BOZ CHAPTER 6: A Little Help From My Friend
His steely blue eyes made her want to forget her troubles like the sparkle of a new snowfall makes you forget the cold, dead ground underneath. She was much too sensible to be thinking like this.
His hands were like a velvet vise, holding her tightly, but not hurting her at all. Why wouldn’t he just let go and who gave him permission to touch her anyway.
He smelled just like a man should. She wanted to bury her face into his shirt and fill her soul with the aroma. She wondered if she were going to hyperventilate.
She started to object, but he interrupted. His soothing voice tamed her rebellious spirit. She thrilled as he put his arm around her and led her gently back into the library.
Where in the world were these silly thoughts coming from? Probably from those ridiculous romance novels her mother made her stop reading in the 7th grade. She’d never been in such a daze before, but then, again, she’d never been in love.
Perhaps falling in love with Boz Burton in the school library was foolish, but seventeen years of feeding chickens and digging potatoes on an Idaho farm doesn’t prepare a girl well for a boy like Boz Burton. Then again, was there anything a girl could do to prepare for a boy like Boz Burton? If she believed half of what she heard about him, she could either be offended or thrilled that he would pay attention to her. In Mary’s case, she was just shocked.
Regaining her composure, Mary started pushing those thoughts out of her head. She wasn’t about to make herself look silly by falling all over this guy. She forced her chin up and her face into an aloof expression.
“Hello Mandy,” Boz whispered as he smiled at the library aide. She smiled back and Mary felt a latent rush of jealousy.
Watch yourself girl! Was it that she couldn’t stop these thoughts or that she didn’t want to stop these thoughts?
Mandy looked at Boz’s library pass and frowned. “Her name isn’t on it.” Boz leaned over the counter to whisper something in her ear. She blushed slightly, nodded and waved them past.
And just in time! Mary suppressed an urge to slap her.
Boz took Mary’s hand and led her to a small table at the furthest end of the library. He sat down across from her, rested his chin in his hands and studied her face. He looked into her eyes as if he were searching for something.
Why is he looking at me like that? Is he trying to read my mind? Does he think I’m weird?
What he was thinking, just like when he’d first met her, was how captivating those eyes were. He wanted to snatch the scratched lenses away and set them free. She looked away and the spell was broken.
“So,” he was searching for a conversation starter, “how do you like Empire?”
“Actually,” she began, still not looking at him, “I don’t like it at all.” She paused, hoping she hadn’t offended him, but then, hoping she had, looked at him defiantly. “It’s way too big, nobody cares about me and I want to go home to Idaho!”
Boz didn’t know what to say. He was stunned by her frankness and hypnotized, again, by those eyes, now ablaze. She wanted a fight and he liked that.
“Please, don’t hide your feelings,” Boz had recovered. “Let it out baby!” Boz grinned broadly.
He’d stunned her back. “I’m sorry,” she sighed, “I’ve just had a rough…”
Boz didn’t let her finish. “It’s kind of a zoo around here isn’t it?”
“Zoo is a good word,” she was smiling now, as she realized that’s exactly how she felt.
“Well don’t worry. Most of the animals are only dangerous around feeding time, but is it so bad that you’d want to go back to Idaho?”
He eyes flashed fire again, only this time it was playful. “Have you ever been to Idaho?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Let me tell you, it’s a wonderful place. It’s wide-open and free and there is no place more beautiful than our farm.”
“Did you have potato trees there?”
“Potatoes don’t grow on trees, they…” she stopped short when she saw him grin again. “Oh, you!” was all she could think to say.
She fell silent as she floated off in thought. For a second Boz thought she was angry, but then realized she was thinking about what she missed.
“So, why did you come here,” Boz asked, trying to understand why a family would leave a place they loved so much.
Mary’s head dropped, “my father died last year, just after Christmas.” Boz was suddenly very sorry he’d asked. “We came here because Mom was offered a good job and we knew we couldn’t run the farm. We tried to sell it, but they couldn’t come up with the money. My Mom’s sister lives here and we knew their family would help us.” Neither of them seemed to care that she was airing the family laundry. He was deeply interested in this story.
“Didn’t you have anybody in Idaho who could help?”
“Oh yes! But you have to understand Mama. She hates to take charity. She’s very independent! She calls it ‘strong willed, but I say she’s stubborn.”
Boz laughed as he listened to this girl describe her mother’s attitude, wondering if she had any idea that she was also describing herself. He’d started the conversation feeling sorry for this girl, but suddenly found himself in awe.
“So, there’s got to be something you like about Empire,” Boz was searching for something that would make her want to stay.
“Well…” she hung on the word as she thought, her hand tracing the outline of her Trigonometry text, “the classes are more challenging here than in Idaho. I like that! I was almost bored with school back home.”
Boz watched her finger as it almost caressed the math book. “You like hard classes –like math?”
“Yes!” She was slightly threatened by his question.
“I really like Chemistry and English,” she sounded embarrassed about her love for learning. “I like History, but obviously not as much as you. Congratulations on the test. Do you do that well in all of your classes?”
Her question caught him off guard and it took him a second to formulate a clever answer. “Well, you may not believe this, but I am not the smartest guy on the planet,” he waited for her to laugh at his joke, but she didn’t. He decided just to go on. “I’ve spent most of high school slacking off.”
Mary gave him a stern look that made him want to redeem himself. “Then last summer I, uh…” it would be just a little white lie, “volunteered at a camp for handicapped kids down in Arizona. While I was there, I did a lot of thinking.” He picked his words carefully, wanting to be honest without telling her the whole story. He gained confidence from Mary’s softened look. “Now I’m trying to play catch up and it’s killing me!”
“Do you need help?”
“No!” Boz cut her off in mid-sentence and stood up to leave, “I have to do this myself.”
“A minute ago, you asked me about our friends being willing to help us in Idaho. Why did you ask me that?”
Boz hesitated; he knew where she was going with this, but her beautiful eyes demanded a response. “Because friends should help each other when they need it, but…”
Mary’s turn cut him off. “Our friends did help us. But they were careful not to do things for us we could do for ourselves; that would have made us weak. They did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. They held us up until we were strong enough to stand on our own. Everybody needs help sometime.”
Boz found himself captivated again. It was not just the eyes – which were now very soft, almost pleading – but the sureness in her voice and depth of her wisdom. This was so out of character for the mousy girl he’d watched over last few weeks. Where was this coming from?
Boz wondered at a strange new feeling, almost a voice talking to his mind. He closed his eyes and listened. “This is your miracle.”
He sat down, opened wide his eyes and looked bravely into hers. “Well,” he asked slyly, “just how good are you at Algebra?”
They spent the rest of the period working through Boz’s assignment. Boz was grateful for the help and Mary was happy to give it. It was the first time in her life she was excited to be smart.
As the class period ended Boz thanked her and almost slammed his book shut. “I’ve got to go,” was all he said and he rushed out of the library. Mary wondered what would have caused such a hasty retreat and was suddenly worried that he was afraid to be seen with her.
The next morning, however, that worry evaporated. Boz met her at her locker and walked her to History. He followed her to the back of the class and took the usually-vacant seat next to her. They talked until class started and then continued their conversation via whispers and notes.
This new relationship was not lost on the others. At first the stares and whispers embarrassed Mary, but that soon wore off and she even began to enjoy it. It had been a long time since she’d merited any positive attention and this was like a feast after a long fast.
He walked her to her next class and, before running off to his own, Boz asked her to eat lunch with him. He met her at her locker and escorted her to a table in the cafeteria where they were soon surrounded by Underdogs.
At first, the Underdog’s humor – sardonic and sarcastic – shocked Mary. It took her a while to understand that the sharp jabs they took at each other were really love taps and those they took at people outside the group were playful challenges. She found their attitude contagious and was soon laughing right along with them.
Over the next few weeks Mary grew to love the Underdogs more each day. She was quickly accepted by them – most of them looking upon her as a project and happy to have someone odder than themselves to champion – Tom and Floyd being the two who were tentative. Tom was embarrassed that Mary was his cousin. Floyd connected her appearance with the changes in Boz.
Boz asked her to study with him every day. She helped him with most all of his subjects except History and Physics. He didn’t need help in History and she didn’t know Physics. She offered to look over his Physics work, but he seemed determined to conquer it himself.
They met after school in the library, coming separately and Boz always acting nervous. As soon as they began to study though, he would relax. She reasoned that he was just not used to being studious.
Mary loved the study sessions. Not only did she have Boz all to herself, but it was her chance to be a giver instead of a taker. For 90 minutes a day, at least, she felt worthwhile. Mary also liked to study with Boz because it was the only time that he got serious. Their quiet talks revealed to her things no one else knew.
One day Mary caught Boz with his nose in a Twinkie wrapper. “Smells like a Ponderosa,” was his response to her quizzical look. “Well it kind of does.” Boz pushed the wrapper towards her nose. “Smell.”
Mary giggled as she intercepted the wrapper. “What are you talking about?”
“At Coronado they taught us that Ponderosa pines smell like vanilla, so now every time I smell a Twinkie I think of Coronado.” Boz had that whimsical look again.
“You really liked that place, didn’t you?” Mary asked, reading his face.
“You know, I would never have chosen to go do something like that in a million years, but I am so glad I went.”
Something in Mary’s head clicked. The first time he’d talked about Coronado, Boz said he’d volunteered. Now he was making it sound like he didn’t have a choice. She almost said something, but Boz was opening up again and she didn’t want to spoil it. She decided to just listen.
“There was this girl, Linda…”
Mary felt an immediate twinge of jealousy, but she suppressed it. She’d had a lot of practice at that lately.
“She was…” Boz paused, searching for the right words. He found them and broke into a huge grin. “She was a pushy, spoiled snot that always got her way.” His words didn’t match his expression or the emotion in his voice.
“You liked her then.” Mary’s humor helped her choke down the jealousy.
“She was so annoying,” Boz’s grunt of exasperation didn’t fool her.
“So, you really liked her then!”
“I’ll tell you this, if it hadn’t been for the book….” Boz stopped short. Mary knew that was the end of that discussion. It had happened so many times before. Boz would begin to open up about something and then suddenly stop. “We’d better get to work here, huh?”
No matter what they talked about, he always came back to the homework. It seemed to be an obsession with him. He worked so hard, but it was obvious that he was fighting an uphill battle. He wasn’t stupid; he just didn’t have the basics down.
The study sessions always lasted until the librarian kicked them out. Boz always offered Mary a ride home, but being too proud to have him know where she lived, she’d refuse. Boz would insist, but she always stood her ground and took the bus.
One day, Boz was struggling with quadradic equations. Each time Mary explained it he came a little closer to understanding, but he couldn’t quite get it. When the librarian asked them to leave Boz was noticeably frustrated.
“I’ve got to get this,” Boz was talking more to himself than Mary as they walked down the back stairs of the building. Mary didn’t quite know how to respond. She wasn’t even sure if she should.
“Mary,” Boz had now turned on the stair in front of her and was looking right into her eyes, “I hate to ask this, but would you please come home with me and help me with this some more? I’ve almost got it.”
This wasn’t the first time Boz had invited her to tutor him at his home – joking that the librarian couldn’t kick them out there. She’d always declined and yet, that day, on the stairs with his eyes so full of need, she had to agree. And by the time the evening was over, she was so glad she had.
The ride home was Mary’s first introduction to Big Bertha. There were only a few cars left in the student parking lot that afternoon and somehow Mary knew exactly which belonged to the eccentric Boz Burton.
“Your coach, my lady,” Boz announced as he swept an imaginary hat from his head and bowed low.
“You are crazy.” She was not used to playing like this.
He beat her around to her side of the car, swung open the creaky door and took her hand to help her into the car. She felt awkward and started to blush. She pulled her hand away and quickly slid into the car.
“You okay?” Boz was now a little embarrassed.
“I’m fine.” She didn’t look at him.
Boz closed the door and walked around the front of the car. He tried to catch her eye, but she was looking down. He got in and started the car without saying a word. The radio blasted on and was a welcome break to the silence. They rode most of the way without speaking, Mary staring out her window and Boz pretending to watch the traffic.
When they were about a block from the Burton home, Mary reached up and turned off the radio. “I’m sorry,” she was quietly testing the waters.
“For what,” Boz, relieved by the sound of her voice had taken courage.
“I just don’t do well with surprises. You surprised me and I just didn’t handle it well.”
“Oh, no,” Boz feigned shock as he masterfully piloted Bertha into his driveway, “you’ll hate my family then. If you think I’m crazy, wait until you meet them.” The car jerked to a stop and Boz turned to face her with a sinister look on his face.
“Boz!” Mary whined.
Boz didn’t stop to answer. He jumped out and headed around the car. Mary was out of the car by the time he got halfway around. She did not want him helping her. He led the way to the back door and had it open for her by the time she got to the top of the steps. She was suddenly wary of what was inside. What type of a family had produced this unusual boy?
The worry was for nothing. What Mary found inside pleased her. This home was filled with love.
Being an only child, she’d only heard about sibling rivalry, but Boz and Liz Burton got along marvelously. They teased each other unmercifully, but you could tell it was all in fun.
Mary had almost expected this from what she’d seen of them together at school and from the way he was always talking about Liz. Although Mary wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Liz, there was no doubt how Boz felt about her. He spoke of her with admiration; she was so pretty, so popular, so smart.
Boz announced their arrival as soon as they were through the door, claiming to have brought home a “stray.” Mrs. Burton took Mary’s side immediately – greeting her with warmth, offering food and demanding that Boz treat her nicely. He surrendered, gave her the traditional welcome-home peck on the cheek and led Mary into the dinning room to study.
Mr. Burton came home early that evening and announced his arrival much as Boz had done. His wife and daughter met him with kisses and even his son gave him a hug. He hadn’t been home long before Mary began to see where Boz had gotten much of his personality. Mr. Burton joked with and teased everyone in the house. When he “demanded” that Mary stay for dinner she found herself unable to refuse.
At one point during dinner, Mary found herself choking back tears. She had suddenly realized how much she missed her own father and how long it had been since she and her mother had set down to a real meal. She excused herself from the table, under the guise of calling her mother at work, which she did once she’d composed herself.
“Mom?!” Mary was still working on her composure.
“Mary, I called a little while ago and you didn’t answer.” Her mother’s voice sounded relieved.
“I’m not home yet. I’m studying with a friend at his house and his parents are feeding me. Is there a chance you can pick me up on the way home from work?” Mary wanted to be with her mother more than she wanted the ride.
“Where do they live, Honey?”
Mary suddenly realized she didn’t know. “I’ll get the address,” she said, laying the phone on the counter. “Boz,” Mary stuck her head into the dinning room, “what’s your address? My Mom is going to pick me up on her way home.”
Mr. Burton looked up from his chocolate cake. “Boz, don’t make her mother come out of her way. You can take her home.”
“Yeah.” Boz smirked victoriously; reminding Mary of all the times she had stubbornly refused rides. “Bertha and I will be glad to take you home.”
Again, Mary couldn’t refuse and, again, before the ride was over, she was glad she hadn’t. In the conversation about where she lived and how to get there, it became apparent that she didn’t know the city very well.
“Would you like the official Boz Burton tour of the city,” Boz asked as Bertha swung a wide turn down her street.
“I have to get home,” she objected.
“I didn’t mean tonight,” he answered. “How about Friday?”
“I’m sure you have a date,” she was almost challenging him.
“Well,” he drawled, “I didn’t, but I do now.”
“I, uh…I, oh, turn in here,” she had almost forgotten she was navigating.
Boz steered Bertha into the narrow alleyway and brought her to a sudden stop. “We’re here then?”
“Yes.” Mary’s short answer was a prelude to an intended turndown, but Boz didn’t give her a chance.
“So, we have a date Friday night. Dress casual and I’ll pick you up at seven.” With that, Boz was out his door and headed around the car. Mary was so busy trying to think of an excuse, she forgot to let herself out and before she knew it, her door was open and Boz was offering his hand. She absent-mindedly took it, which brought her out of her seat and face to face with her gallant doorman.
“Boz…” she’d thought of her excuse and was ready to drop the bombshell, but one look into those eyes brought back all the feelings of that first day in the library, “…I’ll see you Friday,” she almost gushed.
“Good, but actually, I’ll see you in school tomorrow,” Boz responded as he glanced over her shoulder, his attention having turned to the scary looking apartment building. “Let me walk you up.”
“Heaven’s no!” Mary sounded exasperated. She had forgotten to be embarrassed by the old, rundown place. As a matter of fact, she could have flown up to the fifth floor.
For the fist time in a long time she felt like she really meant something to someone. She didn’t feel alone anymore and there was hope. Enough hope for her to suddenly believe this could become what her mother had promised – the most wonderful time of her life.
BOZ CHAPTER 7: Beneath the Surface
It would one day amaze Boz that the ripples his stone made in the pond would have such far reaching effects. He recognized his influence on a few, but was oblivious to it in the life of so many others. There were three that he seriously overlooked.
Boz and I go way back. The first day we met he was, like, “are you a Hippie?” I asked him what he meant and he said, “your hair, your clothes, the way you talk – you’re a Hippie!”
It didn’t matter what kind of label he wanted to lay on me, but I wasn’t one of those flaky all-show-no-goes that used it all as an excuse to put people down and smoke dope and I told him so.
“So,” he said, “what are you?”
I told him I was Floyd Carson.
He said he could respect that, a guy who knew who he was. Then he asked if we could hang and I said yeah and we did. I knew, like right then, that he was boss.
We brought the Underdogs up from pups. Boz was the man, but I was his second. Don’t go trippin’, thinkin’ I kissed up to him. I told him like it was and we got into it sometimes, but he was never a hard guy.
I was really bummed when The Man sent him away for the summer. I wasn’t diggin’ being, like, top dog. I mean, it was a rush, sure, but it was Boz’s gig. And hangin’ with Craze so much? She’s my old lady and a fox and all, but I’m just not used to hangin’, you know, alone with a chick. So, I was really jazzed when I knew my main man was comin’ back.
But, like, the real Boz never came back!
I knew something was wrong when he walked into Garcia’s room on the first day of school with the alien and her Cat Woman glasses. I mean he really blew my mind – no hair, suckin’ up to Garcia, but there was something more to it all and it started to weird me out.
Garcia was pretty cool, for a teacher, and didn’t get all bent out of shape when Boz introduced her to everybody on the way to his seat. But then he got all teacher on us again with all the stuff he was expecting us to do.
I’m basically ignoring him, when I catch sight of Boz with his notebook open writing it all down. “Like he’s really going to do all that smack.” I whisper to Craze, but she doesn’t answer. She’s staring at Boz and biting on her pencil, trying not to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s a joke. Look, the girl’s taking notes too.”
I look again and almost bust up. There’s Empire’s biggest slacker with his alien girlfriend and they were, like, listening and taking notes. Just like Preps. It all had to be something new out of Boz’s brilliant brain. So, I jump in, get a piece of paper from Craze’s notebook and start doing the same. Pretty soon Craze and Tom are doing it too. It was all I could do to keep from bustin’ up until class was over and I almost lose it on the way out the door when Garcia thanks us all for paying attention.
As soon as we’re out the door I’m all over Boz. “Far out! That was so cool! Where did you find Cat Woman?” Next thing I know, Boz is twisting my arm and pulling me around the corner.
“Cool it! You’ll hurt her feelings!” He was serious.
“Come off it, man, this has to be a joke.”
“She’s no joke. She’s Tom’s cousin.”
“Yeah, right.” I wait for him to smile, but get nothin’. “Where’s she from, Mars?”
“Almost as bad,” Boz started to chill because we were out of earshot, “Idaho.”
“Holy Potato Skins, Batman!” At least he smiled at that one.
“Tom was supposed to meet her out front of the school this morning and show her around, but we had a problem. Lucky, I found her.”
“Lucky? Man, you can’t keep her. Take her to the pound.”
“Quiet, they’re coming.” Tom was headed toward us with the weird chick close behind.
I tell Boz, “I’m all for helping out orphans, but this chick is hopeless.”
“Hopeless or not we are going to help her,”
I told him it was cool, but, like really, I wasn’t diggin’ it. It was just weird.
And it just kept getting weirder. It was like Boz was baggin’ the whole Underdog secret mission. Like, forever, we’d been planning to boobytrap Cheerleader Face’s locker. I’d been groovin’ on the cool crashing sound that avalanche of aluminum would make when a hundred soda cans came floodin’ out. But every time I brought is up, Boz blew it off.
He was acting all obsessed with the school thing and I knew he had to be messin’ with us; it just wasn’t his bag. And I told everybody so. I’d call him “Egghead” or “Mr. Wizard” to try to get inside his head, but he’d just smile.
And I was the only one seein’ it. I mean, everybody knew something was different, like he was more serious about school and wasn’t spending much time with the gang. But, man, he wasn’t spending time with anybody. He was just gone.
And then there was the thing with Cat Woman. About two weeks into school she and Boz are like, attached at the hip – walking to every class, hanging out at lunch and studying in the library after school. Give me a break. Nobody had ever got between me and Boz, ever; and now here she is lookin’ all groady and Bogartin’ him.
Then, one morning, Tom, like, tells me Boz is takin’ her out.
“Psycho!” I sat on the floor with my mind blown and couldn’t say anything for about five minutes. Then it hit me hard and all the crazy pieces fell into place. It was, like, crystal man. He was doin’ a number on that chick. She was groovin’ on Boz and he was milkin’ her for clues to the homework.
I could dig it. Boz wasn’t goin’ to cop the scam, even to me. He was goin’ to take the whole school, even the ‘Dogs, right to edge before he beat the establishment at their own game. This was goin’ to be his biggest score of all.
Scott Seager may have been the Underdog’s favorite fool, but he was not stupid. Early on, he’d suspected that Boz and his misfits were the source of his torture. He’d complained loud and long, but never named them. He had no proof and was afraid of looking stupid if he were wrong.
That was a big mistake. His hesitation emboldened the Underdogs and gave them time to perfect their plan. The synergy that flowed from their bright and deviant minds was powerful and before long they had gelled into the Empire mafia.
They had one cause: To wreak havoc on the clique structure at Empire and the establishment that allowed it to flourish.
They had one weapon: The practical joke. These were not your run-of-the-mill practical jokes like smoke bombs in the cafeteria. They were carefully planned and executed – the Rube Goldberg machines of practical jokes.
And they had two cardinal rules: Never betray each other or the cause and let the resulting chaos be its own reward. They became expert at acting disinterested, surprised or clueless, whichever the case demanded.
As time went on, strict adherence to these rules yielded unexpected benefits. The jokes and the jokesters became legendary – shrouded in mystery. Rumor had it that they had spies placed in the office, microphones hidden in the vice principal’s desk and a secret base of operations that only their top brass knew about. The stories got better with each telling and the perpetrators became heroic.
Before long, few considered the Underdogs capable of their own masterful play. Even Scott dismissed them as suspects, sure his real tormentors would eventually trip themselves up and he was right, but it took them two years.
The mistake occurred on the eve of graduation — 1973. Boz, Floyd and Tom had been drafted by the auditorium crew and were helping stage commencement. During final rehearsal, it became painfully apparent that the orchestra hadn’t mastered a new composition by their teacher.
On impulse, Boz asked his friends what would happen if the musicians got into the middle of that song the next night and part of their music was missing. Another Underdog prank was born, but because they’d planned in a hurry, some shortcuts were taken and no one was on lookout when Boz jimmied the window to the band room and slipped through.
Peripheral vision is an important survival skill for high school vice-principals and Mr. Reynolds had sharpened his. Getting into his car that fateful night, having stayed much later than usual, he’d caught a glimpse of something moving. He’d watched the spot carefully and seen a flicker of light from inside the band room. He’d rushed back into his office and called the police.
Boz had done a marvelous job setting up the prank. As he’d gone through the music folders, he’d made sure that musicians were missing difference sections of music and that Scott was missing two. It would be almost impossible to deny someone had removed the music, but because the missing pieces were left in the slots there would always be just the smallest smidgen of doubt.
Boz’s attention to detail had given the police enough time to arrive. They were waiting for him as he came through the window. As his friends watched helplessly from the bushes, Boz was questioned, searched and arrested for criminal trespass.
News of the incident spread through the school quickly. Few people had been surprised that one of the Underdogs had been arrested, but the big question was why. He’d broken into the school, but nothing had been taken or vandalized and Boz had refused to give any reasons. Even when the orchestra murdered the piece at commencement, few put two and two together.
Scott Seager could add, however, and his arithmetic that night was correct. He knew that it was Boz and his friends that had caused all his grief. His sense of relief soon turned to anger. He couldn’t quit thinking about all he had suffered at the hands of the Underdogs and the more he thought, the angrier he’d become. He became obsessed. By the time summer was over, he’d laid plans about how to deal with Boz Burton. Scott didn’t share his plans with anyone. This would be a totally personal vendetta.
Goading Boz to anger on the first day of school had just been emotional reconnaissance. Getting Boz expelled for losing his temper would be too easy. Scott had to humiliate Boz. The problem Scott faced was that the Boz Burton that returned to Empire High that fall was very different. Everyone seemed to notice that Boz was acting differently, but Scott could sensed that Boz was feeling differently.
Scott wanted to hurt him in a way that Boz could really feel and since Boz’s feelings had changed, Scott’s plans would have to change. Scott had suffered at the hand of Boz for two years; he could wait a little longer to make the revenge sweet. Yes, he would be patient.
Julie Johnson and Liz Burton had been best friends for as long as either could remember. Born the same summer, they’d grown up across the street and passed through every stage of life together from potty training to braces. They looked enough alike to be confused for sisters, but anyone that knew them could easily tell them apart by temperament. Liz was the easy-going peacemaker; Julie was the easily-annoyed fighter. Otherwise they were very much alike, sharing everything else – clothes, tastes and a real like for boys. Yes, they really liked boys!
And while, as her brother often reminded her, Liz liked anything that wore pants and had an Adam’s apple, Julie liked one boy more than all the rest. She’d had a secret crush on Boz for years and while she loved Liz to death, she often wondered if her friendship with Liz wasn’t just an excuse to be around her brother.
Liz often accused Boz of being nicer to Julie that he was to her – and he was. You had to understand that the grief he gave Liz was his way of loving her. He teased Julie too, but treated her almost like a princess (mostly to torment Liz). None of this was lost on Julie, but she couldn’t help imagining something more.
She was determined to make that something more happen that summer, but Boz’s exile to Coronado wrecked her plans. She wrote to him faithfully and toward the end of the summer she sensed a change in the tone of his letters. She concluded that he missed her and was beginning to think of her as more than just Liz’s little friend.
When he got back, Julie tried everything to make him notice her, but wearing Charlie, leaving notes in his locker and shameless flirting seemed to have the opposite effect. It was almost like he was purposely ignoring her.
The only time she got close to him was during commutes – which she found a thrill. Julie sat right next to Boz on Bertha’s bench seat, became expert at manning the tape player, and knew all of Boz’s favorite tracks. She’d play with his hair, tease and flirt. Boz would flirt back. Liz found the whole thing annoying, but she didn’t say anything, sure that Boz was just tolerating it out of kindness.
Soon Julie convinced herself that the only way to get close to Boz was to be an Underdog. This would be difficult for her. She and Liz had been very popular in junior high and Julie knew they could make it in any clique they chose at Empire, especially if they stuck together.
While Liz loved hanging out with the Underdogs, Julie found them appalling. Her obsession kept her going, but she soon learned that becoming an Underdog was not easy.
The Underdogs didn’t snub her, that wasn’t their style, but these oddballs had a unique quality that bound them together. They were real – no masks, no acting. It was something you just couldn’t fake and as hard as she tried, Julie could never get the knack of being genuinely genuine.
Julie thought it was all about the banter and the sarcasm and that was fine with her because she could “take it” and “dish it out.” She, however, missed the deeper purpose – creating caricatures of each other that made hiding behind a mask impossible. Instead of opening her heart, Julie put up an emotional wall that was hard to scale from either side.
What Julie lacked in sincerity, however, she made up for in determination. Julie never once thought of giving up. She was going to do whatever it took to get Boz.
But she was not getting Boz. Except for rides to school or lunchtime, she seldom saw him. Some days he didn’t even come to lunch. Arriving home, he would go right to the dinning room and start on his homework and if Julie or Liz tried to talk to him, he would excuse himself to his room.
Julie, a frequent guest at the Burton dinner table, now accepted even meatloaf night invitations in order to be with Boz. Yet, his appearances at dinner were brief and quiet. As soon as he’d eaten, he was back to his books.
“It could be worse,” she told herself one night as she stared out her window at the Burton home, “at least he’s not interested in anyone else”
The next day, however, it got worse. Boz seemed in an unusual hurry to get to school and as soon as Bertha rumbled to a stop, Boz was out and sprinting across the parking lot. Later that morning Julie saw Boz walking Mary Olson to class, talking excitedly with her. Several times that day she saw Boz with Mary, walking her to classes and paying her far too much attention. On the way home that day, Boz stung Julie with the announcement that he would be staying after school to study and the girls would need to take the bus home.
In the weeks that followed things got even worse. Tom volunteered to be Liz and Julie’s new chauffer home and his incessant gabbing and stupid jokes only served to put Julie in a foul mood.
All of the Underdogs had feelings about this new development, but Julie’s were pure jealousy. The rash of jealousy soon festered into a boil of hate towards Mary, then into an open sore of disgust towards anyone who would not agree with her increasingly vicious attacks on Mary’s looks and character.
Julie stacked her emotions, like a child stacks toy blocks, in a precarious tower that was sure to fall. That fall came one morning as Craze, Floyd and Tom were sitting in A-hall, otherwise known as the Run.
The Run was a short hallway with about 25 lockers right at the top of the back stairs, it existed to connect two seldom-used classrooms in the backside of the building; but its practical purpose was to serve as the Underdog hangout. Their well-placed spies in the office made sure Underdogs were assigned lockers in the Run and new recruits would double up or coax other students to trade with them because this was the gathering place. It was like a commune. They all shared locker combinations so that they could leave notes, trade things and play little practical jokes on each other.
Each morning began with the same ritual. Two or three Underdogs would gather, splitting Twinkies and a couple of Pepsis. Gradually others would collect and begin to trade insults, tell jokes or make plans. That morning the activity was gossip.
As Julie began opening her locker, she overhead Craze let out a surprised, “No way!” She listened casually over her shoulder.
Floyd was emphatic. “Hey, it weirded me out too. Freaks me out bad.”
Tom, added his two-cents worth. “I think Boz is ready for the loony bin.”
Hearing Boz’s name, Julie’s interest piqued and she couldn’t resist breaking into the conversation. “What has he done now?” She used a tone that she thought Boz’s exasperated girlfriend might use.
Floyd answered. “Like, man, he’s gone evil on us. He has a date Friday with Cat Woman.”
“Cat Woman?” Julie didn’t like the idea that Boz had a date with anyone, but had no idea who Cat Woman was.
That was the first time Floyd had ever referred to Mary like that except to Tom and Craze. He thought it was time Julie was let in on the joke.
Tom jumped in, “you know,” using his hands to pantomime a pair of glasses to his face, “Mary.”
Julie gave a fake smile and tried to disbelieve what she’d just heard, but this was one too many blocks on the stack. It was bad enough that Boz was ignoring her; it was even worse that these misfits didn’t like her; but now they were lying just to hurt her feelings.
Julie turned her back to them as tears welled up in her eyes. She grabbed her books, slammed her locker and headed down the stairs. At the bottom, she found herself face to face with Liz.
“What’s the matter,” Liz asked. Julie had seemed all right on the way to school.
“Those stupid freaks; I hate them! They pretend to be so…” there were so many ways she wanted to insult them. “They think they are so much better than everybody else. They accept everybody? No, they are just as bad…”
Julie paced with her fists clenched and her face red with the fever of anger. Liz took her by the shoulders and tried to look into her darting eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“The Underdogs hate me! They figured out that I like Boz and are making up stupid lies!”
“Lies? What did they say?”
“They said he had a date with Cat Woman.” Liz’s quizzical look indicated she hadn’t been let in on the joke either, so Julie clarified. “Mary, Mary Olson. They are just saying that to make me jealous. I won’t let them…” Julie’s thought trailed off as she sensed Liz’s sudden silence.
Liz wore the expression of the emotionally torn – someone about to give bad news, but Liz didn’t have to say a word. Julie knew by the look on her face. Boz did have a date with Mary.
Julie swore, pushed her way past Liz and stormed down the hall. In her heart she felt hate for everyone she knew, but at that moment she felt hate for one person most of all – Boz Burton.
BOZ CHAPTER 8: Best Friends At War (Liz)
I was frightened for Julie. She had a bad temper and did stupid things when she was mad, so I knew that I had to calm her down. Heaven knows I’d had plenty of practice.
I ran to my locker, grabbed my binder and headed for our first period. Relieved to even find her there, I slid backwards into the seat ahead of her and whispered.
“Hey Bulie.” I’d called her “Bulie” when we were little, but even after I mastered the J sound, the nickname stuck.
I expected to hear, “What you want Lizzard?” Julie being the only person besides Boz allowed to call me that, but all I got was a cold stare and a hiss.
“Leave me alone!”
“Come on, it’s only a date. He’s dated lots of girls and you can still…” I choked on my words as Julie’s cold stare flashed hot. “Sorry, I just want to help.”
“You Burtons think you are so cool! Why don’t you just go play with your brother and his stupid delinquent friends?” People were staring and my ears started to burn. She said something else, but I was too embarrassed to hear. I whirled in my seat, hoping Julie would stop, but she didn’t. “What’s the matter? You’re usually so good at defending him. Are you finding out that he’s a jerk too?”
I whirled back and we glared at each other. I don’t know if it was loyalty to my brother, the fact that I was worried about him or just Julie’s nasty tone, but I suddenly wanted to hurt her. In one fluid motion, I grabbed my binder, jumped up and smacked her across the face. She screamed and dived at me. I dodged and she ended up face down in the seat of my desk.
I should have been scared. I’d seen Julie fight and knew what she could do, but I was so mad I couldn’t stop myself. I grabbed her hair with both hands and pulled her up out of the seat. I had her about half way up when she twisted and lunged and we fell into the aisle. I yanked her hair as hard as I could and felt a rush when she barked for pain. That made me pull even harder.
My head hit the floor and a desk fell over on my shin. I wanted to cry, but wasn’t about to let Julie know I was hurt. Instead, I kicked the desk to the side, rolled over on top of her and dug my knee into the muscle of her thigh. She yelped again and I dug my knee in deeper.
She finally got a hand free and slapped me. It really stung and I couldn’t help yelling out. She tried again, but I was ahead of her. I let go of one handful of hair, caught hold of her wrist and slammed it to the floor. She reared up and tried to bite me and when I jerked back, she wrapped her free leg behind my knee, pulled and rolled. In an instant, she was on top, jerking her head free – leaving me with a handful of blonde hair.
I knew I was a goner. She was kneeling over me with her fists doubled, ready to beat me to a pulp. I glared at her, daring her to do it. I flinched as her fist came down, but it never landed.
Mr. Knight, who had finally fought his way through our cheering classmates, caught her wrist. He pulled her off me and pushed her into a seat. She tried to get up but he pushed her back down.
“Julie,” he shouted, “I’ll tell you once. If you get up from that desk, you’ve got detention for a month.” The threat kept Julie in the chair, but didn’t quench her fire. She sat panting – thrashing me with angry eyes.
I glared right back until Mr. Knight stepped between us and pulled me up by the wrist. He took me to the front of the room, pushed me into his swivel chair and spun it so that my back was to the class. He switched on the intercom and called for Mr. Reynolds.
It took some doing, but Mr. Knight reclaimed control of the class and started right in on the business of the day. I was left with my back to the class, feeling Julie glaring at the back of my head and knowing that everyone else was snickering.
I’d cooled off considerably by the time Mr. Reynolds arrived and was actually relieved to go with him. Julie, however, was still angry – glaring and mumbling under her breath.
Mr. Reynolds took us to his office and asked what had happened. I told my version, leaving out the part about Boz and Mary. Julie just refused to talk, staring out the window instead.
Mr. Reynolds suspended both of us for the day and made us sit in different rooms while we waited for our moms. He probably figured this would be the toughest punishment he could hand out and, in my case, at least, it was. The longer I waited, the worse I felt. I chastised myself, thinking about all the times I’d lectured Julie about her temper.
Mom was very upset and bawled me out in public for the first time ever. Riding home was even worse. It was painful silence until we pulled into the driveway. Before I could get out, Mom turned to me and spoke in a trembling voice. “You know that I am very disappointed in you and I hope that would be punishment enough…”
“It is Mom, I’m so sorry.”
“I believe that. You’re a good girl, but I have to ask you. Isn’t this a silly way to lose a friend?” She paused, waiting for an answer to what I thought was an obviously rhetorical question. “Well?” My tears served as answer and we both knew the lecture was over.
By the time I was done with all the extra chores Mom gave me to do, I found myself anxious to see Julie and make up. I knew everything would be all right after she cooled down. I tried calling, but Mrs. Johnson said Julie had come home sick and gone right to bed. She promised to have her call, but that call never came. I called Julie the next morning and Mrs. Johnson said she still wasn’t feeling well, so I was shocked to find her sitting in first period.
I sat down next to her. “Are you all right?” No response. I tried touching her arm, but she jerked away. Mr. Knight was watching, so I sat forward in my seat and pretended to ignore her.
“I’m sorry Jules. Will you talk to me? Please!?”
In a sudden move that caused Mr. Knight, me and half the class to freeze, Julie grabbed her books, marched to the other side of the room and plopped down in another desk. I was now embarrassed as well as worried, painfully aware that we were living out a soap opera for the pleasure of the class. I turned forward in my seat, stared at a spot in the wall above Mr. Knight’s head and pretend to listen, but far too many other things filled my head.
I pulled out some paper from my notebook and scribbled a note. I folded it into a triangle and addressed it to Julie. When Mr. Knight looked down at his notes, I slipped it under my desk and tapped it against the leg of the boy next to me.
Without taking his eyes off Mr. Knight, the boy reached under his desk and took the note. He waited until Mr. Knight glanced down again and passed it to the girl in the next row. None of the links in this telegraph line had to glance at the “address” on my note as it made its way across the room; they knew where it was headed. Only Julie seemed surprised when it was slipped onto her desk.
I watched Julie out of the corner of my eye, sure she would ignore it. She tried, pushing it up to the corner of her desk, but after a few minutes she gave in. She picked it up and turned it over nervously in her hand before opening it and smoothing out the folds. Then she put her head in her hands and began to read. When she looked up, she was crying.
I sat in anguish, wondering what my friend was feeling. I kept looking over at her, but she stared straight ahead. After a while, I had to quit looking. If I just leave her alone for a while…
I felt very alone. Julie had been my best friend for as long as I could remember. We’d argued and even scuffled before, as a matter of fact one of my earliest memories was of us fighting over a tricycle, but we’d always made up right away. I wondered if this was the end of our friendship.
That thought hurt too much, so I forced myself to really listen to Mr. Knight’s droning voice and was soon fighting to keep my eyes open. The next thing I knew it was last summer and we were at the lake. Julie and I were swimming out to the floating dock where we could sun and watch the boys skiing further out.
Suddenly, I heard Julie calling my name. I stopped my forward stroke, did a vertical scissor kick and used my arms to turn. As I turned, I saw Julie slipping under the water. She was drowning.
It only took a few seconds to get back to that spot and dive. I strained to keep my eyes open under the cold water. I hated doing that, but had to find Julie. After what seemed an eternity, I needed air. I exploded to the surface gasping, took a deep breath and dove again. I would not let my friend die.
I shivered and came partway out of my dream. In that strange world, half in and half out of consciousness, I asked why this was happening. Hadn’t we come home safe from the lake? Weren’t we supposed to be in school? The questions faded as I slipped back to dreaming.
My eyes stung, my lungs were ready to burst and my arms ached. Was I going to drown too? And then, I saw Julie. With a speed and skill that could only happen in dreams I slipped behind her, taking hold of her chin (just like they’d taught in life saving class) and swam for the surface.
Yet, as hard as I swam, as badly as I wanted to save my friend, as fiercely as I wanted to break the surface and breathe – I couldn’t. Julie was heavy as a rock. I stroked and kicked with all my might but made no headway. I suddenly realized that I could either save myself or save Julie. It was then I heard the bell ring.
Jolted suddenly awake, I gawked at Julie’s desk totally expecting to see her lying dead in a tangle of lake weed, but she was gone. I jumped up and ran out into the hall, but Julie was nowhere to be found. I ran back into the empty classroom, grabbed my binder and started for the door.
“Elizabeth Burton,” Mr. Knight was using his authoritarian voice, “I want to talk to you.”
“I have to go…,”
“It will only take a…”
“Please, Mr. Knight!”
“No, Elizabeth, now!” After the events of the previous day and having watched me sleep through the last half of his class and through to the tardy bell, Mr. Knight was in no mood to be cut off. “I’ll give you a tardy slip for your next class.”
I surrendered. Arguing would only mean more trouble. Mr. Knight was just trying to help, but all I could think about was finding Julie. My strategy was to do whatever it took to get it over quickly. I agreed with everything Mr. Knight said, willing to say anything to end that conversation. It finally did, with a teacher aware that he had not really gotten through and a student even more frustrated and worried.
I grabbed the tardy slip and was out the door like a shot, hoping to catch up with Julie. I ran through the deserted hallways and rushed up to the Run, hoping Julie was still at our locker; she wasn’t. She wasn’t in second period either. I couldn’t find her all morning.
During lunch, I planned to search the campus and ask everyone if they’d seen Julie. I even thought about calling her Mom to see if she’d gone home, but decided against it in case she was ditching. I tossed my books into my locker, ready to slam it and start my search when I noticed a note taped inside. Across the front was “Lizzard” in Julie’s perfect pen. Smiling from Julie’s use of the awful nickname, I jerked the note from the door, tore it open and began to read.
I am so sorry that we fought. Please don’t hate me. I am not really mad at you, I’m just mad.
I’m mostly mad at your stupid, stuck up brother. I don’t know why he is ignoring me and why he is hanging out with that dorky girl. She is so backwards and ugly.
I have tried so hard to like Boz’s retarded friends and they just hate me and make fun of me. I’m not even going to try anymore. If Boz doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it, he can stick it in his ear.
I’m going to get myself some real friends that will treat me right and have some fun with me. I want to be somebody at this school. I thought being Boz’s girlfriend was what I wanted, but now I don’t care if I ever see his ugly, stupid face again.
I still want to be your friend and I want you to come with me and find new friends and new thrills. Dump those dorky Underdogs, they are just a bunch of losers anyway. I’ve moved my books down to my old locker and I’ll start hanging out there. There are some neat guys down there. I won’t have to be around the Underdogs any more. Come with me and we’ll start a new life.
Your Friend Always,
I didn’t know how to feel. I was relieved that she was talking to me again, but really didn’t like what she said about my brother. If she didn’t think I could tell she had the hots for Boz, she must have thought I was stupid. And he hadn’t been ignoring her. If anything, he’d been pretty easy-going about her come-ons. And what if he was taking Mary out, he took lots of girls out. She didn’t own him. I found myself getting mad at her again.
I sat down and read the note again. Julie really didn’t like the Underdogs. Yeah, they were weird, but that’s what made them so fun to be around. And she’s telling me she wants to go join up with some phony bunch in a clique?
Suddenly the thought popped into my head that it might be exciting to strike out with Julie and see what kind of fun we could have. I loved Boz, but was I going to live in his shadow forever? Sometimes the Underdogs did just treat me as Boz’s little sister.
As I sat there trying to decide how to feel, Tom came down the Run with Clint Bushman. Clint was the “nerdiest” Underdog ever. No one would have associated with Clint if it weren’t for the Underdogs. He was short and gravely skinny. His bright red hair stuck up all over his head and he had serious zits. He sounded like a munchkin and he had all the social graces of a troll. And his most annoying trait was that he just tried too hard.
Boz hadn’t recruited many Underdogs that year, but he had recruited Clint. It was Tom, however, who had adopted him. I guess it made Tom feel important to have someone lower on the social totem pole looking up at him.
When I saw them together, the loudmouth and the nerd, I looked down at Julie’s letter and back at Clint. Is this what I have to look forward to for the next three years? Maybe Clint can take me to the Prom if he can get a note from his mother and an overhaul by his dermatologist.
I couldn’t even believe I’d thought that. It sounded just like one of the conceited Preppy girls down in C-hall. Then it dawned on me, that was just where Julie was at that moment.
Tom and Clint greeted me as I jumped up. All I offered them as a phony smile as I began to empty the essentials from my locker. I would come back for the rest later. Without a word to either of them, I slammed the door and ran down the hall towards Julie and our new friends.