BOZ CHAPTER 21: The Gall of Bitterness — Part 2 (Boz)
I had no idea what came over me. I loved those guys and their message. I’d wanted my family to hear it for so long, but now that the elders were teaching, all I could feel was anger. I didn’t even know who I was angry at or what I was angry about.
I was just angry.
“Why hasn’t the Book of Mormon helped me then?” I’d held those words in since Elder Whitehead had handed the book to Dad. They just hung in the deadly silent air until I added more. “I haven’t had anything but trouble since I picked that stupid book up…”
Dad told me to be respectful, but I didn’t want to respect them. I wanted to hurt them. “Why don’t you guys get with it. This Jesus freak stuff isn’t the real world. People are out there to hurt you – stab you in the back and leave you to bleed to death on the sidewalk! No book is going to help with that.”
Except for a gasp from Mom at my use of “Jesus freak”, nobody made a sound. They all just stared at me and I stared back.
“It does help Boz.” I hated it when Mary used that voice.
At first, I felt guilt for attacking her beliefs, but then remembered that she hadn’t been to church since I’d known her. “That’s pretty hypocritical coming from you. When’s the last time you read The Book of Mormon?”
“I can’t remember.” She sounded like she was ready to cry. “But I will tell you this. I have a mother who knows that the scriptures and prayer make a difference. She’s been telling me that since before we moved here and I wished I’d listened.”
Now she was crying and I could barely hear her through the sobs, but the feeling was so strong she might have well been shouting. “When my dad died, Mama was so depressed she didn’t want to live any more. She was barely able to function for about a month and then one day she just got happy and talkative, I mean, I know it sounds funny now, but she was so hyper it was scary. She kept talking about everything being all right now and that she and Daddy would be together again. I didn’t like the way she was talking, but I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.”
Dad handed her his handkerchief and she wiped her tears. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and then started again with her eyes closed. “When the doorbell rang,” her eyes opened like she was hearing the ring, “I almost didn’t answer it, but something told me I had to. It was Bishop Hanson and his counselors. He said he felt impressed to come check on my mom. He just stood up in the middle of a meeting and told his counselors that they had to ‘go see Jane Olsen!’”
I remembered that day in the library when Mary told me everybody needed help. This must have been the help she’d been talking about. She now had that same look and I felt a sudden twinge in my gut.
A war was going on inside of me, darkness and depression pushing out the peace and beauty this girl’s story was generating. Those dark feelings didn’t like the word that had popped into my mind – testimony.
“At first Mama was angry they had come – at least she yelled a lot – but then she started to cry and just confessed the awful thing she had intended to do that night. The doctor had given her some sleeping pills and…” She composed herself with a breath. “They took the pills and I thought they would take her away too, but the bishopric stayed with her until a sister from the ward came to spend the night.
“Before he left, the bishop picked up our Book of Mormon off the coffee table and put it in Mom’s hand. ‘Jane,’ he said, ‘here is the answer!’ Mama looked confused and even I didn’t understand how The Book of Mormon was going to keep my Mom from killing herself. He just said it again, ‘Here is the answer!’ He told her about a scripture in the Book of Mormon that promises that if we study the scriptures and pray, we’ll be able to endure to the end.
“He had her read that verse and she felt the power of it. She knew he was right and that everything would be alright! And I did too.”
Mary looked right at me and I thought I could read her mind.
Will you just listen!?
As hard as I tried not to listen, I heard and felt, every word of the rest of her story. The bishop had given her mother a blessing and promised that the suicidal feelings would be cast out with the devils that had brought them. He told her that if she read from The Book of Mormon and prayed every day she would not only endure, but she would be happy again.
“She started reading and praying that night and has not missed a night since and I tell you she has changed. Even with moving and all the trouble we’ve had here, she’s been so strong.”
As touched as I was by Mary’s story, the dark feelings were still winning my inner war and wouldn’t let me admit it. Everyone else in the room felt the power of her testimony, but all I did was grunt and stare at the floor. Aren’t we going to hear in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen?”
Elder Lee suggested they leave and this time Whitehead didn’t object. Amy decided to leave too. I think they all knew that Mary had said it all and that was their cue. They thanked Mom and Dad for the meal and headed for the door.
Amy turned to me. “Please call me if you want to talk. And please let me know if I can help.” She sounded sincere.
I looked up and gave her a half smile, which was more than I gave the elders, but I couldn’t help a nasty thought. Yeah, and tomorrow you can go hang with your stuck-up Prep friends like Seager.
After they left, my family and Mary sat looking at me, not saying a word, but I could read their minds. I didn’t like what I was reading and was just about to tell them what was on my mind when the phone rang. Liz jumped up to answer it, glad to escape the tension.
“Yes, he’s right here,” she was using her best telephone voice. “It’s for you. It’s Clint.”
I grabbed the phone and covered the mouthpiece. “Why did you tell the little nerd I was here?”
“Because you are,” she spat back.
I tried to punish him by barking into the phone, “Yeah, what!?”
“Boz,” the barking hadn’t phased him, “I’m really sorry for bugging you again, I just don’t know what to do with those cans…”
“Look,” I just wanted to be rid of him, “get there early, bag them up in some trash bags and get them out of the school.” I had that backup plan in mind since I’d conceived the prank.
“How can I get them out of the school without anybody seeing me? Reynolds is sure to have people on the lookout. He’ll be expecting something.” As frustrating as the little geek was, he did have a point. We had been a thorn in Reynolds’ side for years and he might really go that far.
I couldn’t keep the wheels from turning in my head and the answer came so quickly that it even surprised me. “Okay, listen! Down at the end of B-hall is a bench – some gift from the Class of ’55 or something. It has a rock wall behind it. You know the place?”
“The rock wall is hollow and you can get behind it from the top. We’ve hidden things in there before. Take the bags and throw them over the wall.” I made it sound so simple.
“How do I get them out?”
“Who cares if you ever get them out! At least the ‘Dogs won’t get caught. If you really want them, figure that out later.” I couldn’t help liking the little jerk for his determination.
“Yeah, Yeah! Just don’t get caught!” I hung up and headed for the stairs.
“Boz?” I pretended not to hear. I didn’t want to talk to Dad – or anyone else.
“Boz!” I was tired and depressed and wanted to be alone. I bolted down to my room.
One of the bulbs in the ceiling lamp blew as I switched on my light and the dimness fit my mood. I plopped on the end of my bed and stared into the the mirror on the back of my door.
Hello, jerk,! You’ve really screwed this up.
The only person left to beat up was that guy in the mirror and I did a good job on him. I’d hurt the elders, embarrassed my family and offended my friends. I didn’t just feel sorry for what I’d done, I felt disgust for what I was.
You’ll never amount to anything. Why did you even try? Doctor? Crap, you’re not even going to finish high school!”
Then all that I had to face the next day came crashing down on me.
“Boz?!” Dad spoke from the other side of the door. He was determined to talk to me and, at that moment, offered a reprieve from my self-flagellation.
“Yeah?” Dad took my answer as an invitation and pushed the door open. Once inside he closed it and sat next to me on the bed. We looked each other in the mirror for a moment and then he turned to face me. I think he was looking for the boy he couldn’t see in the mirror.
“Son,” his pursed lips and bobbing head told me he was as serious as he got, “I don’t know how to tell you this except to just say it. You are wrong about The Book of Mormon and the Mormon Church. They have changed you. I’ve haven’t seen you this happy for years.
“Yeah! I’m really happy! This weekend has been a blast!”
“We’re a lot more alike than you realize, so I understand a lot more about you than you realize. You have been restless – searching for something fulfilling. This whole Underdog thing is just your way of trying to fight against the evil and injustice you see at your school. It’s a weird caricature of what you really want – you want truth and justice.”
“And the American way.” I couldn’t resist. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but this was deep talk coming from the family jokester. I wasn’t used to it. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve got my great sense of humor. It’s a gift, but sometimes you use it to cover deeper feelings.” Dad was looking into the mirror again and I wondered which of us he was lecturing.
Yeah, we are a lot alike.
“The point is, Son, when we had to send you away to that camp last summer, I was so worried. I thought you’d end up in prison the way you were headed. Then you wrote us about this Church and these people. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘my son’s going to come back with a shaved head and an orange robe. But you came back, so happy and so focused. I was so impressed. I quit fighting letting you go to the Mormon Church because I was pleased to see what it had done for you. I really wasn’t too surprised when those missionaries showed up today.”
I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“But tonight, you’ve almost blown it. You’re getting ready to throw away something very special. I felt something tonight as those young men were teaching us. It’s something I can’t explain, but I intend to ask them about it when they come back.”
My look must have betrayed me.
“Yes, Son, they’re coming back. I want to know what it is that makes me feel so good when they are around and what they have that has done so much to help my son. Now, if you are feeling something different, I think you’d better be careful. I think the devil knows this is something good and if you don’t wake up, you’re going to let him talk you right out of the best thing that has ever happened to you.”
This was such strange talk coming from Dad. No joking, no teasing, just straight from the heart. And then, as if he had just finished a well rehearsed monologue, he stood, kissed me on the forehead and left. I watched him go, wondering how I got so lucky to have such a great dad, then spent the next half hour tying to argue with him in my head. I finally gave up. He was just right.
I was scared. Was it really the devil trying to get me off track?
Help me God!
My plea was answered with a flood of thoughts that outlined exactly what had happened. When I’d become depressed on Friday night, I’d just given into it. I hadn’t prayed; I hadn’t read the scriptures; I hadn’t done anything to fight it. I’d spent three days wallowing in self-pity and liking it.
I didn’t want to feel that way anymore and I didn’t want to like it. I didn’t want to lose control. I thought about Mary’s mother and the help she got.
What was the scripture her bishop had told her about?
I reached for the Book of Mormon, hoping that the book would just pop open to the scripture I needed, but it didn’t. I’d read that book through three times, but didn’t have the foggiest idea where to turn. The only thing I could think to do was call the elders.
I crept upstairs and across the kitchen to the phone. Someone was talking in the living room, but I only wanted to talk to the elders. I picked up the receiver quietly and carefully dialed each number, letting my finger ride the dial both ways to avoid the whirring and clicking. I cupped my hand around the mouthpiece and slipped as far back in the kitchen as the cord would reach.
I huddled in the back of the kitchen waiting to hear the friendly voice of a missionary. I knew that even though I’d been a jerk, they would help me. The phone rang, and rang, and rang. Even when I realized they probably hadn’t had time to get home on their bikes, I let the phone keep ringing not knowing what else to do. It was then that I heard the voice of an angel reciting the very words I needed to hear.
“Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.
Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand then it will be because we ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what you should do…”
“That’s Second Nephi, thirty-two, three through five…”
Mary was reading to my family from the Book of Mormon. Mom had been so touched by the story about her mother’s rescue, that she’d asked Mary to read the scripture that had saved her. Mary read on, but I’d heard enough.
I slipped down to my room, said a quick prayer of thanks and grabbed my Book of Mormon. I read the verses Mary had been reading and then backed up and read the whole chapter. This is exactly what I needed to hear and words jumped out at me as if I’d never read them before. “Feast!” “Ask!” “The Holy Ghost…will show you all things what ye should do!” “The evil spirit teaches…him not to pray!” “Pray always!”
The next thing I knew, I was on my knees in tears, pleading for forgiveness and help. I spent the next two hours in a struggle for my soul. Questions and doubts flooded my mind and I did my best to find the answers in the book. I didn’t know it as well as I thought and the index wasn’t much help. I kept searching and praying, but was getting frustrated. Then, suddenly, a thought popped into my head.
It was telling me to quit stressing and just listen. I stopped praying and questioning and worrying and started to listen. It took a few minutes, but I eventually felt a deep impression of love and comfort.
I knew the Lord loved me.
I knew that whatever happened the next day at school would be God’s will.
I knew that my family and real friends would stand by me.
The last thing I remember feeling was, “put it all in the Lord’s hands.” Then, for the first time in days, I slept soundly and deeply.
The next thing I knew, I was waking to my alarm clock. I laid in bed for the few seconds it took my mind to clear and then, with a sense of relief, resumed my habit of falling out of bed and right to my knees to pray. This was a silent prayer of gratitude and joy.
With my amen, I reached for my nightstand to resume another of my newly acquired habits, but my Book of Mormon was not there. I found it buried in the mass of covers and opened to the place – marked with the ugly bookmark Linda made for me at camp – where I’d left off reading four days earlier. 3 Nephi 12. Linda’s underlining reminded me that these were the first verses I ever read. In those verses I found the scolding I’d been too stressed to handle the night before.
“It is written an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;
But I say unto you, that ye shall not resist evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also;
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain,
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn thou not away,
And behold it is written also, that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy; But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven…”
I then knew what Joseph Smith meant when he said that James 1:5 had entered with great force into every feeling of his heart. This scripture had done the same to me and I felt shame for the way I’d acted. I’d been so caught up in myself that I really hadn’t cared how others felt. I prayed again, promising to fix things with everybody – even little Clint.
Clint had become my whipping boy and I’d used him well. I started to cry, thinking of Clint, standing in our driveway, pleading for help.
He was so excited about those stupid cans, and I just blew him off.
I promised be a true friend to Clint, if he would let me.
I started to get up, but was suddenly knocked back to my knees.
At that moment I knew, without a doubt, that it was Scott who had framed me, but more painfully I knew God wanted me to forgive him. I bowed my head and tried to pray for Scott, but I couldn’t. Even after all God had done for me, I could not pray for him.
Will I ever be the man God wants me to be?
BOZ CHAPTER 22: I Am Not a Loser
Empire High was practically deserted at 6:30 on a Monday morning and that was just fine with the young man who made his way through her halls. He hugged walls, ducked into doorways and listened for any noise that might reveal another soul in the school. His heart was pounding, he felt nauseous and expected to be discovered at any moment.
He paused at the bottom of the back stairs, knowing that this ascent would be the first real obstacle of his mission and the only place he would be without cover until he reached his destination. His chest tightened and he thought he might pass out, but then, driven by adrenalin, he bound up the first flight, three stairs at a time. He paused to catch his breath and listen before more adrenalin pushed him up the second flight in similar fashion.
At the top, less than fifty feet from his goal, his courage surged. He peered around the corner into the Run and found the coast clear. It was even darker than downstairs and that made him feel even braver. He headed down the familiar hall, still hugging the wall, but moving much more quickly. He was moving so fast that he almost overshot, skidding to a stop at Tom’s locker.
His trembling hand moved to the dial, tried the combination and then slid down to the handle and jerked upward. His sweating fingers slipped off the unyielding handle and his knuckles cracked against the dial.
He began to panic! Was it the wrong locker? Should he use his sleeve to wipe his fingerprints off the handle? Were Reynolds’ spies watching him at that very minute? Just as he was ready to make a frantic dash for the stairs, a single, rational question popped into his head.
Was he turning the dial in the wrong direction? He’d opened school lockers thousands of times since the 7th grade, yet, at that moment, he couldn’t remember if they started left or right. He decided upon right this time and tried the combination again.
He hesitated before lifting the handle and closed his eyes. This had to be it! He wiped his hand on his pant leg, got a good grip and then slowly lifted the handle. It moved! He froze as his eyes popped open in surprise. Was it really opening? He lifted again and the handle moved some more. He heard the mechanism turn, the bars lift and the locker was open.
He started to jerk the door open, but froze again at the sound of rumbling from inside. He knew what had happened. The cans had shifted and fallen against the door of the locker – opening the door had started an avalanche. He tried to push the door shut, but some falling cans jammed it.
The sound of crunching aluminum revived his nausea and he wanted to cry. What could he do? If he opened the door they’d crash to the floor. If he stood there holding the door he’d be caught.
So many thoughts rushed through his head that he couldn’t hold them in. He began to whisper to himself. “If I let go, they’ll hear me for sure. What am I doing here anyway? Boz was right, they’re just a bunch of stupid cans and I am such a….” Another rumble made him choke, leaving the rest of his thought unspoken. “Loser”, however, echoed in his head.
Clint was used to the term. He’d heard from his brother, his schoolmates, even his father; but more and more, he’d heard it from himself. The last couple of months had given him a reprieve. Boz had befriended him on the first day of school and he’d become an Underdog. He’d felt, for the first time in a long time, like he belonged. And after hearing the stories of the Underdog adventures and pranks, he’d determined to become the best Underdog ever.
That’s why the cans meant so much to him. That’s why he was in a dark hall, in a mostly deserted school, playing Hans Brinker to a flood of aluminum. And, at that moment, that’s why he felt like an even bigger loser than ever.
But then, almost as if a random breeze had fanned the last remaining coals of his self-esteem, a fire began to burn within him. I am not a loser. I’m an Underdog. I’m going for it. The clichés betrayed deeper feelings, his need to be accepted; to win at something for the first time in his miserable life; his secret wish to be worshiped, like Boz had been.
Carefully, Clint started pulling the door open. There was a screech; then a rumble; then two cans fell from the bottom of the locker and rolled across the floor clanging against the opposite wall. He froze and listened.
Emboldened, he pulled the door a little further and, to his wonder, no more cans fell.
The door was now far enough ajar for Clint to peek around the edge. What he saw allowed him his first easy breath of the morning. The rim of several cans had caught on the seam at the bottom of the locker door. Pulled from the bottom of the pile, they had created a logjam.
Immediately Clint knew what to do. He wedged his foot under the corner of the door and pulled one of the trash bags from his back pocket. Reaching around the door, he pulled gingerly on a can that was in the middle of the jumble. To his pleasure, it slid out and the cans about it settled quietly. He dropped it into the bag and reached for another, then another. Within minutes he had filled four bags and the locker was empty. He tied the top of the last bag with a flourish, shut the locker and gave the knob a triumphant spin.
He headed down the Run with his prizes in hand, moving as smoothly as he could to keep the cans from rattling. As he rounded the corner and looked down B-hall toward the rock wall, he was filled with an unfamiliar feeling. He put the bags down, jumped with his fist in the air and shouted, “Winner!”
His jubilation, however, was short lived, for as he stood in the darkened hallway of the high school, with four bags of evidence at his feet and “…inner” echoing in his ears, he heard the main doors open downstairs. He held his breath and strained to listen. He heard the doors close and voices speaking in angry whispers. Whoever it was had just come in the front doors and were probably headed up the front stairs.
The new hiding place for the cans was on the other side of those stairs.
Clint grabbed the knots at the tops of the bags and scooted down the hall. The cans scraped and the bags rustled. As he passed the staircase, the whispering stopped. Clint stopped, wondering if they’d heard him. He cocked his ear toward the stairwell hoping for an answer. One of the voices spoke again – sounding more excited – and Clint distinctly heard the word “upstairs.” They were coming!
No longer worried about the noise, Clint was to the rock façade in seconds. He didn’t have much time. He could already hear footsteps on the first flight. A quick survey confirmed that there was just enough room for a bag to fit between the top of the wall and ceiling. Clint hopped up on the bench and lofted the first bag over the top of the wall. He heard it slide behind and fall with a muffled crash to the floor. His second loft fell short, hit the edge of the wall and ricocheted back into his hands. He took better aim, lofted it again and it was gone.
The third bag went up and started over, but then caught on one of the sharp edges on the top and ripped. Clint heard some of the cans fall to the ground on the other side of the wall. He knew that the rest hung over the back of the wall in a half-torn bag and would block his last bag from going over.
Hearing the intruders’ footsteps on the second flight of stairs, Clint knew what he had to do. He took the last knot in hand, jumped for the wall and landed halfway up with the bag clanging next to him. He strained to pull himself up as the sharp rocks dug into the skin of this fingers and palms. And while his scrawny body scaled the wall almost effortlessly, it seemed to him as if he were moving in slow motion. The last bag seemed to catch on every crag and bump and Clint was sure it would tear on him.
With a determined grunt, Clint gave the extra effort that you’d expect from the guys on Wheaties boxes and his free hand topped the wall. His toes found solid hold in two crags and he stood with his head almost touching the ceiling. He felt along the top of the wall, found the snagged bag and freed it, then swung the last bag up to the top of the wall. There was a final, muted crunch and Clint had to stifle another triumphant shout.
For the second time that morning, however, Clint’s elation was short lived. He could hear the encroachers reaching the top of the stairs and knew he would be spotted hanging from the rocks like a cockroach on the kitchen wall. Or would he? Before he had a chance to talk himself out of it, Clint pulled himself to the top of the wall, slid between the ceiling and top and became part of his cache.
Clint held his breath and strained to hear what he couldn’t see. The trespassers had stopped at the top of the stairs. He could visualize them looking up and down the hall. Were they searching for the source of some strange noise or were they looking to be alone?
He heard them start down the hall towards him as one of them spoke. It was a girl and she sounded upset. “Please Scott, listen to me. This has gone too…”
Another, a boy, cut her off. “Get over here and sit down,” he barked.
The couple sat on the bench in front of the rock wall and, believing they were alone, now spoke in normal tones. Clint, hidden just a few feet from them, heard every word as it echoed over the wall.
Because the girl had used his name, Clint recognized the boy’s voice right away. It was Scott Seager. But even though the girl sounded familiar, he couldn’t place her.
“Now you shut up and listen to me,” Scott’s voice was threatening and it made Clint mad. “I have waited way too long for this day for you or anybody else to wreck it. I hate Boz Burtons’ guts and now I’ll get even for all that crap he’s pulled on me.”
Clint could hear the girl crying now and he wished he could bust through the wall and pummel Scott.
“Oh, shut up! How can you cry for him after what he did to you? ‘He hurt me.’” Scott was mocking her, “Remember coming and crying to me?”
“Yes! He dumped me and his witchy sister did too, but what you’re doing is going to ruin his life. He might not get into college or even grad…”
“College?! How dense are you? Who cares about Burton or any of that Underdog scum? There isn’t one of them who is going to make anything out of their life. They are the nobodies. They are the doormats. They’ll be waxing cars and serving up french fries. And you wanted to hang out with them? We’re the cool people. Even you were eventually smart enough to see that!”
“I don’t know what I’m smart enough to see!”
“Oh,” he was drooling sarcasm now, “it was all so clear a little while ago.”
“Shut up!” It sounded like that was all she could think to say.
“Oh good, now it’s shut up?” His voice was mocking again, “Whatever happened to, ‘I’ll do anything to be a cheerleader?’”
“I said shut up!” This girl did not like her own words haunting her.
Clint heard a struggle and some whimpering. He wished he could see though the wall, but he really didn’t need to. She’d tried to slap Scott and he’d caught her arm and was twisting it. Clint was just about to scale the wall when Scott launched into a harsh tirade that sapped his courage.
“Just remember, Julie, you are in this just as deep as I am. If I go down, you go with me. After what I know about you and Alan and Terrell…” The girl yelped and Clint wondered if it was Scott’s grip or his words that were hurting worse.
“Besides, you’re the one who sold your friend out. You’re the one that had the combination to his locker and that padlock on his handle. You’re the one that checked every day to see if his plans wound up there. You were kind enough to get into the locker, get the plans for me and put them back after I’d finished with them.
“I was lucky that the clod finished up early and left it in his locker. I was just going to take his plans so that he would fail Fisher’s class, but he gave me a whole weekend to copy them. It was a brilliant brainstorm on my part, but I couldn’t have done it without you. With your help, he didn’t even see it coming.”
Clint could tell by the sound that Scott had just pushed her to the ground. “With that and all the other dirt I’ve got on you, I could really ruin your little reputation. Who would be friends with you then?”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Don’t bet on it. If you so much as open your mouth, I’ll bury you.” Scott’s final words slammed the door on the conversation and he stormed away.
Clint wanted to get out from behind the wall, but he could still hear Julie crying. After a while she stopped and he heard her leave.
He didn’t waste any time scaling the wall and slipping over it. He was just lowering himself down the face when he heard the voice behind him.
“Like, man, what the freak are you doin’?!”
BOZ CHAPTER 23: Plotting in Warren’s Room (Mary)
My feelings for Boz Burton had run the gamut from love to hate and back again a couple of times since I’d known him, but that day I decided how I’d feel about him forever. Liz and I came to breakfast wondering if we would see him at all, considering his attitude from the night before. We found him at the table finishing his cereal.
“Good morning!” He gave us a half-smile. He looked like he was sorry, but not quite sure how to apologize. He was dipping his toe in the water.
“Speaking to us now, huh?” Liz’s tone was punishing.
“I deserve that. Sorry! Will you please…” he looked like he was going to cry.
Liz moved behind him and ran her fingers though his hair. I could tell she was feeling a little guilty for the crack and wanted to make things easier for him. “Will I what?”
Without lifting his head Boz answered. “Will you pour me another bowl of Frosted Flakes? I’m really hungry!”
Boz hadn’t quite got the joke out of his mouth before Liz pushed his face into the empty bowl. “There! One big flake.”
Boz jumped to his feet, whirled and grabbed her in a bear hug. Neither spoke, but neither needed to. I was amazed at how quickly these two had mended their broken fences. I thought back to the night I tried to run away and caused Mom’s accident. I’d apologized dozens of times for that night, but we’d never really made up. There was still an awkward distance between us.
“Hey you!” Boz invited me to the group hug and held us both for a long minute. “I’m really, really sorry – for this weekend, for my selfishness and for hurting you two. And speaking of apologizes we need to get to school.” he announced, slipping out of the embrace, “I have someone else I need to apologize to.”
“What about breakfast?” Liz protested. We were running late because Liz had two heads of hair to do and two faces to make up. Luckily, I could dress myself.
“Thanks, but I’ve had mine!” Boz replied as he grabbed his keys and a notebook from the end of the kitchen counter and, with that, he headed out the back door.
“He’ll never change!” I laughed as I linked arms with Liz and pulled her towards the door.
Liz shivered at my comment and was unusually quiet all the way to school. As a matter of fact, all three of us were lost in thought that morning. I was thinking about getting my spiritual life back into order. I figured Liz was sorting out the tumultuous events of the weekend. I couldn’t, however, imagine what was going on in the mind of the young man driving the car. My only clue came shortly after Bertha rolled into the parking lot.
Bertha rumbled past several perfectly good parking spots, towards a shiny red sports car parked against the fence at the far end. Boz braked late as Liz and I pumped imaginary pedals. Bertha screeched to a stop – just inches from Scott’s car. Boz jerked her into park, then revved the engine and stared at the little car. I worried about what he might be thinking. After all, he had threatened, over the weekend, to hurt Scott in some pretty scary ways.
Then, suddenly, Boz let up on the gas, closed his eyes and bowed his head. I thought for sure he was praying. Over another minute his body seemed to relax. Then, as if jarred awake, his eyes popped open and his head jerked up. He looked at the car, then at me and then at Liz and grinned. “Nice car, isn’t it,” was all he said before backing into a space behind us. Then he jumped out, slammed his creaky door and headed for the school.
Boz seemed to know right where he wanted to go that morning and we had to jog to keep up. I thought he was in excellent spirits for a student about to be expelled. He burst through the doors as if he owned the place and headed right for the back stairs; but before he could start up to the Run he was intercepted by Scott Seager and five of his preppy friends.
“Burton,” I thought you were having breakfast with the vice-principal this morning? Don’t want to be late.”
Boz ignored him and tried to step around, but two of them stepped right into his path. Boz stopped short and stared right past them. Suddenly one of them, as if he were angry at being ignored, shoved Boz in the chest.
“Go ahead!” Scott had stepped forward and was hissing right in Boz’s ear, “Think you’re man enough to take us all?” The plan was obvious. They were trying to provoke a fight so that Boz would look even worse at the hearing. They didn’t need to finish the fight; they just needed Boz to throw the first punch.
I looked at Boz expecting to find him ready for a fight, but he surprised me. He stood unruffled by the threats, with the hint of a smile on his face – the condescending kind one might give a pouting child. Liz looked ready to fight and started to say something when Boz, without taking his eyes off the bully, slipped his arm around her and pulled her close.
“Typical Burton behavior!” Scott taunted. “Going to grow up and get expelled like your cheating brother?”
Liz tried to respond, but Boz squeezed the air out of her.
“Well, Mary, Mary,” Scott’s attention turned to me as he leered, “You look almost good enough to hang out with nice people now.” His minions all laughed at me. “Maybe when we get rid of Burton here…” he left the rest of his lecherous comment to the imagination as he saw Mr. Reynolds come around the corner.
“Mr. Burton, do we have a problem?”
“No sir.” Boz answered the vice-principal without taking his eyes off the Preps. His confident stare had completely unnerved them and they shifted their eyes to their shuffling feet.
“No, Sir, there is no problem at all,” Boz turned to face Mr. Reynolds with a slightly broader smile.
“Let’s break this up then. And Mr. Burton, I’ll see you and your parents in my office at 10 o’clock sharp. Your parents are coming I assume?”
“Oh, yes sir!” Boz sounded almost cheerful.
Without another word, Boz sidestepped the obstacles and bounded up the congested stairs, leaving us hustling behind again. We topped the stairs just in time to see Clint and Boz disappear around the corner and into B-hall. By the time we rounded the same corner, they were lost in a throng of students. We tried to follow, but within seconds we’d lost them.
Liz pulled us into a doorway. We stood looking at each other until her eyes brightened with a flash of inspiration. “Warren’s room!” She grabbed me and dragged me down the hall.
Although I’d never been there, I’d learned a lot about Mr. Warren and his room from the Underdogs.
Mr. Warren was the strangest teacher at Empire. He taught psychology and acted, Tom had once suggested, like he might have had some experience as a test subject. He had a nervous tic, his eyes bugged out and his hair was a frizzy mess, but I’d learned he was a favorite of the Underdogs because they felt a kinship to him. He taught at another school most of the day and only came to Empire the last two periods. And that fact was the other reason the Underdogs liked him – his usually empty classroom.
Room 301-A was at the end of a dark hallway that jutted off B-hall. It was really a large storage room that had been pressed into classroom service when Empire had become overcrowded. Mr. Warren was the only teacher that would even consider teaching there, so it stood vacant most of the day. And because it was secluded and often empty, the Underdogs had copied a key and used it often. As a matter of fact, the term “Warren’s room” had become code for calling an emergency Underdog meeting.
Liz and I made it to Warren’s room to find a scary sight – Tom, Floyd, Craze and Clint gathered in a semicircle around Boz. They were staring at him and he was staring back, but no one was speaking.
Not sure I knew all there was to being an Underdog, I wondered if we had stumbled upon some kind of banishment ceremony. All I knew was that there was a lot of tension in the air and I held tight to Liz’s arm to keep her from running to Boz’s side.
Boz withstood the combined gaze of his former friends, acting as if he wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Finally, the silence became too much and he turned to walk away.
“Wait!” The voice was sharp, almost demanding. Then it softened. “Please wait.” It was Clint. “We need to talk to you”.
Boz turned slowly to face them. There was silence again. But then suddenly, as if he needed to complete some unfinished business before the Underdogs started in on him, Boz spoke.
“Clint, before anybody says anything, I want to apologize to you for the way I treated you yesterday. I was a jerk. I was just feeling sorry for myself and you were an easy target.”
He was on a roll, so he went on. “As for the rest of you, I’m sorry that I’ve disappointed you. I swear to you that I’ve never lied to you. Even if you won’t believe that, I still think of you as my friends.”
“Man, you are so…” Floyd paused to find the right word, “…cool!” He walked towards Boz, took his hand and pulled him into a hug. Then, as if by some signal, the rest of the gang descended upon Boz; smiling, apologizing and slapping him on the back.
Boz was shocked. “Wait a minute! A couple of days ago you guys wanted to lynch me. What’s going on?”
Tom tried to explain. “Don’t worry Boz; your troubles are all over. Clint was spying on Scott and…”
“I wasn’t spying; I was saving the cans…” Clint started to correct.
“Don’t worry! That’s not the important part. Just tell him what you…” Craze started but was cut off by Floyd.
“Man, like just let the little nerd tell his story.”
“I’m not a nerd, you, you hippy freak.”
Floyd laughed at the insult; Tom and Craze kept trying to explain over their argument and Boz just looked confused.
“Hold it! Who in the heck knows what’s going on here?”
They all pointed at Clint, who stood smiling triumphantly.
“Well?” Boz wanted him to quit grinning and start talking.
And talk he did, about a hundred miles an hour. He told the most amazing story as he babbled on. He told about saving the cans and being behind the rock wall upstairs and, finally, unloaded his bombshell. He’d overhead Julie Johnson and Scott Seager arguing about stealing Boz’s Physics assignment and turning it in as his own.
“Have Clint tell Reynolds what he heard,” Tom Blurted out, “and it will be Scott and Julie that’ll fry!”
The whole gang, which now included Liz and me, clamored in agreement and for the first time since I’d know Tom, I thought he was right. Boz would be cleared while Julie and Scott got what they deserved.
In the few minutes since Clint had started his story, I’d seen Boz’s expression go from shock to relief to what he was wearing now. It was a look I’d never seen from him, but apparently one these older ‘Dogs had seen often. It was as if someone had flicked a switch in his head. An almost sinister smile curled his lips and he put the Underdogs to work.
“Open the loft,” Boz barked and Tom jumped to obey. From behind a tall cabinet, he extracted a long pole with a hook on the end. Floyd and Craze looked a little uneasy as Tom used it to pull the trap door open. I don’t think they wanted Clint, Liz and me seeing this.
“No time to worry about that,” Boz answered their unasked question, “get up there.”
Tom ascended the ladder first, followed by Boz and the rest of the Underdogs. I looked to Liz hoping for an explanation, but she was just as clueless. I shrugged and started up the rungs. Tom waited at the top of the ladder to help me up. I took his hand and stepped gingerly onto the landing and Liz was right behind me. I didn’t know what I to expect up there, but I was blown away.
I’d heard rumors about the Underdogs having a secret base in the school where they planed their practical jokes. I had written the story, along with the stories of the pranks themselves, away as Underdog folklore. I learned that day that most of that folklore was true including the stories of the loft.
On day, early in his sophomore year, while hanging out in Warren’s room, Floyd had noticed a trap door in the ceiling. He’d pulled a table under the door, stacked a chair on top and climbed up. He’d been able to just grasp the recessed ring and open the door from which steps unfolded. He climbed up the ladder and found a huge, and long forgotten, attic storage room. He’d shown it to Boz and they kept it a carefully guarded secret, revealing it only to Tom, Craze and Chuck Worley.
It became their private headquarters and, over the years, they’d transformed it into a home away from home. Couches, chairs, and a coffee table were arranged in one corner to form a little lounge. There were lamps, a radio, a working telephone and even a small refrigerator. Around the walls was a strange collection of junk – including an old dried up Christmas tree, a pile of wadded up newspaper and a cheerleader megaphone – serving as practical joke trophies.
In the center of the room, under a low hanging light fixture, stood a table covered with a large map of the school. I gawked in awe as Boz moved to the table and picked up a handful of tokens salvaged from discarded board games; he looked very businesslike and was ready to go to work.
Floyd and Craze stood on either side of him with expectant expressions; they had missed this excitement. Clint took his place at the table as naturally as if he’d been doing it for years. He had earned that spot and they all knew it.
I heard the trap door close and felt Liz move next to me, but didn’t dare take my eyes off the table, fearing I might miss something. I took Liz’s hand and she squeezed back to let me know she was really there. Tom slipped by us, joined the Underdogs around the table and the council began.
The commander fired the questions and his lieutenants responded. “Where is Chuck Worley first period?”
Chuck went down on the map as a fat red token from Candyland.
“Where is Scott?”
Scott was the car from Monopoly.
“Theatrical makeup kit?” It was on the shelf behind them.
“Okay gang, we are burning Scott Seager, big time!” This was all they needed to hear. They didn’t need to know the plan, they just trusted, like so many times before, that if they did their parts it would all fall into place.
Then – and without further explanation – came the orders. Craze was to find the Martin twins and establish a look out. They became three strategically placed Sorry tokens on the map along B-hall. Three Barrel o’ Monkey chimps went down in Warren’s room to represent Tom, Floyd and Boz. “Grab the makeup and I’ll fill you in downstairs.”
“Okay Buddy,” Boz turned to face Clint, “I need you to get Chuck. Tell him that I need him to come to Warren’s Room.
“What if he asks why?”
“Don’t worry about that. All he needs to hear is that I need him. And I need him here 10 minutes after the period starts.” A little Mouse Trap mouse joined the red Candyland token and escorted it down the dark hall. “But,” the tokens stopped short of 301-A, “under no circumstances are you to let him into the room. Make him wait in the hall.”
Clint smiled and nodded.
“Clint,” Boz wanted the smile wiped off the kids face, “don’t let him come in!” Clint’s expression hardened and Boz was satisfied.
“Liz and Mary,” my heart jumped, wondering what he would have me doing, “get to class and don’t say a word to anybody.”
“No way,” Liz was expressing my feeling exactly, “you are not leaving us out!”
“I don’t want you involved in case something goes wrong! We’re flying by the seat of our pants here and it could end up like the band room.”
His stern look convinced us and we turned to leave.
Crazy opened the trap door and had just started down the stairs when a panicked cry made everyone freeze.
“Crap! How do we get Seager here?”
The room fell silent. Nobody had an answer. Boz seemed at a loss as he nervously turned the last game token over and over in his hand. The campaign had screeched to a halt.
“I’ll get him here!” Part of me couldn’t believe that the words were coming out of my mouth, but the rest of me knew exactly why I volunteered. Yes, I’d been caught up in the drama of the moment and really wanted to help, but most of all I really hated Scott Seager.
I’d never liked Scott, but the events of the last few days had taught me to despise him. It was bad enough that he’d put the Burton family through hell; even worse that he’d corrupted and taken advantage of Julie to make it happen; but at that moment I hated him for what he’d done to me. That morning, his lecherous looks and comments had embarrassed and disgusted me. He made me feel dirty. He needed to be taught a lesson.
“No, you and Liz go to…”
“I’ll get him here!” Boz had learned not to argue with the look I was giving him.
“Just before the period starts,” Boz barked.
I smiled, turned on my heels and headed down the steps.
Boz later told me what he was thinking and feeling at that moment. He watched me go, still not sure if he’d done the right thing. If this plan worked, everything would be right again; if it didn’t, things would be worse than ever; and the whole thing hinged on me getting Scott there at exactly the right moment. All he could do was trust me.
He remembered heaving a deep sigh as he placed the last token next to the Monopoly car. He studied the two tokens intensely for a moment until he saw the ironic message lying before him. He smiled, taking it as a sign. My token — the lead pipe from Clue — lay next to monopoly on the campaign map.