Authors: Deborah Bedford
L.R. picked one up, sniffed it, recoiled. “They’ve been soaking in something. Paint thinner, maybe? Kerosene?” He handed it
over. “What do you think?”
Ogle sniffed, too, and nodded. “Kerosene would be my guess. Somebody’s doctored up a whole bunch of corncobs, all right.”
It seemed so incongruous, a uniformed man kicking aside rolled, charred corncobs with heavy boots and Nomex-clad legs as big
around as buckets. He certainly wouldn’t need his ax for
“Hey, Captain,” somebody bellowed from outside. “You’d better have a look at what we’ve got out here.”
Toilet paper scalloped through the lacy branches and billowed like confetti from at least five different trees. As they stood
in the yard surveying the purple spray-painted letters on the mortar-and-brick school walls, Lydia saw Brad Gritton’s car
screech to a halt behind the pumper truck. He threw open the door, climbed out, and strode toward Lydia with purposeful steps.
L.R. intercepted him. “What are you doing here, Gritton?”
“You know what I’m doing,” he said, looking past L.R.’s shoulder at Lydia. “I’m doing what I teach all my journalism students
to do. I’m listening to my police scanner and chasing fire trucks. I get most of my best stories that way.”
“Well, you don’t have to pursue this story any further,” L.R. said and even Lydia bristled at how defensive he sounded. “I
was here for a late meeting with Miss Porter when the ruckus started. We’ve got everything under control. There certainly
doesn’t need to be any reporting about
But just as Nibarger said the words, Mo Eden, who had been yanking strands of toilet paper out of tree limbs, cried out. “Oh
She staggered toward a body swinging heavily from a rope.
Captain Ogle looped his big arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay, Miz Eden. It isn’t anything
“Not hanging like that, it isn’t alive.” She backed away. “Of course it isn’t.”
“Look at it real careful. Again.”
She did, squinting. And then, she must have recognized it because she yelped, “Oh, get her
. Please take her
So began the careful, tedious task of bringing Mo’s CPR dummy out of the tree. The dummy was dressed in an article of clothing
no one had seen before—a 1950s housecoat with huge cabbage roses, snap buttons, and chartreuse grosgrain trim. A sash girded
its length from left shoulder to right hip joint.
“Of all the nights not to lock my office.” Mo held out her arms for it.
A sign nailed to the sycamore trunk read
SHADRACH’S HOMECOMING QUEEN 2003. SHADRACH STUDENTS LOVE THEIR ATHLETIC SUPPORTERS.
questionable item, an unclaimed athletic supporter, was wrapped around the dummy’s head like a crown.
Ogle plucked off his helmet in disappointment and tossed it to the ground.
Shadrach Up In Flames, the graffiti on the bricks proclaimed. It would take at least a month to get it off again. Abednego
Blazers, Victory All The Way!!!!!
“Got my whole department out here. Should’ve known it’d be nothing but a homecoming rivalry stunt.”
Sensing a need for a bit of face saving, L.R. clasped Ogle’s palm with true gratitude, vigorously pumping hands with him.
“You are our public servants,” he said. “This could have been a life-threatening situation. It’s a credit to you that you
ran in to take charge. Our first responders.”
With a sigh, Lydia turned to leave. It had been an agonizingly long day and all she wanted at this point was to go home.
“Lydia. Wait a minute.”
She turned toward the voice and discovered that L.R.’s words hadn’t deterred Brad at all. Now that the officers were clearing
out, here he came after her with his narrow pad flipped open and a pen drawn to take notes. She shot him a pleasant, patient
smile. She had no reason to think that he might ask her about anything other than the events on the school lawn. “What is
it you need?”
Lydia felt mean but she couldn’t help but find him amusing, a predictable guy who had been around the school forever, part
of the furniture. He had no poetry in his soul.
“Call me crazy,” he said, giving her an apologetic grin. “Call it a sixth sense. A journalist’s training. But I’m not ready
to give up on this yet.”
“I’d like you to tell me what’s really going on here tonight.”
“The Abednego kids teepeed the school, kidnapped the CPR dummy, and threw burning corn into a broken window. That’s what happened.”
“No, Lydia,” he said. “I think there’s more.”
She did a double-take, stared at him.
“What on earth would give you that idea?”
“I saw the police report. On a night when the students were playing in a powder-puff football game, you and Nibarger were
here together, having a late meeting at the school. I think it might be significant to know why.”
The blood froze in Lydia’s veins. “My meetings are confidential,” she told him. “I owe that to my students. You know that.”
“You don’t deny it, though, do you? You don’t deny that there is something going on behind closed doors at this school?”
Behind closed doors.
All of this was just beginning. Already it felt like it would never end, like it would never stop.
Brad, poor Brad, who had no idea what he had stumbled upon. And suddenly he didn’t seem quite so harmless anymore.
“I care about you, Lydia. If there’s something going on that affects you, I think I ought to know about it.”
She felt like everything was pressing in on her from every side. She shook her head.
“Please, Lydia. Talk to me.”
She had started forward with what she had thought she was supposed to do. And now she felt like one of the Israelites being
told to walk into the Promised Land, finding out she was stepping into a valley of giants instead. These past two days, there
had been one giant after another after another.
“No,” she said with honest grief. “I can’t.”
Friday morning, the day after the powder-puff game, the senior girls were still chattering about their play-calling in the
huddles, their defensive strategies, and one forty-four-yard field goal. A number of them hobbled proudly around the school,
displaying their injuries, ranging from crushed toenails and bruised elbows to Charlotte Marcus, who had been rushed to the
Orthopedic Clinic in Osceola with a bruised groin.
When the bell sounded promptly at 10:30 for the pep rally, a heightened sense of determination filled the halls. Not one student
had missed the boarded windows in the Home Ec room. Not one had missed the thready burn marks on the floor or the yellow tape
DO NOT CROSS—POLICE LINE
or the scrawled mess of graffiti that could be read all the way from Riley McCaskill’s apartment near the Show Me Kwik Gas
on the corner of Montgomery. In great milling throngs, the students stopped by their lockers, found friends, and made their
way purposefully toward the gym.
Tonight at the homecoming football game, they planned to defeat the Abednego Blazers. They planned to disprove those audacious
spray-painted remarks on the walls outside. They planned to uphold the honor of their school.
Kids tromped up the wooden bleachers by the dozens, sounding more like a herd of Missouri feeder cattle than human teenagers.
The band director, Dr. Duncan Minor from a music school in Kansas City, lifted his baton, counted off the beats and, with
a one a two a one two three four,
the mighty Shadrach Fire-Rattler Marching Band blared into a trumpet-heavy version of “Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Good-Bye.”
No matter how foul Sam Leavitt’s mood, the activity and noise at the pep assembly made for good video shots. Sam was taping
as an assignment for Mr. Gritton’s journalism class. He took quick, punchy angles, funny details that could be edited into
the finished footage in the Student News lab. A close-up floor-level shot of the cheerleaders’ shoes moving in routine, bouncing,
pointing, disappearing for a high-kick into the glare of the lights. The shining baldness and bushy gray hair of Dr. Minor,
who looked as if he were wearing a silvery Christmas wreath around the crown of his head. The skate-boarder kids with chains
from belt loops to pockets, their bored eyes as they slouched against the banner that proclaimed
! Everywhere Sam looked his friends were clapping and yelling and swaying, a sea of expectant bodies clad in red and blue.
All the other girls had shown up last night to applaud Sam’s powder-puff cheerleading. All the juniors and seniors playing
on the team were there, and the other ones, too—their faces smeared in tribal red-and-blue paint, their senior year, ’04 or
’05 or ’06, scribbled wildly on their cheeks.
You’d think Shelby would have shown up, too.
Whitney Allen had driven him crazy with her fancy cornrows of little braids that striped straight back on her head like the
markings on a sparrow, bouncing around him while he scanned the bleachers and searched for the one person he most wanted to
“How come she isn’t here, Sam? Are you guys having a fight?”
“No, we’re not.”
“Yeah, everybody I know says you are. Are you breaking up?”
“Do I look like I’m breaking up?”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
To top that off, the male cheerleading squad, which he hadn’t really wanted to join in the first place, had decided they had
to try a pyramid. When they told him they wanted him on top, he had uttered a few choice words that would have made his mother
wash his mouth out with harsh antibacterial cleanser.
Since he’d reacted violently to that idea, they put him on the bottom instead. And exactly what he’d known would happen, happened.
All seven, on top of him. All seven of whom were on the
football team and who had been working to lift weights and bulk up since the week of two-a-days they’d had last spring.
He’d torn his mother’s skirt and his ribcage ached like somebody had sucker punched him. He could only breathe in about halfway.
The Shadrach cheerleaders were doing just as fine a job riling up the student body as Whit A. had done riling
How do you feel?!”
An entire section of rowdies pounded on the bleachers and screamed back, “We feel
, oh yeah we-feel-so-
Any minute now and Mr. Nibarger would speak out over the public-address system to announce the names of this year’s homecoming
court. Sam had wangled the special assignment of video taping today’s rally from Mr. Gritton well over two weeks ago. He wanted
to escape the ranks of the football team long enough to stand out on the gym floor where he could give Shelby a hard time.
There could be two hundred other kids sailing paper airplanes or saving seats and screaming or bumping each other off the
bleachers, but whenever Shelby walked in, something happened to him.
Something hitched in his lungs and made it hurt to breathe, even if he
been fallen on by seven hefty team members. Whenever she walked in, he couldn’t help smiling a little more, laughing a little
louder. And the whole time he was talking to anybody else, he didn’t have to look to see where Shelby was standing. He just
Because feeling that way about a girl could get scary when you were seventeen years old, Sam Leavitt was always coming up
with new ways to tease her. There had been the rubber-band fight he’d let her win after they’d tied about a hundred of Mrs.
Jones’s rubber-band stash into a chain. There had been the week he’d memorized her locker combination and had stacked it full
of pansy flats from the Wal-Mart garden section. There had been the night the whole football team had driven by her house
and had left three dozen warm Krispy Kreme glazed donuts stuck to the front bay window.
He had a lot of fun, bugging her like that.
Sam had a big plan to record
today while he was supposed to be taping other things instead. He knew her cheeks would get rosy and she’d turn all flustered
when he trailed her with the camcorder, getting all the angles of her face that he loved, watching her through one squinted
Only, where was she?
The huge gym was packed with all his friends and classmates, but without Shelby the place might as well have been empty. And
Sam cared about getting footage of the pep assembly without her about as much as he cared about having his wisdom teeth extracted.
“Hey, Leavitt,” Coach Fortney hollered across the gym. “You tape what you need and then you go get your tie on. I want you
over here with the rest of the football team. Gritton knows better than to take my kids away at a time like this.”
This is an
he’d been planning to say. But he only shrugged his shoulders, nodded
yeah, I’m coming
, pivoted the lens away.
“Welcome students and alumni of Shadrach High School.” Patrice Saunders rose from the faculty seating, took the microphone
in hand, which surprised everyone. “We are thrilled to have you join us for our 2003 Homecoming Celebration.”
“Where’s Nibarger?” Because Sam would be filming, they’d given him a schedule. “She’s not the one who’s supposed to be up
Johnny Nagle, one of the skate-boarders leaning defensively against the state-championship sign, lifted his saggy-jeans-clad
hip off the wall and readjusted. “Hey, man, I heard he’s in a meeting. Some big emergency.”
Mrs. Saunders proceeded in a sing-song voice they would all remember for years to come. “A good number of Shadrach alumni
have journeyed home this week to help us celebrate. They are here in our little town taking a trip down memory lane.” She
droned on with an overview of this year’s football season, lauding the team for their wins and ignoring the losses. At last,
she relinquished her microphone to Coach Fortney, who took the podium. He introduced his players one by one as some kids cheered
and other kids hooted with derision. “Will Devine, tailback, has pluck and grit to get the job done.”