I’m numb. I don’t know what else to say. I’ve been sitting in the surgery waiting room of the hospital for hours. I haven’t been able to stop crying since I arrived. I look down at the special edition of the local newspaper and read the front page article for about the thirtieth time.
PRINCIPAL OF SOUTHWESTERN H.S. SHOT Football Coach Arrested Dr. Joseph Carpenter, principal of Southwestern High School, was shot by popular football coach, Darren Arnold. He remains in critical condition at Lee General Hospital. Senior class president, Douglas Campbell, was also shot. He is in stable condition with a gunshot wound to the shoulder.
Details are sketchy, but according to a reliable source, Coach Arnold entered Carpenter’s office where he was meeting with a group of students. Arnold pulled a handgun and shot Campbell point blank. When he aimed the gun at another unidentified student, Carpenter attempted to wrestle the gun from Arnold’s hand, and he was shot in the chest.
It has been reported that Coach Arnold was relieved of his coaching and teaching positions earlier in the week, and he was placed on paid leave of absence pending the results of a criminal investigation at the school. The investigation centers on a charge of conspiracy to commit bodily harm to two students in Coach Arnold’s gym class. Attempts to reach School Superintendent Dr. Garvin’s office have gone unanswered.
After the shooting the school was placed in lock down for the remainder of the day. Frantic parents began showing up within minutes after the shooting. Police were able to restore order, and students were dismissed later without any major incidences. Homicide detectives plan to return to the school later today to interview students and staff.
Homicide detectives? Those are the words that make the tears flow. It implies that Joey may not make it. It means his gunshot wound could be fatal, and I don’t think I can live if he dies.
The waiting room is crowded with people. It is packed with friends, staff and students. Everyone is wiping tears from their eyes. It’s been hours since the doctor last came out and talked to us. At that time they were rushing him into surgery. That was five hours ago. Something must be wrong or they would have come back in and given us some more information.
I place my head in my hands, and again the tears flow. “Are you okay?” I recognize my mother’s voice, but I don’t respond. She pulls my hand away from my face and squeezes it.
She says reassuringly, “He’s going to make it, Gene,”
I lift my tear-stained face and reply, “Is he mother?” I can see the pain in her face. We had just buried my father, and now we were faced with losing Joey. Overcome with grief, my head falls into her lap and I sob uncontrollably. She soothingly rubs my head.
“Joey’s a survivor,” she states softly. “He’s overcome a lot of things in his life, and he’s going to survive this too.” As she continues to rub my head, I can hear people crying all around me.
I look up when I hear Nicky screaming on the other side of the room. “Dad!” He shouts. Star, Ticker and several other people hold him and try to keep him calm. I want to run across the room and take him in my arms. I understand the pain he’s going through, because we both share a love for Joey.
“I can’t stand this, Mother.” I cry once again. “I don’t know what I’ll do if he dies.”
I look up and see a mother’s understanding behind her teary eyes. “How long have you known?”
“About as long as you have,” she answers softly. “I’ve seen the way you’ve looked at him since you were in high school.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It was something you had to work out on your own,” she replied. “If I had said anything, you would have just denied it. I hoped when you got counseling that you would face the truth, but you’ve continued to hide it all these years.”
“Was I that obvious?” I tried to force a smile.
“Not really,” she said. “But I am your mother. Mothers sense these things.”
“I think I love him,” I finally said the words out loud. I could feel years of torment lift from my shoulders. “I think I always have.”
She took my hand and gently patted it. “I know.”
Suddenly, tears began to flow once again. “And he may die before I get a chance to tell him.” She pulled me into her, and I rested my head on her shoulder and cried.
“Shhh,” she said comfortingly. “He’ll pull through this.” I felt someone sit down next to me and take my hand. It was Star.
“Are you all right, Gene?” I nodded my head, but I couldn’t look at her. I had just confessed my love for Joey to my mother, and I wasn’t prepared yet to tell Star.
“Come with me,” she said as she reached out and took my hand. She stood and pulled me to my feet. “I need some fresh air.” She led me from the crowded room and to the elevators at the end of the corridor. When we reached the first floor, we walked to an open area called the Meditation Garden. It contained benches surrounded by a variety of plants and flowers. We sat on a bench for several minutes without saying anything.
Suddenly, Star’s shoulders began to tremble and she let out a loud wail. I grabbed her and pulled her into me.
“I’m trying to stay strong,” she sobbed, “Nicky needs me to be strong. But I don’t think I can be.” She continued to cry. “I don’t think I can make it through this. Especially...” She stopped and clutched me tightly. I found myself overcome with grief. We cried and cradled each other.
Before I realized what I was saying, I cried, “I love him, Star. It will kill me if he dies and I didn’t tell him.”
I felt her body tense and she pulled away from me. She sat back and looked at me. “What did you say, Gene?”
I took a deep breath. “I said I love him. I always have.”
“You’ve lived all these years knowing that?”
I sat back and laughed nervously. “I’ve lived all these years denying that.”
“Mrs. Wendelmeirer!” Star rose when she heard someone call her name.
“I’m over here.” A young girl, probably a student, ran up to her.
“Hurry back inside,” she said excitedly. “The doctor wants to see you.”
Star grabbed my hand, and we rushed back upstairs. We found Ticker standing nervously beside a door.
“Where have you been?” he asked worriedly. “The surgeon came out about five minutes ago to see you.” I later learned that Joey had signed legal documents naming Star as his next of kin in case of an emergency. She would also gain custody of Nicky in the event of his death.
“Where is he?” she asked
“He told me that you were to go back to the post-op area and ask for him. His name is Dr. Singh.”
Star started to go through the door, but then turned and grabbed my hand. “You’re his brother in case anyone asks.” We walked down a corridor until we came to the nurses’ station. When Star asked for Dr. Singh, we were told to have a seat and wait until he arrived.
We waited nervously for about ten minutes. We kept a watchful eye on the nurses’ station, hoping for some information about Joey. My heart sped up each time we heard a monitor go off, and a nurse would quickly walk down the hall and disappear into a room.
Soon we saw a small, dark man in a white hospital coat approach us. He appeared to be of Indian descent. He smiled as we stood and he shook our hands.
“Are you Star Wendelmeirer?” he asked in a very heavy accent. She nodded and he turned to me. “And you are?”
“He’s Joey’s brother,” Star stated quickly. He eyed me carefully before turning back to Star. I held my breath as I waited for him to tell us of Joey’s condition.
“He’s alive,” he stated flatly. I felt weak, and I became afraid I was on the verge of passing out. “However, he remains in critical condition.”
“Will he live?” Star’s voice shook with emotion. I reached down, took her hand and squeezed it.
“The bullet did a lot of trauma to some internal organs.” He spoke as if he was discussing an incoming storm. His words were cold and heartless. I guess as a surgeon, he has to remain aloof and undetached. “The bullet entered his right chest, penetrating his right lung and diaphragm. It ripped through the right lobe of his liver, and it took out a portion of his gall bladder. There was also some damage to the small bowl of his stomach and right colon. It took us over three hours to repair the damage. There was a tremendous amount of internal bleeding. The next twenty four hours will be very critical. If he survives them, then he should have a good chance for recovery.”
Star’s knees went weak, and I grabbed her to prevent her from falling to the floor. Dr. Singh and I walked her over to a chair and had her sit. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
“You mean he could die?”
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he replied. “Right now, I’d say his chances are about fifty-fifty. We’ll know more in the morning.” I turned and placed my arms on the wall and started to cry. The thought that Joey might die was overwhelming. Star stood and held me tightly. She stood on her tiptoes and whispered in my ear, “We have to be strong, Gene. Joey needs us right now. We won’t be any good like this.” I stopped crying and attempted to pull myself together. Star was right. There was a room full of people who needed us right now. In addition, Joey needed us.
“Can we see him?” My voice shook with emotion. The doctor looked at us sympathetically and then smiled gently.
“I think we can arrange that,” he said, “but only for a few minutes. He’s still sedated and he needs his rest.” He walked over to the nurses’ station and talked to one of the attendants. She approached us as the doctor disappeared into another room.
“Follow me.” We followed her to a large room filled with curtained cubicles. The sign on the door read: Intensive Care.
Before opening the door, she stopped and turned to us. “I think Dr. Singh told you that Dr. Carpenter is still heavily sedated. He won’t know you are in the room. There are a lot of tubes running into his body, and you will see several monitors. I want to warn you that seeing him might be very traumatic. Are you prepared for this?”
I looked at Star and she nodded. She reached for my hand and squeezed it tightly as we followed the nurse to one of the cubicles. She slowly pulled back the green curtain. Star gasped when she saw Joey lying on the bed.
It was hard to even recognize it was him. He looked so small and frail. His skin was colorless and pasty looking. He had tubes running into his nose, mouth and arms. There were a series of beeping noises emanating from the monitoring devices around him.
“I’ll leave you alone for a couple of minutes,” the nurse stated. “I’ll be back shortly.” She walked away, pulling the green curtain closed behind her.
Star squeezed my hand and inched closer to the bed. I followed and stood before Joey. I watched as his chest slowly rose and fell with the aid of the respirator. I looked over at Star and she had her eyes closed, silently praying.
Joey’s hand was outside the sheet with several tubes entering his skin. Carefully, I reached down and took his hand and held it. I squeezed it gently, and I was surprised when he weakly squeezed my hand.
I leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “We’re here with you, Joey. You’re going to pull through this.” Tears welled up in my eyes when he squeezed my hand again. I felt that he had heard me.
The nurse reappeared and told us we had to let Joey rest. I leaned in and kissed his forehead and whispered, “I love you, Joey.” Again, he squeezed my hand. Star then leaned in and kissed him, telling him she loved him. We left the room and held each other tightly as we returned back to the waiting room to tell the others of Joey’s condition.
Nicky was the first to see us when we emerged through the door. Ticker had his arms around him, but he broke free and ran over to Star.
“How’s Dad?” He cried. Star placed her arms around him and held him tightly. I walked over and placed my hand on his shoulder. He flinched at first, but then he accepted my touch.
“Your Dad has some serious injuries,” Star said. Ticker walked up and stood beside her. There was a hush throughout the waiting room as she told Nicky the sad news concerning his father.
He looked up pleadingly at Star. “Will he live Aunt Star?” I squeezed his shoulder tighter.
Star knelt down and looked Nicky in the eyes. “We’ll pray that he does. Right now the doctor isn’t sure, Nicky.” Nicky collapsed and fell into Star’s arms. There was muted crying throughout the waiting room.
I leaned down and whispered in Star’s ear. “Why don’t you and Ticker take Nicky out to the garden and talk to him there. It will be more private. I’ll stay here and inform the others of Joey’s condition.”
She stood up and nodded. She put her arm protectively around Nicky’s waist and led him from the room. Several people gave him words of encouragement as they left.
As soon as they departed, everyone crowded around me. My mother stepped up beside me and held my arm.
I looked around at all the tear-stained faces before me. It was a testament to Joey’s goodness that so many people had come to the hospital to grieve together. They were young and old, male and female, black and white and gay and straight. In some way, he had touched the lives of everyone in the room. I know that he had certainly touched mine.
“I wish I could say he was going to be all right, but I can’t.” There was a collective gasp, and several people broke out into tears. “He is still in critical condition. The doctor said the bullet did a lot of damage to his liver, kidney, bladder and colon.” I waited a minute for the information to sink in before I continued.
“Dr. Singh says the next twenty-four hours are critical,” I explained. “His chances of survival are fifty-fifty.” Several people in the room started crying loudly. One young girl who appeared to be a student at his school was led from the room screaming.
To my left, a man walked up with a camera and snapped a picture of me. Within seconds, a uniformed police officer grabbed his arm and escorted him from the room.
“That’s all the information I have,” I said tearfully. “Joey really needs your thoughts and prayers right now.” My mother led me to a chair where I sat and wept.
After several minutes I stopped crying and looked around the room. Several groups had formed around the waiting room and they were deep in prayer. The hospital chaplain and several men who appeared to be ministers were walking around the room offering comfort to those overcome with grief.
I turned and asked my mother, “Have you been able to reach Tina yet?”
Tina had left the previous day, just hours before the shooting. She had a four hour lay over in Phoenix, and she wouldn’t be arriving home until late in the morning. I had tried to call her a couple of times, but she didn’t answer her phone.
“I talked to her while you were with Joey,” she informed me. “She’s booking a flight back here, and she’ll call you later with details.”
“Thank you, Mother,” I said. She reached down and grabbed my hand.
“Let’s take a walk.” She led me out the waiting room and to the elevator. We found our way to the hospital cafeteria. She walked over and sat at a table in a far corner while I went and got us each a cup of coffee.
We sat silently at the table sipping coffee. Finally, she looked at me and spoke. “What are you going to do, Gene?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to have to talk to Tina when she gets here.”
“I can’t,” I said. She reached over and rubbed my hand.
“She’s going to know, Gene.” She looked sympathetically into my eyes. “She’s going to take one look at you and see that your heart is breaking right now. It’s only going to take a short time for her to figure it out.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“I’m afraid it is, Dear,” she replied.
“Oh, God.” I cried as I placed my head in my hands. She gently rubbed my hand.
“You have to face the truth, Gene,” she said soothingly. “You’ve hidden behind a lie your entire life.”
Tears ran down my face. “What if he dies?” The words choked me. “What then?”
“He won’t,” she assured me. “He’s strong. He’ll survive.”
I looked up and saw Star, Ticker and Nicky walking towards us. Nicky’s eyes were red and puffy, but he seemed to have calmed down considerably. They walked over, and he took a seat between me and my mother. My mother reached out, brushed his hair back with her hand and then pulled him into her. She cradled him while he began to cry again.
Star and Ticker sat down. “Did you tell him?” I asked. Star’s eyes welled up with tears as she nodded her head. Ticker put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder gently.
Nicky sat up and looked around the room. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he announced. “Does anyone know where it is?” I looked out into the hall and saw a sign pointing to the left.
“I have to go also,” I said. “Come on.” I reached out, took his hand and pulled him up. “I’ll go with you.” He hesitated at first, but then he began to follow me. I stopped briefly, and then I put my arm around him. Again, as in the waiting room, he tensed up; but then he relaxed and I could feel his weight lean against me for support.
I felt such sorrow for him. The grief he was feeling had to have been tremendous. I didn’t know a lot about his life, but I had heard that his mother died of a drug overdose on the streets. Now he was afraid that the man who had taken him in and provided him a loving home might die.
When we reached the bathroom, he disappeared into the stall while I used the urinal. As I was washing my hands, I heard a low moan which turned into an animal’s howl. From underneath the stall, I could see him sink down and sit on the floor.
I pushed open the stall door and whisked him up into my arms. He started violently pounding on my chest.
“Why!” He screamed as he hit me harder. “Why Dad?” He let out a shrieking shout, and we both fell to the ground. I wrapped him in my arms, and we both cried uncontrollably on the cold, stone floor.
“He’s going to be all right,” I cried. “He’s going to be all right.” I rocked him in my arms. Ticker and Star opened the door, but I waved them away. I felt a need to share my grief alone with Nicky. We both loved the same man, each in our own way.
“I don’t want him to die,” he wailed loudly.
“He won’t,” I assured him. I then remembered what my mother said. “He’s strong, Nicky. He’s been through so much in his life, and he got through that. He’ll get through this too.”
He looked up at me hopefully. “Promise?”
I wrapped him again in my arms. “I promise,” I whispered in his ear.
We returned to the waiting room and sat around for about an hour before Dr. Singh came in and gave us an update. He said that Joey’s vitals were still stable and that he was resting comfortably. Star asked if we could go back and see him, but the doctor said that he should probably not be disturbed. He told us to go home and get some rest.
It was decided that it would be best if Nicky stayed at Star and Ticker’s house for the time being; but first they’d have to go by his home and pick up a few things.
I was about to leave with my mother when Star came up and took my hand. “Why don’t you come home with us? There’s plenty of room.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I really should go back and be with my mother.” Star seemed disappointed by my refusal.
“I’m really worried about what could happen.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’d feel better knowing you were there just in case Dr. Singh calls and wants me...us... to return to the hospital immediately.” Her shoulders drooped in utter despair. It was obvious that she was hanging on by a mere thread.
“All right,” I said. She smiled slightly and took my hand.
As we arrived to the ground floor of the hospital, we were surprised to be greeted by a group of uniformed police officers. One stepped in front of us and said politely, “Please follow me.”
He led us away from the front door and down a hallway until we came to a door that was marked, Laundry Room. We followed him until we came to a locked door. He knocked on it twice and the door opened. There were two unmarked police cars waiting outside.
“What’s this all about?” Ticker asked. The officer pulled Star and me aside.
“We’ve been trying to protect your privacy all day,” he said, “but since you’re leaving the hospital, we think you should be aware that the national news media has picked up this story. It has been on cable news all day. It’s not every day a coach enters a principal’s office and opens fire. It’s also an election year, and gun control is a popular topic.”
He waited a second to see if we had any reaction before continuing. “What I’m trying to say, is out front of the hospital is a throng of reporters and news trucks from all over the country. They’ve been trying to get people’s reactions as they leave the hospital. We’re trying to protect you from that.” He looked over at Nicky. “Especially the boy.” Ticker had his arm around him, and he was talking quietly to him.
“So we’re going to sneak you out the back way and take you to a hotel downtown.”
“We can’t go home?” Star asked excitedly. “I wanted to go home and get into my own bed.”
He shook his head. “Somehow the media has found out Dr. Carpenter’s address, and also yours. Reporters are camped outside your homes.”
“Damn,” Star hissed angrily. The officer took her arm and pulled her towards the door.
“So if you’ll come with me,” he insisted, “We’ll take you to a hotel for the evening.”
I walked over, put my arm around Nicky and led him outside into the awaiting patrol car while Star informed Ticker of what was happening. A minute later, they got into the car and we were whisked away down an alley in back of the hospital. When we emerged onto the street, we immediately saw that the street was lined with news satellite trucks and vans. An area was roped off, and it appeared that over a hundred people were standing behind the barrier.
Instinctively, I put my arm around Nicky and pulled his head into my chest.
“What’s going on?” he asked. I looked at Star and she nodded. I then explained how Joey’s shooting was a big story, and that a lot of people wanted to know what was happening.
“Why?” He asked innocently.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “It’s just the way people are. They find other people’s misfortunes interesting.”
He sighed and rested his head on Star’s shoulder. He fell asleep before we reached the hotel.
“Can you help me with him?” Star asked as we got out of the car. I pulled him into my arms and walked toward the entrance. He put his arms around my neck and held onto me tightly. He seemed so small and frail. I once again became choked with emotion just thinking how he must be suffering.
We were led hurriedly to a third floor suite. I took Nicky to a queen-sized bed and laid him down. After removing his shoes, I pulled the covers over him. He rolled on his side and fell asleep.
Ticker, Star and I talked quietly for about an hour. They made several calls to Ticker’s mother to check on their children. They had taken them there before going to the hospital. Finally, just after two in the morning, we decided we should try and get some sleep.
It was decided that I would share the room with Nicky. Exhaustedly, I removed my shoes and shirt and threw myself across the bed. I was almost asleep when Nicky started shouting.
Dad!” He rose up and looked wildly around the room. “Where’s Daddy?” He screamed. I grabbed him and held him tightly.
“It’s okay, Nicky,” I whispered in his ear. I began cradling him as he cried uncontrollably. Star came into the room and sat down on the bed beside us. She rubbed her hand through his hair and attempted to calm him.
“I want Dad!” He’d scream. With each shout, I’d rock him tightly. After about fifteen minutes he settled down and fell asleep. I pulled him into me and held him. Star pulled the blanket over us. After kissing Nicky on the forehead, she left the room.
I can’t describe the wave of emotions that surged through my body as I clung to Nicky. I felt a need to protect the small boy in my arms. I wanted to keep him safe until he could be once again with Joey.
I had promised him that Joey would survive, and I laid awake the rest of the night praying that Joey would live and be reunited again with Nicky, and hopefully, me.