Sometimes the best gift you can give — and receive — is when you help a friend.
It was Thursday, December 20th, the last day of school before the Edison High School Winter Break, otherwise known as Christmas vacation. No one was focused on what our teachers wanted us to focus on. But a few teachers got our attention when they handed out assignments that had to be turned in on Monday, January 7th, the day we returned to school. The groans and complaints in those classes made those teachers smirk, most with delight, as they summarily rejected the complaints.
I’d known about the project that was due in AP U.S. History for two months, so that was no surprise. I’d finished my project already and a couple clicks on my School Loop account and Mr. Pressmoor would have my submission. I also knew about the test we’d have in Spanish 3 on the Monday we’d get back; no surprise there, either.
However, in English 3 Mrs. Harington surprised everyone with an assignment. “Write a story about someone here at Edison High School who isn’t a close friend but is someone you know. It needs to be someone who has a problem. For example, it could be their home life, it could be they don’t have many friends, it could be they have a health problem, it could be they are struggling with one or more of their classes, and so on. In other words, they have to have a real-life problem.
“Then write a short story that uses them as a case study for your story which is to be fiction. Don’t use their real name in the story; don’t describe them or their problem so they could be identified when you’re asked to read your story out loud to the class. But use someone who is real and who has a real problem as the case study for your protagonist, a character you invent based on the real-life case study person and problem you selected.
“The story you write needs to describe how you helped them overcome their problem; obviously, this part is fiction. For example, you offered to tutor them, you found them a job, you talked to them about their problem and helped them arrive at a solution, and so on.
“Your short story needs to have at least 2,500 words but not over 5,000 words, based on the word count on the status bar in Microsoft Word. It’s to be posted on School Loop no later than Monday, January 7th before the start of our third period class. Any questions?”
Nancy Avaya asked, “How will you know if don’t use a real person or problem for our case study?”
“I’ve done this project with other classes, so I’ll be able to tell. I recommend that you don’t try to test me.” She sneered at us.
“How can we keep you from guessing who it is?” Larry Anderson asked.
“That’s part of your assignment. By picking someone who is real and who you know has a real problem, you’re half-way there. The other half of the assignment is how you alter who it is and what their problem is enough so I can’t tell who they are. In other words, convert it from reality to fiction.”
I raised my hand, and she pointed at me. “What if you do realize who the person is that we used as our case study?” I asked.
“It’s up to you to choose the person as your case study so I can’t realize who they are. For example, there’s one set of triplets attending Edison High. So if you write about a boy who is one of a set of triplets then I’ll know who you used as your case study. So don’t use one of them.”
Ladonna Fletcher asked, “What if two or three of us use the same person for our case study? It could happen.”
“That’s okay. Just don’t get together with others in this class and decide to work on that case study together. If you do, I’ll be able to tell.” She raised her eyebrows and gazed around the class. “Got it?”
The bell rang for the break before lunch, and we all gathered up our notebooks and backpacks or bookbags and headed to the cafeteria.
I had AP Computer Science seventh period which is right after lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I went to my locker to drop off my backpack and its contents, mostly textbooks and my notebook PC.
After picking a turkey sandwich platter and milk I walked to the back of the cafeteria by the windows and sat down at the table with my regular lunch group.
“So, Darryl, what do you think about Mrs. Harington’s assignment?” Ladonna asked me.
“I could do without it,” I said. “I hadn’t planned on doing any homework over the next two weeks, other than studying for a Spanish 3 exam the Monday we get back. I finished my APUSH project a couple weeks ago, and I worked ahead on my PreCalc problems, and that left me with nothing else to do until after we get back in January. That is, until I decided to show up in third period English 3 today.” I shrugged my shoulders.
“This is the only thing I’ll have to work on,” she said. “Problem is, we’re going to visit my aunt and uncle in Brunswick, Georgia over Christmas. The last thing I need is this project. It seems like it would be impolite to be working on my laptop doing this assignment while everyone else is visiting or going out doing things.”
“Do your aunt and uncle have any kids our age?” Doug Wu asked her.
“Yeah. I have two cousins, Debbie’s a junior and Will’s a freshman.”
“So, pick one of them and use them for your case study.”
“I’m supposed to sit down and say, ‘Debbie, I’m going to make you my case study for a short story. What’s your biggest problem?’ I don’t think that would go over very well. I’ve only met them a couple times so asking that would be embarrassing.”
“Then describe our assignment and ask them if there’s a kid at their high school they know who has a problem and use that kid as your case study. They’ll probably find that it’s fun to give you ideas and work with you on it.”
“Actually, that’s a good idea,” Ladonna said. “Besides, Harington never said it had to be someone at Edison. My cousins aren’t doing this project at their school, so getting ideas from them isn’t cheating.”
“Actually, Harington did say ‘here at Edison High School’ when she described what to do,” Larry said. “But that was probably just a suggestion. I mean, how many kids do you know at other schools who you could find out what their problem is?”
Paul raised his hand and waved it around. “I do! I do! I know someone!”
“My next-door neighbor goes to Berean Christian High. He’s got… wait a minute. I’m not going to tell you what his problem is. He’s absolutely perfect as a case study for this assignment. Thank you for this perfect idea, Mr. Larry Anderson!” Paul grinned at Larry.
“How about you, Darryl? Any ideas who you might use as a case study?” Doug asked.
“You.” Then I laughed.
“Hey, there’s no reason why we can’t pick one of the kids in our class. She never said anything about that,” Larry said. “The only limitation is it has to be someone who isn’t a close friend.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Bending the rule that it’s supposed to be someone at Edison like Ladonna and Paul are going to do is probably okay. Shall we vote on it? Only the ones who are in Harington’s English 3 class can vote. All in favor?”
Everyone in our third period class raised their hand.
The only one who raised their hand was Marjorie Wells, who wasn’t in our English 3 class.
“Hey!” Paul said. “You can’t vote!”
“Why not? I have Harington for English 3 fourth period. We got the same assignment on Monday. You guys have given me some good ideas for how to pick someone for my case study.”
“Wait a minute! That isn’t fair! You got two extra days to work on the assignment!” Doug said.
“Tough,” Marjorie said. “If you’d chosen English 3 during fourth period you would have gotten two more days to do the assignment, too.”
Larry shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Doug. She hasn’t started on it anyway. Remember, she just told us we gave her some ideas for picking who to use as her case study.”
“Ah… true that!” Doug said, then he smirked at Marjorie. “But she did vote against bending the rules, which means she won’t bend them.”
“I never said that I wouldn’t bend the rules,” she retorted.
The bell rang for the start of seventh period which, thanks to block scheduling was the last period on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. I had AP Computer Science seventh period, my favorite class. I was sure that Mr. Farinholdt wouldn’t assign anything to be done over Christmas vacation. I was right.
After class I went to my locker and got my Spanish 3 textbook. I needed it to study for a test we’d have on the Monday we returned to school. I left all of my other textbooks in my locker because I wouldn’t need any of them over the break. It was amazing how much lighter my backpack was with only my Spanish 3 textbook and my notebook PC.
I walked out of the 200 building where my locker was located, intending to walk to the bus pick-up area. When I got outside I saw Chris Rodriguez sitting on a bench, hunched over, his elbows on his knees, holding his head in his hands, and his backpack between his feet. I wondered if he was feeling sick or something. I sat down next to him.
“Hey, Chris. You okay?”
Chris glanced up at me for a second, then returned to the way he’d been sitting. “I feel kind of weak. I wasn’t able to get any lunch today.”
“I lost my lunch ticket on Monday. Can’t afford to replace it.”
“You mean you haven’t had any lunch all week?” I was incredulous.
“I think that should be a yes.”
“Why didn’t you ask someone to loan you enough to buy your lunch? If you’d asked me I would’ve given it to you.”
Chris shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, you should be able to have a snack as soon as you get home, and then have dinner.”
“Not going to happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
I sat trying to analyze what he’d just said. Finally, I figured it out, maybe. “You mean you’re homeless?”
Chris shrugged his shoulders again.
Shit! That is what he meant. “When did you start being homeless?” I asked.
“Last summer. My mom lost her job and we ended up losing our apartment. We were living in her car until last week.”
“What happened last week?”
“After school last Friday I went to where we’d been parked and the car wasn’t there. I spent most of the weekend looking for my mom but couldn’t find her. I don’t know where she went. I assumed she’d come to school this week and tell me what was going on. But she never came looking for me.”
“You couldn’t have called her?”
“Neither of us have cellphones.”
“Man, that’s fucked up. You don’t have any money saved up? Even just a little?”
“No. I have a job at that big apartment development that they’re building near school. I pick up everything that’s laying around and sorted it into things to be saved or junk that I put into the trash. I got minimum wage, $12.00 an hour. They liked that I’m prompt and careful that I never put anything of value in the trash and do a good job organizing the other things to save. I work three hours after school on Fridays. They pay me in cash on the first of each month, $144.00, no taxes, no deductions. I think they call it working under the table, or something like that. Each month I gave all but $20.00 of what I made to my mom. She’d buy fast food for our dinners because we didn’t have any way to cook anything. I spent eight bucks on a monthly bus ticket and three dollars for washing my clothes each week. The only other thing I have is my lunch ticket and I get that for free because I’m in the free lunch program. With that I could get a breakfast burrito before school and my lunch each day. Until I lost my lunch ticket Monday.”
“Where have you been sleeping since you couldn’t find your mom?”
“St. Timothy’s Church. Their gym is being used as a shelter. I don’t like it because they don’t serve meals, they don’t have showers, and the men that stay there smell bad and I don’t trust them.
“I have PE first period. On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday I’d take a shower as soon as I’d get to school. Then I’d take another longer shower right after PE. Because of block scheduling I’d have to sneak in and take a quick shower in the morning before fourth period on Wednesdays and Fridays.”
“Where do you wash your clothes?”
“I’ve got like two sets of clothes and gym clothes. I wash each set once a week on Fridays. I sneak into the laundromat in one of the older apartment buildings near the BART station. One of the men at the shelter told me about it. The lock on the outside door to their laundry room doesn’t work, so it’s easy to get in. It takes two quarters to wash a small load, which is half of my clothes, and one quarter to dry. Some people leave their laundry detergent so I’d borrow a little each week. I never got caught.
“Trouble is, now I’m out of money, and school’s closed for two weeks. Of course, if my mom doesn’t show up I’ll be able to keep the whole amount I get paid, $36.00 a week. But I won’t get paid until the first Friday in January. With school out there’s no place for me to shower, and the weather’s starting to get cold. My heavy jacket and most of my warm clothes were in the trunk in my mom’s car. I guess they’re still there.”
Chris sat up and turned to look at me. I was worried. His face was so pale it looked like he might pass out.
“You didn’t eat any breakfast or lunch this week?”
Chris shook his head.
“When was the last time you had something to eat?”
“Sunday night. I found a burrito someone left untouched on one of the tables outside Baja Rio. And somebody left half a banana on one of the tables in the cafeteria on Monday. I never realized that if you don’t eat for four days it really gets to you.”
“Chris, stand up. I’m taking you home and I’m going to get you something to eat. Then you can take a shower and I’ll wash and dry all your clothes. You and I are about the same size, so I’ll give you some of my things to wear while yours are drying. Then you’re going to have dinner with me and my family tonight. We’ll talk with my folks about how to solve your problem. In the meantime, you can stay in our guest bedroom until we go back to school in January.”
“Thanks, but you don’t have to do that, Darryl. I’ll be able to….”
I interrupted him. “No arguments. I’m taking you home with me. You’re not going to go dumpster diving for something to eat. You’re not going to live in a shelter with a bunch of homeless men you can’t trust. You’re not going to skip taking showers every day for two weeks while school’s closed for Christmas vacation.”
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“We’ve know each other since seventh grade. You’re in my Spanish 3 class. You’re a nice guy. You’re my friend. I can’t stand hearing that you haven’t been eating. I can’t stand hearing that you don’t have a safe place to sleep. I can’t stand hearing that your mother has abandoned you. You deserve better, Chris. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that people have to help and take care of each other. Especially if they’re friends.”
“Darryl, your folks aren’t going to want you to drag some homeless kid into your house and have him move in with you.”
I grinned. “You don’t know anything about my folks. So hand me your backpack and get up. You’re going home with me.” I held out my hand and waved my fingers gesturing that Chris was to get up.
Chris put out his hand. I realized that he might not be able to get up without assistance, so I took his hand and helped him stand. I reached under the bench and grabbed his backpack, and then we walked slowly to the pick-up area. We were just in time to catch the bus that I use to go home from school. We took two seats that were together near the rear exit.
As the bus approached my stop I tapped Chris’s shoulder. “Next stop is ours,” I said. I helped him stand, and we carefully stepped off the bus and onto the curb.
“My house is three blocks this way. Take as much time as you need; we aren’t in any hurry. If you need me to give you a hand, let me know.”
“Are your folks home?” Chris asked as we walked up the street.
“My mom is an English teacher at Las Lomas High. She should be home in about a half hour, forty-five minutes. She picks up my brothers — Ryan and Sean are identical twins — at Walnut Creek Intermediate on her way home. My dad works for a software company in Oakland. He’ll be home around six o’clock.”
“What grade are your brothers in?”
“Eighth. They’re twelve years old. You’ll like them. They are really funny. That’s a warning, by the way. They like to joke a lot, so it’s best to not take anything they say seriously or personally.”
We walked up to our house. Chris stopped and looked at the front of the house and the trees and plants in the front yard. I led him up the driveway and through the gate to the back of the house. I unlocked the back door and let him go in first. The alarm was beeping, and as we walked into the kitchen I walked over to the keypad on the wall and keyed in the code. The beeping stopped.
“What’s with the alarm? Is this a bad neighborhood?” Chris joked.
“Nah,” I replied. “The alarm system is used to keep the raccoons from coming in the house all the time.”
We both laughed. Chris stood looking at me. “That’s the first time I’ve made a joke and laughed in a long…” then he started to cry. I pulled him into a hug, and we held on to each other until he stopped crying.
“I’m so stupid,” he said. “Sixteen years old and crying like a little kid.”
“Bullshit! What’s happened to you isn’t something any sixteen-year-old should ever have to go through. Now, let me get you something to eat. I think it should be light, not spicy. How about a bowl of cornflakes with some blueberries and milk?
“That sounds great. I can’t begin to tell you how tired I am of the breakfast burritos in our cafeteria.”
I rinsed some fresh blueberries and put them and a generous serving of cornflakes and milk in a bowl and set it and a spoon on the kitchen table. Chris dug in and ate his snack. He didn’t swallow it down all at once; it looked like he knew he might get sick to his stomach if he did. When he finished I rinsed the bowl and put it and the spoon into the dishwasher.
“Come on upstairs to my bedroom. I have my own bathroom. You can take a shower.”
When we walked into my bedroom Chris stood and looked around. He had such a sad expression. It almost made me start tearing up.
“Take everything out of your pockets You can leave it on the top of my dresser.”
I led him into my bathroom. “Here’s a clean washcloth and towel, a new toothbrush; the toothpaste is in this drawer. You can get undressed and get in the shower. There’s shampoo and bodywash in the shower. I’ll take your clothes downstairs and put them in washer. Then I’ll bring you a long-sleeve tee, boxer briefs, a pair of jeans, a belt, and socks, and leave them on the counter in the bathroom so you can get dressed. When you’re finished dressing come back to my bedroom. I’ll be here, working on my English 3 project that Mrs. Harington assigned today. It was a big, unwelcome surprise that’s due on November seventh, the day we get back to school.”
“If it’s okay, I’ll get undressed in your bedroom. There’s no reason for us to be modest. We see naked guys in the gym three days a week.”
“Okay,” I said. Actually, I wasn’t taking PE this semester because it’s optional for juniors and seniors so I was able to take AP Computer Science this year instead. The more AP classes I can take means fewer basic classes I’ll have to take during my freshman year in college. That means I can focus on my major.
Chris got undressed, leaving his clothes on my bed. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, making sure I wasn’t caught staring. It looked like Chris and I were about the same size everywhere; I figured my jeans would fit him.
“Why don’t you just leave the clothes you’re loaning me on your bed,” Chris suggested. He was nude and standing facing me holding the folded towel and washcloth in his hands.”
He walked into the bathroom and closed the door.
I took the clothes he had been wearing downstairs to the laundry room and put them in the washer, added a detergent pod and a small amount of liquid fabric softener, set it to the short cycle, then turned it on. The clothes he’d been wearing didn’t look dirty, but his gym shorts, tee, and socks sure did. It looked like he’d been playing soccer in the mud this week.
When I returned to my bedroom I pulled out clothes to loan him. I decided to include a long-sleeve shirt; the weather was on the cool side, especially at night. I put them on my bed.
Then I sat at my desk, pulled my notebook PC out of my backpack, and began thinking about the English 3 project. What a bummer to have to find someone who could be my case study. I remembered that I’d warned Doug Wu that I’d use him for that. We were friends but not close friends. But I didn’t know of any problems he had at school. He got A’s, he was on the tennis team, he seemed to be a happy guy, so he didn’t fit Mrs. Harington’s criteria for someone who could be a case study. What a bummer.
I stretched and twisted back and forth. Doing so I noticed the clothes I’d put on my bed… and I leaned back and started laughing. All of a sudden I’d realized that I knew who the perfect person was to be my case study. And right now he was in my bathroom taking a shower! Why didn’t I think of him first?
Chris was perfect. He fit all of Mrs. Harington’s criteria. She wouldn’t know who he was; he was a sophomore and she only taught junior and senior English classes. Check. We were friendly but not best friends. Check. He didn’t have just one problem, he had a whole freakin’ group of interrelated problems. Check. He was perfect.
I’d just have to be careful and not let him know anything about what — and who — I was writing about. I’d just call it a short story assignment. I’d have to be careful when I asked Chris questions. And since I couldn’t take notes when I talked to him, I’d have to remember what he said so I wouldn’t screw it up. Of course, being 100% accurate wasn’t part of Mrs. Harington’s criteria. So I could alter what Chris told me, a little, or even some things maybe a lot, to make it fit the plot of the story I’d write. The most important part was I couldn’t let him read what I was writing.
This was going to be great! Well, as long as I was discreet it would be great.
I needed to create a list of Mrs. Harington’s criteria. I made the list but wasn’t sure that I’d remembered everything. Sleeping on it would help me recall criteria I forgot and I could add those things to my list in the morning.
My next step was to develop a plot for my fictional story. I sat back with my eyes closed, trying to conjure a plot that could be derived from Chris as my case study. In other words, derived from his problems.
In my Creative Writing class one of the things Mr. Buckley told us was to name your protagonist before starting to define the plot of the story. I never understood why that was important, but, what the hell.
So, a name for my protagonist. Okay, it couldn’t be Chris. Definitely not Chris.
Hmmm…. Okay, how about Case? That would be a perfect first name for the person who was my case study. Mrs. Harington would probably find that funny.
Now, how about a last name. Mr. Case Study would be a stupid name. I opened my online thesaurus and scanned verbs. Ponder. Case Ponder. Case Ponder. Case Ponder. Not bad. I checked the nouns suggested by the thesaurus. None of the choices were good. Wait — ‘Colloq: swatting’. Case Swatting? Nah. Case Swotting? Nah. Case Studly? I laughed. No, that definitely wouldn’t be a good choice!
Okay, I chose Case Ponder as my protagonist’s name.
Now, the plot. Chris’s mom abandoned him. Took off and left him. I could use that, or I could turn it around and have Case Ponder abandon his mom. I didn’t like that idea. I’d have to invent Case Ponder’s problem. Having Case’s mom abandon him was the exact problem Chris was having with his mom, along with a bunch of others. These were real problems. It would be a real problem for any kid who had one parent who took off and left their kid by himself.
I heard the bathroom door open, so I saved my story outline and turned off my notebook PC. Chris walked in with the towel wrapped around his waist.
“Thanks for letting me take the best shower I’ve had since we got kicked out of the apartment,” he said.
“No problem. I should check if your clothes are washed, and if so I’ll put them in the dryer. I’ll be right back.” That was true, but it also gave Chris time to finish dressing before I got back. I wouldn’t want him to pull off his towel and catch me staring at him. I’d be very tempted to do just that. And it would not have just been idle curiosity. You want to know? Yeah, I am.
When I got back to my bedroom I was shocked. Chris was laying on my bed, asleep and lightly snoring. He was laying on one end of the towel, and the other end had fallen off along the side of my bed and onto the floor. Whoa! What a sight!
I turned and quietly closed and closed my bedroom door. I didn’t want my mom and the twins to get home and walk into my room and see what I was eagerly staring at.
I couldn’t continue standing — it would be too embarrassing if Chris woke up and saw… well, you can imagine what he would have seen. So I sat down at my desk, turned on my notebook PC, and got back into the outline for my story.
About a half-hour later I heard the garage door open, so I saved my work and turned off my notebook PC. I got up (my problem having sufficiently diminished to be non-noticeable) and shook Chris’s shoulder.
“Chris, my mom and the twins just got home. You’d better get dressed.”
He opened his eyes and when he saw me he smiled.
“Hi. What’d you say?”
I repeated what I’d said to him.
“Oh. Okay.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, and using his hands he leveraged himself into a sitting position. This left nothing to my imagination, but I had gained sufficient self-control.
“Can you help me get dressed? I’m still feeling weak.”
“Okay.” That’s what I did, starting with the tee, then I helped him stand and helped him pull on the boxer briefs, then the jeans and belt, then the shirt. He tucked the shirt into the jeans and tightened the belt, then plopped his butt back onto the edge of the bed.
“I can put on my socks and shoes if you need to go tell your mom that you have company.”
“Maybe that’s a good idea. I’m going to close the door so the twins don’t see you and come racing into the room wanting to know who you are and why you’re in my bedroom.” I grinned, then so did Chris. “They won’t come into my bedroom if the door is closed, and neither will my folks,” I added.
“That’s great,” he said. “I’ve never had privacy.”
I left my room, closing the door behind me, and went downstairs.
“Hi, Mom. Where are Ryan and Sean?”
“They’re in the family room watching some video thing on YouTube. How are you, Darryl?”
“Good. I brought a friend home with me. Lemme tell you about him. His name is Chris Rodriguez.” I went on and gave her a slightly compressed version of what happened to Chris. She was shocked that his mother had abandoned him.
“I wonder, though,” she said, “if something happened to his mother. Maybe the police made her move her car. Though it is strange that she hasn’t phoned him.”
“He doesn’t have a cellphone and his mother doesn’t either. They can’t afford even the cheapest plan. They’ve been living in her car.”
“I assume you want to put him up in our guest room.”
“Yes, if that’s okay. He’s a nice guy, and I think you and Dad will like him.”
“He’s your age?”
“We’re both sixteen, but he’s a sophomore. I guess it’s based on when we have our birthdays.”
“Do you know when his birthday is?”
I shook my head. “No. I’ll have to ask him.
“I washed his clothes and loaned him some of mine. His are in the dryer now.”
“He only has one set of clothes?”
“No, two, but I decided to wash both sets and all of his gym clothes, too. The gym clothes were pretty dirty. I think they were playing soccer in PE this week.”
“Why don’t you ask him to come downstairs so I can meet him. I’ll be in the kitchen. Then afterward he can meet Ryan and Sean.”
“Okay. I’ll get him. I might have to help him come downstairs. He lost his lunch ticket on Monday and didn’t have anything to eat this week. I feed him some cornflakes with blueberries as soon as we got home. Anyway, I might have to hang on to him so he doesn’t fall down the stairs.”
“Should he see a doctor?”
“I don’t know. I think if he can start eating regularly he’ll probably be okay.”
“Alright. Why don’t you go get him. His name is Chris, right?”
I went upstairs to my bedroom. Chris was still sitting on the edge of my bed.
“You look good. Let’s go downstairs and I’ll introduce you to my mom. She’ll want to talk to you. She said there’s no problem with you staying with us. After you’ve talked with her you’ll probably be attacked by the twins.” I grinned. “They’ll like you and you’ll like them.”
“Okay. I’m looking forward to meeting them. I’ve never known any twins before. I’m really interested in seeing identical twins.”
“Well, let’s go down and you can meet my mom. Will you need a hand going down the stairs?”
“I don’t think so. Let’s do it.”
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