"Shoot! Stop! Grab them!"
A honey brown-haired girl was clawing forwards to reach the glasses that had slipped past her fingers. From the way she was stumbling it was clear that her vision without the glasses was severely lacking.
The hallway outside the Valley View High School gymnasium was slowly starting to empty after the home team Cougars had defeated the Invaders of West Scranton. The glasses in question had skittered to a stop near where the visiting basketball team was starting to emerge from their locker room right below the "Winter Formal '97" banner. Before she could reach them, she heard a crunch and the sound of the boys laughing. As her heart fell she heard a separate voice speak up over the hum.
"Hey, not cool man."
A blurry form stooped to pick up the broken pieces of plastic off the floor. "Sorry about that, some of the guys on the team turn into real jerks after a loss."
Before she could formulate a response two more blurry forms swooped in and started slapping the boy who had talked to her on his chest and back.
"Hey, way to lose little bro!"
"Yeah man, you know what they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
"Since we don't have any grenades this will have to do!"
The young man in question immediately had to cover his face as his brothers' slaps exploded into clouds of cloying stink powder. He did his best to protect the glasses so the pungent grit wouldn't get on them. Setting his jaw, he frowned as his brothers ran off laughing. Looking around he saw the girl who had obviously lost the glasses standing a short distance away.
"Sorry about those two and the smell. Those were my older brothers and they're the self- proclaimed kings of practical jokes. I think these are yours?"
"Thanks," she said with a shy smile as she took them back and tried to fit the broken ends of her glasses together. "Stupid things are always slipping off my face. I had a pencil behind my ear and was going to move it when they just flew off my head." She didn't know where it came from, but the simple act of kindness he had shown her had burned away the dread that had started to fill her as soon as she heard the stomp of the sneaker that had shattered her frames.
"Don't mention it. Hey, wait a sec, weren't you the one who was sketching in the stands during the second half?"
She felt her cheeks flame. "Yeah, it's just a hobby of mine. Dorky, I know. I mean really, who does that?"
"Jamie! We gotta get going! Stop fraternizing with the enemy and get on the bus!" The voice of the boy who had crushed the glasses echoed slightly across the hall.
He looked over his shoulder to where his teammates were starting to file out the doors to their bus. "I gotta get going...I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"It's Morgan," she answered.
"Morgan," he tried it out. "Cool. If I ever see you around you gotta show me what you were drawing." He was starting to walk backwards to the exit.
"Yeah sure," she called after him. A soft, "see ya," escaped her lips as he turned and jogged to catch up with the team and disappeared past the double doors leading outside. She didn't know why but she suddenly felt a little sad that he had left.
She was still standing there when she heard an excited squeal and felt the form of her best friend Isabel collide into her side and grab her arm. "Morg! Who was that cutie?"
Morgan couldn't help it and felt herself grin. "Oh, just a guy from West Scranton."
"Going to see him this weekend? I know for a fact you have no plans. If you say no, I swear I'm going to set you up with the first guy who talks to you. Or maybe you'll finally say yes to Roy. I heard he wants to ask you out again."
"Nice try. Didn't get his number or anything. Who am I kidding anyway? He'll probably forget all about me before he gets back. Probably has a girlfriend or something. Besides I don't even know what he looks like. It was literally all just a blur, and that was before his brothers showed up and covered him in a stink bomb. As for Roy, yeah, he's nice and all, but I don't know. " She took a deep breath.
"Boys," they said at the same time.
Isabel brightened up at once and quickly shouted. "Jinx! You owe me a Coke!" The look of shock was clear on Morgan's face. Isabel was delighted. "Hey, don't blame me. Once an oboe player, always an oboe player and it was you who said the rules of jinx are unflinchingly rigid."
The two girls made their way over to the concession stand. Morgan's look of dejection only grew as the cashier rolled down the metal door closing up shop just as they approached. Isabel only grinned mischievously. "Oh, this is going to be fun," she told her friend."
They turned to leave when a new voice called after them. "Hey, Morgan! Wait up!"
Roy Anderson was jogging to catch up to the two girls. He was slightly breathless and flushed with excitement. "Hey, just wanted to know what time I should pick you up for that hockey game tomorrow?"
Morgon felt her brow furrow. She hadn't actually agreed to go with him to the minor league game. The fact that he was simply assuming it was a foregone conclusion that she'd go with him irked her. For once in her high school life she was relieved for an excuse to keep quiet. The feeling didn't last though.
"Pick her up at six." Isabel told him. Morgan's eyes grew wide and she wordlessly gaped at her friend.
Roy however was beaming. "Great! See you then!" He dashed off to continue celebrating the recent win with the rest of his teammates.
Isabel only smiled at her friend as she started to drag Morgan to the parking lot to her car so they could drive home. Morgan was sure there was steam rising from her head as Isabel started the car and made her way into the traffic leaving the school. They only paused on their route for a quick pit stop at a gas station.
"Coke! Go!" Isabel pointed to the racks of red and white bottles inside.
A quick trip inside and Morgan was back and officially un-jinxed. "What did you do that for!"
"What?" Isabel asked with a smile. "Can't say I didn't warn you."
"I don't know the first thing about hockey!"
"What's to know? Hit the puck with the stick. Get it in the goal. Do that more than the other team. Cheer for the Penguins. Pig out on soda and nachos, nothing to it."
Morgan didn't answer her. Rather she crossed her arms over her chest and sulked. She didn't hear the protestations of her friend that one of the cutest boys in their school had asked her out, that she would have a great time, that she needed to promise her to call as soon as the game was over for every juicy detail of the date. Instead she just looked out the window as the blurry scenery of Archbald drifted past. She let her thoughts go back to the memory of the first guy who had ever said anything nice about her sketching, and her regret that she didn't even know what he looked like.
It was a strange sensation she was feeling. It was warm and comforting, like when she would wrap herself in an old blanket and re-read some of her favorite books. There was also the hint of butterflies in her stomach that she found pleasantly surprising. No guy has ever stood up for me the way he did. We don't even go to the same school. It was his own teammate that crushed my glasses and he still was on my side. Who does that? I wish I could have seen what he looked like. Maybe I should just get the stupid contacts. It was really nice that he did that. I'll have to get some of this down in my journal later.
She was too lost in her thoughts to hear Isabel's final comment as they pulled into her driveway. "After all, what could go wrong?"
"Hey, what was up with that dorky girl with the glasses?"
Jamie felt anger rise in his throat for the second time that night. He turned around in his seat to face the other boy. "You heard her, Wes. It was her only pair of glasses and you deliberately smashed them."
"After the way their center smashed your nose on the last play it was only fair that we get some payback!"
"By going after someone who had nothing to do with that? That's not payback for anything. That's just you being a jerk, again!"
Wes narrowed his eyes. "Say that again."
Jamie had no intention of backing down. He was team captain, not the stocky underclassman facing him. There was no way he was going to let a bully like this get away with anything while he had anything to say about it. "I said you were being a jerk. Just like you were when you were kicking balls away from the freshmen at practice. Or the time you snuck back into the locker room early and threw everyone's winter coats in the shower right before practice was cancelled for that snowstorm. Don't even get me started with the crap you pull outside of practice."
"Huh," Wes was unimpressed. "You prank people all the time, what makes you so different than me?"
"I don't intentionally try to ruin other people's things, or try to hurt them, and I only prank my friends or people I know can handle it. Not random strangers. So, I'm telling you here and now. Knock it off."
"Or what? You going to fight me? Kick me off the team? Mister-goody-goody-Boy Scout doesn't want me picking on the poor girl from the other school. What you going to do about it?"
Jamie only steeled himself further on hearing the mocking tone. What he wanted to do was sink his fist in Wes' face, but he knew that would only get him kicked off the team. Glancing around he saw his own varsity squad now looking in on the argument as well as a few members of the junior varsity team. The weight of his role as team captain forced him to keep his tone calm.
"You'll find out when we get back to school." Turning back around he missed the sneer on Wes' face but did hear the cutting remark.
"Yeah, right. You won't do shit. Just like you always do."
Okay, that's enough. The thought reverberated in Jamie's mind and he got up from his seat to make his way to where their coaches were sitting near the front of the bus.
"Coach Weller, can I talk to you quick?"
The head coach looked up from his clipboard and the discussion he'd been having with the JV coach. "What's up, Jamie? If it's about that last play I assure you I'm going to put in a grievance with the referee association. That was a flagrant foul if I ever saw one. There was no way they should have missed it."
"It's not about that. It's about Wes." Jamie told him about the incident with the glasses and a host of other bullying activities. The coaches listened quietly until Jamie was finished. They were quiet for what seemed like an eternity. Coach Weller who finally spoke up.
"What have you always told me is your least favorite drill?"
"Wind sprints," Jamie told him.
"Okay. What's my one rule for this team?"
"'Win together, lose together, one team, one goal.'"
The coach took a breath before he spoke again. "There were two mistakes made tonight, Jamie. The first is Wes' behavior if it's true. The second was yours."
Jamie was a bit taken aback. "What did I do?"
"You knew this was going on and didn't tell me or any of the other coaches. Making a mistake is one thing. You make another mistake if you try to cover up the first. How are we supposed to fix any problems if we don't know there are any?"
Jamie's throat tightened. "I understand," he croaked out.
"Thank you for telling me this though. It is important. We can't have this kind of behavior." The coach dug his cell phone out and Jamie saw him punch in the number for the freshman squad coach that was in the bus behind the varsity and JV teams. "You can head back to your seat," Coach Weller told Jamie when he saw the young man was still there.
The walk back to his seat was harder. Jamie had an idea what was coming. Rather than think about it he tried to distract himself with something, anything. Staring out the window his thoughts went back to the game that night. How could anyone just keep drawing in the middle of a game like that? That's dedication for sure. I wonder what it was she was drawing. She had really pretty eyes. Snap out of it, she doesn't go to your school and you'll never see her again since we only play Valley View one time in a season. She probably has a boyfriend anyway. Do I know anyone at Valley View who might know her? No, I don't know anyone at Valley View.
Lost in his thoughts, he was oblivious to the rest of the basketball team on the bus with him. All to soon they arrived back at their own school. It was the habit of the coaching staff to schedule an hour after any game to head back to their locker room to go over the game so they would know what to work on in practice for the coming weeks. Coach Weller didn't bark out his usual command to head in for the debriefing when they arrived though.
"Varsity team, head to the locker room and get changed back into your game gear. Be on the baseline in five minutes. JV, front row of the stands. Freshmen behind them." Ignoring the questions and comments from the players, Coach Weller walked off the bus and headed inside the doors of West Scranton High School. He unlocked the doors to the gym and turned on the lights. Five minutes later the fifteen players that made up the varsity team were lined up at the end of their home court with the fifteen members of the JV squad looking on from the stands. The twenty-five players of the freshman team filed in and took their seats as well.
"What's my one rule!" Coach Weller shouted to the three teams.
Fifty-five teenage voices shouted out together the mantra their coach had drilled into them every day at practice. "Win together! Lose together! One team! One goal!"
The coach began pacing in front of the varsity squad like a general inspecting his troops before battle. He took his whistle out of his pocket and wrapped the string around his hand. His voice wasn't harsh or cruel, just loud enough for everyone in the gym to hear him clearly. "I want you to think about that long and hard, gentlemen. You know the drill. On my whistle; you have forty-five seconds to run from the baseline to touch the near free throw line and back, touch the half court line and back, touch the far free throw line and back, and touch the far baseline and back."
The varsity squad took off on their first wind sprint. They did their best to hustle up and down the court, bending down to touch the floor at each spot their coach had called out. When they were all back after the final race across the length of the court Coach Weller was on them again.
"Win or lose, you will always conduct yourselves as champions!"
"Never, for one instant, forget that the name on the front of your jersey is more important than the one on the back!"
"Being a varsity player means you're supposed to be the best this school has to offer. Prove it not to me, but to yourself!"
"A real champion is the one who builds not only his team up, but those who will replace him one day!"
"He shows respect to his school, his coach, his captain, his teammates, his opponents, and most importantly those who are looking up to him!"
"And in so doing, earns respect for himself!"
"He is humble in victory and gracious in defeat!"
"He accepts the consequences of his decisions, both good and bad!"
"This is the standard I hold you to, gentlemen."
"A standard that two of you have failed to meet!"
"Win together! Lose together! One team! One goal! When one of you fails, you all fail!"
"One of you has already had the courage to admit his failure. If he wants to stop he can."
Jamie knew the coach was talking about him, but he also knew his responsibility was to lead his team. Gasping down what air he could he set his feet as the whistle blew again.
For the next forty minutes, Coach Weller ran the West Scranton varsity basketball team up and down the court. After a week of practice every day after school and a hard game that night the time limit for the wind sprints was already daunting, and only grew worse with each blast of the whistle. As he'd done before during this drill Jamie's mind searched for something else outside the world of basketball to distract him from the burning in his legs and rasps of his breathing. It settled on a green-eyed girl from Valley View with curly hair. With that image fixed in his mind the pain in his legs and chest seemed just a bit lighter.
Finally, Coach Weller put his whistle back in his pocket and walked over to where the JV coach was sitting. He grabbed a small book offered him and started flipping through the pages. The varsity team was spent. Many of them had collapsed on the floor trying to suck air into their lungs. Still when their coach called them, they obeyed his instruction.
"On your feet gentlemen. James Halpert! Front and center!" The boy in question walked on shaky legs to face his coach who was standing in front of the other two teams on the benches. "So everyone can hear you, read the underlined part of the Player Code of Conduct."
Jamie took the book from his coach. He had his breathing mostly under control by this time. "Any instance of prohibited behaviors shall be reported to coaching staff immediately."
"Has there been instances of prohibited behaviors you've failed to report?"
"Why didn't you report them?"
"I wanted to protect my team. I didn't want to get anyone in trouble."
"Tell the team what you told me on the bus." In no uncertain terms, Jamie recalled what had happened after the game as well as the other infractions he had seen Wes commit. When Jamie was finished he addressed the young man again. "Being the leader means you have to make the right choice, Jamie. Even if that choice is hard or unpopular. You had the opportunity to save your teammates and others from hardship but you didn't. Do you understand?"
"What do you have to say for yourself?"
Jamie looked back at the varsity team, who by now were mostly recovered, and then back to the other students in the stands. "I let you down, guys. I thought I was protecting you, but I had it backwards. I'm sorry I let it happen. It never will again as long as I'm your captain."
"Good. Back on the line."
Coach Weller turned to the line of varsity players again. "Wesley Patterson! Front and center!" When Wes was also standing in front of the other teams his coach addressed him.
"Your captain has accused you of multiple Code of Conduct violations. What do you have to say for yourself?" Wes didn't answer. Rather he kept his eyes on the ground. Coach Weller wasn't about to let him off the hook. His voice was deep and low. "I asked you a question, young man, and you will answer it."
"You can't prove anything. There's no cameras around. It's my word against his."
Coach Weller wasn't fazed. He turned to the other two teams. "Raise your hand if you were a witness to the actions Wesley is accused of committing."
Every hand of the students went up. They had seen what would happen if they failed their coach's standard.
"Fine! Yeah, I did all that stuff," Wes finally admitted.
"Why? And 'I don't know' is not an acceptable answer."
"I thought it was funny."
"What about the freshmen whose practice you interrupted? Or your own teammates who had to go home in a blizzard without a coat? Or the girl earlier tonight? Do you think they thought it was funny? Again, 'I don't know' is not an acceptable answer."
Wes' shake of his head was hardly perceptible. "I guess not."
"You're on the bench for the next two games."
"What!" Wes was outraged. "How come Jamie isn't riding the bench! You just said he was guilty too! My dad has college scouts coming to the next games! You can't do this to me!"
"You are not in charge of this team or this program, young man, I am!" Coach Weller's voice finally had a hint of anger in it. "This team is not just about you, it's about all of you! Your captain ran the same sprints you did. He had the courage to come to me first and admit his mistake, and he also cared enough about this team to apologize for his failure. There's a word for that, it's called integrity. If you want to get back on the court, show me you have the integrity to support your teammates from the bench."
Wes only muttered something under his breath. Coach Weller's keen ears heard it easily. "If you have something to say, tell it to your team."
"I said this is total bullshit!" Wes roared back at him.
Coach Weller only narrowed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was as hard as steel. "Take off that jersey, leave it here with me, and head back to the locker room. You're off this team."
"Fine!" Wes peeled the West Scranton jersey off the undershirt he was wearing beneath it and threw it down angrily. He stalked away in the direction of the locker room.
When he was out of the gym Coach Weller looked around at the other students who had watched. "I wanted you all to watch that. The Player Code of Conduct is something I and the other coaches take very seriously. What you just saw were two young men who both had made mistakes while on this team. One, learned from his mistake and is still here. The other hasn't learned anything and is gone. Mistakes are going to happen, gentlemen. That's called life. We don't run from or hide from our mistakes, we learn from them, otherwise we'll just keep making the same mistakes again and again."
With a final scan across the players of all three teams Coach Weller finished his speech before he dismissed them for the night. "Remember this night, gentlemen. Remember so that when it's your turn you know what choice to make."
"Hi honey. How was the game?"
"We won, but one of the players from the other team broke my glasses." Morgan's response to her mother as she came back home was decidedly dejected.
"What?" Helene Beesly came rushing to the front door of their house as Morgan was clumsily putting her shoes away.
"They flew off my head after the game ended and got stomped on."
Helene inspected the broken frames Morgan had presented her. "We'll go see about getting these fixed in the morning. Do you know where your spare glasses are?"
"In my desk drawer," Morgan replied.
"Stay here. I don't want you to hurt yourself bumping into anything."
Helene was back shortly. Morgan was finally able to see clearly again and the first thing she noticed was the concerned look on her mother's face. "It was just some stupid jock from the other team, Mom."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," she remembered she also had to tell her mother of the change in her plans for the next evening. "Roy Anderson is going to pick me up around six tomorrow to go see a hockey game."
"Oh!" Helene brightened up considerably on hearing that news. "That sounds fun!"
"I guess so. Mind if I use the computer for a bit?"
Her mother didn't mind. Morgan was sure her mother was already mentally planning her wedding. It seemed she always did that when Morgan showed even a passing interest in any boy. Shrugging it off Morgan walked to the living room where the family desktop was kept. Soon she heard the familiar start-up tones of Windows 95 and the screeching noise as their dial-up modem connected to the internet.
Morgan wished she could have her own computer, rather than having to share one with the rest of her family. But computers were expensive and she didn't have a phone outlet in her room anyway to be able to get online. She logged onto a chat room her church youth group had helped set up. It was one of the few chat rooms her father's web filters hadn't blocked. Area churches had set up the site to offer a "clean and safe" alternative from other internet chat rooms. To Morgan however there was little difference between the conversations she heard in her school cafeteria and the words scrolling across her screen. Still she did enjoy that online, no one knew she was just another dorky girl in the crowd. She saw mostly familiar screen names, but a new one caught her eye.
Artfan12: Looks like we got a new face in the crowd tonight. Welcome bballer.
Bballer04: Thanks. Didn't know what I'd find coming in here. Seemed interesting.
Artfan12: If you consider mostly harmless conversations on the latest bands interesting.
Bballer04: Could be worse things to talk about.
Artfan12: So bballer, how come you’re here in a lowly chatroom on a Friday night? No parties to head off to?
Bballer04: Oh I'm sure there are, but I'm in no condition. I'm on my school's basketball team and we lost. Our coach had us doing wind sprints for what seemed like forever after we got back so I've got a ton of ice packs on my legs.
Artfan12: What's a wind sprint?
Bballer04: Basically you have to run up and down the court a whole lot and they suck.
Artfan12: Sounds harsh. Does he always do that when you lose?
Bballer04: No part of it was my fault. One of the guys on our team has been a real jerk over the season. I knew about it but didn't say anything. But tonight, I couldn't help it. He crossed the line and I had to say something.
Artfan12: What happened?
Bballer04: We had an away game and as we were coming out of the locker room afterwards he stomped on the glasses of one of the girls who went to the home school. I gave them back to her and told our coach on the bus ride back to our school. Long story short he got kicked off the team. Later the coach told me that only a few of the wind sprints we had to do were for what I did. The rest were because of what he did.
"No way." Morgan was sure her eyes were bugging out of her head. As the conversation had lengthened she ignored the other conversations that were going on in the chat room. The butterflies were back. Her fingers were shaking as she typed a reply.
Artfan12: Wnt to pone a prive winow?
Artfan12: Sorry, my fingers were shaking on my keyboard. I asked if you wanted to open a private window?
Morgan clicked on the icon to send an invite to join a private window where none of the others in the chatroom could see what they typed. When the window popped up she was pleased to see the other screen name there waiting.
Bballer04: What's up?
Artfan12: Um...this is kind of awkward, but by any chance am I talking to Jamie from West Scranton?
Bballer04: Yeah, how would you know wait a sec. Is this Morgan? Were those your glasses?
He remembered my name! Morgan felt a grin bloom across her face and she lightly bit the end of her tongue as she typed back.
Artfan12: Yeah, they were.
Bballer04: Wow! No way! Did you get home ok, I mean obviously you did or you wouldn't be on a chatroom.
Artfan12: I rode with a friend to the game and she drove me home. Thanks for sticking up for me. That was really nice.
Morgan was usually very talkative on chatrooms, but for once she didn't seem to have anything to say. She started at her screen blankly until a new message popped up.
Bballer04: Still there?
Artfan12: Yeah, I'm still here. And don’t worry to much about the glasses. I have a spare pair. I'm thinking I may want contacts anyway.
Bballer04: That would make it easier to keep that pencil behind your ear. Also I was being serious. I would like to see what you were drawing. Must have been good to keep your attention during a basketball game.
Artfan12: It really wasn't anything important. Sorry to tell you but basketball's never really been my sport. I was on the volleyball team, but I sprained my ankle really bad on our first practice which pretty much sidelined me for the season.
Bballer04: That sucks. Sorry to hear that.
Artfan12: Thanks, but it gives me more time to draw.
Bballer04: So back to the subject, would you be free tomorrow night for a private drawing exhibit? We could meet at the mall in the food court and get something to eat too.
Did he just ask me out?
Artfan12: I wish I could, cause that sounds nice, but I already have plans for tomorrow night.
Bballer04: Could I get a rain check?
Why can't all boys be this easy to talk to? Morgan thought as Jamie started asking her more about why she like to draw. For the next hour the conversation flowed easily. She in turn asked about his love for basketball.
Artfan12: Hey sorry to say this but it's getting kinda late and I'm sure my parents are going to kick me off the computer soon. Again, thanks for what you did.
Bballer04: You're welcome. See ya later