After the bell rang, Rey Romero went to the shade to get out of reach of the hot afternoon. Students on the sunny blacktop stared, talked and stared as he played with gelled and spiky hair. A slim frame with brown skin, he sometimes rubbed his brown eyes, nose and sides of his head as though waking up. He might get in a trouble for not being with everyone else. Then again, having been cited for smoking (weed) and calling someone a blank blanking blanker, he would probably get in trouble anyway. Everyone thought he was a troublemaker.
A moment later, Coach Edison appeared, sporting a blue visor and polo.
“Romero,” muttered Coach. “Get in line, you lazy mutt.”
Rey listened. He sat down next to Carlos Villalobos, a fool twice his size who—like Rey—wore fake-diamond earrings and baggy pants.
“Rey, ‘ey, Rey,” whispered Villalobos. “Do you know what Nadia called you when you were stretching? A little brown kitty. That’s what you are, Rey: Coach’s little kitty.”
“Shut up,” he uttered.
Villalobos laughed. “Sure thing, Sir Furious.”
“Both of you lovebirds be quiet,” Coach Edison grunted. “I’m trying to take attendance.”
“I wasn’t saying anything,” Rey said. Rey nodded. “It was this idiot.”
“You’re both idiots,” Coach said. The whole class laughed.
In the hot sun, their noise faded to breathing and fidgeting. A long cord clanged against a flagpole. A lawnmower whirred in the distance. The air wreathed of chicken farms.
“God, this takes so freaking long,” Nadia Romero said. Her frizzy, brown hair tied up in into a bun. She was known for being smart and partying like crazy.
“Jesus, Miss Romero, you interrupt me every freaking day.” Coach groaned. “I should write you up.”
“Coach,” Rey cried. “How come you never talk to me like that? Is it because I’m ugly?”
The class laughed again. It was like they were at the movies.
Coach carefully put the attendance sheet away, and rant a twisted rant that made his elfish ears, haggard from years of wrestling, stand out and face raw red. Everyone’s face melted. Rey was dubbed, “The reason we are running today.”
Everyone then moved lamely to the locker room, where the air-conditioners blasted and posters with cute dogs read, “Go after your dreams,” and “Believe in success!” Bloomington High School was not a tropical paradise. This idea rang in everyone’s head along with a hatred for Rey, who was on the verge of expulsion. Doors slammed opened and closed amid the absent chatter as everyone changed. Carlos’ pulled his own shirt over his head to reveal a creaseless torso, shiny and slick like a seal’s. Carlos could have him in a headlock like he was a jar of mayonnaise.
“There goes the little kitty,” Carlos said as Rey left.
Out on the blacktop, students in grey gym clothes covered their noses, and were laughing at the wind-con-chicken-poo. As part of his punishment Rey had to retrieve the equipment for the pole-vault. Coach threatened him with doing one in front of everybody.
On the horizon, some small clouds had gathered. The wind ran through yellow grass on the Jurupa hills Rey often hiked. Every other year, a firework lit them up, and firemen doused them as they smoldered on the nightly news. A while later, the black scars faded. Life in the suburbs continued as if nothing had happened.
Sitting in their electric carts at the edge of campus were a few security guards in black and gold uniforms. They pointed him to a tattered white booth, where another guard read a newspaper. She had bleached, curly hair with red streaks like she was a mermaid. As he neared, Rey could hear blips, murmurs, ruffles.
“So you’re the troublemaker,” she said. She told him something about listening to his parents as they brushed by cars with sun-kissed features and dirt-jotted bodies. “If I were you, I’d be studying all night trying to get a full ride to a university, maybe one on the East Coast.” Rey agreed. You can’t explain yourself to everyone.
Back on the field Coach set up the beat and rusty vault. Rey placed the padding down next to the “standards” –detachable thin poles, three times his height – shining in the sun. Coach grumbled. Rey rearranged the landing beds around the vault until Coach became distracted. An ant trail swirled on one of them.
“Coach, have you ever had to fight anyone?” Rey asked.
“A few times,” Coach said as he placed a pole into a stand. “Why … is Villalobos bothering you?”
“I’m just wondering,” he lied.
Coach moved to see the vault at another angle, and then another. “You always look so angry, Romero.”
Coach kept talking. The lawnmower whirred. On the other side of the field, Nadia kissed someone’s hand. For every lap you ran, an attendant stamped your hand. Girls who never ran duplicated stamps by licking, and then pressing someone’s hand against their own. When Coach questioned the attendant on the merits of a particular girl, he would say, “I don’t know.” Coach would hassle the attendant until the kid looked stupid, and that was usually the end of it. Rey had gravitated towards Coach over the years, almost imperceptibly. He could never tell when he was being serious.
Passing the bathroom, Rey saw his friend Ernesto in a baggy shirt and jeans, skipping class. A playboy gangster, the guards left him alone.
“You’re going to eat dirt,” Ernesto said after Rey explained his situation with the vault, and with peck-peck Carlos. “Just slug Carlos. You know, shut him up. Show him his place. I’d do it for you for a million dollars.” Ernesto looked around to see if anyone was coming. “I’d probably slug Mr. Edison, too. Freaking firecraker. Sounds like he’s tripping.” Everything but trash had vacated the blacktop, lined with shady trailers and yellow lawns. This could be a set to a zombie movie. His melted hair gel pricked his eyes.
“Remember in middle school how we’d hide the markers from Ms. Snyder?” Rey asked. “She’d just sit there helplessly, saying, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do with you children!’”
“Fool, how could I forget?”
Two guards passed by without acknowledging them. Occasionally they stormed the bathrooms to make sure no one was hiding.
“Don’t worry about Carlos,” Ernesto said, risking his cool surface. “He’s not going to do anything, dude. He’s not—
“Do you got my back?” Rey asked.
“Sure, buddy,” Ernesto relented. “If his friends jump in. Otherwise, You’ll totally take him.”
Back on the field Coach shouted, “Round it up, class. The longer you take, the less chance you have of catching your bus.” His bright clothes hung over his stretched, emboldened body like signs on a barricade. The wind flagged Rey’s maroon shirt. Someday people will just leave him alone. They’ll hold him upside down and shake and shake but then leave him alone. Then, from across the blacktop, a cart sped towards them. Coach had invited the guards to come watch.
“Romero, to redeem yourself, I want you to do a vault. Come on.” Coach handed him the pole, and began adjusting his grip and arm, but stopped midway. “See. You got it,” Coach said. It had been a while since Coach showed him. Still, he lined up with the vault. He crouched, and looked at the rod, his eyes slightly burning from the gel melting.
“I believe in you,” Carlos shouted over the excitement of the gathering.
“Hurry up. Some of us actually have to be somewhere,” Nadia chimed.
He rushed the vault, and then launched himself in the air, hoping to be convinced of something new and powerful, but felt the same messy self-hatred. His knee clipped the standard. The whole thing wobbled, and then fell. He found himself seated on the dirty, sunburned beds, having had flimsy metal things fall on him. It was a typical error in form, made by the best. There was heckling, laughing, “ooo”-ing, the scuttle of someone coming to help. It was typical. Rey kicked one of the rods that was on his leg. It rolled back and poked his knee. He picked up the shimmering red thing, and then threw it out of sight. It flew, almost weightlessly.
Coach yelped behind him.
“What the shit?”
Rey pressed his hands into the molten hot bed, got up and turned. Like a choir the class said, “Oooooo.” The rod had hit Coach. Where? Rey was unsure. Coach looked angry or constipated. It was an accident. It was intentional. It was an accident. He ran, his prizewinning speed surprising everyone. Chasing him was a guard with an earpiece hanging over his shirt collar, keys slapping his hip, and walkie-talkie jabbing his side. He hurled himself over the chain-link fence. The guard, who had fallen apart along the way, didn’t even try. A fleet of guards drove towards him as his legs threw his body down the street. The expanse of concrete radiated with sunlight.
“You don’t have to chase him,” he heard Coach yell. “He’s got nowhere to go.”
A guard followed him into someone’s yard of blotchy shadows and leaves, but fell face-first into the wood chips. Then someone grabbed Rey’s shirt and pulled it over his head. Rey planted his elbow into a soft, hot belly and then wiggled free. The last guard tackled him to the burning street. The world reeled—the sun, power lines, chain-link fence. “Agh, you’re breaking my fucking leg,” Rey screamed.
One parent who saw everything got out of her Sequoia, hysterical. “What are you doing to him?”
“It’s okay, ma’am,” an older guard stated. “We have everything under control.” They sat him in the cart with his hands tied behind his back. As they drove towards campus a guard hissed as he rubbed his leg, “It stings, little idiot.”
“Watch, he’s going to try to make something up about us hurting him,” the guard said.
Campus now was full of excitement and baffled looks. Rey’s head throbbed with pain when the cart stopped for a group of students, yet he felt alive, more than he had in a long time. The cart whisked forward. He felt unstuck.