by Hamen Cheese

Chapter 20: Remorse

I walked out into the hallway while the whispers from the classroom exploded loudly in my wake. Mr. Sloan, finally realizing what was happening, heatedly told them all to get back to answering their own exams. I'd never really seen him that angry before but somehow I felt that something about this whole thing was personal. And, I got the impression that when he took things personally, he wasn't one to be crossed.

Though the hallway was empty and silent, Mr. Sloan's words echoed loudly in my ears. I knew it was a mistake that we only suspended you. You should have been expelled… Such shameful behavior. I expected better of you after everything you mother vouched on your behalf. My mother vouched on my behalf? Of course she would have. That was what mothers did after all. I felt warmth spread through me at that thought but at the same time, a bitter taste spread in my mouth. After whatever she apparently did to guarantee my good behavior to the other staff members, I had managed to get myself into trouble on the first day – the first class – back. That wasn't exactly the most grateful way to show my thanks.

I tightened the strap of my bag and walked heavily down the hall to the Principal's Office.

It didn't take me long to reach and enter into the anteroom of Principal Walker's office. The secretary was behind her desk laughing towards the receiver of her telephone. She turned towards me as the door snapped shut and her laughter vanished to be replaced by a pinched look on her face as though she suddenly smelled something nasty.

"I have to go, girlfriend," she said to whoever she was speaking to. "Yep," she added in a hushed voice that I just barely managed to hear. "Told you he wouldn't last the morning. He's already here."

She promptly put down the telephone and turned to me with a far too forced smile and cheeriness that made me want to puke, "want can I do for you, Derek?"

"Uhm," I began tentatively looking towards the principal's closed door. "I need to see Principal Walker, please."

The secretary, whose name I realized I didn't know despite being in the school for so many years, gained a knowing and smug look on her face. "Of course," she said and pointed to the seat furthest away from her. "Just take a seat over there." She then picked up her phone again, gave me one more contemptuous glance before turning away as though facing another direction will prevent me from hearing her. "Sir, Derek Hampton is out here and he would like to see you." She nodded to the phone's receiver. "Okay, sir." She put down the phone and turned to me with a contented smile. "Principal Walker will see you now."

I stood up and entered his office. Principal Walker was sitting behind his desk, waiting and looking very much like he had been anticipating that very moment. I felt tense for I could still remember clearly the memories of our last altercation in that room.

"Sit down, Derek," he said stiffly, indicating the chair closest to him. Without even waiting for me to sit, he continued, "what have you done this time?"

His voice was dripping with hostility. The assuming tone in his voice was aggravating and it was with great difficulty that I answered. "It's my exam," I said indicating the sheet of paper in my hand.

"What about it?" he said taking the sheet of paper as I extended it to him. His eyes narrowed as he gazed over the sheet. For a moment, I thought he was going to explode and start yelling how I was expelled. I could already imagine how devastated and disappointed my mom would be when she found out that her son was expelled from the very school she worked in. But to my great surprise, he gave me a look of polite puzzlement. "Care to explain what this means?"

I stared at him unsure what to say. I was kinda expecting (though not hoping) to be expelled and that I would just sit there quietly to take it all. It wasn't like being passive would make things go away but what else could I do? Being asked rather than immediately accused was startling.

"Did you… write this?" he asked as if he was fishing for information.

"I think so," I said after a moment.

He raised an eyebrow. "You think so?"

"Yes, sir," I said feeling exceptionally nervous. I was afraid of what he would ask next as I didn't want to give him the answer. Unfortunately, he asked.

"What do you mean you think so?" he asked. He looked at the paper again. "I'm not familiar with your handwriting, Mr. Hampton, but I have a feeling that if I were to compare it with notes that you undoubtedly have in your bag, they would be a perfect match."

I stared at him. I played different scenarios in my head of what to say and what not to say. Was I supposed to say that I blanked out in class? What would he think of me if I did? Would he think I was crazy or something? That was certainly a quick and easy ticket to getting expelled. Would he tell my mom? I didn't want her to find out about this. She was worried about me enough as it was.

"Well?" he asked, no longer sounding hostile or tense. He sounded genuinely confused.

I took a deep breath and braced myself. "I wrote it, sir."

"That much was clear. Would you like to explain why you wrote I'm sorry so many times and made a remarkable but nonetheless inappropriate likeness of Mr. Sloan as Smokey the Bear?"

Despite how much trouble I was probably in, I couldn't stop the grin on my face. I suppressed it quickly again though but I could have sworn Principal Walker almost smiled himself. Somehow, that made me feel better and I figured I would settle for a half-truth. "I don't know, sir. I don't know why I wrote those. I didn't mean to offend Mr. Sloan or anything. I just kept writing and writing and by the time I was done, my paper looked like that."

He stared at me for so long a time that I thought he had checked out. But eventually, he leaned back on his chair. "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"

I shrugged, wondering how long I had before my mom found out I was given the boot.

"Okay, then," he said. "You can go back to class. Ask for a hall pass from my secretary before you leave." He opened his desk, pulled out a folder, inserted the vandalized exam sheet into it, and returned the folder back into the drawer. He then turned back to me perhaps wondering why I hadn't moved still. "Yes?"

"Sir," I said tentatively, unsure whether I should just keep my mouth shut or not. "Am I not being punished?"

"Do you think you should be punished?"

Of course not, I wanted to say. Instead, I said, "well, I think Mr. Sloan expects me to be punished. He… he said he expected me to be expelled."

"I'll talk to Mr. Sloan," he said, smiling for the first time. "He has some very strong convictions that I'm afraid you may have stepped on quite recently. May I suggest that you behave extraordinarily well from now on in his class? I imagine you will merit a zero for this exam which is quite enough for an A student to worry about, don't you think?"

Despite the voice in my head telling me to get out of there while I could, I had to ask. "Why?"

"Why?" he repeated, looking confused.

"Why am I not being punished? I mean, doing something like that… wouldn't it have merited some kind of punishment?"

He gave me an analyzing look as though he was trying to read my mind or perhaps, more precisely, peer into my soul. "Well, I'm not handing you any punishment because I think you're already punishing yourself enough."

Huh? "What do you mean, sir?"

He paused as though trying to choose his words carefully. "Had you just drawn those pictures, I might have given you quite a few detentions, though certainly not expulsion. Mind you, Mr. Sloan can still give you detention and I will not override it if he decides to do so. However, I do not feel the need to discipline you now at least in this situation. I'm making a special exception this time given what you've written." He paused but continued after I gave him a quizzical look. "You wrote I'm sorry over and over again. I could very much be mistaken but I would like to think that it's you expressing remorse perhaps for the less than pleasant things you've done recently. I hope that I'm not mistaken." He smiled again, more sincerely this time and indicated the door with a hand.

I recognized the clear dismissal so I nodded to him and made my way out, still unable to believe how Principal Walker, who was just earlier furious at me, was letting me off the hook. Before I could open the door though, he spoke again.

"Oh, and Derek. If you ever feel the need to express your apologies in the future, perhaps it would be best if you avoid writing it on your exam papers especially with caricatures of your teacher. I've always thought it was best to say I'm sorry to the one that has been personally injured."

I gave him a small smile and a nod, understanding exactly what he was expecting of me. He wasn't giving me a detention, but was giving me something else to do in its place. Although, I felt the way he expressed it at the last moment was just a bit too theatrical.

I turned back to the door but didn't open it. I turned back to him, one more time, grinning just a bit inside knowing that it was I being theatrical. "Sir?"

"Yes?" he said again.

"Thank you."

Remorse. I wondered if Principal Walker was right. Was that what I was really feeling? Was it remorse that caused me to have those odd moments when something happened and I completely missed it? Did I perhaps regret what I apparently did to Charlie? I mean, what else could I have been remorseful about? I guess it kinda made sense. It was like the moment I left the principal's office, some things just clicked into place.

I missed Charlie.

I missed his voice, the way he could drone on and on about the most boring things as if they would someday change your life. I missed his laughter, the way he'd crack up at my jokes no matter how vulgar or low they could be. I missed his company, the way he was always there like a comforting presence or a rejuvenating second wind.

I really missed Charlie.

Was apologize all I needed to do? I mean, Principal Walker's instructions were clear enough. I wasn't being let off the hook because he thought what I did was okay. Instead, he set a task that was perhaps more difficult but also more rewarding than anything a detention can accomplish. He wanted me to say I'm sorry to Charlie.

I tested it on my lips as I made my way back to the classroom. I said it again and again as though I was rehearsing for a play. Idly, I noted the bell ringing and how several students from different year levels left their classrooms to get things from their lockers. Some of them paused to look at me. Some of them began to whisper. But oddly, it didn't bother me as much. They could all say whatever they wanted and somehow I didn't care as much. At least until…

"YOU!!!" she screeched from down the hall. Several locker doors were ripped from their hinges from the force of her voice. Unfortunate students who were caught in the blast were thrown into the air, their heads and limbs rolling in different directions as a massive crack appeared in the hallway swallowing us all.

Well, that really didn't happen but it might as well have.

"YOU!!!" Rebecca Hastings yelled again as if the entire school hadn't heard her the first time. She walked briskly to my direction, every part of her body stiff. Students, big and small, scrambled out of her way. "What the hell do you think you're doing here?"

"Uhh, I kinda go to school here," I replied. Honest, I didn't mean to sound sarcastic or anything. It's just that the way she seemed to swell with rage was making me panic just a little. Just a little.

She poked me, and kept poking with each word as though trying to stuff her words into my body. "You don't deserve to be here. You are a world-class jerk. I can't believe you have the nerve to show your face here again after what you did to Charlie."

"Hey, I didn't mean…"

"Didn't mean?!" she interrupted and poked me again for good measure. "Didn't mean to embarrass your friend in front of the whole school? Didn't mean to out him to everyone? Didn't mean to cause a scene and then getting someone else suspended with your nonsense?"

"You're not doing a very good job not doing those things yourself," I retorted but she apparently didn't hear me as she was on a roll.

"If you were even half a decent person, you would have not shown your face here so soon, or AT ALL. You would have done the decent thing and gone to another school. You haven't even apologized to Charlie yet!"

"I'm going to…"

"You haven't…" she paused as though she was suddenly choking on a rock that had lodged itself in her throat. And then in a suddenly softer, frighteningly modulated voice said, "what?"

"I'm going to apologize."

She stared at me as if there was a massive bugger sticking out of my nose.

"What is going on here?" said our homeroom and basic law teacher Mrs. Corpus as she came bustling out of a classroom. "Why are you making such a racket, Rebecca?" And then her eyes landed on me. "Ahh, I should have known you'd be involved, Mr. Hampton."

What?! Should have known I was involved? Was everyone going to assume that any slight disturbance happening around the school involved me somehow? Okay, granted, I was there for all those moments but I wasn't the one starting fights in the hallway or yelling in between classes? And what was the deal with "Mr. Hampton"? She always called me Derek before.

"Rebecca," Mrs. Corpus continued, "unless you want to get detention, I suggest you lower your voice and return to class. The bell is about to ring."

Rebecca gave me her patented glare, which had the irresistible result of making me cringe. She then turned on her heels and returned to her classroom.

I turned to make my way to my own classroom but then Mrs. Corpus spoke again, causing me to look back again at her.

"Mr. Hampton, despite your recent… leave from school, please do not think that your responsibilities have been excused for the dance. I expect you to meet the committee heads today after class. I have scheduled a meeting with them later."

"Dance?" I asked momentarily having no idea what she was talking about.

She stared at me as though hoping I was joking. "The Valentine's Day Dance, dear, the dance that is happening next week. You are, as student body president, still the head for organizing that or have you forgotten?"

"No, no, of course not," I said quickly, although in truth I had completely forgotten. I mean, come one, I had so many other things on my mind then.

"Well, I've temporarily placed Ms. O'Connor as head in your absence," she flinched as though the thought was painful. "She was quite enthusiastic about getting your responsibilities. However, I'm afraid she does not have the same… flair for organizing such an event as you seem to do. We've had the event coordinator already call the school twice wondering if the event was changed. I'm afraid your peer might have given him a false impression. She appears more interested in making the decorations as pretty as possible and getting sponsors who will set up beauty booths during the dance. I will remind you as I have her that sponsors are not allowed to set up booths during the dance."

"Of course ma'am," I said. "No sponsor booths."

She hesitated and I got the impression that she wanted to say something else. But then she seemed to have changed her mind. "Okay then. You should head back to class before the bell rings."

We said our goodbyes and I headed back to my classroom. As there were only two sections, it was the same room anyway (classes were only shuffled in the afternoon to promote a sense of "batch unity").

When I entered the class, our next teacher (for Physics) wasn't there yet. I was met with the kind of silence that gave the impression that a loaded coffin had just entered the room. It was clear from all their guilty faces that they were talking about me. I knew people loved to talk about me but all this negative talk was making me uncomfortable again. I let my eyes roam over to where Charlie sat and he was still adamantly looking towards the bulletin board. His seatmate was tapping her food against the leg of their desk looking very bored.

Apologize. That was all I needed to do. But I couldn't do it in front of everybody. That would have been embarrassing. Then again, that would have been better right? Since I did out him in public, would it have been better that I apologized to him in public. A lead weight seemed to have dropped into my throat making swallowing very hard. Maybe apologizing wasn't such a good idea after all. Then again, Rebecca's glare swam into my mind and I got the sudden desire to get it over with. Not that I was doing it because of her. I wanted to do it for myself. At least, I think I did. Damn, it was all getting so confusing.

I looked back at the door wondering when our teacher would come in. I maybe had a few minutes. Did I have enough time to say what I needed to say? I took a deep breath and steeled myself. I walked purposefully towards Charlie. Every step seemed like a mile. Every hushed conversation stopped as everyone's eyes followed me silently.

As I reached halfway across the classroom, my resolve failed. A sudden sense of despair and fear overcame me. It felt as though to do that act, to apologize, was to accept officially and publicly that Charlie was gay. Something about that prospect seemed tensely frightening, as though doing that would get him into trouble… or worse.

A strong desire to protect Charlie overcame me for reasons I could not understand and I found myself standing not in front of Charlie's desk but instead the one next to it occupied by Margaret Elizabeth C. O'Connor and her boyfriend Brian.

They were both looking thoroughly confused and uncomfortable as I stood there staring at them.

"Uhm, can we help you with something, Derek?" Brian asked tentatively. Brian was a basketball varsity player and my mind worked furiously to say something, anything to displace the awkwardness of the situation. But then I remembered my conversation with Mrs. Corpus and I turned instead to Margaret.

"Margaret," I said. She seemed startled, almost frightened by my use of her name. "Mrs. Corpus said we were going to meet later after class to discuss the arrangements for the Valentine's Day Dance."

"Oh," she said as she almost placed a few fingers to her cheek but stopped at the last moment as though to prevent them from smudging her make-up. "Right. Of course. Yes, she informed all the committee heads from the different year levels to attend later as well."

"Good," I said nodding several times. Somehow, I ran out of things to say. "Good."

"Is there anything else, Derek?" Brian asked when I had stood there a good thirty seconds.

"No, no," I said. "That was it really."

"Ooookaaay…" he said peering up at me as I stood there looming above them. "Maybe you should go back to your seat?" He asked tentatively.

"My seat?" I replied. "Yes, my seat. Of course. I'm going back. To my seat." I pointed at it with both hands. "Going back now. To my seat."

"Okay," Brian said as his eyes followed me returning to my seat. Everyone else was unashamedly staring as well.

I sat down next to Mikee hoping our teacher would come soon.

"What did you write in your paper?" Mikee whispered quickly, no longer looking apprehensive. He seemed even excited. Perhaps he was genuinely curious but I had a feeling it had more to do with his unbridled desire to constantly talk than anything else. I wondered if that was the reason Charlie's seatmate was looking deathly bored. She'd lost the chatterbox next to her.

"Not now, Mikee," I sighed as I let my eyes linger back to Charlie. He didn't look or glance in my direction.

The morning dragged on slowly and I wondered if the rest of the day was going to be like that. Although the two sections were shuffled, I was with Charlie in all my classes so I wondered if the awkwardness and lack of attention was going to last the whole day. It also became apparent that all my teachers were "informed" of the new seating arrangement, which I had a feeling they all actually agreed upon.

I was starting to wish I were suspended again.

When the lunch hour came, Charlie was one of the first out. I had almost given up all hope that he would look at me and was bitterly disappointed again as he walked away without even the slightest tilting of his head.

Why the hell was he so indifferent? Didn't we go through so much together that he would have at least felt some need, some desire, to re-establish that connection? It just felt like he'd gone on with his life in the past two weeks and was perfectly content not having me included in it. He looked at me in the hallway. Why couldn't he look at me in class? How could he ignore me like that?

Feeling thoroughly depressed, I wondered if maybe I deserved that.

"Aren't you going to lunch?" Mikee asked as he stood next to our desk. The classroom was almost empty and I was the only one still seated.

I sighed refusing to look at him.

"Derek?" he asked tentatively.

"Why are you even talking to me?" I asked softly, giving him a slight glance.

He looked uncertain. "What do you mean?"

I sighed heavily again as I watched the last of our classmates exit the room. "I mean no one's even bothered to talk to me unless to tell me off. No one's even bothered to say hi or to ask how I've been or what I've been up to. Aren't friends supposed to ask that kind of thing?"

Mikee pursed his lips as though he was trying to decide on something important. "Well, people are kind of afraid of you, Derek."

"Afraid?" I asked surprised. "Of me?"

Mikee shrugged. "You did get suspended because you wanted to start a fight. It's clear to people that it was because someone disagreed with you or at least with what you believed. You also did something… bad to someone else by outing them to the whole school. And, it was someone who was supposed to be your best friend too. I think people are just afraid that if they talk to you and perhaps get on your bad side, then they'll end up being on the receiving end of your anger the next time around. You do have a very short temper when things don't go your way."

"No, I don't," I said irritably.

He raised an eyebrow, which seemed to say more things than words.

I sighed. "Okay, so maybe just a little. Still, that doesn't answer my question. Why are you even talking to me?"

"Do you not want me to talk to you?" he asked hesitantly.

"No, of course," I said easily. "It's fine. It's even… nice."

Mikee smiled looking very relieved. "Well, it's because I've been watching you. Okay, wait no," he said as I gave him a startled look. "That didn't come out right. What I meant to say was I could see you the whole morning. I could see how you were looking at Charlie. And contrary to what I was expecting, you didn't look angry. Don't take this the wrong way because I don't mean it negatively. But, you looked almost sad, like you're regretting what you did, you know? I mean," he paused as though uncertain again, "you are right? Regretting what you did?"

There it was again. Regret. Remorse. Two different words conveying the same meaning. Was it possible that Mikee, like Principal Walker, was seeing something in me that I myself could not see or feel? Did I really secretly feel regret for the things I'd done or were they just seeing something they hoped to see there? I really didn't know anymore.

I must have sat there for a while because Mikee eventually spoke up. "Maybe I should go." Without even waiting for me to respond, he turned to walk towards the door. He'd taken a few steps toward it before I'd finally found my voice again.

"Yes," I said.

He turned back to me. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry," I said, the practiced words sliding easily out of my mouth. "I'm sorry about the things I did. I'm sorry that I wasn't a better friend. I'm sorry that I did a terrible thing to a friend that means the world to me." I sniffed and was surprised when a tear suddenly slipped down my cheek. I looked away quickly and wiped at it furiously.

Mikee smiled. "I think you need to tell him that."

"How can I?" I asked. It was like the words in my head had broken out of a damn like the tears that were streaming down my face. "Why should he forgive me? Why would he want to be anywhere near me? Why would he want to be friends with me for getting him beaten up?"

Mikee frowned. "No one's beaten up Charlie, Derek. What are you talking about?"

I blinked several times. "No," I said taking a moment to wonder where those words came from. "No, no one's done it yet. But they will. They hate him now."

"Derek," Mikee said slowly. "No one hates Charlie. Have you seen anyone doing anything nasty to him? I don't think people really care that he's gay."

"Luke does."

"Since when did you, or anyone for that matter, ever pay attention to what Luke cares about," he said as though the very idea was absurd. "Come on, Derek. Don't tell you don't want to be friends with Charlie. Take it from someone who knows. He misses you as much as you probably miss him."

"He does?" I asked softly.

Mikee nodded encouragingly. "Very much so."

"Sure has a terrible way of showing it. He hasn't even spoken to me all day."

"Well… you haven't spoken to him either, you know."

I looked up at Mikee and couldn't stop the mad bark of laughter at the irony of the situation.

"Come on," Mikee said smiling widely. "I'm hungry and if you're not going to get up now then I'm leaving you here to cry by yourself."

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