Payback – by Sue Ann Culp

My hands shook so badly I could barely grip the controls of my wheelchair.  I had been in the lavatory trying to clean spaghetti off the front of my shirt when I heard something like firecrackers coming from the hallway, followed immediately by screaming and running.

The corridor was deserted now except for the figure stomping toward me. His sneakers smacked on the polished floor with determination. He kicked aside books and slammed locker doors shut as he passed.  The sun glinted off the barrel of the gun he held casually at his side. I swallowed hard. Even in my motorized wheelchair, I couldn’t outrun him. I was a sitting duck.

He stopped a few feet from me and chuckled.  “Hello Beth. Who’s the Roosevelt Reject now?”

I barely recognized my friend, Josh Tibbet, aka Ribbit Tibbit, the name given to him back in ninth grade by Ryan Davis and his jock squad.  They had first dubbed him “Frogface” due to a bad case of acne, but that hadn’t been creative enough for a bully of Ryan’s caliber.  I had never seen Josh stand so tall or speak with such authority.

“Josh, what are you doing?” My voice sounded unnaturally high and squeaky.

“Payback,” he said.  His eyes narrowed, and his lips curled into a snarl.  “For four years those jerks have shoved me around, laughed at me, and flushed my head in the toilet. I can’t walk down the hall without being insulted or pushed into a locker. I’ve had enough! It’s payback time.”

I rubbed the front of my shirt which was still damp.  I understood Josh’s pain and frustration.  No matter what the cafeteria served, Ryan made sure I ended up wearing it.  We Roosevelt Rejects were a diverse group; some of us were shy, socially awkward or unattractive, some had disabilities, and some were just naïve enough to befriend us.  They became Rejects by association.  We all had one thing in common, though.  We were easy pickings.

“Yeah,” Josh continued, “And not just for me, but for you and the rest of the kids, too.”

Josh looked away, staring down the hall as if in a trance.

“You really mean ‘for Zoey,’ don’t you?” I whispered.

Josh’s jaw tightened, and the muscles above his upper lip began to quiver.  He continued gazing vacantly down the empty corridor.  He cocked his head slightly as if he was watching an intense scene from a movie.  I knew his mind had taken him to yesterday afternoon’s incident in the parking lot.

The last bell had signaled release, and Roosevelt High coughed up its inmates who headed to buses and cars in a kind of ordered chaos.  We Rejects hung back, fussing with books, re-organizing our lockers and basically busying ourselves with any activity that would allow the crowd to disperse before we left the building.  Mostly, we were trying to give Ryan Davis and his buddies the chance to get to practice or to their cars.  To some, it was worth missing the bus if it meant avoiding the inevitable taunts and sneers.

But Zoey Lin was in a hurry yesterday. She had grabbed her books and charged out the door with the rest of the kids.  When the hall cleared, I wheeled toward the parking lot and my van.  It was there I found Zoey, surrounded by Ryan and his buddies.

She was a tiny thing and looked even smaller amidst the Jock Squad.  She had inherited her Laotian father’s slight frame and jet black hair. Her Irish mother contributed pale, almost translucent skin and grass green eyes.  The combination was striking but very different.  At Roosevelt High, different was bad. Different made you a target.  And when Ryan had discovered her seizure disorder, Zoey the Zombie had been born.

“Come on, Zombie, zone out for us.  Let’s see that  blank voodoo stare,” he taunted.  The other boys sniggered in agreement as they circled her like wolves around a rabbit.

Zoey had an episode several times a week, usually as a result of stress or nerves.  Her eyes would go blank and her little body would shake.  It never lasted longer than a minute or so, but the seizure always left her disoriented and embarrassed.

She tried pushing past her tormentors but they kept spinning her around.  Tears glistened on her cheeks, and she kept covering her eyes.  Then Josh appeared at my side. His auburn hair was plastered to his head like a skull cap, and water dripped onto his shoulders.

“Head flush?” I asked though the answer was obvious.

“I thought the bathroom was empty but Cliff was there.”  Josh spat his words like bullets.

Cliff Jenkins was Ryan’s wide receiver and the star quarterback’s best friend.

He nodded toward the jocks.  “What’s going on?”

At that moment, the wall of athletes parted revealing a whimpering Zoey, books scattered about her feet like slain doves.

Josh gasped, and  his hands tightened into fists.  I knew he liked Zoey. A lot.  He always tried to sit next to her if they shared a class and when he passed her in the hall, he’d smile and then flush bright pink.  He just hadn’t gotten up the nerve to actually ask her out yet.

“Those assholes!” he cried.  He started forward, and I grabbed his arm.

“Don’t be suicidal,” I said.  “You’ll make things worse.”

“Too bad, guys,” said Ryan.  “Looks like there ain’t gonna be a show today.”

Their leader dismissed his cohorts with a wave of his hand, and they all headed for their cars.

Josh rushed to Zoey.  Ryan spotted him.

“Looks like you been toilet swimming again, eh Ribbit?”  He looked up and saw Cliff sprinting toward him.  “Nice work, my man!”  Cliff gave him a thumbs up.

Josh picked up Zoey’s books.  “Are you alright?” he asked softly. He slid his arm around her shoulders but she flinched and pulled away.   “It’s okay,” he said gently.  “They’re gone.”

He began leading her toward me, and I frantically searched my pockets for a tissue to wipe her face and nose.

Zoey stopped.  Shivered. Then fell.

Her head hitting the curb sounded like a baseball bat connecting with a home run ball. Her entire body shook violently, and I could only see the whites of her eyes.  Her tongue spilled from her mouth, and a patch of crimson stained her ebony bangs. I wanted to kick myself because, for a moment, I thought she really did look like a Zombie.

Josh grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911 as Zoey’s seizure grew worse by the second.  I wheeled around, screaming for help.  Time accelerated.  Sirens wailed, faculty members yelled, men in white shirts with syringes and  an oxygen mask, spilled from an ambulance. All punctuated by awful gurgling sounds coming deep from Zoey’s throat.

Then it was just me and Josh, alone on the school lawn.  He sat next to my chair, knees pulled up, head buried, breathing heavily.  Every few moments, he shuddered.

“She’ll be okay,” I murmured.  I don’t know who I was trying to convince more, him or me.

Josh raised his head and stared into the empty parking lot.  “You don’t know that,” he said, his flat.

“The seizure stopped before the ambulance left,” I said trying to sound encouraging.  “Let’s go to the hospital tonight and see her.”

Josh nodded.

“You want a ride home?” I asked.  Josh only lived a block away but he liked watching me drive my van.  The hand controls fascinated him.

“No,” he said.  “I’ll meet you at the hospital after dinner.”  Then he was gone.

Later, I pulled into a space in the hospital parking lot and spotted Josh jogging out of the building toward me. I rolled down the window.

“Don’t bother getting out,” he said.  “Zoey’s in intensive care.  No visitors.”

“Is she going to be alright?”

“They don’t know.”

His words hung heavy between of us.  Neither of us spoke. Neither of us wanted to explore any possibility other than  ‘full recovery.’ The hospital’s doors opened and closed as people entered and left; a woman swaddling a sobbing toddler wrapped tightly in a tattered blanket, a man carrying a bunch of pink it’s-a-girl balloons and an old woman with a cane crying quietly into a yellowed handkerchief. I’m sure every one of them had a story, some happy, some sad.  I wondered how Zoey’s would turn out.

Josh slammed his fist into my van door, and I jumped.  “I just stood there!  I didn’t do anything to stop them! This is all my fault.”

“We’re no match for them!” I said.  “They’re the pretty ones, the popular ones.  There’s no way to stop them. Even the teachers look the other way.”

Josh hung his head, his forehead against the van.  He spoke so low I had to lean out the window to hear him.

“This can’t happen again,” he whispered, his voice growling.  “There’s gotta be a way.”

Now, as I watched Josh twirl the gun a little awkwardly around his finger, like somebody out of an old western, I realized that Josh thought he had found the way.

“I just got Ryan,” he said, like it was the best thing he’d ever done.

I gasped.

“Oh,  don’t worry, he’s alive.  For now.  I thought I’d kind of save him for last.”

His eyes were unnaturally wide and I couldn’t seem to find my shy, gentle friend in their depths.  I wanted to scream at him to stop.  To jolt him back into reality.  But all I could manage was a whimper.

“Josh, you can’t do this!”

He stopped abruptly and leaned into my face.  He slowly raised the gun until the barrel was inches from my chest.  I stopped breathing.

I knew fear.  I knew it when a car jumped the curb and barreled toward me and my friend, Amy, as we played in my front yard with our dolls.  I knew it as we tried desperately to get out of the way, our stubby seven-year-old legs tripping over strollers and baby blankets. I knew it when I faced surgery after surgery and still couldn’t feel my legs.  I really knew it when I saw my wheelchair for the first time and realized it would be my companion for life. I pretty much knew fear every day of my life.  Can I get to the bathroom by myself?  Can I get my lunch tray to the table without spilling anything? Yes, fear and I were joined at the hip.  I could manage it. But this was different.  This was terror so intense that it couldn’t even be named.

“You aren’t defending them, are you?”  His voice was low and gravelly.

I tried to speak but couldn’t so I just shook my head.

“Good,” he said, grinning.  “Gotta go.”

He sprinted down the hall and disappeared around the corner toward the gym.

My hands were so sweaty that it took both of them to seize the controls.  My chair lurched forward. The whine of its motor wailed eerily in the silence like a screaming cat.  I motored around the corner and stopped.  Ryan lay crumpled at my feet.

His ghostly white face lolled against a locker, and blood soaked the left leg of his jeans.  A mosaic of crimson smeared the floor from where he’d crawled, obviously trying to get away.  He raised his head.

“Whiner?” he said.

I winced. I couldn’t believe it.  The guy is swimming in a pool of blood, and he still torments me.  To my friends I was Beth Reiner.  To Ryan and his gang, I was Whiner-Reiner, thanks to the sound of my wheelchair.

“It’s Josh Tibbet,” he whispered.  “He’s gone crazy.  Get help.  He’s coming back for me.”

“I know,” I said.  “I saw him in the hall.”

Ryan’s eyes grew wide, and his whole body shuddered.   “Help me!”

Ryan moaned. Tears dripped down his cheeks. He reached toward me, fingers dripping blood.

I stared at handsome, charming, intelligent, star quarterback, Ryan Davis, the darling of the student body and faculty alike, and a strange feeling boiled up from the pit of my stomach. It was both icy and scorching at the same time. It should have been horror, but it wasn’t. It was rage. How many times had I wished to see him alone and suffering?  How many times had I wished that I could get even for all the times he spilled stuff on me in the cafeteria or smacked me in the face with his book bag when he passed by? How many times had I wished that he could hurt as much as he and his jock squad had hurt me and my friends?  Well, who’s being bullied now?

A shot rang out from the vicinity of the gym followed by more screams.

“Get help,” Ryan begged.  “Hurry, before he comes back.”

Another shot.

“Beth, please…”

Ryan looked me in the eyes for the very first time ever.  His jaw trembled, and he suddenly seemed very small and helpless.  He grasped his thigh, trying unsuccessfully to stop the rush of blood.

I looked down the hall to where the closed double doors lead to the administrative offices and possible escape.  The sound of sirens sang in the distance, growing louder.  Josh was completely unstable, and it wouldn’t be long before he came back.  He had actually pointed his gun at me and we’d been friends for years! I might have enough time to get out the doors before he returned.  I should just go.

Shouldn’t I?

I shifted in my seat as an unfamiliar pang stabbed through my stark terror.  Guilt. But Ryan deserved some retribution, didn’t he?  And besides, what could I do?  I’m just a girl in a wheelchair.  I needed help getting my own textbooks out of the knapsack which hung off the back of my chair.

Ryan’s breathing sounded raspy between his sobs. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and left a smear of blood across his forehead.  There wasn’t much time.

My eyes searched the empty hallway.  Think, Beth!  Just because this guy always makes you feel inept doesn’t mean you actually are!  To him, I was a wheelchair with a girl attached. No! I’m a girl who just happens to use a wheelchair. My mind was a battlefield, looking for a solution while fighting the urge to run.  Then I spotted the janitorial closet.

I  looked into the eyes of my long-time tormenter.  Yes, I hated him.  Then I tossed him my pink plaid scarf.

I hated what Josh was doing more.

“Tie this around your leg,” I said.  And before I could reconsider I blurted, “Ryan, you’re gonna take my chair.”

“Wh, what?”

“If you can make it out the double doors, you might have a chance.” I indicated the closet. “I’ll hide in here.”

Ryan’s frown softened, and for a moment he looked hopeful.   He struggled to sit up only to collapse.  “I don’t think I can…you go.”

More shots. He was right. I should go. I studied the floor which seemed miles away.  When I slipped out of my chair I felt like a sky diver whose chute had failed to open.

I hit the floor like a bag of wet cement, thankful for once that I couldn’t feel my legs.

“Come on!” I said.  “You’re a big tough athlete, hoist yourself into the chair.”

Moments later Ryan sat in my chair with my pink furry hat crammed on his head, and my grey flannel jacket tossed over his shoulders.

“Scrunch down in the chair,” I said.  “If Josh comes back, he’ll be behind you.  If he thinks you’re me, he might let you go.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because I’m a Roosevelt Reject too, remember?”

Ryan frowned for a moment then nodded in understanding. Together we opened the janitorial close, and I scooted inside.  I huddled between the mops and pails.

“The controls work just like a video game joystick.  When you get down the hall, push the button on the wall, the doors will open automatically.”

The sight of Ryan in my chair sent chills through me.  I almost laughed at the irony. Even though his life was a stake, he looked embarrassed.

The door swung shut plunging me into darkness, and I heard my wheelchair’s motor rev to capacity. I listened hard as the whine moved away. I shivered, more from fear than the cold floor.  The smell of pine cleaner and ammonia made me nauseous, and I choked back bile. Now was not the time to puke.

More shots, closer this time.  I listened for the sound of the double doors opening.  Why was it taking so long?  Surely my chair could go faster.

Then I heard the smack of sneakers.

“Hey Beth!”

Josh was back.

“Beth, where’s Ryan?”

I pulled myself into a ball as if making myself smaller would help me stay hidden.  I had never thought much about dying before.  Would it be black and putrid like this room?

The chair’s motor wavered slightly.

            No, don’t stop! I sat up straighter and connected with an object in the darkness.  Suddenly, things began crashing down around me.  Instantly the door jerked open, flooding the room with light.

Josh towered over me.. His jaw dropped in surprise.  He frowned, looking confused.  Then his eyebrows rose, and he slowly turned toward the sound of my retreating chair.  The double doors at the end of the hall clicked as they disengaged.

Josh’s face contorted, and he looked like a monster from a late night horror movie.

“You’re helping him!” He screamed, a primal shriek that tore into my chest like a poisoned arrow.  “How could you?  You traitor!”

Frantically, I tried to get out of the light even though I knew there was no escape. I slid backward and a mop handle stabbed me in the back.  Blood laced my fingertips.  I had grasped my lifeless legs so tightly that my fingernails had broken the skin.  My entire body shook uncontrollably.  I tried desperately to take a breath but Josh’s rage seemed to have sucked all the air from the closet. I waited. I felt like a wad of bubble gum had lodged itself in my throat, and I couldn’t swallow.

Then, slowly, with calm deliberation, Josh raised his gun.

And fired.

 

An eerie hush shrouded the cafeteria today.  I thought there would be more conversation considering that most of us hadn’t seen each other in three weeks. The room was bright and smelled of fresh paint.  I tried not to look at the walls too closely.  You could see where the janitor had repaired bullet holes.

I pushed food around on my plate, pretending to eat, trying not to look at the empty chair to my left.   Josh’s chair.  It was as if we hoped that by leaving his chair vacant, we Rejects could remember our friend the way he used to be.  We couldn’t yet grasp the boy he had become.  There were three empty chairs at the jock table as well. Matt Keller’s arm was in a sling.

I looked up and spied Ryan Davis.  Cliff Jenkins trailed behind him, carrying his tray like a dutiful servant.  Ryan pointed Cliff toward the jock table then turned and hobbled over to me.  He looked the same as he always did, except for the crutches and the pink backpack slung over his shoulder.  He stood at our table and swayed slightly, like he didn’t know what to say.  That would be a first.

Every eye at our table focused on Ryan.  He shifted from side to side and kept opening his mouth but nothing came out.  I thought he looked like a guppy on steroids. Cliff appeared at his side.

“Come on, Ryan, the guys are waiting.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Ryan said, dismissing his teammate

The other kids at the table resumed eating, trying to ignore the star quarterback who continued to stand awkwardly at the end of our table.  Ryan obviously felt out of place.  He kept glancing around the cafeteria as if to see whether people were watching him.

“Yes?” I said.

Ryan cleared his throat and began coughing like he had swallowed wrong.

“I tried to call you a couple times,” he sputtered.

“Oh, was that you?” I said..  I had answered the phone several times over the past couple of weeks only to hear a sharp click in response to my hello.

“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you but I didn’t know if I should considering…”

Ryan’s voice trailed off.

I kept quiet, rather enjoying Ryan’s fidgeting.  It was so totally out of character that I found it fascinating.

Ryan slipped the pink backpack off his shoulder and held it close to his chest, as if it were a newborn needing protection.  Finally, he laid it on the table and gingerly pushed it toward me.

“Here,” he murmured, “You need a new one of these.”

He hadn’t bothered to remove the price tag.  I figured he wanted me to know that he spared no expense. Typical.

I carried my books in a faded green knapsack which hung off the back of my wheelchair.  It now bore a ragged hole where my copy of A Tale of Two Cities had stopped Josh’s kill shot.

Cliff returned.  “Come on Ryan, your burger’s getting cold.”

Cliff reached out and chucked my friend, Marcus, on the back of the head which sent his glasses tumbling into his tomato soup. The liquid splattered onto his denim shirt like blood.

I shuddered.

“How’s it going, Snarco Marco?” Cliff sniggered.  Laughter drifted from the jock table.       Ryan seized Cliff’s arm so fast his movement was a blur.

“What’s the matter with you?” said Cliff, pulling away.

Ryan released him like Cliff’s arm had been a burning log.  He stared at his hand as if expecting to see red welts rise on his palm.

“Uh, nothing man,” he stammered, pink rising in his cheeks.

My friend fished his glasses out of his soup.  “His name is Marcus,” I said.

Cliff gaped at me, looking surprised that I dared speak to him. He waited by his leader’s side, obviously expecting a classic Ryan snide comment or witty reply.

But Ryan said nothing.  He watched Marcus try to clean his glasses with a napkin. The soup just smeared around his lenses until the paper lay in shreds on his tray.  Kind of like his self esteem.  Finally, he wiped them on his shirt sleeve, leaving another smear of red.

Cliff shrugged.  “Whatever,” he said.  “Let’s go, Ryan.”

Ryan tried one more time to speak then shrugged and turned to follow his teammate.  He took a few steps, halted, then twisted back.  He looked at each Roosevelt Reject as if seeing them for the first time; Amber whose asthma inhaler was early always connected to her face,  Michael, a fairly good tennis player, who happened to be cursed with one blue and one brown eye, and

Carlo who spoke in broken English and only stood three feet tall.  Then there was Logan whose left eyelid drooped, and Emily, bright and cute, who joined our ranks because her twin brother, Ethan, was hearing impaired. Ryan gazed the longest at Zoey who ignored him, as she spooned lime jello into her mouth with one hand while fingering the bandage on her forehead with the other.

Ryan’s eyes flickered as he studied each one of us. I caught his gaze.  He seemed sad, somehow and I thought I detected a small tremble in his chin.  He swayed slightly on his crutches and brushed his blond hair out of his eyes.  Then he took a step toward me.

For a brief moment, I thought I detected what might be remorse in Ryan’s eyes.  I smiled slightly, fueled by a whiff of hope until a booming voice ripped through the cafeteria.

“Ryan, jeez!” Cliff bellowed from the jock table.  “What’s your problem, man?”

Ryan paled and shivered, like someone had just doused him with ice water.  He hesitated and lowered his gaze.  Deathly quiet settled over the cafeteria, and every eye trained on the school’s idol.  Then Ryan began to chuckle, shallow uneven laughter that didn’t reach his eyes. He shook his head and nodded slightly to me before  turning away.  He settled at the head of his table like a conquering king returning from battle, adored by his subjects.

I resumed eating but my grilled cheese suddenly tasted like paste.  I’d lost my appetite.

I threw my napkin on my tray. “I’m out of here.”

Every eyebrow at my table raised in surprise. We Rejects usually waited until the Jock Squad had left the cafeteria before heading to class.  It was safer that way.

I dumped the remnants of my lunch in the trash bin and headed for the door just as the bell rang.  Students swarmed toward their next class, and I felt like a minnow trying to swim amidst a school of barracudas. Determined, I kept moving in spite of the jostling.

As the crowd thinned, I heard a familiar voice call from behind. “Hey Beth!”

I glanced over my shoulder to see Ryan Davis standing in the cafeteria entrance, surrounded by his friends.  Cliff Jenkins trotted toward me, pink backpack in his hands.

“You forgot this on the table,” Ryan called.

My chair’s motor whined as I rolled away. “No,” I called.  “I didn’t forget.”

sueannculp

Sue Ann Culp is a published author whose work has appeared in such publications as Kaleidoscope Magazine, Fiction 365 and Wee Wisdom Magazines.  Her short stories have also appeared in three anthologies Published by Division by Zero.  Her play, The Lies That Bind, was named one of the Top 100 New Plays by Writers Digest in 2009 and the work was produced by Holland Civic Theatre, Holland, Michigan in June 2016.  She also writes fiction and non-fiction for the State of Michigan for use on standardized tests for high school and middle grade students.  In addition to writing, she is also a professional musician, actress and fabric artist.  She lives in Zeeland, Michigan with her husband and beloved collie.  Visit her website at http://www.sueannculp.com

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