Chapter 1 of More Than a Friend
Luke Trent grabbed my arm. “Be careful, you bird-brain!”
Luke might be in a wheelchair, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t the same old Luke he was before the accident. Same curly black hair. Same good looks—the kind girls go for. Same tendency to boss me around.
But after more than two months in the hospital and rehab center, he was paler than usual. Thinner too. Plus, in the two days since he’d come home to the small town of Wallace, I’d noticed that little things bothered him more than they used to. Luke isn’t very good at helpless.
Not that he’s totally helpless. He just can’t use his legs. He can feel things—like if you prick him with a pin or let his wheelchair hit the wall of his van like I just had—but he can’t wiggle his toes or move his legs or walk. And to somebody like Luke, that’s a pretty big deal.
I don’t mean it wouldn’t be a big deal for anybody. But Luke has always been the macho, athletic type. I could be wrong, but I think being dependent on other people might be even harder for someone like that.
Added to the rest of his frustration, the middle finger of his left hand had been broken by an errant ball during a game of wheelchair basketball a few days before he came home.
The rehab center people urged him to stay there until it was healed, but he refused. So here he was with a splint on his finger, and orders not to use that hand for a week.
“Glen, we’re going to be late! Can’t you hurry up?”
Since it was Luke’s first day back at school, his dad had delayed leaving for work to get Luke into the van, but now that we had reached the school, I was on my own. Unfortunately, I tend to be a total klutz with anything mechanical. I’d managed to get the wheelchair out of its position behind the driver’s seat, maneuver it onto the lift, and set the brakes so it would stay put, but the lever that made the lift descend to the ground wasn’t budging.
Luke yelled, “Glen, hurry up! We’ll be late.”
“Need some help?” asked a male voice we both had no trouble recognizing.
“No,” Luke replied quickly, “we don’t need help.”
Charlie Thornton’s blond hair, blue eyes, and chiseled jaw appeared in the open doorway. “Suit yourself. But you’re going to be late.”
Luke’s voice rose. “Glen, can’t you do anything right?”
I didn’t answer. I knew Luke was on edge. And I knew Charlie was the last person he wanted to see him like this.
A female voice said, “Get lost, Charlie.” Then a girl with long, straight black hair looked in. “Hi, Luke,” she said. “Long time no see. Glen, do you know what you’re doing?”
“It’s okay, Marta,” I said patiently. “I can get it.” Why do I have to be such a total klutz?
The man who’d dropped Marta off must have parked his car because he poked his head into the doorway.
“Having trouble, Glen?” he asked.
I hit the lever, but it stayed where it was. “This stupid thing isn’t working!”
John Hamilton, a tall African-American man with short, curly black hair, works at the local garage. Within a few minutes he had the lever working again, albeit stiffly.
“Needs oil and maybe some loosening,” John said. “It ought to be a lot smoother. Tell you what, leave me the keys and I’ll take a look at it and leave the keys with your mom when I’m done.”
John lowered Luke’s wheelchair to ground level, then put down the lift’s side and released the brakes on the wheelchair. I went behind to push.
I knew Luke hated being pushed, and would much rather grip the wheels and move them himself, but with his left hand out of commission, the best he could do right now was use his right hand to go in circles. So I had to push him.
Charlie was still there, watching. Several others had crowded around behind Marta and were gawking at Luke and saying things like, “Good to see you, Luke,” and “Nice to have you back.” Exactly what Luke had dreaded.
In a low voice, he urged me to get him out of there.
We were saved any more awkwardness by the ringing of the school buzzer. As everyone suddenly realized they were going to be late for class, there was a sudden movement toward the entrance.
I took off, as much as you can when pushing a wheelchair over a gravel parking lot, and we headed away from the other people toward the side entrance where there was a ramp. Only Marta trailed after us. Once inside, I steered toward our first class, which was history.
“Come in,” Mr. Jackman said gruffly. “You’re late, but I’ll ignore it this time.” He emphasized “this.”
I stared at him, not paying much attention to what he’d said. Mr. Jackman is somewhere in his 50s, with a balding head and a bit of a paunch. But now, like Luke, he looked as though he’d lost weight. Also, like Luke, he was paler than usual. True, I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months, but still.
“Could you find a spot quickly?” he asked. Of course, it was an order, not a question.
Every face turned to watch as I wheeled Luke into the room and tried to figure out what to do next. No way could Luke fit into a desk.
Nicole Grant came to the rescue. Nicole is blonde and gorgeous, the prettiest girl in town and one of the most thoughtful. And although it sometimes seems too good to be true, she and I are dating again after a brief episode when Charlie Thornton stole her from me. Nicole jumped up and started moving one of the desks from the last row to the far back corner. Several guys went to help her.
From behind, I could see Luke’s back stiffen and his right hand clench the armrest. I felt for him, but what could I do?
Under Nicole’s direction, a table that had been in the back corner with some books on it was cleared and pulled over to the back row where the desk had been. I pushed Luke’s wheelchair up to it. It worked pretty well. Maybe it was a little high. Later, we could figure out something better, but for now it would do.
“Thanks,” I said.
Luke didn’t say anything.
I knew how he was feeling, with everybody turned to watch. I wasn’t enjoying it myself and I wasn’t the cause.
At last we had everything working. Bob Landover, whose desk was next to Luke’s table, offered to trade places with me. I quickly agreed. So I sat near Luke, and Bob took my seat in the middle of the room in front of Charlie.
There was a long moment of silence.
Mr. Jackman, who had been watching from the front the whole time, looked at his watch. “Six minutes,” he said.
There was another silence. A few kids looked back at us, but most had their eyes on him. Mr. Jackman has been teaching history in Wallace High School for more than thirty years, starting in a little, six-room brick building, transferring to a bigger, concrete-block building, and then eight years ago moving to the present two-story structure. Rumor says there’s never been a teacher who could touch him for being tough.
In a dry voice, with no apparent emotion, he said, “In most airlines, people who need assistance are asked to arrive and board early. We are all sorry for the unfortunate accident that has caused this problem; however, in future, I’d request that you arrive ten minutes early so the entire class is not disrupted in this way.” He paused. “Is that clear Mr. Trent?”
Eyes, down, Luke nodded. I expect he wanted to run out the door and never come back. But that wasn’t an option.
“Yes, sir.” I got the words out somehow. Not very loud, though.
“I didn’t hear you, Mr. Sauten.”
“I said, ‘Okay!’” I yelled. Then, flustered, I added, “It was my fault. I couldn’t get the lift to work.”
“Are you planning to waste more of our time with excuses?”
I bit my lip. “No, sir.”
“Then may we continue with the class now?”
As he began to write something on the blackboard, Nicole turned and gave me a sympathetic look. We had talked earlier about whether the experience of having his son die from an incurable disease just before spring break would soften Mr. Jackman. Nicole had been sure it would. Looked like she was wrong. I didn’t think anything could soften Mr. Jackman. He didn’t have normal feelings. And his classes just dragged on.
As he finished up by assigning homework. I was working out in my mind the best route to take to get Luke to the next class. At least there was an elevator in the school. I could just see us trying to carry the wheelchair upstairs. Luke would really go nuts.
The bell rang and I jumped up, nearly colliding with Brandon Lovansky who, along with his next door neighbour Matt Robertson, has been friends with Luke and me for years. Brandon is about my height, five ten, with darker brown hair and a rather well-fed appearance. Matt is short and skinny, with reddish brown hair and freckles.
“I’ll help,” Brandon said as he released the brake and gently pulled the chair back from the table. “Matt’s gone to get a spot ready.”
I picked up Luke’s books and held the door back as far as possible while Brandon wheeled Luke out of the room and down the hall toward the library. That’s where the elevator, which isn’t for normal use by students, was put.
Nicole and Zoey Burgess, who is Nicole’s best friend and kind of the opposite of her in appearance (wavy dark brown hair, glasses, a little on the plump side), caught up with us in the hallway on the second floor.
“How is he doing?” Nicole asked me quietly as we followed Brandon, who was pushing Luke.
“Aside from hating all the attention?”
“I don’t think anyone else will be like Mr. Jackman.”
“As if anyone else could,” I replied. “He’s inhuman.”
By the time we got to the lab, Brandon and Matt had Luke set up at one of the tables. The chemistry teacher, Mr. Schilling, was hovering around, making sure Luke was okay and had everything he needed. I could feel angry vibrations coming from Luke. Well, maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed that I could actually feel his hatred for all the sympathy.
This class, too, seemed to go on forever, with me conscious of Luke’s tension the entire time.
When Mr. Schilling stopped twice to check that Luke was keeping up okay, I cringed. Guess he thought Luke’s brain had been damaged too.
As the lunch bell rang, I nearly fell over my own feet making sure I got to Luke before anyone else had a chance to make a fuss over him.
“Get me out of here!” he pleaded.
I forgot about the brakes and then had to fumble to release them, so I wasn’t very efficient. But the other kids stood back and let us get out of the room first. I saw Charlie watching, as well as Nicole and Zoey. Brandon and Matt ran ahead and had the elevator waiting when we got there.
Luke and I had planned to eat in the cafeteria, but when I started to turn in that direction as we got off the elevator, Luke twisted and swung his right arm back as if trying to knock my hand away from the handle. In a loud, angry whisper, he said, “I don’t care where you eat, but get me out of this place before I scream!” So I turned toward the side door.
We were nearly at the van when I remembered giving the keys to John. Sure enough, the doors were locked. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m a total klutz.”
Brandon and Matt offered to get the keys from the office. When they were gone, I said awkwardly, “You can’t let Mr. Jackman mess everything up, Luke. Or Mr. Schilling either.”
Luke buried his face in his hands, shoulders shaking.
“Luke…” I had no idea what to say or do. God, I prayed silently, I could really use some help here.
Instead I got Marta. She came running up, her long black hair flying. As usual, she was dressed completely in black, right down to her lipstick.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
How she could look at Luke and ask a stupid question like that was beyond me. “Yeah, just fine,” I said. I’m not very good at being sarcastic.
“Are you going home for lunch? Isn’t that kind of stupid? You’ll be late again.”
“Marta, just shut up,” I said, not unkindly. I was afraid if she kept talking, Luke would say something a whole lot more unkind.
“Oh,” she said. “I thought—”
“Look, just go have lunch,” I said. “We’re fine.”
She stared at me, and then she stared at Luke, and I guess it finally dawned on her midget brain that maybe everything wasn’t okay.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess… Well, I guess you can handle it.” She turned and walked back toward the school.
“Glen?” Luke had his head up and was looking at me.
“I can’t take it.”
“No, not him.”
His voice kept getting louder. “No.”
“No!” he shouted. “This thing!” He pounded his right hand on the arms of his chair. “This wheelchair! I can’t take it! And if that isn’t enough, this stupid finger!”
“But…” I couldn’t think of anything to say. We both knew he didn’t exactly have a choice. Of course, the finger would heal. But the wheelchair—unless there was a miracle of some sort, that was permanent.
“Is this the real Luke Trent or has an impostor taken his place?” said a female voice.
Luke and I both turned to stare. Zoey Burgess was standing there, hands on hips, face pale. “Well?” she said. “Which is it?”
Luke didn’t open his mouth.
Zoey, who is Nicole’s best friend, is normally very quiet, well-mannered, and a little shy. Someone who would never make a scene.
“Zoey, you—” I started to say.
“Luke, I’ve known you for a long time. Oh, I won’t pretend I’ve known you very well. But we’ve been in the same classes and I’ve watched you play on the football and basketball and baseball teams. And I’ve seen you at Harry’s Restaurant and the Peabody Diner with Glen and your other friends. So I know you pretty well. And in all those years, I’ve never once thought of you as a wimp.
I looked at Luke. His face was like a stone mask.
Zoey kept going. “At times, I’ve found you annoying. There were even a few times I’ve disliked you. You were always being a ‘tough guy.’ Nothing you couldn’t handle, right? You’d get knocked down by all those linebackers when you were quarterback and still make the touchdown, and you’d take the blame when the team lost. You were a fighter. Not mean or ugly, but always in the action. Ready to take on a new challenge.” She paused for a moment, but before I could think of a way to stop her, she went on.
“You probably don’t remember, but back when we were in grade three, there was a kid staying here with his grandparents. He was older than us, in grade eight, and I think he’d been in trouble with the police. I think that’s why his parents sent him here. Anyway, one day at recess he cornered me in the schoolyard. There were only a few other little kids around and I was scared stiff. He grabbed my hair and was pulling it, and I was crying, and all of a sudden you just flew at him. You were half as big as him and five years younger, but you leaped onto his back with your arms around his neck, and you hung on no matter what he did.”
I glanced at Luke and saw him nod very slightly, as if he was remembering.
“He let go of me and I ran to get a teacher, and when we got back, you had a bloody nose and he was kneeling on top of you trying to crush you, but you were still hanging on to his neck and fighting him.” She paused for a second. “We never saw him again. I guess he was sent back to his parents. When I tried to thank you, you just said you never liked him and you’d been hoping for a chance to let him know.”
She paused again, but none of us—Luke or me, or Brandon and Matt, who had come back with the keys—said anything. We were all in shock over this new Zoey.
“Luke, it isn’t like you to give up. Okay, so maybe this time the bad guy is a lot bigger than you, and maybe it seems like you don’t have much of a chance, but you can’t give up! You’ve got more than a bloody nose this time, I know. But if you keep your arms tight around this thing that’s trying to defeat you, you’ll beat it, too!
“It isn’t a question of whether or not you’ll ever walk again; it’s a question of whether you’re going to stop being the person you are! And even though you can be annoying and pig-headed sometimes, I’ve always sort of admired that person! I’d hate to see him replaced by a—a wimp who just goes around feeling sorry for himself!” She stopped talking. Her face was ghost white and she was breathing hard. She turned and ran into the school.
The four of us stood there, stunned. Okay, in Luke’s case, sat. Zoey’s whole rant was just so unexpected. I couldn’t remember ever hearing her raise her voice to anyone before.
After a while, Brandon said, “We—uh, got the keys.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“There’s a note for you. From John.”
I took the note and quickly read it. John thought he had the mechanism working more smoothly. He’d like to try it with Luke there, so if it was okay, he’d come by Luke’s house right after school to test it some more.
I told Luke, who nodded without seeming to hear. Finally, he said, “I remember that kid.”
“Yeah?” I said. “I don’t.”
“Me neither,” Matt said. “But then, you had a lot of bloody noses.”
“Yeah,” Luke said quietly. “I did, didn’t I?”
There was another of those uncomfortable pauses. At last, I said, “Well, where would you like to go?”
Luke was still looking at the spot where Zoey had been standing a moment ago. Finally, he took a deep breath. “She’s right,” he said. “I hate being in this thing. I hate people feeling sorry for me. I hate needing help from my parents. And from you guys. I just plain hate everything about it! But hating it won’t change anything, will it?”
“Just you,” I ventured. “I mean, if you get so that all you can think about is hate, it’ll make you a different person, somebody like—like—”
“Like Mr. Jackman,” Brandon supplied, reading my mind.
Luke snorted. “So you think I’m getting like that old sourpuss?”
“I didn’t say you’re like him. But if you think about negative stuff all the time, you could get like him.” Brandon shifted uncomfortably. “When my sister was killed, it was really hard. She was only thirteen, and it didn’t seem fair that she should have had to die because some guy she didn’t even know had a heart attack while driving his car and rammed into her bike. But it happened. And there was nothing we could do. Not even anyone to blame, really. Mom and Dad said we had to go on with our lives and not let it make us bitter. Nothing anybody could do would bring her back. But it was still hard.”
Luke and I didn’t say anything for a while. I mean, this was heavy stuff. Brandon barely talks about anything, and certainly not about stuff like this. I stole a quick look at him, and there were tears in his eyes.
After a few minutes, Luke cleared his throat. “Put the keys in your pocket, Glen, and let’s get some lunch before the bell goes. And Glen?”
“Do you think maybe we could get here early tomorrow morning? The less fuss, the easier it is.”
I grinned. “If John really has the hoist working right, we’ll be here so early the caretaker will think we’re after his job.”...