I don’t know what it is, but I do know that Hunter Gates had it. Not just because he was bigger and stronger than everybody else. He had it in the way he cocked his head, the way he looked at you, the way he didn’t look at you. He let you know that he came first and everyone else followed and that was how it was meant to be. It’s why I never liked him, not in middle school, not in high school. And it’s also why—until he went full throttle after Richie Fang—I wanted to be his friend.
It was a hot June day when Hunter Gates showed up. I was hanging out with Trevor Marino, Austin Pauley, and the McDermott twins—Rory and Tim. Eighth grade was over; Whitman Middle School was over. You’re in between things when you’re that age: you can’t wait to grow up, but you’re scared of it too.
We’d met at the skateboard park by the library at noon and then drifted down to Gilman Park. We had no plans, so we killed time in the shady area between the wading pool and the basketball court, where a half-dozen shirtless high school guys were playing a full-court game.
Every once in a while, one of us would disrespect another guy—say something about his sister’s body or his own zits. It was a joke, but there was always the taste of truth to it, so whoever got dissed would chase his tormentor around, pretending to be mad enough to fight. Sometimes the chase would go through the wading pool, which ticked off the mothers hovering over their toddlers. They glared at us, and finally Mrs. Rojas—the woman who’d supervised the wading pool for a million years—told us to leave.
We argued that we hadn’t done anything wrong and that America was a free country, but she threw up her thumb like an umpire making a call at home plate. “Out of here. You’re too old to be hanging around a wading pool.”
Rory McDermott had brought along his soccer ball—we’d all played on the Whitman Wildcats, our middle school’s soccer team—so we wandered over to the soccer field and started kicking it back and forth.
Hunter Gates was two years older than us, so he was heading into his junior year. He was bigger, stronger, tougher, and meaner than anybody else.
Every time I saw Hunter, I remembered Jerry Jerzek. There was nothing special about Jerry. He wasn’t smart or funny or athletic. He was just a good guy.
I don’t know what Jerry did to Hunter—or if he even did anything. But in seventh grade, right after Halloween, Hunter got on him, and that meant that Hunter’s friends got on him too. They said that his ears were too big, that he crapped logs that clogged the school toilets, that his mother’d had sex with an iguana. And then they started calling him Jerry Jumper.
Nobody knew what the joke was. But every time Hunter or one of his buddies—and he had about a dozen in his posse—spotted Jerry, they’d scream, “Jump, Jerry, jump!”
Jerry tried to ignore them, but then they’d come at him and play-slap him on the side of his face until he finally jumped as if he were on an invisible pogo stick. Once Jerry was red in the face and sweating, Hunter would tell him he could stop. “We’re just kidding you, Jerry. No hard feelings.”
After Hunter and those guys got on him, nobody wanted to be seen with Jerry. It was as if he had diarrhea or something worse. I once saw him throwing up in the bushes before school. Not long after that, he started skipping school, and in February he transferred to McClure on Queen Anne Hill.
In my fourth grade science class, my teacher once emptied a bottle of iron filings onto a piece of paper and drew a magnet back and forth above them. The filings danced around the paper, drawn to that magnet wherever it went. That’s how it was with Hunter Gates. He drew people to him, even if what he was doing made your insides churn.
The reason was simple. Name a sport where a ball bounced, and Hunter was great at it. Not good—great. Football was his best sport. His father started grooming him to be an NFL quarterback from the day he was born. Hunter’s Crown Hill junior football team won the league title every year, and then he was great again in middle school. As a high school freshman, he took Crown Hill High from city laughingstock to the brink of the playoffs. Everybody figured he’d just go on being great, but his sophomore year was mediocre. Not bad, but not good—he was just another quarterback. It was the first time he’d been ordinary.
That June day, while I kicked the ball around with the McDermott twins and the other guys, Hunter and his father unpacked their gear and started throwing a football back and forth. His father was a big-shot attorney for an oil company that did fracking in North Dakota, but he didn’t ignore Hunter. At every game and most practices, he was on the sidelines—one of those parent volunteers who do nothing but work with their own son.
Whenever I’d seen Hunter’s father at a game or practice, he had his arms crossed in front of his chest, a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, and a grim look on his face. He didn’t scream, but he never smiled, either. Tough love is what my dad called it. “His kid has a ton of talent, so he doesn’t want him to waste it. Hard to blame him for that.”
All of Hunter’s passes that late June day were bullets, straight as a string. But no matter how well he threw, his father saw something wrong. His arm wasn’t high enough; he was stepping too far forward; his footwork was slow.
I didn’t want a father like that, but I did wish my father could go to the park with me, kick a soccer ball around, and just be a dad.