by Hamen Cheese
Chapter 26: Crossing Lines
The three of us left Coach Henry's office. I separated from the two of them at the entrance of the locker room. I told my mom to go ahead, that I needed to get my stuff and drive my car home anyway so there really wasn't any point in waiting for me. She looked deeply concerned over me. I wanted to tell her how much her defense meant to me, even if what I did felt just a little bit out of line. I didn't think I could do it with Principal Walker there though. I had a feeling he wouldn't have approved. Besides, it felt like he was waiting for an opportunity to speak to my mom in private.
The locker room was empty by the time I entered. It seemed like everyone had already left so I met no one on my way to my locker. It had my last name on it like everyone else did, except the title "Basketball Varsity Captain" was also attached below my name. I stared at it for the longest time before ripping the title clean off the locker.
I didn't know what I was feeling. I was angry, sad, and relieved all at the same time. I'd been working so hard to try and maintain my performance that when it was finally over, it really did feel like a burden was taken from me. Yet I was sad because all my work had resulted in nothing and I was angry because I felt like I should have been able to do it. I could before yet I couldn't anymore.
Without even thinking about it, I punched my fist against my locker door making a sizable dent on it. Unfortunately, it paid me back with a lot of pain in my knuckles.
"You okay, Derek?" Andrew asked behind me. I didn't hear or notice him come up, which for a guy his size deserved a Guinness Book of World Records recognition.
"Yeah," I said wincing and shaking my hand, swearing never to be stupid enough to punch metal again. "Just a bad day."
"Hmm…" he said as though he was waiting for me to say something else.
"What are you still doing here?"
"I forgot a book in my locker," he said raising the very book in his hand. It was our bulky E.T. Schwelling Accounting book. He took the seat next to me, which creaked ominously under his weight. "So, what happened in coach's office?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Nothing?" he asked.
I stared at the dent in my locker, unwilling to say anything else.
"I see," he said. "That must be why you're so angry. I imagine I'd be mad too if I went into coach's office for nothing."
Despite myself, I grinned just a little bit. It never grew to a full smile though for the memory of what happened was far too fresh in my mind.
"Want to talk about it?" he asked. He didn't say anything else. He just sat there waiting as though he knew that if he was patient enough, I'd end up talking anyway.
Apparently, he was right. "They're taking me off the team."
"What?" he asked quite surprised.
"Temporarily suspended," I corrected. "But I'm pretty sure that means I'm off the team permanently."
"Why?" he asked.
"They didn't think I could handle it."
"Principal Walker and the School Board," I replied bitterly. "And Travis."
"Travis?" Andrew asked, his voice going up just a slight notch as though he was skeptical.
"Yeah," I said shaking my head. "His dad was in the meeting. He made it pretty clear that he and the rest of the board want me out."
Andrew sat there and fell asleep (which roughly translated meant he was in deep thought). "Do you?" he asked after a minute or so of us just staring at nothing.
"Do I what?" I asked perplexed by the question.
"Do you think you can handle it?" he clarified.
I wanted to say of course, I could. Yet, I couldn't manage to form the words. The thing was I knew my life had taken a terrible spiral downwards. I felt torn in many different ways and a small part of me wondered if maybe this really was for the best. But then another part of me kept insisting that I was great, that I could do anything I wanted to. And yet that part of me seemed to grow weaker, as if it was an engine running out of fuel. "I don't know."
"Hmm…" he said again.
"Hmm…" I said also though I really didn't know why. It felt like the right thing to say at the time.
The silence was oddly not uncomfortable. I don't think either of us felt any real need to talk. It was like just being there was enough. I knew Andrew was trying to do something nice, perhaps he was playing the part of a good friend and I appreciated that. A good friend was what I needed at that moment.
"Come on," Andrew lumbered as he stood up. "I've probably missed the bus. You can drive me home."
"You take the bus to school?" I asked as I finally opened my locker to get my things. All thoughts of making Travis suffer were suddenly pushed out of my head by the image of Andrew fitting through the narrow aisle between seats, squeezing students out the window like toothpaste through a tube.
"Yeah," he replied as he watched me. "I couldn't bring my truck when I moved here. It was better off being used at home."
"Moved here?" I asked as I closed my locker.
"Yeah. I live in an apartment in Westminster."
"That's an unusual place to live at," I noted, as I recognized the very familiar street name.
"Why?" he asked as he turned to me, sounding surprisingly amused. "Afraid to drive me home?"
"No, of course not," I laughed. "It's just I figured if you lived over at Westminster, you'd, you know, pick a school that's closer." I fought the grin that was forming on my lips.
He scowled at me, which coming from Andrew, I couldn't really tell if serious or not. "If you're implying I should be in Westfield, well I'm not."
"I know. It's just such an odd choice to pick an apartment close to the biggest rival school of the one you attend. I'm certain there are other students from that other school who must live there too."
"Yeah," he said. "I've seen a few of them, even basketball varsity players too. We don't talk or anything but they don't make trouble with me either. For the most part, they just leave me alone. It's sort of nice of them I guess."
I was pretty sure that him being left alone had more to do with his size than any Westfield student being nice. I imagined that most of them would rather not be reshaped into a pretzel. "I guess that's good."
We drove out of the parking lot as I drove towards our rival school. I worried a little that my car seemed to incline a little to the right. I had the distinct feeling that if I were to look from the outside, the passenger side would be noticeably lower.
"Do you believe that people ever stop changing?" Andrew asked out of nowhere as I drove him home.
"What do you mean?" I asked with a glance at him.
He remained quiet as though he was thinking, that or he really did fall asleep on me. "You know, changing," he finally said. "I mean I was an entirely different person when I was a small. Over the years, I've changed. I think different. I believe and value different things. Do you think people ever reach a point in their lives where they can say this is who I am and nothing you can do can ever change me?"
Although I was having a particularly difficult time trying to imagine Andrew as ever having been small, I did try to think about what he was trying to get at. "Well without anything else to go on, I'd have to say no. People never stop changing. We're not machines that are limited to knowing only what we were programmed to know. We can learn and adapt. We can think for ourselves and sometimes change the way we think. Why?"
"No reason," he lumbered as he looked out the window. I thought he was pacing himself to say something else but he just sat there until the silence was far too uncomfortable for me.
"Why?" I asked again. "Is there someone you're hoping would change?"
"Not really," he said. "I was just wondering."
I had to slow down the car as I looked at him. I was wondering if he was perhaps implying that I should change. I mean my conversations with Andrew were usually limited to sports and on the court. I didn't really know when he was playing dumb or being sincere (which to be fair were both difficult to discern from my giant friend). I wasn't really one to be left hanging in such conversations though so I had to ask. "Do you think I should change?"
He shrugged silently.
We had to pause our conversation as we turned towards the familiar street name. The two of us shared a glare as we passed the large wrought iron gates bearing the crest and name of Westfield Private School. The two of us were muttering curses under our breaths.
"It's the tall one near that corner," he indicated as we drove past the gates of hell.
"Well, here we are," I said a little uncomfortably as I parked outside his building. It was a large pasty white structure that had maybe ten or twelve floors.
"Yep," Andrew said. We both sat there for an extended period as though waiting for the other to say something. "I guess I should go. Thanks a lot for bringing me home."
"No problem man," I said as I knocked knuckles with him, nearly breaking my fingers in the process. He opened his door and vacated his seat, making the car rise slightly. He closed it and waved to me through the glass. On a last minute impulse, I rolled down the window and called out to him. "Hey, Andrew!"
"Yeah?" he asked as he paused to look back.
"Why did you ask me about people changing?" I half-expected him to say some obtuse answer like no reason or nothing really but to my surprise, he walked back and leaned through the open window, threatening to break the door off.
"When I was younger," he said as my car creaked dangerously under his weight, "most people would have considered me a bully. It's not particularly hard with my size as you can probably imagine. My mom always said that I was just a dedicated, well-developed young man, always pursuing what I had with a determined conviction. Now though, I see what I really was back then. There really was no other word for it than being a bully. When I look back, I realize how much I'd changed and how much better off a person I am now than I was before. I would never, ever consider changing back to the person I was when I was younger."
"Oh," I said in surprise. I wasn't surprised by what he said. It was more the shock of so many words being strung together by Andrew in one go. "Is that what you're worried about? That you might be changing back to the way you were when you were sma… younger?"
"Not really," he said as he stared intently at me as though to make sure he had my full attention. It was a little disconcerting to look back at his large beetle-black eyes. "I'm better off the way I am now than I was before. Some people aren't though."
"Oh," I said, unsure what else there was to say.
"I'll see you around, Derek," he said as he patted the side of my car (probably leaving several large fingerlike dents on it too). "If you ever want to talk, you know where to find me."
And with that, he turned and headed inside his apartment building.
The disappearance of Andrew's immense presence seemed to push back the reality of everything else that happened that day. I was officially off the team and I finally knew and understood who was behind it. I should have seen it really. I suppose it was naïve of me to think that Travis wouldn't want some kind of revenge on me even if I hadn't done anything. I mean, except for the whole outing him out to the whole school thing, I haven't done anything else of note.
I looked at my rearview mirror where I could see a few scattered students leaving from the Westfield campus. I had always hated Westfield as a matter of principle. I mean that was basically ingrained in every single Southmore student upon admission. Not hating Westfield was almost grounds for expulsion in our school. I never thought that I would ever find myself hating anyone more than my idea of a Westfield student.
And at that moment, I hated Travis Brody so much it was like flames were funneling from my face threatening to just turn everything to dust.
Luke was right. The bitter taste brought by that statement couldn't stop me from accepting the truth. Travis was as bad as they could get. He went out of his way to ruin other people's lives. Because of him, everything in my life had been turned upside down. Everything great that I once had was lost. Students spoke of me like I was ill or diseased. Teachers looked down on me like they didn't know what to do with me. My mom was constantly stressed out and on the brink of tears. I was ousted as captain of the varsity team and I had a sneaking suspicion that once the dance was over, my post as student body president was likely going to be questioned too.
But most important of all was I lost Charlie. My best friend, who was once always there for me standing by my side, was now standing with the bastard who took everything away from me.
Travis took everything away and I wanted it all back.
The door slammed shut as I stood out there in front of the large rusty gates that lead to the park where Charlie and I shared The Spot. It was an odd feeling, standing there by myself knowing Charlie wasn't with me. He was always with me when I was there. I didn't know what brought me there. I just knew that I didn't want to go home yet. I didn't want to see my mom and see the worry in her face. Perhaps I was looking for something familiar. Some place I knew where I couldn't be hurt, where I could even for a few hours forget every bad thing that's happened so far in my life. Somewhere I knew I could be close to the Charlie I knew without Travis or some teacher breathing down my back.
The Spot has always been a great place to escape the world for Charlie and me. I wondered if the place would be able to provide the same magic we often sought there, knowing I was going to be there alone.
Or perhaps not so alone.
An unfamiliar car was parked some distance away from the entrance. It was parked on the side of the road, under some overgrown trees whose branches and leaves cast dark shadows on the ground. I walked to it curious, never having seen another soul visit the old rundown park. It was a sedan coated in a light metallic sea green paint. The windows were lightly tinted and I could see some bags and a few books in the back. One of the bags on the floor looked oddly familiar but I couldn't really see it well since it was covered by other larger bags, some of them looking like they could have contained clothes.
I was both excited and appalled that someone else had come to that place. It was the first time ever that I might run into someone while at The Spot so it had some thrill to it. Yet, I was also disappointed that someone else had discovered the special sanctuary that only Charlie and I shared.
I pushed open the rusty old gates and looked around for the owner of the car. Instinctively, I looked towards the gazebo where Charlie and I used to hide our bikes when we would come there. From the looks of it, it was empty.
I made my way towards the familiar path that led through the trees, half-expecting someone to jump out of them. But all was still and quiet as I walked towards where the bench was. I had a lot to think about but I wanted, no, I needed to just sit there for a while staring at huge piles of garbage in the hopes that the vileness of the sights could push out all the darkness in my soul.
It was strange walking there. I kept resisting the urge to turn to my side to talk to Charlie. I mean I knew he wasn't there but it certainly felt like he was. It was as if our many returns to the forest had imbued his presence into the trees, and I felt the need to just run up to one and hug it.
And then the trees spoke. "I'm sorry but I just really don't know yet," it said.
I had to blink several times and even attempted to clean my ears, thinking I must have really been losing it, hearing Charlie speak through the trees.
"What's the problem?" said another gentle voice. The familiarity of this voice made me freeze in place, yet my blood boil at the same time. "I like you. You like me. Why won't you let me kiss you anymore? You do like me right?"
"I do, Travis," came Charlie's voice. I moved forward when I realized that I wasn't just imagining voices but actually hearing them from their owners. "It's just that…"
"It's just that what?" Travis asked patiently. I peered through the trees and felt my hand grip tightly on the thick branches I was hiding against. There between the trees were seated Charlie and Travis on the very same bench that Charlie and I shared at The Spot. "Is it Derek again?"
Charlie sighed. Although he never said it, the act was enough of an affirmative.
"Derek knows about this place, doesn't he?" Travis asked, sounding very disappointed.
"I'm sorry, Travis," Charlie said, sounding like a wounded animal. "I just wanted… I just needed to be somewhere close to him."
"Charlie," Travis said in exasperation and I had the distinct feeling that they'd had this conversation many times before. "You don't need Derek anymore. You have me now. I'm never going to let anyone, especially Derek, ever hurt you again."
"Derek wouldn't hurt me," Charlie said adamantly. "He'd never do anything bad to me."
"Charlie, I admire your loyalty to your friend but it's about time you face facts. He doesn't care about you. He only cares about himself."
"That's not true," I saw Charlie shaking his head. "He's just confused and stressed."
"Charlie, he is not confused. He knows exactly what he's doing," Travis said despite Charlie's continued shaking of his head. "He won't care about you the way I do."
"He does care. I know it. I believe it."
"Charlie, this is stupid," Travis said, letting a little of his irritation show. "Please Charlie. If you won't do it for me, do it for yourself. You have to let go of Derek."
Charlie sat there staring at him as though he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Travis, I can't."
"Yes, you can," he said as he took both of Charlie's hands in his own and kissed them one by one. "You can if you try."
"But we promised…"
"Charlie!" Travis interrupted. "Are you so blind that you can't see what he's done to you? Can't you see what he's becoming? I've seen that kind of look before in people I've fought with in Taekwondo. Derek is becoming desperate. A guy like him is dangerous when pushed to the edge. I'm worried he would do something stupid especially after what happened this afternoon."
"What happened this afternoon?" Charlie asked.
"My dad said he's being kicked off the team."
"What?!" Charlie shouted. "But he loves playing basketball and he's good at it. Why are they kicking him off the team?"
"You haven't seen him play lately," Travis said, waving his hand dismissively. "His performance has been terrible and his attitude hasn't been any better. People are worrying about him, the teachers, some of the parents and students. Even they recognize the fact that he might be pushed to do something stupid soon."
"All the more reason we shouldn't do anything more to upset him," Charlie said. He paused and stared at Travis. "How did you know by the way? He went to practice earlier which meant he couldn't have been off the team yet by the time we left."
"My dad told me," Travis said. "He's the Chairman of the Board of Directors. They decided to let him go after today's training."
"Travis," Charlie said seriously, "did you have something to do with Derek getting removed from the team?"
"Of course not," Travis said adamantly. "I fucking hate the guy but I wouldn't go out of my way to aggravate him. As far as I'm concerned, the less I have to do with him, the better."
Charlie sighed heavily. "He must be really upset right now."
"Stop worrying about him," Travis said as he brushed the back of his hand across Charlie's cheek. "I'm here now and I always will be as long as you need me."
"Promise?" Charlie said in a vulnerable voice that made him sound years younger.
"That's my promise," Travis said barely above a whisper as he leaned in and kissed Charlie gently on the lips. It was a soft, sensual kiss, both innocent and intimate.
The branch broke beneath my fingers and the splintered wood cut deeply into my left hand. Charlie and Travis broke apart and looked exactly where the noise had come from. Charlie's eyes met mine for a brief moment before I turned and ran for it.
"Derek, wait!" Charlie shouted after me. "Please, Derek, stop!"
"No," I said softly as though he could hear me. "No," I said as tears ran from my eyes.
"Charlie, stop!" Travis yelled somewhere behind me.
"Travis, let go of me!" Charlie yelled. "You're not helping."
"Charlie, you have to stop this now."
"No," Charlie yelled. "I said let go!"
I stopped as I heard several small branches breaking. I looked back and saw Travis sprawled on the ground with a disbelieving look on his face, his hands wrapped tightly around his ankle. It looked like Charlie, despite his much smaller size, had somehow managed to push Travis to the ground.
"Derek," Charlie yelled as he continued his chase of me.
"Stay away from me, Charlie," I yelled as we cut our way through the trees.
"Derek, please, just stop," Charlie pleaded. "Just talk to me."
"No," I said but nonetheless stopped and faced him. Charlie stopped several feet away, his chest heaving with heavy breaths. "How could you, Charlie? How could you bring him here to our place?"
"I'm sorry, Derek," he said, his voice sounding pained. "I missed you and I just needed to be somewhere I could feel you near me."
"But why'd you have to bring him here?" I cried, my voice shaking. "And you kissed him. HERE. Here of all the damn places."
"It was a mistake," Charlie said as he took several steps towards me. Despite my earlier resolve to get as far as possible from Charlie, I stood rooted to the spot. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking straight."
"That's for sure," I said angrily.
"I am sorry, Derek," he said as he stopped right of me, barely within arm's reach. "I'd never want to do anything to hurt you. I missed you and I guess I just…"
"Decided to kiss the next boy that offered his lips to you?" I asked angrily. "Is that what you want to do to me, Charlie? Kiss me?"
"Yes," he whispered in an uncharacteristically brave voice. "Yes, Derek. I like Travis but I love you. I wished it were you sitting with me there. I wish it was your lips that kissed mine."
I stood there, staring at him. I imagine my mouth was probably hanging open in shock. He took small tentative steps towards me as though trying to shorten the distance between us. Here was Charlie, my best friend saying… saying that… saying that he loved me…
"Get the fuck away from him, Hampton!" Travis yelled as he limped towards us. He'd finally managed to catch up to us using a fallen branch as a walking stick. "Charlie, get away from him. He's dangerous."
"BRODY!" I yelled angrily. The sight of Travis walking towards us interrupting… well, interrupting nothing really… was infuriating me. "You better stay right there because I'm going to fucking rip your head off and make you bleed if you come near me."
Travis froze and narrowed his eyes at me as though hoping I would somehow just drop down and die. "Charlie," he said as he turned to my best friend. "You can't trust Derek."
"Travis, it's okay," Charlie said as he moved slightly away from me and faced Travis. "I'm fine. Derek won't hurt me."
"You don't understand," Travis said. "Derek's been sending me threatening letters for awhile now. He's been threatening me to stay away from you if I didn't want to see you get killed."
"What?" Charlie asked in surprised as he faced me.
"I've done no such thing," I stated flatly.
"Oh, stop lying. I have the letters and it's pretty damn obvious it was you. They have your signature written all over them."
"Why the hell would I send a threat letter to kill someone and then sign it?" I asked disbelievingly.
"Not literally, you fucking moron. I meant it was obvious in the writing. Besides, why the hell are you trying to ask me to explain what goes on in that twisted head of yours?"
"Well, I didn't write any letters to you Brody," I yelled angrily. "And stop making this about me. You're the one who's been turning everyone against me."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Travis demanded. "I've done no such thing."
"Oh yeah, what have you been telling people about me?" I shouted. "Weren't you the one yelling about how selfish I was to the whole school? And then you get your dad to kick me off the team. And what about my car? You fucking attacked my car with a knife."
"I had nothing to do with your damn car. And I didn't ask my dad to get you kicked off anything. I even told him it might not be a good idea to get you upset."
"Oh what a load of bullshit!" I yelled. "You're just jealous of what I have."
"Jealous?" Travis yelled indignantly. "Of you? You really are a damn conceited bastard. I have absolutely nothing to be jealous about."
"Okay enough," Charlie said as he stood between us. "This shouting match is not gonna get us anywhere."
"Yeah," I sneered at Travis. "Charlie and I are gonna go and have a talk while you stay here and cool off." I took Charlie's hand and pulled him away from Travis.
"Don't you touch him!" Travis yelled.
"I said stay the fuck away from me," I yelled to Travis but if he heard me, he ignored it as he rushed towards me and raised the branch in his hand.
"Travis no!" Charlie yelled as he stood between us. Travis' fingers weren't quick enough to pull back as the branch went flying. But instead of hitting me, it hit Charlie instead grazing the side of his head and making him cover the left side of his face with both hands.
"You bastard!" I yelled as I lunged at Travis. "You're dead! You're fucking dead!" Travis may have had a considerable advantage over me under normal circumstances. But with the sprain on one ankle, he quickly lost balance as I plowed against him and started beating every single spot I could find with my fists. "Nobody hurts Charlie!"
"Derek, stop!" Charlie yelled as he pulled against my arm. Travis had several bruises on his face and was shielding what he could with his arms. He pushed against me and with Charlie's help managed to get me off him.
"Travis, are you okay?" Charlie asked in a soothing voice as he stood over Travis who had several cuts across his face and arms. He kept blinking and groaning as though he was only half-conscious.
"Charlie, what are you doing?" I asked as I stood again. "He hit you."
"Derek, just go," he said.
"What?" I asked gaping at him.
"You're upset right now, Derek, and frankly quite violent. You need to cool off for a bit."
"He's the one who hit you," I said as I looked at the wound bleeding down the side of Charlie's head.
"But he wasn't attacking me. You attacked him."
"Only after he tried to attack me!"
"Derek," Charlie said sounding very tired. He wiped the sweat off his face smudging some of the blood across his chin and fingers. "Just go okay? We'll talk later."
"Why is it you're taking his side over mine?" I demanded.
"I'm not taking anyone's side right now," he said. "You both did very stupid things but he's wounded, you're not. And unless you're going to help me with him, you should go."
"I'm not gonna fucking help Brody. I couldn't care less about him."
Charlie looked at me coldly. I had never seen that expression on his face before and seeing it then and knowing it was directed at me killed me just a little inside. "Then you better just leave because we have nothing more to discuss."
I stared at him as he gently wiped away Travis' hair from his forehead. "Charlie, look I'm sorry. I was angry. I didn't mean what I just said."
"Whether you meant it or not, I have nothing more to say to you right now. Just leave."
"Charlie, you know me. You know I didn't really mean that."
"I don't think I know you anymore, Derek. Please just go."
"Charlie," I reasoned, "you can't carry Travis out of here by yourself."
"So what?" Charlie demanded. "You're going to carry him out for me now?"
I stared at him. "If you ask me to, I will."
"Well, I'm not asking you," he said quietly. "I'm going to call my mom. And trust me when I say you don't want to be here when she arrives."
"How are you going to call her? You don't have a phone."
"I do," he said as he pulled out an unfamiliar cell phone. "Travis gave it to me. He thought I might need it some day when I was in trouble. Funny how the trouble came from you."
"Just go, Derek," he screamed. "You've done enough harm today." He wiped the sweat of Travis brow in a loving, caring way and refused to look up again as though he would bow his head forever if he had to, just to avoid looking at me ever again.
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