“Hey!” Claire stepped up behind Jayden as he was trying to shove the pillow cases filled with his clothes into his locker. She walked around and looked worriedly into his face.
“What’s wrong, Jayden?” She became even more concerned when tears welled up in his eyes.
“Nothing,” he replied as he turned away and wiped the tears off with his sleeve. He was extremely tired and just wanted to go to first period so he could try and get some sleep. Since leaving his aunt’s house, he had spent most of the night wandering around the city. He found a safe spot in a park near the school, but the police drove by around three in the morning and told him he would be arrested for loitering if he didn’t leave. He made his way to school and curled up in a corner of the quad until it was time for school to begin.
She grabbed his arm and turned him toward her. “Don’t tell me nothing’s wrong.” She gave him a pleading look, hoping he’d open up. She knew from previous conversations with Jayden, that it was difficult to get him to discuss his personal life.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He gave the clothing one last shove and then slammed the locker shut. “Just leave me alone, all right? I was doing all right until last week.” He turned and hurried off down the hall with Claire running behind him in an effort to catch him. He managed to avoid her by slipping into a boys’ restroom.
He was unable to sleep in his first period. The teacher had scheduled a test which he was unprepared to take. He attempted to answer a few questions, but gave up in disgust.
He thought it was useless to even attempt to graduate. With nowhere to stay, it would become extremely difficult to attend school. He needed to find a job so that he could support himself. He quickly gathered his books and stuffed them into this book bag. He stood and left the room. He didn’t respond when the teacher called out his name.
He was pulling the pillow cases from his locker when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He jumped and turned quickly around. Standing behind him was Principal Fallingsworth.
“I thought I might find you here,” he said. He attempted to shove Jayden’s clothing back into the locker, but Jayden yanked them out and let them fall to the floor.
“Why don’t you come to my office?” Fallingsworth asked calmly. “Your aunt called me this morning, so I have some idea what is going on.”
“Do you, really?” Jayden stepped before the tall man defiantly. “Do you really know what is going on?”
Fallingsworth took him gently by his arm and attempted to pull him toward his office. “Let’s discuss this in my office, Jayden.”
Jayden quickly pulled his arm away. “What do you want to discuss, Mr. Fallingsworth? You want to tell me how my life is going to get better, huh?” He wiped the tears away with his sleeve. “You want to tell me how to do that? Huh?”
“Jayden, please,” pleaded Mr. Fallingsworth as he looked around the hall to make sure no other students were witnessing Jayden’s outburst. He noticed a boy duck into a nearby restroom.
“Or do you want to hear about how fucked up my life has been since my mother was killed by a drunk ass driver? Huh, Mr. Fallingsworth? Or how about how fucked up it’s really gotten since I helped that hurt bastard on the street the other night?” The tears were falling faster from Jayden’s eyes than he could wipe them away.
Jayden reached down and grabbed his book bag. He then handed it to Mr. Fallingsworth. “Here,” he said as he shoved it into the principal’s chest. “I won’t be needing these anymore. I quit.”
“Jayden, don’t,” pleaded Mr. Fallingsworth. “Let’s go to my office and discuss this.”
“No, thanks,” Jayden replied as he picked up his pillow cases and hurried down the hall. The principal called security, but Jayden had disappeared before they could find him.
Mrs. Neal was fluffing the pillow up around Troy’s head. “You look better today,” she said cheerfully. Even though she tried to keep a cheerful exterior, she was still extremely worried about Troy. She looked down at the plate of breakfast he hadn’t touched.
“Weren’t you hungry, Dear?” Troy turned his face to the side and didn’t respond. She took some egg and placed it on a fork and then touched it to Troy’s lips. He hit her hand and the egg flew in all directions.
“I’m not hungry!” he said angrily without turning his face. “Would you and everyone else just leave me the hell alone!” She sat down and started to cry silently. She didn’t want Troy to know he had upset her.
The doctor had explained to her and her husband that Troy may experience depression. It was not uncommon for someone who experienced a traumatic event like he had to be despondent. She looked at the sad figure lying in the bed and wept. She knew this was a battle that only Troy could face. She would be there to support him, but the journey back was going to be long and painful.
She got up, walked over to the bed and ran her hand across Troy’s head. It was now shaven, and the bruises were still visible. “It’s going to be all right, Troy,” she said reassuringly.
Troy reached out and slapped her hand away from his head. “That’s nice to know, Mother,” he spat angrily. “I guess the next thing you’re going to start doing is singing that song from Annie.” He started shrieking, “The sun will come up tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow...”
“Stop it, Troy!” His mother cried. She laid her head on his chest and sobbed. Troy buzzed for the nurse. A minute later, a nurse appeared and led his mother from the room.
“He needs his rest, Mrs. Neal,” she insisted as she pulled Troy’s distraught mother from his room.”
“There will be sunshine...” cried Troy. “Just thinking about tomorrow...” He started sobbing loudly. The nurse reappeared, and seconds later he was asleep.
“Um,” purred Claire. “That feels nice.” Allison was straddling her back and kneading her shoulders as she gave her a massage. She learned how to do massages when she first started playing volleyball. The girls would often return to the locker room and give each other massages in order to get rid of the muscles cramps they would often experience.
“You’re really tense today,” she remarked as she continued to massage her lower back. “Bad day?”
Claire turned over and rolled her eyes as Allison lay down beside her. “What do you think?” Claire said sarcastically. “My best friend’s in the hospital. Will’s acting like a stupid fuck, and God only knows what’s going on with Jayden.”
Allison lifted herself up on her elbow. “I heard the strangest rumor today?”
“Someone in my fifth period said Jayden quit school.”
“What!” Claire sat up in bed and stared at Allison in disbelief.
“Yes,” continued Allison. “Bobby Adams said he was coming out of the restroom and saw Jayden and Mr. Fallingsworth arguing in the hall. He said Jayden told him he quit, and then he left school. Fallingsworth called security, but I guess they couldn’t find him.”
“Shit!” Claire pulled her legs up to her chest and placed her head on her knees. Allison reached over and put her arm around her. Soon she could feel Claire start to tremble.
“What’s happened to us?” Claire cried. She looked pleadingly at Allison. “What happened?” She buried her head into Allison’s shoulder. “Just last week we were all so happy. The play was a success, and we were excited. I’d never seen Troy so happy. We were planning for graduation and then going off to college.”
Allison wiped the tears from Claire’s cheeks. She looked into Allison’s eyes, desperately seeking an answer. “What happened, Allison?”
Allison wrapped her arms tightly around Claire and rocked her. “I don’t know, Baby,” she whispered in her ear.
Claire sat back and looked again into her eyes. “Why Troy, though?” she sobbed. “All the fucking shit heads in this world, and it has to be Troy. He never hurt anyone.” She buried her head into Allison’s shoulder and continued to weep.
“And that fucking Will,” she said angrily. “Turning his back on Troy when he needs him the most. He won’t even go see him.”
“He’s confused,” replied Allison. “Give him some time.”
“Fuck him!” Claire spat. She rested her head on Allison’s shoulder and sighed. “You would never do that to me, would you?” she asked softly.
Allison took Claire’s head in her hands and smiled. “Never, Baby,” she answered as she kissed her gently. They lay back on the bed and tenderly embraced.
Claire was walking through the hospital to Troy’s room when she peered in through the window of the emergency waiting room. She thought back to several days ago when the room was filled with so much sorrow. Suddenly, she stopped when she noticed a figure curled up on one of the sofas.
She approached the sleeping figure cautiously. She couldn’t understand why he would be sleeping in such a busy place. “Jayden?” she asked softly. He moved slightly, but didn’t open his eyes. “Jayden.” Claire said a louder. He opened his eyes and looked up at her. He then rolled over and faced the back of the sofa.
“Are you all right?” Claire sat down beside him. He looked tired and unkempt.
“Go away,” he mumbled. Claire reached out and touched his arm, but he quickly withdrew it.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked worriedly. She recalled Allison telling her earlier that there was a rumor circulating around school that Jayden had walked out.
“You don’t hear very well,” he said angrily as he turned over and glared at Claire. “Is there some part of go away you don’t understand?”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what is wrong,” she said adamantly.
“Why, Claire?” He sat up and stared at her tearfully. “Why do you give a shit? I’m nobody to you.”
“Because you’re a friend.” She reached out and took his hand, which he quickly pulled away.
“Since when?” Jayden started laughing. “We’ve been going to the same school for two years and you didn’t even know I existed. I hold your friend for a few minutes the other night, and now we suddenly become best friends. Is that how it works?”
“You’re being cruel,” cried Claire. She knew what he was saying was true. She had sat in several classes over the past two years and had never said more than a few words to Jayden.
“Life’s cruel.” Jayden replied coldly. He laid his head back and closed his eyes. For the first time in months, his mother’s face appeared before him. He had been trying since he came to live with his aunt to forget his past. It hurt too much whenever he remembered the happy life he had lived before her death. He reached up and wiped the tears from his face.
Claire sat back and rested her body against his. She thought he would move away, but he leaned against her and rested his head on her shoulder.
“I’m so tired,” he sighed.
“Want to talk about it?” Claire asked softly.
“No,” Jayden replied. “You’ve got enough shit to deal with.”
Claire looked at him and smiled. “I’ll go to Home Depot and buy a bigger shovel.” She felt reassured when he returned her smile.
“I don’t think they make shovels that big,” he responded. He quickly grabbed his stomach when it began to growl. “Sorry,” he apologized.
Claire stood and extended her hand to Jayden. “I’m hungry. I haven’t had a bite to eat all day. And from the sounds of your stomach, you haven’t either.”
Jayden shook his head. “I don’t have any money.”
“My treat.” Claire reached down, took his hand and pulled him to his feet. He grabbed the two pillow cases and followed her through the waiting room. He was too hungry to refuse a meal. The last thing he had eaten was a bowl of cereal the previous morning.
They walked to the hospital cafeteria in silence. When she noticed that Jayden was having trouble carrying both bags, she took one from him. It surprised her when he didn’t resist. They went to a table at the back and sat down.
“You wait here,” she told Jayden as she stood up. “I’ll go get us something to eat. You want anything in particular?”
“Beggars can’t be choosy,” smiled Jayden. “Just get me whatever you get.” When she walked away, he put his head on the table and rested. He still didn’t know where he was going to spend the night. No one had said anything to him when he slept earlier in the waiting room, but he was sure they would ask him to leave when they discovered he was not there to visit someone. He had asked about Troy when he arrived, but he was told that he had been moved to a private room.
He was almost asleep when Claire placed a plate on the table beside him. He sat up and looked at the chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and cheese cake. He then noticed that Claire only had a salad on her plate.
“I thought I told you to get me whatever you were having?”
“I did,” she grinned. “That’s what I wanted.” She looked down at his plate. “But since I’m on a diet, this is what I’m having.” She playfully tossed the lettuce with her fork. “I’ll watch you eat and pretend it’s me.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled as he took a piece of chicken and began to hungrily eat. Claire smiled as she watched him quickly devour the food. Within minutes, it disappeared from his plate.
When he was done, he looked at Claire. “I’ll pay you back whenever I get a little money.”
“It’s okay, really,” she insisted.
Jayden gave her a puzzled look. “Why are you being so nice to me? You really don’t even know me.”
She sat back and stared into his eyes. “I like you,” she said thoughtfully.
“I thought you were gay?”
“Not like that,” she grinned. “I really can’t explain it. You know how you just meet someone, and it’s like you’ve known them all your life?”
Jayden thought back to the first time he met Vince. He knew instantly that they would become best friends. He looked at Claire and nodded.
“There’s something about you,” she said. “It’s like I felt when I first met Troy. I knew we’d be friends for life.” Her smile quickly grew to a frown.
“You really care about him, don’t you?” Jayden asked. Tears began to appear in her eyes.
“You don’t know, Jayden,” she cried. “He’s closer to me than any of my brothers. He’s always been there for me.” She started sobbing. “And now there’s nothing I can do to help him. It’s killing me to see him the way he is.” Jayden scooted beside her and took her in his arms. Her head fell to his shoulder and she cried, “I don’t know what to do.”
Jayden held her tighter. “Sometimes there’s nothing we can do.” Once again he remembered the hurt when his mother died. “We just get up in the morning and do the best we can. Then we go to bed at night and pray that we don’t have to do it again tomorrow. But tomorrow always comes.”
“God, Jayden.” Claire pulled back and looked into his sorrowful face. Once again they found themselves comforting each other.
Suddenly, he pulled away and stood up. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” He rushed from the cafeteria. Claire kept looking at the door for him to reappear. She became concerned that he had left the hospital. She let out a sigh of relief when he came walking through the door.
She took his hand when he sat down. “I bought you dinner,” she said. “Now you owe me.”
“I told you I’d pay you back,” he said indignantly.
“I don’t want money.” He gave her a puzzled look. “I want the truth.”
“I want to know why you were sleeping in the waiting room.” She looked at the two pillow cases. “And why do I have a feeling everything you own is in those two bags?”
“Claire, please,” he begged. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“Does it have anything to do with you quitting school?”
“Who told you that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said as she squeezed his hand. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Jayden looked at the concerned look in her eyes. He didn’t want her pity, but perhaps she could suggest a place for him to spend the night. He let out a sigh.
“Okay.” He explained how his aunt had kicked him out of her house after finding out he had testified against his cousins before the grand jury. He told her how he had roamed around aimlessly trying to find a safe place to sleep. He then told her about the confrontation with Mr. Fallingworth, and that he had decided to quit school.
“God, Jayden.” She said after he finished.
“Is that all you know how to say?” He looked at her and grinned. “Listen.” He squeezed her hand tightly. “I’ll be all right. I’ve been making it on my own for two years. I’ll get through this.”
“You’re going home with me,” she insisted.
“What? I’m not going home with you.”
“Yes, you are. My brother is away at college. You can sleep in his room. My parents won’t mind.”
“Yeah, right,” Jayden responded sarcastically. “Hey Mom and Dad. I want you to meet this black guy who I just met. He’s going to sleep in...” He stopped. “What’s your brother’s name?”
“Baxter?” Jayden laughed. “Who would name a child Baxter?”
“The same parents who would name their daughter Claire,” she laughed.
“Yeah, right.” Jayden smiled. “Anyway. Mom and Dad, this black kid I just met and really don’t know anything about is going to stay in Baxter’s bedroom. He doesn’t have a dime, so you’re going to have to feed him too. And we’d better keep an eye on him so he doesn’t steal the silverware and pawn it for some weed.”
“You smoke weed?”
“Come on, Claire,” Jayden replied. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll decline it.”
“I’ll take you home and introduce you to them.” She was beginning to believe that Jayden was probably right. “Once they meet you, they’ll be willing to help you.”
“I’m such a charming person.” Jayden stuck out his face and grinned broadly. “I’m sure this smile will win them over.”
“Okay,” Claire stated sadly. “Maybe it’s not a good idea. We’ve still got to find you some place to stay.”
“I’ll be all right,” he said as he took her hand. “I’m a survivor.” He stood, grabbed his pillowcases and turned to Claire. “Thanks for the food. I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
“Wait!” Claire stood before him. “Don’t go yet.” She was afraid that if Jayden left, she may never see him again. “At least go with me to see Troy.”
“And why would I want to do that?”
She looked at him and frowned. “Because I asked you to?” She then grinned. “Besides, you owe me for dinner.”
“I already paid you for dinner, remember?” he replied. “I told you about my sorry life.”
Claire took his arm and started leading him toward the door. “I want to hear more. You can tell me all about it on the way to Troy’s room.”
“You won’t take no for an answer, will you?” He stopped and faced Claire. She shook her head. “All right,” he sighed. “Right now I’m too tired to argue. I’ll go with you, but I’m only going to stay a few minutes. Okay?”
“Yes,” she grinned as she rested her head on Jayden’s shoulder. They walked in silence to the elevator.
The room was dark when they entered. Claire walked over and opened the curtains to let some light in.
“Who is it?” Troy muttered as he turned his head toward the door.
“It’s me, Claire.” She walked over and took his hand. He turned his head and pulled his hand away from hers. Claire looked sadly over at Jayden.
“How are you feeling today?” She ran her hand over Troy’s naked head.
Jayden moved closer to get a look at Troy. He hadn’t seen him since his visit to the ICU. Troy appeared to look better. His head was shaved, and there didn’t appear to be much swelling. He could, though, see the dark bruises and stitches from the surgeries. The bandages had been removed from his face, except for the gauze that covered his eyes. Again, there were faint bruises, but much of the swelling had diminished. Most of the monitors had been removed. There was only a machine that continued to monitor his blood pressure. From what Jayden could tell, it appeared to be normal.
Troy didn’t respond to Claire’s question. Jayden watched as his chest rose and then he sighed deeply. “I brought someone with me,” she informed him as she continued to hold his hand. She motioned for Jayden to move nearer the bed.
Troy turned his head and said angrily, “I told Mother I didn’t want any visitors.” He returned his head to the side of the pillow and mumbled, “That includes you, Claire.”
Claire choked back tears but continued to talk. “Jayden is a senior in our class. He’s getting ready to graduate with us.”
Troy sat up and faced Claire. “Look at me, Claire!” he shouted. “Does it fucking look like I’m going to graduate?” He threw his head back on the pillow. His shoulders began to tremble as he began to cry. He lifted the sheet and covered his head. His voice broke as he pleaded, “Please leave, Claire. I have a terrible headache.”
“Do you want me to ring a nurse for you?”
“No,” he cried. “I just want you to leave.” Claire looked at Jayden. Tears were streaming down her face, but she was trying hard not to let Troy know she was upset.
“I’ve got a couple of errands to run,” she said as she leaned down and kissed his cheek. “I’ll be back later this evening.”
“Don’t bother,” Troy responded sharply.
She turned to Jayden and pulled him toward the door. “Do you want me to take you somewhere?” she whispered.
Jayden shook his head. “I’ll be all right.” He looked over at Troy. “I’ll stay here until someone comes to keep him company.”
Claire looked at her watch. “His mother should be here soon. I’ll be back in about two hours. Why don’t you wait until I return? I’ll talk to my father about letting you stay with us until you can find some place else to stay.”
Jayden looked at her and frowned. “I told you I’m not staying in your home. I’ll be all right, honest.”
“We’ll talk about it when I get back.” She kissed him on his cheek and left. Jayden walked over to the chair in the corner and sat down. He rested his head back and sighed.
“I thought you were leaving, Claire?” Troy lifted his head and looked over in the direction of the chair.
“She did,” replied Jayden.
“Why are you still here?” Troy asked angrily. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“Neither do I,” Jayden responded sadly.