BOZ CHAPTER 3: Taking A Chance (Boz)
I had a lot on my mind as I turned into the student lot that morning. I put it all on hold long enough to pilot Bertha into a too-small parking spot on the edge of the lot. Liz was so excited to be at Empire that she had her door open before I’d actually stopped. “Are you coming,” she asked as she jumped out of the car.
“I’m right behind you. Go find Julie and hunt down a couple of boyfriends before the bell rings.” She rewarded my loving, brotherly advice with a wet raspberry and was off like a shot.
I watched her skip across the parking lot and thought how much she’d changed over the last couple of years. My skinny, brace-faced Lizzard of years past had driven me more than a little crazy, but that morning I realized how proud I was to claim her. She was beautiful and smart and good – although I’d never admit any of that to her face.
My thoughts flitted from Liz to the reunion I would soon be having with my friends. I’d most likely run into Floyd first and then his girlfriend Crazy Anne. And Tom would be right behind them with something stupid to say.
Bertha’s door gave out with a loud creak as I pushed it open. I would have been embarrassed, if the sound hadn’t been swallowed up in the cadence of the football team’s morning run. I thought about Chuck running with them and how he’d changed.
Anyone looking at him now would find it hard to believe that two weeks into our sophomore year, I’d found a big, fat kid sitting on the stadium bleachers crying and ready to quit football because of the abuse he was taking from the Jocks. I’d talked him into going back every day for the next month, until he gained the confidence to ignore them and make a name for himself.
I grabbed my notebook, slammed Bertha’s squeaky door and headed for the school. I had business to attend to before classes started and was just crazy enough to think I could pull it off. I started to rehearse my pitch to Mrs. Jacobson.
Halfway through the parking lot, I caught a glimpse of one of the cheerleaders and my thoughts detoured to Scott Seager. We had given that guy so much grief, I felt a little guilty. We couldn’t help it though. He’d gone from being an obnoxious brat to an obnoxious head cheerleader and still had only one real friend – Sally McCoy. They’d liked each other from the start and had gone steady all through high school.
Despite the fact that she idolized Scott, I couldn’t help but like her. She’d never quite caught on to being stuck up like the rest of them. Heck, I might even have liked Scott, if he hadn’t been so conceited – and so much fun to torture.
Before I knew it, I was standing at the back entrance, reaching for the door. I caught my reflection in the glass and wondered at the strange guy looking back. With all the changes I’d seen in the people around me, I felt like I’d changed the most – and in one summer. I didn’t want to think about it that morning, but my reflection threatened to bring it all flooding back.
I looked different without my hair and knew my new look would cause a stir, but the biggest change was inside me. I wanted to share what I’d found with my family and friends, but I was afraid. Besides, it was too much to think about right then. I pulled the door open and headed into the warm and stuffy building.
“Welcome back, Mr. Burton.” Reynolds was watching from his usual post at the base of the back stairs. I wondered what he would really like to say to the kid he had almost expelled.
“Mr. Burton,” I turned to face him, expecting one of his famous one-line lectures, “I like your haircut.”
I gave him a half-smile, but couldn’t bring myself to answer. Seeing him had opened those pesky floodgates.
At one time I thought the worst thing that could have happened was to have one of the Underdog projects back fire, but now I was actually happy one had. If Reynolds hadn’t seen me going through the window into the band room, the honorable Judge Merrrian wouldn’t have given me the choice between community service at Camp Coronado or a juvenile record. If I hadn’t gone to Arizona, I wouldn’t have met Linda. If I hadn’t met Linda, I wouldn’t have found The Book of Mormon.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I imagined being back in the White Mountains of Arizona. I could smell the aftermath of a summer rain, feel the grit of trail dust on the back of my neck and see hummingbirds hover around the blood-red feeders. I remembered Linda looking at me with those big brown eyes.
“Just read the parts that I’ve marked in red,” she almost demanded. It was obvious she was a little spoiled – used to getting her way and I could see why.
“You are a persistent little thing, but I’ll do it just for you.” Her smile made me feel as if I’d done something wonderful.
That night I kept my promise. I cracked the book and began to read, but the story confused me. I knew I was reading about Jesus, but I’d never heard this part of the story before. Who were the people of Nephi and where was Bountiful? When did Jesus visit people after he was resurrected? It was all so different, but it felt good. I was fascinated and wanted to read more, but was so tired I fell asleep.
Next morning at breakfast, I was determined to quiz Linda about her book. She smiled when she saw me coming.
She started quizzing me. “How much did you read?”
“Where is Bountiful?” I answered her question with a question.
Everyone else at the table stared on in amazement as we carried on our bazaar conversation of questions.
“Did you read the part about Jesus and the children?”
“Where did this story come from?”
“Are you going to read more tonight?”
That night I wasn’t so tired, so I read most of Third Nephi before falling asleep. I dreamed of Jesus blessing the children. I watched him pray and cry and it all seemed so real. I woke up to a pillow wet with tears.
Linda told me more about The Book of Mormon and where it came from. Angels and gold plates – it all came so fast and sounded so weird.
“Want to come to Church with me tomorrow?” She was a persistent little thing.
“Sure!” I wanted to know more.
The next day a van came to pick up the half-dozen staff and campers that attended Linda’s Church. I found her waiting impatiently – like a mother hen.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” she sounded relieved.
“I wouldn’t stand you up, I just had to make myself beautiful.” I shook my head, letting the long hair flip along my back. She reached up, stopped the shaking with a touch to my cheek and let out a feigned grunt of disgust. Our eyes met and I knew that we would always be more than friends.
I picked her up off her feet and sat her in the van. She giggled as her dark eyes glistened in the morning sun. I called shotgun, hopped in the front seat and we were off to Rim Crest.
It was the usual rough trip from camp – bouncing over twenty miles of gravel roads before reaching the highway. The only air conditioning was the wind from the open window, which wasn’t really enough for an already too warm Arizona morning.
As we reached the highway the wind picked up and I heard some giggling behind me. I turned around to see one of the more severely handicapped boys smiling broadly. My questioning look got no response, but when I turned back and felt the wind whip my hair, I realized that it was tickling his face. I let it blow and enjoyed the happy sounds behind me.
Just then the van topped a hill and I saw the little clapboard church. I don’t know what I’d expected, but the look of the clean, white building, with just a few cars parked out front gave me a warm, homey feeling. I was going to like this.
The feeling inside the Church was just as homey and I found myself drawn to the people. They were simple people, simply dressed and tanned from the Arizona sun. Everyone insisted on shaking hands. Their hands were rough, but their eyes were soft.
We went to Sunday School with the teenagers, who were a little standoffish at first. But it didn’t take long to break the ice. It took longer for the Sunday School teacher to get our attention before she could start.
The lesson was about tithing and I wondered if these people really gave ten-percent of everything they made to the Church. I was especially surprised to hear some of the kids talking about doing it. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t teach about The Book of Mormon. I really wanted to know more.
A simple worship service followed the class and it was then I realized how poor and humble these people were. First of all, they couldn’t afford a minister. One of the congregation conducted the meeting and a couple of others gave sermons. The young men conducted communion, which was only bread and water. These poor people didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed that they couldn’t afford wine.
I went back the next week and the next, each week more amazed at their humility and their openness, each week learning something new that filled me with wonder and peace. I wanted to be like these people and so it didn’t take much prompting on Linda’s part to get me to cut my hair. And although all the young men at the Mormon Church had what they called missionary haircuts; I asked the camp barber to leave mine just a bit longer.
Without saying anything to Linda or any of the people at the Church, I wrote home and asked Mom and Dad what they thought of me joining the Mormon Church. Liz’s response was about what I had expected, threatening to punch my lights out, but Mom and Dad’s reaction shocked me. They said they’d be angry if I joined and worried that it might be a cult.
I knew they were worried about me, but read between the lines that they didn’t trust me. And I couldn’t blame them, after what had happened. But if they could only read The Book of Mormon and meet the Church members, they’d feel differently.
I thought about writing again to convince them, but as I stuffed their letter back in the envelope, I felt guilty. I’d caused them enough grief and didn’t want to stress them out. I decided to drop it until I regained their trust. Until then, I would have to be content with reading The Book of Mormon. I read the book through once that summer with Linda and started through it again on my own.
Captain Moroni was my hero. The more I read about him, the more I wanted to be like him. And for the first time in a long time, I wanted to be something more than just the class clown. I just wasn’t sure what.
Then, one night, as I was trying to pajama one of the little campers, I felt a pain deep in my gut, like someone had hit me. I began to cry looking at the little guy’s bent and uncontrollable body. Then, as I looked into his eyes, I remembered the dream from the night I began reading The Book of Mormon. I understood why my dream of Jesus ministering to the children had seemed so real. In my dream he was ministering to the kids at Camp Coronado.
From that point on, I knew that I wanted to do something with my life – maybe become a doctor or therapist to help handicapped kids. And while I didn’t know what that would be, I was afraid my handicap might prevent it. To do great things I needed a good education and so far, mine had been a waste.
From the day I’d taken on the Underdogs, I hadn’t taken school seriously at all. I’d taken the easiest classes and gone out of my way to cultivate a reputation as a slacker. I grew my hair long, joked around and cut class. And homework? Forget it.
I felt occasional twinges of guilt, but pushed them aside, thinking I was doing something noble. I’d been so noble that at the beginning of my senior year there was nothing in my head (or on my transcript) to show for two years of high school.
Now I had the crazy idea that I if worked really hard I could make up for lost time. That was why, early on the first day of school, I found myself standing outside my counselor’s door.
“Boz Burton?” She gave a little scream of shock and invited me in. She asked me about my haircut and my summer and then, “how can I help you today?”
She was shocked when I wanted to drop some easier classes to pick up College Prep English and a math class, but she nearly fell out her chair when I mentioned Physics. She cocked her head to one side, like she was deep in thought and then without saying a word turned back to her desk and filled out the change form.
“You’ll have to get the teachers to sign this and bring it back to me today,” she’d given that instruction a thousand times, but as I reached for the paper, she pulled it away. “When you came to school here two years ago, your grades and test scores showed that you had great potential. I’ve always been a little disappointed in you. I admire you for trying to make up for lost time here, but I hope you are not taking on too much.”
I didn’t know how to answer because I’d been asking myself the same question. All I could do was nod. She handed me the form and turned back to her work.
I walked out of the counseling office in a sweat and headed outside to get some air. I stood on the front steps of the huge building and took a deep breath. I was scared. I closed my eyes, said a silent prayer of thanks and asked for help. I stood there for a moment with my eyes closed and began to believe I could do it. Little did I know that things were about to get a lot more complicated.
BOZ CHAPTER 4: Along Came Mary
“Hey, Boz, are ya’ okay?”
Boz, standing in thought on the front steps of the school, opened his eyes to find Tom Warner standing much too close.
“Yeah, fine! Just thinking.”
“Cool. For a moment I thought some of that retardation rubbed off on ya’.”
“Yeah, you know, from that retard camp you worked at. Anyways, it looks like it made your hair fall out.”
Inwardly Boz bristled at Tom’s callous description of his beloved camp and campers, but chose to let it go. “Yeah, I got scalped by Apaches.”
“Good one! Man, summer was a bummer without you. But hey, now it’s Senior year! The school is ours and all the chicks, of course, are yours. Maybe you could let me have one or two, huh?” Boz cringed at Tom’s reminder of his undeserved reputation.
Part of Boz’s war on cliquedom had been a personal mission to ask out as many girls from as many cliques as possible, just to make the point. He got shot down at first, but after just a few rejections they started to accept. Before long he had dated more than a few girls from every clique, except for the Preps. Being an outlaw made Boz exciting to date. It also made for gossip about what happened on those dates and some of the rumors got out of control. Boz never felt comfortable about what was said, but really didn’t do anything to stop it. It was good for the cause.
“So, where are Floyd and Craze,” Boz tried to change the subject.
“They went to get Craze something to eat before class.”
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
“I, uh, have to wait for someone,”
“Oh? Who?” Boz raised his eyebrows.
“Cut it out Boz. It’s nothing like that. I’m supposed to meet my cousin.”
“This isn’t funny. She moved here from Idaho this summer and man, is she weird.”
“Look who’s talking about being weird.”
“Man, you are just going to have to meet her to believe her.”
“Well, then if she’s that weird, she’ll fit right in.”
“Weird might not be the right word.” A voice from behind was all too familiar. Boz whirled to find Scott Seager smirking. “More like delinquent isn’t it?”
Boz wasn’t surprised to see Scott Seager and his entourage or have him acting like a jerk, but there was something new in attitude.
“Rah! Rah! Ree! Kick them in the …”
“Put a cork in it, Warner!” Scott dismissed Scott’s mocking and then turned back to Boz. “I can’t believe they even let you back in school, you don’t belong here and neither do your loser friends.”
Boz felt his blood begin to boil. He couldn’t believe he’d felt a twinge of guilt that morning for what he’d done to this guy. He was a jerk and deserved it all.
“Why don’t you just go back where you belong to that retard camp in Arizona. I’ll make your life. . .”
Boz didn’t give him a chance to finish. He grabbed the front of Scott’s sweater, got in his face and exploded, “shut your damned mouth!!”
Boz expected Scott to cower, but he didn’t even flinch. He just smirked, pushed Boz away and swaggered away. He had hit just the nerve he’d intended and they both new it. He would be on his way to Reynold’s office and Boz would be in trouble again.
Boz staggered back. He felt as if he’d been hit by a truck and would have collapsed if Tom hadn’t been there to hold him up.
“Crap, you did it that time,” was all the comfort Tom offered. “I’ve never seen you lose it like that. You were awesome. You should have beat his…”
“Shut up, Tom.” With his head spinning, it’s all he could think to say. He wanted to be alone. “Go, go to class. Get out of here before Reynold’s shows up and we both get expelled.” Tom hesitated so Boz gave him a shove, “go!” And with that he was up the stairs and through the main door.
The bell rang and Boz automatically headed up the stairs, but then gave up and plopped down in the middle, letting the last of the student body rush past him. After all, they had reasons to be there and he wasn’t quite sure if he did.
Boz was suddenly filled with every negative emotion. He was afraid, angry and depressed, but most of all he was guilty. He had put his parents through hell, just yelled at one of his good friends and was going to get expelled.
“What a screw up!” Guilt had now shifted to self-pity and Boz was talking out loud to himself. “What’s the matter with me anyway? What makes me think I can change? I feel different inside, but everything is still the same on the outside. It’s not like it was at Coronado.”
Boz was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the car pull up to the curb or the girl get out. Had he been observant, he might have noticed the uneasiness in her face; seen her look up at the school and then back at the car as it drove away. He may even have seen her look up and down the front lawn searching for the cousin whom had promised to wait and help her. He may have noticed her apprehension of the lone young man sitting on the front steps of the school, almost in a trance, talking to himself.
“They’ll never take me seriously.” Now he was arguing with himself, “Look who they should take seriously – Mr. Practical Joker, Mr. Scam, Boz Burton the man with the answer for everything.” His hands fanned the air in gesture as he tried to get the point across.
The girl, moving toward the front door of her new school might have heard more if she hadn’t been so frightened. She only caught the last few words, but it was enough to make her stop and stare.
It was bad enough to be leaving the home she had known all her life and be coming to this strange city, this huge school, but now there was this boy sitting on the front steps mumbling about having the answers. All the warnings from friends and family about the strange types that she would run across in big city schools flooded her thoughts and she gave out with a little peep like a frightened bird.
It was just enough to jar Boz out of his daydreaming and he was immediately embarrassed. Temper took over again and he shot out at this perfect stranger, “did you get an earful?”
A little shocked at his own rudeness, and now even more disgusted with himself, he jumped to his feet and headed up the stairs for the front door. As he reached for the handle, he caught her reflection in the glass.
There stood the dowdiest looking soul he had ever seen. Her dark hair, which was overdue for a wash, was a tangled mess. Several strands had escaped the elastic that tried to hold it in a ponytail and were hanging in her face.
Her dress was straight out of the elementary school lost and found – a dingy and faded plaid item. The hem has uneven, which drew even more attention to her mismatched knee socks and scuffed shoes. She wore no makeup that he could see, but it was hard to tell through the scratched lenses of her ugly, horn-rimmed glasses.
They’ll eat her alive! If there was ever an Underdog this is her.
Without knowing how he was going to redeem himself, Boz turned back to help. This was going to be tough, even for the Pied Piper of Empire.
He noticed the way she stood. She stood in the middle of the sidewalk, but looked as if she was huddling in a corner. She was like a frightened mouse – hands held nervously in front, head jerking back and forth, looking for her promised guide and trying to avoid Boz.
He moved slowly down the steps to keep from frighten her. He spoke quietly. “You look a little lost. Can I help you?”
The girl might have been relieved if it had been anyone else offering help, but he had been so rude and he frightened her. She was sure he was on drugs.
“I’m waiting for my cousin, he’s supposed to meet me here and help me find my way around,” she said in a surprisingly firm voice. “I suppose he’s just late.”
So, the little mouse has some fight in her. He made a weak attempt at humor. “My name is Boz Burton and I’m in charge of orienting new students.”
“I’ll be fine,” her voice chilled a few degrees.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude,” Boz was really trying. “I’m really a nice guy. Look!” And with that Boz flashed his famous grin. The girl couldn’t help but look and for the first time their eyes met.
What Boz saw in those eyes intrigued him. It was not shyness, but real fear and deep disappointment. He held her gaze and continued to smile, hoping to brighten those eyes.
It was then that he realized how pretty her eyes were, even through the scratched lenses of those ugly glasses. They were round and soft and brilliantly blue, which made the pain so much more apparent.
These were supposed to be happy eyes and yet they weren’t. He thought that – happy or sad – he might never forget those eyes and as he came to his senses, he noticed they had begun to soften.
“Wait a minute,” Boz’s eyes now widened with his flash of inspiration, “your cousin wouldn’t happen to be Tom Warner would he?”
The girl’s eyes showed their first rays of hope.
“That turkey!” Boz was thinking out loud again. “You’re not going to believe this, but I am Tom’s best friend and the guy assigned by the mental hospital to keep track of him.”
A slight smile breached the girl’s pursed lips.
“I need help.” Boz was hoping to build some momentum, “Do you think you can help me with him?”
“I don’t know how much help I’d be, I barely know him.” She was now making a careful effort to join in the game. “I met him for the first time last week and from the way he talked he probably does need to be committed.” She smiled at her own joke.
“Well then,” Boz was happy to be making headway, “I guess we’ll have to deal with him later. What about you? He said you were from Idaho,” he drawled the last word.
She understood clearly that the drawl suggested, but she was still feeling too timid to defend herself. She just nodded.
And your first class is?”
“History… Mr. Garcia…Room 204.”
She’s memorized her schedule.
“Well surprise, surprise. I’m in that class and I think Tom is too,” his enthusiasm was helping her to relax. “Come on! I’ll show you, it’s right in here.” He had bounded the steps and was holding the door for her. She followed him into the building, up the main stairs and to the door of the classroom.
As Boz reached for the handle, the girl took a quick breath. Turning toward the sound he saw that she was frightened. Stopping to think about it he was too. He took a quick breath of his own, reached out and touched her arm. “Hey,” he whispered, “what’s your name?”
“Mary,” she whispered back, “Mary Olsen.”
“Well Mary,” he said quickly, “here goes!” Boz took Mary’s hand, swung the door open and they made an entrance.
The classroom fell silent as they entered. Class had been in session for almost ten minutes and the students had already introduced themselves. The teacher had marked their names against the roll and was just getting ready to launch into his introduction.
There were thirty or so students in the class, half a dozen of them Underdogs. Floyd and Crazy Anne might not have immediately recognized Boz, due to his haircut, but Tom had blabbed the news as soon as he’d seen them. But even Boz’s new hairstyle couldn’t draw their attention away from his companion. Tom buried his face in his hands as soon as he recognized his cousin.
“Invasion of the weirdoes,” a wide-eyed Floyd whispered to Craze as he gawked at the strange couple. Craze began to snicker under her breath.
Being a new teacher and wanting to appear in control, Mr. Garcia wasted no time in handling this interruption. “Well young lady, I have no idea who you are,” he was addressing Mary, “but you” he turned to Boz, “must be Wilbur Burton.”
Garcia was correct in supposing that Boz must be the only student on his roll that was tardy for the first day of class, but what he didn’t know was that no one had called Boz by the name Wilbur since he’d been christened. Empire High had come into the computer age that year and the new computer-generated roll had revealed one of Boz’s most closely guarded secrets.
The class erupted with laughter with the Underdogs enjoying the revelation most of all. Tom’s face came up out of his hands as he let out with a “Mr. Ed” impersonation. “Willlllburr,” he whinnied as laughter erupted again. After a couple of beats to let the laughter subside Boz answered coolly.
“Yes Sir,” he said respectfully. “I’m Wilbur Burton, but everybody calls me Boz. And this, “he held up Mary’s hand, “is my new friend Mary Olsen.”
The shocked class fell deadly silent. They would have expected anything from Boz but a respectful reply. Floyd was the only one with enough composure to speak.
“That chick’s from a UFO. She’s beamed ‘im up, cut off all his hair and brainwashed him.” Floyd’s observation had been intended for Craze and Tom, but in the dead silence it was audible to the back half of the room. Everybody that heard found Floyd’s comment hilarious, everyone that is, except the young man who’d made it.
He wasn’t sure it was funny at all.
BOZ CHAPTER 5: Looking for A Miracle (Boz and Mary)
Miracle (mir⸱a·kl) n. a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.
“Boz, we’ll be late for school!” Liz was yelling and banging on my door. I came up out of bed in a daze and realized I’d fallen asleep studying math. I’d slept on top of the covers, in my clothes, and a glance at the clock told me that I’d be wearing the same to school that day. I headed for the door, my head feeling like a cinderblock.
“Come on Boz!” Liz’s voice reached her shrill, last-straw pitch and I burst from the room in a rage.
“Will you shut up?!” I pushed past her and up the stairs to the bathroom. I splashed warm water on my face and not feeling much of a beard decided I wouldn’t shave.
I started to scold myself as I reached for my toothbrush. I’m trying to do too much. But before I could defend myself from myself, Liz burst through the door. We watched each other in the mirror as I squeezed too much toothpaste on the brush and began a quick job on my teeth.
“You’re trying to do too much,” she echoed my thoughts.
It was a couple of seconds before I was ready to spit. “I’m fine Liz, I can do this!”
At that moment I regretted confiding in her about my plans. I’d come home a nervous wreck from that first day of school having waited for a call to Reynold’s office, but it never came. And then the teachers in my new classes dumped loads of work on me. I had to unload on somebody, so when Liz asked what was wrong, she heard the whole story.
“You know I’m right,” she replied. “You need some help.”
“I’m fine Liz,” toothpaste spat on the mirror. I rinsed out the toothbrush and tossed it on the counter. Where am I going to get help? There are a couple of brainy Underdogs, but I couldn’t possibly ask them, it would destroy the image.
“Unless you’re willing to swallow your pride and ask some of your smarter Underdogs for help, you’re going to need a miracle.” Her voice had switched to nagging-mother-hen mode. I decided my hair was hopeless and turned to face my sister.
“Liz’” I was trying not to yell at her, “I’ll be fine!” She got the message, turned on her heels and left the bathroom. I took one more look at myself in the mirror. I looked terrible. I need a miracle.
The ride to school was tense. I think we were both happy Julie hadn’t been ready to go with us. After masterfully steering Bertha into another tight parking spot, I spoke without looking at her. “Sorry I’m in such a rotten mood today.”
“You are,” she got in her last jab “but I understand. What are you going to do? This schedule is too much.”
She was right. I was drowning. I spent every waking moment either in class or studying. I felt terrible for ignoring my friends, but I just didn’t have any time for fun. I couldn’t quit. I’d made promises to myself and God and I believed he’d help me.
I wanted to tell Liz that I’d been praying and that I felt God would help. I wanted to tell her about the strength and hope I felt when I read the Book of Mormon, but wimped out. “I’ll be fine.” I don’t think I convinced her.
With nothing more to be said, we got out and headed across the parking lot. She sprinted ahead and that was fine by me. That day, just showing up was a big victory. The first bell rang as I dragged myself up the stairs to History.
“You look like you’ve been hit by a truck,” was the comfort I got from Tom at the top of the stairs.
“Why don’t I just smack you upside the head?”
“Cuz’ you love me,” Tom laughed while batting his eyelids.
I stopped short of the classroom and let the other students file past. I need a miracle. My thought was really a prayer. I took a deep breath and walked through the door.
As I took my seat, I noticed Mr. Garcia smiling at me. It was a strange smile; as if he was going to spring something on us. I smiled back and flashed the peace sign. Garcia flashed it back.
“Garcia is so cool,” I thought out loud enough for Craze and Floyd to hear. They acknowledged with grunts, which was quite a compliment considering how the two of them felt about school. I guess I’d once felt the same way, but I wanted to feel differently.
I knew I wasn’t a scholar – the last couple of weeks had proved that – but I had hope for myself in history. English was not bad and I had to force myself to study science and math, but I loved history. So, after I recovered from the shock, it was really no surprise to him to hear what Garcia was announcing to the class.
“I have scored your tests from yesterday and have the results on the board. Most of you need to study more and pay better attention in class. However, there is a student that may want to take a break this weekend while the rest of you write me a paragraph on each incorrect answer. Mr. Burton had a perfect score on the test.”
I wasn’t the only one who was shocked. Floyd and Crazy Anne laughed, Tom said something stupid and everyone else stared at me in amazement. I felt my face flush and tried to ignore them all by focusing on Garcia, but I could not help congratulating myself. Maybe I’m smarter than I thought!
I was the only student in the room that morning not shocked by Garcia’s announcement. I nodded knowingly from my lonely seat at the back of the room.
I tried to approach Boz after class to congratulate him, but his friends mobbed him as usual. He’d saved me on that first day and been my one ray of hope in an otherwise dismal experience. I’d tried to get close to him several times the first two weeks, but he was always surrounded by Underdogs and I wasn’t the kind to push past them.
As I backed away from the crowd, I felt like a hot air balloon I’d once watched flying over our farm. The burner had quit and there was nothing the pilot could do to keep from crashing into the trees at the edge of the field. I felt like that balloon – deflated and falling.
I thought about all the promises people made to me in the year since Daddy died. People promised that everything would work out; that moving wouldn’t be so bad; that Tom would help me; and that I would make a lot of new friends, but the promises that hurt the most were Mom’s.
Mom said she’d prayed about the move and had received an answer from the Lord. She promised she wouldn’t take me away from the home I loved if she didn’t know it was right.
“Mary, believe me. There’s a reason for us to be there. I don’t know what it is. But I promise you that if you will just have faith, everything will work out for us. You will be happy again.”
I tried to believe her promise, but was terrified when we moved. And then everything began to fall apart. Mom didn’t get her promotion and the sale of our farm fell through. Mom had to take a part-time job just to make ends meet. She was gone another four hours at night and I was alone in the apartment. All I could think about was running back to our farm, our family and my friends.
When Mom got tired of talking about it, I gave up. I didn’t care anymore and let myself go. I lost my appetite and all I would talk about was going home. We started to fight a lot, so instead of fighting I just quit talking to her altogether.
“School starts in a couple of weeks. We’ll have to get you some new clothes and school supplies. Maybe you could call Tom and find out what you need.”
I couldn’t answer. I sulked into my room and slammed the door. That night I planned my escape back to Idaho. The next afternoon Mom came home to an empty apartment. I’d left her a note.
I am so very sad and depressed. I hate it here and can’t live here any longer. I love you and really, really want to stay and support you, but I can’t. I’ve asked you so many times to take me home, but you won’t and so now I’m going.
I don’t have enough for bus fare, so I’ll hitchhike. Please don’t come after me unless you are willing to take me home. I can live with Uncle Reese and Aunt Grace and finish school there with my friends.
Please don’t be upset. I’ll be fine and you’ll do better here not having to worry about me.
I really do love you!
I can only imagine her anger turning to fear and then panic as awful scenes flooded into her mind. She must have rushed out of the apartment with tears filling her eyes because she was running blindly down the stairs. Between the third and second floors she passed me coming back up the stairs, suitcase in hand.
She screamed my name and she tried to stop, but her foot turned as it hit the next step. She let out a scream of pain, tumbled down the stairs ended on the second-floor landing, unconscious.
I dropped my suitcase and screamed for her. The next thing I knew I had her bloody head in my lap. I was stroking her hair and pleading, “Mama, Mama.” She looked into my face, trying to find my eyes through the haze.
“Please Mary, listen to me, don’t run away. It never helps to run away.”
“Don’t talk Mama, just rest. The super has called for help.”
She insisted on talking through the haze and the pain. “Listen to me Mary, this…is…important. The Lord promised us that if we would come to him with our problems, he would help. That’s the way your daddy lived his life and we have to believe…”
“Daddy’s dead, Mama!” I wailed through my tears, feeling depression sweeping over me. I had hurt my mother and the last thing I wanted to hear about was God’s love.
“Honey, I’ll make you a promise. If you will…pray and ask God to help us…”
“He will. I promise.” She was slipping back in unconsciousness “Will…you promise.”
“No more promises Mama!”
I couldn’t talk, I could only cry. But somehow, as tears streamed down my face, I promised her that I would pray. I kept that promise right then. I prayed for Mama and asked God to forgive me for hurting her. I prayed that someone would help us feel happy again. I prayed harder as I heard the siren. Mama laid her head back in my lap and closed her eyes.
Now, a month later, I watched the boy I thought was the answer to those prayers swept away. For a brief moment I imagined that he was looking at me, wanting to say something, but it couldn’t be. I turned and walked away.
I felt like the entire student body of Empire High was headed in the opposite direction of one depressed and hopeless girl. I moved toward the doors of the library hoping to slip inside until the traffic cleared. It would be quiet and I could think.
Once inside, I started a mental conversation with myself. I had tried, really tried. Standing on the highway a month earlier, I’d felt guilty for giving up and for leaving mama alone. That’s why I’d gone back.
I wondered if, since that day in the apartment stairwell, things had gotten better or worse. Mama hadn’t been seriously hurt, but her broken ankle and minor concussion had been enough to lay her up for two weeks. She had sick leave from her regular job, but she’d lost her part-time job and there was absolutely no money for school clothes, and very little for anything else. Tom had spent about 15 minutes showing me around the school the first day, but he had pretty much ignored me after that. In fact, almost everyone seemed to ignore me. The one really bright ray of hope had been meeting Boz and now that light was beginning to flicker.
I’ve tried. I’ve done my best. Yet something told me I was being weak and childish — that I was giving up. Yes, I give up! I’m going home right now and nothing is ever going to make me come back to this stupid place!
I whirled to leave and ran right into a boy coming into the library. I’d run into him with enough force to knock him back against the doors.
“Why don’t you just get out of my way you clumsy jerk!”
“That, I think, is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” the breathless voice retorted. Breathless or not, Boz Burton’s voice was unmistakable. Not only had I been rude, it had been to the one person in the whole school that meant anything to me. Now I was really ready to escape.
I tried to push past him, but he grabbed my arm. I struggled, but he just tightened his grip. He turned me to face him, lifted my head by my chin and looked into my eyes.
“I’m glad we ran into each other. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”