Charlie

by Hamen Cheese

Chapter 21: Against the World

I was in a considerably lighter mood despite the fact that my eyes were puffy and my nose resembled something close to a ripe tomato. Thankfully, Mikee didn't seem like the type of student who was bothered by crying boys, err… crying men. He neither cringed away nor became uncomfortable with the whole scene. And despite his assertions that he would leave me moping by myself, he stayed with me until I had better composed myself and looked much like my handsome self again.

We were a little late arriving to the lunchroom so we didn't have trouble getting our food quickly. I glanced around the cafeteria as discretely as I could trying to look for Charlie and as expected, I found him sitting at Travis' table along with Rebecca and the usual group of folks. They all seemed enraptured by some story that Charlie was telling them except Jared Anderson who, under his long emo hair, looked like he was scowling at the world in general cursing the sun for having risen that day.

It was a surreal experience having lunch again with the basketball team. Two weeks seemed a lot longer than it actually was. I noticed that almost everyone was pretending as though nothing had happened, as though it was just another day. No one mentioned or discussed the whole suspension issue, though I noticed some were casting curious glances at me. I wondered if Mikee's words applied to the varsity team as well, most of whom I considered friends. Were they really afraid I'd treat them the same as I did Charlie when I found out something about them I didn't like? Either way, I supposed I was grateful that despite the recent incidences, they were still conversing with me rather than retreating to hushed, indecent whispers.

The seats beside me were still empty like my last day at school two weeks before. As Charlie no longer sat with me and I had no girlfriend at the time, I figured those seats would remain empty for a while.

One thing different though was that Andrew seemed to have taken an exceptional interest in talking to me as he sat closer than he usually did. With Andrew's size, no one ever really disagreed with where he wanted to sit (well, except perhaps me). He'd often sat at the end of the table where his elbows did not risk impaling anyone. Yet that day, he sat next to Mikee which made the extreme contrast in their sizes even more recognizable. He didn't talk about the suspension either or about Charlie but actually asked how I was. For a moment, I wondered if Mikee had put Andrew up to it but the former was with me the whole time and he wouldn't have had any opportunity to talk to our giant friend without me noticing.

At one point, I noticed Principal Walker surreptitiously standing by the side as though watching a group of children terrorizing little insects from his office. He had a stern but kind expression on his face as he surveyed the floor. I could have just been paranoid but I could have sworn that he was looking in my direction a lot. After awhile, I decided to just stare at his direction and when he finally looked in mine, he nodded and smiled to my obvious surprise.

That little gesture seemed to have steeled my resolve in the question I'd been playing with over and over in my mind.

"I think I'm going to do it," I told Mikee as I turned my eyes away from Principal Walker. "I'm going to apologize to Charlie."

"Now?" he asked with wide eyes. Andrew was looking at us curiously but otherwise remained silent.

"Yeah, why? You don't think it's a good idea?"

He looked over to the table where Charlie sat. "Well…" he began tentatively, "a lot of people over there don't like you very much right now."

"I'm not going to apologize in front of everyone. I don't want to make a scene. I'm just going to ask Charlie if I could talk to him privately."

Mikee seemed to mull it over. When he finally decided on what he was thinking about, he seemed apprehensive. "Derek, don't take this the wrong way. But some people in that table might not take kindly to the fact that you want to get Charlie alone by himself."

"What?" I asked aghast. "I'm not going to beat him up or anything."

"I know that," Mikee said quickly as though worried I might start a row. "But I don't think they do."

"Hmm…" Andrew suddenly said, remarkably sounding like he snored.

"What do you think, Andrew?" I asked him.

He didn't look startled at suddenly being addressed. In fact, he looked like he'd been thinking it over as well (which in his case made him look like he was about to doze off). "I'm not a big fan of procrastinating," he lumbered, "but I really don't know those people very well. On principle, I'd say the sooner you do it, the better. At the very least Charlie might appreciate what you'll do, even if the others won't. But then again, it's not really to them you are apologizing to."

I looked over at their table again. Travis was saying something that was making everyone else around the table laugh. Maybe it wasn't really the best time. "I just really want him to know how sorry I am. It's tearing me the pieces knowing that he doesn't know that."

"You should do it," Brian said breaking me out of my thoughts. I looked around at him and realized that he was looking and that he was in fact listening. It seemed that the whole table was actually listening to our quiet conversation as every eye was now turned to us, all except Margaret Elizabeth C. O'Connor who was busy looking into her mirror powdering her nose.

There was a chorus of agreement across the table as several heads nodded. Some were hesitant though as if they didn't want to give their opinions. Their support was… heartwarming.

"He'll probably think it was brave of you to go there to apologize," Brian continued. "And I know Rebecca. She has a soft spot for people with guts. She'd probably approve if you went over there in their midst to ask to speak to Charlie."

"She does?" I asked fascinated at that slight piece of information. She went out with me. Did that mean she thought I had guts? But then again I remembered that it was her mom who wanted us to go out…

"Yeah," Brian said smiling, "at the very least, she probably won't say anything negative unless you look like you're going to do something stupid."

A few people laughed as though something was funny.

"I guess," Mikee agreed but still looked hesitant as he peered over at Charlie's table.

"Okay," I said feeling oddly excited and afraid at the same time. "Thanks guys," I told everyone, and I really did mean it.

I stood from our table and walked over to where Charlie and the others were seated. Jenna from the women's volleyball team nudged Charlie and nodded to my direction. He looked over at me and for the briefest moments our eyes met but he quickly looked away. That dampened my spirit just a little.

There was a tense atmosphere by the time I reached the table. Everyone had fallen silent. Everyone was looking up at me as though waiting for me to say something – all except Charlie, who was adamantly looking at the table as though counting the number of dots on it, and Jared who did God knows what under all that hair.

"What do you want, Hampton?" Travis asked. His muscles were taut and ripping through his shirt.

"I… I wanted to speak to Charlie." I thought I saw Charlie's head tilt up by just a fraction.

"Well, what do you have to say to him?" Travis asked.

"I was hoping to speak to him alone," I said.

"Whatever you have to say to him, you can tell us," Travis said, still in that rigid posture as though he was petrified.

"I'm sorry Travis, but what we have to discuss is private?"

"Private?" Travis said as though he found the word offensive. "Private? You didn't seem to have any trouble telling the whole school about other private matters that did not involve you. As I recall, you shouted it out for everyone to hear. You have no right to say that what you will discuss is private."

I looked around at the table. There was not one friendly face among them. They all had a fierceness about them that I saw only during interschool competitions, as though they were preparing to massacre the other team. Their hostility was aggravating me and I could feel my temper rising but I struggled to get it under control.

"Charlie," I said ignoring everything Travis said. "We need to talk. You know we need to talk."

Travis stood up and moved in front of me, forcing me to take a step back. "You really don't get it, do you, Hampton? Charlie doesn't want to talk to you. He doesn't want to see you. He doesn't want to ever hear your damn, egotistical, discriminatory voice ever again. You've lied to him enough for a lifetime. If you know what's good for you, you'd just back off."

"I'm not talking to you," I told Travis unable to hold back the anger that was rising in me. "I'm here to talk to Charlie."

"Still haven't changed, have you Derek?" he sneered. "It's always about what you want. Who cares what anyone else wants? What anyone else feels? What's important is that you get what you want when you want it? The only thing that matters to Derek Hampton is Derek Hampton."

"Just stay out of this, Brody," I warned him. "You have no right."

"No right?" he snarled. "I have more right over this than you ever had."

"Travis," Rebecca said warningly as she looked around. "People are staring."

"Let them," he said. "Let them see the real Derek Hampton. Let them see how much of a jerk he is, how he will stomp on anyone in his way just so he can come out on top. That's what you believe, right Derek? That's what you said all those weeks ago when you shared your beliefs with us."

"You…" I snarled but had to pause as another voice echoed around us.

"Derek, you are causing trouble again," Mr. Sloan said as he walked towards us. I groaned as his steps shortened the distance between us. He looked livid, like he was trying to pick a fight with someone.

"Sir," I told him in as calming a voice as I could manage, which unfortunately failed to do just that, "I just want to talk to Charlie."

"Well, he's here now," Mr. Sloan said indicating Charlie who was still looking down at the table. "Say what you need to and return to your table."

"Sir," I said between clenched teeth. Where was Principal Walker? How could he not see what was happening? I was hoping he'd come over and haul Mr. Sloan away in chains. "It's a private matter."

"Well, I'm not sure your friend wants to discuss anything with you right now, do you Charlie?" Mr. Sloan asked. Charlie just sat there, saying neither yes nor no. Apparently, Mr. Sloan took his silence to mean no. Our teacher looked triumphant. "See, he doesn't want to speak to you. And, forcing any student to do anything he does not want can be tantamount to bullying. And with your track record, you'd be hard-pressed not to get expelled if you force this issue now."

"Track record?" I asked not bothering to keep the disdain out of my voice despite talking to a teacher. At that moment, I hated Mr. Sloan more than ever before. "My record has been clean, SIR. I've only had one real blotch in my record. This suspension was my first and last one. It has only happened ONCE."

"You have to learn," Mr. Sloan hissed, "that sometimes that is enough. If you don't return to your table, I swear I will have you expelled before this day ends!"

"Derek," Charlie said. His voice despite being soft-spoken seemed to drown out every other voice. I looked at him and he was looking at me. My heart leapt at the sight. He was looking at me. He wasn't ignoring me. I was finally going to have a chance to talk to Charlie, to tell him how sorry I was, to ask for his forgiveness. "You should go."

It felt like the world opened up and ate me. It was like someone cranked up the air conditioner to deadly temperatures and I couldn't understand how anyone could still manage to move. All the air seemed to have been sucked out of me and my voice when it finally did come out was strained… desperate. "Charlie… please…"

"You heard him, Hampton," Travis said as he moved to block Charlie from my view. I looked up at his angry eyes, filled with an intense loathing for me. "You should go."

I felt like I was hyperventilating. My breaths were short and ragged. I looked at the others: at Mr. Sloan whose face was still livid, at Rebecca whose face looked pained and uncertain, at everyone else whose angry glares seemed to have redoubled after Charlie's words. I felt despair. I felt ANGRY.

"Fine," I said in a deadly whisper. "FINE!" I yelled.

I felt an arm snake around my shoulder. "Derek, I think you should go back to our table." Luke said beside me as though he had materialized out of thin air.

"That is a good idea, Mr. Crawford," Mr. Sloan said as though it was his idea in the first place. "Perhaps you could help your friend stay out of trouble."

"Oh, I think I could do a thing or two about that," Luke said with a cool smile at Mr. Sloan. He tugged at my shoulder to try to steer me away from the others. "Come on, big boy. Let's go back to people who will appreciate you for who you are."

I didn't want to go. I wanted to smack Travis' face to the floor. I wanted to smash it over and over again on the lunch table. But with Mr. Sloan standing there, I knew I couldn't do anything. He'd have me expelled faster than I could break enough bones in Travis to be satisfied. So, I let myself get steered. Luke still had his arm around my shoulder and despite my hatred for the guy, it felt oddly comforting. It felt like someone at least was on my side. Everyone was turning against me. My teachers, my classmates, Charlie… I hated them. I hated them all.

Luke sat me down at my usual chair and then took the seat that was formerly reserved to Charlie. I looked around at the others. They had apprehensive and concerned looks in their faces. And although I might have normally appreciated their gestures, I didn't want it directed to me then.

"Derek," Mikee said comfortingly.

"Shut up," I said lashing out at him. "Just shut up okay. I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to talk at all. Just shut the fuck up, okay?"

"HAMPTON!"

"WHAT?!" I said angrily to the speaker, then had to look up when I realized he was standing. "Coach?"

Coach Henry was standing there, looking imposing over his team. His presence always had a tendency to overpower when he wanted it to. "See me in my office after class."

"Why?" I asked. Although my voice was more controlled, it still sounded remarkably like a shout.

"Don't ask me why," Coach Henry glared. "Just do it."

"Well, I can't. I have to meet the committee heads for the dance later today."

"Dance," Coach Henry bellowed like he found the word offensive. "No excuses, Hampton. Find a way out of it. It would take an earthquake before I let you off this one."

"I can't," I said letting my irritation show in my voice. "I'm heading the meeting. They need me to be there."

"Then they can wait for you if they need you. In my office after class. No excuses." He then walked away leaving no room for argument.

"Fine," I said again for the third time that hour. In my imagination, I privately hoped that an earthquake did happen and would crush Coach Henry's office with Travis in it.

The rest of the lunch hour was tense. The rest of the day was tense. Nobody spoke around me. They seemed to have taken my command to shut up to heart. Even Mikee and Andrew were quiet casting worried glances towards me but otherwise maintaining the silence. Everyone else seemed to be giving me a wide berth. In the hallways, no one whispered anymore but looked or hurried away whenever I approached. In class, the teachers didn't even bother calling me for recitation, not that I made any effort to answer anyway.

It was all going to hell and I hated every single one of them. I even allowed for sporadic bursts of anger towards Charlie – Charlie, my best friend, who should have said yes, who should have just agreed to talk to me. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to say sorry. And yet, he just turned me away. He just let the others have their way, while he stood by and did nothing. No, not nothing. He did worse by me. He agreed with them.

I was in a foul mood all day and it wasn't helped by the fact that Mrs. Corpus expressed her disappointment in me by saying I didn't have my priorities straights. Priorities? It's not like I was given a choice! She hinted on how poorly my recent efforts were reflecting on me. Apparently, I needed to develop an extra body so that I could be at two places at once because I was supposed to just bend over and take it whenever any one of my teachers felt like demanding my time.

So, I was resentful to say the least by the time I got out of classes and headed to the gym. I made my way to Coach Henry's office near the equipment room and showers.

"Sit down, Hampton," Coach Henry said in that strict, no-nonsense-or-I'll-kick-your-ass voice as soon as I opened the door to his office.

I took my seat without saying anything. I figured the more I let coach talk, the quicker he'd be done with me and the faster I'd get out of there to meet the committee heads. At the rate I was going though, I'd be lucky to be home by dawn.

Coach Henry sat there, his fingers pressed on his lips as though he was praying. He was staring me straight in the eyes while I looked back at him fearlessly. I had learned from him, long ago in middle school, to always look my opponents in the eye. To do otherwise was to show fear, weakness. I was wondering if he was at that moment trying to test me.

"What happened during lunch, Hampton?" Coach Henry finally spoke after several minutes.

"What exactly do you mean Coach?" wondering how much of my conversation with Charlie and his new friends he had heard.

"The team," he said morosely. "In all my years coaching various varsity teams, you are the first I'd ever seen get angry like that to his team. It was unbecoming of you. It was weak."

"Coach," I said trying to bite back the impatience in my voice. This was what he wanted to talk to me about? Because I told the team to be quiet? "With all due respect, you're angry at the team all the time."

"Because I'm the coach," he said simply. "It means I can be angry at them if I want, any time I want. I will be here by the time you and your teammates leave. I will still be here by the time the next team leaves, and the one after that. You, on the other hand are the captain. You are not just a figure of authority. You are one of them as well. You experience firsthand what they experience. You share in everything they go through and they look not only up to you as their captain but at you as their teammate and friend."

"Coach, I wasn't really angry at them. I was just… angry in general."

"And you chose to take it out on them? On the people you'll be playing with next week against our biggest rivals? Don't you think that that little scene of yours will make things just a little awkward between you and the rest of the team?"

"Everyone in the team is resilient, coach. They're not gonna let a little thing like this get in the way of defeating Westfield."

"I'm not talking about just that," he said dismissively. "I know they'll do everything they can to beat out that poor excuse of a school. What I'm worried about is the cohesiveness of this team when its own captain is mouthing off to everyone else."

"Well, what would you like me to do, Coach? Apologize?" I asked finding the word had an odd and dirty taste in my mouth.

"No," he said. "I want you to get your shit straight. I want you to show me that you're worthy of the captainship I'd given you. I want you to show me that any personal issues you may have will not interfere with your performance and the performance of this team. Got that?"

"Yes, coach," I said seriously.

"Good," he said nodding. "I'm going to come out clean and straight with you, Derek," I was surprised by the rather rare if not unheard of use of my first name by Coach Henry. "You have to play extraordinarily well these next two weeks, better than you have before. You have to play your best against Westfield, not only because we hate them on principle but also because you have something to prove."

"Prove, coach?" I asked puzzled.

Coach stared at me so intently and grimly that for a moment he seemed like he was going to tell me that someone died. "There have been… people… that feel that you have recently displayed certain qualities that are inappropriate for someone in a position of influence. Your captainship has been called into question. These people," he spat out, "feel that you would be better removed from being captain and then taken off the team completely."

"Taken off the team?" I said weakly. I remembered all the faces of my teammates during lunch, the ones encouraging me to apologize to Charlie, some with conviction, others with uncertainty. I wondered if it was them. "Does… did the team ask for me to step down?"

"NO," Coach Henry said so quickly and fiercely that I almost jumped out of my seat. "This has nothing to do with your teammates. Let me make it clear that not a single one of them has asked for or even hinted about wanting your resignation. So don't get any ideas that it's them, you hear me?"

I nodded slightly relieved. "So who is it? Who's asking for me to leave the team?"

"It doesn't matter," Coach said much like a man who believed that it did in fact matter. "What matters is they're trying to put pressure on me and other staff members to remove you from any position that will link you to being a Southmore student. You said you had a meeting with your dance committee or something this afternoon. I have no doubt that is related to this issue as a whole. For these people asking for you to be removed, you don't aptly represent who and what it is to be a Southmore student. They feel you would reflect badly on the school if kept in positions you currently hold. So be warned, Hampton, it's not just your captainship at stake."

"You're not letting them have their way," I said surprised at the implications of his words.

Coach Henry shrugged and I had a feeling that he was distinctly uncomfortable with this topic. "I've known you for many years Hampton, ever since the first time you stepped into the middle school gym. That's almost eight years of solid history. You were always a great player, hardly ever disappointing. I won't lie to you and say that you were the perfect student. But every person has his faults. We have to look past small things to see the bigger picture. We focus too much on one thing, on one incident, and we could completely miscalculate who a person really is. You get me, Hampton?"

"Yes," I said and I really think I did.

"Good," he said, nodding and then his voice suddenly boomed. "NOW GO AND DO YOUR DANCE COMMITTEE CRAP AND GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!"

"Yes, coach," I yelled back enthusiastically.

As I walked out of his office, I knew I shouldn't have been feeling light. Someone or some people obviously wanted me out of my captainship of the basketball varsity. That should have worried me. Yet, the confidence coach had in my ability despite the things that happened just had the inevitable effect of making me feel good about myself. Here at last was someone who did not necessarily assume that any trouble brewing was caused by me. I wondered if Mrs. Corpus felt the same way Coach Henry did. She did say that I had a flare for organizing events. I suppose that meant she approved of me still being student body president, didn't it?

I will deny it if you ever tell anyone but despite everything else that had happened that day, I was almost skipping all the way to my next meeting.

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