Jayden was lying on his bed doing homework. He looked at the clock. It was after midnight. He would have to get up and go to school in seven hours, but he was waiting for his cousins to come home. He knew it could be several more hours before they would come staggering into the house.
He fell asleep, but his dreams haunted him. Every time he’d close his eyes, he would see the battered face of Troy. His blooded face would forever be etched into his memory. He could still feel him trembling in his arms as he waited for the ambulance to arrive.
“I’m scared!” Troy cried as he clutched his arm, unable to see anything around him.
“It’s going to be all right,” Jayden responded as he brushed his hand gently across Troy’s blood-stained hair. Troy tried to move, but Jayden held him tightly. He knew that there was the possibility that he could have neck injuries, and he wanted him to remain still. It was already possible that he had done harm to himself when he stumbled down the sidewalk.
“They beat me!” Troy had cried. “They took my wallet and cell phone.”
“Who?” Troy asked, although he was afraid to hear the answer. He knew his cousins may have been returning home at that time. He knew the reputation they had. They considered anything within a five block area of their home their territory. He had heard them on several occasions bragging about hurting others who encroached upon what they considered their turf.
“Two black guys in a blue van,” Troy muttered weakly. Jayden looked down as Troy’s body slumped to the side. He felt for a pulse, but it was very weak. Jayden peered down the street, cursing for the ambulance to arrive. He wasn’t sure if the boy in his arms could survive much longer without medical attention.
He pulled his head back into his lap and gently rocked him. He thanked God when he heard a siren in the distance. He looked up and saw Anthony’s blue van turn the corner. It stopped and turned around when the ambulance came careening down the street.
It stopped in front of them and several medics jumped from the ambulance.
“We’ll take it from here, Son,” said a kind medic as he carefully removed Troy from his lap. It was the last time he saw him. A police officer came over and had Jayden sit in the back of a cruiser while he questioned him.
Even though Jayden didn’t live in the street, he knew the code of the street- you never tell on a family member. So he denied knowing anything, even though he was sure that Anthony and Tyrone had been the ones who had hurt Troy.
He awoke when he heard the van pull up. Minutes later, he heard the kitchen door downstairs open, followed by loud talking. He waited until he heard Anthony walking up the stairs. He didn’t trudge up the steps like Tyrone.
He got up out of bed and waited until Anthony walked past his bedroom door. He then followed him into his bedroom.
“What the fuck do you want?” Anthony snarled as he turned and saw Jayden at the door.
“We have to talk.”
“Fuck it, Jay. It‘s late.” Anthony hissed as he removed his shirt over his head. A gun was tucked inside his waistband. He took it out and tossed it on the bed.
Jayden approached Anthony and stood defiantly before him. “Did you beat that boy the other night?”
Anthony’s eyes narrowed. His thin face hardened as he stared into the eyes of Jayden. “What the fuck is it to you?”
“Did you?” Jayden screamed. He grabbed Anthony’s shoulders and lifted him off the ground.
“You Mother Fucker!” Anthony pulled away and grabbed the gun off the bed. He walked over and pointed it at Jayden’s temple.
Jayden dared him, “Go ahead!” Just then Tyrone came barging into the room. He grabbed Anthony’s hand and pulled the gun away from Jayden’s face.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“He’s asking about the other night.” Anthony turned and stared angrily at Jayden. Tyrone removed the gun from Anthony’s hand and faced Jayden.
“This ain’t none of your business, Cuz,” he said. “There’s some things better left unknown.” He pointed the gun playfully at Jayden. Then he stood before Jayden and looked angrily into his eyes. “Understand?”
Jayden walked away and looked out the window. The image of him holding a bleeding Troy on the sidewalk formed in his head. He turned and cried, “No, I don’t understand.” He wiped tears away with his sleeve. “You didn’t have to hurt him. He wasn’t causing you any trouble. His fucking car ran out of gas. Why did you have to hurt him?”
Anthony walked over and stood before Jayden. “You fucking fag,” he shouted. “Crying like some baby over someone you don’t even know.”
“You didn’t have to hurt him!” Jayden screamed. He walked over, sat on the bed and buried his head in his hands. “You didn’t have to fucking hurt him.”
Anthony looked over at Tyrone. “White boy was where he shouldn’t have been. He disrespected us by coming onto our street.”
“You Fucker!” Jayden jumped off the bed and choked Anthony. They fell to the ground. “These aren’t your fucking streets.” He started to hit Anthony when he heard the click of a gun. He turned to see Tyrone pointing the gun at the back of his head.
“Get up, Cuz,” he said softly and calmly. “I don’t have a problem pulling this trigger if you don’t get up off my brother.”
When he got off Anthony, Anthony hit him in the stomach. He bent over from the intense pain. “Kin or not,” he threatened, “if you ever put your fucking hands on me again,” he warned as he grabbed the gun from Tyrone’s hand and pointed it in Jayden‘s face, “I’ll fucking kill you.”
“Go to bed,” ordered Tyrone. He walked to the door and waited for Jayden. As Jayden passed him he grabbed his arm. “If you say a word to anyone about this,” he said angrily, “what we did to that white boy will be child’s play to what we’ll do to you. Understand?”
Jayden pushed past Anthony. He went to his room and slammed the door. He climbed into bed and curled himself into a ball. He only hoped that Troy would live to identify his cousins as his attackers.
When he went downstairs in the morning, he stopped by the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal before heading off to school. Tyrone was at the table drinking a cup of coffee and thumbing through a magazine. He looked up and scowled at Jayden when he entered.
Jayden grabbed some cookies and headed out the door. Before leaving Tyrone called out, “Just remember what we told you last night, Cuz.” Without responding, Jayden headed out the door.
The weather was a typical February morning, damp and cold. Jayden pulled the collar to his jacket tightly around his neck and tucked his book bag under his arm to keep it from getting wet. When he was about two blocks from school, he could hear a car approach and slow down. He looked over as the window slowly lowered.
“Want a ride?” He recognized the boy who he had talked to in the hospital the previous morning. He thought he remembered introducing himself as Will. When he hesitated, Will smiled. “I don’t bite. Come on, get in.” Reluctantly, Jayden approached the car and got into the passenger’s side of the car.
They drove in silence for a block until Jayden finally spoke. “How is he?” He looked over and saw a pained look on Will’s face.
“We don’t really know yet,” he said. “Troy’s parents have been in to see him, but no one is really saying much.”
“Is he going to live?” Jayden watched as tears filled Will’s eyes. He shook his head sadly.
“Don’t know.” His voice was thick with emotion. “Whoever did this really beat him bad.” Jayden felt a sickness in his stomach. He silently cursed Anthony and Tyrone.
Will continued as Jayden listened to his voice crack several times. “His parents say there’s a lot of swelling in his brain. He could die.” Jayden grabbed the wheel to the car when Will started crying.
“Pull over!” he shouted. Will pulled the car to the side of the road and broke down in tears.
“I thought I could do this,” he cried. “I thought I could go to school and maybe get through the day. All I was doing was sitting around the hospital.” His shoulders started shaking as he cried. Jayden reached out and touched his arm, but he quickly pulled his hand back.
“Maybe you should be with your friend,” Jayden suggested. He reached out and grabbed Will’s arm and squeezed it. “You should go to the hospital. Maybe it would make you feel better to just be there.”
Will wiped the tears from his eyes. “You’re probably right. I should be there.” He started the car and pulled away. “I’ll drop you off at school first.” Jayden nodded and sat back. Occasionally, he’d look over at the distraught Will. Whatever friendship existed between him and Troy must have been strong. Will pulled up at school, and Jayden jumped out. He turned to say goodbye, but Will had already driven away.
Jayden was sitting in his first period trigonometry class when a student walked in and gave his teacher a note. The teacher looked up and motioned for him to come to his desk.
“The principal wants to see you in his office,” he informed him. Jayden got his book bag and walked down the hall wondering why he was being summoned.
The secretary looked up and smiled when he appeared. She told him that Mr. Fallingsworth, the school principal, was waiting in his office for him.
When Jayden knocked on the door, Mr. Fallingsworth appeared at the door. He ushered Jayden into his office. Jayden stopped suddenly when he saw two detectives sitting in chairs.
“What’s this about?” he asked nervously.
Mr. Fallingsworth told him to take a seat and then informed him that the detectives were investigating Troy’s assault. They had gone to his home to question him, but they were told by his aunt that he was at school.
The detectives offered their hands to him. The larger officer, a burly man with a thick neck spoke. “I’m Detective Wallace. This is Detective Reynolds.”
Mr. Fallingsworth sat at his desk and folded his hands as the detectives began to speak. “First, Mr. Henderson,” said Wallace. “You are not a suspect. That Neal boy was alert on the way to the hospital. He told the medics in the ambulance that you weren’t involved.”
Jayden let out a slight sigh. His first thought when he saw the police was that they might have been there to arrest him.
Detective Reynolds leaned forward and faced Jayden. “Before he lost consciousness, he told them two black males had attacked him.” He studied Jayden carefully. “He said they were driving an old blue van.” Jayden tried to hold his gaze, but he soon looked away.
“You live with your aunt and cousins over on Elm, don’t you?”
“Doesn’t Anthony, your cousin, drive an old blue van?”
Jayden jumped up from his chair and looked down at the detective. “I don’t know anything!”
Wallace stood and faced Jayden. “Didn’t that Neal boy collapse outside your house?”
“Look,” said Jayden. “I was at home and I was getting ready to go to bed. I looked out the window and saw that boy staggering down the street and fall. I called 911 and then went out to see if I could help him.”
“Weren’t you holding him when the medics arrived?”
“Yes,” replied Jayden somberly. He sat down as he remembered Troy’s bloodied face in his lap.
Wallace walked around behind Jayden. “So you weren’t there when your cousins beat the shit out of that boy?”
“No!” Jayden turned and yelled. He grew nervous when he saw Wallace smile.
“So they did beat him? You just didn’t witness it.”
“I don’t know,” Jayden started to get up, but Wallace held him down. “You’re getting me confused.”
“Why don’t you tell us what you know, Son?” He spoke softly as he squeezed Jayden’s shoulders.
“I told you,” insisted Jayden. “I don’t know anything.” Images of Tyrone holding a gun and threatening to shoot him entered his mind. He knew that neither of his cousins would hesitate a moment to carry out their threat.
Reynolds leaned forward and stared into Jayden’s face. “I’ve been a detective twenty three years. I can smell it when someone’s holding back the truth. There’s a young man lying in a hospital with a battered body. The people responsible for this need to be in jail. Now tell us, Jayden, what you know.”
Jayden jumped up and looked pleadingly at Mr. Fallingsworth. “Do I have to stay here?” He turned to head to the door, but Wallace stepped in front of him.
“That’s enough, Officer.” Mr. Fallingsworth rose from his desk and stood beside Jayden. “I won’t have you badgering this boy. He said he doesn’t want to answer any more questions. Unless you want to continue this downtown with a lawyer present to protect this boy’s rights, then I suggest you allow him to leave.”
Wallace reached into his coat pocket and took out a business card and placed it in Jayden’s hand. “Here’s my number. If you happen to remember anything, call me.”
Jayden scurried from the room. After walking out of the office, he entered a men’s room located down the hall. Once inside, he collapsed against the wall and cried.
Will had just nodded off when he felt someone sit down beside him on the sofa in the waiting room. When he had arrived earlier, no one was around. Most of the people who had been keeping vigil the day before were now in school. He assumed that Troy’s parents and Claire had gone to the ICU to be with Troy.
He didn’t move when Claire curled up and put her head in his lap. “How is he today?” he asked hesitantly. He was always afraid that she would say his condition had worsened.
She stirred slightly as she wrapped her hand around his arm. “The doctors say he’s making a little progress. They say the swelling seems to be going down.” He let out a deep sigh.
“Good.” He gently stroked her hair.
“That feels good,” she murmured.
“Troy always liked me doing that.” She sat up when she felt Will’s body begin to tremble.
“He’s going to be all right,” she assured him as she pulled a tissue from her pocket and handed it to him.
“I’m just worried,” he replied sadly. “What if...” He stopped speaking and stared across the waiting room.
Claire took his head and turned it toward hers. “What if, what?”
“What if he’s not the same after this?”
“What if he’s not?”
Tears filled his eyes as he looked at Claire. “You said there could be permanent damage.” He started to become emotional. “You said he could be blind.”
Claire put his head on her shoulder and held him. “We’ll just have to deal with it then.” She waited for Will to respond, but he remained silent.
She got up and extended her hand to Will. “Let’s take a walk.” She pulled him up and led him from the waiting room.
“Where are Mr. and Mrs. Neal?” Will asked as he looked around.
“They went home for a little while. Mrs. Neal said she needed to take a shower and clean up. They also need to check if Penny has arrived yet.”
Penny was Troy’s older sister. She was three years older than him and attended the state university about 200 miles away. She had left early in the morning, so she should have arrived.
They’ll be back in time for the next visiting hour.” She stopped and faced Will. “Why don’t you go back with them the next time?”
The hospital had strict visitation rules. The ICU only allowed family members to visit for ten minutes every two hours. Since her initial visit, Claire was getting accustomed to seeing Troy lying motionless in the hospital bed with his head wrapped in gauze. She was told by a nurse that even though patients seemed to be unconscious, they often were aware of what was happening around them. She always tried to comfort Troy on her visits. The last time she visited, she even held his hands and talked to him about the play he had performed in days earlier. It wasn’t until she left the room that she broke down in tears.
Will looked sadly at her. “I don’t think I can,” he replied emotionally. “It would be too hard on me to see him that way.”
“What!” Claire looked around to see if anyone had heard her shout. She gave Will an angry look. “Troy’s lying injured in a hospital bed and YOU think it would be hard for YOU to see him. What kind of a selfish bastard are you?”
She turned and started to walk quickly away. Will ran up beside her and grabbed her arm. “I didn’t mean it like it sounded,” he said apologetically.
“Troy needs our love right now,” she said tearfully. “He needs to know we are there for him.”
Will grabbed her hands and squeezed them. “All right,” he said nervously. “I’ll go and see him.”
“Good,” she smiled. She looked at her watch. “We still have over an hour before visiting hours.” She held his hand and started walking away. “I still need that walk.”
They exited the hospital and were walking across the parking lot when they saw Jayden heading their way. He had his head down and didn’t notice them.
“Isn’t that Jayden?” Claire asked.
“Yeah,” Will responded. He put his arm around Claire and headed towards Jayden. He looked up and suddenly stopped.
“Hi, Will,” he said shyly. “I didn’t expect to see you.” His eyes darted to Claire. He remembered seeing her before, but he couldn’t recall her name.
Will asked, “What are you doing here?”
Jayden looked around nervously. “I..um..,” he stammered. He took a deep breath before speaking. “I wanted to find out how Troy was. I was going to ask the person at the information desk.”
Claire extended her hand to Jayden. He reached out and shook it. “I’m Claire,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of classes together.”
“Yeah, right,” Jayden responded. “I’m not very good at names. Sorry.” He dropped his head and looked nervously at the ground. Claire walked up and wrapped her arm around his.
“Will and I were going for a little walk,” she said. “Why don’t you join us?”
Jayden stepped away from Claire. “I really should go home,” he replied nervously.
Claire smiled and wrapped her arm around his, locking it more firmly so he couldn’t pull away. “I thought you wanted to know how Troy is?”
“Yeah, right,” he said. Claire reached out, grabbed Will’s arm as they started walking.
They strolled down the sidewalk as Claire filled Jayden in on Troy’s condition. He didn’t seem disturbed when she told him about the brain damage and loss of his eye.
“I kind of figured that,” he said.
Claire suddenly stopped and faced him. “That’s right,” she said. “You were there with Troy Saturday night, weren’t you?”
“Yeah.” Jayden turned away as tears formed in his eyes. “It’s something I’ll live with the rest of my life.” He started to move away, but Claire grabbed his arm.
“It’s all right, Jayden,” she said softly. “We’re all grieving right now.” She looked into his brown eyes filled with tears. She pulled him into a hug.
“Thank you for being there,” she whispered into his chest. He cautiously put his arms around her and returned her hug.
On their return to the hospital, Jayden wanted to go home; however, Claire insisted that he go with them to meet Troy’s parents. The police had told them that when they arrived at the scene, how another boy had been holding Troy in his arms. She was sure they would want to meet the boy who had comforted their son.
“I don’t know,” he replied nervously as he tried to pull away.
“Please?” Claire begged. “This means a lot to me. I know Troy’s parents would love to meet you. Besides, you can keep me company while Will goes with his parents to visit Troy.” She looked over and saw an anguished look on Will’s face. She was still puzzled why the boy who loved her best friend was hesitant to see him when he needed him the most. If something had happened to Allison, it would have taken the National Guard to keep her away.
Claire reached down, grasped Jayden’s hand and pulled him towards the entrance. He tried to release his hand from Claire’s grip, but she squeezed his hand tighter. Finally, he gave in. He looked back and saw Will trailing behind them.
When they entered the waiting room, Mr. and Mrs. Neal were sitting on a sofa reading the newspaper. They looked up and smiled when they saw Claire. Mr. Neal stood, walked over and hugged her. He then shook Will’s hand.
“How are you kids doing?” he asked. He looked at Jayden. He couldn’t recall having seen him before.
“I’m Mr. Neal, Troy’s father,” he said as he extended his hand to Jayden.
“This is Jayden Henderson, Mr. Neal,” informed Claire. “He’s the guy who called 911 and stayed with Troy until the ambulance arrived.”
Troy’s mother laid down the paper and walked over to Jayden. His body stiffened when she reached out and pulled him into a tight hug. “I was hoping I could meet you,” she said tearfully. “One of the detectives told us how you had comforted Troy until the medics arrived.”
“It all right,” Mrs. Neal,” Jayden replied. “I’m just glad I was able to help.”
“You did more than help, Young Man,” replied Mr. Neal. “A stranger would have called for help; however, you held our son in your lap until help arrived.” He started to choke back tears. “I’m glad someone was with him.” He walked over and hugged Jayden, who seemed embarrassed by the attention. Will stood back and watched. He felt guilty that he had been hesitant to see Troy. If a stranger could give him comfort, then he should be able to as well.
Mrs. Neal led Jayden to the sofa and had him sit down beside her. He thought she’d want to know about what had happened Saturday night, but she didn’t ask him any questions about Troy’s beating. Instead, she seemed curious about Jayden’s life. She found it strange that someone so young would come to the aid of a total stranger, even risking his own safety by not knowing if Troy’s attackers might have still been in the area.
Jayden felt uncomfortable. He felt he was being interrogated by the police; however, he knew that Mrs. Neal was attempting to be friendly. He was relieved when a door opened, and a nurse walked out and motioned for Troy’s parents to enter. He watched as Will let out a nervous sigh. Claire went over and hugged him.
“It’s going to be all right,” she whispered softly. She kissed his cheek as he walked over to Mr. Neal. Troy’s father put his arm around his waist and they disappeared through the door.
Claire smiled as she took a seat beside Jayden. “Sorry about the inquisition,” she grinned. “His mother is like that with every one of Troy’s friends.”
“I’m not a friend,” Jayden replied.
Claire laughed and took his hand. “You are now. Mrs. Neal likes you, I can tell.” Jayden gave her a puzzled look. He didn’t know how to respond. He had only come to the hospital to see how Troy was. He had no intention of becoming involved in their lives.
He looked back over to the door. He wanted to leave, but he was also curious to see how Troy was doing. Since he had arrived, no one had said anything about his condition.
He looked over at Claire. “How is Troy doing?” A sad expression appeared on her face.
“Not very well,” she replied. “The doctors are a little more hopeful that he’ll recover, but his injuries are going to take a long time to heal.”
Jayden knew when he was holding him the other night that he was going to have permanent injuries if he survived. He gave Claire a quizzical look. She stared at him and smiled.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said as he looked around the room. “It’s none of my business.”
“What?” She took his hand.
“What’s with that Will guy?” he asked after a moment’s pause. “He seemed kind of nervous going back to see Troy. Is he a cousin or something?”
Claire smiled. “More like a something.” Jayden gave her a puzzled look. She squeezed Jayden’s hand tighter. “I guess after what you did for Troy, you deserve a straight answer.” She started giggling. “Well, I guess it’s not a straight answer.” She laughed again when Jayden stared at her with another puzzled look.
“How can I say this?” She looked at Jayden, wondering how he would react to the fact that Troy and Will were gay. “They are... um... seeing each other.”
“You mean they’re boyfriends?” Claire smiled when Jayden didn’t react negatively. In fact, he didn’t seem surprised at all.
“Yes,” she replied. “They’ve been dating about three months.” She looked worriedly at the door leading to the ICU. “Today is Will’s first time seeing Troy since his accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident,” responded Jayden.
“No, it wasn’t,” replied Claire. Just then the door was flung open, and Will came rushing out. His face was taut, and tears were streaming down his face. He looked quickly at Claire and then rushed from the waiting room.
“Oh, Dear.” Claire stood. “I’d better see if I can catch him. It doesn’t look like he took it too well.” She rushed from the room, leaving Jayden alone.