Meet Alem Reed - black hair, brown eyes, and a bad temper. After getting kicked out of five high schools for fighting, Alem’s goal of getting a high school diploma was destroyed; that is, until he is asked to attend a secretive new school. However, when he discovers that the new school is filled with creatures that aren’t human, (and view you as a potentially delicious snack) tough boy Alem needs every fight skill, dry comment, and ounce of wit he’s got if he is going to survive his senior year.
Chapter Three: Of Expulsions and Fathers
“Mr. Reed, you are expelled.”
“That's not fair!” I hissed back.
Principal I-Have-A-Stick-The-Size-Of-Chicago-Up-My-Rear could barely contain his maniacal glee over my expulsion. Of all the inconsequential fights that I had over the last few years, this fight was paramount. I could not lose this one, but my opponent was not fighting fair and I refused to break my promise. “You can't do this. I wasn't even on school property! Those guys were beating up on that same kid who can’t seem to defend himself! They’re the ones who you should punish, not me! The kid can defend me on this one. His name is Michael McGry.”
The Principal sneered. “I wish I could help you son, but there is no Michael McGry at this school. On the other hand, Josh Burns said you attacked him and his friends on their way to the arcade and then stole their money. Mr. Reed, what are you trying to prove here? Do you think you are going to get away with any of this?”
“I didn’t jump them and I don’t want their money. I told you, I was trying to help the kid, Michael McGry.”
"Who astonishingly doesn't seem to exist?" I clenched my teeth at his sarcastic tone. “I wish I could believe you, but I don’t know who this boy is. He is not on our records as a student here.”
I bit back what I truly wanted to say.
“I only fought to protect him. He was outnumbered and is routinely picked on.” I started my defense again.
“I will not allow fighting at this school, neither on campus, nor among our students off campus, Mr. Reed. You have had your warnings. My decision is final.”
Inside my head, I was screaming. Principal I-Have-A-Stick-The-Size-Of-Chicago-Up-My-Rear and his precious institution of learning had enormous amounts of highly illegal activity happening on campus on a daily basis. Yet somehow, my fight off campus gets me suspended? What the hell? He kept right on yapping but I could barely see straight. This man was an arrogant, pompous jerk, who could not possibly see another perspective other than his own.
“Mr. Reed, this expulsion comes immediately following a suspension that you received for another fight barely a week ago. That was not very smart, Mr. Reed, not very smart at all.” He sighed. “I'm afraid that I can't have someone with your character here, endangering my student body with such violence.”
My character? I’m better than you, you tyrannical monster! I ranted silently to myself.
He continued. “I knew when I saw your record that you were trash and just looking at you confirms it.”
The silent ranting in my head stopped and unexpectedly I felt completely empty. He thinks I’m trash. This realization brought back a painful wave of past voices. “Why does trash like that even exist? Your mother should be killed for having given birth to you; what a waste of air; why is garbage like you still alive?”
I squared my shoulders and let out a hard, even breath. It wasn't the first time I've heard that hatred. It brought back painful memories and was a tough blow, but I couldn't let up. This was the last public high school in the area. It was my last and only chance. The worst part was I was trying to help someone. “Please, sir.” Now I found myself begging. “You can't just…” I didn't even know what to say. I already told him what had happened. What did he want me to say? “Please, I won't ever…”
“Mr. Reed.” He interrupted me and everything in the room grew bigger as if it were now looming over me just like the future that I was letting slip away. I felt so small. The air was still and the fluorescent light was too bright. His voice was cold and hard. His blue eyes were merciless and cruel. His crisp suit was clean and ironed. I took the time to notice each and every detail as I awaited my final fate. He sat behind his large, looming desk that silently screamed everything that he was, but I wasn't. He was something I would never be - important.
And I was something that he hated.
In that sharp moment of clarity, I knew I didn't have a chance. “I was against you enrolling here at the very beginning. Let's be honest, you're not going to account to much in life.” He said this very softly as if he were trying to break this news to me gently. “You know it and I know it. Hell, the whole world knows it. You can't go to college because you don't have the money or the brains, judging by your mediocre academic records. You have a vicious temper and anger management problems.” He sniffed the air in distaste. “You also smoke. These aren't traits of someone destined to succeed in life. Just do yourself a favor and go get a job at a food counter and you won’t need a high school diploma. You will find a way to get by.”
Ouch. The insult hurt. It really hurts.
My hands started to shake badly. I was feeling withdrawal from nicotine and I needed to get a cigarette soon. I closed my eyes in desperation. I hated this all-too-familiar feeling but I could not think about that now. I had to convince him to give me one more chance. But how was I going to do this? Frankly, I don't give a damn about that diploma, not with all the crap I have to go through, but I promised her that I would get one. I promised her. I promised.
“Just give me one more chance, sir.” I pleaded.
“That was your last chance, Mr. Reed. If I could have, I would have expelled you earlier. Not even three weeks into the year and you start two fights? I'm sorry.” He wasn't sorry at all. “You have to go. I will notify your father now and he'll come to pick you up.”
And that was that. I had failed and now I think I might go crazy.
“Don't bother.” I bitterly snapped. I marched to the exit. He wouldn't listen. He didn't care. No matter what I said, he would still want me gone. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair at all. I needed to leave and smoke a cigarette. “I'll walk home.”
“Mister, I'm just trash to you.” I interrupted him. I turned around and glared at him. I glared hard at everything he represented. “You don't want me littering up your school. I hope you rot in hell. I'm out of here.” And I slammed the door.
I don't remember how I got home that day. Everything was a gray blur. I do remember chain-smoking on my way there and that it started to rain as soon as I left the school building. It was a light rain, so it wasn't so bad, even though my place was far and I had a long walk.
The apartment where I lived was pretty far from Clearington High. If I had some extra money by some miracle, I usually took the nearest city bus because Clearington's school bus didn't come in my area. All in all, it was good that I walked home that day. I needed time to think and calm down.
When I got closer to home, Mr. Chang was outside sweeping the sidewalk. He looked up at me from the concrete step with surprise and I couldn't bear to meet his eyes. I didn't want to see the disappointment that I knew I would find there. I grabbed my keys from my pocket and rushed up the stairs to the apartment. On the landing, two doors stood side by side, and one was already open. I walked in and quietly closed it behind me.
The low sound of the morning news report filled the dusty air. My old man was lying on our lumpy couch with a glass of water. His shirt was a mess and there were obvious dark bags under his eyes. He looked like hell and I felt like such a scumbag. When the door opened, he looked at it in surprised and turned off the TV when he saw me.
“Al?” I didn't want to look at him either. “Al?” He sighed. “You got kicked out again, didn't you?”
There was nothing that I could say, but I had to say something. “I'm sorry.”
He sighed again. “You're always sorry. Was it fighting again?”
I didn't look at him.
“So it was. Alem, why are you doing this to yourself? This was the last school that could accept you and it was a struggle to get you in at all.” He said sadly. “You've had trouble ever since…” he drifted off rather than say what it was.
“Dad, stop. I don't want to hear it.” I marched to my room and closed the door. I threw myself under the covers and shut the world out. I didn't want to hear the end of that sentence. The one that ended with, “…ever since your mother died seven years ago.” Just like that, the conversation replayed again in my head, as it had a thousand times since.
“It wasn't your fault.”
The hell it wasn’t.
“She wouldn't want you to beat yourself up over it.”
She isn’t here to want anything.
“Son, she loved you.”
And that is why she died.
I stood up and punched the wall with my fist to silence my father’s voice in my head. A long time passed before I withdrew my fist from the hole I had made. I steadied my breathing. My knuckles were bleeding badly. Yet, I couldn't bring myself to feel the pain. I felt empty and cold and I shivered.
Slowly, I picked myself up and walked to the bathroom to clean up my hand. My dad was leaning against the door, watching me silently. I had done this many times before, and I didn't need his help. The water was icy and I watched the slightly pink water dribble into the sink. I poured some antiseptic on it. I ignored the burning sensation and wrapped it up with some toilet paper. It would heal quickly. I heal fast.
When I was done, I turned to face him. His eyes were sad, but strangely resigned.
“You still want to get a high school diploma, right?” He asked softly.
I chuckled darkly. “Of course, I want one. But no public school will accept me. I lost all my chances.” It was a bitter truth but the truth all the same. I opened and closed my fist.
“You could get a GED.”
“It wouldn't be the same.” I dismissed him. She wanted me to walk down that aisle. I wanted to do it for her.
“Then how about going to a private school?” I widened my eyes, mouth agape, and stared at him. Then I snorted.
“We can't afford that.”
“You're working three jobs just to survive!”
“I know that too.”
“So, why suggest it?”
“Alem,” He looked right at me. The black bags on his face were more evident now. “I know better than anyone how difficult our financial situation is, but if this is your dream, you have to do it. It may be your only dream and, as your father, I will find a way to make it happen.”
I stare at him. “But, Dad?”
“But nothing, come on. We're going to the public library. To the one where I work on the weekends. That old librarian should know about the private schools in this city and she's a nice elderly lady. She's help us in whatever way she can.”
“Dad,” I protested again. He couldn't be serious. The old man was practically killing himself now. Private schools are just too expensive. It was a pipe dream.
He marched to the door and grabbed his coat and a large umbrella from the closet. “Move your butt, Alem.” He sighed. “Let's get this done.”
“I really don't know what to say to help you.” Mrs. Bell, the elderly librarian said softly. “Some schools offer scholarships to gifted students in need of financial assistance, but it’s the beginning of the semester. Those scholarships have probably already been granted.”
Did I hear her say scholarship?
I had decent grades. They weren’t exceptional but maybe, just maybe, there would be one for me. A fire started to burn inside me. Maybe I would get another chance after all.
“Which private schools offer those scholarships?” My dad asked. “We need to at least try. Someone might give us a chance regarding our situation.”
She contemplated my dad’s question while she tapped her finger on the wooden desk. “St. Irvine does have a program like the one I mentioned. So does St. Baltimore. I think there are about twelve private schools in this district. Some are religious based and others are only for the elite. Would you mind going to a religious school, dear? It might be less expensive.” The librarian asked me.
“I’ll take what I can get, ma'am.” I said.
She smiled. “A very respectful young man you have there, Mr. Reed.” My face burned. “Mr. Reed, let's start with St. Irvine first. That's a good school.”
“Okay. Do you know where the nearest payphone is?” My dad asked.
Mrs. Bell looked affronted. “Don’t be silly. Use the phone on my desk. Mr. Rig isn't here today, so it’s okay.”
My old man graciously thanked her as she gave him the number. He looked at me and I gave him the thumbs up. He dialed. The three of us waited in silence.
“Hello? Hello? Yes. Good Morning, my name is Mr. Reed and I want my son to attend your high school.” Dad listened to what whoever was saying on the line.
“Yes. I'm aware of the cost. Six hundred dollars a month you say? Wow! I mean, yes. I wanted to talk about that too. Do I understand correctly that you might have a scholarship for needy students? Oh, his name? Alem. Alem Reed.” He suddenly stopped talking and stared at the phone in disbelief.
“The phone must have been disconnected.” He said sheepishly to Mrs. Bell and I. “What's the number again, Mrs. Bell?”
Frowning, Mrs. Bell repeated the number. Dad dialed again.
“Yes. Sorry. The phone must have disconnected. Who is this? I'm Reed. Mr. Jacob Reed.” He suddenly stopped talking again and looked at the phone angrily.
“He just hung up on me.”
Dad tried again and again but they wouldn't pick up the phone.
“Oh, dear, that’s quite rude.” Mrs. Bell said, stating the obvious.
My dad grumbled some words that I hoped Mrs. Bell didn't hear. My fire started to die out. I had a bad feeling.
“Do you have another number, Mrs. Bell?” My dad asked.
“For St. Baltimore? Oh, let me find it.” She shuffled some papers around her desk. “Here it is.” She pointed the number to him. My dad quickly dialed that number and we waited.
“Hello? Good morning. My name is Mr. Reed and I would like my son to attend your high school. Yes. I am aware of the cost.” There was a slight pause. “What's his name? Alem. Alem Re—” My dad stopped talking and stared at the phone as if it had suddenly become an angry snake.
Dad turned to me. “She hung up on me too.”
“Oh dear, this doesn't seem normal,” said Mrs. Bell. She watched me suspiciously out of the corner of her gray eyes. My chest was tight. Something was definitely wrong. I could feel it.
“Let me find the other schools' numbers and let us give them a try.” Mrs. Bell went looking into the files on her desk.
“Alem, you don't think…”
I sucked my teeth. “No, Dad, but it could be a misunderstanding. I mean what are the chances that he could dislike me that much?” Surely, that last principal wouldn't have blacklisted me. He couldn't have hated me that much.
“Let's try talking to them again if the other schools....” I whispered. I was starting to panic. My flame of hope was dying. My dad wordlessly nodded but even he looked alarmed. The possibility of all the private schools saying no had to be low, right?
“Oh! Here's San Ann's Academy. It’s a small school but nice nonetheless.” Mrs. Bell cheerily said.
The bad feeling didn't go away.
It turns out that he did hate me that much. None of the private schools would consider my application. So in a desperate act, we called the public schools once again. They also hung up the phone the second they heard my name. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. My lungs and eyes burned. How could this have happened to me?
“Alem?” My dad whispered behind the closed door. “Alem? I have some food for you, son. Open up.”
I didn't answer him. The clinging sound of a plate placed outside my bedroom door echoed in my ear. My dad walked away. I was in my own prison. For hours, I watched the gray sky in my window and watched the rain. I didn't want to feel anything. I refused to feel sorry for myself. I wasn’t sad. In fact, I’d never felt better. I didn’t feel a thing, nothing at all. I was living the dream. Some kids daydream all the time about not having to go to school at all.
Time crawled on and I stayed in bed. Dad came to my door twice but I wouldn't talk to him. I knew he was getting more worried. The rain stopped and the clouds started breaking up. Maybe there would be a rainbow to spark a good mood? I stared at the pale blue sky. Even the sky betrayed me. Time crawled on.
Dad came back a fourth time. “Alem, come on now, son. We need to talk about the rest of your options.”
I ignored him.
“Alem! Open this door now, young man!”
I continued to ignore him.
“Alem.” A breathless pause. “Alem, you're still alive... aren't you?”
I couldn't help it. I laughed.
Still laughing, I dragged myself up and went to open the door. By then I was laughing so hard, tears streamed down my face. Dad didn't know what to say. “Alem...”
I stopped quite suddenly. My laughter wasn't even happy. “Dad, don't worry. I won't kill myself. Honestly, you think I'm the type?”
My dad gave me a scrutinizing stare. “No. You're not the type to kill yourself.” My dad conceded. I gave him an empty grin. But he wasn't done. “You're the type to want to make someone kill you.” He rubbed his forehead. I didn't know what to say to that, so I said nothing. We stared at each other for a while.
The phone rang.
Dad ended our staring contest and went to answer it. It's always for him. Probably for some odd job my dad usually does. I didn't bother to close the door this time and just walked back to my bed. I listened to the one-sided conversation.
“Hello? Yes, Mr. Chang. Everything is all right. What? Oh? I know. I'll pay for that later. Uh-huh. Okay. Yeah. All right. Thank you. Yes, you too. Oh. Yes, I know. Thanks again. Well, good-bye.” I turned around and continued my thrilling observation of the sky. Judging by the colors, it was probably mid-afternoon. School would be out by now.
I really didn't care, honest.
The phone rang again. My dad picked it up and I let his voice become background noise to me.
“Hello? Yes. Yes, this is Mr. Jacob Reed. Oh. Well. Ah. Yes, I've been calling many schools today. I just wanted…” There was a pause. It was an odd pause followed by, “Oh dear.”
It was then that I felt something inside me change. Like say, the wind had been blowing in one direction and suddenly without any warning at all it blows harder or changes directions completely. “Yes, my son is Alem Reed. Yes. What? Can you please repeat that?”
I jumped off the bed and rushed to the kitchen.
My dad stared at the wall. His
mouth was hanging open as if he couldn’t believe what he just heard. “You want my son to attend? I'm grateful. Truly, I am, but you see, we don't have much money and…” Dad stopped talking and listened to what the person on the other end of the line was saying. His eyes went wide. “Full? Did you say in full, as in free?”
Dad ogled me. “I see. That's amazing. It’s magnificent, actually. Yes.” Dad's mouth was wide. “My address? It’s 47th Street on Temple. We're on top of the mini-mart. It’s the second door. Yes. Who is this again I might ask?” Dad drastically paled. Why exactly did Dad look like he suddenly swallowed a lemon whole?
“Nicu Ibunku. Oh, I see.” My dad stared at me again. “At what time will you be here? Four o’clock?” He quickly glanced at the clock and frowned. “That's in ten minutes. Surely, the city's traffic…” He paused again. “You're already on the road? I see. Well, you may talk more with him when you get here, Mr. Ibunku. Yes. Yes, of course. Ah. Good-bye.” Dad hung up the phone and stared at me.
“Alem, we've got company in the next ten minutes.”
“Let's get this place cleaned up a bit. Wait. No. Go make yourself presentable. I'll clean up the place.” He started to rush around the living room.
I didn't move. I didn't dare to believe. “What was that all about?”
Dad stopped to glare at me again. He acted as if he couldn't believe I was that stupid. “Nicu Ibunku is the Principal from the Institution of Harmony. He wants you to come to his school.”