Alec kept his eyes on the floor, intent on avoiding the giant’s stare. Principal Becker was a fit man of six feet with neat white hair and eyes that could penetrate a soul. So, Alec kept his eyes on the floor, determined not to break under the pressure.
“Mr. Sanders, do you understand the severity of your actions?”
The principal didn’t yell, but his tone could have shaken a mountain.
“Locking Mary Beth and Cassidy in the men’s restroom isn’t a laughing matter. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Alec remained silent, glancing to his left where his sister sat with an eyebrow raised. Heather was only twenty-one, but she was the mother Alec needed. Her dark hair was twisted in a tight bun, and her face was white with silent anger. She wouldn’t yell at him either, but her quiet rage was almost worse.
“Alec,” Heather prompted sternly.
“They tried to take my books. I had to defend myself.”
“So, you locked two twelve-year-olds in the men’s restroom?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Mr. Sanders, never is it a good idea to scare young girls in such a manner. This is not the first time we have had this kind of conversation, and I fear that it will not be the last.”
He paused as if waiting for Alec to say something. He didn’t.
“This is your last warning, Mr. Sanders. The next time you enter this office, you will face suspension and possibly expulsion. Do you understand?”
Alec nodded but noticed Heather give him a look.
“Yes, sir,” he mumbled. Principal Becker stood and opened his office door. Heather ushered Alec out of the room and down the hallway. When they reached the locker area, she faced him.
“Alec, you can’t keep doing this. You can’t afford to be kicked out of school.”
“I’m sorry, okay?” Alec erupted. Heather’s face fell, and he immediately felt guilty.
“I can’t keep this from Dad much longer, Alec. I want to protect you, but—“
“What does it matter? Dad’s never home or awake long enough to do anything.”
“He’s working three jobs. Of course he’s tired,” Heather whispered harshly. “But he does care about you.”
The bell rang, interrupting the siblings’ conversation.
“Alec, please stay out of trouble,” Heather begged, touching her brother’s shoulder. He moved away sharply.
“I have to get to class,” he muttered. She caught him by the arm.
“When will you be home tonight?”
“Late. There’s a game tonight.”
“I can come pick you up—“
“Zeke’s mom will drive me,” Alec said, ripping his arm away from her. He stormed off to his locker, and by the time he’d gathered his books for his last class, she was gone. He slammed the locker door and sulked to the science lab. Throwing his books onto the desk, he slouched in the chair, resting his head on his fist. It wasn’t long before another boy plopped into the seat beside him.
“I’m going to take a wild guess. You got caught again.”
“I don’t understand what the big deal is!”
“I’m going to take that as a yes.”
“Those girls deserved what they got.”
“I’m not arguing, but couldn’t you have warned me? Being locked in the bathroom with two middle-schoolers isn’t my idea of a pleasant morning.”
“How was I supposed to know you were in there too?”
“Umm, look inside?”
“Are you trying to make me feel worse?”
“Nope, but I do think you went a little far this time—”
“Zeke, I need a friend right now, not an enemy.”
“I am your friend.”
“It doesn’t sound like it.”
Zeke didn’t reply. Alec turned away from him and opened his notebook. The bell rang again. Mr. Lukas started class, but Alec’s mind was far from chemistry. He scribbled a few notes but soon gave up trying to comprehend the material.
The only cool thing about chemistry is making things explode, he thought, twirling his pencil. He rested the eraser on his chin. He started to doze, but Zeke elbowed him. Alec jolted awake. His pencil flew halfway across the room. It landed next to Susan, Zeke’s sister, who glanced in Alec’s direction. He grew red and avoided eye contact.
“Don’t forget about our lab tomorrow,” Mr. Lukas said, grabbing Alec’s attention. “Please wear closed-toed shoes, and tie your hair back, ladies. The chemicals we will be working with are not dangerous, but I want all of you to be safe.”
Labs are always so boring. Alec groaned. I wonder if I could make this one more interesting. Once class was dismissed, Alec was packing up his books when Susan walked over with his pencil.
“You dropped this.”
He zipped it into his pencil bag and hoisted his backpack over his shoulder.
“Well, I should get going,” he said, practically jogging out of the lab. He returned his chemistry book to his locker and stuffed some other books and folders into the bag. Remembering that Coach Miller told him yesterday that he was able to join the basketball guys in his classroom before the game, Alec hurried to gather his homework. He made his way to Coach Miller’s classroom, where the basketball guys were already gathered. He chose a desk and pulled out his homework.
Coach Miller arrived soon after Alec and claimed the boys’ attention.
“I expect all of you to be doing homework. I don’t want to get emails from your teachers telling me that you are ineligible to play. Your schoolwork needs to come first.”
He sat at his desk, and the basketball guys quieted down. Zeke sat at the desk next to Alec, and the two of them worked on geometry homework together. By the time the team left to warm up for the game, Alec had gotten most of his work done. Deciding to finish up one last problem, he was the last to leave the classroom. He walked down the hall toward the gym. The hallway was empty since the game was starting, and Alec stopped by the science lab. He looked both ways and tried the door. It was unlocked. He smiled, pleased with his luck. He entered the dark lab. Setting his backpack down by the door, he tiptoed to the back closet door, which was also unlocked. Alec turned on the light, letting the storeroom door click shut behind him. Behind the first set of cabinet doors resided many small bottles, all with different chemical labels. He read a few of the labels and found that the stickers came off easily. Smirking, he peeled the stickers off and rearranged them on the bottles.
A voice in the back of Alec’s mind shouted.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, it was saying. He ignored it. He worked in tense silence, pushing guilt away from his mind. Once every bottle had a new name, he gently shut the cabinet doors. Alec turned off the light and snuck out of the lab. A referee’s whistle caught his attention. He hurried to the gym just as the first quarter was ending.
After the game was over, Alec hitched a ride with Zeke and Susan like he always did. Alec pushed his latest prank to the back of his mind and talked with his friends as if nothing had happened. Zeke had gotten more playing time and even scored eight points, so the ride home was filled with loud reenactment and encouragement. When they arrived at Alec’s house, he got out and waved goodbye to his friends. As the minivan pulled out of the driveway, Alec walked up to his front door. It was unlocked, so he guessed Heather was home. Purposefully avoiding the kitchen, he went to his room. He remained undisturbed for the next hour, which he used to complete his remaining homework.
Once he finished, he decided to watch a movie on his laptop. Just as he settled back in his bed, a knock echoed on his door.
Heather peeked her head in. In her hand was a paper plate with two slices of pizza and some chips.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” Alec said. She came into the room, handing him the plate as she sat on the edge of his bed.”
“How was the game?”
“Pretty good. Zeke’s getting better.”
“That’s great. I wish I could’ve come.”
“Dad home yet?”
Heather looked displeased with the comment but didn’t reprimand him. She noticed the movie pulled up on his laptop screen.
“Finish your homework?”
“I don’t see how that’s your business.”
“But did you?”
“Yes! I can be responsible when I want.”
Her tone was strained, and he sighed. He took another look at her face, noticing how tired she seemed.
“I’m sorry,” he said, closing his laptop.
“All I want to do is help you, Alec.”
“I don’t need help.”
“I think you do,” she replied, getting up. She walked to his door, glancing back at him. “But it doesn’t seem to matter what I think. Good night, Alec.”
She closed the door before he could reply. He stared at the door, her words turning in his mind.
“It’s not like I don’t care about what she says,” he said aloud. “But she doesn’t have to worry about me. I can handle my own problems.”
As he spoke, his most recent stunt flashed through his memory. He bit his lip, wondering if he’d gone too far. Maybe he did need help. As soon as he came to his conclusion, he groaned.
“No, I can take care of myself,” he huffed, opening his laptop again. He settled back into his pillows, closing his eyes. Before the movie was half over, he’d fallen asleep.
Alec opened his eyes to see a milky black pool of darkness surrounding him. He blinked, trying to get his bearings. He stepped forward, but the ground disappeared. He tried yelling, but his voice caught in his throat. Then he realized he couldn’t breathe. A murky gray cloud billowed around him, the ground still nowhere in sight. He blinked and noticed the flames dancing below him. Panicking, he kicked and moved his arms in an odd swimming motion, finally landing on what felt like solid ground.
Once he got his breath back, he shakily rose to his feet. The haze of smoke steadily grew thicker, and Alec stumbled through it, searching for a way out. He hit a hot metal door. He recoiled from the heat as another person appeared beside him.
“Zeke?” Alec coughed.
“Alec! How could you do it?” the redhead asked, sinking to the ground in a fit of coughs.
“What are you talking about?”
“You switched the labels, didn’t you?”
“I know you did,” Zeke’s eyelids started drooping as he grew weaker. Alec’s heart dropped into his stomach.
Alec sat Zeke up, but he didn’t respond.
Alec struggled to drag his best friend through the forest of flames, stopping every few paces to catch his breath.
“You have to make it, Zeke. You have to,” Alec begged. Zeke lay in a heap in front of Alec, who shook him desperately. “This is all my fault,” he whispered. Smoke began choking him as the fire danced closer. “I’d take it back, Zeke. On my life, I’d take everything back. I wish I never switched those labels!”
Alec broke. He sobbed over his friend, who remained unresponsive. The flames crept closer, threatening to devour them like Alec’s regret devoured him.
His eyes snapped open. Alec jolted upright, wiping a cold sweat from his forehead. His heart thundered, and his head pounded. Taking a couple deep breaths, he looked at his clock. It read 4:00 a.m. Sinking back onto his pillow, he stared at the ceiling. The shadows that filled the room turned into smoke every time he blinked.
“It was just a dream. It’s not like that would ever happen,” he scolded himself. He tried closing his eyes, but the sight of Zeke unresponsive appeared every time he did.
Alec tried for hours to go to sleep, but nothing worked. He finally started to drift off when his alarm rang. He threw back his quilt with a defeated groan. He stumbled upright and toward the bathroom as he rubbed his eyes.
His dream plagued his mind the whole morning, as if his mind was intent on torturing him. He threw on a shirt and a pair of khakis before combing his hair with his fingers. As he was brushing his teeth, Heather called for him. He ran to get his backpack and met his sister in the car. Keeping his backpack in his lap, he stared out the window. Dark clouds were already gathering, threatening to spill onto the dry earth below. By the time they reached the school, the clouds had already begun releasing their heavy burden. Alec wished he had the courage to do the same.
“Have a good day, Alec,” Heather said. He glanced back at her but didn’t answer. “I love you,” she added. He paused, searching her tired eyes for a moment.
“I love you too,” he said. He shut the door, put on his backpack, and walked into school. He stared at the floor as he went to his locker. As he was entering his combination, Zeke appeared beside him.
“Morning, Alec. Whoa, you look a little rough. Tough night?”
“You could say that.”
Alec unloaded his books in silence, but Zeke kept talking.
“I’m a little nervous for our chem lab today. It took me forever to read through the experiment. Then again, chemical compounds and their reactions aren’t my forte.”
“As long as Carrie helps me, I think I’ll be okay. Did you know she got over one hundred percent on our last test? She’s really smart.”
“But I don’t think she likes me very much. She made fun of my hair and knocked over my backpack last week. I think I’ll ask her to the school dance in May. Do you think she’ll say yes?”
Zeke paused, noticing that Alec didn’t seem to be listening.
“Or I could jump in the pond behind the school and catch frogs with my teeth.”
“Yeah, sure,” Alec said. Zeke grabbed his shoulder, turning Alec so they were facing each other.
“What’s gotten into you? Did something happen last night?”
“Yes. I mean, no.”
“You know you can tell me anything.”
Alec bit his lip. His mind replayed his dream. Sickening guilt plagued his stomach, and Alec looked at the ceiling.
“I can’t do this,” he mumbled.
“Can't do what?”
Alec clenched his fist, scenarios of expulsion and humiliation racing through his mind. He saw Zeke’s disappointed frown and Heather’s silent defeat.
Maybe I do need help.
“Zeke, there’s something I have to do,” Alec said. Before his friend could answer, Alec left for the office. He weaved through the morning rush of classmates, finally arriving at his dreaded destination. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the office door. He shoved his hands into his pockets, making eye contact with Mrs. Rose, the office secretary. She was a kind woman who gave him a bright smile as he walked in.
“Good morning, Alec,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“Is Mr. Becker here?” he asked.
“Yes, he arrived ten minutes ago.”
“May I see him?”
Despite knowing the usual chaos that often claimed the principal’s attention on such mornings, Mrs. Rose nodded. She got up from her desk and waved Alec back. He joined her behind the desk, and she took him into the teachers’ lounge, where Mr. Becker sat with his coffee and a laptop.
“Mr. Sanders, this is a surprise. What can I do for you?”
“May we talk?” Alec asked. Taking the hint, Mrs. Rose took her leave and motioned for the few remaining teachers to follow her. Mr. Becker closed his laptop and set aside his coffee cup. He signaled Alec to sit in the chair beside him. Alec obliged, noticing that the man seemed less foreboding when he wasn’t in his office.
“Well?” Principal Becker prompted. Alec swallowed. His voice was barely audible as he stared at the ground.
“I need to confess something.”
Alec waited for the man to speak, but Mr. Becker remained silent. Still looking at the ground, Alec started his confession. He began with what he did after school. When he got to the part where he switched the labels on the chemicals in the lab, Alec was expecting the man to interrupt. But the principal remained silent. Then Alec described the events of his dream and his plague of guilt ever since he pulled his stunt. As he finished, he looked up at the principal. Alec was surprised when all he saw was quiet disappointment instead of explosive anger.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Becker. I never should have gone into the lab. I’ll go pack up my locker—”
“And why would you do that?”
“I thought I’d be expelled.”
Alec blinked, wondering if he’d heard right.
“This is the first time you’ve shown genuine regret for what you’ve done, Mr. Sanders. Normally I’d have you and your family pay for the damage done. The chemicals are no longer safe and need to be disposed of. However, I understand that your family probably cannot afford that cost.”
“Then what can I do to make this right?”
“I suggest a two-hour detention three days a week for the rest of the semester. You’ll help Mr. Higgins with janitorial work, among other things.”
“That’s it?” Alec asked.
“And I expect you to report to me every morning.”
“But I will need to inform your sister about what you’ve done, Mr. Sanders. However, I see no need to keep you from your classes. I’ll call her and schedule a meeting for this afternoon.”
“Actually, Mr. Becker,” Alec said, his burden lifting. “May I call her? I really need to talk to her.”
Mr. Becker raised an eyebrow but nodded after seeing the earnestness in Alec’s eyes.
“But I hope you’ve learned something from this, Mr. Sanders.”
“Oh, I have. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should.”
“Exactly. Come on. You may use the phone in my office.”
They got up and headed to the office. Once they arrived, Principal Becker sat at his desk and handed Alec the phone, and he dialed his sister’s number. After two rings, she answered.
“Alec, is that you?”
There was a catch in her voice, and he was slammed with another wave of guilt. She’d been crying.
“Yes. I need to talk to you.”
“Um, have you left the school yet?”
Alec immediately dropped the phone and sprinted out of the office. He bumped into Mrs. Rose on his way out, apologizing as he ran. Bolting out of the front doors of the school, he stopped in the parking lot, searching for Heather’s car. It was still raining, but he barely noticed the water hitting his face. He spotted his sister as she got out of the car. She was holding her phone while she ran to meet him halfway. As soon as he reached her, he pulled her into a hug. She stumbled, surprised, but relaxed, hugging him back just as tightly.
“I’m sorry, Heather,” Alec said, pulling back so he could look her in the eyes. “You were right about everything. I need help. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”
“Alec,” Heather said, giving him a warm smile. Her eyes were full of tears. She hugged him again as he glanced back at the school doors where Principal Becker was standing. His arms were crossed, but a proud grin was spread across his face. A tremendous weight lifted from Alec’s shoulders. As rain poured down on the siblings, the burden they’d both been carrying lifted, and at that moment they both knew that they were on a better path—one they could travel together.