“You understand,” the deputy principal said, “that teachers cold-cocking their students rarely sits well with the P.T.A.”
In Bobby Graves’ defense, the kid threw the first punch. There were twenty witnesses in the classroom who’d testify to that. Shit, Bobby didn’t even mean to hit back. Just brought his fists up fast, old army training kicking in, trying to block and trap.
But his instincts were rusted, and the kid – Anton Tripp, seventeen years old, built square and heavy like an oncoming truck and pumped up on whatever hormone-saturated garbage teenagers ate those days – was swinging wildly, throwing himself across the class, and before Bobby could pull back he’d smacked Anton in the jaw.
The kid went down. The students erupted.
A typical Wednesday at West Washburn High.
“It’s a delicate situation, of course.” The deputy rooted through the tangle of papers on his desk, found a phone number printed on a post-it, frowned, balled it up and threw it away. “Regardless of what provoked the conflict or who instigated, it’ll end in an investigation.”
Bobby had heard a messy desk was the sign of genius. Bobby’s desk, by comparison, was surgically precise. He itched to reach across and straighten the scatter of banana-yellow pencils.
“Anton’s parents have let me know they’ll be talking to their lawyer.”
Bobby only nodded.
“You don’t seem concerned.”
He kept his hands flat in his lap, fingers splayed, because if he didn’t then they’d ball up again. It’d been hours since the incident, the students long since gone home, but his pulse still hammered in his temples. The wet thwack of flesh on flesh wouldn’t quit echoing. “Far from it. I’m very concerned. But making a big fuss isn’t going to help.”
“They’ll want your job, Bobby.”
“I’m good at my job. They can’t have it.”
“At least give me something I can use. Did he have a knife?”
“Just his hands.”
“You had a flashback, then. I’ve heard vets get those. That’ll earn some sympathy.”
“Now you’re trying to make me mad.”
The deputy principal raised his hands – pale, almost bloodless. Soft velvet-skinned hands that’d never held a shovel, never bled in the desert. “No need for that. We all know you’re… well. We all know.”
“And I don’t have to put up with this horse-shit.” Bobby shoved his chair back, cheap steel squeaking across the hardwood floor. His suit shirt felt two sizes too small, squeezing the breath from his lungs. His tie was a noose. “I’ve got kids waiting at home for their dinner. If you want to fire me, you have my number.”
“I’m trying to protect you from a lawsuit, Bobby. I don’t need that attitude.”
“And I’m trying to be a goddamn teacher.” He paused in the doorway, head bowed, sweat beading on his forehead. “Don’t be too hard on Anton. His parents are divorcing and it’s been rough for him. Everyone’s on edge this end of the year.”
“You sit back down and work through this with me, Bobby. Walk away and it’s going to go very poorly for you when lawyers come knocking-”
He let the door swing shut.
A girl from Bobby’s class was waiting in the hallway, earbuds blasting tinny trap beats, phone in hand, scrolling Instagram. She jumped up as Bobby passed. “Mr Graves! Mr Graves. I tried to tell the principal, but-”
He stopped, squared up, hands clenched behind his back. “Felicity. Music off before you talk to people.”
Felicity was usually a cipher at the back of the class. Short, compact, dressed in blacks and greys. A different pendant on her necklace for every day of the week. Sometimes crucifixes, sometimes pagan symbols wrought from copper wiring. A quiet rebel.
Bobby liked that. Better than the loud conformists, the wannabe frat-rats sneering and posturing at anything too nerdy, too colourful, too dark, too smart, too other.
Felicity held out her phone. “I recorded the whole thing. As soon as Anton started swearing, I started recording.”
“You’re not supposed to have your phone in class. And shouldn’t you be home already?”
“I wanted to wait. To show the principal. But he told me he was too busy.”
He watched the fight replay on the tiny screen. A blur of motion. Hard to tell who struck who, from that angle. Even so, the gratitude was a rush of heat, beginning in his chest and burning behind his eyes.
He gave the phone back. “Hang on to that. I might need it later.”
“Is Anton going to be kicked out?”
“We’ll see. I hope not.”
“He should be. Anton’s an asshole.”
“Sorry.” She slung her backpack over one shoulder – a sure way to ruin your posture, but Bobby was clean out of energy for lectures. “Why’re you always so patient, Mr Graves?”
He smiled weakly. “Get home, Felicity. Don’t keep your Mom waiting.”
It’d been snowing all day, and it took Bobby a good five minutes to find his car amongst the neat white rows of identical shapeless lumps. His phone vibrated as he unlocked the doors. When are you coming home? Broden says we should microwave the pasta, is that okay?
Share it. I’ll be home in an hour. Save space for pizza.
The reply was immediate. No pineapple!
Pineapple on pizza is a beautiful thing. You’ll understand some day.
Three kids, all hungry, all waiting. They had the patience of saints. Hadn’t always been that way. When the boys first come to him – Paul first, then Broden, and then the youngest, Donnie – they’d carried a lot of anger. Bad experiences in homes. Foster parents not giving a damn. Folded leather belts and the backs of hands.
They were improving, incrementally. Small steps. That was all he could do.
The lot was already dark; winter days were short, and the sunset had been swallowed by a storm blowing in from the west, black and angry. Cold nights getting colder. He had to hurry before the roads iced over; it’d happened before, the winding path around Mount Koro blocked by heavy falls, forcing him to double back along the tollway. Could he even get pizza at that hour? Would the store be closed thanks to the storm?
The kids would be disappointed. Shouldn’t have promised big if he couldn’t deliver…
He saw, in slow motion, his fists rise up to block Anton Tripp’s furious swings. The kid screaming, You don’t tell me shit! You don’t know me! Who the fuck are you?
Of course he’d only been trying to protect himself. Grab Anton’s wrist, maybe. Lock out his shoulder, bring him to the ground. For his own safety as much as Bobby’s. Hadn’t wanted to hurt the boy. Everyone got angry sometimes. Anton wasn’t a bad kid. Just confused, backed into a corner by anger and shame.
Him and Anton could’ve been friends, anywhere else. Now Anton was headed for expulsion, and Bobby…
Well, that was up to a review board.
“Should’ve talked it through.” Bobby reached for the glove compartment. Remembered there weren’t any cigarettes there, that he’d quit two months before. Strange, how things always went bad eight weeks after going cold turkey. How many times had he quit now? Six, seven? How many times did it end in him wanting to break some stranger’s jaw?
But not this time. This time, he’d only wanted to calm the kid down.
He’d screwed up.
He worked one finger into the knot of his tie. Finally, mercifully, loosened it. Took one long breath. Gripped the wheel in both hands so tight the plastic began to dent.
Then he screamed until his lungs were empty and there was no anger left inside. Nothing but the emptiness, the exhaustion, the uncertainty.
His kids were waiting. The storm was only getting worse.
The black sedan overtook on a one-lane stretch at the base of Mount Koro.
“Jesus Christ!” Bobby jerked the wheel sideways in shock, tires skidding on loose gravel, before regaining control. The sedan had passed close enough to skin the paint from his bumper and was already just a pair of taillights in the distance, vanishing into the storm.
He waited for the ricochet thud of his heartbeat to slow. “Idiots,” he muttered, and then began to laugh – the I almost died nervous laughter of the lucky survivor. He’d heard that sort of laughter a lot, on deployment. The nonsense giggles after a stray bullet chipped the stone you were hunkered behind, spraying dust across your cheeks. The morbid belly-laugh when an IED detonated fifty meters behind you, poor timing or poor wiring the only thing between you and a bodybag.
The sedan was already gone, racing through switchbacks. Well, if they wanted to kill themselves, they were welcome to it, so long as they kept out of his way. Besides, if he died, who’d collect the pizzas? Who’d feed the kids? Who would Anton Tripp’s parents have left to sue?
Fifteen minutes to the Sergio’s Authentic Italian. He had two meatlovers and a Hawaiian waiting for collection. Too bad if the kids didn’t like pineapple. There’d be lots of things in life they didn’t like. Unfair teachers. Soul-crushing jobs. Unfaithful lovers. Life was a collection of good days and bad days and if they couldn’t deal with a little pineapple then what good would they be in the real world?
He’d tried to raise them that way from the beginning. Flexible. Ready to rebound. That was the problem with so many children he taught. They were raised brittle. Some were scared, abused, ready to crumble at a touch. Others were stone. They’d built shells around themselves to weather the hard times, carapaces to deflect fists and words and the whiskey-stink on their father’s breath, and that worked most of the time, but of you took a hammer to stone it shattered.
Anton had shattered. The wrong word at the wrong time. Bobby had to fix that. If the boy wasn’t expelled, if Bobby had a job come Monday, he’d pull the boy aside. Speak in quiet, comforting tones. Find the why, because why was always more important than what. He’d swung at a teacher. Would it matter in a year? In a month? But if that rage was still there, if the cracks in his armor hadn’t repaired…
Bobby knew adults like that. Cracked from head to toe, leaking, ready to collapse. He didn’t want to let Anton become another.
But he’d screwed up. Didn’t matter whether he’d wanted to hit the kid or not. The parents would claim assault. The deputy would blame PTSD, because that was the easy route, the boogeyman that never failed to deflect blame away from administration.
Bank balance was already looking slim. Didn’t have enough in reserve to weather a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. Better to take the blame, walk away quietly. Find some other way to take care of the kids.
Because there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d send those three back to the foster home.
Taillights about half a mile ahead. Slim smears of red against white. The sedan had slowed halfway up the mountain, thankfully. The storm was picking up, snow blatting against the windows, thick enough that the wipers were struggling to compensate. Only a madman would try to race through weather like this-
The sedan was skidding.
Even from a distance, Bobby could tell the car was out of control. Rear end kicking up waterfalls of snow, traction lost, headed sideways. Bobby couldn’t breathe. A flurry of snow ate the sedan whole. Then it was back, completely turned around, spinning, headlights dim behind the tumult.
The switchbacks were steep. The edge of the road was a precipice, a straight drop back down the jagged slope. He’d heard of people surviving crashes on Mount Koro, but not many.
The sedan was headed for the barriers. Bobby sped up. If they were about to fly off the edge then he needed to close the distance. Nobody else out here to help. If they could just hold on, get a little traction, turn into the skid…
The sedan hit the barriers. A faint crunch in the distance, the rest of the impact drowned out by the snow. Bobby exhaled. He didn’t realise he’d been chewing his lip until he tasted blood. “Lucky son of a bitch,” he breathed.
The barrier gave way.
The sedan went over.
It was a dervish of steel and snow, sliding ass-first down the slope, a plow sending up huge sheets of snow in its wake. Then it hit something beneath the surface and began to roll, wheels up, roof up, wheels up. Glass shattered. Roof caved in. Grey smoke cutting a line through the storm.
Finally, it came to rest, jammed against a colossal fir. Wheels down, driver-side door hanging open. Windshield gone. Its headlights flickered once, then vanished.
Bobby put the pedal to the floor.
He was already calling 911 as he pulled up behind the wreck and leaped out into the snow, the wind a cold knife against his cheeks. “Yes, it rolled! Six miles outside Stanton, fourth switchback!” The numbers were in his head like they’d been every day of his deployment, days spent watching garbage piled by the side of the road, counting alleys, translating the world into landmarks and coordinates because to forget where you were would get you isolated and killed. “I don’t know how many injured. Hold on.”
He scrambled up the slope and peered in the sedan’s shattered windows, shielding his eyes from the whoop and crash of the storm. The car had been built solid – roof mostly intact, airbags deployed – but the passengers were a mess. The driver, a man in a dark suit, was slumped in the deflated jellyfish-bloom of the airbag. Blood sheeted across his scalp and from where Bobby stood, it looked like his legs had been flattened by the collapsing dash. In the back, another man in an identical suit – white shirt, black jacket, black slacks, red tie – was twisted up in his seat belt. His head hung at an unnatural angle. His breath came in a pained whistle. Bobby knew he wouldn’t last. You didn’t need to be a medic to know that spines didn’t work that way.
And strapped in beside him…
Panic closed Bobby’s throat as he took in the girl. Fifteen, maybe sixteen, in a blue and white school uniform, a tumble of sheer black hair hiding her face. She wore black tights, and her right shoe was missing, revealing a hole the size of a dime in the stocking heel. Her nails were painted the sheer red of fresh cherries. Beneath her feet was a black satchel with a school crest Bobby didn’t recognize, a bird spreading its wings above crossed swords.
She wasn’t breathing.
“Sir? Sir?” The voice on the other end was tinny, indistinct. Blurred by shock. “How many injured? Can you tell me how badly they’re hurt? Sir?”
“Two men.” It came out as a whisper. “One teenage girl.”
“Are they conscious?”
There. The slightest rise and fall. He tried to jerk the passenger door open but it was mangled, fused into place. “No. The driver and the girl might live. I need to get her out.”
“Ambulance will be with you shortly, sir. I need you to stay on the line.”
“Do not move her, sir. You could do more harm than good.”
Old medical briefings swam back into focus. Crush syndrome. Poisons leaching into the bloodstream. The safe, sensible thing to do was wait for the professionals.
Still, it took everything he had not to run back to his car, grab the Ka-bar he kept in the glove compartment, cut the belts and drag the girl out into the snow. She was coming around, head jerking back and forth as if in a fit, eyelids fluttering, hair falling across her shoulders, upper lip drawing back in pain.
Barely a whisper, over the growing roar of the storm. The driver was reaching for him, one eye wide, the other glued shut by blood. Bobby gave up on the passenger door and kicked the driver’s door open wide enough to crawl inside. “Hold on. Ambulance is coming. You and your daughter, we’re going to get you out. Don’t…”
The driver’s jacket fell open. On his hip was the polished steel butt of a pistol, holstered, clipped to his belt.
Bobby froze. Open carry was legal in Washington with the right permits, but the sight of the knurled grip still sent a sliver of unease worming down into his stomach. “Don’t die on me, okay?”
The driver shook his head. He opened his hand, revealing his phone.
“Call,” he whispered.
“Who?” Didn’t matter. The phone was busted, screen shattered through the middle.
“Call her.” The driver pressed the phone into Bobby’s hands. Then, seeing the cracked screen, sighed. “Your… phone.”
The dispatcher was shouting, “Sir, sir? Are there any open wounds? Sir? You need to find something to use as a bandage…”
Bobby wasn’t listening. All his attention was on the driver, the stranger with his face bloodied, suit jacket fallen open, nose bent sideways by the airbag impact.
He was dying, too. Some things Bobby just knew. It was in the spit-bubbles on his lips, sheened with red by the blood in his lungs. His fishbelly-white hands, fluttering with shock.
“Call who?” he said. “Your wife?”
The man burped blood across his chest. “Seven… three…”
His wife, or girlfriend, or lover. Had to be. And the girl in the back, his daughter? They didn’t look much alike – the girl was olive-skinned, dark-eyed, maybe Lebanese or Syrian. Hard to tell, in the shadows. The only color on the two men was a scatter of currant-brown moles across the driver’s cheeks.
Family friend, maybe. Or adopted. Or a mixed family. Didn’t matter. One dead, another going soon, and all he wanted to do was talk to his wife before the end.
“I have to go,” he told the dispatcher.
“You know where to find us. Hurry.” He hung up and dialed with shaking fingers. The man was growing quiet, the numbers barely a whisper on his lips.
“Hello?” Something or someone hissed on the end of the line. “Can you hear me? I’m at a car crash, and-”
“Who is this?”
A woman, professional, consonants clipped. After only three words he could already imagine her short-clipped nails, her serious haircut. “My name’s Robert Graves. I’m at a car crash out on Mount Koro. Two men and a girl.”
“Who gave you this number?”
“The driver. I don’t know his name. He’s hurt really bad. Is he your husband? The ambulance is on its way, but-”
“Is the girl alive?”
The cold clarity in her voice stopped Bobby dead. “Is she your daughter?”
“Is she alive?”
“Yes. She’s pretty beat up, but the ambulance will be here soon. Listen, I’ll put your husband on-”
The phone went dead.
Bobby stared. Checked his battery: eighty percent. Redialed. No answer.
Wheezing, lips flecked with red, the driver said, “Is… she coming?”
“Sure, man.” He took off his jacket and spread it across the dying man’s chest. “She’ll be here soon.” He reached between the front seats, found the girl’s hand, and squeezed. “You’ll be okay. Just hold on. Keep breathing. You’ll be okay if you just keep breathing.”
Her lips fluttered. The barest whisper.
At the bottom of the mountain, drowned behind flurries of snow, came the ambulance pulse of red and blue, red and blue.