Chapter 1 and 2 of GANGSTERLAND

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Chapter 1

From the top of the hill I spotted Matt Bryant a second before he saw me. It was too late to skip school and fake some illness. Dad would kill me if I skipped school again. Eighth grade was not shaping up to be my year. A smile formed on Matt’s face, the kind you only find on villains in comic books. Avoiding eye contact was essential to my survival. The melting snow and grit on the ground suddenly became fascinating, and I stared at it intently.

“Hey there, Jon-a-thon!” Matt shouted.

I focused on the little kids playing Mother, May I? and forced my feet to keep moving. My stomach soured the closer I got to the bus stop.

Mother, may I? echoed in my head.

He wasn’t going to leave me alone.

“Mother, may I?”

My shoulders tightened.

“Where’s the flood, Jon-a-thon?” Matt looked up at the sky. “I thought it never rained
where you’re from.”

I looked down at my jeans, which I’d outgrown in the three months I’d been in New
England. The cuffs of my pants brushed the tops of my ankles. Matt was
talented. I could give him that. He had the ability to zero in on the things
that truly embarrassed me.

“Hey, everybody, Jon-a-thon is building an ark! Get ready for the flood!”

Matt’s laces were dark from the wet pavement. He never tied his shoes.

I cast a sideways glance. Wendy stood silent, but glared at Matt. Her little
sister, Olivia, was playing relay with some pinecones, running from the trees
to Wendy and back.

If I were living with Mom, I wouldn’t have to deal with this crap. If I were
living with Mom, I’d have friends and I wouldn’t have to try so hard to make
small talk with my dad.

Carrying a pinecone, Olivia raced toward Wendy. Olivia’s lead foot came down on a patch
of ice and she slipped. She called to Wendy, who tiptoed on the ice, took her
sister’s hand, and pulled. The little girl leaned her weight back, which took
Wendy off balance. As Wendy pulled up, her boots slipped and she fell hard onto
the ice.

“Ouch!” She rubbed her hip and tried to get up, but her boots slid on the ice like
hockey pucks. She needed leverage.

I ignored Matt and jogged over, hooked my arms under her shoulders, and pulled
her up and off the ice. Sitting on the wet ice, Olivia watched and grinned. She
raised her arms and wanted me to pick her up too. Little kids are funny. I
stood behind her and hooked her arms as I had with Wendy and lifted her off the
ice. She was still smiling at me. Silly kid.

“Thanks,” she said, beaming like I was her hero or something.

“No problem.” I looked over at Wendy.

“Yeah, thanks Jonathan.” She was blushing as she brushed off her behind.

Matt jeered in a high-pitched falsetto, “Yeah. Thanks, Jon-a-thon!”

Leave it to Matt to make everything awkward. I turned away from Wendy and her sister
and stood closer to the pine trees.

“Hey Jon-a-thon, are you in love with the neighbor girl?”

Determined to ignore Matt, I stared at the pine trees and counted how many branches still
had snow on them. Matt kept needling me about the different ways I would make
out with Wendy. I was on my seventh round of counting tree branches when he
went silent. Thank God.

WHAM! A flash of light. Intense pain shot across my left
temple. A hard packed ice ball fell to the ground near my foot. I put my hand
to my face, which was wet and cold. I could feel a lump forming on my head.
Matt juggled another frosty rock with a twisted smile on his face.

Black spots clouded my vision and the earth suddenly tipped. My knees met the ground.
I stared at mashed footprints of dirt and snow.

The little kids stopped playing. My head felt heavy. Hot tears filled my eyes. I
tried to blink them back. Little kids couldn’t see me cry.

“Can’t take a hit, can you, Jon-a-thon?” Matt laughed.

Somewhere. Anywhere but here. I closed my eyes and imagined home. The desert, the heat, the dry breeze. Sitting on the adobe wall sketching the horizon.

A scratch across my face snapped me out of my daydream. Matt lunged at me with a
long dark stick.

“Get up, ya wuss.”

The sharp point dragged across my cheek.

He was aiming for a soft spot, namely my ear. I tried to push the stick away and
lost my balance. Enough to give Matt the perfect opportunity.
Pain zipped through my left ear as the stick met its target.

A curse shot out my mouth before I could stop it.

For a moment, everyone was quiet. Even Matt. All the kids
turned toward the sound of my voice.

“Swearing! I’m gonna tell!” shouted the redheaded kid, whose
name I could never remember.

Great. Just great. That idiot could’ve poked out my eyes, but
I’d be the one in trouble. I grabbed the stick and yanked. Matt’s grip was
loose: He let go without resistance. I pushed up off the ground and stood
straight. I snapped the stick in half and threw it—a pathetic toss that landed
at his feet.

“Sounds like Jon-a-thon is going to get in trouble for
swearing at the bus stop.” In his twisted world, Matt hadn’t done a thing
wrong.

The grinding gears of the bus caught everyone’s attention. The kids ran toward the
road. Wendy hesitated near the trees.

My head swam, my cheeks burned. Screw this. I refused to be Matt’s punching bag. I
picked up my backpack and swung it over my shoulder. I’d call Mom and move back
home. No school was worth this. I marched down the hill toward my dad’s house.

“Don’t worry Jon-a-thon, I’ll let Principal Hadley know
you’re cutting. He’ll appreciate my honesty.”

I needed to get as far away from Matt Bryant as possible.

“Jonathan,” Wendy shouted, “you’ll miss the bus!”

I didn’t care.

Another minute and the bus had disappeared, along with Matt. A few flakes of snow
drifted down around me. The world was silent. I wanted to scream. The snow reminded
me more than anything that I wasn’t in Phoenix. At the bottom of the hill,
realization hit me; I was going to have to deal with my dad.

By the time I got to the house, my eyes were falling out of my head. I needed
Advil and some ice. I dumped my backpack in the
corner near the door and headed into the huge unused space my father called a
kitchen.

The cleaning crew had been here yesterday, and the stainless steel refrigerator was spotless. I was careful not to leave a mark. Frozen dinners filled the freezer. How could one
person eat this much Lean Cuisine? I managed to find a bag of peas. The cool,
lumpy plastic took some of the heat out of the pulsing scratches, but my head
was banging like a subwoofer.

I trudged up the stairs to the bathroom, where I knew my dad kept a first-aid kit. This place
was too big. I missed the cozy comfort of my mom’s apartment. She’s the one who
wanted me to spend more time with my dad, and she always got her way.

I passed my room, midway down the hall, and walked into my dad’s room, which
occupied half the upstairs. An ornate headboard took up most of the back wall.
I slipped into the bathroom.

In the medicine cabinet, a huge bottle of Advil sat on the shelf. I closed the
cabinet and saw my beaten face. The cuts on my cheek were pretty close to my
eye, but the scratches didn’t look anywhere near as traumatic as the red and
purple lump rising on the side of my head. At least I had evidence.

I envisioned my dad screaming at the audacity of that kid, damaging his only son in
such a way. I imagined him calling his lawyer and scheduling a court date. I
imagined the look on Matt’s face when they sent him to juvie.
A smile crept onto my face.

Realizing this would only happen in my imagination, I dumped two Advil into my hand. The
tap water was colder than tap water should be and tasted like ice. The
candy-coated medicine stuck in my throat.

I needed to draw.

In my room a computer sat on a desk across from my bed, along with a TV, both
bribes from my dad when I moved in so I’d leave him alone.

I picked up my Strathmore sketch book and a pencil. There was something about
physically creating pictures that calmed me. For as long as I could remember,
drawing maintained my sanity. I couldn’t do that on a computer. Methodically, I
sketched every detail of a Model T Ford with a gangster on the running board
holding a tommy gun. Each line I drew added depth and
movement. I was totally in the zone. Everything the pencil touched seemed to
pulse with magic. Whenever this happened, I always felt like I became a part of
my drawing, like being inside the world I had created. I added a tiny Matt
Bryant in the lower left corner directly in front of the car. The headlights
aimed at him. I wanted to find a photo and paste his face in here.

Did I really want to see his face in my drawing?

Only if he was about to get run over.

The phone rang and freaked me out. It had been so quiet. I glanced at the clock.
Almost ten o’clock. I had lost track of time, again. That was one of the
problems of “the zone.” Time kind of disappeared. The phone blared again and I
picked it up.

“What are you doing home?” Dad barked. Not even a polite “hello” first.

“I, well, at the bus stop today—” Sweat coated my palms. Suddenly, I didn’t want
him to know.

“The principal called me here at work. You can’t skip school whenever you feel like
it, Jonathan,” he said.

I considered telling my dad about Matt. But suddenly, I was five years old and it
was the day he left. The big black suitcase stood at the base of the stairs.
Mom had her arms crossed and looked like she had been crying. I had run to the
door and stood in front of it. He wouldn’t force me to move, right? But he had.

“Jonathan, I’m sorry.” He’d closed the glass storm door.

The sad look in his eyes had told me this wasn’t another business trip.

Nine years later and I was still waiting for that heavy hollowed-out feeling to be
filled.

“Jonathan, are you listening?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I wondered why an apology was always on the tip of my tongue.

“We’re going to talk about this when I get home. Things are going to change.”

Maybe he’d send me back home.

“Yes, Dad.” I was going to have to lie.

With the phone still in my hand, I called Mom.

“I’m moving home.”

A pause sat between us like the twenty-six hundred miles.

“Did you have a fight with your father?”

“Yes. No. This place sucks, Mom.” I could hear the whine in my voice. I sounded like a little kid
and it made me mad.

“We agreed you’d give it a full school year, Jonathan.” She sounded annoyed.

I was silent. We had agreed, but I hadn’t expected life to completely suck or for it to be this freakin’ cold.

“It snowed, again.” The whine was still there. I wanted to yell at myself to quit being such a
baby.

“Look, Jonathan, you’ll get used to it. Just the other day you told me your cartooning class was
awesome. By the end of the year I’ll probably have to beg you to visit.”

“Right.” I disagreed. But I stopped complaining. I didn’t want to hear
that whiny little-kid voice again.

Mom said she had to get back to work. I punched the End button on my cell, convinced that “work” was the avoidance system for parents with kids.

I blast-texted my friends in Phoenix, “What a crappy day.”

Only one of my friends got back to me. “Serves you for moving, dork.”

I tossed my phone on the desk. No one else responded, and I didn’t care.

The day dragged. Impending doom hovered like a piano over my head. Talking to my
dad was like standing under that piano while some crazy coyote sawed through
the rope. I didn’t know my dad well enough to know how he would react.

Mom, on the other hand, was a Pomeranian without teeth. She’d yell, she’d scream,
she’d question what she had done wrong, then she’d ground me for a week. As predictable as a Star Trek rerun.

The last time I hung around my workaholic dad for more than a few days was before
the divorce. I hoped he wouldn’t ground me or guilt-trip me or something, but
who knew? I couldn’t come up with good responses beforehand. I had no idea what
he would say to me.

Waiting was the equivalent of slow torture. I couldn’t pace the room long enough,
twiddle my thumbs fast enough, or contemplate the meaning of life deep enough
to keep me occupied. To add insult to injury, my dad always worked late.

By seven o’clock my stomach growled like a Wookiee. I
nuked some mac and cheese and some chicken nuggets
and grabbed the Sriracha hot sauce and a can of
Mountain Dew. He wouldn’t care if I ate in my room.

I tossed the comforter over the rumpled sheets and kicked off my sneakers. I
grabbed the remote. My head still ached. What if he did send me home? My heart
skipped a beat. Wasn’t this my one chance with my dad?

Maybe it would be better if I left. Distance from Matt would be a good thing.
Distance from my dad… did it matter? We weren’t exactly having this great
bonding experience anyway.

I flipped through the channels. There was nothing on TV. South Park was having a
marathon. Maybe I’d find the episode when they stopped killing Kenny.

The alarm blared. I rolled over and peered at the
clock: 6 a.m. I forgot where I was. Gray winter light filtered through the bay
window. The oak tree stood with naked arms raised to a clouded sky. More snow.
Not the brilliant open desert of Arizona. The alarm screamed that it was time
to face everything. I slammed it silent. My dad must have come home after I fell asleep.

Avoiding Matt Bryant was number one on today’s list. Only Dad stood between me and
another day home from school. The hardwood stairs were cold. I wanted to crawl
back under the warm covers. The idea of lying to my dad made my stomach ache
but I had to plead my case and explain about yesterday.

Maybe I could tell him I puked at the bus stop. That seemed reasonable. If I puked
yesterday, I’d still be sick today. This could work. At least I thought so
until I rounded the corner into the kitchen.

Mr. Brooks was completely focused on his BlackBerry. I pulled out the bar stool
across from him and let it scrape along the tile floor. Nothing.
I sat at the counter and waited for him to notice. BlackBerry,
pockets – looking for keys, BlackBerry, back pocket, checking for his wallet.
He walked back to his office and reappeared with his briefcase, and searched
through it. I seriously doubted he realized I was in the same room. Whatever. My stomach growled.

I swung off the stool, grabbed a bowl from the glass cupboard and a spoon, put
them on the green marble island, and took out a box of Cheerios from the
turnstile near the refrigerator.

He typed an email.

This was the polar opposite of mornings with my mom. She couldn’t leave me alone in
the morning. It was always seventy thousand questions. Did I have my books, did
I finish my homework, did I study for the quiz, where was my lunch money.

At my dad’s, I pretended not to be here and waited to be noticed.

I finished off the first bowl, poured more cereal and stared at a dancing bear on
the box. I could draw better characters than this.

He would have to notice me before he left for work.

He finished another email, glanced at his watch and finally up at me. “Why aren’t
you dressed for school?”

I shrugged my shoulders, trying to remember my plan.

“Jonathan, why do you have to make things so difficult?” His mouth tightened into a thin
line.

“I’m sick?” My throat dried up. Somehow, I couldn’t start my story about puking at
the bus stop.

His shoes clacked on the tile as he walked around the island. He put the back of
his hand against my forehead. I could tell he wasn’t sure what he was checking
for. He put his hand down.

“You don’t feel like you have a fever.” It was more a question than a statement.
“What did you do to your head?” He pointed to the bruise.

“I have a stomach ache?” I said. I didn’t want to talk about Matt.

The more I lied to my dad, the more of a stomach ache I actually got.

He raised an eyebrow and then looked back at his watch. “You’re not skipping
school again. I’m driving you. Get upstairs and get dressed.” He slid his
BlackBerry into his pocket. “You have five minutes. I’ll be in the car.” He opened
the basement door and headed down to the garage.

Crap. I dropped from the stool and shuffled down the hall.

“I have an eight o’clock meeting!” he shouted.

I pounded up the stairs.

The garage door stood open. When I hopped into the
passenger side he was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. I stared
straight ahead. I did not want to have a conversation about why I skipped
school. My dad cleared his throat. I broke out in a cold sweat.

“Put your seatbelt on, Jonathan.”

I almost laughed with relief. “Oh, right.” I pulled the belt across my chest. I didn’t even care that
I pinched my finger when it latched.

Tension like an electrical pulse pounded in the small space.

He put the car in drive. I dreaded the moment he would say something. The ten-minute trip would be like watching water freeze. With Mom I could expect a big blowout yelling
frenzy that would last until I got to school and end like a bad storm. My mom
would kiss and slobber all over me and tell me she loved me and it would be
over.

This silence thing was worse. What was he thinking? Was he going to ground me? Was he really angry about getting a call at work? He cleared his throat again. Through the corner
of my eye I saw him glance at me.

Around the bend in the road the school driveway appeared and he hadn’t touched the breaks yet. He was going to miss the turn and I was certain if he did he’d ask me about the
scratches and the bruise on my face. There would be no avoiding it this time. A
wave of stress-induced nausea washed over me. My dad took a sharp breath in and
tapped the breaks. The Audi made the turn smoothly onto the road that lead me
away from the dreaded conversation and toward school. He slowed the car and
stopped at the entrance.

He hesitated, about to say something. I yanked on the door handle as hard as I could and jumped
out. “Thanks, Dad.” I slammed the door. He nodded to me and paused, then drove
off. Trauma avoided.

My relief was short lived, as soon as I walked into the building someone was waiting for me. Only one person waited for me these days. Matt’s lilting whine echoed in the
hallway. “Oh, look! Daddy drove Jon-a-thon to school!”

Shut up, Matt. But these words were uttered only in my mind. I hated this place.
I needed to find a way out.

 

Chapter 2

I walked into the art room and took a slow, deep breath. The smell of the paints, dust from the plaster and the sight of endless reams of paper calmed me. This was my comfort zone. The one place where I wasn’t forced to sit in the front row because my name started with B. I sat in the front row because I wanted to.

“Good afternoon, people!” Mr. Florio paced the front of the room with a bounce in his step.

“Today we’ll be creating sketches that tell the audience a story.” He spoke to one side of the room and then the other. “A picture truly is worth a thousand words. Story can be created with a sketch. A masterfully conceived story has the ability to transport the reader or viewer into the world you have created.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “That’s some power, huh? Let’s pull our audience into our story with some well-placed lines and some great ideas!”

I could lose myself in this class. I didn’t have to worry about getting called on to answer questions. I didn’t have to worry about being too smart or too dumb or what the other kids were thinking of me. It was just the charcoal pencil, the paper, and my imagination.

I thought of all of the graphic novels I’d read over the summer and started to sketch. I, of course, would be the understated hero, crushing the evil bully-like villain. But thoughts of how easily Matt had crushed me, how I didn’t even fight back, and how Wendy saw everything, tortured me.

My hand felt heavy. I was off my game. My drawing consisted of hard edges and jagged lines. None of the easy flow of most of my sketches. As usual, Mr. Florio stopped at each table and was now headed my way.

“Good afternoon, Jonathan. How’s your story coming along?”

I shrugged. My sketch was nearly complete. A series of five panels showed my hero exacting vengeance on the evil villain.

“You’ve got a great eye for detail.” He walked around the table and pointed to the muscular arms of the hero and the bat-like cape on the villain.

“It looks to me you’re trying to incorporate two or three different drawing styles in one piece. You may want to choose a single style and stick with that.”

That sucked. But he was right. Actually it was cool that he knew so much about illustration. My art teacher in Phoenix always talked about modern art, which reminded me more of nightmares than anything else.

Mr. Florio scribbled on a notepad. “Here’s a hall pass, Jonathan. Run down to the library and choose three graphic novels by different artists and bring them here.” He glanced at the clock. “Can you be back in five minutes?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“Great!” Mr. Florio stood. He showed more enthusiasm for my artwork than my mom and definitely more than my dad.

“When you get back we’ll show the class your drawing and use it to compare the styles of different artists.” He grinned and walked to the next table.

I crumpled the hall pass in my hand. A lead balloon could not begin to symbolize my enthusiasm at being the teacher’s example. It was a no-win situation. The other kids think you’re a suck-up and you have to stand in front of everyone and take the teacher’s criticism.

I pushed up from the table. My legs refused to move. The last thing I wanted to do was rush to the library and back in time for the torture session. But I said I’d be back in five minutes. Even if I would be the target when I got back.

My sneakers squeaked on the linoleum as I jogged down the hallway and plodded up the stairs.

The librarian scrutinized my hall pass as if I were a criminal in a high-security prison block. Finally, she waved her hand in dismissal.

Right away, I saw Wendy sitting at the far end of the library with a group of chattering girls. When she saw me she gave a small wave and smiled. I stared at the fascinating space between my Skechers and stepped behind the shelves of graphic novels. Alone in the alcove, I took a deep breath. Poster board signs of book covers decorated the walls. Someone had done a decent job sketching and coloring the characters. I squinted at the artist’s signature at the bottom. I made out an F and two Os. Mr. Florio. Pretty cool.

The books themselves were beat up. I ran my fingers along the spines. I liked this section of the library, all of my favorite books were in one place. I found one I read over the summer, Galactic Intruders. It was pretty cool, filled with some great action scenes. I tucked the book under my arm. Two more to choose.

A spine of silver metallic stood out against the others. I hadn’t seen anything by this artist. I flipped through the first few pages. A sketch of a girl dancing in a yellow flapper dress filled the third block on the page. The lines of the drawing intrigued me. Like an optical illusion, she looked as if she were moving. She was gorgeous. A guy stood next to her in a brown suit, his back facing me. I wished I could be that guy and dance with a pretty girl.

After closing the book I stared. On the cover was an illustration of an awesome car, a 1920s Pierce Arrow. A man with a cruel look and the girl in the yellow dress sat in the back. The driver’s face was in shadow. The colors on the cover were incredible. It looked brand new. I was definitely taking this one to class, if only so I could read it later.

I grabbed one more random book and headed toward the front to check out.

The librarian scanned the books. The third one was pink chick manga. Crap. When I put my ID back in my wallet, someone shoved me hard into the desk, banging my elbow against the corner. My fingers tingled and went numb. The librarian glanced up for a split second and went back to shelving.

“Oh, so sorry, I didn’t see you there, Jon-a-thon.” Matt snickered.

If only I had a shell. I’d disappear inside. I tried to ignore Matt and slide the books off the desk.

“Where you going, Jon-a-thon? Is there a Jon-a-thon telethon where they’re raising money for your dysfunction?” Every muscle in my body tightened. I didn’t need this.

Seriously, I wondered if a telethon existed that could help Matt. I was doing really well at ignoring him. Pretending I wasn’t even here. Until I tripped over his outstretched foot and hit the ground like a spiked football. The books scattered across the floor.

A sharp intake of breath came from one of the girls at the table. They had seen me fall. I wanted to melt directly into the floor, never to be seen or heard from again. Mortified, I tried to scramble and pick up the books but that moron scooped them up.

“Ooh, Jonnie-wonnie wants to be a girly-girl!” Matt waved the pink comic up in the air like a shopping network host.

I grabbed for it but he kept pushing me back with the other arm. I glanced over at the librarian but she was busy ignoring the whole thing and sorting books in the corner. Matt pushed past me and galloped toward the back of the library, bumping into the table of girls as he rushed by.

“Come and get it, girly.” Matt jogged backward waving the books in front of him.

Heat rose from my chest. My face burned. Matt was such a jerk. What was I supposed to do? All of the girls were watching. If that idiot did anything to the books, I knew I would get into trouble because I checked them out. The librarian wouldn’t care who actually did the damage.

Matt waved the books in the air once more and ducked down an aisle near the windows.

I checked the clock that hung on the wall over the doorway. I had three minutes. Mr. Florio would think I’d been fooling around.

“Better come quick, Jonnie.” Matt’s menacing voice held an edge of excitement.

I bolted down the aisle.

“Uh-oh, Jonnie-wonnie, it looks like I might have butter fingers.” Matt extended his arm out a window he had just cranked open, the pink book pinched between his thumb and index finger. He waved it back and forth.

An icy chill crept over me. My heart raced. I lunged forward to grab his arm. He let go of the book. It tumbled two stories to the ground below.

“Oops. Jonnie, too slow! Gotta go!” Matt dumped the remaining books out the window and laughed hysterically as he ran back down the aisle and out of the library.

The librarian yelled at Matt for running. Sure, she sees him now.

I stuck my head out the window. The books looked like playing cards next to the two giant green recycle dumpsters, surrounded by a fence. I had to figure out how to get down there and back to class in less than two minutes. Impossible.

The librarian yelled at me too, but I sprinted down the hall anyway. I didn’t have time to care. I wondered how to get the books out of the dumpster cage. There were not enough swear words in all the languages of the world to describe Matthew Bryant.

Why didn’t I grab his arm in time and yank the books out of his stupid hands? I took the stairs two at a time down to the main hallway. No teachers in sight. The front doors stood on the opposite side of the office. I crept up to the office and peeked around the corner. The secretary leaned toward her computer completely zoned out, apparently waiting to get sucked in. Holding my breath, I strolled past the office. I pressed the bar on the door and ducked out, letting the door ease back into the frame.

The cold air was a relief. I ran around the side of the building toward the dumpster. My sneakers slid on the snow and I almost wiped out. The chain-link gate squealed and shook as I yanked it open. The cage wasn’t locked. I thanked the sky, the clouds and the janitor for leaving it open.

I squeezed inside. My shirt snagged on a piece of the chain link. I worked it free. The last thing I wanted to do after yesterday’s trauma was explain to my dad why I had a hole in my shirt. The faint stink of sour milk wafted over me.

The books were lying right next to a half-frozen puddle of gray liquid. Luckily they were not in the puddle, so something was going my way today. I picked up the books and turned to go. I almost forgot to close the gate. It scraped and rattled across the cement as I pushed it closed. Then I ran back to the front of the school. My shoulders relaxed. A note wouldn’t be sent to my dad about losing the books. I wouldn’t have to use my allowance to pay for them. I wouldn’t have to explain to anybody what had happened. Life was good. Then the bell rang.

Crap.

I rushed back into the building and skidded to a halt. Principal Hadley stood directly in front of the door. He grabbed my shoulder. His right eye twitched.

I was screwed.

“Thought you could sneak back into the building before your next class, did you?” His eye twitched again.

My stomach turned into a rock and cold sweat prickled at the back of my neck.”Yes, sir, I mean no, sir.”

“What is your name?” The principal looked me up and down trying to find a name-tag attached to my shirt.

“Jonathan Brooks,” I barely whispered. Things were definitely not going my way, not going my way, at all.

“Follow me, Mr. Brooks.” Hadley’s voice resonated in the foyer.

 

Institutional furniture crammed Hadley’s office, which reeked of wintergreen Life Savers. Hadley belonged in this room; his crew cut made him look like a cyborg. Ideal for dispensing discipline.

I slumped in the vinyl padded chair across from his desk. My legs bounced like springs, ready to catapult me out the door.

He marched over to the filing cabinet and pulled out a crisp manila folder with bold black letters on top that spelled out my name.

I seriously freaked that my little trip outside would go on record. The entire point of living with my dad was to get good grades so I could get into a good college. If I screwed that up my parents would kill me. First my mom, then my dad, and then my mom again.

I stared at the folder in Mr. Hadley’s hand.

“Mr. Brooks.” The principal steepled his fingers. “I hate seeing students in my office this early into the school year.”

My heart pounded in my ears. I glanced down at the pink cover of the book that started this mess and I wanted to throw it out the window. Instead, I shuffled it to the bottom of the pile. The girl on the gangster novel stared at me and then turned her head to look back over her shoulder. Did I really just see that?

Mr. Hadley cleared his throat to get my attention. “I don’t know what things were like in your old school Jonathan, but this is a preparatory school.” He paused for effect.

Here came the speech, but I could barely focus. I could have sworn that girl actually looked at me.

“You are no longer a child. Here you are expected to follow the rules like an adult.”

I nodded. I knew the rules. I wasn’t an idiot. That’s why I risked all this to get the stupid books instead of leaving them out there to rot. The reason I marched out there was because of Matt Bryant’s lame behavior.

Hadley tossed the folder onto the desk and sat down with a bent smile on his face. He steepled his fingers again.

“Students are not permitted to leave the school property at any time during the school day, including the lunch period. Is that understood?”

I nodded. I would agree to anything that got me out of this chair and out of this stuffy room, which was obviously causing me to hallucinate.

“I need to hear you, son.” Hadley’s eye twitched.

“Yes, I understand.” My throat felt tight and dry.

The principal shook his head. “Unfortunately simple understanding is not enough. I’m going to have to put this in your record.”

What? Crap, Crap, Crap. I’m a good student. I stay away from trouble. I try to avoid Matt. It just doesn’t work.

“But Mr. Hadley, Matt was the one who threw the books out the window!” I shook the books at him.

“Don’t try to place the blame on someone else, young man. You were the one I caught re-entering the school.” He took his pen and clicked it open and scribbled. “I would prefer to give everyone a grace period at the beginning of the semester.

However, I need to make this message very clear. If I hear about any further negative behavior from you, I’ll tell you right now, there is no such thing as three strikes. We’ll be discussing detention.” Hadley’s eye twitched again.

I let out the breath that was trapped between my heart and my throat. I gave up trying to defend myself. Hadley stood and ushered me to the door. He laid a palm on my shoulder that felt like a brick. “Don’t let me see you in here again.”

“Okay.” My voice squeaked. This place sucked.

Principal Hadley ushered me into the hallway. “Don’t miss your bus, son.” He mentioned over his shoulder as he closed his door.

I took a deep breath. I would have to explain everything to Mr. Florio, but not right now. I just wanted to get out of here and figure out what was up with the girl in the book.

Mr. Florio was cleaning up the room, placing charcoal and colored pencils in the supply closet at the front of the room. He didn’t notice when I snuck in and grabbed my backpack. I was grateful. I slung the bag over my shoulder and glanced down at the books. I stuffed them into my bag and headed for the bus.

 

One thing had gone right. Matt wasn’t on the bus. Wendy sat in the back though, her long dark hair hiding her face. When she noticed me she immediately glanced out the window. Of all people, I wish she hadn’t been in the library to witness my humiliation. I slammed myself into a seat. A speck of dust somersaulted in front of my eyes. I wished I could trade places with the speck so I could float out the window and disappear. Anywhere but here.

I opened my backpack and took out the silver comic book. Gangsterland. My mind must have flaked out on me in the office. The colors on the cover were vivid but nothing moved. I examined it closely to be sure. The flashy car looked as if it were about to drive right off the cover.

Headlights forward, the hood ornament pointed right at me. The blonde in the back seat continued to glance over her shoulder. Her red lipstick glistened. I rubbed my finger over the cover and expected to see a rouge stain.

Wendy’s friend giggled. She was laughing at me. I sunk lower in the seat.

Anywhere but here, anywhere.

Eager to hide, I opened the book to the first page. Each word melted in my brain like candy. The words created the world just like Mr. Florio said and the illustrations pulled me in. Soon I forgot about being the butt of life’s joke and settled in the bus seat. At the bottom of the page the words began to blur.

A tugging sensation yanked hard at the middle of my stomach. I wondered if that third steak sandwich at lunch was to blame. Something strange was happening.

The tug in my gut pulled harder and I lurched forward. Dizzy and disoriented, I grabbed for the seat in front of me. But the bus was gone. Nothing but sky above me and grass below. I no longer held the comic book. I sat up and stared.

The bus had disappeared.

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