For the first day since October, the students were spending most of their break time indoors. They weren’t seeking help or conference with their teachers, but rather a cool, safe place to bide their time until the next round of torturous classes began. Yucaipa had decided that year to once again forego spring altogether and leapt directly into the oppressive sweltering of summer, and as the temperatures soared, so did the tensions in the lone high school in the not-so-small town. We could all sense the coming storm. “Are you really going to do it?” Steph asked, half-aroused and half-concerned, tossing her blond hair back over her right shoulder. Before today, she had only spoken a few un-barbed words to me in the past twelve years. “Yeah,” I nodded, with all the resolve I could fake. A delighted smile crept upon the right side of her mouth, her eyes widening with sadistic pleasure. She stood and slung her 50 pounds of books onto her back, carefully pulling her long hair out from under the shoulder straps of her backpack. Having adjusted herself and regained her balance under her heavy load, Steph turned to steal one last, pleased glance. “Good luck, Ryan. It was nice knowing you,” she chuckled, and then strutted out the classroom door as sexily as possible with the weight the equivalent to a small human on her back. In the corner, Mr. Hyde, my senior English teacher, was doing his best to pretend to read his mountainous, leather-bound copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the way he does every time someone in class is drawn into a situation like the one in which I now found myself. Back when he was a new teacher, I heard, Mr. Hyde used to step in and diffuse student disputes, but has looked the other way ever since the time he jumped in the middle of a particularly brutal exchange between a couple of sophomores the first week of school a few years back. He was hurt pretty badly and wound up in the hospital. He didn’t return to Yucaipa High until the following year. The two-minute bell wailed and I wrestled with my backpack. You’d think that with all the technological advances made since the turn of the 21st century that books might’ve gotten smaller, or at least a little lighter. I guess it has always been that way with education, though. Schools have always been a good decade behind the real world. I shot one last look at Mr. Hyde, who, when our eyes met, dove back into his Shakespeare bible. I didn’t blame the guy. When he started here, things weren’t so bad. From what I heard, it was only the past few years that the real problems began. Now he was too old to make a career change. His age, and the bills, made it damn near impossible to escape. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I’d lock the doors and hide under my desk, too. All the way to my last class I couldn’t help but notice how the crowds of classmates seemed to part as a drew near, as if there was a plastic sphere around me that prevented anyone from getting close. Sympathetic stares from friends I’ve known since elementary school dissolved, one by one, into forsaking dismissal. I could see their predictions in their sheepish expressions, and to be totally honest, it wasn’t doing much for my self-confidence. I walked into my government class and made my way to my seat at the back of the room. The four or five kids that arrived before me watched silently as I traipsed down the row and let my heavy pack slide from my shoulders and onto the floor with a loud bang. Mrs. Wesson looked up from her desk and inhaled deeply in preparation of berating the disruptions originator, but seeing me there, stopped cold, mouth agape, and then swallowed hard. A moment later, my best friend, Kari, hobbled in on her crutches and hopped down the row to where her seat, directly in front of me. Seeing her come in, for the first time today, sent a wave of calm over me. I was no longer thinking about the fate that awaited me, or the many torturous hours today prelude to it. Having her here now reminded me of youth. Real youth, not this twisted purgatory we’ve been fighting our way through for the past four years. Kari attempted to swivel carefully in her seat so as to see how I was holding up, but the steel brace on her left leg made the maneuver impossible. Looking over her left shoulder she stared piercingly into my eyes. “Don’t do this,” she demanded. “I have to.” “No, you don’t,” she insisted “What else am I going to do?” “Walk away.” “And then what?” I asked. “And then go home,” she snarled, the furrows in her brow deepening. “What, just run away?” “Exactly.” “And be coward?” “There’s nothing brave about fighting him,” she pleaded. “If I don’t, this will never end. You know that, right?” She turned and stared silently at the projector screen at the front of the room. “It’s a matter of honor…and pride,” I added. “Bullshit!” she yelped, spinning around awkwardly, a dagger of pain registering on her face. “There is no honor in this. It’s just senseless violence. I mean, what is this really about? You told Mike’s girlfriend that she was better off breaking up with him. Big deal! Everyone knows that. The guy’s an asshole and he’s cheated on her, like, a million times. And you’re supposed to fight him because he didn’t like what you said?” “I don’t have a choice,” I reiterated. “And what choice did I have? Look at me.” She pointed to her re-built knee. “Did I deserve this?” “That’s totally different. That was an accident,” I insisted. “You were just watching.” She stared right through me as the tardy bell whined for what seemed like minutes. When the ringing fell silent, she turned around and exhaled heavily. “You know what? Do whatever the hell you want. I don’t care anymore,” she glowered.
I settled back in my seat, feeling the disappointment emanating from her. I racked my brain for some solution by which I could walk away and not be branded a coward, but nothing came. I just slumped down in the desk, my body molding to its plastic shape.
“I won’t be there,” she added a few seconds later. “I can’t.” “I know,” I reassured her. Mrs. Wesson emerged from behind her desk and began her usual ramble, this time about Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. About ten seconds in I, with the rest of the class, had entirely tuned her out. It was wholly unfulfilling knowing that I would be spending what could possibly be my last ninety minutes listening to this woman rant and rave about a past that held no relevance to my life, a world I could never understand, where barbaric conflicts found their way into the jungles and the streets and men killed stealthily like criminals. Time, as is often the case when something we dread awaits us, dissolved quickly into the past, and before I knew it, the dismissal bell shook me from my pondering and dropped me back in the sad reality of the situation. Time was up. “I’m begging you,” Kari turned to face me. “Walk away.” I stared deep into her eyes, swollen with threatening tears, wishing I could agree. I no longer cared for myself. I had, over the course of the day, resigned myself to accept whatever fate was charted out for me. Life on this planet, I had decided, was just a snapshot in the grand scheme, and therefore I had no reason to fear prematurely entering the next phase of my existence. It wasn’t fear that made me want to run.
I didn’t want to hurt Kari.
“I’m sorry,” was all I could muster in reply. “So am I,” she said, and then stood and maneuvered into her backpack and hobbled out the door without looking back.
Perspiration began to push its way through my clothes at my arm pits and the small of my back as I stood there, staring down the hall. Mike was walking slowly toward me, head cocked to the right, his usual entourage in close behind. The image of this monster drawing near began to strobe in my mind, the dead air around my head pressing in. My fingers began to tingle, along with my thighs. I became suddenly conscious of my entire body, every sensation, every pore. From adjacent halls, faceless bodies began to emerge and formed a runway to my destiny. I stood, sweating, the ruthless sun burning slowly into my flesh. Still he grew nearer. A hot wind whispered across the back of my neck and sent a chill down my arms. I could hear the mechanical whirring of the security camera directly above me as it surveyed the scene, its operator safely within the bowels of the administration building. I could hear the distant roar of a crowd on one of the baseball fields at the lower end of campus. I could hear my own heart pounding in my ears. And then we were face to face. “I didn’t think you’d show,” he growled through the permanent grimace he called a face. I didn’t respond, but stared confidently. “I’m glad you did, though,” he smiled. He took a step back and wiped the beads of sweat that were forming on his upper lip. His hands trembled ever so slightly, totally unseen by everyone around him. But I saw it. The big question: Was it fear, or adrenalin? Neither of us moved for a solid minute. All sound disappeared except our deep, heavy breaths. Each eyed the other suspiciously, waiting for the other to back down. Or rather, hoping. “Do it, Mike!” a voice called from behind him, waking us both from our trance. Carefully, our eyes locked, we each began to take small steps backward, our hands held loosely at our sides. After five or six paces, each of us came to rest beneath on the sun-scorched pavement, just listening to the rustle of the bystanders and studying the eyes of our opponent. A sparrow sang carefree in a nearby spruce. It had been two years since I first began carrying a pistol, yet I never had use for it until today. It had merely been a precaution born out of the growing trend in school shootings. Eventually, some thirty years after the first Columbine shooting, handguns had become as common in schools as cell phones once were. It must’ve been impossible for the veteran teachers to imagine was how our guns would one day be so boldly worn in designer holsters at our sides, like the latest fashion. What was once the fear of every adult had become a reality, for truly, every student now had a gun. I swallowed hard, and then filled my lungs with the fresh California air. Before I was aware, I had reached for my pistol and let loose a fiery blast. In the same instant, I found myself pulled violently from my feet and felt my shoulders slam into the ground. I felt a searing just below my ribs on my right side as I lay there gasping for breath. There was no sound now but the echo of gunfire across the hot April skies. The crowd looked on in disbelief, the way they had done a hundred times before. Yet no one dared approach either of us. Staring at the soft, white cirrus clouds hanging above me in the pale blue, I listened for movement, for footsteps. I expected to see Mike’s triumphant grimace standing over me, gloating. I expected a merciful blast ending this spectacle. I waited for the familiar sirens that called from the street at the front of the school. Yet, only the hot breeze whistled in my ears. “He’s dead,” a girl’s voice shrieked from the other end of the hall. All at once, the spectators began to shuffle about. I was immediately engulfed in reverent congratulations. I forced a confused smile, and nodded to each of them, the fire in my gut spreading exponentially throughout my torso. Brutish hands grabbed hold of me and lifted me to my feet. My legs refused to comply and buckled beneath me. I was gathered up again and whisked away to the office, where my wounds would be addressed, at least until the paramedics arrived. Lying on the cot, blood soaking the bandage on my abdomen, I heard the clicking and scraping of crutches interspersed with delicate sobs, passing by just outside the window. I learned later that my shot had found its mark just above Mike’s left eye. He fell serenely, as if on a mattress, and drifted off instantaneously. I contemplated attending the funeral, but decided against it. Besides, I still hadn’t mastered maneuvering the wheelchair and didn’t want to make a spectacle. Apparently, Mark’s shot played havoc with my insides and bounced off my ribs, severing my spinal chord. It could’ve been a lot worse. I just got lucky, I guess. I have to admit that I did feel a small amount of sadness at Mark’s death, but knew that a deeper sense of honor and pride brought us to this end. Some would say that our dispute was trivial, our suffering senseless. I don’t know. Maybe if it had happened forty years ago I would’ve agreed. We’ve gone too far to look back now.