My Best Friend’s Brother
The cold stares and whispers behind my back didn’t bother me. It was the noise, the crowd, the chaos, that sent a cold shiver down my spine.
High school hadn’t changed. I had missed a lot of things in Juvie, but this hadn’t been one of them. There were a thousand kids going a thousand different directions. All of them looking at me like I was some kind of monster rising up out of the swamp.
“You okay?” my sister Jenny asked as she shot me a concerned look. She’d been looking at me that way ever since I got home.
I smiled back at her and nodded. This was nothing, I wanted to tell her. A paradise compared to where I had been for the last two years.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I told her. “I promise. I’m not going to lose it. I will be good. At least for today.”
She looked at me sideways with a serious frown. I could tell she didn’t know if I was teasing or not. That was one of my many regrets. Jenny and I had spent the last two years in different worlds. And as a result, we’d grown apart. She had been the only person in this world on my side though. Mom, not so much. She had been too hurt and too disappointed. But not Jenny.
Jenny had always just assumed that I was right and everyone else was wrong. She was incorrect. But I loved her for it.
“Meet me at my locker at lunchtime,” she said. “It’s the same one as before. Do you remember?”
I laughed, “I don’t need my handheld. I’m the big brother, remember?”
She shook her head. “And I have more experience in this high school than you do. You don’t know. These people are vicious. So just do it. For me.”
I almost barked out a laugh. Vicious? She had no idea. Instead, I sighed and nodded. Like I said, I owed her.
She gave me one last weak smile then turned and disappeared into the stream of bodies.
Hefting my backpack onto my shoulder I headed off for Mr. Crawley’s Trigonometry class. The stares and whispers followed me as people made a point of getting out of my way. I could tell what they were thinking so easily. Criminal. Lowlife. Thug.
What made it worse was that it was true. I had done the crime and did the time. That made me different. An outsider. Well, I could deal with that until I graduated in eight months. The one thing I had learned was how to do time.
I still thought I should have just gotten my GED and avoided all of this. I could have done it on the inside. But Mom insisted. She wanted me to get that diploma.
She said Dad would have wanted it that way. How could I argue with that? I’d failed her enough. It was the least I could do.
As I stood outside Crawley’s class, I took a deep breath and prepared myself. Stepping in, I was hit once again with the strangeness. The differences. Things like the hint of perfume, a soft laugh from a girl in the corner. The lack of bars on the windows. Little things.
Shaking my head, I handed Mr. Crawley my transfer slip. He gave me a quick smile and nodded for me to take a seat. He knew all about me ahead of time. They all did. The guy from Juvenile Detention.
Slipping into a desk, I ignored the open stares and questioning looks. And more than a few sneers. Wow, things were different. Inside Juvie, those looks would have gotten a guy’s head knocked off.
These people just had no idea. They never would.
Taking a deep breath, I slumped in my chair, folded my arms across my chest and tried to calm the anger that constantly bubbled just below the surface.
I made it through that first class by keeping my mouth shut and my eyes forward.
The second class, Art history, was pretty much the same. It was coming out afterward when things changed.
“There he is,” a deep voice rumbled behind me. My gut clenched up as I turned to find Willie Dawson standing there with a welcoming grin.
“Luke Prescott, returned from the dead,” he proclaimed as he grabbed my hand and pulled me into a quick bro hug. Behind him, a gaggle of hangers-on stood waiting. Both boys and girls about my age, more than a few cousins, I realized.
The Dawson clan had always been bigger than most.
“How you doing?” Willie asked, his face taking on a concerned look that I knew was hiding a big dose of guilt.
Willie was the reason I did the two years. He’d been driving the stolen car, but I was the one they caught. When he plowed into that tree, we’d both run like our butts were on fire. Of course, I was the one they caught.
When I refused to rat him out, they threw the book at me. Well, my previous record might have helped.
“Fine,” I answered as my insides continued to turn over.
“Hey bro,” he said as he leaned in to whisper. “Thanks.”
All I could do was nod. This was not the time nor the place. But deep down I knew that at some point I’d have to deal with it. The anger inside of me had to come out somewhere and it would probably be him. If he’d come forward and told them the truth. I’d have done ninety days at the most.
“So,” he said stepping back and waving his arm. “Seniors? Who would have thought we’d make it this far?” He smiled then said, “I’ve got this place locked down. You need anything. Anyone gives you a hard time. You let me know.”
I laughed, big bad Willie. He thought because he had a bunch of punk high schoolers intimidated, he was big stuff. I stared into his eyes and saw the truth, he wouldn’t have lasted two days where I had been.
The reality hit me like a two by four upside the head, he was nothing more than a bully and a bastard.
“Thanks,” I said, knowing full well that he would always be the last person I ever came to for help. It would be a good way to end up with a knife in my back.
“Listen,” he said as he draped an arm over my shoulder and started walking with me towards my next class. I was surprised to realize that I had two inches and forty pounds of muscle on the guy. Willie had always been the bigger, tougher one. Not so much anymore. It seemed more than a few things had changed.
“Two years?” he said with a shake of his head. “Wow, that’s a long time. If you want. I can set you up with some girls. You know, the willing kind. Believe me, it won’t be a problem.”
I fought to hold back a shudder. No way was I letting him know what he could do with his offer. Instead, I just smiled and shook my head. “No thanks, I’ll find my own.”
He studied me for a moment then nodded in acceptance.
“This is me,” I said, pointing to Mrs. McNeil’s biology class.
He nodded as he let his arm slip from my shoulder. “Sure. We’ll get together later. I can fill you in on how things are working around here. There are a ton of opportunities for a guy like you.”
My stomach lurched. Taking a deep breath, I looked out at the six or seven people following us. Things hadn’t changed. A different generation, but still the Dawson clan.
Knowing them, it was drugs, chop shops, fencing stolen goods, and a dozen other things. None of them legal. And Willie was offering me a way in. He already knew I could keep my mouth shut.
I smiled and slowly shook my head. “Thanks, but I’m going to keep it cool for a while.”
His eyebrow raised slightly as he tried to understand. It was as if I had just turned down a winning lottery ticket. Something inconceivable in his world. He held my gaze for a long moment then, at last, he shrugged.
“Sure,” he said, “Your call.” But I could see some disappointment in his eyes. I knew Willie Dawson. He hadn’t changed. He hated when things didn’t go the way he wanted.
“I’ll see you later,” I said, fighting to keep the coldness out of my voice. I didn’t need to get into a war with the Dawson clan. Not now. One of the many lessons I had learned inside was not to make enemies when you didn’t have to. The world would provide more than enough as it was.
Stepping into the classroom, I once again ignored the stares and whispers. The anger inside of me made me grind my teeth. But I buried it. ‘Water off a duck’s back,” Dad used to say. Instead, I found an empty stool at a lab station and kept my focus forward.
They were stupid high school kids, I reminded myself. Why should I care what they thought?
Sighing, I opened my book and pretend to follow along. On the other side of the lab table, A skinny kid with big black glasses stared at me like I was a crocodile in his soup.
“What?” I barked at him.
I’ve got to give the kid credit. He didn’t flinch. Instead, he raised an eyebrow, pushed his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose and shook his head.
I had to smile, the perfect response.
“What’s your name?” I asked in a gruff tone.
Again, the kid didn’t flinch. “Charles Huntington, and don’t bother, I know yours.”
I laughed. At least he was honest. “Okay, Chuck. You leave me alone and I’ll return the favor.”
He frowned for a moment. “It’s not Chuck. It’s not Chase. It isn’t even Charlie. It is Charles.”
I stared at him, fighting to keep my mouth from dropping to the floor. Didn’t the kid realize who I was? Where I had just come from? Didn’t he know saying something like that could get a guy hurt?
Then it hit me. I was in civilization again. He just expected that he was safe.
Bad things didn’t happen to good people out here. That was the rule. At least until a person found out different.
“Okay, Chip,” I said to him with a smile.
He blanched for a moment, then laughed. Okay, I could handle this. The kid wasn’t a complete loss.
The two of us kept quiet for the rest of the class. Each in our own world. Another thing to like about the kid. He didn’t blabber on all day like half the guys around here.
I couldn’t help from wondering about the kid. He looked like a junior, not a senior, but then half the kids in the class were probably juniors. Tall and lanky, would be the nice way to say it. Skinny as a beanpole would be more accurate.
He’s probably a nerd, I thought. But at least he wasn’t frightened of the big bad Luke Prescott.
As the clock ticked down to the end of class several people started to fidget and get antsy. The teacher kept droning on, oblivious to the fact she’d lost the crowd ten minutes earlier.
I had to laugh inside every time I looked up at the clock. Me and time were intimately acquainted. The best of friends and the worst of enemies. I had long ago learned how to ignore the ticking clock. It was either that or go insane.
At last, the bell rang and I nodded to Chip and got out of there. When I found Jenny’s locker, I leaned up against it and watched the world go by.
How did these people do it every day? Chaos, no structure. No one telling them where to be or how to get there. Each of them worried about who liked who or if they passed their latest test.
Why didn’t they get it? None of it mattered. It could all disappear without any warning.
Shaking my head, I turned and my heart slammed to a halt. A pretty girl was walking towards me. Long brown hair and deep brown eyes that reminded me of a doe on a spring morning. Large and soulful.
She caught my eye and frowned. I continued to stare. Curves. Sweet soft curves. Tight jeans, a cute blue top.
Rich, I thought. Something about her said money. A daddy’s girl, I bet.
I swallowed hard. Girls were the biggest change for me. Especially girls like this.
My heart jumped when she stopped at the locker next to Jenny’s and shot me a quick glance before dialing in her combo.
That look said so much. It was as if I was a piece of gum stuck to her shoe. A look that said how dare I exist in the same universe as her.
Again, that familiar anger began to build inside of me. At the same time, a nervousness threatened to take over. This was not someone I could intimidate with my size or fighting ability. This was a person who didn’t recognize those things as important.
“Let me guess,” she said as she put away her books. “You’re Jenny’s big bad brother Luke?”
My brow furrowed in confusion. Was it that obvious?
“I’m Amy,” she continued. “Jenny’s best friend. You have her eyes. That and the fact that she told me you would be here.”
I relaxed a little. Jenny had written about her best friend Amy Jensen in her weekly letters. Usually stories about how great she was. They’d become friends their freshman year, just after I went in. And I had been right. She was rich, or at least her father was.
She stepped back and let her eyes run over me for a quick second then silently shook her head. I’d seen that look before. It was close to the same look my mom had half the time. A look of disappointment.
A girl like this was as far out of bounds as it was possible to get, I had to remind myself. Especially for a semi-reformed jerk like me.
I held her stare for a second. I could see it in her eyes. To her, I was the guy who had embarrassed her best friend. The low life who had returned to disturb the peace.
She was probably right, I thought as I mentally checked off all the reasons why a girl like this would not be interested. Beautiful, rich, obviously intelligent, going somewhere in life. And, oh yeah, Jenny’s best friend.
A disappointment settled in the pit of my stomach.
Again, that nasty angry feeling returned. All because little miss perfect would turn her nose up at someone like me. I didn’t blame her, but that didn’t make the anger go away. People had been judging me all day. And now this girl had pushed me over the edge.
I smirked at her, “So?” I asked. “I hear you don’t have a boyfriend?”
Her face drained of all color and her eyes squinted up at me. I’d touched a sore spot.
Great, I thought with regret. I’d hurt her for no good reason. Once again proving I shouldn’t be allowed out in public.
“You applying for the job?” she asked once she had gotten herself back under control. “Because if you are. I must warn you. I do a detailed background check. Only those of the highest moral character are considered.”
“Really?” I laughed, all the while my stomach clenched up as if I’d been kicked in the gut. “Does that keep you warm at night?”
She sniffed, then tossed her hair over her shoulder as she slammed her locker closed a little harder than she needed to. I could see her trying to work out a snarky response, but Jenny arrived and saved us from clawing at each other anymore.”
“Good. You two met,” Jenny said with a wide smile as she looked back and forth between us.
Amy held my stare for a moment then nodded.
Jenny frowned then turned to me. “Come on, I’m hungry.”
I looked at Amy, then to my sister, and shook my head. “You go ahead. I’ve got some things I need to take care of.
Jenny’s eyes grew concerned.
“Don’t worry,” I said to her. “I told you. I won’t kill anyone. At least not today.”
Amy gasped. Jenny shook her head and slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t say stuff like that. Amy doesn’t know when you’re teasing.”
I looked down at Amy and smiled. “Who said anything about teasing? You know us people of low moral character. That’s all we think about.”
Jenny sighed heavily and shook her head. I know I’d disappointed her. But then that seemed to be my role in life.