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Ninth or never

Chapter IV: Erosion

By RON MATUS
Published December 10, 2006


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Surging hormones and impulsive brains make high school tough enough. Now add marijuana blunts, a Buick LeSabre, a hovering mom and a chronic toothache. Four kids. Four complicated lives. Can they survive the hardest grade?

It's spring at Northeast High, and the lawn is on life support.

Administrators sit sentry in golf carts. They tell students not to track mud into class. But the green is the heart of campus, bounded by classrooms, the lunchroom, the administration building. In other words, there are endless routes for 2,200 kids looking for the fastest way from A to B. And to accommodate them, the green is crisscrossed by exactly four sidewalks.

As the grass dies, new plants squeeze in - matchweed and pepperweed, cudweed and clover, fleabane and beggar-ticks. People call them weeds, but they're better suited to reality and not without upside: The green is now dotted by thousands of tiny blooms, overlooked splashes of yellow, white and purple.

The class of 2009 could use the pick-me-up. In August, 813 ninth-graders enrolled at Northeast.

As spring approaches, 680 are left.

***

Chuck E. Cheese's is a madhouse, all flashing lights and electronic noise and children abuzz on Coke and cake. "Where a kid can be a kid," the slogan says.

Maybe. But Chuck E. Cheese's can feel like a hustler's paradise, too. Here in the discord, it's amazing how many people claim Kooky Kong ate their tokens or Dinoscore refused to spit out their tickets. More often than not, when John Klarides checks the machines, they're working fine. But on a Saturday night in March, he indulges them: A little girl, a little boy's dad, another kid, another kid, another kid. John surrenders a handful of tokens or tickets and moves on.

He's numb. And distracted.

He's thinking about leaving his church.

For six years, Faith Assembly has been John's surrogate family, his center of gravity and, perhaps, the last, best hope he has for getting a high school diploma. But ever since he found a steady girlfriend in January, the ties have unraveled.

Now the pastor is praying for a breakup. John's best friend won't talk to him. And other church kids are calling John's girlfriend a "whore."

John says he won't bring his girlfriend to Faith because it's "too judgmental." He says the church discourages members from dating non-Christians or outsiders. "Hypocrites," he says. "They're always in somebody's business."

Inside, John is fighting with himself. One day he says he knows he's not following God's word, but would marry if he could. Another time, he says God, unlike man, knows what's in his heart. Sex before marriage, he says, doesn't make him bad: "I just see it as me being a normal person.

"They always expected me to be the nice, innocent kid," John says of the people at Faith Assembly. "And I never was."

Despite the tension, some members are reaching out. John frequently eats supper with the Van Hoven family - in fact, he just walks into their house without knocking - and when he doesn't show up for weeks, Mrs. Van Hoven leaves a chirpy message on his cell. She says she might not agree with him on everything, but she loves him and just wants him to come over and eat, okay?

When that doesn't work, Mr. Van Hoven calls: "John, I'm used to cooking for five, not four."

John comes over, and nobody brings up the girlfriend.

But John knows they disapprove.

***

Early evening. Marquetta Moore's house.

Mom's recovering from a hangover - too much Limon vodka and cranberry last night - but it's not bad enough to kill her appetite.

Still in her maid uniform, Vickie breads and seasons a dozen chicken wings and lays them carefully in a pot of hot oil. In minutes, a sizzle fills the kitchen and one of the best smells on earth rolls through the house. Meanwhile, on a back burner, a massive pot of spaghetti congeals.

"Mom," says Quetta's sister, Mona, who's 13 and in eighth grade. "You saw our room?"

"Nuh-uh."

"We cleaned it up last night."

"I bet Quetta did it."

"No, we both did it."

"First time for everything." Mom lights a Newport.

When the wings ease to golden brown, Vickie puts one on a paper plate and dashes it with hot sauce. When all that's left is bone and gristle, she licks her fingertips and sips a Powerade. Hey, she calls into the living room, to a friend of her oldest daughter, a shirtless young man with dreads. Hey, Vickie says, "You like vodka?"

Quetta walks in at 5:40.

"Momma," she asks. "Can I have 50 cent?"

"I don't have any money, girl."

Quetta asks again.

Momma blows: "I DON'T HAVE 50 CENT!"

Moments later, Mona asks Mom for a piece of chicken while Quetta looks on.

Mom says nothing.

For a second or two, nobody says anything.

Then, Quetta: "F--- it." She laughs, defiant: "Where's the peanut butter at?"

"Call your daddy," Mom says. "See if he'll get y'all something to eat."

Vickie rarely cooks for her kids. She says she used to - when she and her ex-husband were together - but not anymore, not more than once a month. If her oldest daughter is home, then her oldest daughter, who is 18, cooks for her siblings. That's why the spaghetti's on the stove. But if her oldest daughter isn't home, Vickie says, her other kids "fend for themselves."

Quetta finds a single slice of lunch meat, unravels the tie on a loaf of bread, holds the bag to her nose.

She laughs again: "This bread's musty."

Mona tries again: "I want some chicken."

Mom is silent, again.

***

Alex Wert is in deep.

Mike is tall and thin, a ninth-grader, a drummer. The band director says he's one of the best high school snare drummers in west-central Florida - so good, in fact, "We thought he'd marry a drumstick."

After the band performed at a fair in February, Alex hung out with the drummers, while Mom walked around with Alex's sister. On the bus ride back, Alex sat next to Mike because the other seats were filled.

The next day, Valentine's Day, Alex sent Mike a text message: "Hey, buses suck." Then: "I have a question for you."

Mike: "Yes, I agree. Buses suck." Then: "I have a question for you."

After school, Alex called and Mike asked: "Do you want to go out - (insert cleverly timed pause) - side?"

Alex: "But it's awfully cold."

Mike: "You know what I mean."

Alex: "Sure." She pronounced it "shore."

Mom says she's watching the boyfriend "like a hawk," but CIA agent is more like it. One day, she sneaks a look at Alex's cell and counts 49 text messages in a single day - 25 incoming from Mike, 24 outgoing from Alex. She reads all of them. She sees the "L" word. She tells Alex, "After two weeks, you can't possibly know what that means."

Surveillance extends to the AMC at Tyrone Square. Mom and Torrie watch The Pink Panther. Alex and Mike watch Date Movie. Mom tells Alex she checked on her four times and saw her doing "that." In truth, Mom looked in once, saw Mike's arm around Alex and thought it was cute. But she wants Alex to be paranoid.

Instead, Alex is angry. She considers giving up the cell: "It's none of her business." She bristles at the snooping: "I wasn't doing anything I wouldn't be proud of." But in the end, she can only huff: "I don't care what she does."

Tension mounts. In April, about a week before the much-awaited band trip to Disney, Mom suspends Alex's phone privileges. It's not just that she's talking to her boyfriend too much, Mom says. It's that she's not laughing or joking when she does. "It's all, 'I'm sorry, it's all my fault,' " Mom says. "I just want to kick her. I just want to get into Marine Corps mode and say, 'Reach down and get some!' "

Alex is baffled. "I'm like, 'It's the phone. Why are you mad at the phone?' " She wonders if Mom is channeling her own frustrations - with the job search, the parents, the dramas that still go on with Dad.

For a moment: Sympathy. Then that ninth-grade nonchalance kicks in. Trying to figure out why parents do what they do may be too much for any ninth-grader.

Besides, Disney is coming up. And because of scheduling conflicts Mom is, unexpectedly, not going. Repeat: NOT going.

This is revolutionary. This is the wheel, gunpowder, the pill. This is an ape with an opposable thumb, a bigger brain and a blinding ego. Alex is thrilled.

"Ever since I've been born, she's been in my face with that camera," she says. "I can't be myself in front of the camera."

Finally, then. Alex will get to be herself.

***

On March 10, John withdraws from the GED program.

He says he needs to work more hours at Chuck E. Cheese's. His girlfriend, Mandie, also quits. John tells Grandma he'll begin the GED night class on March 21, right after spring break.

But March 21 comes and goes, and John never enrolls. He says he'll sign up in the fall.

He is now officially a dropout.

***

Ronnie Jean prefers blunts. Usually it's a Garcia y Vega, but he likes the flavored kinds, too. Peach. Banana split. He cracks the cigar skin with his fingers, scoops out the tobacco, replaces it with run-of-the-mill, $35-a-bag marijuana. He reseals with licks from a studded tongue.

In the fall, Ronnie wasn't going to Northeast much, but he wasn't smoking that much pot, either. By spring, he's frequently stoned. He's no longer going to AA; he says he stopped after somebody stole his bike.

His days drag. One morning, Ronnie feeds his little niece a Jimmy Dean biscuit before his sister reams him out. "Don't touch my f------ cigarettes," she says. Ronnie needs $3.18 for Newports, but he's got $2.15. He excavates change from the couch, but he's still short. On TV, a woman in Judge Hatchett's courtroom accuses her husband of not having sex with her for months and says, in fact, he hasn't kissed her in seven years. "Six," the man retorts. Ronnie gets in the shower. His sister's cell rings. "What you want, ho?" she says. "Do I have any weed? Do I look like the m-----f------ green man?" A fresh-and-clean Ronnie kisses Hayle good-bye. It's 12:55.

At Northeast, ninth-graders are halfway through their last class of the day.

Ronnie's going to a friend's house to get high.

"I don't want to f--- up my life, but somehow I always seem to do it," he says. "I'm discriminating against myself."

In March, Judge Sullivan begins a process that could put Ronnie in a children's shelter for up to 35 days. Ronnie doesn't argue.

He says, "Maybe it might help."

Another morning, he sits in his living room, shirtless and smoking. He says he can't control his anger. A couple of months back he got mad at his sister, and the next thing he knew, the bathroom door was in pieces.

Worse, he says, he couldn't cry at his great-grandmother's funeral.

"I should have," he says, flicking ashes into an overflowing tray. "I tried to."

***

By mid April, the pretty face is everywhere at Northeast, smiling from fliers. A girl in a Vikings cheerleader's outfit. The world in front of her.

Except the words in big letters say, "IN LOVING MEMORY."

Eleven weeks after she reported being raped, the ninth-grade cheerleader who lived next door to Ronnie Jean is dead.

The girl's uncle finds her nude body in a dry bathtub, curled in fetal position. The medical examiner concludes she died from blunt head trauma. Authorities do not suspect foul play.

The girl's skull is cracked. Her brain, hemorrhaged.

"Multidrug toxicity" contributes: Cocaine, marijuana, tranquilizers, painkillers, antidepressants. A handwritten note in the bedroom begins, "I want to Die. Ive tried B4."

The girl had recently moved with her mother to the apartment where she was found dead. The state attorney's office had planned to prosecute a 25-year-old - a 10th-grade dropout, a father of two and the brother of Ronnie's sister's boyfriend - for lewd and lascivious battery in connection with the reported rape. But after the girl's death, it decided it couldn't proceed.

According to police reports, the girl's uncle raised her until she was about 10, when her mother regained custody. The uncle said the girl was often left home at night while mom was partying.

At Northeast, the making of memorial T-shirts and other mourning rituals kick into gear so smoothly that a teacher wonders if kids think this is normal, like planning for a wedding. A shrine on MySpace.com plays I'll Be Missing You, the tribute to slain rapper Notorious B.I.G. Dozens of people post notes.

One says, "IT'S SO SAD YUR NOT HERE FOR US TO PLZ U ... BUT AT LEAST WE KNO YUR UP THERE IN THE HEAVENS ABOVE ... NO MORE PAIN ... NO MORE SHAME ... NO MORE SICKNESS ... NO MORE SORROWS."

Ronnie is not among the mourners. He says during a recent feud between the cheerleader and his sister, the cheerleader threatened to hurt his little niece.

He says, "I'm glad that b---- died."

***

Disney World couldn't be more G rated, but even here, hormones churn.

For 30 minutes, Alex Wert and her boyfriend orbit a cluster of other band kids and two chaperones. Then they discretely break away and stroll amid thousands, together, alone. At the Astro Stage, they listen to a band play I Wan'na Be Like You, the orangutan's song from The Jungle Book. Then it's off to the Mad Tea Party. A lock of Alex's hair flutters across her forehead as she whirls and whirls and house sparrows flit in the rafters.

At lunch, Alex checks her cell. Mom called. The message says Alex's cell number is listed incorrectly on the chaperones' list, so Alex needs to fix it. "Hope you're having a good time," it ends. "Bye."

Alex doesn't call back.

At some point, she and Mike re-join the cluster. The other kids put their heads in the stocks, practice a vocal exercise, act silly. Alex probably doesn't hear any of it. On Splash Mountain alone, there are six lip-locks.

Eventually, the end looms. Mr. Urban told everyone to be at the front of the park by 9 p.m. or else. It's 8:31. Not exactly the witching hour, but it's dark now and the cluster's individual brains fuse into one. It begins moving towards Thunder Mountain, a dozen legs in a giggling trot.

Mike: "Do we have enough time?"

Alex: "Who cares?

For the sprint back, Alex takes the lead. It would have made a sweetly wacky home video: Alex blazing. Band geeks huffing. Cinderella's Castle looming. Zip: Past Tom Sawyer's Island and the Country Bear Jamboree. Flash: Through hundreds of parents pushing strollers. Another kid in the cluster nearly sideswipes a wheelchair. "Did you see that?!" the kid yells. "He didn't even slow down!"

In the end, the cluster makes it with minutes to spare.

At 9 p.m., fireworks crackle over Cinderella's Castle. Alex and her boyfriend watch silently, then hold each other close. Mom's camera won't capture the moment.

But Alex's brain will frame it forever.

***

Three hours later, in Room 4415 of the All-Star Music Resort, one of Alex's three roommates launches an ice cube.

The Battle of Disney is on.

In the middle of the melee, Alex checks her travel bag for renegade cubes. It's half full of Fig Newtons, oatmeal cream patties and other sugary delights. Mom packed them.

Outside the door, somebody mouths the Darth Vader theme.

"It's time?" a girl asks.

"Yes," Mr. Urban says.

His wife steps inside and peeks beneath the first bed. She jokes, "Is there a Mike Mallen under this bed?"

Alex thinks, "Whatever."

Be up by 7, the woman says. Outside, a chaperone unfurls a footlong strip of duct tape - rrrrrip - and places it half on the door and half on the frame.

Alex is sealed in.

***

Easter. Faith Assembly of God.

Live music fills a packed sanctuary as more than 200 people stand and sway. Lots of ties and bright dresses. Lots of new dos and well-scrubbed kids. "Is your life worth living this morning?" an assistant pastor asks from the stage. "Why is it worth living?"

"Because he has risen."

John is here.

His girlfriend is with him.

He made up his mind three nights ago. At Pastor Don's suggestion, he and Mandie had supper at Cracker Barrel with Pastor Don and his wife. Mandie feared an interrogation, but "I didn't intend to do any grilling," Pastor Don says later. "I just intended to begin a friendship and a relationship ... and let them know that we love them."

John says if Pastor Don had suggested he and Mandie break up, it probably would have been adios, Faith Assembly.

Instead, John attempts a compromise.

It is, in these first moments, an awkward one: As he and Mandie wait in the dining area, a church member stops to say hello - to him. "I see you brought your significant other," the woman says, without greeting Mandie. Minutes later, John's best friend says hello to him, but only nods at Mandie without smiling.

When the second service begins, John escorts Mandie to a seat near the back.

His family is here.

The dapper gent in the dark suit. The woman who gives everybody a "big ol' Jesus hug." The retired union guy who got him the deal on the paint job. "Dad" is on bass guitar. Another "Dad" is running sound. His favorite "aunt" is singing.

A week ago, John's grandma told John she found a number in a Pasco phone book. A number for John's other grandmother, the mother of his mom.

John told her he didn't want it. Not right now, he said.

Not when life is so good.

Over the music, the assistant pastor says, "There's a world out there dying."

John closes his eyes and lets the music swaddle him. Ninth grade couldn't be further from his mind. He's happy his girlfriend is with him. He hopes she's comfortable. He hopes this works out.

Inside his sanctuary, he claps in time.

***

The judge, clad in a black robe, seated beneath a seal of Lady Justice, looks down from the dais.

Ronnie Jean stands before her, wearing a T-shirt that says, "No need to speak up. I was ignoring you."

Judge Sullivan reads the words out loud. Ooooooo goes the crowd.

She orders Ronnie to abide by a 9 p.m. curfew, to go to school every day and to obey Mom's rules. She also orders a 14-day stay at A Safe Place 2 B, a shelter for kids who need structure.

Ronnie's case manager suggests it might be best for Ronnie to begin his stay when the new school year begins in August, because the current year ends May 16 - eight days from now. But Judge Sullivan decides Ronnie can't wait. She orders him in as soon as the shelter has a vacancy.

She tells him, "You can't ignore us anymore."

***

John Klarides is at Tampa International Airport, waiting for a 5:34 p.m. flight.

His girlfriend left yesterday morning to see family in Connecticut, and afterward, John says, he sat on her bed, looked around, felt "like crap."

Grandpa loaned him $322 for a ticket.

John and his girlfriend are talking about a baby. They've already picked names: Xander for a boy, Riley for a girl. John says he's not routinely using condoms any more. "If it happens, it happens," he says.

John's grandma tells him to be careful. John says he will be.

But then he says, "Grandma, don't you want to hear the pitter patter of a little boo's feet?"

***

Marquetta Moore's head is down.

Ms. Albertson walks over and whispers. Quetta rests her cheek on her hand and whispers back.

For nearly four months, Quetta was progressing at Oak Park. But in the past week or so, she has devolved: no reading, no journal, no class discussion. Her teachers ask what's wrong, but Quetta won't say.

Ms. Stephens, the pod leader, lays a palm on Quetta's forehead. She asks if Quetta wants Advil.

She thinks it's the tooth.

Oak Park officials have called Quetta's mom repeatedly. They even found a dentist willing to do the work cut-rate.

But mom told them: No time, no money, no car.

***

The gym at Riviera Middle School is done up like a haunted castle: Cobwebs, skeletons, purple bats dangling from music stands. Tonight is "The Spook Show 2," the annual concert by the Riviera band.

Alex was in the Riviera band last year, and she and Mom have continued to be involved. Tonight, Sherry Wert has a bit role in the production, while Alex is taping the whole show with a video recorder.

Alex is surly. She just bombed a big test in Mr. McCauley's class. And tomorrow, for the same class, she must give a final presentation on a scientific topic - in her case, the planet Neptune. Alex hasn't spent any time fine-tuning it.

Xylophone notes float into the bleachers. Sherry emerges with pigtails, a Viking helmet, cheeks smothered in rouge. The skit is about myths, like the old saw, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings."

Mom hams it up as the fat lady, while Alex gets it all on tape.

Later, Mom emerges with her video recorder. She tapes from the far corner while the middle-schoolers play Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. She mostly aims at the band but now and then steers the lens toward Alex.

Stars align.

Alex pans toward the corner, as if Mom's in her sights. For a few seconds, mother and daughter appear to be filming each other.

***

The first shake comes at 6:07 a.m.

"Ronnie," Tracey says softly.

Ronnie sprawls on the couch. A fan whirs on the end table. His niece whimpers in the other room.

Tracey retrieves Hayle and calms her. She resumes the ritual.

"Ronnie. Ronnie, you need to get up boy."

"Mm," he says.

The living room is tidy. After truancy court yesterday, Tracey did laundry and made Ronnie dinner: Garlic and herb baked chicken, shells-and-cheese, green beans.

"Ronnie. Ronnie. You got to get up, Bubba."

"I know," he says.

He doesn't move.

Tracey settles into a chair and rocks Hayle. Karma, the family mutt, shakes her head and scratches. Chk chk chk.

"Ronnie."

Tracey puts Hayle at Ronnie's feet and peels the blanket to his waist. She turns off the fan.

"Ronnie, you got to get up."

"Mm," he says again.

Tracey says it sharper: "Ronnie. Ronnie. Come on. Get up."

Tracey fills a sippy cup in the kitchen and hands it to Hayle: "Here you go, pootie-ness." She presses Ronnie on the shoulder and says "wakeup wakeup wakeup" in rhythm, as if she's giving him CPR.

Ronnie grunts again.

Tracey goes outside, returns with a fresh pack of cigarettes from her car.

"Ron. Come on. Got to get up."

She lights a cigarette. She tries again.

And again. And again. In 42 minutes, Tracey will say "Ronnie" 49 times, "Ronald" five times and "Ron" once. She'll threaten to splash Ronnie with water. She'll tell Hayle to sing, Let's go, Ron-nie! Let's go! as if they were at a Devil Rays game.

"Ronnie. You got to get up. Remember? Yesterday?"

"Ronnie. Ronnie. Ronnie, look at me ... Remember what the judge said? Remember what she said yesterday?"

"Mmmm."

Thunder.

Mom opens the front door. Karma chases a squirrel.

"Ronnie. Get up, Ronald. Come on."

At 6:47, frustration creeps into Tracey's voice.

"What is up with you that you can't get up and go to school?"

"You just want to prolong this s---."

Tracey pops a pacifier into Hayle's mouth. She opens the door again.

Rain.

"Ronnie."

"Ronnie."

"Ronnie."

"Ronnie."

"Ronnie, wake up."

"Wake up."

The rain is falling hard now. Mom turns on the TV and lights another cigarette.

Lightning blinks through the window.

***

Oak Park. The week before finals. A Norah Jones CD, Feels Like Home, spins in Ms. Albertson's room.

Girls are reading, doing vocabulary, writing letters. Quetta's still in a funk, but for a few moments she tries to find the right words for her social studies teacher. She scribbles, crumples, scribbles again. Eventually, she leaves her heart on the page: I never trusted a teacher before. But I really do trust you. I will give anything to come to school every day to teachers like you.

Quetta folds her letter and presses the creases. Then she sits with crossed arms, looking dead ahead. Ms. Albertson prods gently, but nothing. Toward the end of the period, the teacher tries one last time.

Did you take notes?

Quetta shakes her head.

Do you have a book at home to study from?

Shake No. 2.

Do you want one to take one home?

Shake No. 3.

"I'm going to give you 15 minutes tomorrow, then I'm going to quiz you."

Shake No. 4. Then a smile.

The teacher smiles back and pats Quetta on the head. Then she walks away.

***

The digital eye is a few feet away, mounted on a tripod, staring.

As if public speaking weren't stomach-churning enough, the Todd Center kids must give their final presentations in business attire - and before a live camera. Some say, "Umm." Some say, "Oh my God." One stumbles over her words and puts her hands in front of her eyes: "Can I start over?"

Alex Wert wears a tangerine dress.

"Good morning," she begins, smooth and confident. "I'm Alex Wert, and I'm here to talk to you about Neptune."

Alex has something to prove: Her first presentation in January was so good, Mr. McCauley likened her raw ability to a young Tiger Woods. But she bungled a subsequent version.

Alex wants to send a message, too: She's not sure she's going to stay in the Todd Center because of a conflict between its course requirements and band. She talked to Mr. McCauley but didn't get the answer she wanted: That something could be worked out.

She calls a classmate to the front - a short Asian girl with pigtails - to explain the difference between Neptune and sister planet Uranus. "Monica and I are similar in size and mass," Alex says. "Except Neptune has curly hair."

How big is Neptune? Alex offers a visual cue: 60 blue marbles from Mom's fish tank. If Earth was a blue marble, 60 of them would fit inside Neptune.

Alex maintains a steady rhythm, good eye contact, a relaxed smile. She paces her facts: Neptune is blue because of the methane in its atmosphere. It has 13 moons. It has been visited only once by a spacecraft from Earth.

"So what have we learned?" she concludes. "Neptune's big. It's blue. It has a lot of moons. And it has curly hair."

Camera? What camera?

***

Faith Assembly. Mother's Day.

John's Buick pulls into the parking lot while he detonates a Metallica song, Enter Sandman. He joins his friend David and other church teens waiting outside.

"Oooh, what's that?" he says, looking at the ground.

It's obviously a condom. Used. Disintegrating.

"Whose is that?" he asks, laughing.

David's response is frigid: "Probably yours."

Inside, John hugs, shakes hands, pats backs. Bronze highlights in his hair complement milk-chocolate slacks and a brown-mustard shirt. John takes a seat in the back row and sings along. His girlfriend isn't here. He says she got up late.

When Pastor Don asks all mothers to come forward, dozens of women get out of their seats - and John heads for the door. Mother's Day, he says, is "just another day to me."

Outside, Grandma is coming down the sidewalk. Twenty minutes later, she and John are having lunch at Chuck E. Cheese's.

John gets a cheese dog. Grandma gets a salad. John says, "Bug." He slides grandma's plate in front of him and uses her utensils to lift lettuce and poke dressing. At first, Grandma plays along. "If you find one," she says, "you get free tokens." But John keeps lifting and poking, lifting, poking. "Okay, John," she says.

John rains salt on his fries. Grandma: "Too much."

John says one of Grandpa's friends is a "stupid witch." Grandma: "Knock it off."

John calls the woman a "b----." Grandma: "Let it go."

And in John's own crude way, he does: He puts his elbows on the table and his palms on his cheeks, and pretends to blow himself up like a balloon. His cheeks bulge. His eyes widen. He quivers dramatically, as if he's about to pop.

And then: A tiny squeak of gas squeezes free from his hind end.

John speeds back to Faith Assembly despite Grandma's protests about his driving. In the parking lot, he kisses her goodbye, then hurries the Buick through a stop sign.

His girlfriend waits.

***

Shattered glass litters the stoop.

Somebody pounded on Ronnie's door at 2:30 a.m. Everybody was sleeping. But whoever it was kept pounding and pounding.

Then: POW!

Tracey thought: Gunshot. But it turned out to be a chunk of concrete, big as a cantaloupe. It smashed a hole in the living room window, leaving a leering mouth of jagged glass.

A black car squealed away. A neighbor saw a kid with a crew cut. The cops came at 3.

Ronnie slept through it all.

Mom wakes him at 8:17. It's the last day of school, but officials at the shelter said they would call today. They have an opening.

Mom says one of her daughter's friends has a black car and used to deal drugs. Then again, she says, Ronnie has been hanging out with some "roughnecks."

Ronnie says the description doesn't fit anyone he knows. He puts a pair of SpongeBob boxers into a backpack. He asks, "Did you wash me up some socks?"

Yes, Mom says.

"Good b----."

Mom stops and stares.

"Just kidding."

Ronnie cranks the metal band System of a Down and a voice sings, "No one's gonna save us now."

The blanket over the window is covered with images of frogs. Ronnie pulls it aside and looks through the hole in the glass. He grins.

- - -

Northeast High. 11:30 a.m.

The last day of school is rainy and chilly.

Alex huddles in the band room with her boyfriend, cross-legged on the floor. She's been signing yearbooks all morning. Her friends have been signing hers. One writes: "Even though your mom is controlling and over-protective your still the most awesomeness."

The final bell rings. Bus doors squeak open.

"I passed! I passed!" a boy says as he runs past an assistant principal.

As the last bus chugs around the bend, another assistant principal turns to the first one and smiles: "You ready to do the Holy Ghost dance?"

The co-conspirators do a little jig.

Alex and her boyfriend walk hand in hand to the middle of the green, now more marsh than lawn. As kids all around them scream into cells, they kiss in the drizzle.

- - -

In the pod room at Oak Park, officials prepare a last-day treat: Klondike bars and chrysanthemums.

Quetta isn't here.

She was supposed to take two finals today, but she never showed up. An administrator called her house but got no response.

Oak Park, meanwhile, is reeling from unwelcome news. At the direction of Pinellas school officials, it will have a new mission in the fall: to help older students recover credits so they can graduate.

Unless they find alternatives, Quetta and the other ninth-graders will be back at their previous schools in the fall.

- - -

Quetta's in front of the house with her family. She says she stayed up until 3 a.m. crank-calling her ex-boyfriend and didn't wake up until 11.

What about her finals? She shrugs.

What about her credits? She shrugs again.

A car slows in front of the house. A young man rolls down the window and exhales a cloud. As Quetta heads inside, Mom asks her to get the Oreos.

Quetta returns and hands Mom a package with five or six cookies inside but keeps three or four in her hand and one in her mouth. From her chair, Mom holds the package up: "Put them cookies right there."

From a safe distance, Quetta laughs.

"I said put them cookies back," Mom says. "I'm not playing."

Quetta inches closer. She stoops. From a few feet away, she tosses a single cookie into the tray.

She laughs again. A Mitsubishi Mirage pulls up. Mom and the Oreos climb in.

A Lil Jon dance song spills into the street as the Mirage disappears from Quetta's view:

Snap ya fingers! Do ya step!

You can do it all by yo self!

Let me see you do it! Ay!

Let me see you do it! Ay!

- - -

The shelter calls: Bring Ronnie at 1:30.

Ronnie chain-smokes Mom's cigarettes and samples one CD after another, a flurry of music so loud, conversation isn't possible. But then, for a change of pace, Ronnie puts on a spoken word piece, a disturbing rant that begins:

What a skeletal wreck of man this is

Translucent flesh and feeble bones.

Soon, Ronnie will leave shattered glass for a safe, clean, smoke-free place. He and Mom will step into a lobby that smells like Febreze, and when it's time to say goodbye, Ronnie will hug her and say, "I love you, Mom. I'll be good."

Ronnie will be assigned a case manager, a counselor and two chores a day. He'll be in bed by 9:30. If he wants, he'll play Cranium, or watch other kids stomp to Dance Dance Revolution, or read Coping with Substance Abuse. And when Mom takes him home in 14 days, maybe he'll be different.

For now, Ronnie listens.

The voice filling his living room is angry and sure. It tells him:

Because in the end, everything we do

Is just everything we've done.

[Last modified December 8, 2006, 15:47:48]


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