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Authors: Norah McClintock

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BOOK: Last Chance
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Something was going on in the field outside. Kids, adults, and dogs were milling around, but I couldn't see what all the excitement was about. Then I heard another shout, loud and urgent. Someone banged on my window—Kathy, red-faced from running in the afternoon heat.

“911,” she shouted. “Call 911. It's Mr. Schuster. Tell them he's breathing, but he's unconscious. He doesn't respond to my voice.”

Unconscious?

I scrabbled for the phone and punched in the numbers. I was surprised at how calm my voice sounded while I told the 911 operator where I was calling from and what I was calling about. I told the operator Mr. Schuster's approximate age and repeated what Kathy had told me. Then I repeated the address of the shelter, reading it off the shelter calendar that hung on the wall near my computer. The whole time I was thinking,
Hang on, Mr. Schuster.

After I hung up, I opened my window and called to let Kathy know that help was on the way. She nodded grimly. I was closing the window again when I heard a noise in the hall behind me. I started to turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone darting out of the office across the hall. At least, I thought that's what I saw. I wasn't positive.
Probably a staff member,
I thought. I turned to look out the window again. Then I couldn't stand it anymore. I had to find out how Mr. Schuster was.

I stepped out of my office, intending to go directly outside. Then—I'm not sure what made me do it—I glanced into the office where I had been sorting the money. The piles of coins looked more or less as I had left them, but the stacks of bills didn't. They had been knocked over. But what had scattered them?

Or who?

All the office doors were equipped with locks. You pressed a button on the inside door knob, pulled the door closed, and it locked automatically. You needed a key to open it again. I made sure to lock the money room. Then I went outside. I heard a siren in the distance—the 911-response unit. Nick and Antoine were standing just outside the building. But whereas everyone else was clustered on the field, surrounding Mr. Schuster, Nick and Antoine were just outside the back door, far away from the crowd. Antoine looked directly at me when I stepped out into the hot afternoon. His expression was not friendly. Nick looked at me too, but only for a moment, before ducking his head and turning away from me, all in one fluid motion. The two of them strode away across the lawn.

“Hey,” I called to them. But the shrill of the siren drowned out my voice. An ambulance drove right out onto the field. Nick and Antoine disappeared behind it. By the time I'd reached it, both boys had joined the rest of their group, and Mr. Jarvis was leading them off the field.

The paramedics got out of the ambulance and hurried over to Mr. Schuster. Kathy was kneeling beside him. Mr. Schuster's face was white, but his eyes were open now. A man with Kathy stood up and said something to the paramedics. I recognized him from the tour Kathy had given me on my first day—a vet. Relief flooding over Kathy's face as the paramedics took over. She squeezed one of Mr. Schuster's hands before moving out of their way.

“Is he going to be all right?” I said when she stepped away from him.

“I don't know,” she said. She looked around at the staff members and volunteers who had gathered on the lawn. She started toward them, gently telling everyone to go back inside. “Mr. Schuster is in good hands,” she said.

I hung back for a moment and looked across the lawn to Nick and the rest of the RAD group. They were all facing Mr. Jarvis. All except Nick. He was looking at me. Looking and not smiling. I wasn't smiling either. I was remembering something that had happened nearly four years ago. It was, as my father would have said, déjà vu all over again.

F
our years ago, I attended an alternative junior high school called South Parkside Alternative—SPA, for short. The school was tiny: fifty kids in all, half in grade seven and half in grade eight, crammed into a couple of rooms on the top floor of a regular kindergarten-tograde-eight school. There were always ten times more kids who wanted to go to SPA than there were places, so those of us who got in thought we were special. SPA was more fun than regular school. We went on more field trips and did more activities, which was great but made some kids in the regular school jealous. At SPA we were encouraged to not just study issues but to get involved—for extra credit, of course.

It was while I was at SPA that I became active in animal rights. Partly I was talked into it by Billy. Partly I was shamed into it by Morgan, who is one of life's positive thinkers and who believes that the best thing to do when you fall off a horse is to climb right back on. While I wasn't about to shake paws with the dog that had bitten me, I was (eventually) willing to show no hard feelings by working to defend animal rights. And that's why Morgan, Billy, and I organized the pet pageant while we were at SPA—to raise money for Billy's favorite animal rights charity.

The pageant itself was the main event. We charged kids a dollar to enter their pets. We got pet supply stores and pet trainers in the area to donate items (little packages of dog and cat toys; baskets of dog, cat and hamster treats; and introductory dog training sessions) for prizes and a raffle. Two of the more artistic kids at SPA volunteered to do face painting—animal-themed, of course—for the little kids who attended. I let Morgan rope me into helping her with the cat race—which was pretty funny, because the cats didn't seem to understand or, more likely, care that they were supposed to be in a race. You know cats. After twenty minutes of trying to herd felines of all ages and sizes in the general direction of the finish line, my eyes were watering, my nose was running, and the audience, especially its younger members, was convulsed with laughter.

The pageant was a huge success and not just because school was let out early so that everyone could attend. We raised a lot of money.

At the end of the day, while the rest of the SPA kids were cleaning up, Billy, Morgan, and I took the money inside to be counted. We were going to give it to our teacher to deposit in the bank so that she could send a check to the animal rights group.

As we climbed the stairs to the top floor of the school, Morgan chattering away about how well everything had gone and Billy speculating about how much money we had raised (and probably wildly overestimating our results), I was still sneezing from exposure to the cats. SPA consisted of two large classrooms, a smaller room that served as a library, a multipurpose room where we held school meetings and ate lunch, and an office. Except for Morgan, Billy, and me, the school seemed deserted. Our teacher, Lois—we called all the teachers at SPA by their first names—said that she would come up after she had supervised the cleanup.

Morgan unlocked the office door with the key Lois had given her. We put the money—a couple of tin cans filled with coins and a fat envelope stuffed with bills—on Lois's desk. I pulled up a chair so that we could start counting. So did Morgan. Then Billy said he hadn't had a chance to eat anything all day, and Morgan, who is one of those skinny girls who is always munching, said that she'd been too busy to eat too. Since they'd mentioned it, I realized I was hungry too. So we decided to go back down and grab a bite to eat before we counted the money. We closed the office door, and I checked to make sure it was locked.

As we headed down the stairs to the school yard, I had a moment of panic. My keys! I was always losing them back then. My mother freaked out every time. She's the kind of person who can't sleep at night unless she's already laid out her clothes for the next morning and has her briefcase packed and ready to go. Every time she had a new set of keys made for me, she attached them to a larger and bulkier key chain so that they would be harder to lose. The last key chain had a metal police whistle attached to it, and I had got into the habit of patting my pockets regularly to make sure it was still there. Usually it was. But that day, it was gone.

I sneezed. Then I got that frozen-up feeling that always came over me when I thought about admitting to my mother that my keys were missing—
again.
I'm usually the kind of person who tears the house apart looking for something when I lose it. When my father loses something, which he hardly ever does, he stands in one place, closes his eyes, and tries to visualize the last time he had held whatever it was in his hand. He won't open his eyes until he has that picture fixed in his mind. Then he goes directly to where he left whatever is missing. It's infuriating. But it works. That's what I tried that day.

I stopped on the stairs, gripped the railing, and closed my eyes. I heard Morgan, who was almost at the bottom, sigh and say, “Not again.” She couldn't believe how often I misplaced my keys. Top of the class, she'd say. You skipped a grade, but you're completely scattered.

“I gave them back to you,” I heard her say.

My eyes popped open. I looked at her and sneezed again.

“Just before we came inside,” she said. “You gave them to me so I could use the whistle for the cat race. I gave them back to you when the race was over. Seriously, Robyn, anyone would think you
try
to lose your keys a couple of times a week. Maybe you're working out some issues with your mother. It's classic passive-aggressive behavior.” Morgan's mother is a psychiatrist, so Morgan has always been hyperaware of people's behavior. She's always more than happy to provide her analysis too.

I closed my eyes again. This time I saw Morgan pressing my keys into my already full hands out in the schoolyard. I heard her saying, “Here. There's no way I'm going to take the blame if you lose them.”

I had held the keys in my hand. They had dangled from my finger all the way up the stairs. I had put them down when I'd set down a couple of tin cans filled with coins and pulled a tissue from my back pocket to blow my nose again. I turned now and started up the stairs.

“Hey,” Morgan called. She tossed me the key to the office door. “Meet you outside.”

I scooted back up the stairs and pushed open the door at the top. That's when I heard voices—whispers—coming from the office. At first, I didn't think much about it. Maybe some other kids were putting things away. I turned the corner and saw that the door—the one I had just locked—was open now. I heard more whispering, frantic, like mice scurrying. I wasn't sure why, but it didn't sound right.

I sneezed.

Then I heard an urgent whisper: “Someone's coming.”

Footsteps pounded toward me. Two boys exploded out of the office, almost bowling me over. One of them I sort of recognized—a short, dark-haired kid who went to the school where SPA was located. The other boy was a lot taller and a lot older. The younger kid paused when he saw me. The older kid barreled past me in a blur, grabbing the younger one on the way by. I heard a door crash against a cinder block wall and then footsteps fading down a flight of stairs. Shocked, I stepped into the office and looked around. The cans of coins were still there, but the envelope containing the bills was gone.

I spun around and looked at the door through which the two boys had disappeared. Then I sprinted down the stairs and out into the school yard. After a frantic few moments, I located Lois. I sped over to her and told her exactly what I had seen.

Based on my description, they caught the younger kid the next day, but I never heard anything about the older boy. And the money? We never got it back. Someone told me that the kid they'd caught said he'd acted alone. I knew that wasn't true. I told Lois and the school principal that there had been another boy with him. But because I had recognized the younger one, I had concentrated on him. I hadn't taken a good enough look at the other boy to be able to describe him. The kid I saw, the one I described first to Lois, and later to the police, was Nick D'Angelo. He was expelled from the school. I never saw him again—until now. Obviously, if he was participating in a program for kids who had been charged with violent crimes, things had gone from bad to worse for him.

 

. . .

I got Janet to unlock the door to the office across the hall from mine. I stood inside for five full minutes, maybe longer, trying to remember if I had bumped against the desk when I rushed out of the room.That would account for the knocked-over bills. But I hadn't. I was sure of it. And as far as I could tell, nothing else could have knocked or blown them over. No pictures or calendars had fallen off the wall. The window wasn't open. Nothing like that. But I
had
seen someone dart out of the office. Well,
sort of
seen someone. All I'd noticed was a flash of movement and the sound of footsteps. I'd told myself that it was just another staff member dashing down the hall. But if that were true, what had disturbed the piles of paper money that I had so carefully stacked? And why, when I'd gone to see what was happening, had Nick and Antoine been standing next to the door, far away from everyone else in their group? Nick and Antoine—two boys who were here because they had been in trouble before. Two boys who had helped carry in the money from Kathy's car and knew which office it was in. Antoine had been fascinated by how much money the boxes might contain. Nick had lingered in the hallway long after Kathy had dismissed him. He'd said he wanted to talk to her. But had he really? Or had he been waiting to see what Kathy was going to do with the money?

BOOK: Last Chance
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