At a prison-like Detroit high school, senior student Chris Maddox has two problems: how to ask out honors student Allie Brookes, and whether to stand up for the new kid who landed himself in a world of shit after an accidental dodgeball nut shot. In front of the entire cafeteria, ball-hurt teenage-giant Jeremiah Bundy takes down the new kid in what could be a world record for mismatched fight. Chris steps in and accidentally breaks Bundy’s nose, and also breaks the number one rule of high school: before you hit someone, make sure nobody cares.
Chris and his friends are hunted and terrorized by Bundy and his two creepy associates – one a punk who forked his own tongue with a rusty knife at age fifteen, and the other a kickboxing psychopath who finishes his beatings by breaking his victim’s index finger.
Afraid Chris will get seriously hurt, Allie helps him fight back guerilla style. When the psychotic trio tries to kill them, Chris learns that teachers can’t help and police don’t protect or serve. With their lives about to be wiped out by the wannabe killers, Allie, Chris, and their friends dream up a long-shot idea: inspire the students of Cannondale High to stand with them in an uprising.
For Erin, Ella, and Jake
“There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.”
- Hunter S. Thompson
It all went down three months into my high school senior year, a day that triggered a youth uprising like nothing America had seen before.
The trouble started when the new kid, Gordie Radford, scanned the Cannondale High cafeteria and turned to me. “Chris, it’s about to happen.”
Eminem chanted from the loudspeaker of a nearby phone, and the faint smell of weed filled the air. “If it makes you feel better,” I said, “they won’t do it here. When they did it to Osterhout, they dragged him into the hall and bent his finger back – snapped it like a pretzel. Had to wear a finger splint for a month.”
Gordie grimaced like he was trying to swallow a bug.
The mechanics of finger breaking probably wasn’t what he needed with the mess he was in. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m sure they won’t do it to you.”
They were going to do it to him, and soon.
“Did the teachers help Osterhout?”
“Teachers? Osterhout was a teacher.”
After Osterhout’s finger breaking, the faculty was too gutless to deal with the beatings. Even Mad Max wouldn’t survive this asylum for the homicidal. Truth was, fingers were only broken when things got bad, but Gordie landed himself in a world of shit after an accidental dodgeball nut shot last week. Chances were one of his fingers was about to have a bad day.
Gordie glanced over his shoulder at the exit. “I just want to get through senior year without ending up like Mr. Osterhout.”
Not ending up like Osterhout was all any of us wanted, but I couldn’t help feel for Gordie. Notre Dame Prep hadn’t prepared him for the unexpected move to a tough school in Detroit’s West Side where beatings were part of the curriculum. He was clueless, like a child walking up to a creeper in a candy van, and only a month after transferring to Cannondale he had guys twice his size lining up to destroy him. I wasn’t about to stand in their way, but I tried to look out for him because no one else did. Besides, I could count my other friends on my little finger, so it’s not like I was too cool to hang with the new kid.
That other friend, Raj Akhtar, walked down the aisle toward us with a tray of meatballs and a can of Crush. He pulled out the chair next to mine and raised an eyebrow at me, no doubt sore at having to sit with Detroit’s biggest trouble magnet again. “Sup?”
Gordie glanced over his shoulder at the exit. “They’re coming. I can feel it.”
“Cool it, will you?” Raj put his tray on the table and dropped into his chair. “You wouldn’t be such a victim if you didn’t act like one.”
Gordie’s brow wrinkled and his lips moved without speaking.
“Listen,” Raj said. “You need to understand how it works here at Cannondale. Look around, you ain’t at prep school no more.” He pointed at the cafeteria wall covered in black graffiti, chewing gum, and lumps of hardened food. Near the ceiling, yellow light filtered through a row of dirty windows. They say the guy who designed Cannondale also designed prisons: minimal windows, intense overcrowding, high tension, and wild inmates. I’d believe it.
Raj speared a meatball with his fork and pointed at Gordie’s cardigan. “That Ralph Lauren number ain’t doin’ you any favors. You’re seventeen – you gotta dress like it.”
Gordie picked the fluff off his cardigan, like tidying it would help him blend in with Cannondale’s gangsters and hoods.
“My parents left Delhi twenty years ago and they’re still trying to get me to wear a kurta.” Raj laid his fork on his plate and grabbed the edges of his t-shirt with the words ‘Fake Karate is Better than no Karate.’ “Can you imagine what those maniacs would do to me if I wore a kurta?”
Gordie clasped his hands together and pulled them apart, like he didn’t know what to do with them. “Did they get in trouble with the cops for what they did to Mr. Osterhout?”
“They fessed up, but the cops still did nothing.”
“That’s what happens when your old man’s a cop,” I said.
Raj shook his head. “It’s what happens when your old man’s a dirty cop.”
Another lump made its way down Gordie’s throat. He reached into his bag and pulled out a Rocky and Bullwinkle lunchbox.
Raj’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”
Gordie blinked slowly, like he was confused by his surroundings. “What?”
“Are you trying to get beat up? Put Rocky and Bullwinkle away before someone sees them.”
The confusion on Gordie’s face turned to blushing. It’d be a long time before he was in his element here. He slipped his lunchbox back into his bag. “It doesn’t matter. They’re going to find me anyway.” He pressed his hand to his stomach and winced. “They hit me twice last week. They said it was to soften me up before…” He looked down at his fingers.
“Show us,” Raj said.
He unbuttoned his cardigan and lifted his shirt to reveal a dark purple-green bruise covering most of his stomach.
“Shit, Gordo.” Raj shot me a glance. “Don’t worry, we’ve all had our run-ins. I’ve gotten to know all kinds of pavements: brick, concrete, asphalt – you name it, I’ve been beaten on it. It’s just how it works here.”
Gordie pulled his cardigan down. “I’m eating outside from now on, even if it’s a thousand degrees below. I’d rather waterboard myself than let them–”
“Too late.” Raj tipped his head toward the door.
Swaggering down the aisle, Fink Fuller stood taller than an NBA player on stilts and was twice as lanky. His six-inch red mohawk and metal-spiked leather jacket gave him a look that’d make a punk rooster envious. He didn’t just look demented though; he’d clocked up more beatings than any other senior. And he did it all for the love of hurting people.
The clamor of voices and clanking of cutlery softened as two hundred students turned his way. According to Mr. Walter’s senior biology class, this is called the anti-predator response. Nature knows when something dangerous is near. You can experience it if you’re sleeping in the outdoors and wake up to silence. No gentle hiss of wind through grass, no crickets, no frogs, and no buzzing insects. Silence. Humans aren’t used to silence. True silence is terrifying, and there’s a reason.
Fink paused at our table, balancing his tray of what smelled like five-day-old lunchmeat in one hand.
Gordie sank lower in his chair, his skin pale and sweaty like a malaria victim. He radiated the kind of raw fear that attracted trouble, and he’d brought a ton of it our way since he started hanging with us.
A whisper came from under Gordie’s breath. Praying was all he had, but so far it hadn’t saved anyone else.
Fink’s gaze shifted down to Gordie, and he narrowed his eyes. Like a bulldog readying for attack, his face hardened and his eyebrow piercings bristled. Parting his lips, he flicked his forked, snake tongue out of his mouth and over his lips. Rumor was he’d gone into his old man’s garage on his fifteenth birthday and sliced his tongue down the middle with a rusty knife. It was easy to believe – he did a lot of messed up things.
The yellow windows flashed and a low rumble went over the school. Fink wiped his nose on the back of his hand and leaned into Gordie’s ear. “Ay yo’, check it. My favorite dodgeball player.”
Heads turned at nearby tables and whispers swept through the cafeteria. Standing near the kitchen, Ms. Lazaretto glanced in our direction and placed her hand on her skinny waist before turning away. She wasn’t going to break up a fight even if she had an elite team of Special Forces backing her, and right now she was the only teacher in the cafeteria.
Fink eyed Gordie steadily, nodding slightly, daring him to move. He curled his upper lip and leaned closer. “Ever been in a real fight, Radford? One where you don’t just take a beating? One where you give some back?”
Gordie gave a strained, defiant smile, shooting for confident but only managing constipated. He wasn’t a fighter and Fink knew it. Skinny kids were good at reading books and playing videogames, not brawling with steel-toe boot wearing gorillas.
Fink laid his tray on the table. “You disrespectin’ me?”
Gordie’s gaze fell away. He’d put on a good show, but even fake balls crush if you squeeze hard enough.
Fink dug his hands into his pockets and pulled out two clenched fists. “Tell you what, if you guess what hand has the coin, I won’t break yo’ finger.”
This was all part of his game, but nothing ever came of it but lies and more beatings. I never understood why he didn’t just get on with it.
Gordie blinked long and slow, like he was having trouble focusing. A better friend might step in, but I wasn’t about to rush to make myself a target, not if there was a chance he’d dig his own way out.
“Choose quick, Dodgeball, or I’m gonna choose.”
Gordie’s brow creased like he was doing mental calculations. He raised a shaky finger and pointed at Fink’s left hand. One by one, the fingers of Fink’s left hand uncurled into an empty palm. He gave a sympathetic frown and patted Gordie’s shoulder. “Tell you what, bud, you can choose what finger.”
Gordie swallowed. It was decision-making time: stand up and fight, or take what comes next. I’d given up expecting teachers to step in, mostly they settled for not getting hurt. Zero tolerance my ass. We’d be safer dancing naked in the streets of Baghdad.
In a flash of movement, Fink snatched at Gordie’s fingers and missed. With his right hand still squeezed tight, he threw his left fist hard into Gordie’s temple. The sickening thock of knuckle against skull sent a lump into my throat even after hearing it a hundred times.
Gordie buckled and threw his face into his hands, gasping. When he straightened, his glasses hung crooked and tears leaked from his eyes. Four knuckle-shaped red blotches stained his cheek.
At the front of the cafeteria, Ms. Lazaretto glanced at us and checked her watch, tapping her fingers on her arm. I didn’t expect her to get involved, but it would’ve been decent of her to threaten to call the cops.
Across the table, Raj sat up straight in his chair and cleared his throat.
The fingers of Fink’s right hand spread to reveal an empty palm. No surprise there. The odds of him playing fair were about the same as the Lions winning the Super Bowl. His eyes narrowed to slits and he broke into a shrieky, grating laugh that would set off a car alarm. Like a circuit frying in his brain, his mouth snapped shut and his left hand clamped onto Gordie’s wrist. His other hand gripped Gordie’s index finger.
I’d spent my share of high school curled up on the ground trying to suck air into my lungs. I wasn’t scared to fight, mostly I did, but it hardly ever ended well. I’d learned to deal with it, but Gordie was the new kid, shy and quiet, an easy blusher, and he was about to have his finger broken in front of the entire cafeteria.
I pushed out my chair and stepped between them. “You hit him already. Leave him alone.”
The human race can be divided into those who appreciate advice and those who don’t. Fink leaned down and tilted his head. “What ya gonna do, Maddox?” He spat the words, flicking his snake tongue over his lips like his brain was stuck in a loop.
An uncomfortable heat rose up my neck. I wanted to do something, but hitting an oversized thug wasn’t the kind of plan that was going to keep my fingers unbroken. Having said that, Gordie was a friend and that came with responsibility. And the thing about fighting: when you know it’s gonna happen, you gotta get in first. I balled my fist and swung it hard at Fink’s face. He dodged, releasing Gordie’s wrist, and shoved his palms hard into my chest, throwing me ass first over my chair and sending me sliding into a table of sophomores. I climbed to my knees and gasped. The only thing worse than stepping into someone else’s fight was being shown the floor before you got started. Still, it was better than looking weak. You had to show you were prepared to fight, even when you couldn’t win. Gordie had a rep as a soft target and soon every gang in West Side would be after him.
Standing in the front of the cafeteria, Ms. Lazaretto stared wide-eyed at me and then at Fink. With a toss of her hair, she bent to lift her handbag and sashayed to the door. If you’re a teacher who puts self-preservation first, the best way to avoid trouble is to leave when it starts.
Raj rose from his chair, fists clenched. Fink glared at him, daring him to move. Raj wouldn’t think twice about stepping in for me, even when the odds were against him – I’d done the same for him since freshman year. But he wasn’t about to throw himself under this bus unless I was about to be ruined. Gradually, the color returned to his knuckles as he relaxed his fists.
Fink let out a shrill cackle and jabbed his finger into Raj’s forehead. “Didn’t think so.” He turned to Gordie and lowered his voice. “I’ll be back with some finger justice after lunch. If you’re not a wuss about it, I might only break one.” With a toothy grin, he lifted his tray and swaggered back to his table with the kind of smug that was part of the deal when you’re top of the food chain.
I climbed to my feet and wiped the dirt off my jeans and hoodie. A murmur of low voices filled the room, and Gordie lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
Raj slumped into his chair. “Where would you guys be without me looking out for you?”
“Right here,” Gordie said.
“Doing this,” I said, straightening my chair.
The clock on the wall was at 12:53pm. Seven minutes till the end-of-lunch bell. Other than trying to jump Fink, we only had two options: wait it out and act like nothing happened, or try to make an exit. Either way we’d draw the attention of him and his crew.
Two tables away, Fink counted cigarettes next to his buddy Kyle Swindon. Kyle lifted his feet onto the table and blew into his Zippo lighter, gazing at the dancing flame. This six-and-a-half-foot wall of muscle was pumped with enough steroids and protein shakes to turn a seven-year-old into a professional wrestler, and to make him the uncontested leader of his crew. Last year, Principal Grendelmeier discovered Kyle was cutting class to train in Muay Thai fighting at a gym downtown. Instead of suspending him, he called it an off-site learning program and gave Kyle course credit. Teachers didn’t want him at school any more than the rest of us; either that or his dirty-cop old man pulled all the right strings.
Kyle pulled his hoodie back over his shoulders, uncovering the scarification tattoo of a coffin on his neck. With his left hand, he rotated the four rings on his right-hand fingers, each one decked out with a jagged metal skull sharp enough to cut skin. In the seat next to him, his bleached-blonde girlfriend, Brittany Ryerson, thumbed at her phone, her lips almost glowing neon pink. She plucked a long strand of tangled hair from her scalp and dropped it on the floor. Someone once told me her behavioral problems were because of a difficult upbringing. It can’t have been easy being the offspring of a circus clown and a feral cat.
Fink’s voice sliced across the cafeteria like the screech of a velociraptor. “Hey, Dodgeball. Look after yo’ fingers. I don’t want them getting broken before it’s my turn.”
Gordie folded his arms tight across his chest, his brow sweaty and his cheek swollen on one side. Waiting for a beating was almost as bad as the beating itself. Fink would be less of an asshole if he just got on with it.
Approaching from the aisle behind Gordie, a grizzly bear-like figure balanced a lunch tray on a sumo-sized gut. With the top of his head inches from the ceiling, and almost as fat as he was tall, Jeremiah Bundy was the biggest of Kyle’s crew, and the most unpredictable and scary human any of us had ever known. And he was headed in our direction.
Bundy stopped halfway down the aisle and ran his free hand over his shaved head, glaring down at a table of juniors doing their best to not look up. With child-like curiosity, his eyes locked onto a kid cautiously sipping a bowl of steaming soup from his wheelchair.
Raj put his drink on the table. “No way. He wouldn’t… not Danny.”
The chatter of voices in the room softened, like someone turning down the volume on the cafeteria’s remote. Bundy was known for having no sense of right from wrong, but this was the first time he’d taken an unhealthy interest in the disabled kid.
Bundy placed his tray on the table and cupped his baseball-mitt sized hand around the back of Danny’s head. Before Danny caught on, Bundy plunged his face down into his bowl, splashing soup across the table. Danny thrashed his arms, gasping, and his friends stepped back.
As far as learning experiences went, Cannondale couldn’t compete with the prep schools, but it did offer its own unique experiences.
Leaning down, Bundy hooked the fingers of his left hand around Danny’s belt and gripped the scruff of his sweater with the other. Danny coughed, spraying soup from his mouth and nose, his face red from the scalding heat. A lot of bad things happened in this place, but this was about to be a new low.
Flexing his arms, Bundy dragged Danny out of his wheelchair and lifted him high above the table. Danny shrieked and waved his arms wildly, his bony legs twisted and hanging limp. Bundy carried him away from the table and, with a grunt, heaved him as far as he could throw him. His half-lifeless, half-flailing body thumped against the wall and collapsed to the floor with his legs folded awkwardly under him. He gasped and wiped his nose, smearing blood on his hand.
Two tables away, Fink buckled over laughing, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his leather jacket. Kyle glanced down at Danny and blew gently into the flame of his lighter.
With a low groan, Danny rolled over and dragged himself across the floor on his hands and elbows, smudging a trail of blood across the linoleum. With the desperation of a wounded animal, his gaze flicked from student to student at surrounding tables, and one after another, students looked away. Anyone with a will to live wouldn’t make themself part of this.
Still gazing at her phone, Brittany Ryerson yanked another long strand from her scalp and dropped it on Danny’s back as he heaved himself past their table in a limp-legged commando crawl.
Gordie held the sides of his chair like he was about to get up. “Someone needs to help him.”
“And end up like him?” Raj asked.
“It’s survival of the fittest here,” I said. “Like in biology class. You don’t interfere with that.” I felt bad for Danny, but if I stepped in every time someone needed help, I’d be the one in a wheelchair.
Gordie swallowed hard. “But he can’t…”
Looking satisfied, Bundy lifted his tray and lumbered toward Kyle’s table. With a nod, he put the tray down and lowered his fat ass into the chair next to Fink.
“Is it true Bundy can’t speak?” Gordie whispered.
“Supposedly something happened when he was a kid,” I said, “but I doubt he has anything worth a damn to say.”
“I wish he’d say something. It’s creepy.”
Fink’s voice cut through the cafeteria again. “Hey Dodgeball, it’s time. Bring yo’ fingers over here.”
This was about to go down. Gordie was going to eat shit, and I would too for sitting with him.
“Let’s go,” Raj said. “I don’t want to be here when they get punchy and kicky.”
The squeak of a nearby chair sent a chill through my gut. Bundy’s chair was out from his table, and Kyle was speaking into his ear. Nodding, Bundy stood and stepped into the aisle, wiping his hands on his pants.
“He’s leaving,” Raj said.
Bundy turned to us and deadpanned, staring through us like a mental patient doped up on meds.
“He’s not leaving,” I said.
Slowly at first, Bundy started toward us, his enormous arms hanging unnaturally at his sides. His huge gut swayed with each lumbering step as he approached our table and moved in behind Raj. Leaning down, he spread his banana-sized fingers around Raj’s head. Before Raj could get clear, Bundy drove his hand down hard, plunging Raj’s face into his meatballs and splashing bolognese sauce across the table. Raj grunted and thrashed, grappling with the giant bear-paw on his head.
Across the table, Gordie sucked shallow breaths through gritted teeth. He stood from his chair and clenched his shaking fists. “Leave him alone!”
The low rumble of voices in the cafeteria turned to silence.
Standing up took guts, but this was like bait to a shark. As far as Gordie’s tough guy act went, his short, wheezing breaths and sinking shoulders weren’t going to win him any Oscars.
Bundy looked up and down Gordie’s tiny body. Releasing Raj’s head, he lunged across the table and gripped Gordie’s cardigan. His eyes flicked to Kyle, like a guard dog waiting for the attack signal.
Kyle didn’t even draw breath. “Drop him.”
The color drained from Gordie’s face, and two hundred students stared wide-eyed.
Bundy flexed his arm and lifted Gordie off the floor by his cardigan. Cutlery and plates crashed as Bundy dragged him across the table and dropped him onto the floor next to his feet. Gordie rolled into a tight ball.
Two tables away, Kyle snapped the lid back on his Zippo and swung his feet off the table. Next to him, Fink scrambled off his chair and raced over to Gordie, his thin lips peeling back over yellow teeth as he laughed like a hyena on helium. The wide eyes of a frightened child stared up at him from the floor. Crouching, Fink grabbed a handful of Gordie’s hair and dragged him across the floor, squeezing tight as Gordie grabbed and tore at his wrists. After dragging him ten feet, Fink released his grip and pressed the heel of his steel-toe boot to Gordie’s mouth.
There are no good options when you’re on the ground. Some kids stay down; it might get them out of trouble for a while, as long as they don’t mind being a punching bag for every thug in a ten-mile radius. Others get up and fight. My old man told me to never start a fight, but to always finish one. It took me till sophomore year to realize he was clueless. Bullies choose targets carefully, they don’t take risks, it’s never fair, and it doesn’t end well for the kid they beat up. They’re just a crap-ton of asshole preying on the weak for sociopathic kicks. When a bully starts a fight, the victim almost never gets to choose how it finishes.
Anger washed over me. Gordie wasn’t even trying to defend himself, and that did nothing to make Fink stop. This wasn’t just a schoolyard scrap; it was about to become the brutal act of a sociopath. My heartbeat pulsed through my neck as I struggled to hold back.
Raj pressed his hand to my shoulder. “It’s not worth it.”
Something inside took over. In a fair fight, I wouldn’t stand a chance against Fink, which is why he wouldn’t expect what he had coming. Moving slowly, I stood and walked over to him, slipping one arm out of my jacket and then the other. Without warning, I threw my jacket over his head, punched him twice in the face, slugged him hard in the stomach, and kicked him onto the table.
The cafeteria erupted.
I never worried about fighting clean – it was only good if you wanted to feel big about your honor while some psycho gouged your eyes.
Climbing off the table, Fink wiped a trickle of bright blood from his nose and flicked it on the floor. They say once you hit a bully, he’ll leave you alone, but I’d been here long enough to know it didn’t work that way.
Bundy lunged at me, his massive frame shading the ceiling light. He swung his fist at my face, and I stepped back, his knuckles grazing my brow. Raj charged at him shoulder first and collided with his chest, brought to a dead stop with the sickening force of a steel column. Raj staggered back, clutching his shoulder and moaning.
Bundy lazily raised an eyebrow. Clenching my fist, I threw the weight of my entire body at his nose. With a sickening crack, bone crunched against bone and his nose collapsed under my knuckles.
Dozens of students dragged tables out of the way and moved into a circle around us. A heat spread over my face as blood streamed out of Bundy’s disfigured nose. A guttural moan came from his throat as he wiped his nose, smearing blood across his cheek.
Fink and Kyle stepped in beside him, examining the carnage on his face. They’d seen a lot of blood in their time, but never from one of their own, and a broken nose was unheard of. Fink tightened his lips, trying not to laugh, and Bundy turned his gaze to me and stepped closer, snorting hot breath onto my face.
At the front of the cafeteria, a deep voice boomed, “Break it up!” Cannondale’s gym teacher, Delroy Peterson, strode toward us gripping a baseball bat with both hands. His gray afro bobbed as he stepped between us and aimed the bat at Bundy’s face. “Enough!” He gritted his teeth. “Damn animals.”
Air whistled through Bundy’s crooked nose. The bell rang and the cafeteria erupted into a chair-squeaking free-for-all.
Delroy nudged my chest with the end of his bat. “Get out of here.” His eyes darted about like he was too pissed off to know where to look.
Gordie hadn’t moved since he curled up on the floor. It might work for animals, but playing dead wasn’t going to work here. I picked up his glasses and lifted him to his feet. With my hand on his shoulder, we made our way toward the door, past the staring freshmen, seniors, skaters, stoners, geeks, goths, emos, jocks, and cheerleaders.
Raj ran up behind us. “What the hell was that? Are you stupid?”
A tear ran down Gordie’s cheek. His hands shook as he wiped his face. He’d been miserable for the short time I’d known him, but I’d never seen him turn on the waterworks.
“You okay?” I asked.
He stared into the distance with glazed eyes, ignoring me, or not hearing me.
Behind us, Fink touched the tip of his finger to the blood dripping onto Bundy’s shirt. Next to them, Kyle stared at me, tilting his head to one side.
For nearly forty minutes, I sat alone in an empty classroom, picking, scratching, and rolling the label of my Dr Pepper bottle into a sticky ball of pulp. Skipping math and going to history early gave me quiet time to think.
Dark clouds swirled outside the window. As much as history wasn’t my thing, I didn’t mind the distraction from wondering when Bundy and his psycho-buddies would beat my last breath out of me. They weren’t known for their interest in the humanities, so hiding in history class was about as safe as it got, at least till I had a better plan. And it wasn’t that I was in the habit of running from trouble. Fighting is something I’d learned to live with, was even good at in a fair match, but this was like accidentally telling a serial killer I’d slept with his mom. When he and his friends find me, it won’t be any ordinary beating. It’ll be hospital time.
The bell rang and students streamed through the door. Estelle MacFarlane waddled in pushing a dusty TV and DVD player on a cart. Her floral dress strained against her pudgy body as she shuffled the cart to the front of the room. Her puffed beehive hair and fluorescent eye shadow looked like it had been that way for fifty years. Someone needed to tell her what not to wear.
I opened my bag and took out a notebook and a chewed pen.
Standing in front of the class, Estelle thumbed the TV remote and scratched her head. The plug for the power cord lay on the floor next to the cart. Nobody was going to cut her slack if there was a laugh to be had.
The door opened again and Allie Brookes walked in, arching her neck like a swan’s as she reached up to tie her chestnut hair in a loose ponytail. Even though we only hung out in history class, she was about the only thing at Cannondale that didn’t make me want to leave. Unlike the other girls, her eyes weren’t covered in eyeliner and mascara, and she wore jeans instead of short skirts. In this place, any outfit that wasn’t short, tight, pink, and Abercrombie was social suicide, and she committed it daily. But it didn’t matter; she was cute without the hard work. I might have asked her out if there was a chance she’d be interested, but she wouldn’t go for a guy like me. At least the geeks understood why her shirt said “/nev/dull.”
Allie flashed me a sympathetic smile and blinked her long eyelashes. “Glad you’re still in one piece.”
I glanced behind her, half-expecting Bundy to be at the door.
She dragged out the chair next to mine. “It was good of you to stand up to Bundy in the cafeteria after what he did to Danny. This school needs more people like you.”
“Everyone’s talking about you now.” She reached into her bag and her glasses slipped down her nose. Pushing them back up, she placed a pen and a notebook on her desk. “Are you in trouble with Principal Grendelmeier?”
“Not sure, but he’s cotton candy compared to Kyle and his crew.”
The classroom chatter grew louder. Estelle shut the door and waddled to her desk. “Settle down!” She clapped her hands sharply. “Continuing our study of World War II, today we’re going to watch Schindler’s List.”
Allie opened her book to a page covered in blue pen flowers and butterflies. “It’s like double periods were invented so there’d be enough time to watch a movie. They should make the TV a member of the faculty.”
“They might soon. They’re running out of teachers who’ll work here.”
With power finally going to the TV, Estelle pried the disc from its case and slipped it into the DVD player. As the credits rolled, she settled into her chair and opened a pack of Oreos and a novel.
Allie tapped her pen on the table. “How’s your friend Gordie doing after what Bundy did to him in the cafeteria?”
“He’s okay. He’s just having a hard time adjusting to this place.”
“Who even transfers to Cannondale anyway?” she asked. “I’ve only heard of people leaving this place.”
“His old man lost his big-shot job at Chrysler and couldn’t pay for Notre Dame Prep anymore.”
“It’s scary how there’s no jobs in Detroit.”
The murmur of voices in the classroom grew louder as the dull images of World War II glowed on the screen. Students chatted in small groups while Sparky Donovan, a stoner with a rep for having smoked more than his own body weight in weed, placed small piles of dried plant material on electronic scales and divided them into plastic bags.
Forty-five minutes into the movie, World War II was turning ugly with Nazis pushing weary families in tattered clothing onto trains. The classroom chatter faded and all eyes were on the screen as Nazi troops emptied rooms of people and shot anyone who complained.
Allie cringed. “I know we’re seventeen and allowed to watch this, but I wish I wasn’t.”
Estelle aimed the remote at the TV and the picture froze. “Now,” she said, reading from her worksheet, “who can tell me what the Nazi’s are doing in this scene?”
Jayla Brown raised her hand. “Killing all the poor people.”
“Not the poor people,” Estelle said. “They’re killing the Jewish people.”
Jayla tilted her head. “Why the Jewish people?”
“Well…” Estelle stared at the ceiling. “Like any kind of prejudice, there’s no logical rationale.” She clasped her hands and continued, sounding more teacherly than usual. “But perhaps sometimes it’s human nature to create an enemy where one doesn’t exist. Do we feel more fulfilled when we have an enemy?”
A deep, resonating burp came from the far corner of the room.
Estelle gazed out the window. “Remember though, under the right circumstances people do change their attitudes. Take Schindler, for example. As a member of the Nazi party, he mistreated Jewish people – he even profited from hiring them on a lower wage. But when the Nazi’s murdered Jews at Krakow Ghetto, he changed his mind and sacrificed his own well-being to save as many lives as he could.” She lifted the remote and balanced it in her hand. “Good people often stand idle when others do bad things, but they also have their limits.” She aimed the remote at the TV and the movie continued.
I leaned closer to Allie. “So Bundy attacked me because it’s human nature?”
“Guess so. It’s not just human nature though – all life has the basic instinct to fight.”
On the screen, a Jewish woman gave construction advice to the Nazis, and then an officer shot her dead for speaking up. I thought about what Estelle said, and whispered to Allie, “At least things got better after World War II, right?”
She raised an eyebrow and counted on her fingers. “East Timor, Sudan, Argentina, Iraq, Bosnia, Cambodia… choose any part of the world and you’ll find governments doing bad things to innocent people.” She picked up her pen and drew petals on her flower. “Given an opportunity, people do bad things. Period.”
It was no wonder Allie was an honors student. I slumped in my chair. “Maybe we’re all capable of bad things if we’re around people who let it happen.”
“Maybe.” Allie shrugged. “But I guess if you grow up around people who condone violence, it becomes easier to hurt people who see things differently to you.”
Estelle glared at us, straightening her glasses. It usually took a few interruptions to raise her hackles. We’d be good for a couple more.
“So what’s Bundy’s excuse?” I whispered.
Allie drew another petal on her flower. “No idea. For Kyle though, his mom left when he was young – maybe that has something to do with his problems.”
“My mom died of cancer, and my old man’s a drunk, but I don’t go around beating on people.”
She stopped drawing. “Oh… I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
A low murmur of chatter started on the other side of the room.
She leaned closer, a sweet smell coming from her skin. “Kyle’s mom wasn’t the only one who messed him up. Did you hear about his father?”
“Chief Swindon? I’ve heard the rumors. He sounds about as bent as they come.”
She lowered her voice. “You know how some kids get their mouths washed out if they swear? When Kyle was nine, he said ‘fuck’ during a football game. So what did his father do? Took everything he owned and burned it – toys, clothes, everything.”
“And one day Kyle was late home, so his father burned a cigarette into his chest and chained him to a tree.” Allie’s eyes looked distant. “If anyone’s responsible for Kyle’s loose screws, it’s his father. Kyle never stood a chance.”
Estelle peered at me over the top of her glasses. “Chris Maddox, quiet please.” She shifted in her seat and lifted her book.
It was depressing to think that the human race hurts itself just because nobody stops it. I whispered, “Do you think governments will ever stop doing bad things to people?”
Allie drew a smiley face on her flower. “If people weren’t so stupid, we’d do a better job of protecting each other.” She swiped the screen on her phone and gasped. “Something’s happened.”
“It’s Gordie. He’s hurt. It’s his finger.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. The school bell buzzed and the room erupted into chatter and bag packing. Estelle hit the remote without lifting her eyes from her book. She wasn’t the only one who needed to escape this place.
Allie packed her bag and slung the strap over her shoulder. She patted my back. “Take care of yourself, Chris.” With a worried frown, she walked out of the room.
A deep voice groaned in the darkness. “What time is it?”
Across the living room, my old man lay on the couch with his head tipping over the edge. An empty bottle of bourbon sat on the floor next to him. He’d been wearing the same sweat-stained shirt and boxers for as long as it’d taken him to grow a wiry beard.
I slung my bag over my shoulder, the stink of liquor and sweat digging into the back of my eyes. “Quarter past eight. In the morning.”
He lifted the empty bottle to his lips and let the last drop roll into his mouth. “Don’ be late for school.”
Last night I’d taken a twenty from his wallet while he was out cold. He’d only drink it anyway, and it was the least he could do for forgetting my birthday.
I opened the front door and let out a deep breath, blowing a cloud of mist into the air. All around, a gray fog blanketed the morning, a fog so cold and thick you almost needed a chainsaw to get through it. Traffic lights less than a hundred yards away were hardly visible. The thought of meeting up with Kyle and his crew had my stomach in free fall. I stopped at the gate and scanned both ends of the street, weighing the need to cut class for self-preservation against getting to talk to Allie in first-period math. I pulled up my jacket collar and started toward school.
Weeds grew through cracks in the sidewalk, and potholes plagued the street like a spreading disease. Graffiti covered every wall, and trash piled up on the curb. Most families in West Side had one or both parents out of a job. Several years ago, the stores lining the sidewalks were full of life, but now they were abandoned and rundown. And whoever used to clean it didn’t anymore. You couldn’t sell real estate in this neighborhood – nobody wanted it.
Ahead, a figure emerged from the fog, and then ran several steps and kicked a glass bottle, sending it clanking into the curb. Had to be Raj. He clutched his bag strap and looked at me. “Did you hear what happened to Gordie?”
My stomach sank. “He didn’t respond to my messages.”
“You haven’t even been on Facebook, have you? You’re so antisocial. Ricardo Alvarez said Gordie was on the floor with Kyle kicking him in the head. Lots of blood. Just when he couldn’t take it anymore, Kyle bent his ring finger back and snapped it like a twig. Wentworth eventually broke it up, but Gordie’s hurt bad, and not just his finger.”
I’d puke if I thought enough about his finger being snapped. I should have done something, but I wasn’t even able to help myself. Cannondale was out of control and something had to give. “Did someone call the cops?” I asked.
“Yeah, but they refused to lay charges. Insufficient evidence.”
“What about Ricardo? Didn’t he see it happen?”
“Do you really think they’re going to charge Chief Swindon’s son?”
A garbage truck rumbled past, its brakes squealing as the smell of week-old garbage filled the air.
Raj stomped on an empty beer can. “Kyle was looking for you, but he found Gordie.”
Out of habit, I glanced over both shoulders and scanned the street.
Raj continued, “Gordie didn’t respond to my messages either, but Ricardo said he was in bad shape. All I know is Wentworth took him to sick bay and nobody saw him after that.”
“Maybe they’ll send Kyle to juvie this time.” I gripped my bag strap.
Raj shook his head. “My mom went to a PTA meeting a while back. The counselor said Kyle gets special consideration for his emotional problems, like having his own little deranged get-out-of-jail free card.”
“I think I know what that’s about. His old man won’t be winning any father of the year awards.”
“The counselor also said Gordie and Kyle have to go to counseling together.”
“Gordie was beat up so he has to go too?” I asked. “What happened to just locking up the thugs?”
Raj lifted his shoulders. “Principal Grendelmeier said it takes two to tango, and Gordie has to accept responsibility too.”
“For what? Getting his ass kicked? Grendelmeier’s too pathetic to put Kyle in his place.”
Raj gazed at the pavement as he walked. “I like Gordie as much as the next guy, but he’s been nothing but trouble since he got here.”
“It’s not his fault.”
Raj lifted his phone from his pocket. “Check this out.” The screen lit up with the Twitter logo and “Adam Dwyer – 13h: Kyle’s looking for Chris. It’s a great day not to be Chris.”
My skin prickled.
We continued along the sidewalk, dodging icy mud puddles and taking in the gloom of the empty streets. The gate to the sprawling Meadowvale Mall parking lot blocked our way on the left. Fifteen years ago it opened as a shopping mecca, but now the storefronts were empty. Old tires, clothing, and mattresses littered the parking lot. A “For Sale” sign hung at an angle, and the walls and broken windows were thick with black-marker gang tags. My old man told me Detroit had nearly two million people in the 1950s, but now less than a third remained. The rats were fleeing this bankrupt ship.
As we approached the corner of Gates and Weston, the faint outline of a figure appeared in the fog: Gordie sitting at the curb, hunched with his knees against his chest, gazing at his shoes. Small clouds of breath rose from his mouth.
Raj grinned and called out, “Gordie, we heard you nearly took out Kyle yesterday. Way to go, Muhammad Ali.” The grin wore off his face as we approached.
Grazes and scabs covered the side of Gordie’s face, and a piece of tape held his glasses together in the middle. He leaned on his bag and pushed off the curb, wincing. On his right hand, he wore what looked like a blue fingerless glove with his ring finger extended out straight and taped to a splint. He wobbled on one leg as he slung his bag over his shoulder and limped along the sidewalk. It was brutal, revenge beatings always were. He’d have been better off if I’d let Bundy at him in the cafeteria. And what’s worse, if they did this to Gordie, what were they planning for me?
“Hey, take it easy, Gordo.” Raj ran to catch up with him. “You okay?”
Neither of us knew Gordie well, but he wasn’t okay. He gazed into the distance as he limped along the sidewalk.
I ran up alongside Gordie to get a better look at his face. The skin around his left eye was multiple shades of green-purple and his bottom lip was split and swollen like bad plastic surgery. I’d seen the results of over a hundred high school beatings, and this wasn’t the worst, but it’d be hard to stomach if you’d lived most of your life in a Notre Dame bubble. “Shit. He got you pretty good. What did the doctor say about your finger?”
Without slowing his pace, Gordie’s vacant stare shifted to me and then fell back to the sidewalk.
Raj patted his back. “I’ve heard when a bone breaks you can feel it snap like a twig. Is that what it felt like?” Every guy has his limit on the emotional support he’s willing to show his friends, but Raj’s limit was about as shallow as it got.
Gordie’s expression remained empty.
We crossed a driveway to an empty lot, and Raj said, “We should pay someone to give Kyle a beating.”
“Who could even beat him in a fight?” I asked.
He ran ahead several steps and turned. “Maybe we should learn Muay Thai like Kyle.” He let fly with a lopsided air kick, stumbled back, and fell on his ass.
Gordie’s gaze didn’t leave the sidewalk.
At the end of the block, the Cannondale High building loomed up out of the fog as we crossed onto Evermore Avenue. You’d mistake it for a redbrick apartment block if it weren’t for the tall cast-iron fence around the asphalt schoolyard. A concrete path led from the gate to the front door. Behind the school, a smaller yard could only be reached by going through the building or using the rear gate on Grayson Street.
I dug my hands into my pockets. “What do you guys think of Allie Brookes?”
“She’s out of your league,” Raj said.
“Thanks for the heads up.”
Raj nudged Gordie’s arm. “What he needs is some of your Gordo magic to work on her, right?” The only magic Gordo had was a curse that stopped him from talking to girls.
Gordie’s slow limp came to a stop and he froze, his breath shallow. I followed his distant gaze.
At first it didn’t register, or maybe I didn’t want it to, but a moment later it sank in and my stomach tightened. Half a block ahead, Kyle and Fink stood in front of the school gate, facing each other with fists raised like boxers, and cigarettes hanging from their mouths. They circled each other, coming together and separating, eyes locked. Several feet away, Bundy stood motionless, unnaturally still, his nose bandaged and one nostril packed with blood-encrusted cotton. He clapped his hands twice. Fink swung at Kyle, landing a right hook on his shoulder, and stepped back with a smug grin.
Kyle crouched into a fighting stance and approached him. Fink’s palms went up in surrender and he opened his mouth to speak. Before he could make a sound, Kyle delivered two blistering kicks to his ribs, another to his shin, and followed up with a hard uppercut to his jaw. The cigarette flew from Fink’s lips as he collapsed onto the concrete. He clutched his face with one hand and his shin with the other, curling up in a ball. Bundy grabbed Kyle’s wrist and raised his arm high.
There were times when keeping your head down and disappearing into the crowd could save you from a beating. This wasn’t one of them. Raj glanced over his shoulder. “Let’s head ‘round the back way.”
With no sudden movements, we turned and started back the way we came. After three steps, I looked back to see Gordie’s feet still firmly planted on the sidewalk. I walked back and grabbed his arm. “C’mon. It’ll be okay.” He stared for a moment longer before tearing his gaze from Kyle. Moving slowly so he could keep up, we headed back toward Grayson Street.
A voice boomed from behind us. “Hey, girls.”
A sickening shiver crawled down my spine.
“School’s this way.”
Behind us, Kyle, Bundy, and Fink marched down the sidewalk toward us, cigarettes in mouths and trails of smoke billowing behind them. Kyle pinched his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, pulled it from his mouth, and tossed it away.
I yanked Gordie’s sleeve and ran. “Go!”
A frenzied clomping of shoes erupted behind us.
Raj broke into a frantic sprint, gripping his bag straps and breathing like an asthmatic. Trailing him, Gordie hopped and hobbled on his good leg, his splinted finger sticking out awkwardly as he swung his arms. Whimpering, he fell further behind with each unsteady step.
Holding my bag tight against me, I shouted over my shoulder, “Faster, Gordie!” His face turned pale and his watery eyes widened. A hundred feet ahead, Raj sprinted at a pace that would’ve challenged an athlete. He wasn’t terrible in a fight, but he was almost unbeatable in a cut and run, and he wasn’t waiting for Gordie.
We rounded the corner onto Grayson and raced up the sidewalk. A tall cast-iron fence surrounded the rear schoolyard, and a gate opened onto a concrete path to the building. I scanned the street and yard for any sign of life. Nothing. Everyone was out the front where the cars and buses parked.
Rounding the corner behind us, Fink sprinted to close the gap to Gordie, Kyle scrambled behind them, and Bundy trailed them like a galloping dim-witted grizzly bear.
A grimace twisted Gordie’s face as he whimpered with each short breath. Over his shoulder, Fink inched nearer, almost close enough to pounce. It was inevitable from the start, and now it was about to happen: Gordie wasn’t going to make it. What’s more, they’d jump him and I’d get away. I’d already stepped in for him twice before and it wasn’t my job to protect him. And any reasonable person would agree that it’s better that they only get one of us. But I couldn’t do it to him, not after what he’d been through.
Knowing I’d regret it, I slowed my pace and slung my bag off my shoulder, gripping it with both hands. Falling in beside Gordie, I waited for my moment. Fink grunted and leapt at Gordie’s collar. Lifting my bag with one hand, I sidestepped and pitched it at Fink’s boots, knocking his foot onto the sidewalk midstride. He let out a shriek and tipped forward, spilling onto the sidewalk and scraping his hands against concrete as he skidded to a stop.
Gordie gasped air into his lungs and ran with a new burst of energy. Leaving my bag on the sidewalk with Fink, I ran as fast as my aching chest let me. Skipping gym class hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Behind us, Kyle grunted as he leapt over Fink and lengthened his stride.
In the schoolyard, a bell attached to the building rang loud. Ahead, Raj staggered to a stop at the school gate and lifted the latch. He kicked the gate wide and started up the path without looking back.
Continuing toward the gate, Gordie’s limp worsened as Kyle closed in from behind. After what felt like the world’s longest disabled marathon, Gordie stumbled through the gate and I followed, swinging it closed behind me.
At the end of the path, Raj heaved open the school’s glass door. He turned and waved. “Hurry!” The gate rattled and shook behind us.
Gordie swayed and staggered up the path. Fifty feet from the door, he stumbled on a crack in the concrete. His legs gave out and he fell sideways, crumpling in a heap on the path with his glasses skidding across the asphalt. It was like trying to run a relay race with a drunken sloth. I picked up his glasses and scooted back to him, my pulse pounding in my neck. “Get up!”
He lay still, moaning and gasping. Unbelievable. Quitting now would be a very bad decision. I lifted him by his armpits and dragged him toward the door, straining against the weight of his limp body.
Kyle raced up the path and bulldozed me with the force of a jetliner. Gordie dropped like a sack of meat as I fell backwards onto the concrete, and Kyle launched over the top and rolled onto the asphalt. Clutching the sharp pain in my arm, I climbed to my feet and caught a blur of movement as someone lunged at me. I ducked out of reach, and Bundy stumbled past, his damaged nostrils whistling with each breath.
“Chris!” Raj held the door open with his foot and waved both hands.
I rushed to the open door, clutching my aching arm as Raj pulled me in. He slammed the door shut and kicked down the floor bolt. Two heavy thuds shuddered the door as Kyle and Bundy ricocheted off the glass. I leaned back against the wall gasping, feeling the relief of warm air blowing down from a ceiling vent. The door boomed and rattled, taking the full force of Bundy’s pounding fists. Kyle pressed his hands to the window, the thin glass not giving me much comfort.
At the school gate, Fink stood buckled over clutching his elbow, his hands and cheek smeared in blood. He limped up the path, dragging his foot like a zombie, and stopped at Gordie. As much as I felt for the guy, there was only so much I could do. Gordie lifted his head off the path and looked up at the giant towering over him. Fink wiped blood from his chin, flicking it onto the asphalt, and pressed the heel of his boot to Gordie’s chest.
In the stairwell above us, footsteps rumbled as students made their way to class.
Bundy stood on the other side of the door, pressing his hands to the glass and swiveling his neck, sweeping his dead-eyed gaze across us like a soulless corpse. Next to him, Kyle clenched his jaw and breathed deep through his nostrils, his eyes locked on mine. Squeezing his fist, he pressed his knuckles to his neck. The muscles in his face strained as he dragged his skull rings down his neck, leaving four red blood trails in his skin. I wasn’t an expert, but I’d say he was pissed off.
Raj stepped away from the door. “What the…?”
If this was Kyle trying to scare us, it was working. He slammed his fist on the glass, turned, and started back down the path. Bundy waited a moment, and then moved away, plodding behind Kyle like a mindless puppet. Before I could get a breath, my relief sank when they stopped at Gordie.
Raj clasped his hands over his head. “Holy shit…”
In what some might say was a mismatched fight, an injured Gordie lay limp on the path as Kyle, Bundy, and Fink circled him. Kyle crouched next to him and clutched the wrist of his right arm in one hand and gripped his middle finger with the other.
Gordie writhed on the concrete, but didn’t put up a fight. Learning to take a punch was part of growing up, part of toughening up. But this was different. There were three of them, and Gordie was hurt. They’d kill him.
I scanned the hall. A broken whiteboard leaned against the window and a fire extinguisher hung in a bracket on the wall. I lifted the extinguisher and carried it to the door.
Raj ran down the hall and stopped to look back. “What are you doing?”
If I told him, he’d just try to stop me. I lifted the door’s floor bolt with my shoe. Across the schoolyard, Kyle turned to face me and Bundy grinned. I kicked open the door and stepped out, clutching the extinguisher tight in both hands. If there was ever a time when I needed to fight dirty, this was it. Kyle raised his fist and adjusted his skull rings with his left hand.
Fink licked his snake tongue around his lips. “Ay yo, you think you can hit me with that? You can hardly lift it.”
I pulled the metal pin from the handle and gripped the hose. Turns out fire safety class wasn’t a waste of time after all. Marching down the path like a firefighter in a burning building, I approached Kyle, keeping my breathing steady, holding his gaze, and showing no sign of fear. Three steps from him, I aimed the nozzle at his eyes and squeezed the trigger. A jet of high-pressure powder erupted from the nozzle and engulfed his face. He choked and gasped, shielding his eyes with his arm as he coughed. Staggering back, he clipped his shoe on Gordie’s leg and latched onto Fink’s arm, yanking him backwards. Kyle stumbled and fell, landing on his ass and pulling Fink on top of him.
Bundy charged at me with arms outstretched. I lifted the extinguisher hose and aimed the nozzle at his face. His eyes widened as I squeezed the trigger, exploding white powder onto his bandaged nose, his eyes, and into his mouth. He leaned into the blast and pushed through it.
“Gordie, run!” I shouted, stepping back.
Like Dracula waking in his coffin, Gordie scrambled off the path and limped to the door.
Reaching through the white cloud, Bundy hooked his arm around my neck and pulled me into a headlock, squeezing the air out of my lungs. I dropped the extinguisher and slammed my palm against his broken nose. He squealed and stumbled back, wiping powder and blood from his face.
Without looking back, I darted up the path and through the open door. Raj slammed it shut and stomped on the floor bolt.
On the other side of the door, Fink and Kyle climbed to their feet and wiped the powder from their eyes. Bundy lifted the extinguisher over his head and hurled it hard onto the asphalt. He glared at me with a thin line of blood streaming from his nose. With a stony expression, Kyle pointed an imaginary finger gun at me, closed one eye, and pulled the trigger.
“I can’t believe you did that.” Raj clasped his hands over his head. “They’re going to destroy you. And me.”
I leaned forward and propped my hands on my thighs, breathing fast. Raj wasn’t wrong. He’d done nothing to them, but that was beside the point. The law was guilt by association, and he was a dead man. I felt bad that he hadn’t had a choice, but also relieved I wasn’t alone. I straightened. “Let’s go.”
Gordie, Raj, and I climbed the stairs in silence. A problem that had already hit rock bottom had just dug itself further into hell. We were asking for trouble by staying at school, but it would have been suicide to try to leave. I pushed through the door at the third-floor and we followed the hall to math class.
Gordie wiped tears from his eyes. “We’re so dead.”
Students crowded the narrow hall outside math class. Some talked in small groups while others sat on the floor, dazed and red-eyed from their before-school smoke. Gordie, Raj, and I weaved between them and pushed through the door to class.
The room was like any other at Cannondale: brick walls covered in layers of black graffiti and chewing gum, and a stale musty smell. A row of yellow windows looked over the front schoolyard. We filed past the whiteboard and sat at the desks by the window.
The hall crowd filtered into the room, along with a weary middle-aged man who shouldered his way through the door holding a folder and a coffee-stained mug. Twin sisters Maali and Laetitia Harding sat in front of us. Maali eyed the teacher from head to toe and screwed up her nose. “Every day he wears that. Someone needs to tell Sneds that the eighties finished a long time ago.” Theodore Sneddon was the king of old-man clothes: beige shorts, brown shirt, and sandals with white socks. His outfit, and his walrus mustache and suspiciously big hair, made it impossible to take him seriously.
“Imagine naming your child Theodore Sneddon,” Laetitia said. “That’s Teddy Sneddon… or Ted Sned.”
On the first day of school every year, Sneds insisted students call him Mr. Sneddon, or Theodore. But every year, they called him Sneds.
Allie walked into the room, a folder clutched to her chest, and flashed me a smile as she made her way to her desk at the back. It was like she had some kind of pull over me. Just seeing her made my heart beat faster.
A sharp thwack came from the front of the room as Sneds smacked his folder on his desk. “Quiet please, class.” He frowned, creasing the skin above his nose. “Today we’ll review trigonometry and Pythagoras’ theorem.” He paced behind his desk. “We’ll start with review questions on the whiteboard and then work through the exercises in chapter three.” He pulled a whiteboard marker from his shirt pocket and wrote “Pythagoras’ Theorem.” Using a ruler, he drew three triangles, each with two sides labeled with a number and the third with the letter x. “Now, who can tell me the length of the hypotenuse on the first triangle?”
Nobody volunteered, or ever did. Sneds seemed to think he got points for asking though.
Gordie sat slumped in his chair next to mine, staring distantly through the whiteboard to somewhere miles away.
“Hey, look.” Raj leaned closer to the window.
On the sidewalk two stories below, Kyle and Fink crouched facing each other, and Bundy hovered next to them. I stood from my chair. “What are they…? Is that smoke?”
Sneds paced in front of my desk. “Sit down, Maddox.”
On the concrete in front of Kyle, flickering flames rose from what looked like the remains of my school bag. It’s not like I had much use for it anyway. If this was the worst they did to us today, it was going to be a good day. I sank back into my chair.
“They’re burning your bag.” Raj stared out the window, seemingly mesmerized by the flames.
Sneds slapped his folder on Raj’s desk. “Rajah Akhtar!”
Raj flinched and dropped into his chair.
“Mr. Akhtar, please explain to the class how to calculate the length of the hypotenuse using Pythagoras’ theorem.” Sneds took a laser pointer from his shirt pocket. A bright red dot appeared on the first triangle. It would’ve been easier to point with his finger, but Sneds must have figured he was more sophisticated than that.
Raj rubbed his chin and stared at the whiteboard. He grinned. “This is a trick question, right? Pythagoras was a philosopher – he didn’t do math.”
A snicker came from the front of the room. Raj was no dummy; he could answer any math question, but he was also smart enough not to let word get around. Nurturing academic talent wasn’t Cannondale’s strength.
“That’s partly correct, Rajah. Pythagoras was both a mathematician and a philosopher.” Walking over to examine the bruises on Gordie’s face, Sneds said, “I believe ‘twas Pythagoras who once said, ‘we ought so to behave to one another as to avoid making enemies of our friends, and at the same time to make friends of our enemies.’” He peered out the window and stroked his bushy mustache. “He was also credited with saying, ‘A blow from your friend is better than a kiss from your enemy–’”
The room erupted with laughter. Allie smiled and shook her head.
Sneds’ face creased with confusion. “Would anyone like to help Rajah with the length of the hypotenuse?”
After a long silence, Sneds turned to the board and worked through another dull geometry problem. My mind drifted to what happened earlier. Raj was right. Kyle and his crew were coming for us. And it would be rage and blood – lots of it. I’d be tempted to beg the entire faculty to save us if only the teachers weren’t so gutless. Coach Delroy was better than most, at least he broke up fights, but he wasn’t going to listen to our problems. Teachers didn’t take chances getting involved – it was safer not to. And telling Principal Grendelmeier would land me in the counselor’s office talking to Bundy about my feelings, and end with Bundy beating me to death with a book about conflict resolution.
Muttering mathematical gibberish, Sneds calculated the hypotenuse of his triangle and wiped the board clean. He wrote ‘Trigonometry’ and sketched five triangles, but this time labeled the angles at each corner. He boomed, “Gordon Radford.”
Gordie flinched and dropped his pen on the floor. Sneds held up the whiteboard marker. “Come to the front and show the class how to calculate the unknown angle on the first triangle.”
Gordie lowered his gaze, avoiding eye contact.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Radford?”
Hesitating, Gordie gave me a defeated look and climbed out of his chair. Every student stared at the bruise around his eye as he limped to the front of the class, nursing his splinted finger. His hands shook as he took the marker from Sneds. Slowly, he removed the cap, and turned to the board.
The bright red dot moved across the ceiling as Sneds absentmindedly traced a path around the heating vents. “We’re not here to admire the back of your head, Mr. Radford.” He sighed. “Were you not paying attention last week?”
Gordie turned and gazed at the sea of faces, his cheeks pale and his bruised and scabby forehead beading with sweat. He lifted his glasses and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Normally he wouldn’t struggle with math, but he looked like he was about to have a meltdown.
“Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Radford.”
I raised my hand. “Sine… or cosine, right?” I didn’t have a clue.
“Quiet, Maddox. It’s not your turn.” Sneds waited an entire minute, tracing his laser pointer, checking his watch, tapping his foot every long agonizing second. “Sit down, Gordon. See me after class.” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his brow.
Through the window, gray buildings crowded the gray sky in what looked like a competition for who could be the most gray. Sneds worked through math problems with his marker while talking at the board. I tuned out his muttering and stole a glance at Allie. She never missed a beat when it came to math, always several lessons ahead. Even though I’d gotten to know her a little, I still felt like I hardly knew her. But it didn’t matter. She wasn’t interested in me. I wasn’t smart and I didn’t have popular friends. When it came to cool factor, I was ass out.
After the third math problem, Gordie raised his hand and pointed at the door. Without pausing, Sneds gave a reluctant nod, and Gordie stood and made his way across the classroom, head down and arms folded across his chest. He opened the door and looked over his shoulder, his eyes red and his face drained of expression. He lowered his gaze and walked out, shutting the door behind him.
Whatever was going through his head, he looked like he could do with someone to talk to. I raised my hand and pointed at the door.
“One at a time, Mr. Maddox.” Sneds stroked his mustache. “Everyone, open your textbooks and work through questions one to eight at the end of chapter three.”
I tapped Raj’s arm. “Can I borrow some paper and a pen? My pen’s melted on the sidewalk.”
“Sure. I hate when that happens.” He took a crumpled sheet of paper and a pen from his bag.
I flattened the paper and wrote the date at the top. “I’m thinking of dropping out.”
He gave a thoughtful frown. Things had to be bad if Raj wasn’t making jokes. He draped his arm on the back of Gordie’s empty seat. “Gordie’s pretty shaken.”
“More than usual.”
“You know I like Gordie, and I feel bad because he’s the new kid, but he nearly got you killed out there. He’s a liability. We have to cut him loose before–”
I shook my head. “Not happening.”
The worry lines on Raj’s face deepened. He let out a breath. “We need to tell Grendelmeier what happened.”
“He can’t help.”
Raj tapped his pen on his knee for a while and then opened his textbook. For several minutes, he drew triangles, wrote equations, and calculated answers using some kind of black magic that I didn’t have. I drew a flower like the one Allie drew in history class.
A faint murmur of voices came from the schoolyard. Raj leaned over the window. “Hey, there are people down there.” He stood and scanned the yard. “And an ambulance.”
I stood next to him. “Probably another broken ankle. This is why I don’t play sports. I have enough trouble getting through school without broken bones.”
“Sit down, Mr. Maddox.” Sneds walked to the window and closed the blind. He turned to the class. “Who can tell me the unknown angle in the first problem?”
I whispered, “Gordie’s been gone for a while.”
“Maybe he went home.”
“I’ll go find him.” I raised my hand and pointed at the door.
Sneds looked at me and then surveyed the room. “Anyone?”
The classroom chatter grew louder.
“Quiet please, class.”
In the row in front of us, the twins whispered to each other, staring at Maali’s phone and glancing back at us with mouths open.
I leaned forward. “What?”
Maali’s brow wrinkled, her eyes flicking between her phone and her sister. She shook her head slowly.
“What?” I demanded.
She held up her phone with the message:
OMG Gordon Radford jumped off the fire escape!
Raj and I crossed at the traffic lights, walking slower than usual, and climbed the concrete steps. Hospitals and doctors were something I tried to avoid, but this was a different kettle of hell. I gripped the frozen handrail. “What do you say to someone who tried to kill himself?”
An absent look on Raj’s face was joined by a shrug.
The sliding doors opened and warm air rushed over us, filling my nose with the stink of bleach and Lysol. A chubby lady in a floral dress and purple hair sat behind the reception desk. She must have used lacquer to make her hair go that high.
I approached the desk and waited for her to look up. “We’re here to see Gordie. Gordon Radford.”
Adjusting her glasses, she tapped the keyboard and squinted at the screen. “He’s in casualty ward – room 455. Take the elevator behind you to the fourth floor and follow the signs.”
Raj leaned over the desk and looked at her screen. “Is he okay?”
“No idea, sugar. You’ll have to see for yourself.” She clicked the mouse and the browser switched to Facebook.
I walked to the elevator, my stomach churning with each step.
Following, Raj dug his hands into his pockets and gazed at the diamond floor tiles. “I wish he’d told us he was going to do it.”
I pressed the up-arrow button. “I had no idea he was that messed up.”
The elevator dinged and the doors sprung open. Raj stepped in. “What did Grendelmeier say?”
“Not much. He said the ambulance took him here and we could visit.” I pressed the “4” button. The doors closed and the elevator jolted and rose.
Searching the walls and ceiling with his eyes, Raj said, “Hospitals give me the creeps. It’s the smell… and all the sick people.”
The elevator slowed and let out another ding. We stepped into the fluorescent glare of a cleaned and polished mint green hall lined with stainless steel carts and machines that beeped every few seconds. Half way up the hall on our left, Gordie’s folks stood next to a closed door. I tapped Raj’s arm and nodded in their direction.
The urge to get back in the elevator was enough to make me pause. Before I could change my mind, Gordie’s mom waved at us and clutched her husband’s hand.
I cleared my throat. “Hi.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but instead buried her face into her husband’s shoulder and sobbed.
With his arm around her, Mr. Radford said, “Gordon’s injured, but he’ll be okay.” He handed her a Kleenex. “Boys, we’re having trouble understanding how this happened. He came home after a fight yesterday, and today… ” His brow wrinkled. “What’s going on at that school? Is Gordon using drugs?”
Raj shook his head. “Gordie wouldn’t take cold meds if he had a cold.”
“Cannondale’s just different to Notre Dame,” I said. “It’s harder.”
Mr. Radford rubbed his brow. “He’ll be leaving that school as soon as–”
Mrs. Radford wiped her tears and touched my arm. “You can go in and see him, boys.”
Mr. Radford nodded sternly, and he and his wife walked to the elevator.
With my hand on the door handle, the expression on Raj’s face changed. “What?” I asked.
“Should we have gotten flowers or something?”
“Only if you wanna ask him out on a date.”
I pushed open the door and stepped in. Gordie lay on a metal-frame hospital bed, his right leg plastered and strapped, and his right elbow and forehead wrapped in bandages. The black eye, split lip, and splinted finger Kyle gave him accessorized his new look. He gazed distantly out the window at the gray sky, unaware or uncaring that he had visitors. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not to someone as naive and unthreatening as Gordie. A lump formed in my throat.
With a gentle click, Raj closed the door and Gordie rolled his head toward us. He let his eyes adjust, and then turned back to the window. Raj nudged me closer to the bed. I leaned over to catch Gordie’s eye. “Hey.” My voice sounded out of place, like a comedian at a funeral.
No response. I circled around to the other side of the bed. “You okay?”
A groan creaked from Gordie’s throat, his voice weak. “Four broken bones… a shattered ankle… monster headache.” His eyes focused on me. “I’ve been better.” He shifted his leg and winced.
“Shit, Gordo.” Raj stepped around the bed to the window. “You didn’t have to do this. Lucky you landed in a pool of your own ankles.”
In moments where tact was needed, Raj had a way of going pathologically in the other direction. I gave him a look.
He shrugged and slumped into the visitor chair. “On the up side, maybe Kyle will leave us alone now.”
Gordie adjusted his pillows, wincing.
Never in my life had I been so lost for words. As far as I could tell, the right thing to say in this situation didn’t exist. No amount of sensitivity and platitudes would make any difference to how he was feeling.
Raj lifted the bed remote and said, “I bet you did it just to get them off our backs. I’d high five you if I didn’t think your arm would break off.”
Gordie gave a weak smile and turned away. “I hate high fives.” He closed his eyes. “I just wanted to show them what they did… show them what it meant.”
In a twisted way, I understood how it made sense to him. He couldn’t beat them in a fight, so he wanted another way to hurt them. Problem was that Kyle and his crew would quickly forget, but not the people who care about Gordie. Raj let out a breath and put the remote on the bedside table.
I sat in the visitor chair and leaned over the bed. “Your folks are pretty shaken.”
Closing his eyes for a moment, Gordie appeared to be thinking. “My dad feels guilty about losing his job.” He opened his eyes and continued without looking at us. “After this, he’d prefer I was locked up in San Quentin than go back to Cannondale.”
Raj examined the plaster cast on Gordie’s leg. “At least prisons have guards. I’d feel safer at San Quentin – better food too I bet.”
“What’d the doctor say?” I asked.
Lines appeared on Gordie’s brow, like speaking was using more brainpower than usual. “I’ll be here for a few weeks, and then on crutches for a while. I won’t be competing at Field Day next month.”
Raj opened a drawer in the bedside table. “You must be devastated. I guess your Olympic career’s on hold too?”
Almost smiling, Gordie gazed out the window.
“You’re staying at Cannondale?” I asked.
He took in the view out the window. “It’s either that or drop out, at least till my old man gets a job.” He ran his fingers over his elbow bandage. “My parents live in a bubble – they have no idea what goes on in the real world.” His mouth opened to speak and then closed again. “I know what I did this morning was stupid. It just seemed like everything was… I never used to have to worry about being beat up all the time.” He half-rolled toward me and winced. “When I woke up on the concrete, I didn’t know if I was still alive. I mean… I thought maybe I was dead.” He closed his eyes.
“You’re not about to tell us you had a religious experience?” Raj asked.
“No, nothing like that. It’s just… I realized that when I do eventually die, I’ll be dead for a long time… billions of years… longer than that. Can you even imagine? It’s a really long time to be dead. The tiny amount of life we get is… tiny, if only for how little it is.” He stared out the window. “I also realized leaving my parents is the worst thing I could do to them. Anyway… whatever, I’m glad I didn’t die.” He turned to me. “I can’t stop bad things from happening, but I’ll figure something out.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re okay, Gordie.”
“Me too. It’s hard enough without being outnumbered by those guys,” Raj said.
Gordie’s mouth smiled, but his eyes didn’t bother. “You’re screwed if you think I’m any use to you. You know they won’t stop, right? Not even for this.”
The room fell into silence.
“I know I complain a lot,” Gordie eventually said, “but I’m glad you guys are on my side.”
With a grin, Raj nudged his fist into Gordie’s arm. “Cut the soppy crap.”
Gordie recoiled. “I can’t believe you just hit me. I have broken bones! Hit him for me, Chris.”
“Anything you say, Gordie.”
One Month Later
Icy wind whipped my face and howled through trees near the sports field. Gordie, Raj, and I trekked away from the crowd of students, as far away from the Field Day activities as we could get. Gordie shivered, letting his crutches fall as he eased onto the lawn. “Could they have chosen worse weather?” He stretched his legs and dug his fingers under the plaster cast on his right leg, scratching for the four hundredth time.
Raj slung his bag off his shoulder and sat next to Gordie. “Why’d you decide to come back to school on Field Day anyway?” He leaned back on his elbows.
“If I had to sit at home with my leg up for one more day I’d have stabbed myself with a blunt kitchen knife.”
Raj and I stared at Gordie. A while had passed since he injured himself, but neither of us knew if he was truly okay.
“What? It’s just an expression.”
“Maybe steer clear of that one for a while,” Raj said.
Over three hundred students had showed for the Cannondale High Field Day. Most were huddled in thick jackets on the sideline, but a few were on the field trying out for high jump, long jump, and hurdles.
Gordie pointed at the field. “Check it out. Kaylee McKenzie’s trying out for high jump. That’s the first time I’ve seen someone do that in tight jeans with a cigarette in their mouth.” He dragged his crutches closer and stacked them.
“I saw it at last year’s Field Day.” Raj dragged his bag behind him and lay back resting his head on it. “And that’s not a ciggie.”
It was good to see Gordie being more normal. I nudged his arm. “We’ll show those Notre Dame Prep boys a thing or two at state finals, right, Gordie?”
“I’d have more chance of making state finals on my crutches than anyone here.”
Kaylee continued with her tryout, each jump worse than the last.
Raj nodded at the trees near the field. “Look who just turned up.”
Under an elm, a large figure skulked in the shadows, poking the ground with a stick. Even from a distance, I could make out the shape of Bundy’s newly crooked nose.
Raj spoke to Gordie in a low voice. “Kyle and his crew haven’t come near us since you’ve been gone. They must figure we’re all even now.”
I wanted to believe that, but couldn’t. They had their reasons for staying away, but their time-out wouldn’t last forever, and I had a feeling Gordie’s return would bring them crawling out of the psych ward.
Footsteps approached from behind us, and a voice called out, “Is this the seating for the athletically disinclined?” Allie swept her hair from her face.
Since Gordie’s leap off the school building, Allie started hanging out with us more. I figured I’d get used to having her around, but my stomach still felt lighter every time she spoke. I smiled. “We prefer to be known as the ‘athletically can’t be screwed’.”
She folded her skirt under her legs and eased down next to me. “I’ve come to the right place then.” She gave a wave to Gordie. “Hey, welcome back.”
Blushing was mandatory whenever Gordie spoke to girls. “Hey… Allie.”
“Your finger’s looking better,” she said.
Gordie wiggled his ring finger. “Splint came off last week.”
On the field, Coach Delroy broke away from a group of students and marched toward us in his standard-issue red shorts and white polo shirt. He blasted a shrill whistle attached to a chain around his neck.
Raj closed his eyes and whispered, “As far as he knows, I’m asleep.”
“Good luck with that,” Allie said.
Approaching with long strides, Delroy boomed, “Let’s go, people.” He clapped his hands and chanted, “To be in the hall of fame, you have to be in the game.”
Allie clapped her hands and chanted, “I’d rather stay, okay… but thanks anyway.”
A grin grew on Raj’s face as he strained to keep his eyes closed.
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At a prison-like Detroit high school, senior student Chris Maddox has two problems: how to ask out honors student Allie Brookes, and whether to stand up for the new kid who landed himself in a world of shit after an accidental dodgeball nut shot. In front of the entire cafeteria, ball-hurt teenage-giant Jeremiah Bundy takes down the new kid in what could be a world record for mismatched fight. Chris steps in and accidentally breaks Bundy's nose, and also breaks the number one rule of high school: before you hit someone, make sure nobody cares. Chris and his friends are hunted and terrorized by Bundy and his two creepy associates â€“ one a punk who forked his own tongue with a rusty knife at age fifteen, and the other a kickboxing psychopath who finishes his beatings by breaking his victimâ€™s index finger. Afraid Chris will get seriously hurt, Allie helps him fight back guerilla style. When the psychotic trio tries to kill them, Chris learns that teachers canâ€™t help and police don't protect or serve. With their lives about to be wiped out by the wannabe killers, Allie, Chris, and their friends dream up a long-shot idea.