The Messenger

by Joel Young

Chapter 8

I Didn't Tell Them You're Into Guys

When Sara and I got back to her house, her parents were in the living room. Mrs. Hinman was working on an art project at a large table. Mr. Hinman was reading the newspaper. When they saw Sara and me come into the room, they stopped what they were doing.

"Joel!" Mrs. Hinman said. "It's so good to see you!"

Mr. Hinman stood up and shook my hand. "You're looking more like your father every day. How are your parents?"

I said my parents were well. Sara explained that we decided against a movie. "Is it all right if we listen to music downstairs?" she asked.

"Of course!" Mrs. Hinman said. "Joel is welcome anytime. How about some snacks?" Without waiting for an answer, she headed toward the kitchen. Mr. Hinman asked about the play, and we chatted for a few minutes. Then, Mrs. Hinman brought out a tray of cheese, crackers and fruit.

I thanked Mrs. Hinman, and Sara and I headed to the family room on the lower level. "Your parents are so nice," I said. "They make me feel very welcome."

"They like you," Sara said. Then she added, "More than Jim."

That comment made me stop in my tracks.

"Don't worry," Sara said. "I didn't tell them you're into guys."

Sara turned on some music, and we sat down and started munching on the snacks before picking up our conversation from the mall.

"Joel," Sara said. "Is it possible that you're hanging around Ben just to take your mind off of David?"

"Probably," I admitted. "But, I can't stand how I feel when I think about David leaving me. Ben makes me – I don' know – put that aside. Being with him relieves some of the pain, at least for a while."

"You make it sound like David chose to leave you," Sara said. "We both know that's not true. That guy was head-over-heals for you. If he had been 18, he would have refused to move with his parents, just to stay with you."

"I want to believe that," I said. "But why hasn't he called me? It just hurts too much to think about him." I knew Sara understood, and we sat quietly for a while.

"So, what are you going to do about Corey?" she asked.

"I'll just keep trying to get ahold of him. Maybe I can catch him tomorrow," I said.

We talked until about 9:30 that night. Sara told me about her telephone calls with Jim, and how much he was enjoying Japan. By the time I left to go home, I was feeling better.

I called Corey several times on Sunday, but no one answered the phone. I even drove by his house - twice. I finally gave up and decided to catch him before first hour on Monday. Maybe, I could arrange to talk with him over lunch.

Corey's locker was just down the hall from mine, and most mornings, I would see him before classes started. But that Monday, he was nowhere to be found.

I was in my second hour Chemistry class when I heard the school secretary on the PA system. "Joel Young - to the office, please. Joel Young."

Being summoned to the office startled me. And, I was scared. Had Corey already told the Principal about catching Ben and me kissing?!? Was Ben already in the Principal's office? What if Ben and I told different stories? Was I about to be expelled? Oh, my God! What if my parents were here?!?

Mrs. Gruber nodded at me, letting me know that I was excused. I had no choice but to get up out of my chair and head toward the office. I could feel my hands trembling when I got there.

The school secretary told me that Principal Stephens was waiting for me in the conference room. She pointed to the door. I felt like a prisoner being told to go meet with the warden.

When I entered the conference room, I saw Mrs. Weber. "Oh, my God!" I said with some relief. "Mrs. Weber, it's so great to see you!" She stood up and gave me a hug.

"Is your mother okay?" I asked.

"She's getting better," Mrs. Weber said. "Thanks for asking."

Mr. Stephens greeted me and told me to have a seat. "I'm sorry to pull you out of class," he said. "But there's a problem that we're hoping you can help us with. It's about the play. I've been calling Ben Califonte, but I haven't reached him. We know you're the Student Director, so we wanted to talk with you about the situation."

Since it didn't sound like this was about Ben and me kissing, I started to calm down. But now I was confused. "What's wrong with the play?" I asked.

Mr. Stephens and Mrs. Weber looked at each other, and I could see that they were trying to decide who was going to tell me what was going on. It reminded me of when Mrs. Weber escorted me to her room last semester to give me bad news. That was the day I found out David was moving away.

"You tell him, Susan," Mr. Stephens said. "The full story is going to be on the news tonight anyway."

"Joel," Mrs. Weber said. "There's been an accident. Cory Anderson was hurt."

"Oh, my God!" I said. "What happened? Is he alright?"

Mrs. Weber took a deep breath. "Last Friday night, Corey's car was hit by a train. The police think he drove around the gates to try and beat the train across the tracks."

I was speechless – and horrified!

"The doctors are saying that he will live, but he's in bad shape, Joel. He's going to be in the hospital for weeks, if not longer," Mrs. Weber explained.

"Joel," Mr. Stephens said. "I called Mrs. Weber because we need to make some decisions. We think that maybe we should cancel the play."

"But, dress rehearsals start tomorrow. We open on Friday!" I said.

Mrs. Weber put a hand on my shoulder. "Corey's part is huge! No one could learn it by Friday – unless he has an understudy."

Up until then, I had been so shocked about Corey's accident that I hadn't thought about his part in the play. And, when the reality of the situation hit me, I gasped out loud.

"Joel," Mrs. Weber said. "What's wrong?"

"I'm his understudy!" I said.

And then, the rest of it hit me, too. I remembered how upset Corey had been on Friday when he saw me kissing Ben. "It's all my fault," I thought to myself. "Corey was so angry at me that he wasn't thinking straight. And, that's why he got into the accident."

Just then, Ben opened the door and came into the conference room. "I just heard about Corey," he said. "Is there any news?"

Mr. Stephens brought Ben up to date. Then, he introduced Mrs. Weber to Ben, explaining that she was the Speech and Theater teacher who usually directed the spring plays. "I called her when we couldn't reach you," he said to Ben. "We need to figure out what to do about the play."

"Well," Ben said. "Fortunately, Joel can take over the part of the Messenger. I think we should cancel rehearsal for today. As long as we start dress rehearsals tomorrow, we should be able to open on Friday. We can meet with the cast and crew after school today and let them know what's going on."

As I listened to Ben, I was fighting back tears. I was horrified by what had happened to Corey. I felt responsible for upsetting him so much that he had tried to outrun a train. And, I was terrified at the thought of performing on stage. Mrs. Weber picked up on how close I was to breaking down, and she put her arm around me. I know she meant to help. But, when she tried to comfort me, I lost it. I laid my head down on the conference room table while resting my forehead on my arms. I started to cry, as quietly as I could.

"May I have a minute alone with Joel," Mrs. Weber asked.

Ben and Mr. Stephens stood and walked toward the principal's office. Ben stopped and said, "Joel, when you're done, I'd like to speak with you, too." I managed to say, "Okay." Ben left, closing the door behind him.

Mrs. Webber kept her arm around me, but she didn't say anything. She knew I needed time to pull myself together. When I sat up, she reached for a box of tissues that was on the table. I took a tissue and wiped my face. "Are you going to be okay?" she asked.

"I'm just upset about Corey," I told her.

"Joel," Mrs. Webber said. "Was Corey - doing okay with the play?"

I finished drying my eyes and took a deep breath. "Yea, I guess so," I said.

"Joel, I don't mean to put you in an awkward position, but I need to know something," Mrs. Weber said. "I've heard that Mr. Califonte can be - difficult to work with at times. Do you think there may have been too much pressure put on Corey?"

"You mean pressure that might have caused the accident?" I asked.

"Well, maybe not caused," she said. "But, the kind of pressure that may have contributed to his frame of mind that night?"

I sat for a moment, staring straight ahead. I considered answering Mrs. Weber's question with the blunt truth. I played that answer out in my mind without speaking. "Corey didn't want such a big part, and he had a terrible time learning all of his lines. He was afraid of making mistakes and looking like a fool in front of Ben. Corey and I were both crushing on Ben, and when Corey saw Ben and me making out after rehearsal last Friday, he totally lost it. I'm sure he wasn't thinking straight. That's probably why he did something stupid like trying to beat a train across the tracks."

I quickly rejected answering with the blunt truth. I considered an outright lie. "The play was really going well. Rehearsal on Friday was great. Corey and I left rehearsal together, and he seemed fine."

I decided on the middle ground – no outright lies, but less than full disclosure.

"Corey had difficulty memorizing all of his lines," I told Mrs. Weber. "And, he was stressed about that. Both Ben and I worked with him, and he was doing better. He had a good rehearsal last Friday, and I thought he was feeling more confident about the show."

Mrs. Weber seemed satisfied with that answer. She told me she was going over to the hospital to see Corey's parents. She said she would come back to school that night to update the cast and crew about Corey's condition. She spoke to Ben and Mr. Stephens before she left. Ben came into the conference room.

"Is there someplace we can talk?" Ben asked. "Someplace private?"

Fortunately, the conference room in the library was free. And, the small window in the door had construction paper taped over it. So, Ben and I had some privacy - as long as we kept our voices down.

"What a mess!" Ben said as we sat down. "Don't worry about the show too much, Joel. You and I can work together, and we can pull it off."

As guilty as I felt about the whole situation, my anger at Ben resurfaced. "Can we, Ben?" I asked. "Can we really work together?"

Apparently, my tone of voice caught Ben off guard. He looked at me with a questioning expression. He said nothing. I said nothing. It felt as if we were in a standoff.

Finally, Ben asked, "Why would you think we can't work together?"

Unfortunately, I let the impertinent child in me speak. "Well, when I needed your help last Friday night, you seemed to be more interested in going to the bar to drink with your friends. Why should I think I can count on you now?"

Ben started to get angry, but then I saw him deliberately restraining himself. "I don't usually deal very well with open hostility directed at me," he said. "But this one time, for you, I will try to - overlook things. I know you've just had a shock, and you're feeling a lot of stress about taking over Corey's part. But, believe me, Joel. I am going to be here for you. I will get you through this."

After Ben said that, I felt terrible about speaking to him in such a snarky way. I started to tear up again. "I'm sorry, Ben," I said. "I shouldn't have talked to you like that. You're right. It is a mess. I feel terrible, and I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

Ben stood and came around the table to where I was sitting. "Stand up," he said. I did as I was told, and he took me in his arms. "It's okay, Joel," he said. "I won't let you down. For the next seven days, you are my top priority. I'm going to do whatever you need. I promise." He pulled back, put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. "Joel, if you need to run lines, I'll skip class and help you nail them down. If you're overloaded with homework, I'll talk to your teachers. Need a hug? I'm your guy."

Ben's words made me feel much better. "I'm taking you up on those promises," I said to Ben. "Without you, I don't think I can get through the rest of this week."

"And, without you," Ben said, "I don't have a show."

Near the end of 6th hour, Mr. Stephens talked to the school over the PA system. "Before the end of the school today," he said. "I need to speak to all of you about a sad and disturbing event that has occurred within the Joliet family. Over the weekend, you may have heard about an accident near our school involving a car and a train. The news media has not yet shared the identity of the driver of the car. But, I've been informed that WXYZ television will release the name on their 6:00 o'clock news report this evening. And, I know that you will be as shocked and concerned as I was when I found out that the driver of that car is a senior here at Joliet - Corey Anderson."

As soon as Mr. Stephens spoke Corey's name, everyone in the school reacted. I could hear people up and down the corridor gasping in shock and crying out loud.

I was very impressed with how Mr. Stephens was handling this horrible situation. He told the school that Corey's parents had authorized him to share information on Corey's condition, but they had requested that there be no visitors while their son was in the ICU. Mr. Stephens emphasized that Corey was expected to recover. He said that all evening activities at the school were canceled for tonight, except for a brief meeting with the cast and crew of The Messenger . He told us that trained crisis counselors would be at school the next day and for the rest of the week in case any students, staff or parents thought that some additional support would be helpful. Then, the teachers in every classroom handed out a letter from Mr. Stephens for the students to take home to their parents and family.

Mr. Stephens, Mrs. Weber, and Ben were in the auditorium when the cast and crew arrived. There were lots of tears and hugs before, during and after the meeting. Mr. Stephens told the group more about what was planned for showing our support for the Anderson family. Mrs. Weber spoke about going to the hospital and talking with Corey's parents. And, she had an enormous get-well card for all of us to sign. Ben explained what was going to happen about the play. Everyone was grateful that rehearsal was canceled for the night, and everyone agreed that we should go on with the performances later in the week.

When the meeting ended, many people stopped and talked to me. Some said they knew I would do a good job taking over for Corey. Others sympathized with my situation. "Sorry, Joel," a guy from the sound crew said. "I guess it sucks to be you today."

Sara gave me a ride home after the meeting. She was very upset about Corey. But being my closest friend, Sara worried about me, too.

"Joel," she said. "Don't you dare try to make this your fault. Corey is responsible for his own choices and bad decisions. I feel terrible about his accident, but you aren't responsible!"

I was barely holding myself together, but Sara's support was helpful, as always.

"The best thing you could do right now is to go home and let it all out," she said. "Then, starting tomorrow, help Corey and Joliet by working as hard as you can to give great performances."

And, that's exactly what I tried to do.

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