A Friend Indeed
It was mid November and the trees were the color of fruit loops. I sat under the metal bleachers on the far side of the football field, alone and forgotten. I nibbled at a lunchable thinking long thoughts about middle school, popularity and the unfairness of the world when she ducked under the slats.
“Are you Cage?” she asked.
I told her I was.
“Glory, you gotta help me,” she said.
I felt the “gotta” was up for grabs, but I didn’t want to scare her off. I could see the desperation in her eyes and she looked more afraid than the frogs before biology class.
“Sure,” I said before I could think it through. I’d almost gotten used to being alone and the company kinda threw me off my game.
“Thank you,” she said. “I didn’t know who else to turn to.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Aren’t you the detective guy? You figure stuff out. Oh glory, you’re the one that found Joanne Blakley’s mom’s diamond ring after she lost it at fall formal.”
Joanne’s mom had told her she couldn’t wear it, but Joanne had wanted to impress Skylar Lanes.
“And you’re the one that found out Bull McCormack’s girlfriend was cheating on him,” she said.
With Skylar Lanes.
“All that’s Jake,” I said. “But if you know that, you know Skylar Lanes beat the crap outta me for exposing him. I don’t really do the whole private eye thing anymore.”
She held my gaze and her eyes got all puffy and wet. A single tear slithered down her cheek and I felt like a mondo-uber-dork. I rummaged around in my backpack and found an old McDonald’s napkin. I handed it over so she could blow her nose and dab her eyes. She was so damsel-y and distress-y I couldn’t blow her off.
“Who are you?”
“I’m sorry,” she said and offered her hand, palm down like a British Princess. “I’m Carmen Hardstone.”
I didn’t recognize her from school and told her so.
“It’s a big school. Do you know everybody?”
She had me there. I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly. Or social chrysalis. I wasn’t much of a pupa anything. “What do you want me to do?”
“Oh glory, I don’t quite know where to start.”
“How about the beginning,” I suggested.
She smiled. “That’s a very good place to start.”
I pulled over a cracked plastic milk crate and she sat, folding her hands on her knees, pulling nervously at her fingers. “It’s about my boyfriend. He’s been expelled.”
“Not much I can do about that,” I told her. “You need to talk to the principal.”
“I did. And the guidance counselor. The superintendent. Everybody. They won’t listen to me and just expelled him.”
“They say what for?”
I felt a tightening in my stomach. A pinch. Probably the same pinch a trout feels when the hook sets into his mouth. “That is looked down upon from high.”
“They found the answers in his locker. But I know he was framed. Somebody set him up.”
“You have proof?”
“No. If I did I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
“Nice to be wanted,” I said.
“That’s—that’s not what I mean. I just feel so…. No one else will help me. You are my last chance. It’s just so unfair. Does that make sense?”
Oh, it made sense alright. See, middle school is a whacked out world of lies and deception, of cliques and hierarchies, of cloud nine hopes and impossible dreams. Justice doesn’t go here, it just hangs out on campus and cuts class when finals roll around. Somebody always gets hurt, which is why I started the whole detective thing. I don’t have a license or anything cause the state won’t give them to a thirteen-year-old guy. I wanted to make sure justice, fairness, whatever you want to call it – got a shot. Instead I got beat up for exposing the truth.
Now here it came again, the chance to do some good. Maybe make things right.
“Please help me,” she whispered. Her curly auburn hair shone like a new penny before gum, lint or pocket junk turned it all skunky. Her clear eyes glinted like ice cubes in a glass of Sierra Mist and her strong athletic body looked like she played a lot of AYSO soccer. “You’re my last hope,” she said and I knew she had me by my Achilles heel. She looked so vulnerable and scared, I couldn’t leave her alone in her newly shattered world, cold and afraid. It’s no way to spend 8th grade, believe me, I know. Life may not be fair, but that doesn’t mean we have to lay down and let it steamroll us. Somebody had to fight for the outcasts.
Her body sagged in relief.
I grabbed a spiral bound memo pad from my coat and pulled the top off my sharpie with my teeth. “What’s your boyfriend’s name?”
The pinch in my stomach turned into a mule kick. “Reno Vega?”
“They say he stole the answers to the I.Q. Pentathlon.”
The mule had donned some steel-toed work boots and was in full-blown hissy fit. I should’ve told her to go. But it was so unfair. Like an idiot, I said, “Spill.”
She smiled. Then filled me in on the details. I knew them all too well.
The I.Q. Pentathlon is like a sporting event for the smart kids. They compete against other schools, answering questions and getting points – Magnet school and prep-school scouts come and scholarships are given. Just like football, some teams are better than others. And this Saturday was the Super Bowl of Pentathlons. Hammett vs. Chandler – the two best in state. The MVP could walk away with full ride to Marlowe Academy, the best private High School in the state. Most Marlowe grads become doctors, lawyers, CEOs. Even two senators had gone there. Going to Marlowe meant a nova-bright future full of money, hope and promise. Getting into that school practically guaranteed a life riding the happiness train.
I’d dreamed of going to Marlowe. Once. Before my life went all fakunky.
“I’ll talk to Reno and see—“
“Oh glory no,” Carmen interrupted. “You can’t talk to Reno.”
“He’s the victim.”
She collapsed into my chest like a wounded Labrador. I felt kinda nimroddy, but I patted the back of her head. “He could never ask for help. His pride is all he’s got left. But this doll’s only doin’ it for her guy. Promise me you won’t talk to him.”
“Sure,” I said.
“And you’ll take the case? Clear him of all this cheating stuff?”
“I knew if anyone could understand it would be you.”
Oh I understood alright. All too well.
She rose and stepped out of the slatted shade under the bleachers and walked across the field. I was alone again. And my life was about to slip downhill.