Zander was deathly afraid of secrets and, when he was twelve years old, had sworn to never keep another one. He still remembered his older sister whispering to him in the hallway, “Shhh. Don’t tell mom and dad. I’m just going out with Gabe for a little bit. Can you keep just this one little secret for me?”
He had agreed, and Lucy had tousled his hair before she slipped quietly out the door. Zander had rubbed his eyes as he moved to the window, Lucy had woken him in her quest to apply her favorite lip gloss in the bathroom, and watched his sister hurry quickly down the driveway and disappear behind the fence that enclosed the neighbor’s yard. Gabe was probably parked just down the road. As he stared out into the inky night, he remembered wondering why it was so important that Lucy see Gabe right now. Zander had heard rumors at school of course, of what older brothers and sisters did in basements and cars, but he had no confirmation of the truth of these situations. Supposedly, he would know all by the end of sixth grade, when the boys and girls would be divided and they would learn how “their bodies worked”. If it was anything like what he had heard, he couldn’t imagine doing that in a car. How would there even be enough room?
And why would Lucy do any of that with Gabe? Sure, Zander and Lucy fought sometimes, but Zander knew his sister was smart and beautiful. Most of the time, it seemed he had hit the jackpot with Lucy, based on what he had heard about his friends’ siblings. Gabe was another story. Zander had never liked Gabe. This was not something his twelve year old self could put into words, but it was something about the way Gabe’s arm snaked around Lucy as they stood talking to friends after school. Sometimes he would pull her in so quickly that Lucy lost her balance for a moment, requiring her to place her hand on Gabe’s chest to steady herself. Sometimes Gabe’s eyes would narrow when Lucy talked to another boy, even just a boy who was clearly her friend, and he remembered a car ride home where Gabe once told Lucy, “Don’t let me see you talking to him again.” Lucy had glanced in the back to see if Zander had heard, and Zander had chosen to study his hands intently. He was young, but he felt a sense of embarrassment leap somewhere right around his heart. It was a new feeling, and he didn’t like it. He wondered briefly if Lucy even wanted to go really meet Gabe tonight, or if Gabe had fired words at Lucy that made her feel as if she had to go.
Zander’s thoughts had been interrupted by a yawn. Despite his feelings about Gabe, he felt a certain sense of pride in being entrusted with Lucy’s secret. He felt the secret was something he could hold out and examine as proof that he was certainly growing up. He tucked the secret away, and it warmed him as he slid his body back under the sheets that had cooled in his absence. He imagined sharing a just-between-us smile with Lucy over breakfast the next morning.
But there would be no more breakfasts with Lucy. There would be nothing more with Lucy because Gabe’s car had taken a turn too quickly and kissed a telephone poll, which catapulted Lucy through the windshield where she landed as a bloody heap on the grass. These were words Zander had pulled from various sources. He heard his dad on the phone with his uncle, describing the bloodiness of Lucy’s body (his dad had insisted on seeing her even before they cleaned her up), and one of the older kids at school had relished turning the phrase about the kiss and the pole. Zander’s thoughts swarmed like flies, but one always buzzed louder than the others: he had kept Lucy’s secret, and it had killed her.
So five years later, when Zander saw Trey McMullin grab Amber Tracy by the neck and slam her back toward the wall under the stairwell, he knew he had to tell someone. He certainly wasn’t big enough to take on Trey himself. This was the one time Zander cared anything about having a working security camera in the school, but he knew the one here was broken as quickly as it was repaired, so students could sneak under the stairwell to make out between classes.
Zander had seen enough to know that Amber was in trouble, maybe just like Lucy had been in trouble. He felt his heart thud as he saw Trey’s eyes narrow and heard him seethe, “Don’t do it again.” It was that moment that held Zander momentarily transfixed, and then he felt a shiver run down his body. How cold was Lucy in her grave? he often wondered. His calculator slid off the top of his laptop and clattered loudly when it reached the tile floor.
Amber and Trey both turned to look at him, and Trey released his grip, smoothing his hands down the front of his jeans. Zander saw him whisper into Amber’s ear. She gave a barely perceptible nod before Trey spun and strode away. Amber shook out her hair and passed by Zander. He couldn’t let this moment pass; not when he finally had a chance to do the right thing.
“Amber?” Zander meant to sound confident, to let Amber know she wasn’t alone, but his voice only came out as a whisper. Amber turned, though, and he spoke quickly, “I can help you. I mean, it seems like you really need some help here. That looked bad. We can go, talk to someone together. So Trey won’t hurt you anymore.”
“Whoa, Zander. Just hold up. You are blowing this way out of proportion. Trey was just a little upset. He gets that way sometimes. He didn’t hurt me, and I’m fine. The best thing you can do is stay quiet and let us handle this in our own way.” The bright red spots from the pressure of Trey’s fingers stood out starkly against her pale flesh.
Another secret. Maybe things would have been okay if Zander had just walked away then. He could do what he knew was right; he didn’t have to obey Amber. But he was desperate to help her, to help her see the danger of her situation. And there was no way he could hold another secret. It would be like trying to swallow a horse-sized pill without a drop of water. “I can’t keep this a secret, Amber.”
Zander knew he saw a flicker. She knew it! She knew she needed his help. He watched her push open the door to head down the hallway. Zander took a moment to consider. He had a test this period, and it was important. He planned to take all Advanced Placement classes next year; he was his parents’ only hope now that Lucy was gone. He wanted their pride in him to somehow take a little of the pain away.
Zander decided he would take the test and then stop in to see Mrs. Brimly, the school counselor. He knew he was taking a chance; Trey would get him back at some point, but Amber’s safety was more important.
Thirty minutes into class, he was called into the principal’s office. He saw a gathering of individuals that immediately reminded him of a firing squad: the principal, the school security officer, Mrs. Brimly, the district nurse, and another officer he didn’t recognize.
The principal crossed his arms as he began speaking. “Mr. Lay, it has been reported that you grabbed Amber Tracy by her neck, slammed her up against the wall, and then proceeded to tell her never to talk to Trey McMullin again. What do you have to say about this?”