I couldn’t believe it took me so long to wake up. The shrill voice of Mrs. Crabbers would be able to wake the dead. I must have really dozed. Right there on the toilet seat, head in hands, elbows leaving little red divots on my thighs. Proof the cruel and unusual punishment known as I.S.S. could bore any man to death.
That’s what they gave me for the whole slingshot business. Not that I ever confessed or anything. It didn’t matter to Kramer though. Like I said – judge, jury, and executioner. She had what she needed and my confession was only icing on the cake I’d never spread.
Three days is what they gave me. Three days in that dingy basement classroom with not a sprinkle of natural light. Three days with that old hag sitting there with her pointed nose and pointed mouth judging us inmates both silently and not so silently. Each day she’d start with some long speech about responsibility and behavior and common decency till our ears were bleeding with boredom. Then she’d sit for hours, satisfied with her righteous indignation, her latest James Patterson novel poised in front of her face. The only time she’d look up was to let out a long “shhh” and a disapproving shake of her head, whether there was anything to shush or not.
There were four us. Me, a 2nd-grade hell-raiser called Tyler Christowitz, a sixth-grader caught smoking named Arnie Nelson and Delilah Diamond. That’s right, they gave her a day too, for providing the weapon or whatever cockamamie excuse they gave for teaching her a lesson. I’d be lying if it didn’t do my heart good to watch the two-timing broad squirm for the day. Miss goodie two-shoes in a place she never imagined she’d find herself, between Arnie Nelson and Ms. Crabbers. She was officially a bad seed.
“And if you so much as think about using the restroom for the rest of the afternoon so help me,” said Crabbers as she threw me back into the class by my ear. She was always saying that – “so help me.” Who she expected to help her I have no idea. She certainly didn’t have many friends at Highland Elementary.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I replied.
“Oh don’t you ‘sorry ma’am’ me. I know all about you Mr. Harlowe. You’re a troublemaker,” she said with her bony finger inches from my nose. “Hitting innocent kids in the eye with rocks. Barbaric! You kids these days are just, just, ugh.”
She sat down grumbling, opening up her book and assuming her position. I was on my way back to my desk when I peeked a glance at Delilah. She was stone-faced, staring straight ahead with not a single betrayed thought flashing across those pretty eyes. She was miserable and I loved it.
I got back to my seat to find a thick folder of assignments waiting for me. For the first hour or so of ISS, you just sit there, twiddling your thumbs and watching the minute hand crawl around the clock. It’s torture, and eventually, they break this tedious torture with a big folder of surprisingly welcomed busywork. It wasn’t anything interesting, just worksheets and activities and exercises by the dozen, but it broke up the day and that was enough. A reason to stare down long enough those taunting clock hands couldn’t help but switch positions.
I riffled through the packet, picked out a few crosswords used for spelling practice and got started. It was simple and let my mind shut down for a bit. The last couple days had been nothing but thinking and thinking and over thinking and it was nice to let all my thoughts flitter away in search for PROGRAM or PENINSULA or PICTURE or PRACTICE or PALINDROME (I think you can take a guess at this week’s theme).
I fell into the stupor of the mindlessly distracted and it was beautiful. That is until I got to the first math worksheet, which cruelly shook me free of my ignorance and dropped me right back into the muck of unjustified punishment. It wasn’t the worksheet itself, just your average lattice-method practice, but what was written in tiny, almost imperceptible pen at the bottom of the page. I had to strain my eyes to see it, whoever wrote it fearing detection. Rightfully so.
I’m sorry Sam, I know you didn’t do it.
I was right back in it, the stress-relief powers of the word search blown away with a single sentence. Sorry is not worth what we pretend it is, especially this pitiful, cowardly anonymous sorry written in tiny ink on the margin of my ISS assignment packet. Talk about too little too late. What was sorry going to do for me now? And that second bit. I know you didn’t do it. That makes two of us wiseguy. Thanks for the info, now if only you could convince Kramer and Chandler and the whole goddamn school then we’d be set.
No, this wasn’t even for me. This sorry was for whatever sad sack wrote it, to appease their aching conscious. This was the kind of selfish apology they never tell you about when they tell you to mind those P’s and Q’s. This was written by whoever had the most to be sorry for, and for that title we had a clear winner; Delilah Diamond. I couldn’t move on in the packet. I just sat there and stared at the words. I didn’t want an apology, I wanted things set right, and I wanted to know how they got all topsy-turvy in the first place. I wanted answers and this little note was only providing more questions.
Just then the classroom phone rang. It was an old, corded, black phone that hung from the corner by the door, each ring nearly vibrating the whole bulky box to the floor. Crabbers moved as quickly as her little old legs would take her, muttering under her breath, cursing the ringing and her hips and the whole world.
“Yes,” she answered sharply. She did everything with this pinpoint edge. “Yes. Well, yes, yes, I do. Yes. Two? Yes. They’ll be up in no time. Yes.”
She had to slam the phone back on the hook several times, looking older and more annoyed with each failed attempt. When she finally finished and turned around she stared ahead hard, as if adjusting her vision to see the threadbare class in front of her.
“I need two students,” she said pushing her cherry-red glasses up the bridge of her nose till they practically became part of her dried face. “Two students who aren’t going to give me any trouble, to go to Ms. Chandler’s class and pick up some additional assignments. So who will it be?”
Not a single hand went up. Arnie was asleep, buried in his assignment book in the crafty, mastered way of clandestine sleep. Head on the hand, pencil poised above the paper, eyes closed and mind off somewhere far less painfully menial. Tyler, on the other hand, was busy fidgeting with something in his lap, his hands disappearing into the cavern of his desk, likely planning his next scheme leading invariably right back into Crabbers’ arms.
“No one?” she said, pushing her glasses somehow further into her face until they were nearly swallowed by her leathery skin. “Well then, I’ll pick two of you.”
She scanned the four of us. No good options. Tyler would never come back, Arnie would refuse, she hadn’t quite sized up Ms. Diamond, and I just spent almost a half hour snoozing in the toilet.
“Fine. Diamond, Harlowe,” she said as she sat down at her desk and began to scrawl out a pair of hallway passes. “Now if you take so much as a sip of water from the fountain on your way, I’ll know, so hurry back. No toilet naps Mr. Harlowe. No funny business. I’m liable to talk to Kramer and get a day tacked on for each of you if anything screwy goes down.”
Neither of us moved. I could see the wince her eyes, Diamond wanted nothing to do with me. She wanted that little note to speak for itself. The last thing she wanted was to face me as we made our little trip up to Chandler’s. So naturally, I was thrilled. Even if I couldn’t get a confession out of her, I would love to watch her writhe in anguish. She was going to feel bad for her betrayal, that’s for sure.
We took the passes, making promises to Crabber and getting out of her sight as fast as possible. I let her sweat as we made our way down the basement hallway. It was chilly, the air moist and dingy, light green tiles lined the walls. She looked down at her dirty Birkenstocks as if they were the most interesting thing in the whole world. Her lips were pursed and there was a bead of sweat growing on the back her neck. I was loving every ounce of discomfort..
“Thanks for the note,” I said with a heaping scoop of sarcasm. “Really cleared things up for me Delilah.”
When she looked up her face changed. It wasn’t nearly as contrite or nervous as I’d imagined when she was looking down. It was agitated and a bit sad but more confident than I expected.
“On the worksheet,” I said, keeping confident. “Listen, I’m not stupid. I know you handed out all the packets. I know you feel bad but come on, you really think that was going to help?”
“Sam,” she said before taking a breath and returning to the most interesting shoes in the world. “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“Hah okay,” I chuckled in mock amusement. “That’s perfect ain’t it. No clue. You’re good at that whole ‘no clue’ game. One of the best I ever met. No clue, no clue. Except you did have a clue, didn’t you. A clue on how to set up a sucker to take the fall. A clue that told you old Sammy Harlowe would do anything you said, so why not get him mixed up in this mess.”
She shook her head and picked up the pace of her walk.
“Nothing to say. Perfect. You are a quiet one. That is until you need something. Plenty chatty that day you showed up to my house with the sad story about set-ups and all that. Real chatty then. Layed it on thick that day,” I was letting my temper get the best of me, but I was off now and there was no stopping. “Flicking your hair, fluttering those pretty eyes. Sam this, Sam that, and now nothing. I don’t even care though, really I don’t, I can hack a few days with Crabbers, I’m no sissy. I just wanna know why? Why couldn’t you just fess up and take it? Why all the run around just to set me up?”
“You’re real smart aren’t you Sam,” she was still looking down, still not looking me in the eyes, still saying Sam like it was the most beautiful name in the whole damn world. “You got it all figured out. Must be nice.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“You ever consider that maybe, maybe you just got caught?” Now her eyes shot up. Diamond was a cool customer, never so much as annoyed, but she was angry now, fuming. “Maybe you just aren’t the sleuth you imagine. You were the one all gung-ho about sneaking in. I warned you it was risky. I never asked you to do it. All I was doing was talking, telling you the truth, the truth. I needed someone to know the truth and I thought you’d believe me.
“It wasn’t some grand plan. I wasn’t trying to get one over on you. I just wanted someone to talk to, you idiot! So don’t blame me if your little plan didn’t work out so hot. I mean, really, you thought you would just waltz into Chandler’s class, take a peek at the box and all my problems would be solved? You didn’t think that maybe they’d be on high alert after someone just broke into the class a couple days ago!? No, you’re just too confident. Sammy Harlowe’s just smarter than everybody, can’t be bothered with logic when he’s got it all figured out.”
“Oh, is that how you remember it? Oh boy, wow, that’s some memory you got there. See, I seem to remember a girl in trouble, a regular damsel looking for a hero. And you knew just where to find it. Oh, come on, don’t you go playin these games with me,” I shook my head, we were getting close to Chandler’s and talking way louder than two suspended students ought to. “I shoulda listened to Seth, he warned me. But no, Delilah would never do that. Kind, pretty, smart, perfect Delilah Diamond would never. Here I thought he was just in love with you himself, trying to throw me off on the girl I’ve been obsessed with since kindergarten, but it turns out he was right!”
She looked at me again, but this time there was no anger. The flare was gone, she wasn’t going to return serve, she’d had enough. It was a look of pity, which was infinitely worse.
“Sam,” she said, pausing long and hard after that one-syllable spell she cast so effortlessly. “I didn’t write any note and I didn’t set you up.”
“Sure, Delilah, sure,” and with that I pushed my way into Chandler’s class, killing the conversation then and there.
“One day down, two to go,” I said to myself, marking the days off in my mind as I grabbed my lunchbox from my locker.
It wasn’t gonna to be all that bad. It wasn’t the punishment so much as the wrongness of it all. It was like a puzzle you work on for days to find it’s missing a handful of pieces. When you lost them or where they could be are mysteries you accept, but it doesn’t make the puzzle any more finished. You even let it sit there incomplete for days, hoping against hope a piece will sneak out from behind a couch cushion or from under a rug, finally putting the mystery to bed. Day one was a cinch and I didn’t think day two or three would be any harder, forever was going to be tough, forever not knowing what really went down, that was the real punishment.
I didn’t know what to think anymore. I wanted to fight every instinct in my body, every instinct that told me Delilah was telling the truth. I wanted to believe her, deep down, so of course, I couldn’t, no matter what she said. I wouldn’t let emotion cloud my judgment again. Still, there was new information to consider. I can’t believe I didn’t see it right away. I wanted so much to jump down her throat, to finally say what was bouncing around in my brain since I first saw the inscription on the box, that I didn’t look at everything. I let the whole picture slip in favor of anger and revenge.
It was on the other side of the worksheet. Whoever was providing these little notes wasn’t an idiot. They weren’t trying to have Crabbers’ prying eyes all over the messages meant for me alone. One thing was for sure, though, Delilah was telling the truth, about the note at least. It wasn’t her.
We just couldn’t let anyone find out, not even you. I’m sorry.
“So if it isn’t the baddest, two-bit criminal in all of Highland Elementary,” said Seth as he maneuvered through the crowd over to my locker. “So, I’ve been wonderin all day long, what gang did you join?”
“None,” I grunted, not sure I was ready to play along with Seth’s needling.
“No? Bad strategy if you ask me,” he wasn’t going to let up. “Crabbers will eat you up if you don’t got a crew behind you. Better get on that, you still got a couple days in the clink.”
“Yeah, yeah, well maybe none of them were tough enough for old Sammy Harlowe,” Seth had a way of jostling me out of any rut, I guess that’s what best friends are for. “So I’m gonna play it cool, maybe get my own gang going. The Harlowe Boys.”
“The Harlowe Boys? Really? Jesus, I think you gotta revise that. You got all day to think of a name and you come up with that,” he said shaking his head in mock disappointment. “Come back with something better tomorrow, that’s just embarrassing.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on it.”
“So how bad is it, really? Old Crabbers as bad they say?” he asked as I closed my locker and turned to leave.
“Ah, not really. All bark. She’s like 90 years old. What could she do anyway, suspend me?”
“True. Yeah, and you’re not really missing much. Everybody’s walkin on eggshells after the slingshot business. Really takes the fun out of the classroom when everybody’s worried they’re going to get popped in the eye out of nowhere. Heck, I thought about pretendin I got hit just to break the mood.”
“Oh, yeah I’m sure Chandler would get a kick outta that,” I laughed.
“Hey, ya never know. I mean, we both know the broad’s got a pretty heavy crush on yours truly.”
“Who you gotta crush on there Seth?” said Tag-Along, who popped up in between us.
“Your mother Tony, your mother,” said Seth.
“My mother actually actively dislikes you Seth,” said Tony confidently, as if this was a real debate. “Says I shouldn’t hang out with someone like you.”
“I don’t know there Tony,” Seth wasn’t going to let that one slide. “If she hates me that ain’t a good sign. Me, I’d be a little worried if your Mom hates me. Ideally, she wouldn’t give a hoot about me at all, but hate, I don’t know, pretty close to love.”
“You’re just saying that cause now Sammy hates Delilah,” Tony shot back.
It happened quickly, it was mostly in my periphery but the sound was unmistakable. Seth didn’t hold anything back. He raised his left hand and slapped little Tag-Along-Tony hard on the left cheek before recoiling and taking the right cheek with equal force. Two slaps and a wail, that’s all I heard as I whipped my head around to see the tears already forming on Tony’s pitiful mug.
“You piece of…” Seth’s started through gritted teeth. “How bout learnin to keep that trap shut once in awhile. It was joke, you nerd. Of course your Mom doesn’t have a crush on me, you little weasel.”
“Jesus, Seth,” he said through a snivel, his face that of a kicked puppy. I felt for Tony. It was a jive, sure, but I didn’t think it was too far over the line. Yeah, the Delilah stuff was still a bit raw, but what better way to let it fall away than to cut up about it. Seth looked at me for a tell, to see just how offended I really was, and I think the look I returned threw him off a bit, as if he immediately knew he’d gone too far.
“Listen, Tag…Tony,” he said putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder, a motion that left him ready to jump out of his skin in fear. “My bad buddy, I didn’t mean to blow like that. Our boy Sammy’s just been through a lot is all, I didn’t want you layin’ it on him.”
“I’m sorry Sammy, really, I was just joking,” Tony said through a thin layer of tears bubbling at the corners of his eyes. “I should’ve realized Delilah was off limits.”
“Don’t sweat it, Tony,” I replied quickly, trying to sell how little I minded. “She don’t mean a thing to me anyway, just some broad.”
We were making our way down Horace Ave. now, the mood thrown into confusion, no one quite sure where to go from here. The handprints, fingers and all, were still faintly visible on Tony’s chubby cheeks. A March wind blew across the street, just the faintest hint of Spring in its cool embrace. I wondered when this whole thing would be over. The weather would be changing soon. We would lose our knit hats and our thick coats, we’d been heading out for baseball and long nights of manhunt around the neighborhood, popsicles would replace hot cocoa, sunburn, running noses. Would this still weigh on me then, would I be able to accept the mystery unsolved?
I’ve always been a man of closure. I didn’t much care about my own punishment. My permanent record could stay dirty for all I cared, it was the ignorance that didn’t sit well. I had the wool pulled over my eyes and it was beginning to irritate me. Being a fifth grader at Highland Elementary meant a certain amount of ignorance. I knew there were things I didn’t know, pockets of the world I was not yet allowed to explore, words my parents would throw around with casual confidence, cherishing my lack of understanding. None of this ever sat well with me, but at least I could be confident this ignorance was temporary. One day I’d be able to peep up from the hole and see everything far more clearly. This slingshot business was different, this kinda thing stayed firmly behind its veil of mystery.
We just couldn’t let anyone find out, not even you. I’m sorry.
Not even me? Well, hell, how convenient. Of course you couldn’t let your fall guy know. Not even me. All innocent and what not. Like, of course, we want to tell you, we really do, we just can’t, you see, not even you. It’s like I ought to thank them for simply thinking of me in the first place. “Not even you.”
“Huh?” I looked up to find Seth staring at me as if I had three heads.
“Well, I’m not quite sure there Sammy, you tell me, what’s ‘not even you’?” he said.
“Oh, nevermind, just thinking out loud.” I replied, a little embarrassed that I couldn’t keep my thoughts to myself.
“Well, don’t go hurtin’ yourself.”
“Whatcha thinkin’ about there Sammy,” said Tag-Along from a few yards back, tying his perpetually untied pair of sketchers.
“Well, I guess, I don’t know,” I didn’t want to tell them about the note. I didn’t know why but it felt like the kind of thing that would make less sense the more I talked about it. “The whole case I guess. Twists me up knowing there’s some smartass still out there.”
“You mean you didn’t do it, Sammy?”
“Of course he didn’t do it, you nit wit,” Seth shot back, the anger of the slap returning to his wind-burned face.
“Then who did?” said Tag-Along as if this was a groundbreaking bit of inquisitiveness.
“Your moth–” I put a hand on Seth’s chest before he could get it out, Tag-Along had enough for one walk home.
“Well, that’s what I’m thinking on Tony. None of it really adds up. As much as I’m still pretty sure Diamond set me up, it doesn’t seem all that cut and dry. What I’m saying is I’m not so sure she is alone. She is a smart girl but I don’t know, maybe this is the crush still talking, but she doesn’t seem the type to put this whole thing into motion. She might darn well be a part of it, but I don’t see her as the mastermind.”
“Mastermind?” said Seth incredulously. “I’m not so sure we got any of those walking around the halls of the great Highland Elementary. Dunces, airheads, jerks, sissies, losers, nerds, jocks, we got plenty of them, but masterminds? I’m not so sure Sammy.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said.
“But someone did it,” said Tag-Along. “And you if you can’t figure it out they must be pretty smart. I mean, they must have something against you right, Sammy? Why else would they put the frame on you? And Henry too for that matter. They popped him the eye and sent you to detention. Pretty mastermindy if you ask me.”
“Mastermindy?” said Seth. “That about proves my point right there, doesn’t it Sam? We got kids using the word ‘mastermindy’ as if it makes a lick a sense.
“You know what I mean,” said Tag-Along, more annoyed than usual. “Whatever word you want to use it seems pretty smart, like a whole plan. You and Henry out of commision and them walking away free and clear. The whole thing seems a….”
“That’s interesting,” I stopped Tony why he was still making sense. “Now that’s interesting. Henry.”
Henry. Of course. The forest through the trees. Henry was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Henry was a helpless victim of circumstance, Henry didn’t have a thing to do with this case. But I was wrong, of course he did. He had everything to do with the case. How could I be so stupid?
“Yeah, Henry,” said Tony, proud I found something of his interesting, though still unsure why it was, indeed, so interesting. “He got hit with the slingshot.”
“No shit there Sherlock,” said Seth.
“Why thank you,” said Tony with a big smile.
“Thank you? Now I’m lost,” said Seth.
“For calling me Sherlock,” said Tony. “I mean, I kinda always saw Sammy as the real Sherlock but I’ll take it.”
“Jesus Chr…” said Seth rolling his head back in disbelief. “Do you listen to yourself talk, Tony, really?”
“I do, in fact, and I think that I had the one good idea since we started talking about this whole thing and you, you…”
“Me, me, come on now Tony you’re on a roll, me?”
“What if it wasn’t random,” I said. “I always figured Henry had nothing to do with this whole thing but what if I was wrong? Maybe that rock was meant for him and him alone. Yeah, Henry is a quiet, nice, thoughtful kid, but everybody’s got secrets, everybody’s got enemies. What if his got back at him right in class?”
“That’d have to be one heck of a score to settle,” said Seth. “Seems like we woulda heard if there was such a serious feud going on.”
“Even so,” I said. “It’s the only lead I got.”
“Sure, sure,” said Seth. “But it ain’t much and, in case you forgot, you’re not exactly the freest man in Highland. If you think you’re going to be able to get in a room with Henry you got another thing coming.”
“You better be careful there Sammy,” said Tag-Along, who’d somehow fallen back from the group once again. “I don’t know if…”
“Which is why, as your best friend and number one confidant,” said Seth smugly. “I suppose I could do a little snooping around myself, figure out what he knows and what not.”
“…it might just be talk but I don’t know…”
“I’ll shake him down a little…”
“…a puff, a fairy, a pansy…”
“…see if he’s got any theories that don’t line up.”
“… a queen, a twink, a Mary…”
“God Damnit Tony!” Seth finally burst out.. “What the hell are you on about?”
“Henry,” said Tony, the pitiful puppy dog coming back to his childish face. “Henry is all.”
“What about Henry?” I said.
“He’s, I don’t know, I like the guy, everybody seems to like the guy, but he is just different, you know?” said Tony with the conviction of a frightened mouse. “My brother is always telling me to watch out for him. Says he might make a move. I don’t know, I’m just saying.”
“Oh, well that’s helpful,” said Seth. “We’re going to take advice from the only kid to repeat the sixth grade twice, the great, wise, Sal Del Vecchio, the elder Tag-Along.”
“Who you callin’ Tag-Along!?” said Tony, moving toward Seth as if finally ready to fight back.
“You, you moron, the same kid we’ve been callin’ Tag-Along for years, you ignorant little…And you know what, you don’t know a thing about Henry. Make a move. You’d be lucky if anyone makes a move on you in your whole life. In fact, Henry…”
“Cool it, cool it,” I’d been stuck in the fight, I was caught like a kid watching an intense match of foursquare, my head whipping from Tony to Seth and back again, never once looking ahead. There he was, not more than ten feet ahead of us, black eye and all. Talk about your kicked puppy.
“All I’m saying is…”
“Shut up Tony, for once, for real, shut up,” I said under my breath, kicking him in the shins till he realized.
“Henry! What’s up, man,” said Tony will all the smoothness of a telemarketer. “How’s it going?”
“Fantastic Tony, just fantastic,” said Henry, looking at us for reassurance at the stupidity of such a question. “How you boys doing?”
“Henry,” said Seth, drawing his name out far beyond the reasonable two syllable limit. “We alright I guess. Yeah, alright. So tell me, what you doing out here, don’t you take the bus?”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know,” his eye was pitch black, the lid nearly swollen shut. “I just felt like a walk I guess, clear my head. Been a weird couple days.”
I didn’t know what to take from this. Up until this very walk home, I’d thought very little about the victim. I was wrapped up in my own problems, worried about Kramer and Chandler and Delilah and Crabbers. I never really thought about Henry. He must believe them. He must think it was me. Why wouldn’t he? Especially if they walked him through the specifics. Still, here he was being civil and all. Hell, he approached us. I didn’t know whether to be scared or nervous or apologetic or what. We stood there for a minute or two, the four of us in complete silence, avoiding eye contact at all expense.
“Listen,” said Henry, finally breaking the silence. “I know you didn’t do it.”
It was a weight coming off. Those words were nothing short of a spell. I didn’t realize just how tangled the knot of guilt in my stomach had become. I knew I didn’t do it, but hearing him say it made it concrete fact.
“Yeah, don’t sweat it,” he said, head still down. “I better be off, though, trying to catch the 4:00 home. Catch you guys later.”
“Seeya Henry,” squeaked Tony.
We turned to continue our walk when I heard the slam of Seth’s stainless steel water jug hit the ground with a crash. I’ve played it out in my mind several times since. It’s become a slow-motion film in my head. I hear everything and I see everything. Both backpacks sprawled out on the ground, Henry apologizing, Seth scrambling for his water bottle, the papers fluttering to the ground. Everything seems so perfectly placed now, when I look back, a perfectly choreographed dance of confusion.
Who would see a thing? Who would even look? Why would you think twice about a fallen backpack and a few loose leaf papers? The whole school could have been there, an assembly on the dangers of accidental collision, and no one would have seen a thing. That is, except for me.
It was well done. One of the best I’ve ever seen. I was good but this was nearly perfect. I don’t know what made me look so closely, but once I did, I couldn’t miss it. It grew from the randomness like the sun peeking from behind the clouds. One too many papers, one look of understanding passing between them, a secret neither needed to make plain. It was in one hand then the other, nearly imperceptible, but to me, it might as well have been an announcement, loud and clear through the PA system.
It was the 3:20 bell ringing away in the middle of my brain. Class was over, every possibility, every chance and every prospect got up, pushed their chairs in, collected their things and headed for the door. There was nothing left to distract me. The noise, the gossip, the hearsay, the lectures from teachers and scolding from principals, all floated away with that 3:20 bell.
It was clear now and all that was left was to prove it.
“Turn it off,” Delilah Diamond hissed from the darkness. “Let’s go before we wake up my Dad. He fell asleep on the couch and I want to get this done before he wakes up.”
I know, I know. I was trusting her again, but this was different. I needed her for this, there was no other way. Oh well, maybe there was, but this was too good to pass up. Anyway, I was beginning to believe her. Call me a sucker but I didn’t think she really knew much more than I did. Maybe I couldn’t trust anyone, but this was a two-man job so I did what I had to.
“You got ‘em?” I whispered as I rustled out from the bushes, her face nothing but a shadow against the high dark sky.
“Of course I got ‘em, I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t,” she shot back. “What kind of idiot do I look like?”
Delilah was different. She was still the tall, beautiful, intelligent girl I’d always admired from afar but in the last couple days she’d begun to take shape. The girl of your dreams can only stay that way if she’s not real. If I’ve learned anything in the last couple weeks it’s no one is exactly how you picture them. They can’t be, cause when all you got is a picture, an outline to trace their edges, you fill it up with whatever you need. People aren’t that simple, and Delilah Diamond was no different. She was edgy and moody and funny and could jive with the best of ‘em. She wasn’t this blank vessel of perfect beauty, but she was still a heck of a broad.
She was the only one I told about my theory, about how I thought all this craziness started and what was to be done about it. She believed me. I was thankful for that. Theories always work in your head, it’s the moment you start spilling them out loud when you begin to think they might not be as airtight as you imagined. But no, this one checked out, logically and what not, and anyway, it was the only theory I had.
Now all that was left was to prove it, and for that we needed to do something stupid. Here I was, just off a three-day stint in ISS for breaking into Chandler’s class and the only way to prove my innocence was to go right back in. I almost couldn’t believe it when Diamond agreed to join. She played the innocent, good-girl to a T, but the more I got to know her, the more I saw something else. She had a need to push the limits, to dig to the truth no matter what the cost. She wasn’t going to let anyone do her dirty work from now on.
Still, we had to come up with a better plan. The book fair was supposed to be a good cover, what with all the hubbub in the gym, but we saw how that went down. Distraction was good, but it would be even better if we could get in there when no one was in the building at all. Where the only distraction we needed was the fact that Chandler and Kramer would be ignorant and oblivious at home with a bottle of wine or asleep on the couch. That was when Delilah really came through. I coulda kissed her.
“I think I’ve got it, Sam,” she said at lunch over a pair of underwhelming PB and J’s. “Now it’s risky. Definitely risky.”
“I can work with risky.”
“I know that, Sam, I know that,” she smirked. “But really, it’s pretty risky. I think it’ll work, but we sure can’t get caught.”
“I will assure you Diamond, despite recent events, I’m actually pretty good at not getting caught.”
“Despite recent events.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Well anyway, you know my little brother, Donny?”
I knew Donny. Little Donny Diamond. Third-grader and almost the complete opposite of Delilah in every way. Where it took me years to get a word out of Delilah, Donny was one of the biggest chatter boxes you ever met. This kid could talk a mile a minute, mouth running all over the place far before his head could catch up. He wasn’t a bad kid, or even particularly annoying, just had energy like you’d never believe and no chill bone in his whole body. Everything he did required the fiery action of a boy who just couldn’t sit still.
“I do, but let me be honest with you Delilah, I’m not so sure we should bring him in on this,” I said as politely as I could.
“Are you joking? Of course not, jeez. You think I’m gonna bring that spazz in on a covert operation?”
“Yeah, yeah. No, that’s not what I was thinking. Donny is a spaz but he’s a forgetful spaz and in this case, that forgetfulness is just what we need.”
“You gonna make me guess,” I said after a painful minute of silence.
“So Donny, as you might expect, is not the most organized third grader you ever met. Not a stupid kid, actually probably a little smarter than me” – her false modesty a little much but I let it slide – “but that kid would lose his head if it wasn’t on those tiny shoulders. Ever since I can remember we would sit down to do homework only to find that this worksheet or that notebook mysteriously disappeared from his rat’s nest of a backpack. He’d be pulling out crumpled paper after crumpled paper, looking desperate and panicky, knowing full well the one he was looking for was nowhere to be found.
“I can’t tell you how many afternoons I spent walking back to school, hand in hand with that little ball of energy. The sun would be going down, my homework still waiting, half-done on the kitchen table, us praying there was a janitor left in the school to let us in so we could pull his crumpled homework from his overstuffed desk. Kindergarten, first grade, second grade, every year the same. I tried to lecture him at first. I Explained the need for organization and even just a smidge of forethought, but eventually, I gave up and accepted his forgetfulness.
“It wasn’t long till we got to know each and every janitor. Mr. Devine, Mr. Daily, all of ‘em. I mean, we were doing this little trip 2 or 3 days a week, I knew these guys better than some of my teachers.
“Yeah I gotcha Delilah, but I don’t see…”
“Shut it, Sam, let me finish,” she said, that smirk back on. “So now this year starts and Donny is in third grade and frankly I’m getting a little sick and tired of walking this brat back to school three days a week. One day I’m sitting there talking to Chuck Daily and I’m explaining all this. I love my brother and I understand he doesn’t do this on purpose, but still, it’s getting a little old. He gets it. In fact, he is a little tired of it too. Says he even hangs around an extra half hour or so just cause he knows we’ll need to be let in. Nice guy and all but everyone’s got a limit.
“That’s when we strike a deal. Makes me promise not to tell a soul, not even our parents. He could get fired for this sort of thing. Says he made a copy of the key and as long as we only use it to get Donny’s homework and never tell anyone, we can have it so we don’t have to bother anymore janitors every time we need to get in. So, of course knowing Donny, the first thing I do is make a copy to give to him so I can keep the original. I don’t know why it took me so long to remember. I guess it’s just been gathering dust in my sock drawer, but this seems as good a time as any to put it into action.
“So, Mr. Sam Harlowe, do you see now or do you need me to explain it a little more?”
She was messing with me but I could have kissed her right then and there. It was risky, she was right, if we got caught we’d not only cook our goose but Mr. Daily’s and her brother’s too. It was risky but it was too good to pass up.
“I think we should take back roads, you know, just on the off chance someone we know is driving around,” I said as we made our way out across her front yard and onto Ferndale Road. “Would look awfully suspicious, us walking around at this hour.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Delilah. “Someone might think we’re sneaking out to make out or something.”
Was she messing with me? She is gonna go and do that, on such an important night. We both needed our wits about us and here I was sweating through my damn shirt.
“Chill out, Sam,” she said in an irresistible whisper. “We’ll save all that for after this is done with.”
We didn’t say anything for a long time after that. We avoided the busy roads like we talked about, moving along Jericho and Cumberland in silence. The cold spray of light from the sparse street lamps threw dark, deformed shadows onto the grey pavement. Our black attire, head to toe, making us nothing more than figures in the night. Each turn, each step we got closer to Highland, the weight of the evening’s plan set in more heavily on our shoulders. We weren’t just breaking school rules, we were breaking the law, a fact neither of us discussed but were too smart to ignore. If we got caught we were screwed so we wouldn’t get caught, no matter what.
“We’re gonna have to take the side entrance, over by the loading dock, that’s where they always let us in,” said Delilah when we finally reached the big, mostly dirt field that sprawled out along the back side of the school.
Seeing the school at night was strange, a ghostly figure, usually packed to the gills with movement and noise and commotion, stood empty in front of us. It was far more lit than I imagined. I pictured a dark, dormant, almost sleeping building, a school waiting poised for the next day, preparing itself for the moment the students would once again rush around its hallways. The moment I saw the school rise before us, bathed in bright lights, I knew that was nothing more than wishful thinking. Darkness was not our friend.
The key caught for a moment as Delilah thrust it into the two heavy doors that stood above the loading dock, a sign reading no trespassers in hard, thick letters above. For a second I caught myself praying they wouldn’t spin. Oh, well, back to the drawing board, better luck next time. At least this would settle my churning stomach, at least this would halt the drip of nervous sweat running down my spine. I wouldn’t be a pansy, the key just didn’t work. No one’s fault. But it did spin and those doors swung open and before I knew it we were walking quietly down the hallway.
I’d never been in this part of the building. The walls were lined with door after unmarked door but I couldn’t imagine where they led. It was as if there was another whole corner of Highland going on beneath the surface, where they held classes and meetings I wasn’t a part of. I nearly lost myself in the mystery, forgetting for a second the clear and singular reason we’d broke in in the first place. Luckily, Delilah was leading the way. She walked a yard or so in front of me, her back hunched and her head swiveling in concentration. She was a hunter, the truth her prey and I wouldn’t envy a soul who got in her way.
Hallway after hallway. Delilah poised in front, me in the back trying to get my hands to stop shaking. Finally, we reached the top of the staircase and moved quietly into our hallway. The familiar green siding and wide cracks settled me a bit. We were back in the school I knew, even if there was preternatural quiet to the whole scene. We moved slowly, each of our footsteps bouncing off the wall and popping back into our tense eardrums like a superball in a game of chink. All our instincts told us we were alone but hell if we were going to announce our arrival, even if it was only to the cockroaches and rats.
Neither of us wanted to rush anything, but the painstaking crawl toward the room marked 216 was torture all the same. 204 CHEN…206 ENGLEHART…the front of my sneaker slid with a shot, a sharp high-pitched squeak filled my muscles with a distinct call for flight, the swift Diamond clasp on my shoulder the only thing that kept me around…208 RUSH…210 TUGGLE… “Shhhhh”… “I swore I heard something”… “It was nothing”…212 BARRISH…214 KAUFMANN…Then it came. A sound.
But Delilah stayed calm. The door slammed. We both heard it and she stayed calm. God love her. I was ready to piss my sweatpants, but not her. She turned quick on her heal, looked me right in the eye and I knew she had it all figured out. I knew the moment she opened her pretty little mouth there was no changing her mind.
“Run, go, get in the class and figure this out.”
I wanted to protest, but before I could she grabbed both my shoulders and kissed me hard. Stupid of her, honestly. A rookie mistake in all her cunning, kissing a guy that hard with a beautiful face like hers is liable to kill a man on the spot. A rush of blood to the head is one thing, but this was ridiculous. Downright dangerous is what it was. I forgave her immediately.
That word again. It was that word I understood. I was going to run, she was going to run, we weren’t going to run in the same direction. If there was a moment I questioned her commitment it all went up in smoke then and there. I watched her, only for a second, but it was all I needed. Those long legs were off, toward the door and whatever, whoever, awaited her. Graceful and brave, what a gal.
Chandler’s class was yards away and it was only a few seconds before I was able to dip into the door and out of the hallway. I clicked the lock and leaned hard against the door as if somehow my little body would be able to keep out all that went on outside. The room was pitch black, the only light the soft shine of the full moon peeking through the line of wide windows along the outer wall. The only sound my heavy breath and the pounding thud of my heart in the center of my skull. Such a strange blend of fear and passion banging around in there. What a time for a first kiss, with not a second to enjoy, my love off to her almost certain doom.
It took me a second but I soon gathered my wits, stood up and got down to business. My instincts threw my hand toward the light switch but I was quick enough to catch myself. Darkness would be my friend here. That’s when I saw, from the corner of my eye, a new light emerge from the darkness outside. It was small and far away and as I sidled over to the window I recognized immediately the source of this tiny patch along the horizon. Dr. Kramer’s office, lit like it was the middle of the school day.
The longer I stared the surer I became. There she was, in her reprimanding pose, finger poised in front of her face, lecturing and lecturing. She knew right and wrong and it was black and white, no wiggle room as far as Kramer is concerned. She saw a rule breaker and knew how to deal with it. Her way or the highway. Unfortunately for Delilah, there was no exit in sight. Her head was down in mock contrition, taking it like a champ. I tried not think of how bad it would be, the punishment, the shame, the false confession she’d be forced to make. That’s when I saw it. Kramer turned her back for just a second and Delilah whipped her head in my direction. It was only a glance, a half of a second, but it set me right.
“Hurry, you moron,” the look said. “Or this will all be for nothing.”
She was right, of course, she was always right. I was here for a reason and I couldn’t come home empty-handed, not now, not with so much already lost. She believed me, she trusted me, I needed to be right. Even so, my knees were knocking as I made my way across the room. I was sure I’d imagined it. Didn’t I need an answer? Wasn’t I grasping at straws? Why didn’t she tell me how stupid this little theory was? S. H. That’s all the hard evidence I had. Everything else was conjecture. I used to trust my instincts, but I wasn’t so sure anymore. Still, I had no choice but to see it through.
His desk was pristine. I guess that’s what I envisioned. Such a perfect little picture of organization. Quiet, kind, forgiving and now clean and neat. All I needed to prove was he was guilty as well. I rifled through homework and notebooks, a pencil case and a thick history textbook. Nothing. Everything in its right place. No notes, no evidence, no nothing. Just a folded up name tag reading Henry Mitchum. The H the only damning thing in his whole desk.
My stomach was in my throat. My heart beating a little quicker with each second. I took a peek at the window. Kramer’s light was still on. How long would this little lecture go? Would she guess Diamond wasn’t working alone? Was I sitting like a lame duck in my own prison, waiting to be found out? Was there a point to any of this?
Onto S. My last hope. I came in here looking for the smoking gun, the final piece of the puzzle, but right now I’d take anything, any little hint I was on the right track. I needed this to be for something. I couldn’t come back to Delilah empty-handed.
What a difference a desk makes. All the cleanliness swapped for chaos. A free-for-all of paper, pencils, and books with folded covers and missing pages. This was going to take longer, but somehow all this mess filled me with hope as if such haphazard confusion would somehow lead to answers. I worked methodically, taking out just a little at a time and looking for anything I could use. Just a hint is all I needed, a single note, anything, just a…
A slam. I knew the sound right away. I heard it so many times. Those two metal chair legs slamming down with the force of gravity tested. I imagined the linoleum cracking under their force. It was a sound of theories confirmed. I wasn’t going to come up empty-handed. I was right about everything. So why didn’t I feel any better?
“Congratulations, you did it.”
I wasn’t going to say a word. A hard stare would keep me in control.
“You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?” said Seth Archer, my best friend, from the darkness, only the hard line of his jaw visible from where he sat in the back by the bookshelf. He must have been there the whole time, watching me as I moved about the class.
“I guess I figured you wouldn’t. You’ve always been the nosy type haven’t ya, Sammy. You can never just let things alone. Always gotta know what’s really going on,” he said as he got up, moving toward me slowly. “But who am I kiddin, that’s why I always liked ya. You’re not like the rest of these morons, just floating through, waiting for the bell to ring so they can run around like chickens at recess.
“I suppose it’s pretty funny. Ironic really. I guess we might look back and laugh at this eventually. You remember? It was me who started this whole thing. “WHO?” I guess I’m almost as nosy as you are. Almost. I wanted to know too. That was before I knew all the details, though, or of course, I would have kept my trap shut. But it was too late once I found out. The whole thing started and it wasn’t long till I realized there was only one way it was gonna finish.
“You figure it all out or just the big picture? What tipped you off? It was Henry, wasn’t it? That kid’s got too big of a heart. Of course, this whole thing wouldn’t be nothing if he didn’t have a big heart, that’s what I like about him. Like I said he didn’t tell me right away. I guess he was embarrassed, knew I’d be pissed as hell. And he was right.”
“It was a clever bit of misdirection, though,” I said, piecing everything together little by little. “That whole slingshot business. Of course, that’d be what Kramer and Chandler and the whole school would sink their teeth into. Slingshots are exciting. More exciting than a box of notes at least.”
“So you do got it,” he said with a just a hint of pride. “See I knew you were too smart for your own good. I was pretty proud of him too. I mean, this is a goody-two-shoe were talking about. He’s never so much as got a detention and here he is breaking into class and stealing from Chandler’s desk. Crazy what desperation makes us do. Pretty impressive if you ask me. Of course, he left that damn box, but I couldn’t much blame him. The notes were the real important thing. No one would have thought twice about the box. Cept you.”
“No one but Delilah, you mean.”
“I am sorry about that Sammy. I didn’t want to get her involved, really, but come on you see how perfect it was. Slingshots are her business and Kramer’s been looking for something on her for years. Hates those hippy-dippy parents of hers. I got no problem with her personally, but someone had to take the fall. Henry was a real man about it too. It was him who came up with the whole slingshot to eye thing. Real genius. Sacrifice, man, that’s what it takes. That must have really hurt, but he took it like a man. Knew it was the only way to really put this thing to bed.
“Of course, I didn’t account for just how in love with this broad you really are. I mean, jeez, breaking and entering all over a little box. You had to know it was long shot. A pretty face man, it’ll be the death of us all. You see I had to rat you out, I had no choice. Now the SH on the box, that was pure luck. I didn’t even remember carving that. Destiny I suppose.
“I thought that pretty much sealed things up too. I was sorry but I knew you’d survive that I.S.S. junk, you’re tough enough to handle that old bat Crabbers. Sometimes things need to get a little dirty, I wasn’t gonna get all bent out of shape about it.”
“But Henry?” I said.
“Exactly,” said Seth, moving forward, his face lit up in the dull sheen of the moon. “Like I said, got too big of a heart. He didn’t like the idea of you taking the fall. Kept on talking about how that wasn’t the plan, about how we weren’t gonna take anyone down with us. Tried to tell em, things don’t always go according to plan, me and you know that, but he’s a sensitive type. A rotten conscious can really gnaw at a kid like that.
“I had a feeling he was going to do something stupid. I could see it in those pretty blue eyes. Determination is what it was. First guilt then determination. It’s looks like these that first…I guess it’s looks like these that made this whole thing necessary. I can’t resist those looks. So maybe that’s why I didn’t stop him.
“The note, on the worksheet,” I said, his look confirming my suspicion. “I’m not sure that would have been enough on its own, either. I was thrown off but, you know, I was almost ready to give the whole thing up. Even I gotta call it quits sometime. No, it was when we were walking. I saw the pass. It was good too, better than anything we’ve ever done. Subtle and smooth but not invisible. I saw it and it all clicked.”
“I think I knew it,” said Seth. “I could feel your eyes on us. It was a good pass, too, but it wasn’t our best. We’ve been doing it for months. Hell, there been times we’ve done it right in front of you and I guarantee you didn’t see a thing. Of course, you might not have been on such high alert, but still. No, I think Henry flubbed it. I think he wanted you to see. He wanted you to figure this out. Hell, maybe I did too. It’s not easy walking around with secrets, takes a toll.”
He talked of secrets like I knew like it was obvious. Was I being dense? I put everything else together, but up till now I never really considered the why of it all. Who I had down and that took me long enough. But why? Why were these notes so important? What were they hiding? What was I missing?
We sat there in silence for some time. Even in the darkness, he must have seen the sheer confusion on my face. The unsatisfied mug of a guy who should have been basking in the glow of a finished puzzle. The problem was, even with all the pieces in place, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the picture was.
“So you still don’t see it?” he said finally. “It’s almost like you don’t want to see. But I guess I might not see it either if I was you. It’s just not something you see coming. Believe me, I didn’t. It creeps on you at first then you can’t ignore it, it’s just sitting in front of you and there’s no way around it.
“See we couldn’t let those note just sit there in Chandler’s desk cause sooner or later, she’d read them. She might be a nice, respectable teacher, and she is by all accounts, but curiosity would have gotten the best of her. It gets the best of all of us. We couldn’t let that happen. Cause then she’d have questions. They’d be well-intentioned and all, but questions all the same. Next thing you know she’d be calling our parents in. That can’t happen, Sammy, it just can’t. I know it might seem silly but I can’t do that, not yet. Henry knew it and he did what it took. I love him all the more for that. Like I said, he’s not a trouble-maker, but he had to bend the rules for this one, it was too important.
“You and…” he was right, once it was there it stared you right in the face. It checked out, it all fit, it made sense, so why did I still not want to see it? “..you and Henry?”
“Like I said it snuck up on me too,” said Seth, suddenly unable to make eye contact, folding in on himself in a way that I’d never seen from the confident, charming Seth Archer. “I wanted to tell you, really. I mean, you’re my best friend Sammy, you know that, but this thing, it don’t make sense like everything else. It took me long enough to tell myself, the thought of telling you…it just…it seemed impossible. But here you are now, and you know anyway, and we had to go through all this to get here. I’m just…Sam…I’m sorry, man.”
I didn’t know what to say. Was I supposed to say anything? I’d never been a big talker but this, this was different. I didn’t even know what to think. Of course I didn’t care, but still, it was quite a punch in the gut.
“So you see? I can’t let this get out,” said Seth to break the silence. “Please, Sam, don’t say anythi….”
“Seth,” I said, everything slowly shaking itself out in my mind, the important things finding their place. “Don’t say another word. I got it. We should get out of here, though, before Kramer comes snooping around. I don’t know how we’d talk your way out of this one.”
“You’re right,” he said. “Jeez, I wasn’t thinking of that. You’re right. Yeah let’s bail, we can talk about this later. Come on, I know a way to the back exit.”