“No offense,” said Cy looking at the scoreboard. “Good thing it was our opener and a non-league game.”
“Yeah, defense wasn’t bad,” replied Champ. He stood up from his seat on the wooden grandstand as he hoisted a gym bag to his shoulder. “Rusty McNaughton overshot Rhett on that slant on fourth down. Otherwise, we could have had ‘em.”
“Could’a, would’a, should’a. I think that’s the Mill River motto,” said Cy as he lifted his arm to shade his eyes from the bright afternoon sun. He began to follow the crowd funneling its way out of the stands. “Did’ja hear what Morningside Glen did last night?”
Champ nodded his head. “Forty-eight nothing. And Salem was district champs last year. Looks like they’ll get their fourth straight state championship. Without Tony Phillips yet.”
They had come to the end of the row and began to descend the steps to the ground.
“Tony Phillips, outstanding athlete for Morningside Glen and long-time tormentor of Mill River students, was arrested today on fourteen counts of burglary,” said Cy mimicking a television announcer. He continued, “Phillips, known for beating up old ladies, stealing candy from young children, and torturing small animals, was a long time athletic rival of Mill River’s Champ Trammell…”
Champ shot his friend a glance that said he was no longer interested in his parody. Cy stopped. They headed toward the exit.
“Fourteen burglaries. Why do you think he did it? Drugs?” Cy asked.
Champ shrugged. “There were always rumors he took steroids. Why does anybody do anything? Why did you put the “R” on MG’s field?”
“Whoa!” exclaimed Cy. “You can’t compare my act of harmless fun to breaking and entering someone’s home.”
“Why not?” said Champ. “You both broke the law.”
“And you haven’t?” asked Cy. They had exited the field and stopped walking.
“No, of course not,” replied Champ.
“You’ve never speeded while driving?” Cy asked smiling.
Champ thought briefly. “No, not that I know of.”
Cy shook his head in disbelief. “You are the All-American boy, Tram. Not just in sports but in life. There is such a thing as being too good you know.”
Champ looked at Cy and said, “I don’t believe that.”
For a few moments they just stood and looked at each other. Champ broke the silence. “I’m going to go in and change and loosen up some before the soccer game.”
“And I’m going to go home and work on some AP Biology,” said Cy. “Miss Hester gave us a ton of homework, the ol’ bat. No one can stand her…well, no one except Mousey Brown. Maybe I’ll be back for the second half.”
Champ jogged toward the gymnasium and the locker room. As he did he passed two men standing just outside the entrance gate to the field.
“Hi Mr. Johnston. Tough one, Coach Turner,” he said as he ran past them.
“Yeah,” said the man wearing a black and orange baseball cap.
“Need some offense,” said the building principal.
Coach Turner shrugged his shoulders. “McNaughton was off with the passing game. Of course, he’s always been very erratic.”
The two men watched as the goals were being put into place for the soccer game.
Coach Turner continued. “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to coach at a school like Morningside Glen and have a separate field for football and soccer.”
“Not to mention enough athletes to have championship teams in both sports,” added Mr. Johnston. “See what happened to the Phillips boy?”
Coach Turner nodded his head. “He’s gone. Say what you want about Coach Hayes at MG, but Phillips won’t play another down for him no matter what happens in the courts. Won’t matter. They lose one all-star athlete and replace him with another.”
Champ, now in his soccer uniform, jogged past the men onto the field.
“Wish you still had him?” said Mr. Johnston gesturing toward Champ.
Mr. Turner gave a little smile. “Who wouldn’t want to have an athlete like that? Yeah, I was more than a little surprised when he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and switched from football to soccer. Especially since the soccer team here has always done so poorly.”
Champ had set up near midfield to kick towards one of the goal cages, which was now in place.
Mr. Johnston looked into the September sky as if he could see back in time. “I remember when I first came to Mill River. I would hear the stories: Sonny Trammell this, Sonny Trammell that. Sonny Trammell the state track record holder. Sonny Trammell went to college at State on a football scholarship.”
As the men talked, Champ boomed a kick into the goal from midfield.
“And of course there was the darker side,” added Coach Turner. “Sonny tore up his knee and never played a down of football for State. Sonny Trammell, central figure in the game between Mill River and Morningside Glen twenty-five years ago. Battle of the unbeatens, the so-called Incident game. The loss some people say was the beginning of the end for Mill River. Then, the Sonny Trammell of today.”
The men watched as Champ put another ball into the cage from long distance.
“Does he drink as much as people say?” asked Principal Johnston.
“’Fraid so,” said Coach Turner. He moved his body to get a better sight angle to watch Champ kick the soccer ball. “Maybe that has some reason for Champ switching sports. He doesn’t want to be like his ol’ man.”
“Maybe,” said Mr. Johnston. “ In any event we need to find more offense if we hope to even stay on the same field with teams like MG.”
Coach Turner watched as Champ boomed yet another kick into the goal. He said, “And I think I know just where we can get it.”
Coach Turner jogged through the gate and onto the field.
As Champ was setting the ball up for yet another kick, he saw Coach Turner approach. He stopped and smiled.
“How’s the season going?” said Coach Turner as he slowed his run as he pulled up toward Champ. He was slightly out of breath.
“Well, we lost the opener to St. Mary’s,” said Champ. “And we have Richmond tonight, and they are always tough. But we got this exchange student, Jean-Claude. So I’m hopeful.”
“Do you ever miss football, Champ?” Mr. Turner asked.
Champ paused. He was unsure as to where the conversation was going. He admitted, “A little, sometimes.”
“I’ll level with you,” said Coach Turner. “We play good defense. We have a lot of enthusiasm. But we’re having big trouble on offense.”
“I know,” said Champ. “I was at the game.”
“Then you saw how we got good field position but just couldn’t push the ball in,” said Coach Turner. “But if we had a kicker who could kick field goals…”
His voice trailed off. A look of recognition appeared on Champ’s face as he realized what the coach was saying.
“I could talk to Coach Foss about it,” said Coach Turner. “And of course I would have to talk to the Athletic Director to make sure it was okay for you to play two sports at once.”
“As long as I could play soccer, it would be okay,” said Champ. “Soccer would be my first priority. But I’d be glad to help out the football team.”
“It would probably make your father happy,” said Coach Turner. As soon as he said the words, he knew he had made a mistake.
The smile disappeared from Champ’s face and was replaced with a scowl. His eyes locked onto those of the man. “My father was at the football game this afternoon. I didn’t have to look for him, but I know he was standing on the top row at the thirty-yard line because he’s been there for every Mill River game for the past twenty-three years. He won’t be at my soccer game. Instead, he’ll be at one of his regular dives drowning in a glass of whiskey. And all about some silly idea of me getting revenge for something that happened twenty-five years ago.”
Champ paused. His eyes were still on Coach Turner. His tone softened. “With all respect, Coach Turner, I’ll kick for you because you’re a great coach in football and track. I’ll kick for the players because they are my friends, and I’ll kick for Mill River because I’ll always be a Hawk. But I won’t kick for my father.”
“Good,” said Coach Turner with a sigh of relief. “I’ll talk to the people I need to.”
Champ returned to his practice. His next kick sailed wide of the goal.
Mill River Senior High Chapter 2
The Day Before the First Day of School Although she knew that he would be there, Holly Henry was still stunned by what she saw: Joe Johnston in the principal’s seat of Mill River High School.
“The only way a Black man would get this job in this district is because nobody else would want it. And that’s exactly how I got it on an emergency certification” said Principal Johnston into the phone.
Knowing he was unaware of her presence, Holly rapped lightly on the partially open door of the principal’s office. Mr. Johnston wheeled around in his swivel chair to face her. He looked perturbed by the interruption. Giving her a curt smile, he motioned for her to have a seat.
“I need to go,” he said into the phone. “Yes, the meeting about the takeover by Morningside Glen is tonight.”
He hung the phone up and addressed Holly. “Good afternoon. You’re name again is…?”
“Holly Henry,” Holly said. She was surprised that Mr. Johnston did not know who she was. Because of its small size, almost everybody knew everyone else at Mill River. She continued, “I am here to interview you for the The Hawk Squawks, the student newspaper, about being our new principal.”
She smiled hoping she might melt Mr. Johnston’s icy demeanor. She was not successful.
“Yes, it is an honor to be principal of Mill River Senior High. Particularly, the first African-American principal.” His tone of voice was less than enthusiastic.
“What do you hope to accomplishment this year as the new principal?” She had dreaded doing this interview with Mr. Johnston. But as the editor of the student newspaper, she knew she had to do it.
“Coming from the world of physical education and athletics, I believe in the importance of teamwork,” he said. “Every team has a coach who decides what the others will do. In the case of this school, I’m the coach. I’ll send in the plays, and I’ll expect others to run them. No audibles at the line of scrimmage, so to speak.”
Mr. Johnston seemed amused by this football analogy. He paused for Holly to scribble down notes.
He continued, “For example, I would expect The Hawk Squawks to print positive things about the school. Articles that are going to raise the spirit of Mill River and not tear it down.”
He looked to her for a response. Holly hesitated. She was uncomfortable with his last remark. Seeing her confusion Mr. Johnston said, “You don’t play sports, do you?”
“Actually,” Holly began slowly, “I am a reserve on the basketball team.”
Mr. Johnston looked perplexed. “Did I ever have you in class?”
“Twice, last year when I was a junior and in ninth grade too” said Holly. She thought it best to skip the time he taught her in health class.
Mr. Johnston wore a look of befuddlement on his face. A buzz of the phone saved him from further embarrassment.
“It’s Mrs. Patel from the school board,” said his secretary’s voice through the intercom.
“Good, send it through,” said a relieved Mr. Johnston. He said to Holly, “This is an important call. We’ll have to finish this later, Hillary.”
He waved toward the door with his fingers pointed downward as if he was trying to shoo her out of his office.“Holly,” she whispered lightly.
Annoyed that he had been corrected, Mr. Johnston grimaced and swiveled 180 degrees in his chair to avoid seeing her, nearly tipping over while doing so.
As she left she heard him say, “I don’t like it either, Vera. But I don’t see that we have any choice.”
Leaving the office Holly was surprised to see Mousey Brown standing in the hallway in front of the lavs.
“Shouldn’t you be out shooting your one hundred three-pointers or is it foul shots?” she teased.
“Both. Already did it this morning,” Mousey replied. “I’m going to take the bus down to Capital City to play some pickup this afternoon with Pizzaro Jackson.”
“So, your last day of summer vacation will be the same as all the others,” Holly said. For the first time, she noticed a sign behind Mousey, which read “Gina Roberts for Leadership with Experience.”
“Don’t tell me Gina is running again,” said Holly. “As student body secretary, I dread just the thought of having to work with her.”
“Afraid so,” said Mousey. “Matt Wallin’s resignation is not even official, and she has her signs up already.”
“Maybe somebody else will win,” said Holly hopefully.
“Haven’t heard of anyone else,” replied Mousey. “Although Cy Freeman told me he has a stealth candidate.”
“Hope he doesn’t try to run that monkey again like he did a few years ago,” said Holly.
“The monkey almost won,” reminded Mousey, as she examined Gina’s sign. “One thing you can say about Gina, she believes in truth in advertising. She has lots of experience.”
Holly added, “Political and otherwise.”
The girls laughed. Mousey said, “Remember when she…”
A boy with curly blonde hair and blue eyes emerged from the lav. Mousey stopped talking about Gina.
Holly stared at the boy. He returned her stare for what seemed like an eternity to Holly. Embarrassed, she broke her glance and managed a “Hi.”
“Bonjour,” said the boy. He picked up her hand and kissed it. Holly blushed.
Mousey looked at the boy as if he was deranged. She said, “This is Jean-Claude. He is an exchange student from France. The counseling office asked me to give him a tour of the school and then to get him to the soccer team for practice.”
“Tu es tres belle,” said the boy smiling.
“Uh, I take Spanish,” said Holly.
“I translate,” said Jean-Claude. “You are very beautiful.”
Holly blushed again.
Mousey rolled her eyes. She said, “C’mon. Let’s get you to the soccer field.”
They walked out the front entrance of the building. Mousey shaded her eyes from the bright August sun. She said, “I need to warn you that we are not very good at soccer, Jean-Claude.”
“Maybe I can help,” said Jean-Claude. “I play much football in Lyon.”
He looked at Holly as he said this. She smiled. They got to the fringe of the field. Practice was in session.
They saw a bare-chested boy. He was muscular yet supple. With his back to the goal at midfield, the boy received a pass letting it bounce off his chest and land at his feet. He waited for two opponents to close on him. Just as it appeared that they would kick it away from him, he flipped the ball backwards over his head. Turning and racing past the startled defenders, the boy pushed the ball forward to the goal. Another defender ran toward him. He faked right and went left, leaving his opponent stumbling to the ground. Alone the goalkeeper didn’t have a chance, and the boy fired the ball into the corner of the net for a goal.
“Quel athlete!” said Jean-Claude. “With his left foot!”
“He can use either one, baby,” said Mousey with a smile.
The coach blew a whistle, and the team stopped for a break. The boy ran to them. His tanned body glistened with perspiration.
“Hey,” the boy said. He leaned over and gave Holly a peck on the cheek.
“This is Jean-Claude,” said Mousey. “He’s an exchange student from France. He wants to play soccer.”
“That’s great!” said the boy. “I’m Champ Trammell.”
Champ stuck out his hand and Jean-Claude took it. The French boy looked puzzled. He said, “Champ Trammell, I know that name. You run track, no?”
“A little,” said Champ.
“A little?” said Holly. She gave him a playful slap on the side. “He’ll be going for his fourth straight title as a senior this year.”
“Yeah, I do OK,” said Champ. “But it is soccer season now. We can use some help.”
“That’s an understatement,” said Holly. “He’s the only one who is any good on the entire team.”
Champ gave her a look of disapproval.
“Well, it’s true,” said Holly shrugging her shoulders.
“Let’s go over and introduce you to Coach Foss,” said Champ. He draped his hand over the shoulder of the French boy, and they walked toward the team.
Holly and Mousey watched them leave. Then Mousey said, “I gotta go if I’m going to catch the bus for Capital City.”
They turned and walked back toward the school. Mousey said, “Is your sister Heather here this year?”
Holly groaned. “Don’t remind me. She might be in high school, but she acts as if she’s nine.”
As they got to the school Holly said, “France! Isn’t it exciting! A guy from Europe! And he’s good looking too!”
Mousey groaned. “Please Holly! Don’t tell me you’re taken in by all that Mon Cherie stuff, or whatever it was that he said. Besides you already have the best looking boyfriend in the school.”
“Oh, he doesn’t compare with Champ,” said Holly quickly. “Still it will be nice to have a guy around who has a little sophistication. Mill River guys are just sooooo…”
She paused searching for a word.
“Mill River?” said Mousey finishing her sentence.
“Exactly!” said Holly. Both girls laughed.
The Next Day
The man arrived early to his office in Silicon Valley. He began the day as he always did drinking coffee and reading the morning’s edition of his old hometown newspaper on the internet. A headline in the second section caught his eye:
The Capital City Chronicle Local Morningside Glen and Mill River School Districts to Merge
By Jennifer Van Buren
At a stormy meeting of last night’s Mill River School Board, the board voted 5-4 to accept a merger with the neighboring Morningside Glen school district starting next school year.
“I regret that a declining population and a dwindling tax base have made it financial infeasible to continue to operate the Mill River schools.” said Principal Joe Johnston.
“This is a travesty,” said Vera Patel, school board member. “As far as I’m concerned this is not over.”
Robert Wilson, superintendent of the Morningside Glen, school district was present at the meeting. He said, “We will welcome the students of Mill River to our district. They will have many more opportunities available to them at MG.”
After a pause, Wilson, winner of Educator of the Year from The Capital City Chronicle, added, “I’m sure we can remember the history of Mill River in some way once it is dissolved. We’ll find a trophy case or a corner for their banners and awards. We’re a big school. We’ll find some place for them.”
The man broke his eyes away from the computer and looked out the window at the magnificent view of Silicon Valley. So Mill River is in its death throes, he thought. Too bad. They seemed to be turning it around the last few years. It had been a long, steady decline for Mill River. And some people would say that I started it.
The man returned to his computer to read his email.
The First Chapters
Mill River Senior High Chapter 6
A Tuesday in Mid September
“Jack, this is Ms. Shelly. I need to make an appointment to see how you are doing. It has been awhile since I’ve been out. Call me, 555-1591.”
Jack Billet heard the click that indicated that the recorded message was finished.
“Caseworkers,” he muttered. He looked around the room: weights more or less stacked in one corner, clothes on the floor, a sheet on the sofa that served as his bed, a half-eaten fast-food hamburger on his small kitchen table, empty pizza box, an English textbook next to the lamp, a poster of Rick Mears on the wall.
Going to have to get this place cleaned up, before Ms. Shelly comes out, he said to himself.
He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand.
Was he going to do this or not, he asked himself. Eddie Vargas hadn’t talked to him since the day in the cafeteria when he upset his tray. Yet, there was something about his sister. His thoughts kept returning to her.
He picked up the phone and punched in the number.
It rang three times before being interrupted by Latin music.
Jack realized it was an answering device.
Emilia’s voice came overtop of the loud music, “Hey, leave a message and I’ll return your call. Maybe.”
Jack was not prepared for this. A beep sounded in his ear, and he knew that he needed to say something.
“Uh, this is Jack,” he began. He thought of how stupid he must sound. “I…”
“Woooo! It’s the Grease Gorilla.”
Jack recognized Emilia’s voice.
“I just knew you’d call,” she said. “I had the answering thing on. I don’t pick up for just anybody, y’know.”
Jack could not think of anything to say. He blurted out, “How are you?”
“Great as of five seconds ago,” Emilia replied. She waited for him to say something. When he did not, she said, “Hey, people say you got the fastest car in the valley.”
Jack was surprised by this comment. Maybe she had been talking to her brother. He decided it was best not to mention Eddie.
“That’s what some people say,” said Jack being careful to give no intonation in his voice that would reveal how he felt about this remark.
“Whatcha doing right now? Wanna show it to me?” asked Emilia.
Jack was surprised at her assertiveness. He managed a “Sure.”
“Y’know Fred’s Diner in Capital City? Of course you do, everyone does. Meet me there in an hour,” said Emilia.
“But I need some time to get cleaned up,” Jack realized that it was too late. She had already hung up.
He went to the tiny bathroom and washed his face and arms. It would have to do. There wasn’t time to do anything more.
As he walked toward the door to leave, he picked up his black leather jacket off its resting place on the only chair in his apartment. Throwing it over one arm, he stopped to glance at a picture on top of the television set. It was a photo of a man in his early forties. He was ruggedly handsome. Below the picture were printed the words “Maxwell Crawford, Rest in Peace.”
“Almost been a year,” said Jack aloud to himself. He opened the door of his apartment that was over the garage where he worked. Descending the steps, he got into his car.
A short while later, Jack arrived at the diner. Entering through the door, he scanned the crowded restaurant. A crowd of jocks sat in one corner. Most of them were from Dunbar. One seemed to dominate the others. Jack had seen his picture in the paper. Pizzaro something? He couldn’t recall. The girl sitting next to him looked like Mousey Brown. But it couldn’t be. A boy in a Lakers jersey sauntered toward the table, and someone called out “Dewayne!”
Jack saw two guys he knew from Vo-Tech at the counter. One nodded his head in his direction. Jack raised his finger in response.
Judging from their shirts and jackets, Jack noted quite a variety in the crowd: Dunbar, Richmond, Columbus, St. Mary’s, even two guys from Morningside Glen. But there was no sign of Emilia.
He slid into the only open booth. Someone had left a two-day old copy of The Capital City Chronicle. He picked it up and turned to the sports section looking for something on NASCAR. A small headline caught his attention:
Mill River Wins on Botched Field Goal Attempt
By Casey Klein
Holder Rhett Dixon fumbled the snap for a field goal attempt but picked it up and scrambled into the end zone to give Mill River a 13-10 victory over St. Mary’s in their first league game of the season. On the scoring drive, new kicker Champ Trammell missed a 37-yard attempt. The Hawks were saved from defeat when St. Mary’s was ruled offside on the play, and the visitors gained a new series of downs. MR’s offense continued to sputter this week…
Champ Trammell? Didn’t he play soccer? thought Jack.
A voice interrupted his thoughts. He looked up to see Emilia standing in front of him. She was dressed in a bright red top and a tight pair of jeans. He just stared at her.
“Are all Mill River boys so talkative?” she teased.
“Hungry?” Jack managed to say. He reached for the menus, which were next to the salt and peppershakers.
“No!” she said. “No, food. I want to see this car. My brother says it is soooo fast!”
Jack got out from the booth. Cautiously he said, “Your brother say much about me?”
They were walking toward the door. Emilia did not respond right away. She waited until she caught his eye. Flirtatiously she said, “Some.”
They walked toward the car. Emilia exclaimed, “This is it? Wow! It is so cool! Black! I just love black for a car. You got a name for it?”
Jack unlocked her door. He laughed, “No.”
“A car this hot has to have a name.” She slid into her seat and waited for Jack to enter the car.
“Let me see…fast…black…sleek…hmmm…I know…the Bullet!”
She discovered a half finished soda bottle at her feet on the passenger’s side. She raised the bottle over her head and brought it down slowly on the dashboard.
“I christen thee, the Bullet, the fastest car in the valley,” she said.
Jack laughed. He was beginning to feel more at ease. “OK. The Bullet it is.”
He turned the key in the ignition and buckled his seat belt. He said, “Fasten your belt.”
“I don’t wear seat belts,” said Emilia disdainfully. “Messes up my clothes.”
“This car’s not moving unless you wear that belt,” said Jack in a serious tone of voice.
Emilia looked at him incredulously. Finally she said, “What, did somebody you know die in an accident?”
Jack looked her straight in the eye and said, “Yes.”
Emilia returned his stare for several seconds. Then, she fastened her belt.
Jack headed the car out of Capital City to the bypass. Flying down the highway, they approached a huge, brightly lit building perched on a hill. Examining the structure Emilia asked, “Morningside Glen?”
Jack nodded, “Yeah, ever seen it?”
“No,” answered Emilia. “Just heard the stories. That it is like a palace.”
“Let’s take a tour,” Jack said. He maneuvered the car off the next exit.
As they go closer, they saw a sign that stated “Morningside Glen State Football Champs.”
Below these words were the numbers denoting the last three years. At the end of the last year was a dash.
“Guess they expect to win this year too,” said Jack.
“How many athletic fields do they have?” exclaimed Emilia as they passed one green space after another.
“Natatorium,” noted Jack as they passed a huge rectangular structure with a sign that read “Aquatic Center” in front of it.
“Can’t they just say pool?” said Emilia.
“They could,” said Jack. “But there are two of them. One for swimming and one for water polo.” He paused. “The ponies might get confused as to what pool to get into.”
They were near the front of the building now. Lights cascaded on the entrance from every direction.
A screeching sound of a vehicle diverted Jack’s attention to his rear view mirror. A car had appeared suddenly and was hugging his bumper.
“Friend of yours?” asked Emilia, looking over her shoulder.
“Hmmm,” replied Jack. He slowed and stopped at a red light. The car on his tail did the same. It revved its engine.
When the light turned green, the car swerved quickly to its left. Passing Jack in the left hand lane, it narrowly missed an oncoming van. The van beeped its horn. The car pulled suddenly in front of Jack and hit its brakes forcing Jack to do the same.
“What kind of idiot is that?” said Emilia angrily.
Jack read the vanity license plate in front of him, “Rocko.”
He sighed, “That’s no idiot. That’s Rocko.”
“Rocko?” puzzled Emilia. “Is that a first name? Last? Nickname?”
“No one seems to know,” said Jack. “Just that the name fits. Gotta be the dumbest kid in Morningside Glen if not the whole valley.”
The road had opened up to four lanes. Rocko had slowed to a crawl forcing Jack to pass him on the left. As he did, Rocko speeded up to keep pace with his vehicle. His face leered out his window.
“You know this character?” Emilia asked.
“In my wilder days, I took his money on a sucker bet,” said Jack checking the rear view and breaking for another red light.
“Wilder days?” cooed Emilia. “Let’s hope they’re not all in the past.”
Startled by her remark, Jack looked at her.
Beep! Rocko blasted on his horn.
“Should of known that black piece of crap would be yours, Billet,” Rocko taunted. “Course I smelled it a few blocks away before I actually saw ‘ya.”
The heavily made-up face of a redhead appeared over Rocko’s shoulder. In her hand she dangled two beer cans from their plastic six-pack container.
“Rocko, where did you get a car like that?” said Jack.
Rocko’s demeanor changed. “C’mon Billet. People say you’re the fastest.” He revved his engine. “Show me!”
The light turned green. Rocko flew away from the intersection. Jack accelerated at a normal rate.
“Wow he’s fast!” exclaimed Emilia. “You’re not going to let him beat you!”
“Fast,” Jack said. “And stupid.”
A flashing red light and a siren appeared simultaneously. The police car chased after Rocko and pulled him over to the side of the road.
“Cops always sit on this piece of road,” said Jack a matter of factly. He waved at Rocko as he passed him.
Emilia giggled and clapped her hands. “Grease Gorilla, you are smart! Too smart to be a gorilla! I’m giving you an upgrade to monkey!”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
Jack reached over and placed his hand on top of hers. It felt small and delicate.
Emilia picked up his hand and glanced down at it.
“Hmm, dirt underneath the fingernails,” she said in mock seriousness. “A quality I always look for in a guy.”
Jack turned the car to get back on the bypass.
“Well, you’re going to get grease on ya’ when you spend half the day at Vo-Tech and most of your free time working at a garage,” he said.
“I was only joking,” said Emilia. As Jack shifted gears, she patted his right cheek with her right hand. “You don’t think that I just happened to need gas in Mill River last month, did’ja?”
Jack accelerated and passed a slower driver. He looked at her. Finally, he said, “You knew where I worked?”
“My, my, we are perceptive,” said Emilia. She pulled his hand away from the gearshift knob and cradled it in her hands in her lap.
“What do you know about me?” he asked. He passed a slow moving truck.
“Let’s just say enough,” Emilia teased. “Take this exit to get to my place.”
In a few minutes, they arrived at a small duplex in Capital City. Jack leaned over and kissed her. He felt the seat belt restraining him.
“Damn, thing,” Jack said. He unhooked the belt as Emilia giggled. He leaned over to kiss her again, but she placed her finger between their lips preventing them from touching.
Surprised, Jack sat back.
“That’s enough for tonight, handsome,” she smiled. “More, later.”
“Later!” Jack said in disbelief. A disgruntled look crossed his face.
Emilia reached for the car door handle. With reassurance she said, “Later.”
“Later!” Jack grumbled. “You think there’ll be a later?”
Emilia had gotten out of the car. She stood with the door open and her body leaning inside the vehicle.
“Yes, monkey,” she said affectionately. “You’ll call.”
Jack watched dumfounded as she skipped up the steps into her house. He gunned the engine and sped away.
“Later,” he muttered aloud to himself. “Who the hell does she think she is?”
He ran a yellow light as it changed to red. He certainly wasn’t used to be treated this way by girls. He hit the highway, and the speed of his vehicle seemed to calm him down.
He muttered to himself, “She’s right. I’ll call.”
END OF THE KINDLE SAMPLE
Mill River Senior High Chapter 3
The First Day of School Jack Billet slid his tray onto the lunch table and sat down.
“Y’know the best thing about spending my first morning of my senior year at Mill River, Eddie?” Jack asked the boy sitting next to him. “I get to eat lunch here when I come to Vo-Tech for the afternoon.”
The other boy nodded his head as he swallowed a french fry.
“Food is much better here than at Dunbar,” said Eddie Vargas. “After spending my mornings there, I’m ready to come over here and eat before I go to electronics class.”
“That’s because the culinary students help make the lunches here,” said a third boy at the table. He was devouring a hamburger. “Sure beats the slop that they serve at Columbus.”
Jack watched Eddie wolf down some more french fries. He bit into a hot dog.
“Man, do you have to make weight?” Jack said. “When do you fight again?”
Eddie shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll work it off in the gym.”
Eddie turned to the boy beside him. “Did I ever tell you…hey, do you guys know each other?’
Both Jack and the boy shook their heads no. Jack said, “No, seen you around. Jack Billet.”
He stuck out his hand. The other boy said, “Julio Juarez. I’m Eddie’s cousin.”
“Too bad for you,” joked Jack.
Eddie smirked. “As I was saying, did I ever tell you that I once fought against Billet, here?”
A wry smile came to Jack’s face. He swallowed some more of the hot dog. “That was two years ago. I thought I was some boxer. But then I get in the ring with your cousin. He wouldn’t stand still. Kept dancin’ around.”
Eddie laughed and picked up the story. “I’m just darting in and out. Jab, jab. Finally, Jackie boy is really mad, spits out his mouthpiece and yells, ‘stand still you slippery PR.’”
Jack was laughing aloud at the thought. “Then, you know what your cousin does? He points at the Mexican flag on his shorts. I’m dumb enough to look down at it. And Wham! Uppercut to the chin! Next thing I know I’m on the floor. And Eddie is over top of me with his mouthpiece out yelling “Wrong country, baby!”
All three boys roared with laughter. As they calmed down Jack said, “That was the end of my boxing career. I got into cars instead.”
Julio’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, I heard about your car. It is supposed to be something else."
Eddie waved his hand in the air to get their attention. He said, “It is. But one last word on boxing. I’m telling you Julio if I was walking down some mean street in Capital City and got jumped by five guys…say they said I could pick one guy to be on my side...””
He pointed toward Jack as he took a gulp of orange juice. He continued, “It would be my man Jackie here. Ain’t nobody better in a street fight.”
Jack smiled. He bit into an apple. “Coming from the future champion of the world, I’ll take that compliment.”
He took another bite. “There’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I met a good-looking girl the other day. Beautiful, black hair. Looks like she could be one of your sisters, so to speak.”
Eddie smiled, “Hey Jack, I thought we’d been over this. There are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans…you think I know every girl that speaks Spanish?”
“No,” Jack said. “Just the good-looking ones.”
“True,” Eddie said playfully. “True.”
“Anyway, I was hoping you might be able to help me. She left me this note.” Jack started to dig into his pocket. “She’s the type of girl that I might want to get to know really well.”
Jack showed the note to Eddie.
Eddie’s face quickly lost its smile. For a second or two he showed no emotion. Then abruptly, he became enraged, throwing the note with his tray down and sending orange juice flying. He heatedly said something in Spanish and stormed down the hallway.
“Did he just swear at me?” Jack asked Julio.
Julio nodded. “Yeah, something about your mother. Believe me, you’d rather not know.”
“What got into him?” asked Jack.
Julio picked up the note. His eyes widened. “You made a joke about her being one of his sisters?’
Jack said, “Yeah?”
“It is his sister, man,” said Julio. “For real.”
Jack slumped down in his chair. He wondered how things could go so wrong.
Jack Billet rolled himself out from underneath the car that he was working upon. Hopefully, he yelled, “There’s a self-service pump.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” came a girl’s voice. She and her friend laughed.
Covered in grease and sweat, he cursed. He would never get Mr. Barkley’s car finished for him by the end of the day. He walked toward the car at the pumps and saw two very attractive girls who were approximately his age.
“Wow! A real grease monkey!” said the girl in the passenger side, noting Jack’s appearance.
Turning to her friend, the driver said “Or with those biceps, maybe we should say grease gorilla!”
They both laughed.
If it was suppose to be a compliment, Jack didn’t take it that way.
“The customer is always right,” he muttered to himself, repeating the phrase he had so often heard from Mr. Perez, the owner of the garage. He tried to be pleasant. “Whatta it be, ladies?”
The driver said, “Regular, a dollar eighty-five, please.”
Jack exploded. “A dollar eighty-five? I’ve got a car to fix, and you call me out here for a dollar eighty-five of gas?”
“It’s all a poor, little Latina girl like me can afford what with the high price of gas,” the driver said mockingly. Her friend snickered.
Jack sputtered. He was unsure as to what to do. Finally, he placed the hose in the tank and gave them their gas.
“Here you go,” said the girl. She counted out the money and placed it in his hand: a dollar bill, three quarters and ten pennies. “See ya around.”
The girls laughed again as the car pulled away. Jack fumed. He looked at the money. For the first time he noticed a small piece of paper mixed with the coins. He unfolded it and read:
Jack stared at the paper and looked down the street. The car was a small dot on the horizon moving toward Capital City.
He cursed and returned to Mr. Barkley’s car.
Copyright @ 2016 John C. Rubisch January 2016 ISBN-10: 150-6903-681 Published and Distributed by ISBN-13: 978-1506-903-68-2 Print First Edition Design Publishing, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photo-copy, recording, or any other – except brief quotation in reviews, without the prior permission of the author or publisher.
Mill River Senior High is dedicated to the following Susquentia students for their feedback as the work evolved.
May they always be more than just average.
Geno DeStito, Amber Flanagan, Vanessa Hoffman
Andrew Marta, Nickole May, Jan Sheeler, Tyler Sinkovitz
Mary Stiffler, Monica Stunja, Deanna Wilt
Mill River Senior High Chapter 1
A Day in Early August As Rhett Dixon drove the car on route 115 through Capital City, he checked the passenger side mirror to see if he could merge into the right hand lane. All he could see was a bare, dark-skinned foot.
“Do you think you can put your foot down?” he asked his passenger.
“Do you think you can get some air conditioning in this …vehicle?” The response emphasized the word vehicle as if there was doubt it was the appropriate word to use. The boy removed his leg from the open window as he straightened his body from its slouch in the passenger seat.
“Whadya think? I’m like Michael Smith the multimillionaire? You know that the only reason I have my brother’s car is because his unit went overseas,” Rhett responded as he slid into the right lane. “You’d think you’d treat your ride back from your court ordered community service a little better.”
Cy Freemen nodded his head in agreement. He said, “You’d think. How is ol’ Jimbo?”
“We got an email the other day,” responded Rhett. “He was his usual surly self.”
Sweating profusely, Cy stuck his face out the window. “Man, it must be over a hundred today.”
“Did you finally get the “R” out of the football field?” Rhett asked.
“Think so,” responded Cy, examining the grass stains on his jeans. “My Dad is still ticked.”
Mimicking his father’s voice, he said, “You’ll be the only valedictorian on juvenile probation.”
Rhett snickered at Cy’s imitation of his father as it sounded very much like Mr. Freeman.
“I can’t believe you put it there in the first place,” Rhett said shaking his head negatively, half in admiration and half in sheer amazement of the audacity of Cy’s act.
“It was relatively easy,” said Cy. “Last fall we took the field at Morningside Glen for halftime. While marching in place atop of the MG emblem at midfield, some band members…”
“I know,” interrupted Rhett as he slowed the car for a red light. He had heard this tale many times. He continued, “You let some grass seed fall from holes in your pants pockets onto the field.”
“Not just any kind of grass seed,” protested Cy. “Winter rye grass seed! It had to be that kind! We tramped it into the ground while marching. This past spring a nice big, green “R” grows into the center of the Morningside Glen football field. So now, instead of a “MG” in the middle of the stadium, the Griffins have a “MR” for dear ol’ Mill River Senior High.”
Cy concluded by bowing his head in mock homage to his school.
The light turned green, and Rhett pushed the gas. He said, “And once they figured out it was you, what did it get you? Was it worth it?”
“Let’s see,” said Cy. He played with the air conditioning controls on the dashboard before giving up and resigning himself to the heat. “Kicked out of the band. Same for the honor society. A whopping fine. Community service in the form of removing the “R” from the grass of the football field. The everlasting enmity of my parents. Loss of use of the car. But I did gain a juvenile probation worker. And I did one up Morningside Glen, the best school in this valley and as far as they are concerned, any other valley. And you gotta admit it was awfully funny. Worth it? I’d say I broke even.”
“Yeah, it was funny,” admitted Rhett. A slight smile came to his face. In all the years he had known Franklin “Cy” Freeman, he had never known Cy to earn less than an “A”. His friend was a fountain of knowledge, which was both useful and useless. In elementary school he had been tagged with the nickname of “encyclopedia”, which was eventually shortened to Cy. As he had grown older, perhaps bored by a lack of academic challenge, Cy had demonstrated a proclivity for pranks. Although never malicious, unfortunately, as in the case of the R on the football field, they often seemed to backfire.
Cy glanced at a girl walking down the street. “Hey, that looks like your old girlfriend, Andy Stockton.”
“Can’t be,” said Rhett. He quickly peered over his shoulder before returning his eyes to the road. “She moved to the other side of the country.”
“Did’ja hear that Matt Wallin is going to Japan?” said Cy, changing the subject.
Rhett slowed the car as a bus in front of him stopped.
“Yeah,” he said. “Exchange student?”
“Un-huh,” replied Cy. “That leaves us without a school president.”
Rhett looked unsuccessfully for a way around the bus. He said, “Wouldn’t Sharonda Williams get it?”
“No,” Cy shook his head. “She is VP, but the school constitution states that the president must be a senior and the veep a junior.”
Cy waited for a reply, but his friend was still preoccupied with the stopped bus.
“Who do you think will get it?” he asked.
“I dunno,” replied Rhett. He had little interest in politics of any kind, particularly Mill River High School politics. “Probably the usual suspects, those people who run all the time: Gina Roberts, Jimmy Lee…”
The bus was finally moving, and he concentrated on the traffic.
“Or somebody in this car,” Cy said with an odd tone in his voice.
“Why don’t you run?” Rhett said. “You’re the smartest kid in the school if not the entire valley.”
Rhett noticed a smile come across his friend’s face. He was clearly pleased with this compliment.
Cy shook his head to indicate no. “I would never win,” he said. “Too many people don’t like me. Some envious. Besides, the last non-jock, Black, male student to be elected president was Jonathan King in 1970.”
Cy went on, but Rhett was only half listening. 1970? How did Cy know this stuff? No point in looking it up. Cy would be right.
The bus had stopped again. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel in frustration. He turned back toward Cy just as his friend said:
“No, I was thinking about the other person in this car. You.”
Rhett was stunned. He said, “That’s crazy. I’m not popular. Who would vote for me?”
Cy raised his finger in the air as he spoke. “Perhaps you’re not one of the social elite. But more importantly nobody dislikes you. Let’s face it: people like Roberts and Lee have kids who hate their guts.”
Cy looked for a response but only got a puzzled look from his friend. He continued to state his case.
“You run track so the jocks like you. But you’re not as obnoxious as say…Rusty McNaughton. So others don’t perceive you as a jock. You get along with the Techers like Jack Billet. Some of your best friends are the preps like Holly Henry. With the right brains as your campaign manager, you could pull this thing off.”
Rhett smirked, “Those ‘right brains’ would be yours, wouldn’t they?”
“I knew you’d say yes,” said Cy his voice rising with excitement. “I know we can do this!”
“I didn’t agree to anything, yet,” said Rhett. “I’ll think about it.”
The bus had emptied out the last of its passengers: a tall, tawny girl with a bandana wrapped around her head. She was carrying a basketball.
“That looks like Mousey Brown,” said Cy noticing the girl. “What would she be doing in Capital City?”
“Probably is,” said Rhett. “There is a court over there. Holly tells me Mousey has been playing basketball constantly this summer.”
Here we are, Mouse, the girl said to herself. The playground at 15th and Aikens in Capital City. The best pick-up games in the entire valley. You are ready for this: playing on four different teams this summer, team camp, individual camp. All preparation for senior and last year of basketball at Mill River.
Then, why did she feel less than confident? Because these were inner city guys and not the small town jocks from Mill River who she played against on a regular basis.
Unsure of herself she moved toward the court where some boys were picking up teams. She leaned down to tighten her shoelaces hoping to melt in with the crowd.
“You can’t play with us,” she heard a voice say. She looked and saw a Black boy with a Lakers jersey. Mousey judged him to be about fifteen. He continued, “But I’ll tell you what. After we’re done running, you can play with me. We can go one on one.”
His remark was met with raucous laughter. Other crude remarks were made until a voice from the back interrupted, “I’ll take her.”
The laughing stopped. The boys parted as a 6’-5” figured emerged. He had an air of confidence, which was unmatched by the others. His body was sinewy, and he moved with a litheness that seemed graceful yet strong. He said, “She’s on my side.”
Mousey was stunned. She recognized Pizzaro Jackson immediately. And who would not? The best player in Capital City, the state, and some even said the country.
Play started. Mousey raced down court toward the basket. A boy on her team threw up a wild shot. She placed herself in position for the rebound.
A hip came flying into her from seemingly nowhere. It sent her crashing to the pavement of the court. It was the boy in the Lakers shirt. He grabbed the rebound and raced up court. Turning to her as he ran he said, “Welcome to the big league, sweet cheeks.”
“Ain’t no officials here,” said Pizzaro to her as she scrambled to her feet.
OK, Mouse, she thought. You wanted to play against the big boys and that’s what you got.
She chased after the boys and picked a player to guard. He eyed her contemptuously. Languidly, he dribbled the ball with first his left hand and then his right. He bounced the ball between his legs. Suddenly, he faked right and dribbled the ball to his left toward the basket.
I’m with him, thought Mousey. She saw a sudden blur appear in her right field of vision, and she crashed into a huge body. Mousey staggered but held her feet. The boy with the ball drove to the basket and laid it in.
“Moving pick,” muttered Mousey.
“Maybe. Illegal in an official game,” said Pizzaro. “Anything goes here.”
They’re testing me, Mousey thought. I can’t let them intimidate me!
Someone on her own team turned the ball over, and she was back on defense. A shot went up. She went for the rebound but found the boy in the Lakers shirt blocking her path. Knowing that he could not see her, she came up beside him and gave him an elbow in the midsection.
The blow surprised the boy. Mousey leapt and gathered in the rebound. Dribbling the ball upcourt, she saw Pizzaro breaking free of the others on the right wing. With both arms she lofted a high, long pass just in front of his path to the basket. Pizzaro left his feet and seemed to fly in the air. His hands grasped the ball at the apex of his jump. Still flying forward as he descended, he sent the ball through the basket with a dunk that shook the backboard.
Boys on both teams resounded: some compliments, some cursing, some with mocking taunts.
Pizzaro pointed at Mousey to acknowledge her assist that led to the basket. The next time on offense, Mousey got the ball. Finding herself loosely guarded, she sank a medium range shot. The next time down the court, she hit another uncontested shot.
A few minutes later she found herself in the same position
“Don’t you give her that shot again,” said the boy in the Lakers shirt. The boy guarding Mousey moved up close on her. She fired a pass to Pizzaro and cut to the basket. His pass back to her on the “give and go” was perfect. She laid the ball into the basket easily. The boy in the Lakers shirt swore.
“I saw you score your 32 against Richmond,” Pizzaro said as they trotted down court. Mousey was stunned he knew who she was. As she stopped to glance at him, her man blew past her to receive a pass and score an easy basket.
“Hey, your headlines don’t matter here,” said Pizzaro.
They continued to play the rest of the afternoon. Her shot was blocked more than once, but she didn’t let it bother her. With the score tied in the last game, Pizzaro fed Mousey for an open 25 footer. The ball hit off the front of the rim. Their opponents raced down court and scored the winning basket.
The boys started to leave. Mousey surveyed them. They were drenched in perspiration. She caught the eye of the boy in the Lakers shirt. He nodded his head at her in response in a sign of respect.
With sweat pouring off her body, Mousey entered the bus that had just pulled up at the stop. She was surprised to see Pizzaro climb in behind her.
“This bus goes to Mill River?” he asked.
She nodded. “After it goes uptown. I’m surprised you don’t have a car or something.”
Pizzaro laughed. He slid into a seat next to her. “Those reports of recruiting bonuses are greatly exaggerated. At least so far.”
“Where are you going to go to college?” she asked.
“IU, UCLA, Duke, I dunno. Some place that’s easy to spell. We’re all dumb jocks, y’know,” he laughed.
Mousey laughed as well. The papers were full of stories about Pizzaro being an honor roll student as well as a great athlete.
“How about you?” he asked.
“I’ve got some letters in the mail but nothing definite yet,” said Mousey. The sweat continued to roll off her face. She said “Don’t these buses have air-conditioning?”
“Maybe in Morningside Glen,” replied Pizzaro. He stood to open the window as far as it could go. “But this is Capital City.”
He returned to his seat.
“You missed that last shot,” he said referring back to the final game. “Gotta hit that. MG gave you that shot in the playoffs.”
The smile disappeared from Mousey’s face. She didn’t need to be reminded of last year’s season ending loss to archrival Morningside Glen. The Griffins had packed in their zone daring her to shoot the outside shot. And she had missed most of them.
Pizzaro noticed the change on her countenance. “Working on the 3 pointer this summer?"
Mousey nodded. “I take one hundred shots every day. Last Thursday, did it in a downpour. Also did a hundred foul shots.””
Pizzaro gave a low whistle of admiration. He said, “That’s some serious shooting.”
The bus continued to roll along, belching out pollution, which rolled through the open windows. They continued to talk about basketball, Mill River, Pizzaro’s high school Dunbar, and other schools in the area. The bus passed an old, large, brick building. Pizzaro pointed at it.
“March 19th, baby!” he said.
“Oh?” said Mousey.
“The Arena, Mouse!” Pizzaro said in disbelief. “State championships in basketball both boys and girls, March 19th in the Arena.”
“I didn’t know,” Mousey lied.
“The Poets are going to be there.” Pizzaro was now on his feet obviously excited by the mere thought. “How about the Hawks?”
“We’ll see,” said Mousey. “A lot can happen in eight months.”
Pizzaro started to head to the front of the bus.
“My stop’s coming up,” he said. “Hey, can you introduce me to Champ Trammell some time? I wanna meet the fastest guy in the state.”
“Sure,” said Mousey with a smile. “He’s the boyfriend of my best friend.”
The bus continued to roll beyond the city limits of Capital City toward Mill River. At last she seemed to be cooling down. March 19? She had a note with the date on her bulletin board in her room. There was another one on the refrigerator at home. There would be one in her locker once school opened. It was why she shot one hundred three pointers a day. Yeah, she knew what March 19th was.
The bus was pulling into Mill River. Mousey read a dilapidated sign, which hung from one of two chains that was attached to it, “Mill River- a Friendly Place to Live.” She had to admit her adopted hometown looked dumpy compared to Capital City and many other places. People said Mill River was dead. She could never understand why her father moved to Mill River when her mother died.
The blaring of a car horn interrupted her thoughts. She heard it again. She turned to see two girls in an old but sleek sports car parked in front of a gas station. Jack Billet’s customers must be impatient.
The horn blared yet again.
Mill River Senior High Chapter 4
The End of the First Week of School “Everyman for President,” the sign read.
“What the hell is this, Cy?” asked Rhett Dixon.
“It is a sign for you for president,” Cy replied excitedly. “I got them all over the school.”
“I noticed,” said Rhett, less than enthusiastically. “Remind me why I’m doing this again.”
Cy attached the sign to a wall in the school lobby. He said, “Since Gina Roberts was the only person running, I convinced you that a true democratic election must have two candidates. So you became Everyman for President.”
“But what does the sign mean?” Rhett asked. The lobby was beginning to fill up with students for the start of the school day.
Before he could answer, Gina Roberts flew in front of them. She was wearing an outfit that exposed a considerable amount of cleavage. Although she often dressed this way, Rhett thought it was more risqué than usual.
“What does this mean?” she asked, pointing at the sign. She was obviously agitated. “This has to be your doing, Freeman!”
“Oh, it is Gina dear. It is,” Cy said with false sincerity. “I’m running a stealth candidate. I’m his campaign manager.”
“Stealth?” Gina’s eyes looked toward the ceiling and raced to left and right as if she was searching for the answer. “Isn’t that some kind of rocket?”
“Close,” responded Cy, acting if he was impressed by her answer. “A plane. A plane that has various things done to it to render it nearly invisible.”
“So, your candidate isn’t man enough to come out and let us know who he is,” she laughed derisively.
Rhett was embarrassed. He didn’t like being called a coward even if Gina did not know she was referring to him.
“No, Gina. Let’s just say some of us don’t like to expose all our assets at once,” Cy cocked his left eyebrow upward as he said this.
Gina just glared at him. She turned to Rhett, and her demeanor softened.
“I hope you’ll consider voting for me, Rhett,” she cooed. “I just love your shirt. You look soooo handsome in it.”
Rhett managed a smile, “Thanks.”
Gina walked away toward Rusty McNaughton and some of the football players to continue her campaign.
Rhett turned to his friend as they walked to their first period class.
“Why aren’t you putting my name on the signs?” he asked.
“Look Dix, most people consider school elections boring or stupid.” Cy stopped at his locker. There were more “Everyman” signs inside. “And as far as topics of interest, this election rates somewhere behind the closure of Mill River, this weekend’s first football game, and that ever popular topic, what MR’s number one couple, Champ Trammell and Holly Henry, are doing.”
Cy got some of the signs out and began to post them on the walls of the hallway. He continued, “By not revealing your name, it gets the election in the gossip. People talk about it. Then we reveal you this afternoon when you make your speech right before people vote.”
Rhett stopped at the doorway to his class, “But why “Everyman?”
Cy looked a little bit surprised by the question. He said, “Think about it.”
During the course of the day, Rhett discovered that Cy was right. People were talking about the election. Conversation centered on two subjects. One was the way Gina was dressed. The boys seemed to approve. The girls did not. The other was the identity of Everyman. The most popular theory was that Jimmy Lee was running as a secret entrant because people were tired of him always being a candidate. A close second was that it was Champ Trammell, Mill River’s popular athlete. Some of the wildest rumors were that it was Jack Billet who was usurping the power from the elites and giving it to the Vo-Tech students or the new exchange student, Jean-Claude.
The bell rang for last period of the day. Vo-tech students entered the building upon their return to Mill Rivers as Rhett made his way to the auditorium. Cy fell in beside him. He had something under his arm, but Rhett could not make out what it was.
“How did you ever get them to agree to me running without announcing my name?” Rhett said.
“I talked to Mrs. McConnell, the faculty advisor, about it,” Cy said. “She said she didn’t see anything wrong with it. It seems like a lot of the teachers are in a fog since they announced the school would be closing.”
They both walked onto the back stage of the auditorium. The curtain was closed. Cy said, “Here’s your speech. I made a few adjustments.”
Rhett glanced at it before he stuffed it in his pocket. There were red marks all over the paper.
As the students filed into the auditorium, Rhett and Cy sat on two chairs on one side of the stage.
Gina entered with her best friend, Tammy King. At first she seemed surprised to see Rhett, but then she fixed him with an icy glare.
“Here, I think this will be a nice touch,” said Cy. He placed an Uncle Sam’s hat on Rhett’s head.
“Cy!” Rhett said. He reached to pull the hat off his head. But just as he did, the curtain flew open. He had the hat in his hand. The hand was just off the top of his head. It appeared that he was waving the hat in the air.
The students in the auditorium cheered and laughed. Embarrassed, Rhett placed the hat back on his head.
Seeing the hat, a stern expression appeared on the face of Principal Johnston. He started toward the stage when a volley of wolf whistles greeted Gina’s approach toward the podium. Mr. Johnston stopped and refocused on the audience hoping to find the offenders.
“Students and faculty,” Gina began as she tossed her hair over her shoulder with her hand. “It is with great pleasure that I address you today as to why I should be president of the Mill River student body.”
Rhett could see Rusty McNaughton whisper to Richie Gonzalez. Both boys snickered. Mr. Johnston walked toward them and leveled a glare in their direction, which cut short their laughter.
Gina went on listing the many offices she had held over the years as well as her many accomplishments in activities. Rhett noticed the students in the audience seemed bored.
“Tick-tock, Gina,” Cy whispered to Rhett. “She’s going to run over her time allotment.”
“Because of the departure of Matt Wallin as an exchange student,” Gina droned on, “this election has been scheduled suddenly, and the duration of the campaign has been brief. We will cast our ballots after the speeches today. However, I would hope that you would take the selection of a president seriously. Apparently my opponent does not.”
The room became suddenly quiet with the only noise being that of the distant ceiling fans. The students turned to look at Rhett as Gina did the same.
“My opponent runs as everyman. Does that mean that he thinks that only males are capable of leadership? A few years ago we began the twenty-first century. He should be embarrassed to think that way. Perhaps he is. Maybe that’s why he refused to put his name on his signs. Now he comes to make his speech with this ridiculous hat on. The way a person dresses is an indication of their true self. Is my opponent a clown who does not take this school seriously?”
Gina’s motioned toward her cleavage as she spoke, “I, on the other hand…”
“Time,” yelled Mrs. McConnell.
Gina smiled warmly and said, “Thank you for your time.”
She received polite, if not enthusiastic, applause.
Rhett looked at Cy. Gina’s criticism had unnerved him. Seeing his friend’s anxiety, Cy said, “Just go with your speech.”
Rhett walked uncertainly to the podium. The hat teetered on his head. He looked at Gina. She wore a smile brimming with confidence.
He pulled his speech from his pocket.
“I’m Rhett Dixon,” he read. Cy had penciled in for the next line ”I am everyman.”
Rhett stopped. He felt very uncomfortable with the line Cy had written.
“I,” he began. He stopped. He looked at the audience. He looked at Gina who still wore the same confident smile.
“I…can’t do this,” he said. A low murmur went through the student body. Gina’s smile widened even further.
“I have a speech, but I can’t do it.” He threw the paper on which his speech was written to the floor.
“This is not me, either,” Rhett said throwing the hat to the floor as well. He spoke hesitantly, “I’m not …one of those people…who run for office all the time. I guess that makes me a lot like a lot of you.”
Rhett noticed that he seemed to have the attention of the students. “I’m sorry if I offended anyone with the Everyman campaign. To be honest I don’t really understand what it means. It was the idea of my campaign manager. But since I’m the candidate, I have to take responsibility for that.”
Mr. Johnston stared at Rhett thoughtfully.
“We all know that Cy is a smart guy,” he continued. He was gaining confidence from speaking honestly. “But sometimes we average people just have to speak what’s on our mind.”
The smile had disappeared from Gina’s face. She now looked worried.
“What’s been on my mind is that Mill River High School won’t exist after this year,” Rhett said. “When I was in elementary school, I used to like coming up here with my older brother and looking at all the awards that the students had won in the past. Sports, music, art, citizenship. And they were all old. None of them recent. But things have gotten better the last few years, and it seems a shame that that might all end. I’ve always been proud of Mill River and well, if this is going to be our last year, let’s make it a hell of a year.”
Rhett stared at Mr. Johnston. He thought the principal might react to the words he used. Mr. Johnston just stared at him intently.
He started to return to his seat. The students applauded. Someone yelled, “You tell’em, Rhett.”
“You still have time, Rhett,” said Mrs. McConnell.
“That’s okay,” he replied. “I’ve said all I have to say.”
He sat down next to Cy. His friend said, “Your applause was louder than the one Gina got.”
Rhett shrugged. He said, “Doesn’t mean anything.”
Mrs. McConnell addressed the audience about voting instructions. The students filed out to the lobby to cast their votes.
“You going to wait for them to announce the vote?” Cy asked his friend.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Rhett. “I have some time before football practice.”
Cy looked confused. “You mean cross-country, don’t you?’
Rhett shook his head. ”No football. Mr. White left for another job. Since there were so few people on the team, they decided to disband it. I talked to Coach Turner, and he said the football team could use all the help it can get.”
“That’s for sure,” said Cy.
The boys talked to each other. Occasionally, Rhett would glance over at Gina who was still sitting on the other side of the stage next to Tammy. She was smiling apparently having regained any momentary lapse of confidence.
To Rhett it seemed like it was taking forever to count the votes. He looked at the clock on the wall.
“I’m going to have to go,” he said. “Practice starts…”
“Wait,” said Cy. “Here they come now.”
Rhett looked up to see Mrs. McConnell being followed by Sharonda Williams and Holly Henry. Holly was carrying some papers in her hand while Sharonda was holding what Rhett assumed was a ballot box. Mrs. McConnell motioned for the candidates and their campaign managers to come toward her.
“This had to be the closest vote in Mill River history,” she said cheerily. “Our vice-president and secretary had to count the votes three times to make sure we got it right.”
She turned to face Gina. Mrs. McConnell began, “Gina I always thought you would be a great president.”
So Gina won, thought Rhett. Just as well. I’m not a politician, anyway.
“…but Rhett won. Congratulations Rhett!” Mrs. McConnell stuck out her hand and shook his hand. She turned back to Gina.
“I sure hope we can look forward to you still being an active member of the student council,” said Mrs. McConnell.
“Ah, sure,” said Gina in a tone that indicated she was less than sure. She turned to Rhett to shake his hand and forced a smile on her face as she said, “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” said Rhett. Cy was patting him on the back.
“I look forward to working with you, Rhett,” Mrs. McConnell said as she walked out of the room.
As soon as she left, Gina wheeled on her foot to face the boys. The smile was gone from her face.
“Well, Freeman,” she hissed. “Looks like your monkey won this time.”
The venom in her friend’s voice even startled Tammy.
“Looks like we won’t have Gina to kick around anymore, people” Cy said to the others.
“C’mon Tammy! Let’s get out of here!” Gina stomped off in a huff with Tammy close behind her.
“Rhett, I’m so glad I’ll be working with you instead of her,” Sharonda said as she watched the girls disappear through the door.
“Dare I ask how close the election was?” Cy asked.
Sharonda and Holly looked at each other. Holly said, “One vote.”
“One vote?” Rhett said in disbelief.
“I knew it,” exclaimed Cy. “My everyman campaign worked. All the guys voted for you because they thought you were just like them.”
Sharonda and Holly looked at each other again. Sharonda said, “Actually Cy, Gina got most of the guys votes. Most of the girls voted for Rhett.”
“Huh?” said Cy.
“Your idea worked, Cy,” began Holly. “But just not as you planned. You wanted the students to see Rhett as just like one of them. The girls didn’t see themselves as Gina: someone who flirts with all the guys, constantly wears revealing clothes, brags about herself, and runs down other people. They saw themselves as Rhett: someone who in his speech admitted he had made a mistake, takes pride in his school, and wants to do something for it.”
“I think we know why most of the guys voted for Gina,” added Sharonda.
“I suppose you’re right,” sighed Cy.
They left the auditorium with the girls going in one direction and the boys walking toward the locker room. They saw Mrs. McConnell walking toward her car. She smiled and waved at them.
“It will be nice working with Mrs. McConnell,” said Rhett. “I always liked her.”
“Don’t count on it,” replied Cy. “I heard a rumor that she might get another job. A lot of teachers are looking to leave as they can’t be guaranteed employment when we merge with Morningside Glen next year.”
Cy paused. With a note of irony in his voice he said, “Like you said, a hell of a year.”