Randy Herrman terrified me.
It wasn’t that he was bigger than I was. He was kind of puny for his age. And he certainly wasn’t smarter, or funnier, or more creative. Nope. What intimidated me about Randy Herrman was his attitude. He wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
Like a villain in a melodrama, Randy appeared at school while we were all registering for the seventh grade. There were about a hundred of us in line outside the principal’s office when Randy walked up wearing a black motorcycle T-shirt. He stopped for some reason beside Travis Duncan. Then, with a little sneer, Randy reached into Travis’s open backpack—that was still on Travis’s back—fished around and pulled out a Ding Dong. Without a pause Randy bit the chocolate cake clean in half, wrapper and all.
Travis stood there for a second, in complete shock, then started yelling—a high-pitched wailing that was way too-over-the-top for a bitten Ding Dong. Finally, Mr. Squires came out of his office to see what all the commotion was about. Then the principal grabbed Randy by the shirt collar and led him down the row of kids to the detention room. As he passed, Randy looked at me with his gray eyes and smiled. It was an unspeakably cold smile that sent a shiver up my spine.
I couldn’t sleep for a week.
I steered well clear of Randy that year and probably would have avoided him for the rest of my school life had I not been transferred in eight grade to a new English class midway through the school year. When I got to Mrs. Snyder’s class, I was assigned a seat almost in the back, next to a diorama of The Red Badge of Courage, and right in front of Randy Herrman.
I shuddered and took my seat.
The trouble started a couple of days later—just after Mrs. Snyder passed out a homework quiz.
“Hey, what’s the answer to number one?” Randy whispered to the back of my head.
I spun around. He had his face scrunched up and his eyes narrowed, like he was trying to look like Popeye, or worse, a psycho. I turned back to the front of the class and saw Mrs. Snyder take a quick glance around the room and then return to the pile of papers on her desk.
I didn’t know what to do. Any idiot knew that cheating was wrong. But Randy had bitten a Ding Dong in half, with the wrapper still on. I didn’t want to find out what he could do to me.
“A pronoun,” I whispered back without searching my conscience any further.
“How do you spell that?” he asked.
And that’s how it went for the next few months. I’d provide answers to quizzes and tests with the unspoken understanding that Randy would not bite me in half. I’d never been so happy as when the bell sounded to end that school year.
Randy was in my math class in ninth grade, but on the first day I waited for him to pick a desk and then I sat on the opposite side of the room. Darren McCoy, a tall red-headed kid, sat in front of him, and I watched to see what would develop.
After Mr. Washington passed out the first exam, and we all bowed our heads to our papers, I saw Randy mouth the familiar words to the back of Darren’s head.
“Hey, what’s the answer to number one?”
I knew Darren heard Randy, because his pencil stopped moving, but he didn’t turn or acknowledge the voice behind him.
Randy leaned closer and whispered again. This time Darren turned quickly and gave him a haughty look; then he put his pencil back on his exam and defiantly began to add numbers.
Randy tried one more time, this time he flicked one of Darren’s ears with his finger. Darren made an annoyed, contemptuous grunt and shuffled his desk forward. About that time Mr. Washington stood up and began walking around the room. Randy reluctantly gave up and hunched over his own paper.
Darren came to class the next day with a big black eye, but when the midterm exam came up, Darren stonewalled Randy again. I’m sure ninth grade was the longest nine months of Darren McCoy’s life, but he didn’t break. He said nothing to Randy, who was forced to make it through the class on his own merits.
I don’t know how Randy made it into the 10th grade, but there he was the next year when we registered.
Sam Boushelle had moved to town that summer. I’d met him at church the Sunday before classes started, and we’d talked about the ward and girls and sports. But I completely forgot to warn him about Randy Herrman. Sure enough, when I got to English class on Monday morning, there was Sam, and right behind him was Randy, looking smug with a fresh year and a fresh victim in front of him.
I flopped into the desk in front of Sam and tried to explain the predicament he was in. Sam looked at me with a suspicious frown, and then turned around to face Randy. Sam nodded slightly and looked back at me.
“Seems like a nice enough guy,” Sam said.
And sure enough, I heard Randy’s whisper during the first pop quiz about a week later.
For a minute, Sam ignored the voice behind him. Then he tore a sheet of paper out of his notebook and began writing furiously. Randy waited for a second and then tried the ear-flipping thing, but Sam just shook his head and laughed and kept scribbling. Finally Sam stopped writing, folded the paper up and handed it back to Randy. Then he went back to his work.
Randy read the note and his faced turned the color of a thundercloud. He crumpled the note up, thought about throwing it, but then stuffed it into his shirt pocket. It was obvious that Randy was mad, but he didn’t pester Sam anymore.
After class I pulled my backpack on and stood up.
“You coming?” I asked my friend.
“No, you go on. I need to talk to Randy.”
I looked back at the little, dark figure of Randy Herrman, leaning back in his desk and resting his head on the back of his chair. He had his eyes closed, like he was having a nice dream and didn’t want to wake up. He was probably wondering where he could dispose of Sam’s body.
“Your funeral,” I said softly.
I didn’t see Sam again until lunch. We met near the pop machines and then went through the cafeteria line, piling our plates high with rubbery spaghetti and red sauce. We paid and found seats as close to the cool kids as we dared.
“So, you’re still alive,” I asked finally. I was dying to know what had happened.
“Yep,” said Sam. He started twirling his fork in the spaghetti.
Sam smiled and moved his fork to a new spot on the plate. “I think he just needs a little help.”
“No, I mean he needs a little help with schoolwork.”
I was skeptical. “So what did your note say?”
“Nothing much. I just told him I couldn’t help him during a test. But I did offer to work with him after school.”
I laughed. “He’ll work you over after school.”
Sam shook his head. “I don’t think so. I told him that if we studied together a couple of times a week, he could most likely get good grades on his own.”
“I bet he jumped at that,” I said, with a good dose of sarcasm.
Sam pinched his chin. “Ah, he complained for a while. But eventually he agreed to give it a try. He says nobody’s ever offered to help him before.”
I swallowed with guilt.
“You’re putting me on,” I said. I was incredulous.
“No, he’s actually interested,” added Sam. “We’re meeting tonight at my place to study.”
Sam twirled his fork until he had a mass of pasta the size of a pool ball. Then he forced it in his mouth. “He wants to,” he said, between chews, “get into the Air Force,” another chew, “after school.”
“And he can’t get in without good grades.”
I was floored. All the time I’d been afraid and avoiding Randy Herrman, he’d been searching for help. I’d helped him cheat. Darren had ignored him. But Sam had taken a chance and found a way to serve his brother.
“I feel like a … I feel like a,” I couldn’t find the word.
“Why? You didn’t know what Randy needed?” said Sam.
“No, and I didn’t bother to find out.”
Sam smiled and shrugged. “It’s no big deal. Come over tonight and we’ll both get to know Randy.”
After lunch, I walked back to class with a weird mix of feelings running through me. For the first time in years I wasn’t afraid of running into Randy. That was a relief, I reasoned. But I couldn’t believe how blind I’d been. It’d taken Sam only seconds to do what I should have done years ago.
I closed my locker and told myself I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
I walked to biology. Under the glowing fluorescent lamps and amid the moving mass of 10th-grade students, I told myself I was ready to begin again.
I can do well here, I thought.
I just need to find a way.