I circle the track only twice when I hear Amber’s car coming slowly down the road.
My black flats definitely are not suited for gravel as I walk pigeon-toed to meet Amber near the road, stopping intermittently to remove a shoe and shake it free of the small rocks that keep making their way inside both. It is a painful process.
I hobble up to Amber, grimacing as I hug her. She begins sobbing instantly.
“Amber,” I begin, “I … “
She steps away from me, composing herself and then holds up her right hand to silence me. She knows me well, knows that I tend to babble when I’m nervous or scared.
So I wait.
“Shane knows I’m here with you,” she says. “He wants me to tell you this, and I have to agree. You deserve to know the truth.”
Huh? Say what?
I’m too dumbfound to get any words out.
What have I got to do with any of this?!
Whatever she has to tell me must be a real doozy.
“This is going to come as a shock to you,” she goes on. “God knows, we are.”
Here it comes. And I really don’t think I want to know.
“Brace yourself, Piccolo, because this is a real doozy,” she says, confirming my fears. “I already told you about Shane finding Lester in the fieldhouse.”
Please, please, please just get to the point!
Coach Smith’s office is, uh, was located in the fieldhouse, which is behind the school. Like most high schools in Kentucky, Bluegrass has its own stadium, practice field and fieldhouse, which contains the coaches’ offices, weight room, locker room and anything else you can imagine.
Football, after all, reigns supreme in the South, and the high school stadiums and facilities get even more elaborate the further down you go.
But here in Kentucky, basketball is right up there with football, as this is a state with a very rich tradition on the hardwood. Moreover, it is only one of three states that crown a single overall champion for boys and girls rather than having a classification system according to each school’s enrollment. Delaware and Rhode Island are the other two.
To be the best in this state, you literally have to beat the best.
And here I am zoning again.
“Give me a minute, OK?” Amber implores.
I acquiesce with a curt nod.
The high school football season starts the last week of August every year, so I can picture Coach Smith sitting at the desk in his office watching practice or game film or both, drawing up plays, mulling over his starters — all of it — late into the night or early in the morning long after his assistants leave or arrive. But that’s the life of a head coach. I always joke that coaches never sleep when it is, in fact, a reality, and no laughing matter at all.
It also can very easily be a reporter’s life. It IS my life, for that matter, but that’s MY choice. My parents don’t like it, and they don’t make a secret of it. It’s hard finding a happy medium with them sometimes.
I shift my focus back to Amber, wishing for all the world that I had a cigarette in my hand, enjoying every savory puff.
She is exactly what you expect the quintessential all-American girl to look like. Gently sun-kissed skin, perfect white teeth, long natural blonde hair, tip-top physical shape although a bit on the muscular side from living such an active lifestyle. A perfect match for her husband, who’s almost the male mirror image of Amber except taller. They tower over me, but I’m only 5 feet 5 inches tall.
“Lester … he was … he was … it looked to Shane like he was shot in his head from behind,” Amber finally manages, hesitating. “He … Shane saw a gun on Lester’s desk. There was blood everywhere and … and there wasn’t much left of his head. OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod! WHY?!“
Her composure crumbles like the too-long ashes of a forgotten burning cigarette.
I want to hug her, comfort her, tell her everything is going to be OK. But I can sense — no, I can tell — that she does not want to be touched, so I respect her wishes and literally take a step back.
Go ahead, Piccolo, you have to ask.
The reporter in me kicks in again.
Just say it already!
“Is it OK if I go on the record with this?”
I await her consent before I dare jot down anything she tells me. She’s my friend, and I owe her that courtesy.
“Just hear me out first, and then I’ll let you decide,” Amber says.
“There was a piece of paper on Lester’s desk by the phone,” she reveals, sounding a bit calmer. “Shane could only read part of it because of all the blood. He tried. He really tried. Piccolo, I’m sorry, but you have to know this. You deserve to know this. The police are going to find out. I know they will. I know they will come looking for you, for your parents. Well, for your mom.”
I know my whereabouts last night and this morning: HOME! And my mom and dad have nothing whatsoever to do with guns, just like me. Actually, let me amend that Mom doesn’t ALLOW Dad to keep guns or any other weaponry in the house, even dating all the way back to his Navy days. He had to keep his service-issued weapons at a Navy buddy’s place because she’s always been so adamant about it. And as far as I know, he hasn’t touched, let alone shot, a gun since retiring from active duty nearly 30 years ago. They didn’t know Coach Smith, never even met the man in passing! They don’t even live in the same state, for fuck’s sake! Why pull my parents and me into this?! I’m an idiot for answering the phone at all this morning!
Damn Coach Smith for dying! Damn his killer! Damn Dickhead! Damn it all! I just want everything to go back to the way it was, minus Dickhead!
Amber HAS to be mistaken! Surely, this is an episode of Punk’d, and I’m going to find out that this craptastic nightmare of a day is all just one big, fat, suck-ass fucking joke with Ashton Kutcher unexpectedly jumping out of nowhere to scare the shit out of me any second now.
“It’s true,” Amber nods, forcing me out of my denial to confirm what I still cannot believe, what I don’t want to believe. “The piece of paper has your mom’s name on it, along with your home number. I don’t know what any of this means, Piccolo, but your parents, or at least your mom, may be involved somehow. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”
Neither do I. Know what to say.
My head is beginning to throb. I really need a cigarette. NOW.
But first …
“Her full name?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “Meggy O’Brien.”
Meggy is short for Margaret, and my mom’s maiden name is O’Brien. Meggy isn’t a common nickname, to my knowledge, and my phone number on that same piece of paper means the cops soon will be questioning both of us.
Gotta love technology and all of its invasive perks.
Which means I’m out of time I never had to give my mom a heads up. And to ask her questions she probably doesn’t want to answer.
I rub my forehead. My headache is getting progressively worse, working its way down into my eyes. I hope I’m not getting a migraine, but that’s the least of my concerns right now.
“I’ll use the first part of what you just told me and pass it on to another reporter,” I say in a matter-of-fact monotone voice that isn’t my own, “since this obviously is a conflict-of-interest issue for me. I’ll have that reporter call Shane on his cell phone to confirm what you just told me.”
Our friendship will come under scrutiny WHEN, not IF, the cops connect the dots. I won’t ask Amber and Shane to lie, nor will I be dishonest. I value my freedom too much. And I cannot tell a lie to save my own life.
“As for the note,” I continue, “he has to tell them the truth. And you know what that means. Don’t lie on my behalf. It isn’t worth losing your freedom or jobs over. I’ll come clean with Dickhead about the note, but off the record, in a manner of speaking.”
I can get around Dickhead with the paper’s open-door policy, which will force him to keep what I tell him in confidence. Doing so also will protect my job. For the time being.
“Is there anything else I should know?” I ask.
Amber shakes her head no.
As if I don’t know enough already.
“Thanks for being honest with me,” I tell her. “I know this is going to change everything. People are going to talk, but that’s a given.”
An automated female voice suddenly announces “text message” from inside her purse.
I’m sure the cops will be waiting for me at the office.
She hugs me.
Yeah. Me, too.
“I know,” I say, trying to reassure her and myself. “It’s all right. It HAS to be. Maybe it’s all just one big misunderstanding.”
That’s it. Keep fooling yourself, Piccolo.
She lets me go and walks away. What more is there to say?
One way or another, I WILL get to the bottom of this, conflict-of-interest situation or not. And one way or another, my parents — my mom — somehow is involved.
It’s up to me to piece together the fragmenting puzzle.
One thing is for certain: My short-lived nonsmoking days have just come to an abrupt end. I’m hitting a convenience store, ANY convenience store, before heading the rest of the way downtown to the office. And Dickhead.
I’m going to have that smoke I’ve been craving all morning, and I’m damn well going to enjoy every single puff until the butt burns my lips.
Fuck it all.