Safe

an excerpt



Monday 7:04 A.M.



When I was two feet from the newspaper office door, Darlene Banyon rushed up to me and said, "Roger, did you hear the news?"

I shrugged. "I'm lucky to be awake and moving at this hour."

"Kyle Davis committed suicide."

It was early on the Monday after Christmas vacation and only some janitors and a few of the nerdiest teachers were in school. Monday is deadline day, whether or not we just had two weeks of vacation. I planned to finish some final rewrites on my next column before the bell rang for first period.

Darlene Banyon is our editor. She'll probably be valedictorian of our class. She's a little overweight and wears a huge assortment of rhinestone-studded glasses. She's pretty silent, like she rarely says, "Good story" or "Thanks for the help." I know she takes her job seriously because she's always after school for hours every day making sure everything is perfect. Nothing gets past her scrutiny.

I guess that's good in an editor, but I think she could lighten up a little. I know the pressure gets to her. On the days the paper is supposed to come out she snaps at everybody, demanding rewrites and cuts and edits and changes at the last second. If the paper is even a minute late from the printer, she starts slamming things around. She only calms down after a couple of her friends come by and tell her how great the paper looks.

I like her a lot. I just avoid her when she's in a mood. This year we've become friends, and even though she's dating a guy who goes to the University of California Riverside, we go out for coffee or a soda once or twice a week. We discuss politics, the reason why things happen, the meaning behind events, why people do crazy things, everything. Of all the people I know, she'd be the first one I'd tell I was gay.

Darlene continued, "It was too late to make this morning's Riverside Tribune. It got posted on a few kids' Facebook pages just an hour or so ago, and now everybody's Tweeting about it." She showed me her iPhone.

After I read a couple, I said, "It doesn't say when it happened."

"Supposedly, sometime after nine o'clock last night."

"I was at the basketball tournament all weekend. The final game ran into double overtime. I didn't get home until late. Nothing was on the Net when I went to bed."

Darlene snorted. "I'm surprised anybody Tweeted anything. I'm surprised anybody cared. They probably don't. They probably just love death and gossip." She gave an angry snarl as we walked into the office together.

In the senior class at Riverside Memorial, we've got just under a thousand kids. So you don't know everybody, but I think we all knew Kyle Davis. Every day he plodded over two miles to school. He could have taken transportation provided by the district, but when he was a freshman, a few other kids had forced him into the back seat of the bus, taken his pants and underwear, and tossed them out the window. Before the bus driver figured out the screams were those of distress, he'd driven half a mile.

They caught the guys who did it, and they got suspended, but Kyle never rode the bus again. Danger lurked as he'd walked down the halls: getting shoved into lockers, his path blocked deliberately, incessantly taunted and teased.

Kyle had been maybe twenty-five pounds overweight, and all of it had added to his baby fat. He'd had slightly stooped shoulders along with blond hair cut short, but unkempt. He was around five foot six, so fighting back, even if he'd wanted to, wasn't a practical consideration.

At least, I'd never heard of him getting back at his tormentors. He'd never been in any of my classes, but I'd seen him nearly every day, on the way to school, one foot plunking in front of the other, never hurrying. He'd always carried a faded green backpack. Every day as he'd approached what was for him high school hell, he'd looked like an out of shape recruit in the army finishing his first twenty-five mile hike.

Darlene read from her iPhone. "They found him hanging from a pepper tree in the orange groves, somewhere way out past Victoria Avenue near Jackson Street."

"Does it say anything about him leaving a note?" I asked.

"Nothing here." She punched a lot more buttons. "Nothing like a police report. Nothing on the Riverside Tribune Web site so far."

Steve Koemer rushed in, nodded to us, and hurried to set up his laptop. In about ten seconds he was typing away. Steve was our newest staff member, the gofer to do the dirty work nobody else wanted, a junior severely afflicted with teenage uncoordination, terminal shyness, and skinny to the point of emaciation. He dropped stuff all the time. He often made silly mistakes while working on the newspaper program on the computer, but he never made mistakes editing our copy. He wore black-framed glasses. Darlene helped him out a lot, and I'd helped him cover up a couple mistakes he'd made with the computer program. When I worked with him, he was quick to learn and asked intelligent questions. His dad was a preacher for the Witness for Jesus Church.

Bert Blaire, our so-called ace reporter, breezed into the room. He slapped me on the back and said, "Hey, Rog, how's it hangin'?" He chucked Darlene under the chin and said, "Good to see you, lady boss."

Darlene swatted his hand away and growled at him. "Next time you touch me," she said, "you get belted across the room, then I kick your nuts so hard, you won't ever have to worry about birth control again."

Bert gaped at her. I'd never seen her display this kind of anger.

Bert said, "Hey, easy. I'm just being friendly."

She glared at him.

I don't like Bert Blaire. He doesn't know when to stop or let things go. I wondered if Darlene might have been working up to her explosion for a while, and her upset over Kyle's death might have triggered the response. I'd seen and heard her endure a lot from Bert. If I thought she needed my help, or asked for it, I'd be happy to lend a fist or foot to cause Bert any amount of discomfort.

Bert was hosting the annual newspaper staff bash this coming Saturday night. It was a tradition for the seniors on the paper to throw a party for the whole staff sometime during the year. Bert had offered to do all the planning. At his place it wouldn't be just the newspaper people and their friends. He'd have a mob of athletes, rich kids, "in kids", plus us regular schlubs from the paper.

Bert walked over to Steve, slapped him on the shoulder, and said, "How's the stud junior gopher today?"

Steve winced, ducked his head, and stopped typing.

"Leave him alone," I said.

"You too?" Bert asked. "Jeez, I'm just being friendly. Everybody needs to back off."

Bert is almost as bright as Darlene. In fact our whole staff is in the top five percent of the class academically. Bert will probably get a four-year academic scholarship to some college even though he doesn't need the money because his dad owns half of Riverside County.

Usually everybody on the newspaper gives Bert a wide birth because he's a jerk. Compounding the dislike is the fact that he is one of Mr. Trumble's pets.

A computer pinged with an incoming message. We all glanced at the clock. Seven twenty-two precisely. The Riverside Drone comic strip appeared in all the inboxes and in text messages. It was anonymously drawn, with lush colors and careful shading. Even better it was bitterly sarcastic about teachers, athletes, popular students, and school administrators.

Today's strip was about a chemistry class experiment gone wrong with a supervising teacher who resembled Frankenstein's monster. Mr. Trumble rarely let us print them, but we all looked forward to them. They were cool and funny. Bert hated them. I loved them.

Mr. Trumble is the faculty advisor for the paper. He pretty much wears the same brown pants every day. They're all shiny so I guess he never washes them. A few times a year, when it's really hot out, he'll wear Bermuda shorts with black socks and sandals. He's an old guy with white hair growing out of his ears and nostrils. In winter when it's cool, he puts on long sleeve white shirts and sweaters. When it's warmer, which is most of the year, he has these short sleeve beige shirts with his initials stitched on the pockets. He rarely talks above a whisper, and it's really tedious to listen to him because he rambles so much, but he pretty much leaves us alone. All he cares about is that we don't get him in trouble printing controversial stuff that teenagers are supposed to have never heard about, like abortion or AIDS or teen pregnancy.

The newspaper office is about twelve feet by twenty feet, so everything is pretty cramped. We've got a bunch of old reject computers, but some of us have laptops and wireless Internet connections. Still, Mr. Trumble watches us pretty carefully on our Internet use. We can get in a lot of trouble if we're caught on inappropriate-for-school Web sites.

On the left as you walk in, there's a corkboard wall that has a mock-up of the paper laid out page by page. On the other walls are huge posters from old musical plays: Hello Dolly, Man of LaMancha, Finian's Rainbow, West Side Story, and some I've never heard of. We have those because Mr. Trumble is hot for old musicals. He claims he starred in a couple in college.

After we took a moment to read the strip, Darlene told Bert about Kyle Davis committing suicide.

"Who cares?" Bert threw himself into a chair. "The guy was a fag and nobody liked him."

"Don't say fag," Darlene and I said at the same time.

"Will everybody leave me alone?" Bert asked. He always wore the most fashionable clothes in that casual I-don't-really-care-how-I-look way that's popular among people that care about that stuff. I wear mostly jeans and T-shirts myself, with my letterman's jacket or a sweatshirt if it's cool out. "You can't sue me for being a hypocrite. I'm not going to get all weepy over a kid I barely knew, that nobody liked, and that nobody is going to miss."

Darlene advanced on him and towered over him as he lounged in his chair. Through clenched teeth, she said, "We need to write a story about Kyle."

"Don't look at me," Bert said.

"I wasn't going to ask you," Darlene said. "I'd do it myself, but I agreed to help out for two weeks on the yearbook staff, plus my usual duties here."

Darlene always liked to help people, constantly took on more and more, and was always swamped.

She turned to me. "Roger, would you do the story?"

I wanted to protest and say no, I only did sports, but after Bert's reaction, I could hardly refuse.

I had strong mixed feelings. I, too, thought, Kyle was gay. I was pretty confident about being gay myself, but not about being open about it. It's not that if people associated me with Kyle that they'd think I was gay, but I wanted to be careful.

I mumbled a yes.

Ian McCord strutted in. He raised an eyebrow at me and swept a bow toward Darlene. I disliked Bert, but I hated Ian. He worked on the theater, arts, and movie news and reviews. If anybody in the school fit the stereotype of an effeminate gay male, he did. His wrists limped, he swung his hips and sashayed around campus, and he could adopt a lisp at the drop of an insult. Ian's being effeminate wasn't the issue. The problem was that he was a total jerk. He was overweight and proud of it, and he liked to tell us in nauseating detail about every new fad diet he tried. He thought he was funny. I'm ashamed to admit, I've laughed at some of the things he's said. I just thought a lot of it was a pile of pretentious nonsense.

Ian often talked about the latest opening he'd been to in L.A. or how this or that play was so ghastly. His reviews of school plays were generally really nasty, even after Mr. Trumble toned them down.

In the realm of emotions, Ian dealt only in superlatives. He was always the tensest, saddest, gloomiest, or happiest, and he let you know which it was in great detail.

He didn't like me, either. He thought I was a dumb jock. He kept up a string of snide innuendos, which he thought I didn't catch. I had him figured out. On the days when I wore my oldest, most faded, and tightest jeans, he wouldn't stop fawning over me, patting me, finding things to come over and talk to me about.

This morning Ian burbled almost incessantly about Kyle's death, but he had few facts. That never stopped Ian. His up moods annoyed me more than his downs. Ian said, "Did you hear? They're going to have 'grief counselors' in the school."

What I got from his explanation was that a sort of swat team of psychologists, counselors, social workers, and others were descending on the school so that any kids or teachers affected by Kyle's death could come talk to them.

"I may go so that I can get out of class," Ian said.

"You look like you're ready to weep with sorrow," Darlene said.

Ian put a hand to his breast. "You wound me deeply."

"I wish," Darlene said.

I wanted all of them to shut up. I wasn't sure how I felt about Kyle's death, except gay or straight, it was sad.

Ian launched into a long-winded description of the party he went to Saturday night. Others began working. I entered my column on a computer, finished my rewrites, printed it out along with an article of mine, and added them to the cork board, and left.