Boarding School Blues
The sirens came first.
Between the blur of blinding lights and blaring sounds, Cooper’s head was so dizzy that it wasn’t until his heel had been stitched up in the hospital that the fog swallowing his brain began to lift and he could finally breathe.
How could he even describe his parents’ faces when they burst through the doors of his hospital room? He had so much he wanted to say and nothing at all, and he melted into their arms as they swaddled him in a hug. He didn’t have to be brave anymore. For just a moment, he could pretend he was still the same little kid he was when he started 6th grade.
Cooper wasn’t sure where Roman was. He remembered hearing Roman’s voice, his hands and head resting against him until the firetrucks came, but then they were pulled apart, separated.
Cooper hoped Xavier was okay.
The first time Cooper gave his statement, his chest was hollow and his legs too tingly and numb to stand straight. They questioned him so critically to the point where his dad raised his voice louder than he’d ever heard before and his mom fled the room in tears. Even still, it all washed over him in a haze.
The next day when they asked him again, the police were calmer. Everyone was. The officers told them they would try to limit their questions, and Cooper told them everything he could. Of course there were things he didn’t know. Why would he know why Professor Bell wanted to kill Jordy? Did it matter why he had Xavier locked up in his basement? No, his teacher had never mentioned anything to Cooper. That was insane!
It was funny how his parents’ mood changed so dramatically, from sheer joy that he was alive to raging fury about how reckless he’d been. They wanted to pull him immediately from the Academy. A place that dangerous was no place for him. He didn’t have the heart to argue, because what could he say? They were right. Thinking he had any chance to stop Jordy’s killer was nothing but reckless and foolish and stupid.
They treated his wounds, plucked the miniature fragments of glass buried in his palm, swabbed and stitched the cut on his heel. Thankfully the knife hadn’t cut too deep. As long as he was careful, the stitches should hold without too much trouble. He’d been so, so lucky, he heard over and over again.
Before the day was done, two sets of visitors came to see him.
The first was a man and woman he didn’t recognize. Both of their faces were honey bronze, and the man’s head was thick with dreads hanging past his shoulders. Cooper immediately saw Jordy in each of them. He wasn’t prepared for the way they shook his parents’ hands and wept at his bedside. As they each squeezed his good hand and cried, Cooper knew he would be reckless and foolish and stupid a thousand times again if given the chance.
Cooper’s second visitor came as the sun’s golden rays reflected off the blinds of his hospital room. With a gentle knock, Headmaster Robinson appeared in the doorway, his pristine Blue Ridge uniform a stark contrast to the worn, weary man wearing it. He regarded each of them before clearing his throat.
“I apologize,” he said. “I don’t want to interrupt if now’s a bad time.”
Cooper’s parents traded cautious glances before his dad spoke. “Not at all. Please, come in.”
Headmaster Robinson’s shoulders slumped as he walked inside. It was like he had aged ten years over the past few nights. When he reached Cooper’s dad, he extended a slow and steady hand to shake.
“Joe,” Headmaster Robinson said.
“Good to see you, sir,” his dad said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Been a long time.”
His headmaster quirked an eyebrow at this, and Cooper thought he saw the slightest smirk. After giving a polite welcome to his mom, Headmaster Robinson turned his attention towards Cooper and lowered himself to his knees. Each of them cracked like thick branches, and Cooper winced. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get over hearing sounds like that again.
Placing both hands on the railing of the bed, his headmaster bowed his head and breathed a heavy sigh. When he lifted his head again, his eyes brimmed with tears. “Young man, what you have done for this school can never be put into words.”
Cooper tried thinking of a way to break the tension that seemed to swallow him up over the last twenty four hours. “So, I’m not in trouble?”
Headmaster Robinson’s eyes widened, and he started to laugh. It started slow and built to the point where he had to clutch a hand at his side. “No, son, you’re not in trouble.”
His parents made room for his headmaster to sit on the thin blue cushions of the narrow couch inside the room. The sun gleamed off the gray stripes in his wild nest of hair. It was a long time before he spoke, like he was trying to choose the right words to say.
“I was told today you all would be withdrawing your son from the academy.”
His parents shuffled on their feet, neither of them making eye contact with Cooper or his headmaster.
“We think it’s for the best, you see,” his dad said. “We wanted Blue Ridge to be a fresh start for Cooper, not…this.”
His mom was quick to jump in. “Sending him in the first place was really more our idea. Maybe we pushed him too early to be off on his own like that. And we’re not saying what happened was your fault or anyone else’s, it’s just…”
“I understand,” Headmaster Robinson said and stood to his feet before walking to the door. A team of nurses hurried along an incoming patient laid a gurney, paying their room no attention as they passed. Headmaster Robinson placed a hand against the door frame and rested against it as he cocked his head towards them.
“Joe, you have known me for a very long time. Of anyone, you should know how important Blue Ridge’s values are to me. What I’m about to say, I don’t say lightly, and please feel free to disregard it. This is your decision, after all.”
What Headmaster Robinson said next would stick with Cooper for the rest of his life.
“There isn’t a single person at our school who embodies what Blue Ridge stands for more than Cooper.”
Then he was gone.
“Roman, you deserve to know the truth.”
The heart rate monitor beeped steadily as Roman stared at Xavier. His white-blond hair was messy from sleep but clean now as he sat propped in the raised bed. A couple hours ago, a nurse had changed the gauze bandage around the gash near his temple.
Between them was a small rolling desk they used to play cards while their parents picked up dinner from a nearby restaurant. Roman tossed a card in the growing pile and picked up another from the deck.
“The truth about what?”
Between the blood loss, dehydration, and starvation, Xavier was lucky to be found when he had been. Another day or two, the nurses said, and things would have taken a turn for the worst. After being treated, Xavier slept the entire first day, only coming around in the late hours of the following night. His throat was groggy and hoarse, and he was only allowed small sips of water to begin with, but he had survived.
That was all that mattered.
“About Professor Bell,” Xavier said in a whisper.
His mom had carried on relentlessly about how she’d sue the school for negligence and letting a murderer on the staff, but Roman had finally snapped, screaming at her in tears through his exhaustion to let it go. Why couldn’t she be satisfied that they were all together again? Alive. Safe.
“Didn’t you already tell the police everything?” Roman asked.
They’d both given their statements early on. Roman imagined they asked Cooper, Fielding, and Anakin a lot of the same questions. He didn’t care. There was nothing to hide. Xavier trapped in the basement was all the evidence the police needed for a dead man who had already killed another boy.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Xavier said, and his brother’s face crumpled into tears as he dropped his cards in his lap and wiped his eyes.
“You don’t have to talk about it,” Roman said.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I need to. You of all people deserve to know what happened, why I…just promise me you’ll try not to judge me too hard. No one could hate me more than I hate myself.”
One of the first nights at the hospital, when Roman was supposed to be sleeping on the couch for a nap, he overheard one of the nurses talking in hushed tones with his parents about whether or not they knew about Xavier’s self-inflicted marks. In addition to a few bruises that didn’t match the other patterns of his injuries, the nurses found fingernail cuts all along his stomach and ribs, and Roman immediately thought back to the summer before when he’d first seen them and Xavier had told him not to worry.
He balled his fists. His insides felt all shaken up like a bottle of soda ready to burst. He wasn’t sure why Xavier would want to talk about the same dead man who had nearly destroyed their lives forever, but Roman nodded anyway.
And then Xavier told his story.
End Chapter 18
Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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