Secrets the hero chronic.., p.13
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       Secrets: The Hero Chronicles (Volume 1), p.13

           Tim Mettey
 
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  **

  The smell of Cora’s coffee woke me the next morning. It didn’t make me sick, but it still bothered me. I took my shower and went downstairs. I felt hungry. I grabbed a bagel and cream cheese and sat down at the kitchen table. The news was on and was focused strictly on the snow that covered the city. From the reports, we had about a foot of snow. It was forecasted to snow lightly most of the day with another inch possible. I tore off a small piece of the bagel and ate slowly as I watched the news. I was not as angry as I had been the night before with Oliver. Actually, again I felt pity for him. He was once the most popular guy at school and now had sunk so low that he was spreading rumors.

  Driving to Elle’s was surreal. I hadn’t noticed how everything looked in the snow the night before when I was riding with Eric. Everything was covered by a thick blanket of snow, making it look wrapped in heavenly clouds.

  Elle’s driveway was not cleared yet. I figured this would be the case, so I had brought my shovel. I parked on the street and began clearing their driveway off. I was just about done when the garage opened up. Elle was standing there all bundled up. She was wearing red snow pants, a large puffy tan jacket and a pair of purple snow boots that matched her scarf and hat. She was adorable. She resembled a little kid whose parents got her ready to go out in the snow, not a typical teenage girl who was worried about her appearance. But then, she was not typical.

  She grabbed a shovel and helped me finish clearing the rest of the driveway. I pulled my truck into the cleared driveway. The morning sun disappeared behind snow-filled clouds. The snow began to fall again in very large flakes. We spent the rest of the morning playing in the snow. We made snow angels and snowmen. Every so often when my back was to her, she would sneak up and tackle me. She kept knocking me into the large snow banks that had formed around her house. If it had been anyone else, I would have moved past them with ease, sending them into the banks, but she had no problem tackling me—I made sure of that.

  Elle had become such an important part of my life now. I couldn’t imagine being without her. It used to be just Cora and me, but now it was Elle and me.

  We went inside to warm up. Her mom brought us some hot chocolate while we curled up on the couch underneath a blanket to get warm. Her dad wasn’t home. He was gone on business, which was normal.

  Elle wanted to go back out to play some more. We spent the rest of the time lying in the snow and looking up at the snow-filled clouds. Elle’s head found my stomach. The large flakes were falling onto us. While lying with her in the snow, I remembered something my mom used to say to me: “Nicholas, God makes each snowflake by hand. None of them are ever the same.”

  Elle must have been made just for me, my perfect snowflake.

 

  No sooner had the snow arrived than it was gone, bringing spring. The next couple of weeks brought new life all around me. Things began to grow. All of this growth inspired me. I decided that I would try to take my relationship with Elle to the next level. We had been inseparable for a while now, so the next step in my mind was for an actual date, and then hopefully next she would become my girlfriend. I dreamt of holding her so close that I could feel her heartbeat next to mine. My lips would be pressed against hers. Time would melt away around us. Nothing else would matter except for the two of us in that moment.

  “So do you want to get some dinner tonight?” I was leaning next to her locker while she got out her book for Coach Hoff’s class.

  “Sure, we can get some pizza and watch a movie.”

  “No, I was thinking about going to a restaurant.”

  “Would this be an official date?” she asked without looking at me. The way she said it made me wonder if her question was a good thing or a bad thing, so I stalled.

  “Well, if you don’t want it to be, it doesn’t have to be.”

  Her face twisted. She didn’t like what I was saying. “Nicholas, if you want it to be a date, just say so.”

  “Okay, then. I am asking you on a date.”

  She smiled and shut her locker. She looked right at me with her beautiful, big smile. “Well, great! It will be our first official date.”

  Coach Hoff had already started class when we got there.

  “So I will pick you up at 6:30,” I whispered to her after we got seated.

  “Sounds great.”

  In the back of the classroom, Oliver was staring at me, which was unusual. He had been acting like I didn’t exist for a while now. He didn’t look like himself; his perfect blond hair was unkempt, and he was wearing something you would typically wear after football practice. It was not the preppy, pretty-boy clothes that he normally wore.

  “So you have a real date finally. Took you long enough,” Eric said while admiring a couple of girls walking by us after school.

  “I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”

  “Knock it off, Nicholas. It’s not like I am going to announce it to the world.” Then he jumped and skipped around like he was in some sort of musical and started to sing, “NICHOLAS KELLER IS GOING ON A REAL DATE WITH ELLE CANAN. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT IS A REAL DATE?”

  I tried to catch him, but he was just out of reach. Chasing him would only draw more attention to him, so I scrambled toward the door to get on the bus and away from him.

  When I got home, Cora was sitting on our porch swing reading a book.

  “Nicholas, how was your day?”

  “I have a date tonight.”

  “With?”

  “Elle.”

  “Well, that’s a relief,” she said. “I was afraid that after all the time she has been working on you, you picked one of your groupies instead.” She laughed.

  “Groupies? Whatever, Cora.”

  “What time is your date?”

  “I’m picking her up at 6:30.”

  “Do you need the truck?”

  “Yes, please. If that’s okay.”

  “That’s fine with me.”

  I was shocked by Cora’s reaction to the date, but I should have expected that she would do the opposite of how I thought she would react. She had become very unpredictable this year.

  I stopped and got a dozen daisies—Elle’s favorite—on the way to her house. I had been planning this date ever since I saw her for the first time. The date seemed like a daydream, but this time it was real.

  I walked up to her door and rang the bell. A minute passed, which felt like an eternity, and the door opened. Mr. Canan was standing there. My newfound confidence was quickly erased.

  “Good evening, Nick.”

  “Oh, good evening, sir. Is Elle home?”

  The birds that were singing in the background seemed to stop right when he spoke. “I would like to have a word,” Mr. Canan said.

  I was expecting him to invite me in, but instead he walked out the door onto the porch, shutting the door behind him. My stomach started to tense up. I had to fight back the urge to grab my Tic Tacs. I took an invisible deep breath.

  “Nicholas, you are taking out my little girl. When you take her out of my house, I expect you to take care of her and treat her like a lady—nothing less than that. Can I count on you to do that?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “And Nick, if you hurt her, I will hurt you. Do you understand?”

  “Of course.”

  “Okay, then we have an understanding.” He opened the door and I followed him in.

  There, standing at the top of the stairs, was Elle. She was wearing jeans that hugged her figure and a red blouse with a low neckline, which made my heart begin to race. Her silver necklace sparkled. Her hair had large wavy curls in it. She was mesmerizing. This was going to be a night that I would never forget.

  I gave her the flowers, which I had completely forgotten about for a brief moment. Her face turned a slight shade of pink. Without words, her mom took the flowers into the kitchen and brought them back in a vase, setting them on the end table closest to us.

  “I will put them in your room, de
ar, when you leave. You two have fun.”

  Elle breezed by me. I gripped the door so I would not stagger from the smell of her perfume. I wished I could slow things down whenever I wanted to, because I wanted this night to last forever.

  “Elle, you look stunning,” I said once we were in the truck.

  Her beautiful eyes fixed upon me. “Why thank you, Nicholas. You look dashing yourself.”

  Chills went down my spine. I had missed out on so much over the years, but waiting this long made this date even more special.

  “So where are we eating?” she asked.

  “We are eating at Wendell’s. It’s a restaurant by the park.”

  “I know where it is. It’s over on Erie Street next to Memorial Park in Montgomery.”

  I nodded. I forgot that she had lived here her whole life. Then for a brief moment I became nervous that she had been there already.

  “So you’ve been there?” I asked.

  “No, never. Dad says it’s too expensive and it’s a long drive.” She must have seen the look of concern on my face. “Oh, but I am very excited to eat there. Speaking of my dad, I hope he wasn’t too horrible.”

  “No, he just wanted to make sure I got you home at a decent hour.”

  She smiled. “Okay, good. I was worried. I tried to get him to not talk to you.”

  The long driveway to the restaurant was lined with large, mature dogwoods, which were starting to produce white blossoms. There was a man dressed in black slacks and a jacket next to a sign that said, “Wendell’s Valet Service,” under the canopy-covered entrance. The valet opened Elle’s door and then came around and opened my door, saying, “Welcome to Wendell’s, and please, sir, leave the truck running.” I got out. The valet handed me a ticket and drove off.

  Elle was waiting for me by the door, which a doorman was holding open. We walked in together. I puffed out my chest, feeling proud to be with Elle on a date. I could do anything; I was invincible. Before I had a chance to look for the hostess, a short man with slicked-back hair and a full mustache spoke from behind a small podium. It reminded me of Homecoming.

  “What name is your reservation under?”

  “Keller.”

  “Oh, yes. Keller, party of two. Right this way.”

  We followed the man through the restaurant. It looked like it was straight out of a ’20s gangster movie. There was a large bar right in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by tall wooden chairs. Behind the bar there were hundreds of bottles on display in a large, wood-framed glass cabinet. A small crystal chandelier hung above the bar. Off in the corners were lounging areas, complete with red leather couches and dark wooden tables. Dark wood and deep rich colors were everywhere. There were not many booths or tables in the restaurant, making every spot very intimate and quiet. Most of the tables and booths were filled.

  The man led us to the back of the restaurant. Our table had two sheer curtains on both sides, creating even more privacy than the low-lit restaurant already provided. The table was covered by a long white tablecloth with matching lace napkins. I could smell the oil burning in the glass lamp centerpiece. Around the lamp was a wreath of simple white flowers. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect setting for our first date.

  “Madam,” the man said, pulling out the chair for Elle. “Sir,” he said to me, motioning toward the open chair across from Elle.

  On the table were traditional fine dining settings. I was familiar with them because Cora set the table like this every once in a while when she fixed a fancier meal, normally during holidays. It was her way of taking me to a nice restaurant without leaving the house. I wished she were here to enjoy this too. This was part of the reason why we moved to this town, so we could experience these types of things.

  The man handed us the menus and rambled off the specials. I didn’t listen; I just nodded. I couldn’t help but stare at Elle. He stopped talking. Elle was staring at me like I was supposed to say or do something.

  “Nicholas, he would like to know what you want to drink.”

  “Oh, I’m sorry. Water will be fine. Thank you.”

  The man nodded and walked away. Elle must have given him her drink order already. We looked at the menu for a minute after he left, and then Elle put her menu down.

  “Nicholas, I have a question. Where are the prices on the menu?”

  I glanced down and saw that there were no prices. “I’m not sure, but don’t worry about the cost. It’s my treat.”

  “No, my dad gave me money. He doesn’t want me to grow up thinking that men should pay for everything. He wants me to be independent, regardless of the fact that my mom told me he always refuses to let her pay for anything, ever.”

  “Well, how about this—I asked you out this time, so I will pay. Next time you can ask me out, and then you can pay.”

  She smiled. “What makes you think that I would ask you out?” She pulled up the menu, covering part of her face so only her eyes were exposed.

  “Well, that’s what I offer to all of my dates that I bring here.”

  “Nicholas Keller,” she said in a motherly tone. I smiled at her; she smiled back. “Okay, I will pay when I ask you out—if I ask you out, Mr. Keller.”

  “Very funny, Ms. Canan.”

  We both laughed. The server who brought out our drinks was a girl who looked to be about the same age as us. We ordered our food and she brought it out quickly. The food was delicious. Cora was an excellent cook, but this melted in my mouth—or maybe it was so good because Elle was sitting across from me. I guess it wasn’t fair to judge Cora’s cooking ability when Elle was around; she always made everything better. I think they could have served me a grilled cheese sandwich, and I would have thought it was the best thing I had ever had.

  “Would either of you like dessert?” our server asked.

  Elle immediately spoke up, “No, thank you.”

  I smiled, “No, I’m fine, thanks.”

  “I will bring out your check,” she said, clearing the table.

  “So how was your food, Elle?”

  “It was better than I thought it could be. I think it was the best dinner I’ve ever had. How was yours?”

  “I was thinking the same thing. So are you ready to go?” I asked.

  “I would like to use the restroom first.”

  “Okay, I will pay and meet you at the front door.”

  “Are you sure you don’t want some money, Nicholas?”

  I didn’t even answer her. I just stared at her, showing just enough frustration to get my point across.

  “Okay, okay. I just thought I would ask again. I will see you in a minute.”

  Elle got up. As soon as she walked away there were some loud voices over by the bar that caught my attention. It was dark, so I couldn’t see what it was all about. Our server appeared next to our table. I was expecting her to leave the check, but she just stood there. When she didn’t put down the check, I looked up and met her eyes. She looked like she was seeing a ghost or something.

  “Are you okay, miss?”

  “I just wanted to tell you that it’s been an honor to serve you tonight. The manager has picked up the bill for you.”

  “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

  She smiled and said, “You don’t know me, but I know you. Someone who works here used to go to school with you and recognized you.”

  Her comments caught me off guard. Then it hit me. Someone here knew my secret and told the staff. Without hesitation I got up and walked with a quickened pace past the waitress and headed straight for the door. The people at every table I passed were staring at me. I avoided eye contact with everyone. I was getting close to the front door where Elle was already standing.

  “Alex, Alex! It’s me, Tina, Tina McBride!”

  Suddenly, she grabbed my arm. I wanted to rip my arm away, but I didn’t want to cause a scene. Elle’s back was still toward me, so there was a chance I could get out of here without Elle knowing anything happened.

/>   I looked directly into Tina’s eyes. The years hadn’t changed her much. “Tina, I know, it’s been a while.”

  “A while? It’s been five-plus years, and I owe you so much!”

  “Listen, I don’t have time to talk now. I promise that I will come back so we can catch up.”

  I moved past her and walked towards Elle, who was now facing us. I handed the valet my ticket at the door. I was hoping that Tina wouldn’t follow me outside.

  “So how did you know that waitress?”

  “She was at the football game when I got hurt.”

  “Did she want an autograph or a date?”

  “No, just making sure that I was okay.”

  “Well, I hope so. I would hate to have to beat up a girl on our first date.”

  I was too nervous to say something witty back; I was just concerned about getting out of there fast.

  The truck pulled up. I opened the door for Elle, not waiting for the valet. I walked around to the driver side of the truck. I glanced up and saw that the doors of the restaurant were full of people staring at me. I got in, hoping Elle didn’t look over to see all the people. Luckily, she was looking in a small compact mirror, putting on some lip gloss.

  Driving away, panic set in. What was I going to do? People now knew who I was and that I was living here in Winsor. I had to tell Cora, but if I did, we would be gone tomorrow, no questions asked. We had some close calls before, but never someone actually recognizing me. This was a first. If I told Cora, it would mean never speaking or seeing Elle again.

  “Nicholas, are you okay? You look like there’s something wrong.”

  I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that I had lines on my forehead from the thoughts I was having. I relaxed, eliminating the lines. “Yes, I’m fine. I just need my Tic Tacs.”

  Elle had been around me enough to know about my sickness. She took the pack I had in the cup holder and took out three for me. “Here.”

  I reached out to take them from her, but she pulled her hand back and said, “No, just open your mouth.” She then put them into my mouth one at a time. Her hand brushed my cheek slowly on the last one. Normally this type of thing would get me feeling nervous, stirring feelings that I was looking forward to, but I was too concerned about being recognized to allow these feelings to affect me.

  “Maybe the food was a little too rich for you, Nicholas.”

  I smiled. “Yeah, that has to be it.”

  “Nicholas, if you aren’t feeling well, we can finish our date another night. This won’t be our last one.” Her face was full of concern, looking closely at me. I had to fight the nausea, which was overwhelming, because I would probably be gone tomorrow.

  “No, Elle, I’ll be fine.” I tried to look as normal as possible.

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes, of course. I’ll be fine.”

  “So, what’s next?” she asked.

  “It’s a surprise.”

  It was just a thirty-minute drive to the small town of Newton. I was anxious to get out of the truck into the night air, hoping for some more relief. We pulled into the Eden Park entrance, where the Krohn Conservatory was having their annual butterfly exhibit.

  “Nicholas, I can’t believe you are bringing me here. I love butterflies!”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Nicholas Keller, don’t play dumb!”

  We pulled into the conservatory’s parking lot.

  “Nicholas, my parents always used to take me here during the butterfly show. This place means a lot to me.” She didn’t know it yet, but this place meant a lot to me too. “But Nicholas, I don’t think it’s open after 5 p.m.”

  “Don’t worry. I have it under control.”

  The Krohn Conservatory was a large glass building that resembled an old-world church. We walked up to the big glass doors, which opened for us.

  “Hey, Keller. Hello, Elle,” Matt said.

  “Matt, why are you here?” Elle asked.

  “My mother is the exhibit sponsor. Keller, you have two hours. Have a good time.” Even months after football, the guys still used my last name instead of calling me Nicholas. Matt walked into the office and disappeared.

  “Nicholas, this is amazing,” said Elle, smiling.

  She grabbed my hand and pulled me down the stairs to the rainforest exhibit. Everything was covered with different types of exotic plants. It had been a long time since I had been here, but it still looked the same. The same mini-river cut right down the center, filled with different types of colorful fish. We walked down the concrete path that ran along the stream. Off in the distance there was a two-story waterfall that fed the stream. Elle stopped to look at every plant, not wanting to miss anything. She didn’t speak, but she flashed a smile from time to time to make sure I knew she was really enjoying herself.

  We got to the massive waterfall and stood on the bridge that went across the stream right in front of the falls. The spray of the water felt good. We stood there hand in hand.

  “I love this place so much, Nicholas. It takes away all of my worries.”

  The words sparked my worries again. I got out my Tic Tacs.

  “Still sick?” she asked, looking concerned again.

  “Yes, a little, but being here with you sure helps. Come here.” I took Elle’s hand and walked her back behind the waterfall into a narrow stone passage that went all the way to the other side of the waterfall. The roaring sound of the water was quieted behind the stone wall. The stone passage was lit by several yellow built-in lights along the top of the wall.

  I stopped her halfway through the tunnel. I took her other hand, turning her to face me. “This is why I brought you here. When I was young, my dad used to bring me here. He would give me a quarter and tell me to hide it in the stones. He told me to make a wish, and if the quarter stayed hidden for at least a month, the wish would come true.” I pulled two quarters out of my pocket and handed her one.

  “So am I supposed to say the wish out loud, or is it like a birthday wish?”

  “Either is fine.”

  “I will say it out loud then. I’m so happy to have met someone so wonderful, honest, and handsome. My wish is that I will get to spend a lot more time with him.” She walked a couple of feet away from me and put the quarter up on a stone as high as she could reach. Elle walked back over to me.

  “I wish that you will always remember this night no matter what happens.” I placed the quarter between two stones right next to me.

  “You definitely got your wish, Nicholas, because I will never forget this, ever.” She took both my hands. “I promise I won’t forget. . . . Okay, let’s go look at the butterflies now.” She led me down the path to the butterfly exhibit.

  The rest of the evening was a complete blur. I became so preoccupied with having been recognized that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I could only think about what I was going to tell Cora. The car ride home was quiet.

  “Nicholas, are you sure everything is okay?”

  “Sorry, still feeling sick.”

  “Okay, good. No, I mean, I thought that it was something that I did or said.”

  “No, Elle, you didn’t do anything.”

  Her dazzling smile appeared. “That’s a relief.” She squeezed my hand.

  We pulled into her driveway. I got out of the truck and walked around to the passenger side to open the door for her. The nausea I had been feeling was now accompanied by my nerves. This could be the last time I would ever see Elle. We walked up the path to the front door.

  “Elle, I just want you to know how much I enjoy being with you. And no matter what happens, I want you to know how much I care for you.”

  “Nicholas, I feel the same way.”

  Just then the front door opened. Mr. Canan was standing there, arms crossed.

  Elle whispered, “Save that thought.” She winked and walked in past her dad.

  “Goodnight, Mr. Keller,” he said.

  “
Goodnight, Mr. Canan,” I said, and he shut the door.

  When I got home, Cora was sitting on the couch watching an old black and white movie. “So how was your date?” she asked.

  “It was okay.”

  “What? Just okay? What went wrong? Was the food at Wendell’s bad or something?”

  “No, the food was good, and Elle loved The Krohn Conservatory.”

  “Well then, what?”

  In the back of my mind I could hear our moving truck’s engine starting up. “Something happened at dinner.”

  Cora’s face became serious. “What happened?” she asked.

  “I got sick at the restaurant.”

  Her face became motherly. “Come on. Let’s get you to bed. I’m sorry you got sick on your date.” She gave me a gentle pat on my back. She followed me upstairs, and I went straight to bed.

 

  I didn’t sleep well the entire weekend. I didn’t get to see Elle all day Saturday or Sunday because she had relatives in from out of town. She tried to convince her parents to let me come over, but they wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t both her parents—it was just her dad for sure. I couldn’t sneak over to see her at night because two of her cousins were sleeping in her room. The stress from Friday night lingered throughout the rest of the weekend. But no matter how bad it got, I still didn’t tell Cora about what happened at Wendell’s.

  When my alarm finally went off Monday morning, I jumped out of bed just like I had the past two mornings and looked out the window to see if anyone was outside. No one was there. No press, no people, nobody. So for now I wouldn’t have to tell Cora, and I could stay here with Elle.

  I got onto the bus exhausted from lack of sleep. I just needed to see Elle; then everything would be better. I put my knees up on the seat and put my headphones on to block out all of the sounds around me. I closed my eyes. The bus jostled and bounced. The motion rocked me into a light sleep. A big bump jarred me awake. We had gone over the first speed bump before school. I sat up, pulling my headphones off. I couldn’t open my eyes. I was still so tired. The bus slowed, pulling in between two other parked buses. The door opened. It took me a second to realize that there were people rushing onto the bus, not off the bus, and they weren’t students or teachers.

  “Where is he? He’s got to be here!” Several voices shouted. The people storming the bus were carrying all different types of cameras.

  “There he is!”

  “It’s him!”

  There were flashes of light and a lot more shouting. I was stuck in my seat with nowhere to go. They were shouting questions at me.

  “Alex, where have you been? Why have you been hiding?” During the questions the lights kept flashing, making it impossible to see. I covered my face from the cameras. The mob had me cornered in my seat. I heard a familiar voice cut through the shouting people from the back of the bus. It was Coach Miller.

  “Keller, this way!”

  I couldn’t tell where he was exactly, so I fell out of my seat and pushed toward the back of the bus. Coach Miller had the emergency door open.

  “Quick, Keller, jump!”

  I jumped off the back of the bus. Coach Miller and Coach Hoff were now pushing the door closed on the reporters.

  “Run to my office as fast as you can. We will come for you when it’s safe,” Coach Miller shouted.

  I turned toward the building, and on cue my muscles tensed and the fire erupted in me. I ran toward the school and everything blurred around me. I had already turned the corner, so nobody could see me running this fast. The back door was propped open waiting for me. I ran in and down the dark corridor, turning into the varsity locker room. The lights were out except for Coach Miller’s office. I slammed the door behind me. I quickly turned off the lights and pulled the shades shut; then I slid down the door onto the floor. My heart was pounding out of my chest. The horrible fire burning in me was out of control. I could feel the fire creeping up my throat, searing it, leaving a bitter taste that made me gag. I scrambled to my knees, trying to control myself. I started searching the desktop for a phone. In my haste, I knocked it off the desk along with a bunch of other items. I felt around on the ground and found the phone. I picked up the receiver.

  I dialed our home number, but nothing happened. I kept trying to call, but I wasn’t able to get through. This was the perfect time when a cell phone would have come in handy. Cora’s restrictions were backfiring. I heard voices coming into the locker room. The door began to shake and it swung open. The light turned on, briefly blinding me. It was Coach Miller and Coach Hoff.

  “Keller,” Coach Hoff said. “Coach told you to wait in his office, not to go and trash it!”

  “I’m sorry. I was searching for the phone in the dark.” Not only had I destroyed his desk, but I had also managed to knock a stack of papers off his filing cabinet along with a couple of football trophies.

  “It’s okay. You must come with us now. I already called your mo—” Coach Miller stopped mid-sentence and corrected himself. “I called Cora. Let’s go, son. The reporters are gone.” Coach Miller helped me to my feet.

  We walked through the halls, which were empty except for a couple of teachers who looked like they were on guard duty. I entered a conference room near the guidance office. It was empty.

  “Keller, please take a seat.”

  I sat down on one of the plush black leather chairs that surrounded the large oval table. It had enough chairs for twenty people. I waited for only about thirty seconds, and then a steady parade of people came into the room. Most were dressed in suits and dresses. I recognized a couple of our school’s principals but didn’t know anyone else except for Coach Miller and Coach Hoff. Last through the door was Cora. Her face was cold, showing no emotion. She was still dressed in the pink and black workout clothing she had been wearing when I left for school. She may have been under-dressed compared to everyone else, but her presence commanded attention. The crowded room became silent.

  “Are you okay, Nicholas?” she asked me, turning her back to the crowd.

  “Yes, I am. I’m so sorry,” I whispered.

  “We will talk about this later. I’ll take care of everything.”

  “Ms. Keller, my name is Richard Spears. I am the superintendent here at Winsor.” He was not what I would expect a school superintendent to look like. He looked more like a game show host. His hair had at least an entire can of hairspray on it to keep it in place. He had on a suit, but he was wearing a bright orange golf shirt underneath it. “I just want to say what an honor it is to meet you.”

  Cora smiled but stayed silent.

  “We want you to know that the board and the faculty will do everything in our power to make Alex’s school experience normal. We will do whatever it takes.” Hearing him call me Alex flooded me with anxiety.

  “First of all,” Cora said firmly so no one would doubt her authority, “his name is Nicholas, and while I appreciate your offer, there is no need. We will be leaving immediately.”

  I stood abruptly. Everyone in the room flinched at my sudden movement. “I would like to have a moment with my—with Cora.”

  “Well, of course. Everyone out,” Superintendent Spears ordered. Everyone left the room.

  “What is it, Nicholas? Can’t this wait? We can talk about this when we are in the truck.”

  “No! Right now, Cora. I have been hiding for the past five years, never allowed to make friends or have relationships. And now I finally have friends and possibly even a girlfriend, and you want me to just run away again. I am not going to give that up. I’m not going to do it! Not right now.”

  “Nicholas, I’m trying to protect you. You have to—” Cora’s commanding demeanor was gone.

  “No, I don’t have to be protected anymore. The reporters may have been a reason to run when I was younger, but now I am old enough to handle it.”

  “Nicholas, there’s more that I’m trying to protect you from. You have to understand.”

 
“Like what? Make me understand.”

  Cora didn’t answer.

  “Okay then. I would like to wait until the end of the year before we make the decision to stay or leave. And this will be a decision that we will both make.”

  Cora stood.

  “Okay?” I said.

  “Yes, of course. If that’s what you want, then that’s what I’ll, I mean, we’ll do.” Cora walked to the door and opened it. I was stunned that it was that easy to convince her to stay. I was expecting more of a fight.

  The majority of the people that had been in the room before came in again. Cora spoke directly to Superintendent Spears.

  “Nicholas and I have decided that we are going to take you up on your offer. But if any of those reporters get to him or anything else happens to him, I will have you and this school in court so fast it will make your head spin. Do I make myself clear?”

  His smile disappeared. “Of, of, of course, Ms. Keller,” he stuttered. “We are going to have to keep Nicholas in this room for a while so we can make sure the staff is aware of what needs to be done to keep him safe. Is that okay?”

  Cora looked my way and I nodded yes to the request.

  “Well, okay, we will get to work.” Superintendent Spears regained some of his composure.

  “One more thing. I would like to pick him up from school at a different time and location each day. No more riding the bus. I don’t want anyone to find out where we live,” Cora said.

  “Can’t they just look you up?” a tall, skinny lady said in a snotty tone. She was standing right next to Superintendent Spears like she was second in command.

  “No, all of the addresses that we put on Nicholas’ school files are false. We live outside the school district,” Cora replied sharply, putting the woman in her place.

  The woman responded, “Is there anyone who knows where you live?” She now sounded like a mother concerned for her own child.

  I spoke up, “Only two people—Eric and Elle—but neither would tell anyone.”

  “We’ll make sure of that,” Superintendent Spears said, “but where will he be picked up each day?”

  “Never mind about that. Just allow Nicholas to come and go as he pleases, because I don’t trust any of you,” Cora said.

  “Ms. Keller, we are all honorable people here,” he said. The room started to buzz.

  “Superintendent Spears,” Cora said. The room quieted. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but it is amazing what money will do to people’s loyalty.”

  “Okay,” he said. “We will do anything and everything for the 10-10 Hero, whatever it takes.” Superintendent Spears said 10-10 Hero like he had been dying to use the name that the media had given me over five years ago. Hearing him say it was like nails scraping down a chalkboard.

  “Thank you, Superintendent Spears. That will be all,” Cora said in a dismissive tone.

  The room emptied again, leaving just Cora and me. Cora sat down next to me, putting her hand on my arm. I was prepared for it to burn me because of how I treated her earlier, but instead it was gentle and caring.

  “Nicholas, I’m not mad at you at all. I’m relieved. The last five years have been all about protecting you and keeping you safe. I was prepared to hide again, but for the first time in five years, you spoke up. I know, normally it is a bad thing for us to disagree, but this time it’s a good thing because it’s not just me anymore—it’s us. I will still try to protect you, but at least now we can make these decisions together.” Cora’s eyes were filled with relief.

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you are only trying to protect me from things I don’t see or really understand, but please know that I love you. I am so lucky to have you in my life.”

  Cora leaned forward and hugged me with such strength it knocked the wind out of me. “Nicholas, I am lucky to have you too. I love you!” She leaned back. “But you’re going to have to tell me everything when you get home.” She smiled.

  “So how will I get to school and get home?”

  “Let’s start with getting you home for now. Right before sixth period, I want you to go to the side garage where trucks back up to make deliveries and wait.”

  “You want me to skip seventh period?” I asked Cora.

  “It’s only art class and you’re getting an A.”

  “Okay, but then what?”

  “Don’t worry, you’ll know, but I have to go now to take care of some details to make sure this works. Will you be okay here?”

  “Yes, I’ll probably be going back to class soon anyway.”

  Cora stood. She leaned forward and gave me a quick hug, and then she was gone. I was alone in the conference room, waiting. I walked over to the only window in the room. I could see the front entrance. It seemed just like yesterday that Cora and I were walking in to register me for the first day of school. But now, past the main entrance, I could see the growing number of media at the entrance of the parking lot. Police had blocked them from gaining access to the lot. I sat back down and thought about everything I had just done. It was all done for Elle.

  I wondered who at the school knew what was going on with me. That was a stupid question. Of course, everyone did. News in a school spreads faster than wildfire, and with the press outside, they would have to know something was up. What was Elle thinking?

  I sat in that conference room through my first four periods. What was taking them so long?

  The door opened and in walked Joy Lemmins. Oh no, anyone but her. “Well, hello there, Nicholas. How are you today?” she asked.

  “Well, I’ve been in this room for about two and a half hours. How do you think I am?”

  “Oh, I’m sorry, deary. I just found out that they left you in here. If I had known earlier, I would have kept you company while the grown-ups were working hard to get things ready for you,” she said.

  “Ms. Lemmins, why have I been in here so long?”

  “Superintendent Spears called an emergency faculty meeting to talk about your special situation.”

  “What was said at the meeting?” I asked.

  “Well, everyone.”

  “No, I didn’t ask who was there; I asked what was said.”

  “I’m getting there, silly. You see, he wanted to get everyone together so he could first explain who you really are. I have to say, I knew you were a special boy. I knew that right from the beginning.” She was twirling her frizzy blonde hair around her finger.

  “Once he was done with your history, which we all knew very well, he gave us our assignments—how we are supposed to help you blend in and make the rest of your year as easy as possible, so you can stay here at Winsor. You are one of the most important students we have ever had. Even though one time we had these twin boys who starred in a bunch of commercials.

  “Mrs. Kitchen and Coach Miller should have finished talking to the last group of teachers by now. They should be here any minute.”

  Mrs. Kitchen was the tenth-grade principal. She was very strict. Well, that’s at least what Eric said. He had been sent to her office a couple times this year for being late. Even though she would always give him Saturday school, he still insisted that the school would spin out of control without her.

  “Nicholas, now for some counselor talk. Please, when you leave here, embrace who you are. There is no need to hide anymore; embrace the new you.”

  The door opened. It was Mrs. Kitchen and Coach Miller.

  “Mr. Keller, we have spoken to all of the staff. Superintendent Spears would like us to let you do whatever you want, but let me clarify that statement. Rules still apply to you. You must attend all of your classes. Do you understand?” Mrs. Kitchen said.

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

  “You may be late and leave early. You don’t have to check in when you get to school, but you do have to check in before you leave. You may check in with any of the three of us.”

  “He can just check in with me to make things easier,” Joy Lemmins blurted out
like she was hoping whoever said it first would be the lucky winner.

  “Thank you, but any one of us will do fine. Mr. Keller, I have tried to call Ms. Keller, but she is not home, so I would like you to know that we will be getting extra security to keep the press off of the property. That should help you to come and go from school more easily.”

  “Thank you, Mrs. Kitchen,” I said.

  “Coach Miller, will you take Mr. Keller to his fifth period class?”

  “Let’s go, Keller.”

  I got up and followed him out the door, thankful to get away from Joy Lemmins.

  “Let’s stop by my office first to get your bag,” he said, patting me on the back.

  We got to the locker room just as the fifth period bell rang. All of the stuff that I had knocked over was just piled up on his desk, still not in order.

  “Coach, sorry about your desk.”

  “No problem, son.” Coach handed me my bag and put his hand on my shoulder. “Nicholas,” he used my first name, which shocked me, “people may think they know who you are, but only you know who you are and what you can be. I will always be here for you.”

  “Thanks, Coach.”

  “Head on up to Coach Hoff’s class,” he said.

  “Don’t you need to walk me?” I asked.

  “Do you need me to wipe your nose too? Get out of here.” He smiled.

 

  In the hall, people were talking about me, whispering, “It’s him.” I ignored them. Finally, I got to Coach Hoff’s class. Elle was not at her desk yet. I sat down to wait for her.

  “So who are you—Alex or Nicholas? Do you have a split personality or something?” It was Oliver, of course. Now that my secret was out, he had gotten back some of his courage to bully me. “So what else have you lied to us about? Maybe you’re really twenty years old.”

  I turned and he was right next to my desk. My muscles started to react to the threat, but then a voice said, “Oliver, go sit down. Just because he kicks your butt in football and is more famous than you, doesn’t mean you need to be an idiot.”

  The class laughed. He turned around and Elle was there, defending me again. There was no smile on her face, no hint of her normal cheery self.

  “Oh, the girlfriend is being the hero for the hero. Not too tough, Keller, or should I call you Taylor?”

  “Sit down, Rails, or you can bully others in detention for the next two weeks,” Coach Hoff said, walking in.

  Oliver gave me a dirty look and said under his breath to Elle, “I know you wish you could be with a real man, not a liar like him.” Elle didn’t respond; she just sat down.

  Coach Hoff started class. I was feeling better, even with Oliver being his usual self again. I knew that Elle was right behind me, and that made everything better. In a few short moments we would be alone under the stairs.

  “Okay, class, see you after lunch.” I turned to Elle, but she was already getting up from her seat. Jennifer and Julie were next to her.

  “Elle, can we talk?” I asked.

  Jennifer and Julie looked at her and she nodded. They walked out of the class. She had no expression on her face; her eyes were hollow. The classroom was completely empty except for us.

  “I’m so glad to see you. I want to tell you—”

  “You want to tell me what? Another lie? Listen, Nicholas, if that is even your name, I thought that you trusted me. I thought we had something special.”

  “We do, but it is complicated, Elle.”

  “Obviously I wasn’t special enough. Nicholas, I would never do that to you. If you have any respect for me, you will never speak to me again.”

  She was gone and my stomach sank. I did all of this for her and now nothing. I sat back down in my seat. How could I go on living this life here without her? The darkness that used to fill my dreams was now all around me, suffocating me.

  I skipped lunch. I couldn’t be around anyone. I had eaten two packs of Tic Tacs. They weren’t really helping, but at least they were getting me through the rest of the day. I didn’t pay attention to my newly attained celebrity status. Everybody wanted to talk about what had happened during the earthquake. I didn’t speak. I ignored everyone, walking away from them if they tried to talk to me. I even had a couple of people ask me for autographs. Some of the teachers were worse than the students.

  I hadn’t seen Eric all day. At least I knew what to expect from him. He would make some smart comment about how popular I was, but then he would stop and treat me normal again.

  Only five minutes were left in my sixth period class. Cora wanted me to go to the delivery door and wait. She said I would know when it was time to leave. The bell rang. I got my stuff from my locker, checked in with Coach Miller, and walked down to the delivery area. I couldn’t concentrate; I was fixed on Elle’s comments. My heart ached for her. The pain was overpowering, making it hard for me to stand. She was everything to me, and now there was no hope, no light, just the darkness.

  “We are going to have a fire drill, so make sure to exit the building in a calm, orderly fashion,” Mrs. Kitchen announced over the PA.

  The fire alarm sounded, filling the halls with its ringing. This had to be what Cora was talking about. Classes started to file outside, surrounding the school. It was a large human shield. I looked for a helicopter, but there wasn’t one. A man in a delivery truck was waving to me. I rushed over to the truck; the back door opened.

  “Nicholas, get down in the back and hold on.” It was bumpy in the back of the truck. Luckily, I was able to hold onto the racking, which was filled with boxes on both sides. I had been in the back of the truck for five minutes when we finally stopped. I couldn’t see where we were. The driver grabbed a bag next to his seat and left. I stood there for another couple of minutes before the driver got back in, and we drove off again.

  “Excuse me, where are you taking me?”

  “I have a couple more stops, and then I am dropping you off near your house. Cora figured that if I kept making my deliveries, no one would think you were with me.” Sure enough, he continued making his deliveries. His two stops were more like ten.

  An hour later he said, “Okay, Nicholas, here’s your stop.” Weary from holding on during the bumpy ride, I was happy to hear it was time to get out. I opened the back door and hopped out.

  “See you tomorrow, kid.”

  Tomorrow? Was this my new bus service? What had I gotten myself into? Without Elle, was all of this really worth it?

  The front door opened before I could touch the doorknob.

  “Hello, Nicholas, how was school?” she asked just like every other day.

  “It was okay, I guess.” I was confused.

  “You have some explaining to do,” she said.

  Cora then made me relive the last four days. I started by telling her about my date in full detail, then all of the stuff that happened at school, and how everyone now wanted to talk about what had happened during the earthquake. I ended the story with what happened with Elle. Cora just listened, nodding her head every so often.

  “I know it’s hard, but it will get better. Are you hungry?”

  “No, I’m not hungry. I just want to start packing. I know you have a backup school for me. Let’s go.” I was close to losing it. I sat down and took some deep breaths.

  “Nicholas, I know this must feel like the worst day ever, but you made the decision to stay, and this time I agree. You may have done this for Elle, but now you have to stick with it. Nicholas, something deep inside you made this decision, and you need to find out why.”

  She continued, “And don’t worry about Elle.” I looked up at her in disbelief. “Girls sometimes act irrationally. Give her some time. Your secret is a lot for anyone to handle, even Elle. Think about it. You have had over five years of living with it, and you still don’t like it. She has had only five hours. Give her time.

  “Okay, now you have to eat. You need your strength. Go up to your room and I will bring you some
thing.”

  The black fog had lifted while I was at home, but the hole in my chest was still there. I hoped Cora was right about Elle just needing time. If not, I was back to square one.

  Cora came into my room with a full plate of mini hamburgers. Of course, they had a couple of Cora’s gourmet twists to them with fresh veggies and hunks of melted cheese.

  “Now, I hope you like them. Drink this Sprite for your sick stomach. It should help.” She sat down next to me on the bed and turned on the TV.

  “So what do you want to watch?”

  “Don’t care.”

  “Do you mind if I watch the early, early news? There is a recipe I was wanting to get.”

  No sooner did she turn on the channel than I heard, “The 10-10 Hero is believed to be attending Winsor High School under another name.”

  Cora quickly turned it off. “Well, I guess I should have seen that coming, but it doesn’t mean we have to watch it.” She turned on the old movie channel. A black and white Western was playing.

  “Cora, how am I going to get to school and home again every day?”

  “I am going to drive you to a different bus stop each day. There are thirty buses and thousands of stops between them, so there’s no way the media can cover all of them. And then you will be coming home with Steve on his delivery truck.”

  “The delivery truck?”

  “Yes, the delivery truck. Steve has been making deliveries to the school for twenty years. There is no way for him to be linked to you or me.”

  “But how am I going to get out to his truck? There can’t be a fire drill every day.”

  “Of course not. He picks up the school’s deliveries in a large cart when he backs up to the dock. You will hide out in the cart and he will load you into his truck.”

  “Cora, why didn’t I do that today?”

  “I didn’t want anyone in the school to know how you were getting home. So please don’t tell anyone, even if it is a teacher, friend, or principal. Especially don’t tell that dingy counselor, Joy Loving.”

  “You mean Joy Lemmins.”

  “Loving, Lemmins, whatever. She is unbalanced. We have been able to keep you hidden for five years; keeping you from the media should be a piece of cake. Well, I better start fixing dinner.”

  She left me alone. I set the plate of half-eaten burgers down and put my head on my pillow.

  I awoke when Cora called me down for dinner. Cora had fixed a three-course meal. I wasn’t hungry, but she had made my favorites: Caesar salad; pot roast and mashed potatoes with glazed carrots; and apple cobbler for dessert. I was still full from the burgers, but I ate everything.

  “Cora, how can I give Elle time when all I want to do is call her to explain?”

  Cora put down her fork and knife. “You don’t want to ignore her, but you don’t want to crowd her either. Calling her would be a bad idea. If you need to communicate with her now, write her a letter.”

  “And do what with it?”

  “Well, that’s for you to decide. You can give it to her or just throw it away. Either way, it will make you feel a little better, and it will also give her some space. But remember, if you want to give it to her, you need to wait because she needs time. She will let you know when it’s time to talk.”

  “But when—”

  Cora stopped me mid-sentence, answering my question. “Don’t worry. You will know when she wants to talk.”

  I walked back up to my room. I grabbed a pencil and paper and started to talk—write—to Elle.

  Dear Elle,

  There is so much I would like to tell you. First, I am so sorry. You were right. I should have trusted you enough to tell you everything. For the last five years, I have always avoided any type of relationship with anyone, but after I met you, I was not able to keep myself away. I just wanted to be near you. Your beautiful smile melted away all of my defenses. In the beginning, I wanted to tell you everything, but I didn’t know how. I know it’s no excuse, but I haven’t had much experience in this area.

  I want to answer a question you asked me. Remember when you wanted to know how I liked the last town that I moved from? I didn’t know why I couldn’t answer you, but now I know. The last town I lived in was lifeless, black and white, forgettable. Come to think of it, every town I’ve lived in for the past five years was like that. The reason they were like that was because you weren’t there making everything come alive. I can’t imagine a place without you that I would like.

  Please forgive me!!!! I will answer every question you ask.

  Yours,

  Nicholas

 

  “Nicholas, wake up. Come on, get up. You can’t need any more sleep. You’ve been asleep for 12 hours.”

  I felt so alive, no sickness at all. I showered and dressed. I met Cora at the bottom of the stairs. She handed me a bagel and cream cheese and a cup of apple juice. I ran back upstairs to get Elle’s letter. Last night I was positive that I was going to throw the letter away, but now I was sure I was going to give it to her. I was confident that giving her the letter was for the best. Cora was already in the truck waiting for me.

  “Are you okay, Nicholas?”

  “Yeah, I feel great, Cora. I don’t know how to explain it. This is the best I’ve ever felt.”

  “Well, that’s good, considering the day you had yesterday.” Cora was staring at me. She looked concerned. I couldn’t blame her. Last night I was dying, and today I feel more alive than ever.

  “Not sure why, but I’m feeling like I can take on the world. So where are you taking me to get on the bus today?”

  “I’m taking you to a bus stop on Hanover Court. I’ve got all of the stops mapped out for the rest of the year. Those poor reporters,” she snickered.

  “Okay, the bus should be coming now,” Cora said as we pulled up to the stop. Sure enough, the bus was at the end of the street.

  “Nicholas, don’t worry about anything. Everything will work out.”

  “Okay.” I knew she was right.

  I walked over to the bus stop with the rest of the kids. Cora waved. I smiled and waved back. The bus driver didn’t seem shocked to see me, but everyone else on the bus was. I sat down and the bus began to buzz with excitement.

  “Hey, Nicholas.”

  “Hey, great to see you.”

  “Are you going to be riding our bus?”

  Smiling, I tried to acknowledge everyone who talked to me. It was weird but today, instead of sinking down in my seat and trying to hide, I embraced the idea of everyone wanting to talk to me.

  We went over the first speed bump before the school. That’s when I saw what looked like a large festival. There were news vans, tents, and trailers everywhere. People were swarming like ants. There were several police officers directing traffic. As a reflex, I ducked down in my seat. To my surprise, the people on the bus saw me and reacted in their own way. They put their backs up against the windows to block anyone from seeing inside the bus. They were protecting me. When we got through the sea of news people, everyone relaxed and sat back down in their seats. It made me feel so good that everyone on the bus would protect me.

  We pulled up to the bus drop-off, and unlike yesterday, I was able to get off the bus without being mobbed. I walked toward the school, but then without thought, I turned and headed toward the sea of reporters. What was I doing? I had to confront them. I had to speak to them, but why? What would I say? What was the point of me going down there? The school and the students were willing to do so much to protect me, to make sure I was safe, but I didn’t want them to have to protect me. It wasn’t fair for one student to cause this much trouble for everyone. I couldn’t be that selfish.

  Halfway between the buses and the reporters stood one lone police officer. He was the barrier between them and the school. His eyes were focused on the growing blob of media that oozed in every direction, trying to get as close to the school as possible.

  When I was a couple of feet away from h
im, he turned and said, “Hey, you don’t belong down here, kid!”

  “I’m sorry, officer, I forgot something down there.”

  He put his arm up to stop me.

  “Trust me, I forgot something.” I walked by him and I didn’t look back. I was so close to them now. It was too late to turn back. When I got to the edge, a couple of reporters saw me. Electricity ran through the group; a wave of reporters surrounded me, shouting all types of questions. Okay, I’m here. Now what?

  I cleared my throat and the crowd went quiet.

  “Hi, my name is Alexander Nicholas Taylor Keller.”

  The crowd erupted into a chorus of questions. It was deafening. I held up my hand like a teacher does to quiet a classroom, and to my surprise, it worked.

  “If you would like me to continue, then you must be quiet.” The majority of them quieted down and shushed the other reporters who were still talking.

  “As I said before, my name is Alexander Nicholas Taylor Keller. I have been in hiding for the last five and a half years. My aunt and I decided that it was best for me to hide so that I could have a normal life. As you can see,” I motioned to the crowd surrounding me, “we were right.

  “We moved here earlier this year and I have been attending Winsor High School all year. The entire school has been great to me, even willing to help me avoid you. But I can’t allow the school to treat me differently than any other student. It’s just not fair. I know you have questions for me, and that’s fine because I will answer as many as I can. That’s the reason why I came down here this morning, but it has to be my way. I will only take questions in writing, sent to the school and addressed to me. I will also do interviews by written request only.” All at once the group exploded with questions. I held up my hand again. They quieted, but not as quickly as before.

  “But if you continue to stay out in front of the school or show up anywhere else to find me or harass any of my friends, I will not answer any questions. I will go back into hiding, and this time you will never find me. You have one day to leave here.” I turned and walked toward the school. They shouted more questions at me, but I ignored them. They followed me up to the police officer. He struggled to push them back, but managed.

  “You forgot something, huh?” the police officer said.

  “Yes, I did.” All of my actions were automatic. I was on cruise control. Something inside me was controlling everything. I knew that if I followed it, everything would end up perfectly.

  I patted my jacket where Elle’s note was safely tucked away. Closer to the school, I could see two people standing outside by the main entrance, waiting for me—Principal Kitchen and Superintendent Spears. Mrs. Kitchen was smiling and Spears’ face was beet red. He looked like he had swallowed a whole bottle of hot sauce.

  “What do you think you are doing, young man? We just watched you on the morning show.” Spears spat out the words like they were venom.

  “Talking to the media,” I said.

  “Well, I can see that. You should have talked to me, I mean us, about that decision. We went to great lengths to keep your secret and to keep the media away, and now on the first day with the new restrictions, you go out to greet them. What were you thinking?”

  “Well, Superintendent Spears, the way I look at it, I just saved the school a lot of money because I won’t need all of this extra security. I am just like any other student now.”

  “But, but—” He looked like he was going to explode.

  “Thank you, Mr. Keller, for thinking of the school,” said Mrs. Kitchen. “We are both happy. Right, Superintendent Spears?” He didn’t move or even acknowledge Mrs. Kitchen. “Well then, off to class, Mr. Keller, and please don’t be late again or next time, detention,” she said with a smile.

  The first four classes went smoothly, no problem. I talked to everyone who talked to me, and even some who didn’t. I still felt so alive. I even carried on a conversation with Melissa and Erin in biology. Their perpetual jabbering didn’t bother me at all for once. At last, no secrets. This new freedom was exhilarating. I headed to Coach Hoff’s class, excited to see Elle and give her the note.

  The hall between fourth and fifth period was unusually packed with people. Standing in front of Coach Hoff’s classroom was Oliver with a couple of his friends. It didn’t matter who was out front because all that mattered was seeing Elle. Could this be the day when Oliver just smiled, or better yet, turned away?

  “So you think you’re some big shot being on TV?” He was speaking a lot louder than his normal bullying. I realized he was doing this out here on purpose for everyone to see. He got what he wanted; everyone was watching us. His audience.

  “Oliver, what do you want?”

  “I don’t want anything. I just want you to get out of my school. You’re a big fake, Nicky—oops, I mean Alex, or whatever your name is. Some hero. Who knows, you could have lied about that too. And your parents are probably still alive and well.” He began to laugh.

  The force and speed with which I pinned Oliver against the wall knocked his friends to the ground and petrified him. There was no fire inside me; I was completely in control. My heart was pounding hard, but not quickly. My rage was controlled—no sudden jerks of movement or any sudden force of power. My strength and speed were smooth and precise.

  “Oliver, you may call me Nicholas if you’d like.” He struggled, but my forearm was under his chin, holding him firmly in place. “You shouldn’t worry about what people call me, and just because they put you on a couple of billboards does not make this your school. You shouldn’t worry about me so much. You should probably worry about yourself.” While I held him there, I couldn’t see his friends, but I knew they weren’t going to try anything. They were backing up, putting distance between themselves and Oliver.

  “Oliver, you’re a loser,” someone yelled from the crowd. I let Oliver down from the wall.

  “You think you have what it takes, Keller?” He coughed. “You think you are captain’s material? Then I challenge you to the rite of passage.”

  Several people around us were giving him evil looks and saying things under their breath. I looked through the crowd making sure Elle was not there to see what had just happened. The last thing I wanted her to see right before I gave her the note was this ugly incident or Oliver challenging me to the rite of passage. Coach Hoff was walking straight down the hall toward the classroom. He looked at me and gave me a big way-to-go, that’s-what-I’m-talking-about wink. I turned back toward Oliver, but he was gone.

  I walked into the classroom. I received a round of applause from some of the students already in there, but then my heart sank. Elle wasn’t there. I searched the room and saw Jennifer and Julie, but no Elle. For the first time all day, I grabbed my Tic Tacs and took two. Where was she? Why was she not in class? My confidence faded. I felt like everything I had done was for nothing if there was no Elle. Coach Hoff dismissed us immediately for lunch. I had every intention of going to eat in the lunchroom because I felt like being around people, but the staircase now seemed to call to me.

  I sat alone under the stairs, eating my lunch. I was so ready to see her and give her the letter I had written, but now I didn’t know if I could. What if she was changing classes or changing schools? I was being ridiculous. Her parents would never move her because of me.

  The door opened, but then there was silence, no sounds of anyone going up the stairs. I heard a few soft footsteps, and then she appeared in front of me. I blinked my eyes several times to make sure she was not an illusion. It was her. She wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t look upset. I jumped to my feet, banging my head on a step. I grabbed the letter from my jacket and handed it to her. I didn’t say anything. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t think it was time to talk.

  “Nicholas, you can come over tonight,” she said, then turned and walked away.

  I felt better after lunch, even though she didn’t talk to me or look at me during class. Having confronted the media that
morning, I decided not to bother riding the delivery truck home. It didn’t seem necessary anymore. I walked out to the bus and noticed that there were half as many news vans and tents as before. The only remaining crews were breaking down their mobile newsrooms. Feeling good, I sat back in my seat, but sank down just in case it didn’t work with everyone.

  Cora was waiting for me at home with her arms folded. “So you’ve decided to do whatever you want now?”

  “What are you talking about?” I asked.

  “Going and talking to the media—what else could I be talking about?”

  “You told me that I had to find my reason for staying here,” I reminded her impatiently.

  “Yeah, and how does talking to the media help that?”

  “I don’t know. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

  “Nicholas, I am trying to protect you and you are making it difficult.”

  “What are you protecting me from now?”

  “This may work for a little while, but when they realize you’re not going to do interviews, they will be back and will try to find you.” Cora looked as angry as Superintendent Spears. Was she trying to control me too? “Nicholas, you still have to do what I say,” she continued. “Just because we aren’t moving, doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.”

  “So whatever happened to both of us making decisions together?” I asked.

  “That option flew out the window when you decided to talk to every news person without talking to me first. You are going to do what I tell you to do, and that’s that,” she fumed.

  “Cora, you are not my mom!” The words left my mouth full of anger and regret.

  “You’re right, I’m not Beth—” Cora stopped mid-sentence and stormed into the house.

  I went upstairs to my room. I could hear a distant storm approaching. The thunder rumbled and the flashes of lightning were faint, but close enough to light up my dark room. The thick clouds made everything grey, eliminating all of the colors around me. I had a weird feeling that the storm was an indicator of things to come.

  Cora came to my door and knocked. I didn’t have a chance to answer before she said, “There is food in the fridge when you are hungry.”

  “Cora,” I said, but there was no answer. She was already gone. It’s amazing how great and alive I felt this morning, but now I didn’t feel that way. The storm was getting louder. I didn’t feel like eating—I was still too angry—but I had to eat. It was going to be a long night. Plus, I couldn’t ask Cora for the truck for fear of starting another conversation that would end with her forbidding me to go to Elle’s. I would have to walk.

  In the fridge was a plate that looked like a Thanksgiving feast with all of the fixings. I grabbed just the turkey off the plate and some bread to make a sandwich. I took my sandwich to my room. I ate my dinner in the seclusion of my room and turned my thoughts back to Elle. Cora and I would be okay, but I wasn’t sure about Elle and I. She wanted to see me, but who knows what that meant? I could only hope that our visit tonight would be the first step toward getting past this.

 

  I was counting the minutes until I could leave. I looked at the clock. Only 8:30—two more hours until I would be with Elle. I closed my eyes, concentrating on her. I slowly drifted to sleep. My muscles tightened and I stopped breathing. Was I asleep? I couldn’t breathe; it felt like a 1,000-pound weight was crushing my chest. I struggled to move my arms and legs. I started to panic because I couldn’t get air. I thought I was done with these types of dreams. What was going on?

  I tried with all of my might to raise my arm to push the weight off of me. I managed to squirm away, to free myself from the weight. The crushing sensation was now replaced by a peculiar tingling in my arm. The tingling felt like small bee stings with a warm feeling radiating from them.

  Cora had hold of my arm, shaking me to wake up. Still disoriented I yelled, “What’s happening? What are you doing to me?”

  “You were dreaming and hit the lamp off your nightstand.”

  I looked down beside the bed, and my lamp was shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces.

  “Lie still and let me check your arm.”

  The stinging feeling was a gash from hitting the lamp. The warm sensation was blood running down my arm. She held my arm tight, picking the pieces of the lamp out of the cut.

  “Doesn’t look like you need stitches. Now you stay still until I get something to clean this cut.”

  I watched Cora glide out of the room. It was 10:00 p.m. I sat up.

  “Where do you think you’re going? I have to clean it out,” Cora said, coming back in holding a first aid kit.

  “It’s fine. I have to be somewhere.”

  “No, you don’t. That cut needs cleaning and it’s a school night.”

  “Cora, please understand. I have something very important to do. I have to be somewhere. May I go?”

  “Does this have to do with a certain girl that wasn’t speaking to you?”

  “Yes, it does.”

  “Okay, I will still need to clean this first and then you may go.” She quickly cleaned the cuts and put a bandage on it.

  “Okay, Nicholas, you’re all set, but please don’t be too late.”

  I was going to have to run fast; it was already 10:15.

  “Nicholas, one more thing. We are going to have a talk about those dreams because there’s something I need to tell you about them. Also take the truck tonight. I don’t want you to be late.”

  “Thanks, Cora, and yes, we will talk.”

  I ran down the stairs and grabbed the keys off the kitchen table. The rain had stopped, but I could still hear and see the distant thunder and lightning. The humid spring air formed a thick fog, making it hard to see. Luckily our truck had fog lamps. Without them, it would have been faster to run than to drive in this fog. The drive took longer than usual, which gave me time to think about what I was going to say to Elle. I parked a couple of houses down from hers.

  All of the lights were off in her house, making it invisible in the fog. I walked to the back of the house, ducking under each window just in case her parents were still up. I saw some light cutting through the fog—a light from her room. The window was open. I maneuvered my body through the small opening and landed quietly in her room. The familiar smell of vanilla was in the air and it calmed my nerves.

  I turned to see that none of her lights were on, just a nightlight by her bed. That was the light I had seen from the backyard. She was sitting in her round chair in the corner of her room. She was wearing pink pajamas and a pair of fuzzy purple socks. I wanted to tease her about her socks but held back because I was sure this wasn’t the time for that. Even in her pajamas she was still breathtaking. Her hair was pulled back with two sticks that looked like fancy painted chopsticks, holding it up in a bun. She also was wearing her glasses. I had only seen her in glasses one other time.

  I walked slowly to her, but she didn’t look up. What was I supposed to do? She sat still, never making any movements or acknowledging my presence. I wanted to say something, but I was not sure what to say or do to make this better. I knew that I had to make her understand everything, but this was not the time to do that. She needed more time to deal with everything. She would speak to me when she was ready, and I was prepared to wait. I sat down next to the chair and leaned my head against it. Time moved fast, even in the silence of her room.

  She stood up after two hours and walked to her bed. I stood up quickly. She got into bed and looked at me. Her eyes told me it was time to go.

  “Can I come back tomorrow night?” My heart pounded, anticipating her answer. It seemed like an eternity before she nodded yes.

  “Goodnight, Elle, and thank you for letting me come over.” I pulled myself up through the open window.

  The next night was exactly like the first—mostly just sitting in silence. I was happy being near her, even if we didn’t talk. If this was how it was going to be, I would happily acce
pt it just so I could be around her. Cora didn’t stop me from going to Elle’s house, and she never brought up my dreams either.

  I arrived at Elle’s house at 10:30 on Thursday night. Her parents were still up watching TV, so I took more time sneaking around the windows before sliding down through her open window.

  “Why did you keep those secrets from me?”

  I spun around, surprised to see Elle right in front of me instead of in her chair. All of her lights were on, and she was still dressed in the clothes she had worn to school. She had been crying.

  “Nicholas, before you answer me, you’d better tell me the truth from now on because you have only one more chance.” She sat down on the edge of her bed.

  “Please, Elle, I know that there are going to be parts that you will want to ask questions about, but you have to let me tell you everything first.”

  “Okay,” she said.

  “Before I start, my football injury was fake.” I quickly continued before she could respond. “When we were at the restaurant, someone recognized me. It was Tina, out of all the people to see me. Tina McBride was one of the people that I pulled out of our collapsing school during the 10-10 Earthquake. When she saw me, of course she wanted to talk to me, but all I was trying to do was escape so that my secret would stay hidden. You see, for the last five and a half years I have been taught to avoid being the center of attention, taught to blend in. That is why I had to fake my injury, because I was getting too much attention on the field. You may know the part of my past that everyone seems to think they know, but I’m going to tell you what really happened that day during the earthquake. I have never told anybody this, not even my Aunt Cora.

  “I was in fifth grade. It was October 10th, the day the earthquake struck the New Madrid Fault Line. Everyone remembers where they were when it happened. A couple of students and I had just been called in from recess to Ms. Rush’s class when the quake hit. There was a loud sound like a train running into a brick wall. I can still hear it now. The walls and windows began to shake, and the ceiling started to fall in. I managed to run through the falling debris and make it outside, but when I realized that Mark, Tina, and Ms. Rush weren’t behind me, I ran back into the collapsing school without thinking.

  “I saw Mark first. He was on the floor with a large cut on his leg from concrete that had fallen on him. I managed to get him up and outside. The earthquake had stopped for a moment, so I ran back in to find the others. I couldn’t tell where the classroom was because of the extreme damage that the quake had done. I yelled for Tina and heard her crying under part of a fallen wall, which was braced up by some desks. I got down on all fours, crawled in, and saw Tina trapped and covered in blood. I pulled her out from under the wall using all of my strength. Her screams sounded like she was dying, but I dragged her free.

  “When I got back outside, some of the teachers and students were coming over toward us. Then the first of the major aftershocks hit. People were yelling and screaming again, but instead of fear, I just thought of Ms. Rush still trapped inside. I started to run back inside, even though everything was still shaking. I think some of the teachers closest to me yelled for me to stop and even tried to stop me, but I went in anyway. This time the partial walls that were still standing were swaying from the aftershock. I was yelling for Ms. Rush, but heard no answer. I spotted her large wooden desk covered by parts of the ceiling. I made my way around the twisted metal and fallen walls. I saw her leg sticking out from under her desk. She must have ducked under it when the earthquake hit. She was lying there motionless. I reached under the desk and pulled her out. I couldn’t drag her over the debris because she would have gotten hurt worse. I didn’t want to leave her to go get help because, with the aftershocks, I was sure she would probably die. So I reached down and picked her up.

  “I’m not sure how I had the strength to do it, but I did. The school began to shake from another aftershock, and I knew it was about to collapse. I moved swiftly through the broken school. Right as we cleared the building, it caved in on itself. There I stood, holding Ms. Rush in my arms in front of what used to be our school.”

  I paused for a moment to catch my breath, and then I continued. “That morning, there were strange looking lights in the sky, which everyone had been taking pictures of before the earthquake. I later read that those lights are called earthquake lights. They sometimes form before large seismic events. So someone who had been taking pictures of the lights took a photo of me holding Ms. Rush. Cora and I still don’t know who took it, but that picture changed my life and sent me into hiding.

  “No one at the school realized how big the earthquake was at first. I didn’t know yet that while I was getting them out of the school, thousands of other people were dying, including my mom and dad. I spent most of the day waiting at the school for my parents to come and get me, but my Aunt Cora showed up instead.

  “Several news people showed up at my house when they heard what I had done and saw the picture of me holding Ms. Rush. They asked me why I ran into the school, and I answered, ‘Because I had to save them. It was my responsibility.’ I had no idea what I was saying. I was only ten years old. The next thing I knew, the picture was everywhere with the caption, ‘Alex Taylor, the 10-10 Hero.’ Then reporters from all over the world wanted to talk about what happened and about my mom and dad. The world became obsessed with making me a hero, even though thousands of people died and there were hundreds of other heroes out there.

  “A week later, my Aunt Cora woke me up early and took me to visit my parents’ graves, and then we disappeared. She told me that she wanted me to have a normal life and my mom and dad would have wanted that too. So for the past five and a half years, we have moved every year to a different town and school in order to protect me and keep my identity hidden. That’s why I used my middle name and my mom’s maiden name.

  “But things changed when I got here. Everything just clicked for me. All of a sudden, I was good at football and I made actual friends. Then there was you. Cora and I would have normally moved after all of the attention I was getting, but I didn’t want to leave you. I knew that I would eventually have to move away and never see or speak to you again, but I was selfish. I did everything in my power to postpone moving just so I could be with you longer.”

  I wasn’t looking at Elle. I was looking at the ground, scared to look up. “Elle, I am so sorry for not telling you the truth. You are the last person I would ever want to hurt. You are the reason why I am still here and why I confronted the reporters. I couldn’t imagine not seeing you.” I looked up and her eyes were filled with tears.

  “Nicholas, I am the one who should be sorry. I was the selfish one. The things you have gone through are things I could never have done.”

  “So does this mean you forgive me, Elle?”

  Crying and laughing at the same time, she threw her arms around me.

 

  “Cora, I have something to tell you,” I said while getting ready to leave for school.

  “You don’t need to thank me. I knew she would come around. If not, I would have gone over there and straightened her out.” She did a small curtsy.

  “No, it’s not about that. It’s about a secret I have been keeping from you.”

  She looked at me with an expression that said, “Please, I know everything, even if you think it’s a secret.”

  “I have been attacked two times since we’ve been here.”

  Her expression changed to panic. “What do you mean attacked? By Oliver?”

  “No, there’s a truck that has been following me around ever since we moved here. The first attack happened on the practice field, and the other one was outside our house when I was waiting for Eric.”

  She didn’t move. “You mean the fallen tree outside the house?”

  I nodded.

  “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asked.

  I didn’t answer because it was obvious—I didn’t want to leave Elle.


  “We will talk about this later.” She disappeared upstairs.

  What? I just got done telling her that I had been attacked twice, and all she said was, “We will talk about this later”? That seemed to be her answer to everything now.
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