Cedar-Sinai Hospital turned out to be a series of huge, sprawling buildings in West LA on Beverly and San Vicente Blvd., near the border of Beverly Hills. Dylan and Kyle parked the car in a visitor spot, and raced over the main entrance, where a nurse pointed out the way to the North tower complex, which held the intensive care ward.
As the elevator doors silently slid closed, Kyle turned and started to say something, then stopped when he saw the look on Dylan's face.
"Dude," he said, putting his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Don't worry about it. You know Charlie's getting the best..."
"I know that," snapped Dylan. "Sure, I feel bad for Charlie. He's a cool guy. It's a total drag that this happened to him."
Kyle was puzzled. "Then what is it?"
"It's me. I'm totally fucked."
The doors slid open, and they trudged out into the hallway, following the sign that led to the nurses' station.
Kyle held his arm out on the door to stop Dylan.
"But this is what you wanted, isn't it? You're the man! Now, you're first-string quarterback."
Dylan's face was grim. He shook his head and looked into Kyle's face.
"I never wanted to get it this way," he said ruefully. "I could've waited until next year. I don't think I'm ready for this shit."
Kyle squeezed his friend's shoulder reassuringly. "Look, man -- maybe it's just temporary. Maybe Charlie'll pull outta this faster than you think."
Just then, a voice made them turn their heads.
"Boys! Thanks for dropping by."
It was Coach Highland, who was standing with a forty-ish man and his wife, along with a younger boy.
"Oh, you must be Dylan Callahan!" said the woman, taking his hand. "Charlie's told us what a wonderful player you are on the team."
"Thanks, Mrs. Stephenson," he replied. "I think you already know Kyle. How's Charlie doing?"
Charlie's father shook his head. "The doctors don't know, Dylan. They told us the worst period is passed, but he's still critical. We might know more by tomorrow."
"Can we see him?" Kyle asked.
"Naaaa. Charlie's phased!" said the little boy, suddenly laughing.
Mrs. Stephenson choked back a sob and turned away.
"Stop that, Ethan!" snapped his father. Sighing, he turned back to Dylan. "What he means is, the doctors suspect Charles may have aphasia -- kind of a stroke. His head hit the left side of the car door in the wreck, and now he's having trouble speaking."
"Should we... should we go in and see him?" Dylan asked.
Mr. Stephenson shook his head. "The doctors don't even want us to go in there, son. He wouldn't recognize you yet anyway. But you can see him from over there, through that window."
Dylan nodded and walked across the hall, Kyle in tow. They reached the glass wall and peered in. Charlie was almost unrecognizable; part of his head had been shaved and covered with several bandages. A large tube was in his mouth, and a half dozen machines surrounded the bed. His eyes were open, but his body was completely still and unmoving.
Shit, thought Dylan. He looks like some kind of doll, in a Frankenstein laboratory. Dylan took a sniff. He hated hospitals -- particularly their smells. Even a place as plush as Cedar's still had the faint odor of death lingering in the hallways. It was vaguely reminiscent of alcohol, combined with an occasional whiff of Lysol, plus something else he couldn't quite put his finger on. He made a face and shook his head.
"Looks pretty bad, doesn't it?"
Kyle and Dylan jumped as Coach Highland leaned in-between them. His face was grim.
"I've already talked to the doctors," the man said quietly. "This is a bad one, boys. From what they tell me, Charlie'll be lucky to walk and talk again, let alone play ball. His blood alcohol level was just over the limit, but the guy who hit him had a point-two, more than double. Probably never knew what hit him." He turned and gave Dylan an icy stare. "This is really gonna hurt the team."
Dylan eyed the coach. It was as if Highland didn't give a shit about Charlie as a person -- only that they were out their star player.
"Well, I'll sure do what I can to take up the slack, Coach," Dylan said, sarcastically. "Wouldn't wanna let you down or anything."
The older man nodded, missing Dylan's point. "Yeah. I know you'll do your best, son." He took a step back into the hallway, then turned back to the teenagers. "Look, boys, I've gotta go. I'll see both of you first thing Monday morning at 8AM. We're gonna have a team meeting right before school. I'm gonna stop these goddamned extracurricular activities once and for all."
Dylan and Kyle stared at the Coach silently, as he started for the elevator.
"No more of this after-hours crap," he said over his shoulder. "No more drinking, no more late-night parties." He looked at them and grinned from inside the elevator car. "It's gonna be a whole new ballgame, boys."
The doors closed, leaving the two teens alone in the hallway.
* * * * *
Back in his room, Dylan stared up at the ceiling. Too much was happening: his fight at the rave club, Charlie's car wreck, his promotion to quarterback. The latter particularly worried him; he knew there was a good chance the other team members would give him a lot of grief over it. What was that old Chinese curse? Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it.
Just then, there was a knock at the door.
It opened and Dylan's father entered the room, carrying a briefcase.
"Dad!" Dylan said, sitting up. "You're goin' out of town again?"
His father nodded his head wearily, sat down in a nearby chair. "Our stock took a nose-dive today. Half of the board of directors are being indicted by the SEC. It's a nightmare, and I've got no choice but to drop everything and fly to New York and try to put the pieces back together there."
He paused and rubbed his eyes. "Dylan, I'm sorry we can only talk for a minute. I just wanted to see how you were doing. Your mother told me about your friend on the team getting hurt last night. And Yolanda said she thought you were looking real down."
Yolanda never misses a thing, he thought to himself.
"Yeah," he replied. "I guess I have been kinda out of it lately." He looked up at his father. Dylan couldn't recall ever seeing the man look so tired before. "Dad, look -- if... if we gotta move again, I can handle it."
His father smiled wanly and shook his head. "I don't think that'll be necessary this time. In another few weeks, I think I can convince the stockholders to make LA our new head office. We're staying right here."
Dylan was relieved. "Thanks, Dad."
"Look, son," he said, standing up. "If you ever want to get any help... you know, your mother's had some pretty good success with Dr. Brinkman at the clinic in Encino."
Dylan rolled his eyes. "The shrink? Come on, man."
"Look, it's not that big a deal," his father replied. "Sometime's it's a good idea to see an impartial third-party, just to get their opinions on your problems -- to talk things out and so on. I'm going in for therapy the minute I get back, myself."
Dylan looked at his father with concern. The man had always spoken disparagingly of psychiatrists in the past; when Dylan had gone to a shrink a couple of times about his bed-wetting a few years ago, his father had made him feel like a total loser, as if he was too weak to face life. Maybe things were changing.
"I'll think about it," he said, finally. "Thanks, Dad. And good luck in New York."
"Yeah. This is the biggest crisis in the company's history, and I'm the only guy who can solve it. Hang in there until I'm back, son."
He closed the door. Dylan stood up and walked over to his desk and sat down. Shit, he thought. I'm a selfish asshole. Here I'm thinking like I'm the only guy in this house who has any problems, and my Dad's getting eaten alive by his job.
He glanced at the clock. 10:10. Just enough time to finish the history paper. He fired up his monitor, then clicked on the file.
"Causes of World War I," he read out loud. He still had another day to turn in the paper, but he always hated waiting until the last minute. Just then, an alert sounded. Somebody was sending him an E-mail.
Strange. The message "from" box simply said "Guesswho666@anonymous-email.org," and the subject was "Too important to ignore."
Probably just another fucking spam, he thought. Then he re-read the subject. Maybe it really was too important. He clicked the icon, and a new window opened on his screen. The words made his heart stop.
WHAT ARE YOUR RICH FRIENDS GOING TO SAY
WHEN THEY FIND OUT YOU'RE A FAGGOT, CALLAHAN?
IT'S JUST A MATTER OF TIME NOW.
SOON, EVERYBODY'S GOING TO KNOW THE TRUTH.
YOU'RE JUST A FUDGE-PACKING PILLOW BITER.
GET AIDS AND DIE, DICK-LICKER!
Attached to the message was a blurry X-rated picture of a naked male teenager in mid-orgasmic frenzy. The boy had an enormous erection.
Dylan broke out in a cold sweat. "No," he whispered to himself. "They can't know my E-mail address, too."
He looked at the photograph. It wasn't him, and it wasn't Angel or anybody else he knew. Just a generic photo anybody could've grabbed off the Net.
But who sent the email? Why were they doing this? And what did they want?
* * * * *
The morning was gloomy. LA was covered with a low, monotonous fog, and the clouds hung ominously low over the hills.
"You don't look so good, man," said Dylan, as he swung the BMW around the corner onto Devonshire.
Kyle was disheveled and bleary-eyed. He nodded and rubbed his eyes.
"Yeah. I went out last night and got totally wasted. You got any aspirin, man?"
Dylan hit a button on the glove compartment and pulled out a bottle. "Just Tylenol. You shouldn't do that shit to yourself, dude."
Kyle popped a couple of capsules into his mouth and swallowed them dry. "Hey, I felt like it!" he snapped. "Get off my fuckin' case. Who are you, my mother?"
Dylan started to respond, then thought better of it. Kyle was getting moodier lately. He'd noticed it a few weeks ago, but assumed it was just the usual pressures of school and family.
"Sorry, man," he said. "I'm still kinda freaked-out about this thing with Charlie, too."
Kyle turned and stared at the window. "I talked to John last night. He said you broke his fuckin' nose."
Shit, Dylan thought. He'd almost forgotten about the fight from two nights before.
"Jesus. I'm really sorry about that, dude. Look, give me John's number and I'll... well, I'll at least apologize. Even though he started it, I shouldn't have overreacted."
Kyle sat silent, looking out the window.
Dylan made the turn into a road behind the Chatsworth High baseball field. "Look, man -- whaddya want me to say? I mean, I'll pay his doctor bills and shit, if that's what he wants."
Kyle gave him an angry stare. "Yeah. Like you pay for everything else."
They pulled into a parking space in the lot, and Kyle hopped out.
"Dude!" called Dylan. "We gotta get to that team meeting."
"I'll see ya there," Kyle called, trotting into a hallway. "I gotta go puke in the bathroom."
What the fuck's gotten into him?, Dylan thought.
* * * * *
The bleachers were jammed. All 62 members of the Chatsworth Cougars sat on the seats. Promptly at 8:01, Coach Highland and two of the assistant coaches walked out onto the court.
"Alright, men. Listen up: as some of you already know, Charlie Stephenson was in a terrible car accident late Friday night. He's got some concussions and suffered a mild stroke, and he'll be out for at least a month. He's going to have some problems with motor skills and speech, possibly for the rest of his life."
Ripples went through the small crowd. Most of them knew about the wreck, but they didn't know the details.
"And why did this happen?" He stared at the boys expectantly. "Anybody?"
No one answered.
"I'll tell you why," he continued. "Lack of discipline! No intestinal fortitude! Charlie didn't goddamn well learn to think, that's what! He acted like an drunken asshole, and this is the kind of crap that happens to assholes."
Dylan tightened his fists. Fucking jerk, he thought.
The coach began to pace back and forth in front of the bleachers. "Well, I've had just about enough of assholes on this team. As of right now, there's some new rules I'm going to enforce. And if there's any of you who don't like 'em, don't let the goddamned door hit ya on the way out."
One of the assistant coaches began passing out some Xerox leaflets, which were handed down the line. Dylan stared at the top line. New Eligibility Requirements for All Team Sports for Chatsworth High School -- October 2002.
"Here's the run-down, men. Number one, there's an 11PM curfew every weeknight."
Immediate groans erupted from the players.
"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" the coach screamed.
The room came to an abrupt silence.
"This isn't a goddamned democracy here! You play by my rules, or not at all -- got it? Let's continue."
He ran down the list. No partying during the week. 1AM curfew on Friday and Saturday nights. No drinking. No more earrings. No piercings. No facial hair. No tattoos. No drugs of any kind except aspirin, unless you had a doctor's prescription.
"Fat chance of that," snickered Jordy Chandler, sitting right behind Dylan. "Like we're gonna stop doin' the juice."
"YOU GOT SOMETHING YOU WANNA SHARE WITH THE REST OF THE TEAM, CHANDLER?"
The boy looked up, his face reddening.
"Jordy, hit the track right now. Five laps, on the double!"
He was taken aback. "But, coach..."
"Make it ten! MOVE IT!"
Dylan looked up helplessly at his friend, who trudged down the steps and out the side door, loudly slamming it shut. The metal clang echoed loudly through the gymnasium.
"Anybody else have any questions?" the coach asked.
A large black hand raised from the back. It was Garland Phillips, one of the fullbacks. He timidly stood up.
"Coach? The school rules say we can have beards and moustaches. And the rules on earrings say..."
"I DON'T CARE WHAT THE GODDAMNED SCHOOL RULES SAY!" the man bellowed. "These are my rules! This is how we're gonna do things around here from now on. You have any of that crap on your face, don't even bother to show up for the game Friday. You hear me?"
Phillips nodded and sat back down.
Buck Johnson stood up. "Coach, what's this about clothes? I know we can't wear gang colors and like that, but..."
"The dress code will be strictly enforced. No more shorts, no baggy pants, no shirts with political logos."
Buck nodded glumly and sat down.
"Hey, Coach Highland!" called another voice. Dylan turned to see Bobby Guiterro struggle to his feet.
"What is it, Guiterro?"
"What if we, like, already got a buncha tattoos? Like we got 'em when it was already legal?"
Highland eyed the fullback, whose bulging shoulders had at least one multi-colored shark face on one side. "Good question. Let's put it this way: If I catch any of you with a new one from here on out, you're dead meat."
Bobby muttered something in Spanish and sat back down.
"And Guiterro?" the coach asked wearily. "Lose the moustache, son. It looks like crap."
"Your momma's got a better moustache!" called Kyle.
The team members laughed, and Bobby's face turned bright red.
"Anybody else?" snapped the coach.
Kyle whispered to Dylan. "I gotta ask this one," he whispered.
Kyle stood up and gestured. "Hey, coach! What about this one near the end -- 'no sex prior to the game.' What do you mean by that, exactly?"
There were some chuckles from the group.
"That's simple. If you boys concentrate more on the game, and less on getting laid, you'll be able to put more energy into winning," he explained. "In other words, stop worrying about gettin' your rocks off with your girlfriends, and think about kicking the other team's ass!"
Kyle grinned. "How 'bout gay sex?" he said.
The team erupted with loud hoots of laughter. Dylan gave his friend a curious glance, and Kyle looked down and wiggled his eyebrows.
"I said any sex -- you got it, McDermott? No beatin' the meat, no nothin'! Not until the weekend."
"Yes, sir, coach!" Kyle said, in a mock salute.
Highland eyed the players warily. "Look, boys. I know this stuff sounds severe. But Principal Meyers and I are in agreement -- something's gotta be done about the problems we've been having this season. Beyond the usual injuries, we're out one player due to drunk driving, on top of losing Latrelle just a month ago."
Plus we lost our real coach, thought Dylan.
"And I think the reasons are obvious: discipline, or a lack of it! And that's gonna stop, here and now."
Every face seemed to be glaring at the coach. He clapped his hands, ending the meeting.
"That's it," he said loudly. "You can all go on to your homerooms now. Practice starts at 3:30 this afternoon, but we'll be going to six every night this week until Friday's game."
More groans erupted from the crowd.
"Hold it down!" he bellowed. "We've got just five more games to go, and then we're done with the season. We're still ahead, and I still think we can make it to the finals. This is the closest this team has come in fifteen years, and I'm gonna do everything I can to make it happen. Alright?"
There were some mutters from the team as they stepped down the stairs to the court and filed outside.
Just as Dylan reached the door, a voice called out behind him.
"Callahan! C'mere for a minute."
Dylan trudged over to the coach. They were alone on the court. His hands suddenly began to sweat, and he felt a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Look, Dylan. I know you and I haven't always gotten along," Highland began. "But I think you can do it. You've got the passion for the game, son, and we both know you've got the talent."
Highland smiled, but it was a cold smile, showing a lot of teeth. His eyes narrowed, as if they were burning a hole right into Dylan.
"But if you don't think you've got the guts, tell me now. Ron Williams is just itchin' for your job, boy. Are you gonna do what I tell you to do, or should I make him the new quarterback?"
Dylan was too shaken to reply.
The boy gritted his teeth. "I'll... I'll do whatever I have to do. For the team."
The coach slapped him on the back. "Glad to hear it. But just remember: I'm the boss. No more screwin' around. You just run the plays the way I tell you to do -- right or wrong. If you don't like it, Williams is in for the rest of the season. You got that?"
Dylan hesitated. The coach leaned into his face and looked him right in the eye.
"I said: do you got that?" he asked quietly.
The teen felt a surge of heat from his heart, and his face began to redden with anger. He fought the urge to throttle the coach. One hard fist to the man's throat, and he'd be out for minutes, maybe forever.
"Yes, sir, Coach," he said quietly. "I got it."
Highland nodded. "That's more like it, Callahan. Get outta here. See you at practice."
* * * * *
By 5:00PM, Dylan was thoroughly drained. The coach had put them through an even more grueling routine than ever. Despite the mild afternoon temperature, his practice uniform was soaked with sweat.
The assistants blew their whistle for a five minute time-out. Dylan leaned against the tackle dummy and caught his breath. Shit, he thought. If this is what it's gonna take to be first-string quarterback, then I'm not gonna make it.
"Dude!" called Kyle, tossing him a 16-ounce bottle of Gatorade. "You got that history paper finished yet?"
"Naw," Dylan replied, wiping his mouth after taking a long swig. "But I'll have it tonight. I can E-mail it to ya, if you want."
Kyle shook his head. "Fuck it," he said. "I'm just gonna buy one of those term papers from one of those Web pages. It's seven bucks a page, but fuck it -- fifty bucks is worth it, since this is 1/3 of our grade."
Dylan rolled his eyes. "You know Ms. Raymond will see through that shit, man!"
"She is the weakest link!" Kyle said, in a haughty voice.
Both boys chortled. Their history teacher bore an uncanny resemblance to the host of the popular TV game show, and often was made the butt of several jokes in class -- mostly because of her unusual British accent.
Dylan grinned. "She might be the weakest link, but she's still gonna give you an F, dickhead."
Just then, one of the coaches blew his whistle. "Back to formation! Highland wants you to go over these five new plays for Friday."
Dylan and Kyle tossed their empty bottles into the trash can, and trudged wearily back to the line-up.
* * * * *
Practice couldn't end soon enough for any of them. After a quick shower, Dylan made it back to his locker just in time to grab his cell phone.
"Hey!" said a familiar voice. "I thought you were gonna come over at 5:30 today!"
Dylan sighed. "I'm really sorry, Angel. The coach is fuckin' with us again. We're staying an hour late every day, and I still haven't finished my History report. Can we kinda postpone it 'till Wednesday?"
He heard a giggle in the background. "Who's that?" he asked suspiciously.
"Nobody," laughed Angel. "Actually, it's a friend of mine from school. He's a cool guy. Maybe I'll introduce you sometime." Suddenly, both boys were overcome with a fit of laughter.
Dylan was annoyed. "Yeah. Whatever. Look, Angel... I gotta go, 'kay?"
"Okay. Call me -- okay, Dylan?"
"You got it, lil' dude."
Dylan clicked the phone closed and tossed it into his gym bag. Goddamn, he thought. That kid had the bad habit of calling at the least opportune moments.
"Hey, dude!" called Kyle, who just walked up alongside him, dripping wet. "I turned in my history report early. I think I'm gonna ace it, this time."
"Sure," replied Dylan, as he pulled up his jeans. "That'll be a first. I'm still workin' on mine. You up for runnin' tomorrow morning?"
"Yeah. Meet ya at 6:45 -- usual place."
Suddenly, in the background, there was a bunch of yelling.
Dylan, Kyle, and several of the other players tore outside just in time to see team center Jordy Chandler and halfback Mark Wallace slam a smaller kid to the sidewalk, while another boy was trying desperately to grab a flurry of papers flying through the air. The latter was Sean McIntosh, but the other was a thin, pale-faced teen he hadn't seen before. A third stood nearby, frozen with fear.
"You fuckin' faggot!" taunted Jordy, who took one of the leaflets and crammed it into the smaller boy's face. "Why don't you eat this shit, instead of leavin' it around school?"
Another player bumped into Sean, who smacked right into the stone wall next to Dylan. Dylan reached out to stop him from falling. Sean stared at him, wild-eyed.
"Help us!" he whispered. "Please!"
Just as Dylan started to speak, the smaller boy took a swing at Chandler. The athlete caught the boy's fist and cruelly bent his arm back, almost to the breaking point. The boy cried out in agony, but Chandler grinned.
"Fuckin' homo," he taunted. "Can't fight for shit!"
His cohort thought this was hilarious. "I seen girls fight better than this," he chuckled. "This fuckin' wimp don't know nothin'!"
"Lemme show you how to fight, faggot," explained Jordy. He picked the smaller boy up, set him gently on his feet, then hauled off and bitch-slapped him in the face with the back of his hand. The teen immediately burst out in tears.
"That's just for starters," he continued. "This one's even better."
With that, he cocked his fist back and smashed him as hard as he could in the cheek. The boy was so stunned, he immediately stopped sobbing and fell on his back on the concrete, gasping for breath.
Wallace was beside himself with laughter. "This fruit's like a fuckin' homo-retard!" he hooted. "Kick his ass!"
Dylan watched the fight as if it was in slow motion. Again and again, the boy was savagely kicked and beaten. He put up his hands as a weak defense, but it was like a flea trying to stop a sledgehammer. Every punch resulted in a roar of laughter from the half-dozen football players around him.
"Do something!" Sean begged. "Please, somebody help!"
The one next to him -- Dylan recognized him as Donny something-or-other from his fifth-period English class -- had tears running down his face, but seemed paralyzed as he watched the slaughter.
Dylan shook his head, as if coming out of a dream. He stared at the boy on the ground and the football player leaning over him, then took a step forward.
"Hey -- Chandler! Cut it out!" he yelled.
Jordy's leg froze in mid-kick, ready to smash the boy in the side again. He turned and glared at him.
"What the fuck is your problem, Callahan? You with us, or with these fags?"
Dylan took a step forward and pointed back to the locker room. "I said cut it out, man! You know Highland'll kick your ass off the team if he finds out you're doin' this shit on school grounds," he said. "C'mon! Just leave 'em alone, Chandler. Ignore 'em."
Sean and the third boy ran over and helped the victim stagger up to his feet. Blood was trickling from his mouth, his shirt was torn, and there was a large welt on one side of his face, but he was conscious.
Jordy shoved all three boys away, and threw the stack of papers at them. "Get the fuck outta here!" he snarled. "And take your fuckin' faggot shit with you." He turned and went back inside the locker room, bumping into Dylan on the way. The flyers fluttered down the hallway, like the petals of fallen flowers in a windstorm.
Kyle and Dylan stared silently as the three teens in the distance
knelt down and started picking up the flyers. Kyle leaned over, grabbed one
fluttering nearby on the floor, and showed it to Dylan. The flyers were light
pink, with black ink, and an elaborate logo at the top. He smoothed out the
wrinkled paper and read the words:
We're here, We're Queer... Get Used to It!
The Gay-Straight Alliance of Chatsworth High
announces our next meeting
Monday, November 4th
3:45PM in Room C-14
All students welcome!
"Chandler's a fuckin' asshole," whispered Kyle.
"Yeah," replied Dylan. They stood there silently, watching the three boys pick up the last of their papers.
"Look, man," Kyle said. "I gotta get home. See ya later, 'kay?" He shrugged, then headed back into the locker room, leaving Dylan behind in the hallway.
After a moment, Sean looked up at him and nodded. Dylan nodded back.
"He gonna be okay?" asked Dylan quietly.
"Yeah. Jeff'll be alright." Sean turned to his friend. "You're stronger than that, right? Don't let these assholes get to you."
"I should've done something," sobbed Donny.
Sean smiled wanly. "Naaa," he said. "You're a lover, not a fighter -- right?"
The injured boy sniffled. "Let's get back to the office, alright?"
Dylan silently watched them walk away. I should've done more for them, he mused to himself. I can't let shit like this go on.
Then the memory of what he'd done a few nights ago at the club came back to haunt him. He raced back into the locker room to look for Kyle.
"Kyle!" he called out. "Hey! Anybody seen Kyle?"
Buck Johnson slammed his locker shut. "You just missed him, man. He took off like a shot, out the back door."
Shit. He had to remember to ask Kyle if John Kincaid was okay, maybe even call the guy and apologize for the fight the other night.
"So what the fuck's with you?" asked Buck, as he walked past him. "Since when are you hangin' out with faggots?"
Dylan shook his head. "Fags have nothin' to do with it, man," he replied. "I just don't wanna see Mark and Jordy get their asses kicked off the team. You know how Highland is about this shit."
"Yeah. Guess you're right. Take it easy, man."
The hulking linebacker left the locker room, leaving it empty except for two or three stragglers and one of the assistant coaches. Dylan walked over to his locker and started to close the door, then noticed a piece of paper lying on the bottom.
NO! he screamed inside his head. Not again!
Dylan reached out, braced himself, and stared at the paper. It was blank on both sides. He let out a sigh of relief. But where had it come from? Was it just coincidence?
He finally laughed to himself. Maybe it was just a piece of paper.
* * * * *
At dawn the next day, a light rain fell on the grounds of Chatsworth High. The sky was gray and cheerless. Puddles of water began to pool up near the steps, and little fissures trickled across the sidewalk. The Santa Ana winds were beginning to perk up, and a strong gust was coming in from the North.
A lone figure with a gray hooded sweatshirt and an orange backpack trudged up the stairs. The figure made his way down a back corridor and reached the side door by Building P, which led to Chancellor Hall. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small hammer, quietly shattered the small window in the door, then methodically reached inside and unlocked the door. He braced himself, then opened it.
Good, he thought. No alarm. He didn't want anyone to interrupt his mission for the morning.
As he stepped through the door the hood of his sweatshirt fall behind him, revealing a face cruelly littered with scrapes and bruises. He cautiously crept down the hallway, keeping an eye out for teachers or security guards. The hallway clock read 6:15 -- that'd probably give him a good half-hour before anybody came in.
At the front of the hall was a large concrete archway. It still had some cracks and signs of repair work left over from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but looked solid, nonetheless. He reached inside his backpack and pulled out a 15-foot length of black nylon rope. He held it in one hand and eyed the archway.
"This'll work just fine," he said out loud. "I just wish I could be around to see their faces." He smiled sadly to himself, then stepped up to a ledge and steadied himself on the concrete post.
* * * * *
Bo Jenkins checked his watch. 6:51. That was more than enough time to mop the floors and check the trash cans.
He shook his head. It was incredible, the messes these goddamned high school kids made. Principal Meyers had been on his ass all school year about keeping the place cleaner, but even with his full-time staff of three, it was a Herculean job.
He filled up the bucket, then wheeled it out of his janitor's room and into the main corridor that led to the auditorium, Chancellor Hall. Bo turned on his radio and let it blare up, the music echoing off the concrete walls.
"Sing it, baby!" he chuckled to himself, as the voice of Aretha Franklin filled the hallway. "Just a little bit... uh-huh, just a little bit!" he sang along with the music. Nothin' like the classics, he thought to himself.
He half-danced, half-walked down the corridor, methodically swabbing down the scuffed floor, slapping it down right with the beat of the music. Just as the song ended, he tossed the mop back into the bucket and wiped off his brow. He looked to the left, then the right. Floors were cleaned, trashcans were fine. But something didn't feel right. The winds began to howl outside the building.
I'm too old for this shit, he thought, checking his watch again. Ain't nobody gonna be here for at least another 15 minutes.
Shrugging his shoulders, he wheeled the bucket around the corner, then stopped.
Above his head, on the arch, was the lifeless body of a teenage boy, hanging from a black nylon rope. His face was purple, and his eyes and mouth were wide open in an expression of surprise, as if his dying moments weren't what he expected them to be. His face was covered with purple welts and bruises, and there was a growing wet stain in his pants. A neatly-lettered sign was pinned to his chest, which read:
THEY DID THIS TO ME.
Jenkins stared at the boy, then backed up and knocked the bucket over, sending a show of dirty water and suds down the hallway.
He continued running down the steps and hit the fire alarm with his fist, then ran out the nearby door, letting in the wind from outside. Echoes of bells shrieked throughout the school, and the body of Jeff Stewart began gently swaying back and forth in the breeze.
* * * * *
Dylan Callahan leaned against the tree at the park.
Where the fuck is Kyle?, he thought. If he doesn't come here in the next ten seconds, I'm gonna...
As if to answer his question, his cell-phone rang.
"Dude!" he said. "Where the fuck are you?"
"I'm too wasted to make it this morning, man," moaned Kyle.
Dylan sighed. This was the second time in a week that Kyle hadn't been able to make it.
"Are you gettin' fucked-up again, man?"
"No, dude. Swear to god -- I'm fuckin' sick. I got the flu or somethin'. I was throwin' up all night." He paused for a moment and was suddenly overcome with a fit of coughing. "Get my homework assignments for me, willya? And tell Coach I'll make it to practice if I feel better this afternoon.
"Alright. Hey, listen, Kyle. Can you..."
He stopped. He was going to ask again about John Kincaid, maybe call the guy and apologize. But maybe now wasn't the time.
"Can I do what?" asked Kyle wearily.
Suddenly, there were police sirens in the distance.
"Forget it," Dylan said. "I gotta go. Shit -- lookit that!"
Three police cars and a fire emergency ambulance screamed by the park, lights blazing. A Corvette on the corner slammed on its brakes at the last minute, just barely avoiding a collision.
"What's the deal with all those sirens?" asked Kyle.
"I dunno. Looks like they're headed over to the school. I'll call ya and let you know if there's somethin' goin' on."
"Later, dude. I'm goin' back to sleep."
Dylan clicked the phone shut. An LAPD squad car roared by, siren blaring and lights flashing. The ambulance in the distance turned towards the entrance to Chatsworth High, four blocks away.
I wonder what the hell's goin' on at school, at 7 in the morning? he thought.
Author's Note: Just as a sidenote for impressionable or concerned readers, let me emphasize that suicide is not an answer, despite the fact that experts claim it's the third leading cause of death among teenagers in North America. If you're feeling depressed or despondent, please get some professional help or consult these resources on the Web:
Rock Against Suicide.com
Please also keep in mind this is just a story about fictional characters, and I do not advocate suicide as a solution for most people, especially teenagers.