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Vice Principal Sengupta waited patiently behind his desk, hands folded before him, frameless glasses seeming to float before his deeply shadowed eyes. His dark but thin hair lay pasted in neat, sideways strands over his brown scalp. Two precisely aligned stacks of papers rested on his desk, both small, one on the left and one on the right, both equidistant from the closed notebook in the center. Unlike his colleagues, the vice principal had no decorations.
Sengupta was an Indian immigrant, and everyone knew that he took a dim view of lenient American discipline. Any kid who visited his office inevitably received the same lecture. “We never fought in school,” Sengupta would say in his thick Bengali accent. “We never ignored teachers. We always did our work. Why?” At this point, he would show his scar-laced knuckles and give a humorless but proud smile. “And do you know what? The rod worked. It made us respectful and responsible.”
And maybe a little crazy, Winston mused.
He sat in one of the two high-backed chairs before Sengupta’s desk, waiting. After everything else that had happened today, Winston couldn’t imagine what the vice principal might throw at him that could possibly be worse than what he’d already endured. Detention? A letter to his mom? He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“I’m suspending you,” intoned Sengupta.
Winston’s jaw went slack. After a moment, he forced himself to take a shaky breath.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said between clenched jaws.
“You struck another boy and made him nearly bite off a piece of his tongue.”
“Have you heard the things he says with that tongue?”
It was out before Winston had even consciously formed the thought, and hearing his own words took him aback. It sounded a lot like sass, as his mom would say, and one did not simply sass the vice principal.
Sengupta’s unreadable expression never changed. He only continued to stare at Winston, unflinching, the almost black skin around his eyes seeming to magnify the depth of his scrutiny.
“Your attempt at humor is ill-timed and inappropriate,” said the vice principal.
“Look. Whether your blow was intentional or accidental is irrelevant. You injured a schoolmate whose mother happens to have been a school board member for the last four years and is one of our main volunteer fundraisers. Do you follow me?”
“You are a smart lad,” said Sengupta. “Sometimes too smart for your own good. That will change.” He unfolded his hands and balled them into fists, making the scars on the knuckles stand out clear and pale. “I am aware of your situation, Winston. You do not deserve expulsion. Suspension will suffice. That…and I am banning you from the fall robotics competition.”
“What?!” Winston nearly leapt from his chair. He gripped the edge of Sengupta’s desk. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh, I most certainly can.”
This time, words completely failed Winston, which was probably a good thing.
“Mr. Chase,” said the vice principal, “have you ever stopped to wonder why these fights and social unpleasantries keep happening to you?”
“Because most people suck?”
“Perhaps,” said Sengupta.
Winston leaned back slightly. He hadn’t expected any agreement.
“However,” continued the vice principal, “the fact is that everybody, as you say, sucks in some ways. And in many ways, they do not. However, you—” He pointed a finger at Winston. “—are so completely focused on your hobby that you are not learning this. You don’t even interact with your robotics group teammates.” He sighed. “You can view your suspension time either as a punishment or an opportunity for introspection and life. I suggest the latter. Shade is a good friend, but you will not find yourself either in his shadow or in the mechanics of a machine.”
Winston had no reply. His face flushed with indignation. He wanted to say something to defend himself, anything that might push back against the unfairness and get Sengupta to change his mind. Nothing usable surfaced from his anger, though, and he felt his opportunity vanish into despair. He should have just taken the beating.
“It was a dozen on one in the gym,” he finally said.
“And it always will be,” said Sengupta. “Until you choose otherwise.” He took a deep breath and nodded once. “Mrs. Tagaloa is on her way to give you and her son a ride home. Please be waiting outside in the turn-around.”
“Wait. You’re suspending Shade, too?”
“Was he not also involved?”
Without another word, the vice principal dismissed Winston. He left the office clutching the straps on his backpack to hide his shaking hands. Standing at his locker, forehead resting on the cool metal, his fingers dialed in the lock combination automatically while his mind continued to churn.
Sengupta was totally wrong. Winston did things on his own because he didn’t fit anywhere else. No one else ever wanted him. And it was fine not to fit in. Being alone was how his family did things.
The competition! Winston thought as he slammed the padlock open.
How could he possibly not do the competition? While his classmates had blown their time at the beach or the mall or wherever, he’d spent the entire summer working to complete the Stadlerator 7000. Weeks and weeks at his workbench, sweating away without any air conditioning. Programming. Tweaking. Working his butt off.
And then this morning happened. Was it better that he wouldn’t have the chance to demonstrate his ability now? Or should he publicize it anyway, without the competition?
Above the hubbub of people filing into the halls and stashing their books in advance of lunch, Winston heard the nasal wail of June Martinez. He thumped his forehead once against the locker. This day just kept getting better and better.
Winston turned his head and saw June and Alyssa angling across the hall, seeming to pass effortlessly through the crowd. June led, of course. With her superhero-class, highlight-streaked hair dancing about her like heat radiation, June always looked as if she’d just walked off of a modeling session.
Behind her, Alyssa Bauman followed. Alyssa wore jeans and a black T-shirt reading, “I Am Really Enjoying This Conversation.” The more Winston tried to make eye contact with her, the more she seemed to look everywhere except at him.
“Wiiin-stonnn!” June hollered again as she came within too-close-to-ignore range. She was waving something at him — an old iPod. “Winston, could you do me a favor?”
Winston’s hand kept a grip on his locker door as he faced her.
She put the device in his other hand. Her breath smelled minty. “It’s dead,” she pouted. “I was listening to it this morning, then it died on the bus, even though the battery said full. I know it’s ancient, but…”
Two years of helping June with her math homework had not helped sway her best friend’s affections. Admiring the sarcasm on Alyssa’s shirt, the thought struck Winston that perhaps she remained so cold toward him specifically because he helped June so much. Maybe she wanted someone who wasn’t so accommodating of Rosa. She couldn’t possibly think that he liked Rosa…could she?
“I should say no,” Winston muttered even as his fingers closed around the device. June started to ask why, apparently decided it was safer not to know the answer, and merely smiled at him, all white teeth and amazing dimples.
Winston took one more look over Rosa’s shoulder at Alyssa, who sighed while studying the blank wall above the lockers.
He felt the fingertips of his right hand begin to tingle. They did that sometimes, seemingly in anticipation. He ran his fingers over the device, not really seeing it. He tilted it from side to side, rocked it forward and back, closed his eyes and shook it, tapped it in various places, at first gently and then more firmly. Finally, Winston picked it up by the bottom edge and, with no warning, rapped the bottom of the iPod against his locker door.
Winston turned the player over in his hands one more time, then handed it back to Rosa. “Loose connection.”
She snatched up the device and pressed its power button. The screen glowed to life and her face registered immense pleasure. In a single motion, she turned and pranced away. Three seconds later, she was invisible in the crowd, and Winston barely heard her call back the word “thanks!” He realized that Alyssa was still standing in front of him, studying his hands and his face quizzically. He was so shocked that he almost didn’t register the words when she said, “You have a big head.”
He could feel his face glow with sudden warmth.
“I’m not sure what I think about the stripes,” she added. “Did you do that, or are they natural?”
“I…” His mouth suddenly forgot how to talk. “They…”
“It’s natural,” said Shade, appearing behind her. His brow wrinkled with concern, but Winston had expected worse.
“I told him he should dye it,” Shade mumbled.
Alyssa studied the white bands that started above his temples then swooped up and back until they met at the base of his skull. She seemed undecided. “They’re different. Maybe kind of cool.”
Winston thought he might have a coronary right there in front of his locker.
“How’d you fix Rosa’s iPod?” she asked.
“Mag—,” he started, prepared to make a joke of calling it magic. However, something in his half-paralyzed brain knew better than to start his first conversation with Alyssa Bauman with a lie. “I dunno. Just did.”
“I’ve seen you do that before.”
“You have?” The note of amazement in his voice was obvious even to him. He tried for a more confident tone. “I can feel how to do it.”
“Feel it? What does that mean?”
He realized he’d said too much. “I have a knack for electronics. Like a sixth sense. iPods are pretty simple, and I could sort of feel that the drive connection was loose.”
Alyssa seemed to weigh his words. “Uh huh. OK.” She started for the cafeteria and began melting into the crowd. “So tonight for math homework?” she asked.
Winston was sure he must have misheard her. “Huh?”
“At 8:00 on Skype,” she called, now invisible. “Don’t be late!”
# # #
The two sat on the curb under the flagpole. Before them, a ghostly shadow of stars and stripes waved on the pavement, stirred by a faint breeze that cooled their faces. The school bell chimed, signaling the start of first lunch. At odd moments, they could smell baked bread and its mystery meat.
“Sorry,” Winston said. “I know you love wiener wraps.”
Shade shrugged and nudged Winston’s shoulder with his own. “It’s no big. I think we have frozen ones at home.”
Mrs. Tagaloa’s convertible white Lexus appeared at the crest of the hill, top down, as she turned into Shifford’s parking area.
“I don’t know why you’re not freaking out about getting suspended,” said Winston.
“Oh, I am,” said Shade. “But I’m trying to be supportive and not show it.”
Winston frowned and lowered his head.
“I’m kidding!” said Shade with another nudge. “OK, not really, but look. I’m only going to miss two football practices and one game, which is no worse than being sick. I’m way ahead on my homework, so it’s not the end of the world. And maybe it’ll help my popularity.”
“Doubtful,” said Winston. “At least as long as you hang out with me.”
He made the comment as a fact, not out of self-pity.
“Probably true,” said Shade as he rocked forward and stood up. “Oh, well.”
Winston stood beside him, both shouldering their bags as Mrs. Tagaloa pulled up, trunk thumping softly with dance music. She was a tiny woman, lucky to scratch five feet in sneakers, with chestnut hair that flowed to her waist. She wore large sunglasses, a bright blue tank top, matching blue cap, and a dazzling smile.
“Hi, boys! Climb in.”
They got into the back seat. Winston buckled himself and ran a hand over the buttery soft tan leather interior. Compared to their old Civic, the Lexus was like riding in a cloud.
Mrs. Tagaloa pulled away from the curb to head home.
“Are either of you hurt?” She sounded like she was asking whether they wanted cream with their tea.
“No, we’re fine, Mrs. Tagaloa,” said Winston.
“What about the other boy?”
“Steinhoff,” said Shade. “He bit part of his tongue off when Winston hit him.”
“Accidentally,” added Winston. “And he didn’t actually bite all the way through.”
“Well, I don’t approve of violence,” said Mrs. Tagaloa, “but I’m sure he had it coming. I had a pleasant chat with your vice principal.”
Both boys grimaced. Shade took a deep breath.
“OK, Mom. How bad is it?”
Mrs. Tagaloa shrugged as she stopped for the intersection light. “I’m thinking about taking you clothes shopping with me.”
Shade couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom, this is serious. We’re suspended.”
“Oh, honey. This isn’t serious. Childbirth is serious.”
“Well, it is.” The light changed, and she turned onto Denney Road. “You did the right things for the right reasons, and now the school has to do what the school has to do. Who’s hungry?”
Shade changed mental gears in a heartbeat. “Starving,” he replied.
“Me, too,” his mom said. “I vote Burgerville. Yoga class makes me want onion rings.”
Mrs. Tagaloa was the most cheerful person Winston had ever met. How she could live with a grump like Mr. Tagaloa was anyone’s guess. No matter what, though, Winston knew where the discipline came from in that house, and Shade would be counting the minutes until the real enforcer came home. Mr. Tagaloa only had one boy to carry on his legacy, and the idea of that legacy getting suspended would not sit well, no matter what the circumstances.
Winston kept a $20 bill in his wallet for emergencies. He offered to pay for himself, but Mrs. Tagaloa waved his money aside.
“Honey, I got this. You’ve had a rough day.”
“Thanks,” said Winston. “Would you mind if I got a shake for Mr. Allen, too?”
She looked at Winston in the rear view mirror and smiled. “That’s fine. You still see him, huh?”
The truth was that he visited every two or three days. But Winston knew it was odd for a teenager to show such interest in a bed-ridden senior, so he made no other explanation.
Winston got a pepper bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a Northwest Cherry Chocolate shake plus a small boysenberry shake on the side. Mrs. Tagaloa drove him the half-mile back to Progress Oaks and dropped him off at the front entrance.
“Don’t forget your 8:00,” said Shade.
“What’s at 8:00?” his mom asked.
“Nothing,” said Winston.
Shade grinned. “Winston has a date with Alyssa Bauman.”
Mrs. Tagaloa clapped with excitement. “That’s great! Congratulations!”
Winston shook his head. “It’s just on Skype. Helping with her homework.”
“She talked to you!” Shade gave him a duh! face. “This is huge!”
“Well, good luck, Winston,” said Mrs. Tagaloa. “You deserve a little romance.”
“OK, not awkward at all.” Winston started for the doors and waved toward the Lexus. “Thanks again!”
The Tagaloas drove off, and Winston walked into the cool dimness of the retirement home. No one sat behind the front desk. Winston signed in on the clipboard perched atop the desk counter and trudged up the stairs to the second floor, carefully balancing the bag in the crook of his arm so he could keep a shake in each hand.
When he announced himself at Mr. A’s door, the old man tried to sound elated but had to fight his way through a throat full of phlegm. He was still under the bedsheets and still in his wrinkled T-shirt, apparently having not moved all day. Winston held out the boysenberry shake. Mr. A gratefully accepted it, although his hand shook and his expression seemed a bit confused.
“My knight in shining armor,” said Mr. A. He took several determined sips on the straw. Winston set out his own food on the tiny table. The aroma of beef and bacon filled the room, and Winston took a long draw on his own shake. The fruity chocolate ice cream drove away some of the day’s stress. They both sighed contentedly and laughed.
“Thank you, Winston. This really hits the spot.”
The old man’s head lolled back against his pillow. He blinked several times, trying to clear whatever fogginess obscured his mind.
“You’re welcome,” said Winston.
“But this isn’t where you eat lunch. Explain.” He motioned for Winston to come closer.
Winston moved his chair next to the hospital bed and used the space next to Mr. A as his table. The old man nibbled at one fry but clearly wasn’t too interested in it. As Winston arranged his food so as not to make a mess, Bill lumbered into the room. He gave Winston a dark glance, then turned his back on the boy as he busied himself with pills over the corner sink.
“I got suspended for fighting in gym class,” said Winston.
Mr. A’s unruly white eyebrows arched upward, and the hint of a smile played through his wrinkles. “Really? ‘Bout time.”
Bill looked at Winston over his shoulder. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”
Winston threw up his hands. “Geeze! Why am I in trouble if all the grown-ups don’t care?”
“A lot of things aren’t fair,” said Mr. A.
Bill approached the bed carrying a paper Dixie cup containing several pills. He made sure that Mr. A took the pills and showed every sign of waiting until his patient swallowed them. With a grimace, Mr. A did so.
“Bill, you should take my blood pressure,” said Mr. A. “I feel strange.”
The nurse glanced quickly at the IV line but then pointed at the Dixie cup. “That’s why you need your meds.”
Mr. A sighed. When the last pill was gone, he said, “At least it tastes better with the shake.” He and Winston bumped drink containers.
Bill closed the medicine cabinet and left to continue his rounds. Winston watched the big man’s back disappear out of sight, then said in a hushed voice, “Something else happened, too. In the locker room.”
Mr. A nodded. “The bully came back for more?”
“Kind of. When I had my back turned, he snapped me on the butt with a towel.”
Mr. A shook his head, then stopped, blinking more. He must be feeling dizzy. “Did he wet the tip? That hurts like the dickens.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But when he did, afterward…” Winston took a breath, both afraid to say it and relieved to tell someone. “The area around where he got me turned blue.”
Mr. A went completely still in mid-sip. The straw slid from his pale lips, leaving a glistening spot of purple. “Blue,” he said.
“Blue. And it glowed.”
“Just like Bernie,” he muttered absently.
Then the shock and fear from this morning crept back into Mr. A’s face. His right hand with its long IV tail started toward his mouth, as if to cover it.
“I mean…” Mr. A started, but he had no idea what to say next. His fingers fluttered over his mouth, uncertain and scared.
The two looked at each other in silence. A chill went down Winston’s back. The old man believed him. He knew exactly what Winston was talking about. He had even known someone named Bernie with the same condition.
A loud crack sounded in the room’s entryway, startling them both. They heard the clatter of several small plastic pieces, and two little black bits rebounded into the bedroom. A low voice cursed, and a moment later Bill appeared, picking up the shattered remains of his walkie-talkie.
“Were you just standing there?” Winston asked.
Bill looked up at him, red-faced, but said nothing. The nurse retrieved the last of his radio, settled the bits into his pocket, and left. This time, Winston followed him out and made sure he disappeared from sight.
Winston returned to his chair, but he now sat on the seat’s edge.
“Mr. A, what is going on? What—”
The old man put his finger over Winston’s mouth and shook his head in a warning. Again with the glance around the ceiling.
Mr. A moved his hand to Winston’s cheek, cupping his jaw in a dry, wrinkly palm. Winston’s first instinct was to pull away. He didn’t like people touching him, but he forced himself to stay still as the hand patted him gently and Mr. A stared into his face. The man’s eyes were moist again, the lines around his eyes looking darker and deeper than ever.
“Winston…” he whispered. Mr. A’s hand slid back through Winston’s hair and pulled lightly on the back of his neck, urging Winston to come closer. Winston obliged, and Mr. A wrapped his fragile, sagging arm around him in the closest thing he could manage to a hug.
Mr. A held him there for a long moment, then finally drew a long, shaky breath.
“My boy,” he whispered right into Winston’s ear. “I’m so, so sorry. But now you have to run.”
“What do you mean?” he whispered back. “I’m not in that much trouble.”
“Yes, you are. I’ve really made a mess of it.” He paused. “They were only watching me because of the time you spend here. They didn’t know who I was. But now… Bill will be calling them, repeating our discussion. They will come for me, too, I’m sure.”
“What are you talking about? Who is ‘they’? Mom was talking nonsense like this, too.”
He felt Mr. A nod against his cheek.
“You’re changing,” breathed the old man. “They probably figured you weren’t a risk so long as you seemed normal. But now you’re not. And when they take me, they’ll want to know…what I know.”
Winston pulled back when he felt a warm drop on his cheek. He reflexively wiped at it, then noticed the tears spilling from Mr. A’s eyes.
“Please,” said Winston. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I think they’ve been watching you all your life, waiting for me to turn up. They didn’t expect me to be…like this.” He glanced down at his body, frowned, and swallowed thickly. “I should have died sooner,” he whispered to himself. “I should have just destroyed it all.”
“Stop,” said Winston. “You’re scaring me.” He tried to pull away, but Mr. A’s arm kept him locked in place.
“They probably have people watching everywhere you go, including your friends. You must find it before they do, understand?”
“No, I don’t! Find what?”
“Go. And when you’re away from here, tell your mom…tell her that finches fly in the fall.”
“Finches fly in the fall? What’s that mean?”
“She’ll know what to do.”
This time, Winston ducked his head and did pull away. “Wait. You know my mom?”
Mr. A winced. The old man reached for Winston’s face again, but he was now too far away.
“You do,” said Winston.
“Hush!” hissed Mr. A. “Call your mom.”
Winston backed away from the bed, unable to process what he was hearing. His calf brushed against part of the paper garden he’d made last year, and he saw that he would rip off a tulip head if he moved any farther. Part of him wanted to, and he didn’t understand why. A squat, black waste basket rested on the entryway floor. Winston dropped what was left of his milkshake into it. He’d lost his appetite.
Winston took one last look at Mr. A. The IV dripped slowly into the bag that plugged into his arm. Winston wondered at the strange look on the old man’s face and wished he could interpret it.
“You’d better go,” Mr. A said faintly. “Call.”
Winston’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head as he walked out.
He left Progress Oaks in a daze. Rosie greeted him brightly as he walked by, and he merely waved in reply. As he glanced at her, he saw that the manager’s door was closed, and he was fairly sure that he heard the low rumble of Bill’s voice coming from inside.
He walked a little faster.
Outside, Winston looked up at Mr. A’s window. There were no decorations there, only closed curtains. Part of him wondered if the old guy had lost his marbles, gotten Alzheimer’s or something. But if he had, then his mother had gotten it, too, and that didn’t add up.
Winston walked around the building, cutting across the resident garden area, weaving among the beds of tomatoes, cucumbers, and roses.
He pulled out his phone and dialed his mom’s workplace. Normally, the owner, Sam McCollough, answered the line in his office after three or four rings. This time, his mom answered after only one.
“Sam’s Diner on Ninth Street,” she said so quickly that the words almost blurred together. “Open ‘til midnight seven days a week, how can I serve you?”
“Winston?” She sounded instantly alarmed. He could hear the clatter of plates and glasses in the background. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“The school called me. Mrs. Tagaloa was supposed to pick you up.”
“She did. It’s fine, Mom. It’s…”
Winston heard someone faintly holler, “Can I get some more coffee?” There was a pause, and Winston imagined his mom gesturing to the customer or beckoning at one of the other waitresses to help.
“Yes, Winston? What’s wrong?”
He opened his mouth and almost said, “Nothing.” He wondered if the whole thing was some huge misunderstanding. Maybe he should just go home, Google his way to some plausible explanation about the blue-glowing skin, and give his mom and Mr. A a chance to make sense of all this madness. Patience always paid off. He needed to apply Occam’s Razor: When in doubt, the simplest explanation is almost always right.
He would try this one last thing — spit it out, and then all of the insanity would blow over.
“Mr. A said to tell you…” He reached the fence and walked along it, letting his fingertips bounce across the wire diamonds. “Finches fly in the fall.”
His mom made no reply.
Still nothing, and now Winston felt the chill return to his back. He stopped walking.
“Mom, are you there?”
Plates clinked. He heard the sizzle of something being flipped over on the grill.
“I’m coming,” she said far too quietly. “Go to the back yard of the empty house where you jump over the fence. You know the one?”
How did she know about that house? Had she been following him?
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Don’t move, OK?”
“Mom, what are you—”
“Thirty minutes,” she said with a decisive tone of command Winston couldn’t recall ever hearing before. The line went dead.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.