Which bully would pick on me today, Kelly Chamberlain wondered as he strolled to school this morning. He kept his eyes glued on the houses on both sides of the street. In his mind, all the homes appeared still asleep with their curtains, blinds, front and garage doors closed, and no lights were on. He hoped they’d stay asleep.
A subtle waft of orange blossoms met his nose and he inhaled deeply. Its aroma whisked him away, but in an instant, he snapped back to reality, focusing his eyes and ears on the slightest sounds or movements. His task this morning was to make it to school in one piece, but he knew the bullies didn’t care if he made it or not.
His ears picked up something, and he stopped breathing.
It was a familiar low rumble that had often interrupted the tranquility of his morning stroll. He cringed, then scanned the houses again. Where is that sound coming from? Something shifted up ahead to his left.
A home began to yawn. A bully was awake.
He gripped the straps of his backpack and slowed his stride as the pale garage door rose. His eyes transfixed on the door until it reached its apex. A muffled thump echoed from the garage, followed by a short, soft stutter that mutated into a loud thundering roar that blasted throughout the neighborhood. He snapped his head back forcing his short dreadlocks to brush his forehead and ears.
The bully was preparing to move.
Should he take a chance and run past the driveway or wait? Bullies were unpredictable, and they didn’t care about anyone but themselves. He recalled last year that two boys at his school were hit and hospitalized by bullies, and one girl was killed, all while walking to school. He didn’t think it was fair for kids to risk losing their lives just walking to junior high school.
He leaned forward, ready to bolt, but changed his mind at the last minute. Just then, a dirty navy-blue sedan with filthy hubcaps emerged from the garage faster than he expected. The driver was leaning toward his center console, not watching where he was going or slowing down. Before the vehicle entered the street, the driver lifted his head and turned in Kelly's direction with one eyebrow raised and his mouth curled. There it was—the stare. It was the same annoyed stare he’d witnessed so many times when dealing with this type of bully. Once in the street, the vehicle sped off. Kelly shook his head and resumed his usual stride.
Which house would yawn next?
At the end of the street, he turned left and continued on his way until he approached his first intersection. Off to his left, he watched a silver midsized car arrive at the intersection the same time he did. He huffed. Will this driver be decent and allow me to cross the street? He waited on the sidewalk until the car came to a complete stop. The driver stared at him, and he started across the street. The car inched forward as soon as he stepped off the curb, and he peered over at the driver. There it was again—the stare. The car crept forward once more, and his heart thumped. Is this guy gonna run me down? He peered at the driver until he was no longer in front of the car. Its engine roared, and a stiff breeze brushed the back of Kelly's neck, leaving nasty exhaust fumes to replace the sweet aroma of the orange blossoms. Two bullies this morning. Thank goodness the school is just up ahead. Only one more street to cross.
It was the same crosswalk, right in front of the school, where the girl was killed last year. She was a seventh-grader who attended junior high for only a few days. He never forgot the memorial service they held in her honor, and he'd never forget the culprit either; a hurried parent rushing their kid to school.
As he approached the crosswalk, a train of vehicles zipped by in both directions. Vehicle after vehicle ignored the 15mph signs surrounding the crosswalk, with most of the drivers taking their precious children to school, foregoing the safety of anyone else’s children. They're all self-centered.
He stood at the crosswalk waiting for someone to give him the right of way. Finally, there was a break in the traffic. He stepped into the crosswalk, looking off to his right. A shiny red van slowly cruised toward him. He continued crossing, confident the driver would give him the right of way. He eyed the van again. The driver was facing backward with her phone glued to her ear, and she wasn’t slowing down. He slowed his pace just in case. Is she ever going to look where she’s going? She still had the phone to her ear when she finally faced forward. The van skidded, then lurched. He jumped back, then stared at her as if she was crazy. She returned the stare, her eyebrows furrowed and her phone still attached to her ear. He read her lips through the windshield and realized she’d directed those foul words at him. His heart fluttered, and his legs quivered. Suddenly, her phone launched from her hand and slammed into the windshield, and her eyes lit as she was hurled back against her seat. He gawked upon seeing the priceless look on her face but didn't understand why her phone flew from her grasp. He smirked and finished crossing the street.
He continued up the walkway toward the school's front doors. A semi-circular driveway, used by the parents to drop off and pick up their kids, sat in front of the school doors, and a line of cars snaked down the driveway and into the street like they did every school morning. He approached a silver SUV with windows so dark he couldn't see the driver. The vehicle sat motionless, so he started to cross in front of it. Its engine revved, and it abruptly pulled away, making him lean back. Son of a bitch! I must have a target on me this morning. He looked back to his right to make sure it was safe to cross. Another SUV waited to pull forward, but Kelly wasn’t taking any more chances. He didn’t move. The man in the SUV stuck his hand out the window and waved him across, but Kelly hesitated. Should I trust this guy? The man waved again, Kelly nodded and crossed the driveway as he stared. Once on the opposite sidewalk, he joined the throng of students corralling toward the four sets of double-doors and prepped himself to deal with a different set of bullies.
Barbara Chamberlain, Kelly’s mother, was well into her busy morning as an on-scene reporter for Phoenix’s local KSUN television station. She and Jason Ochoa, the KSUN mobile van driver, had been dispatched to cover a two-vehicle accident at the intersection of 27th Avenue and Camelback Road. According to station sources, traffic was tied up in all directions. Barbara had no idea of the number of traffic accidents she’d reported on since she arrived in Phoenix six years ago, and she was sure that number would only increase. There were too many rude, impatient drivers who loved to bully other law-abiding drivers.
Her cell phone vibrated, and she peered at its small screen and smiled. Glancing over at Jason, she said, “Guess what? We’ve got the scoop, and it’s going to be the lead story! How about that?”
“Awesome! I hope I’ll be able to find a place to park so we can set up. This traffic is ridiculous.”
All she saw was brake lights up ahead and didn’t see how they’d be able to move any closer to the accident scene. If they took too long to set up, a competing news station could swoop in and steal their story. She placed her faith in Jason’s abilities. Her fingers whizzed around her phone’s screen to inform the studio of their predicament. Seconds later, her phone vibrated again and she discovered help from the station’s helicopter was out of the question because it was on another assignment on the west side of Phoenix. She sighed, sat back, and accepted the fact they may miss this one. She turned to Jason. He was leaning toward his window. What’s he looking for?
Without warning, Jason pulled the van into the left-hand turning lane. She hung on, unsure of what his plan was, but they were moving closer to the scene of the accident. A few emergency vehicles came into view, which was a good sign. She grabbed her seatbelt as Jason made another left turn and pulled into an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned strip mall. It was an older structure from the bygone days of strip mall mania. Unfortunately, the storefronts were boarded up with plywood and tattooed with colorful graffiti. Acts of vandalism were pretty rampant around this area. The dark gray asphalt, or what used to be asphalt, had taken a terrible beating over the years. Craters lay scattered about, and sprinkled throughout the parking lot were old fractured clumps of gray rock that used to fill them in. Jason couldn’t have chosen a worst place to park. It’s only saving grace was its proximity to the accident. She gazed down at her black, four-inch pumps and thought this might be the last time she would be wearing them.
Jason pulled parallel to the concrete parking blocks and shut off the engine. He hopped from the van, and she cracked her door allowing the warm desert air to rush inside the air-conditioned cab. She pulled down her sun visor, rummaged through her cluttered purse, and pulled out her compact makeup kit. Her face needed a little touching up, and she didn't allow the sounds of Jason’s movements in the rear of the van to disturb her.
She ran her pinky along her lips, then pursed them together, and with a smack, opened them. After dropping her makeup kit back into her purse, she ran both hands through her wavy hair to give it some volume. The sound of cracking asphalt made her look to the right as Jason pulled her door open.
“All right, Barb. I’m ready.”
“Okay, I'm ready too. How do I look?
“Beautiful as always. We're going to have to jog to the scene. Will you be able to make it in those heels?’
“I’ll be okay.”
I'll try not to go too fast. Oh, yeah, watch this pavement. It’s old with lots of cracks and loose gravel. Don’t twist your ankle.”
“Gotcha! I'll keep up. I hope no one else is there. Let's go!”
Jason assisted Barbara from the van, then closed and locked the door behind her. She followed Jason as he halfheartedly sprinted toward the accident. After a few steps, she pulled her forearms up to her chest to keep it from bouncing around, something she’d done since she was a teenager. Jason pulled farther ahead, but she kept going. Each piece of rock and gravel that popped beneath her pumps made her wince. Please don’t let them scratch these shoes. With a short distance to go, she stopped running and began walking at a brisk pace. She saw Jason look back, and she waved for him to keep going, which he did. Once he reached the sidewalk near the intersection, he turned back again. She wasn’t breathless but breathing heavier than usual. When she caught up to him, she brushed herself off and straightened her clothes.
“Okay, that was my exercise for the day. Whaddaya think?” she asked.
“I agree. Look, there’s a policewoman over there. Maybe she can tell you something we don’t know.”
“You’re right. I’ll be right back.”
Barbara made her way over to the policewoman, who was able to answer most of her questions. While gathering details, she slipped her wireless transmitter into her ear, then glanced over at the accident scene. A smaller sports car sat shoved up on the curb. Its front end was demolished, and its windshield was fractured in many places but not shattered. Thank god for safety glass. Three paramedics were kneeling on a tarp working on the driver of the sports car, she assumed. A khaki colored pickup ended up in the middle of the intersection on its side. Some firefighters, along with a few bystanders, surrounded it in an attempt to place it upright. Through the chaos, she still managed to hear everything the policewoman relayed to her. A voice came through her transmitter. She raised a finger to the officer, cupped her hand over her ear, and discovered they would be on the air in about a minute. She thanked the officer and took another look at the scene. She sighed, then hustled back to Jason.
Jason’s transmitter was already in his ear, and he was ready to go.
“Barb, stand over here so the sun hits your face. It makes you look more natural.”
She heard the countdown from the studio, and Jason mounted the camera on his shoulders.
“In five, four, three, two...you're on!”
The small red light on top of the camera lit up, and she was on the air. Barbara stared directly into the lens and assumed a serious but empathetic persona as she moved naturally, glancing over her shoulder several times, pointing to the action taking place behind her. Meanwhile, Jason maneuvered the camera lens as she adjusted her stance. During her broadcast, another voice came through her earpiece telling her to begin wrapping things up. She watched as Jason zoomed in on her face, and she closed her report, ending it by stating her name and the station's call letters. The red light switched off.
“Barb, that was wonderful.”
“Thanks, Jason! Did you get a good shot of the accident?”
“Yeah, some great shots. I'm glad no one was killed. You know it's going to be a mess to get outta here. Look at all the cars turning around now.”
“Oh, yeah. Maybe we can relax in the van for a while. I'll let the station know we're still in traffic.”
“Okay. Hey, we'd better get out of this sun. It's getting hot.”
Barbara allowed Jason to walk ahead of her, giving her a chance to focus on the pavement and her pumps. She occasionally stopped, lifting each shoe to check for damage from the pebbles. So far, they were fine.
She loved working with Jason. They’d worked together since she’d started at the station, and she wondered if he’d ever had a bad day because nothing seemed to upset him much. Working so closely with him made discussing some, but not all, personal matters easier. However, she was smitten with his sense of humor.
Barbara was also cognizant of Jason’s looks. His unruly hair, spiked on top, gave him a certain edginess, and his rectangular face provided the perfect canvas for the trimmed stubble beard he sported daily. He had a slim build, but well proportioned, and wore a diamond earring in his left ear. Then there was his exotic Hispanic accent where words rolled off his tongue with a mesmerizing swagger. She overheard the smoothness of his voice when she invited Jason and his family over for a barbecue years ago. While his four kids romped around their backyard, she heard Jason talking sweetly to his wife, making her swoon, and it affected Barbara also.
Rayshaun Chamberlain, Kelly’s father, was busy with his morning. The self-made real estate agent hit the road early to show a house to potential buyers. The housing market slump that slammed Phoenix hard in 2008 almost devastated his business, but somehow, while other agents were forced to find different careers, he kept his head above water by making a sporadic sale here and there. He preferred showing off houses in the morning because he knew having the morning sunlight stream through open windows gave empty houses a natural, cozy feeling that he effectively pitched to prospects.
This morning, Rayshaun pulled onto the uphill entry ramp for Loop 202, and the sun blasted his windshield. He squinted and pulled down his visor, but it wasn’t enough. He sat forward and tilted his head upward until the sun no longer hit his eyes, but now his dirty windshield made the glare take on a ghostly glow. At the top of the hill, he checked the flow of traffic to his left and merged. The ride was smooth, and traffic flowed at a quick pace. On the opposite side of the median, the slow going rush-hour traffic made him smile, thankful he was not traveling with them. A couple more miles farther and he’d be at his exit and out of the sun’s glare.
His vision cleared after exiting the highway. Thank goodness! No more sun. Only a few vehicles occupied the surface streets, which meant no big delays. He turned right and drove nonstop, slipping past every traffic light until he came to the Ocotillo Road intersection, the one he wanted.
He turned left onto Ocotillo and made a quick right, heading south. He surveyed a few of the back streets. The well-manicured yards were a welcomed sight and would make his pitch much easier. He always focused on his client’s needs to find the right home that fit their lifestyles and budget.
From a distance, he spotted the house he wanted to show, but his jaw dropped when another car pulled into the driveway. He sat up and leaned forward. I hope another agent didn’t beat me to the punch. He guided his car to the curb in front of the house, parked, and stepped out. His maroon and gray striped tie blew to one side as he quick-stepped up the driveway, relieved to see the faces of his happy clients. He shook the young couple’s hands and relayed his little story about the scare he’d experienced while watching their car pull into the driveway. They laughed, and he was confident he cast his line with the right bait. Now all he had to do is set the hook. Starting with the front of the house, he pointed out its major features like the hidden sprinkler system, the nice shrubberies surrounding the perimeter, and the new sun shade screens on the windows.
Next, he led them up the small red brick stairway and said, "Look at this iron-wrought screen door with the giant stork. It’s safe and sturdy, and the color won’t fade.”
The screen door cried out with a high-pitched squeal when he opened it, and he quickly eyed the hinges. He smiled and turned to evaluate the couple’s faces, then unlocked and opened the main door. It remained silent. He motioned for the couple to enter first, and he followed them inside as they stepped into the foyer.
“As you can see, the house has white textured walls. If you were to hang a mirror or painting and maybe add an accent table underneath, it would be an inviting entranceway.” He guided them into the spacious living room. The morning sun streamed through the unadorned windows. “The carpet is new, and the fireplace works. Over here is a large picture window that faces the street. Electrical outlets are everywhere, so you’ll have plenty of them for your televisions, DVRs, and other electronic toys.”
Rayshaun asked the couple in-depth questions about their current furnishings, a typical ploy he practiced often. He used that information to mentally design the various rooms and brought those ideas to his client's attention. If they could visualize it, it may be more acceptable. He used his rare gift well.
As they ventured into the backyard, he overheard the couple chatting, “We can put the...over there and…” and “I can't wait to see…”
I think I’ve hooked them. Rayshaun followed his clients as they reentered the house and strolled back toward the front door. In the foyer, he presented his final summary, mentioned its price and then left them alone to give them some privacy. He roamed around the empty living room aimlessly, focusing on the shaft of sunlight illuminating the carpet. He overheard bits and pieces of their conversation, but he couldn’t make out what was said. A sale would be the perfect way to start his day so he could stuff his bank account with the commission and relax. He rubbed his hands as he waited for their decision. If they took too long, the sale might fall through. He clasped his hands behind his back and paced back and forth. There was no more talking, and time stood still. About a minute later, the couple called for him. He wanted to sprint toward them but didn’t want to appear overly enthusiastic. Instead, he cruised into the foyer and beheld two smiling faces.
“We truly like this house. We’ll take it.”
Those were the magic words! He felt warm all over, and his teeth made their grand appearance. His cheeks bulged and eyes squinted. They shook on it, then Rayshaun asked, “Are you absolutely sure?”
That familiar twinkle in the couple's eyes along with their smiles said it all. Rayshaun had a sale, and they confirmed it when they both responded simultaneously, “Yes.”
As they exited the house, Rayshaun said, “I’ll be in contact with you in the upcoming days. Thank you so much and have an outstanding day.”
He stood in the doorway as the couple returned to their car and pulled out the driveway. Rayshaun waved, still sporting his enormous smile. Once they were out of sight, he locked the front door and returned to his car. Before starting it, he played a small, celebratory drum roll on the steering wheel then pulled down his visor to check himself in the mirror. In it was the reflection of a happy man. He patted his short afro, closed the visor, and started his car.
Kelly stepped through the school’s sturdy metal doors and let the cool air soothe his dark sun-scorched skin, but it did nothing to ease the stress he’d encountered during this morning’s trek to school. He melded in with the masses—one of the young people forced to conform to the norms of today’s educational system whether they liked it or not. He walked and listened as his peers chatted up a storm about ridiculous nothings, all shuffling through the hallways to get to their homerooms before the morning bell rang.
On the way to his locker, he sighed once he spotted the Northerners, a group of students who didn’t care about school at all. They lived in the older neighborhoods north of the school, and for some demented reason, they assumed it gave them the privilege to bully anyone they wanted. They usually hung out around the stairwells, causing trouble because they could, and they didn’t need any reason to do it. There were no redeeming qualities about those guys. They stayed in trouble, being sent to the principal’s office and getting suspended. They roamed the school like a pack of hyenas, picking on those they could easily intimidate. More bullies for Kelly to deal with.
His skinny physique allowed him to slip between the student population with ease, and upon reaching his locker, he removed his backpack and shoved it inside. He pulled out his history and pre-algebra books, then gazed at his hair in the small round mirror hanging on his locker door. After shifting his dreads around, he shut his locker and headed for his homeroom on the second floor. He knew the quickest way to reach his homeroom was to use the stairwell just down the hall where the Northerners hung out this morning. Maybe if he kept his head down, with no direct eye contact, they might not bother him. Yeah, right! He accepted the inevitable. Their conversations were unintelligible from a distance, but the closer he moved toward them, the quieter they became. Dammit! One of the punks eyed him, and he knew he'd be hassled.
At the staircase, he focused on the stairs instead of their faces. He knew this was a dangerous game of tag. Touching any of them would mean instant retaliation. The Northerners parted like the Red Sea. Maybe I’d be able to slip by. When his foot landed on the second step, one of the thugs punched him in the left arm, and his body jostled to the right. A dull pain blossomed in his bicep, and the knotted muscle left a raised bump. He clenched it with his hand. Then another punk punched him in the right thigh, and his leg buckled. He limped up the stairs moving as quickly as he could and didn’t appreciate the laughter coming from behind him. The trash can, sitting on the landing, tipped over and crashed down the staircase making a loud racket, and unintelligible cries replaced the Northerner’s laughter. He heard the commotion, but dared not turn around and continued hobbling toward his homeroom. The bell rang as he passed through the door, and he took his seat in the back of the classroom avoiding eye contact with everyone.