Rating: T/PG-13 for mild language and adult themes.
Chapter Four: Ask Me Why
Carl was sweeping up in front of the administrative offices during last period when the door swung open and two boys shuffled out of Mr. Vernon’s office. One was the blonde wrestler he’d seen copying his friend’s homework during lunch and the other was the redheaded boy who’d been calculating test scores at the physics table. Neither of them looked very happy and Carl figured he knew why when Richard Vernon followed them out into the hall.
“Alright, Clark, get to class. And you…” He nodded at the redhead as though he couldn’t quite remember his name. “Just… go to the nurse’s office or something.”
Vernon went back into the office and closed the door behind him. The boys, who were dressed in their gym clothes, eyed one another nervously. The wrestler opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind and turned away. The redhead watched him walk down the hall and disappear around a corner, then sighed. When he noticed Carl, he gave the janitor a sad smile. “Hi, Carl.”
“Hey there. You get in trouble?”
“No, he did.” The redhead nodded down the hall, indicating the path the wrestler had taken on his way back to class. He took a step forward and winced slightly at the movement. “I just get to go home early.”
“That sounds fair.”
The boy shrugged. “Not really. I’m missing Mr. Ryan’s lesson on logarithms.”
Carl chuckled. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you paid attention for exponentials, logarithms’ll be a breeze.”
The redhead wrinkled his nose. “Really? I thought-”
“Trust me, kid. You’ve got nothin’ to worry about.”
The boy sighed. “I guess not.” He glanced outside, where a pale blue minivan was pulling up to the curb. “Well, that’s my mom. I’ll see you later, Carl.”
“You bet.” Carl watched him hobble outside, wincing in pain every few seconds. He paused uncertainly when he opened the passenger side door, then hoisted himself up into the seat and shut the door. When the vehicle pulled away from the curb, Carl turned away and went back to sweeping.
A few minutes later, Vernon walked out into the hall, wiping his nose with a tissue. When he saw Carl, he nodded in greeting.
“Carl.” Vernon wiped his nose once more and stuck the tissue into the pocket of his burnt orange trousers.
Vernon sighed. “It’s been one helluva day, I’ll tell you. You see those two?” he asked, referring to the wrestler and the redheaded boy. Carl nodded and Vernon continued. “Clark taped the boy’s butt cheeks together, if you can believe it. I’ve got Coach Sanford in one ear telling me the kid’s got a meet next Saturday and can we work something out so he doesn’t miss it. On the other side, I’ve got this other kid’s mom on the phone, worried her son’s going to get some kind of infection.” Vernon smirked. “If you ask me, it’s actually pretty damn funny.”
Carl lifted his eyebrows doubtfully and Vernon cleared his throat. “Anyway, then I get a call from some schmuck tryin’ to get his daughter out of detention this weekend. And then there’s this whole flare gun thing.” Vernon rolled his eyes. “If they want my opinion, they should ship the kid off to crazy camp, because that’s where he belongs.”
“And why’s that?”
Vernon furrowed his brow in disbelief. “He brought a goddamned gun to school! Lord knows what he was planning to do with it.”
Carl shrugged. “He probably just wanted to show it off to his friends.”
Vernon scoffed. “Yeah, and then set the school on fire and have a marshmallow roast.”
Carl and Vernon whirled around to find John Bender standing a few feet away, smirking. “You got any graham crackers, Dick? ‘Cause I love s’mores.”
“It’s Mr. Vernon to you, Bender. And what the hell are you doing out of class?”
Bender ignored the question and looked over at Carl innocently. “How come you get to call him Dick and I don’t? That doesn’t seem fair.”
Vernon glared at him. “I asked you a question.”
“Maybe I’ll answer it on Saturday.”
“Yeah, you know, in detention.”
Vernon paused warily. “You don’t have detention this weekend.”
Bender gasped. “I don’t?” He shook his head sadly. “But, Dick, it’s the only time we ever get to see each other anymore. And you never did finish that story about the transvestite you picked up in Tijuana. I was hoping to catch the end of it in detention.”
Vernon was turning a rather vibrant shade of red. “Get to class, Bender.”
“But what about Saturday?”
“Consider your freedom a present for the both of us.”
Bender clucked his tongue. “Now, Dick, you don’t mean that.”
“Like hell I don’t.”
Bender smiled with mock sadness. “I’ll find a way for us to be together again. You just wait and see.” With that, the teenager bowed slightly and started off in the direction he’d come from.
“Smug little prick,” Vernon muttered. Carl managed to keep the smile off his face, though it was difficult with a guy like Vernon. The vice principal glanced at his watch. “I’ve got some calls to make.” Without saying goodbye, Vernon disappeared back into his office and shut the door soundly behind him. Carl chuckled and continued sweeping.
Within fifteen minutes, Carl had finished the entire hallway and was preparing to take another garbage bag out to the dumpster. Just as he finished tying it up, the door to the principal’s office opened and a boy stepped out. He slumped down onto the wooden bench by the wall and stared blankly at the opposite wall.
The kid looked up at Carl. “Hi,” he said flatly.
Carl hesitated for a moment before walking over to him, unsure if the boy really wanted to be bothered or not. He looked so defeated, like he was just waiting for the ax to fall. “Sounds like you’ve had a rough day.”
Brian didn’t move. “Yeah.”
“Did you talk to Mr. Taylor?”
“He’s talking with my dad right now.”
“Oh.” Carl glanced at the door’s frosted window, but couldn’t see anything, of course. “Did everything go alright?”
Brian shrugged. “He gave me a detention.”
Carl nodded, realizing that Brian had absolutely no idea how bad it could have been for him, especially if Vernon would have been in charge of that decision. “That doesn’t sound too bad.” When Brian lifted his eyebrows doubtfully, Carl smiled. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll make some new friends.”
Brian scoffed. “Yeah, right.” He looked up at Carl nervously. “Have you seen my locker?” When Carl nodded, he went on. “Is it bad?”
Carl paused. “Yeah.”
Brian looked down at the floor. “What does it look like?”
“The force flung the door open, so everything ended up on the floor. The inside is totally burned out… and so is most of your stuff.”
Brian buried his face in his hands, his shoulders moving up and down with every labored breath. Carl waited for him to look up again before taking a small plastic bag from his pocket. “I don’t know if it was worth it or not, but I saved these for you.” Brian accepted the bag from him and opened it up. “Most of the others were burned up, but some were okay.”
Brian held out the stamp Carl had been looking at earlier, the green one with Ben Franklin. “This was my dad’s.” He paused. “It was worth a lot of money.”
“Yeah.” Brian took another deep breath. “Over five hundred dollars.”
Carl’s eyebrows went up. “That is a lot of money.”
Brian nodded. “I know… and so does he.”
Carl remembered what Brian had told him earlier about his father, that he was an accountant who worked long hours. He wondered how this would affect their relationship, if it would be stronger or weaker as a result. He wondered if the man even knew how much his son idolized him.
Brian slipped the bag into his shirt pocket and sat up a little straighter on the bench. “I didn’t realize, you know? That it would do that. I didn’t know it would go off without me even touching it.”
“Flare guns are tricky. They’re very sensitive.”
“Apparently.” Brian glanced up at Carl nervously. “Don’t you even…” He cleared his throat. “Aren’t you… you know, aren’t you going to ask me why I had it?”
Carl looked him in the eye. “Do you want me to ask you?”
Brian froze uncertainly and looked at Carl very seriously for a moment. Just as he opened his mouth to say something, the door to Taylor’s office opened and a man with thick brown hair and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses walked out. Taylor followed him into the hall and the men shook hands. “Thank you for coming down to speak with me, Mr. Johnson.”
Carl watched the two men exchange pleasantries, but he wasn’t absorbing any of it. He stared at man’s back, wondering if it would be worse for him to turn around and see the janitor standing there or to walk away without ever even knowing. Carl looked over at Brian, who had risen from the bench and was watching his father apprehensively, trying to gauge his mood. He glanced over at Carl, who shot him an encouraging smile, then turned back to his father. The man finished speaking with Taylor and started leading his son down the hall. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t-”
“I don’t know how I’m going to tell your mother. Jesus, Brian, what the hell were you thinking?”
Brian’s answer was swallowed by the cold spring air. When the door shut behind them, Carl released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He clutched the side of the garbage bin in front of him, still trying to digest the situation. It didn’t work. No matter how hard he tried, he still couldn’t believe it, because for the first time in eight years, Carl had shared breathing room with Harold Johnson. Harold Johnson, father to Brian and husband to Marie, Vice President of RCP International, the man who kept framed baby pictures of his children on his massive oak desk, who carried a thermos of chicken noodle soup with him to lunch everyday.
Harold Johnson, the man who’d cost Carl Reed his job… and his future.