Being away from home at Christmas sucked, but being stuck in freaking New Jersey for the holidays was more punishment than he deserved. Still, he supposed he was partly to blame for the situation he found himself in
When his mother had told him he'd better shape up or she'd ship him off to boarding school, Sandy Ricks had called her bluff. The result? He'd spent the last four months at The Regis School, or The Rejects School, as the spray-painted graffiti on the sign at the gates proclaimed, courtesy, no doubt, of some of the school's more creative students.
When he’d gotten there, wearing the shades and the black watch cap that he knew made him look his coolest, Sandy had figured he'd have no problem dealing with the new school, not that he planned to be there much. He'd snuck out of his old school on a regular basis, and expected doing the same at Regis would be just as easy, but he hadn’t counted on Dean Parker.
The man was relentless in enforcing the school's many rules and regulations, and what was worse, he seemed to know every trick in the book, making Sandy think he must have tried all of them himself when he was a student. Much to his annoyance, Sandy found out It was impossible to outmaneuver the man in charge when Parker could anticipate every move before he made it.
And then there was his roommate. Sandy had never had one before, and didn’t know what to expect. When he’d walked into his assigned room, he found typical bedroom furniture: chests of drawers, desks with reading lamps, no doubt for homework, and two beds. Since one of the beds was occupied by another boy, lying atop the covers, he went to the other, which was neatly made, and obviously not being used.
Just as he was about to toss his duffle onto it, the room’s other occupant sat up and spoke. “You can’t use that bed,” he said in a dull, flat voice.
“Huh?” had been Sandy’s response.
“That’s Joey’s bed,” the other had said by way of explanation.
He was one or two years older than Sandy, with curly, chestnut hair, and an overbite that made him look like he was pouting. He was wearing a tee-shirt with the sleeves cut off, showing off muscular arms, and some of that same chestnut hair peeked out of the shirt’s v-neck.
Confused, Sandy asked, “Are there three to a room here? Because this is where I was assigned, and there are only two beds.”
The other boy looked pained, obviously not thrilled that he would no longer have the room to himself. After a moment or two of contemplation, he stood up and pointed to the bed he’d just been lying on. “Take this one,” he instructed. “I’ll take Joey’s.”
Sandy had no idea who Joey was, and why his bed was so important to his former roommate, but one bed was the same as another to Sandy, so he just nodded and said, “Fine.” He tossed his duffle onto the bed that had just been vacated, and the other boy lay down on Joey’s bed. Sandy began to unpack, then as an afterthought, turned back and said, “I’m Sandy, Sandy Ricks. Nice to meet you.”
“Billy Tepper.” No nice to meet you in return. No welcome to Regis. Just his name.
Figuring that was all he was going to get, Sandy had gone back to unpacking. Assuming Billy was just anti-social, he hadn’t given it another thought, until two weeks into the semester, Dean Parker had pulled him aside and asked, “How are you getting along with Mr. Tepper, Mr. Ricks?”
Surprised by the question, Sandy had shrugged. “Okay, I guess. He doesn’t talk much.”
Parker had nodded. “He’s still recovering.”
“Recovering?” Sandy had asked, suddenly interested. “Was he sick? In an accident?”
“It’s not that kind of recovery,” Parker had explained. “Joey Trotta, another student here, died last year. He was Billy’s roommate, his best friend, and Billy hasn’t dealt very well with his death.”
Sandy had never known anyone who died, couldn’t imagine anyone his age dying, but at least now Billy going on about “Joey’s bed” made sense, although going by Billy’s reaction, Sandy had to wonder if they had been more than friends.
“After talking with your mother and seeing the records from your previous school,” Parker had gone on, “I can see you gentlemen are two of a kind, or would have been if you'd come here a year earlier. Mr. Tepper was more creative than any student I’ve ever dealt with, a boy of great intelligence, but he never applied himself, at least when it came to his studies. He pulled ingenious pranks, and though I wouldn’t want him to know it, he was my favorite adversary. While I don't miss the trouble he got into, I do miss his spirit. I think you could help him get that spirit back. That’s why I decided you should be his new roommate.”
Sandy didn’t believe he could do anything to help his anti-social roommate, but didn’t say so. Dean Parker’s story had made him curious though, so during his free period, he used a library computer to go online to find out what he could about Joey Trotta’s death.
Googling Joey’s name brought thousands of hits, and once he started reading, Sandy couldn’t stop. Dean Parker had said Joey had died, but what he hadn’t said was that the teen had been murdered. Sandy read article after article, and the more he read, the more he felt like he was reading a spy novel. Last year, terrorists had invaded The Regis School, holding the students hostage in exchange for the release of their leader’s father from prison. Billy had outsmarted the leader, and come up with a plan that had saved the rest of the students. The boy Sandy had met on his first day sure didn’t act like a hero, and as sullen as he was, it was hard to imagine Billy Tepper being the troublemaker Dean Parker had described.
Even if Billy had given up being the bane of Parker’s existence, Sandy saw no reason he couldn’t take his place. He’d done his best, but after trying out pretty much every trick he knew during the first month he’d been in residence and having each one foiled by the crafty Dean, he had given up on escaping and resigned himself to serving out his sentence.
At least he had going home for Christmas vacation to look forward to. The East Coast weather had been a novelty at first, but he missed palm trees and white sands, and couldn’t wait to go swimming in the ocean again. Maybe if his mother got a good report about his time at Regis, she’d let him transfer back to his old school again for his next term, and he’d never have to set foot in Regis or New Jersey again.
He hadn’t counted on the blizzard. Since he’d never even seen snow before, except in the movies, Sandy hadn’t even considered the possibility of being snowed in. If he had, he never would have pulled that stunt with the fire alarm to get out of a test he hadn’t studied for.
Some of the parents were coming to the school to get their sons and bring them home for Christmas vacation. For those who had farther to travel, the school was providing buses to take the students to the airport or train station, whichever mode of transportation they were using to get home for the winter break. The buses had been leaving for the last couple of days, and Dean Parker assured Sandy he’d have plenty of time to serve his punishment and still make the last bus.
Then the blizzard hit. Snow had been predicted, but it came down so quickly, and was accompanied by gale-force winds, turning the expected snow storm into a blizzard. Visibility quickly became an issue, and soon travel became so dangerous that within an hour, all roads and airports were closed, putting an end to all travel, by land or air.
Sandy didn’t take the news well. Steaming, he slammed into his room raving, “I’m supposed to be in L.A. for Christmas, but instead I’m stuck here!” He stopped short when he found Billy Tepper was also still in residence. He was lying on “Joey’s” bed, looking calm and collected. “You miss the last bus, too?” Sandy asked him.
Billy shook his head. “I don’t go home for holidays.”
Sandy raised his eyebrows. “Never?” he asked, his own misfortune momentarily forgotten once he heard that he wasn’t the only one with problems. “Ah…how come?”
Rising from his prone position, Billy sat on the edge of the bed. “My father and I don’t get along,” he said without emotion, “so I skip family holidays and just stay here at school.”
“Like Ebenezer Scrooge,” Sandy remarked absently. He watched the DVD of A Christmas Carol with his mother and sister every year on Christmas Eve. When he’d turned fourteen, he told his mother he thought it was corny, but he’d only been echoing the sentiments of other guys his age who thought doing anything with your family was lame. Now that he was stuck here and wouldn’t get to watch the movie, wasn’t going to get to see his mother and sister on Christmas, he felt incredibly sad that he was going to miss both it and them. “I’m sorry,” he offered, and realized that he actually meant it. “My Dad took off so it’s just my Mom and my little sister, but we always spend the holidays together.”
“Until this year,” Billy surmised.
Sandy nodded. “Yeah. It’ll be the first time we’re not together.” Embarrassed to show emotion in front of the other boy, Sandy asked, “So you stay here all year round? What about the end of term?”
“I go home for summer vacation,” Billy explained, “but I don’t stay there for long. Dad always arranges some kind of outing to keep me occupied until it’s time to go back to school. White water rafting. Mountain climbing. Anything to keep my time at home to a minimum. And then I come back here.” As if he was as embarrassed as Sandy that he’d shared so much personal information, Billy changed the subject. “So how’d you get stuck here? I thought the last buses left yesterday.”
“They did, but there was going to be one more, one I was supposed to be on after I finished… Then the snow came and the roads were closed.”
Billy smiled. “Parker put you on KP, didn’t he? You’re the one who pulled the fire alarm yesterday, aren’t you?”
Sandy nodded. “There was a test I hadn’t studied for so I wanted to get out of it. I thought sure since the holiday started today, Parker wouldn’t make a fuss about it. Instead…”
“He put you on pots and pans.”
“You’ve gotten that punishment, too?” Sandy asked.
“Plenty of times,” Billy replied. “Parker even made me do them after…”
Sandy was pretty sure he already knew after what, but he didn’t push Billy to explain. Billy had said more to him during this conversation than he’d spoken to him since he’d arrived at Regis, and he didn’t want to say anything that might bring force Billy back into his shell again. “Parker’s tough,” Sandy complained. “It’s like he knows just what you’re going to do before you even try it.”
“Been there, done that,” Billy commiserated. “He’s tough, but he’s fair.” His roommate paused, then added, “He saved my life once.”
Since Billy had opened the door, Sandy decided to walk through. “When the terrorists were here.”
Billy looked surprised. “You know about that?”
Sandy shrugged. “Parker mentioned something about it, so I got curious and looked it up online. I’m sorry about your friend.”
“My best friend,” Billy corrected. “His name was Joey.” Then to Sandy’s surprise, as if Billy couldn’t hold it in any longer, he told him the whole story.. How he hadn’t known when it happened, but had found out later that Joey’s father, a crime boss, had secured his son’s release, but Joey had refused to leave his friends, and when he tried to fight, he’d been fatally shot, right in front of Billy. “He should have gone when he had the chance,” Billy said bitterly. “If he’d left, he’d be alive now.”
“You don’t know that,” Sandy offered. “Besides, he didn’t want to leave his buddies.”
The pain resurfaced on Billy’s face. “But he should have! No one would have thought less of him if he did. We knew he was brave. He didn’t have to prove it to us.”
Sandy had never been in that kind of situation. He’d never had a really close friend, and he’d never lost anyone to violence. Seeing how much Joey’s death had effected Billy made him think he must be right about their relationship, that Billy and Joey had been more than friends. No matter what they had meant to each other, it was clear that Billy was hurting. Sandy had no idea how to comfort someone who was suffering from that kind of loss, but seeing Billy in so much pain made him want to try. He didn’t know Billy well, and he didn’t know Joey at all, but he took a chance and said, “Maybe Joey needed to prove it to himself.”
From the look on Billy’s face, it was obvious he’d never considered this. “Joey and his father didn’t get along either,” he told Sandy. “The man’s a criminal, involved in dirty deals with politicians and unions, even with contractors like my Dad. Joey didn’t want anything to do with that kind of life, and Trotta thought not wanting anything to do with the family business made Joey soft, but it wasn’t true.” He paused while he considered Sandy’s words. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe Joey did need to prove something to his father…and to himself.”
“He sounds like a great guy,” Sandy said.
“He was the best. You would have liked him.”
“I’m sorry I never got the chance to meet him.”
“I think he would have liked you, too.” Billy’s voice choked with emotion. “I miss him so much.”
Knowing whatever he said wouldn’t be enough, Sandy tried anyway. “From what you’ve told me about him, I’m sure Joey would want you to go on and live your life.”
“He would,” Billy agreed. “It’s just so hard knowing I’ll never see him again.”
Without thinking, acting purely on instinct, Sandy went over to Billy and put his hand on the other boy’s shoulder. “Sounds like you two were a great team.”
“And you’ll always have your memories of the time you spent together. He might be gone, but as long as you remember him, Joey will never die.” When he saw Billy’s eyes well up and the tears run down his cheeks, Sandy was sure he’d said the wrong thing. “Shit, I’m sorry, Billy. The last thing I wanted was to make you feel worse. Look, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Forget I said anything.”
Billy wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. “It’s okay, really,” he said, “and you do know what you’re talking about. I know Joey would want me to remember him, but to go on with my life I guess I just needed to hear someone else say it.” He sniffled. “Thanks, man.”
Sandy didn’t know how to respond. Should he say You’re welcome? A knock on their door saved him having to say anything. When he opened it, Dean Parker was standing there.
Coming in without an invitation, he announced, “Mr. Ricks, I’ve just been to the kitchen, and found you didn’t finish the task I assigned you. Since the snow storm has you stuck here anyway, I suggest you remedy that as soon as possible.”
“I was just taking a break,” Sandy lied. “I’ll get back to it right away.” He started for the door.
Billy got up from the bed and said, “Why don’t I give you a hand, Sandy? I might be able to show you some shortcuts that will get the job done sooner.” He tried to look angelic, but couldn’t disguise the hint of mischief in his eyes when he turned to their visitor and asked, “There’s no rule against that, is there, Dean Parker?”
“None that I’m aware of,” the Dean admitted, sounding as if he was sorry there wasn't anything in Billy's offer he could object to. “I’m for anything that gets the job done, so go to it, gentlemen.”
Parker made no move to leave the room after the boys had set out for the kitchen. “Now I’ll have two of them to deal with,” he muttered once they were out of earshot. He was glad the two in question weren’t still in the room because he wouldn’t have wanted them to know that the words had been said with a smile.