The Last Piece
I got to my feet, using the car bumper as leverage. My knees shook so hard I wasn’t sure I could stand. The coppery taste of fear mixed with adrenaline and whatever other emotions were swimming through my overloaded system.
“Drex! DREX!” Through a cotton haze, I heard Betty Ann screaming my name. “Drexton!”
She ran across the parking lot, her face a mask of fear and worry and a whole bunch of other stuff I was too shaken to read.
I stood on wobbly legs.
Betty Ann threw her arms around me in a suffocating bear hug. “Are you okay?” She asked, concern marching all over her tone.
“Could be better,” I quipped, trying to diffuse the tension. Didn’t work.
“Come here, sit,” she said, guiding me to the nearby retaining wall. A few kids passed us the way people do at a car wreck. Their expressions saying, “Glad it’s not me,” but not bothering to stop and help.
Betty Ann sat beside me, her left arm around my aching shoulders, right hand on my knee. I looked into her worried brown eyes. She flushed. “What happened?” She asked.
“Got run off the road.”
“Master of the obvious. I got that. Idiot. By who?”
She pulled her arm from my shoulder and sat silent for a moment. Her face a study in…study. I stretched out my legs, coaxing the muscles to remember what working felt like.
“This is bad. Really bad.”
“I mean this is like the bad of bads.”
“Bad. Got it.”
The first bell rang. Three times. Briiing. Brinnng. Briiiing. Neither of us moved. A kid with a, I’M IN THE BAND t-shirt hightailed past us towards class. Let him. He wasn’t just chased down by some maniac.
I thought about telling Betty Ann to get to first period. She didn’t need another day of detention over this, but before I could open my mouth another voice stopped me.
“Drexton?! There you are man. Been looking all over for you.” Reginald Wellington III, Pentathalon team leader and his illustrious girl, Electra came racing between parked cars. “You okay?”
He sat next to me. Electra remained standing.
“Sure,” I told him.
“Thank god,” he said. “You are the talk of the school, dude.”
“Already?” I said.
“Age of technology, dude. I got three texts and a phone vid of your grand entrance here.” He nodded at my bike, crumpled and mortally wounded. “Wild ride?”
“Sorta. What are you doing out of class?”
“Lookin’ for you, genius,” Reg said, shaking his head. Reg never cut class, so something big was going down. “They’re not just talking about the wipeout,” he said solemnly.
“Really,” I said. “What are they saying?”
He looked at Electra who nodded for him to continue. “You gotta watch your back.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Come on man,” Reg said throwing his hands into the air. “Rumor mill has gone into overtime.”
“About what?” I asked.
“You and Reno Vega,” Electra said. She was clutching a black high-end bag, fiddling with the strap on her shoulder.
Reg, patted my leg. “Rumor is they’re going to pound you.” His face was creased with worry. Actually made me feel kind of good that the guy cared.
“Who?” Betty Ann stood, hands on her hips, glaring at Reg.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” Reg said, hands in the air. Defensive.
She sat. “Sorry.”
“You said they.” I said.
“The them. The infamous them. Whoever they are. Who ever you’re cheesing off.”
“Drexton?” Betty Ann said.
I knew where she was going with this. I put up a warning hand to stop her. “It’s just a rumor,” I assured.
She bit back a retort and just stared at the ground, kicking stones.
“But you know how accurate these rumors are,” Electra said in her warm honey voice. “Remember last year?” Reg added. “That kid from the school newspaper was going to
print a story about who egged old lady Baxter’s car?”
Yeah, I remembered.
“Remember the rumor was he was gonna get nailed?” Reg continued. “Three days later he got bullied leaving school. The legendary they stole his money and broke his arm and three of his typing fingers.”
The kid spent two months out of school and the egging story never got published. I’ve noticed they lock the teachers’ parking lot now. Public school ain’t for wusses.
Reg leaned close. His breath smelled of mint and good breeding. “There are whispers everywhere. You’re heading for a beating.”
Electra nodded. She pulled the purse from her shoulder and let it dangle on her fingers in front of her, swinging it slightly.
“I can’t stop now,” I said.
“Why?” Electra asked.
“I get chased off, who’ll hire me again,” I joked.
“Dude, if it’s about money, we can help you,” Reg looked to Electra. She lifted her bag and opened. Out came a thin wad of cash. Reg took and the money and offered it to me.
I shook my head.
He put the bills in my shirt pocket. “Borrow it. Pay me back when you can.”
I removed the bills and handed them back. “I can’t.”
“Look Drex,” Reg said, his voice edged in regret and sympathy. “I know I kinda bailed on you when things went south last year. But let me help now.”
“Thanks. No,” I said. I offered my hand to shake. No awkward fist bump this time. He took it. We shook.
“Alright man,” he said. “Hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Me too,” Electra said. She smiled and touched my cheek.
Reg and Electra started to walk away. “Reg,” I said.
“You hear anything specific. Text me?”
“I can do that,” Reg said with a weak smile. He draped his arm around his babe and headed back to class.
Betty Ann looked up at me, pinching her fingers in her lap. “Drexton,” she began.
“It’s just a rumor,” I interrupted.
“What if it’s not?”
“I can’t quit,” I insisted. And I couldn’t. I’d been played, lied to, misled, beaten, run off the road. I was beyond pissed. My sense of right and wrong had been trampled and somebody had to pay. “I won’t!”
“Why not?” Betty Ann asked.
“Because somebody’s getting away with cheating!” I exploded.
“And you didn’t.”
“No, I didn’t!” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I’d never actually said it out loud before.
The silence that followed seemed deafening. I stared at my shoelaces, so tangled and knotted. Like my life. But the cat was out of the bag. I couldn’t stuff it back in. I pushed on, hoping maybe there’d be some release in getting it out verbally.
“I cheated,” I confessed. “I wasn’t framed.”
“Uh huh,” Betty Ann said quietly.
Her reaction fell on me like an avalanche.
“You knew?” I said, stunned.
My head reeled. She’d never said anything. She’d played along with my lame and pathetic charade. A fresh wave of shame started at my shoes and clawed upward.
“You never said anything,” I muttered.
“No,” she said. “And I never asked. Until now. Why’d you do it Drex?”
“I dunno!” And that’s the sad, stupid truth. “My dad lost his job and stuff got weird at home. My grades slipped and Mister Iverson said if I fell below a three point oh I wouldn’t be eligible for the Pentathlon team. I told him it wasn’t fair, I mean everybody stumbles a little. He said, ‘Life’s not fair.’ I had to be on the team. It’s the only place in school where I fit in, it’s all I had, you know?”
Betty Ann flinched as if I slapped her but I was too lost in my own acid-washed memories to figure out why.
“If I could ace mid-terms I’d be back in the gold. I panicked. That’s it. It wasn’t some noble great thing, it was a stupid mistake.”
Betty Ann looked at me. Looked into me. “You were wrong.”
I’d been kicked by a donkey at a petting zoo once. That hurt a lot less.
She nodded a moment, then added, “You can’t make that right. You can fight injustice and right all the wrongs and balance an unfair world, but it won’t make up for what you did.”
I knew that. But I had to try.
“When are you going to man up and learn from it so we can move on?”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m all alone out here!”
If she’d been a dragon she woulda roasted me in a fiery rush. She bit back rage and impatience. “You’re all alone?! Alone? What, I’m not side-kicky enough for you? You think I’m doin’ this cause it’s fun for me? Huh? You think I like hanging out under the bleachers? Poking around in people’s business? Feeling like an outcast?”
I’d never seen her angry before. Not like this. I stepped back, recoiling from the line of fire. “Then why do you do it?” I stammered.
“Why do you think, Spaz!” she blurted. I could see her eyes begin to puddle and her voice got low and crinkly. “Why do you think?” She looked away, but I could see her brush a tear angrily from her cheek. “For a detective you don’t see much.”
A whole new wave of guilt washed over me. I knew Betty Ann was a friend. She stuck by me. I thought it was because she had a good soul. I never dared dream it could be something more. My mind told me to reach for her. To hug her. Maybe even kiss her. But I have a stupid body that wouldn’t allow me to move. Our shadows stretched and elongated under the hot morning sun. After a small eon Betty Ann nodded slightly to herself, as if finally making up her mind on something she’d wrestled with for a while.
“I won’t watch you get hurt, so you can play Captain Justice,” she said and reached into her purse, pulling out a folded piece of paper. She threw it at me, turned and walked to class.
And I was left alone.
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