe he’d run the trail they had made through the woods. Soccer started next week and he was way out of shape. Once he came out the door the dogs descended on him and he dropped to the ground and petted them and talked to them. And once they felt they’d been greeted properly and began to drift away, he got the basketball out of the garage, and began dribbling to loosen up. The rhythm of the ball hitting the asphalt sounded almost like a beating heart and as he ran and dribbled the pace increased and still he kept at it, driving himself to use both hands, to keep his head up, looking for the rim. He broke to his right, did a full spin to the left and drove to the basket, using his left hand to ease the ball off the glass backboard and into the net. He whirled back, scooped up the ball, faked left and then leaped to his right and tossed a soft jump hook into the basket. The coolest thing about basketball was how you could practice on your own. Sometimes he was a point guard and then a two-guard and even a power forward, playing with his back to the basket, spinning into a hook shot, or pivoting into an up-and-under move to the basket. In the hot sun he began to sweat and he took off his shirt and tossed it to the side as he stepped back past the marks he had made for the three-point line and began his outside shooting routine. He worked at first on just getting the ball to go in and as usual he made about thirty percent of his shots. He grinned. Just an ordinary guy. The ball came off the rim to his left and he ran for it, calling the game the way a broadcaster would: "Skimmer gets the rebound, fakes toward the basket, then whirls to his right, and tosses up his devastating jump hook. Nothing but net. Skimmer is really on tonight, folks, and once he gets his hands on the ball you know what’s coming and nobody can stop it!" Suddenly, Gus stopped, holding the ball against his hip with his right arm as he looked up at the basket. He needed to have another shot, a high floater in the lane, something he could loft over the big guys inside when they came up to defend. He also needed to get to forty percent on his three-point shots. If he did that, he’d get off the bench. In fact, based on the guys they had coming back and the guys coming up, he might even start at the two-guard spot. He was fast enough and he had the moves, but in order to make room for those moves he had to be able to drop the outside shot. Then the defender would move up on him and then all he needed was a half step to get by him. It was time for change. No. It was definitely time to make a change. No soccer. He’d spend this fall working on basketball. But he’d do that at the college. He could use the gym there anytime he wanted and even with the varsity guys playing pick up games there were always practice courts open. Maybe he could talk to Coach Kensington at the college. And he could use the weight room too. He grinned to himself, imagining the first practice. Nobody would see it coming. What a rush that would be, just show up and put ‘em away. He spent another hour throwing up three-pointers and when he missed, he fielded the ball, and drove toward the rim, leaping from just inside the foul line and letting the ball float off his fingers, trying to loft the ball in a high arc softly enough to find its way into the basket. It was a lot harder than it looked. But he kept at it, until his legs began to tire and then he quit and went inside to cool off before he took the dogs for a run. He started at the back door, cutting across the fields and the dogs jogged along with him, not happy with the pace because it didn’t leave enough time for exploration. Sometimes they fell behind and then ran to catch up. For a mile the trail wound uphill through the woods and then in a long circle to the right, following the roads left by loggers year and years before. He had meant to keep going, to complete the three-mile circuit without stopping, but when he broke out into the open where the trail ran along the ledges, and he could see the hills in the distance, he decided to take a short break, and then, suddenly aware that the dogs were hot and thirsty, he headed back into the woods and down the road to where a small stream ran year-round. The dogs plunged in, lapping loudly at the water and he sat on a big rock and looked off through the black trunks of the trees toward a small, sunlit clearing about fifty yards away. What he saw and heard next left him as stunned as if he’d been hit over the head with an axe handle. There was a man standing in the clearing. Gus blinked and then rubbed his eyes but the image only seemed to grow stronger ... and stranger because this was clearly no ordinary man. He was huge, perhaps ten feet tall and he wore a helmet with great horns sweeping out from the sides. His clothes were made of animal skins with the fur side out and his face was covered by a long red beard, only slightly darker than the hair that escaped from the helmet and ran down to his shoulders. Gus watched the man turn and look directly at him and his pale blue eyes seemed to glow in the light. Slowly the man raised a giant hammer above his head and then, in a voice so deep it rattled the trees, he announced, "I am the thunder!" Electric charges, looking like lightning bolts, leaped from the hammer, followed by the deep rumble of thunder and then he was gone, only the sunlight streaming down onto the ferns in the empty clearing. Again Gus blinked and again he rubbed his eyes and stared. Did I just see that, he asked himself? Impossible. It must’ve been a dream. He shivered. At least I hope it was a dream because if it wasn’t a dream then what I just saw was Thor, the Norse God. I’ve had a visit from Valhalla, and that is so far outside the realm of the possible that ... that ... he called the dogs, and ran for home. But even after he’d cooled down and gotten something to eat, he kept drifting toward the windows, looking off toward the dark of the woods and the deep green white pines. He tried playing video games, he tried reading, but in the end nothing would do but to walk outside, call the dogs, and walk back to where he had seen the image. He acknowledged, as he walked, that it was pretty much a crazy thing to do but he knew that if he didn’t do it, he’d probably never go into the woods again. He stopped by the stream and looked off toward the clearing. It was in the shade now, with the sun having fallen off toward the west, and he waited a minute or two, took a deep breath and walked to the clearing, expecting at any second to be whacked by a bolt of lightning. But no such thing happened. The most he could say was that the woods seemed quieter than usual, though on hot summer days that was often the case. He walked out into the ferns, the dogs bouncing on ahead of him, jumping high to check their direction from time to time. In the middle of the clearing he stopped and looked around. Normal. Just a small clearing in the woods like any other. Gus scanned the ferns, looking for any fronds which had been broken or crushed, but he could find no sign of anything having been through there except the dogs. The sudden gurgling call of a raven sounded close by and then it sounded a second time and stopped. He smiled and shook his head, standing with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. Finally, he laughed. "You are a piece of work," he said to himself, then turned back the way he had come, the dogs walking along beside him, sniffing here and there, their tails sweeping from side to side. And just then Gus Skimmer felt pretty good about himself. He hadn’t given in to fear, he ... had he been afraid? Whoa. How could he not have been afraid? A thing like that? He should have been filling his sneakers with ... how cool was that? He cut onto the tote road that led back down to the house, and just before he stepped into the upper field, he raised his hand and said: "I am the thunder!" The voice was deep and it rumbled like the sound of distant thunder or a big jet high overhead and it couldn’t possibly have been his voice. He shook his head. Things were getting really goofy. But then, once his imagination kicked in, things always got goofy. Out in the field, walking the road between the old barbed wire fences each side, he grinned. How cool would it be to have that kind of power? How awesome would it be to just take aim at some bully and pith him with a lightning bolt? Awesome ... absolutely awesome. Except that he didn’t. No one did. Whatever power he had would come from creating it on his own and now he’d come full circle. He was back to hard work. He was back to making changes. But now that option began to look better and better. After all, he wasn’t really part of any group and he didn’t exactly have many friends, outside of Wally. So what did he have to lose? Some video time? Where was that going? Yeah. He shook his head. Nowhere. The only question left was what to work at first. He grinned. It was a no-brainer.
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