The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper


  A mark? Jericho thought fearfully. He wondered if Josh had ever noticed such a mark on his father.

  “Are you ready and willing?” Eddie asked the nervous pledges in front of him.

  “Ready and willing, sir,” they answered dutifully, but not much enthusiasm could be heard in their voices. The Warriors did not notice, but Jericho never said a word. He could not bring himself to agree to be marked or branded, but he didn’t complain or do anything to stop them either.

  “Sit on your knees, with your backs to me. Lift up just the back of your T-shirts!” Rick now commanded, glancing at Dana. The pledges obeyed slowly. Jericho shivered uncontrollably, from the cold of the dirty wooden floor, and from fear.

  Eddie used a pair of tongs to remove one of the red, glowing coals and made sure they all saw it and felt its heat. Then he removed one of the barbecue forks from the coal-filled bucket. The end of the fork was glowing red. He walked around the group slowly, passing the fork close to their faces, making sure that each of them could see how hot and how sharp the end of it really was. When Eddie passed by Dana’s face, he held it for a long time, very close to her cheek, trying to make her wince in fear. Jericho was glad to see she didn’t.

  “This will hurt for just one second,” he said finally to the group. “But all of you must receive the mark. Are you ready?”

  “Yes, sir,” the pledges replied quietly.

  Each of the fifteen Warriors pulled a glowing fork from the bucket and each stood in front of a trembling pledge. Then they walked around the group and stood behind them.

  “Bow your heads and prepare to receive the mark!” Eddie commanded. They bowed. The music continued to beat, heavy and foreboding.

  The pledges knelt on the floor with their heads down and the backs of their shirts pulled up.

  “Apply the mark!” Eddie called out.

  Jericho squeezed his eyes shut and tensed with fearful anticipation. The smell of the hot coals reminded him of summer picnics, but this, he thought with a shudder, was no picnic.

  Then he felt a sudden, sharp sting burned into the center of his back. It was like cold fire. He screamed in spite of himself. He heard a couple of the other pledges cry out in pain as well. And he knew he heard Dana scream.

  “Turn around and face us!” Eddie commanded once more. “And face your fear!” Jericho had to blink to see clearly. In Eddie’s hand, and in the hands of each of the Warriors in front of them, was not a burning fork, but an ice cube.

  “I don’t get it,” Cleveland said.

  “We never burned you,” Madison explained. “That would be criminal. We just let you think that you were being burned. The mind is very powerful, you know. Ice, when it is applied to bare skin, can feel just like fire.”

  “Tell me about it,” Josh muttered as he rubbed the place on his back where he thought he had been burned. The pledges grumbled among themselves, relieved and a little embarrassed at their outbursts.

  “I heard you scream, Dana,” Kofi said softly.

  “I’d feel bad, but I heard you scream too!” She frowned and tried to rub the place on her back. “Kofi, my back still hurts!”

  “It’s your imagination, Dana. It was just a piece of ice.”

  “Yeah, but it still hurts.” She kept rubbing her back.

  Jericho wondered again why he was doing this. He remembered a family trip they had taken when he and Josh were six. The whole time Josh had kept asking, “Are we having fun yet?” That’s exactly what Jericho was thinking now.

  Eddie was not finished with them. “Your final activity for the evening,” he said without smiling, “is the final act of the purification ceremony. Are you learning to trust us?”

  “Yes, sir,” the pledges said grudgingly.

  “Are you still willing to do anything to become a Warrior?”

  “Yes, sir,” they all replied.

  “I couldn’t hear that! I couldn’t feel that!” Eddie yelled at them. “Are you still willing to do anything to become a Warrior?”

  “Yes, sir!” they yelled back with more enthusiasm.

  “Good. Let me remind you—you must be cleansed of all impurities and joined with us, body and soul.”

  Jericho felt like he was trapped in a cave from which he couldn’t escape. He didn’t like being there, yet he liked what the cave had to offer. He did not know how to get out.

  Eddie continued, “One at a time, you will be taken into the bathroom with a senior Warrior and there you will be purified. Who will be first tonight?”

  Dana whispered to Kofi and Josh, “I’m tired of going first—it’s you guys’ turn for a change.”

  Kofi squeezed her hand and told her, “You’re right. I’ll do it.”

  But before Kofi had a chance, Josh said loudly to Madison as he walked to the center of the room, “I’m not afraid. I’ll go first.”

  Josh disappeared into the bathroom with Rick Sharp and the door was slammed. The CD continued to play loudly, but no one moved to the music. The pledges could not take their eyes from the door. They could hear nothing. A few minutes later the door opened slowly and Josh emerged, looking embarrassed, but not really upset. His hair, face, and neck, were soaking wet.

  “What happened, man?” Jericho asked.

  Josh did a little dance, turning around like a ballerina. “Toilet swirlies. Hold your breath—it’s not so bad.”

  “Oh, man, this sucks,” Cleveland said. “I hate puttin’ my face where somebody’s butt used to be!”

  “Now that you put it like that, man, it seems pretty gross!” Josh agreed.

  “Next!” Eddie yelled.

  Kofi volunteered next. He was in the bathroom a lot longer than Josh. He emerged frowning, wet, and breathing hard. “Toilet stinks!” he told them.

  “I warned you to hold your breath!” laughed Josh.

  When Kofi sat down with a towel, he whispered to Jericho, “He held my head down and made me hold my breath till I thought I was gonna explode!” Kofi put his hand to his chest and took slow, deep breaths.

  “You okay, man?” Jericho whispered back.

  “I’m fine now. The worst is over,” Kofi said firmly. “Look, hundreds of dudes have survived this before me, and now even a girl. Don’t sweat it.”

  Rudy emerged quickly. When he got back to the group of pledges, he whispered, “At least the water’s fairly clean—the toilet is flushed before they start.”

  Jericho volunteered to go next, just to get it over with. He walked in with Madison, who told him, “Close your eyes, hold your breath, and get your head as wet as you can. If it’s not wet enough, I’ll have to push it down. Got it?”

  Jericho nodded. He kneeled in front of the toilet, which was quite old and very dirty. Crusted yellow and brown stains encircled the inside of the bowl. The water, even though it had just been flushed, was slightly cloudy. It smelled like the remnants of the hundreds of uses it had received since it had last been cleaned.

  “Are you ready?” Madison asked. Jericho thought he looked oddly excited.

  Jericho nodded again and slowly lowered his head into the toilet bowl. The water was icy cold and felt like a wet, slimy beast as his chin touched it, then his lips. He thought about where he should be at that moment: on stage, dressed in a tuxedo, lips not kissing the water from an old toilet, but pressed against his beloved trumpet, and basking in the glory of stage lights and applause from the audience. He also thought briefly of the professor from Juilliard who would see many talented players tonight, but not him.

  Then he tossed those thoughts aside, held his breath, squeezed his eyes shut, and lowered his head all the way down into the water. It crept into his hair, his ears, and up his nose. In spite of the fact that he had clenched his lips together tightly, a couple of small air bubbles escaped from his mouth. Afraid to open his eyes, he almost panicked, sure he would drown in a toilet bowl. He felt his head being pushed down then, and he almost gasped in fear and surprise.

  Jericho tried to lift his head up—he wa
sn’t sure how much longer he could hold his breath. But Madison’s hand, heavy like a stone, held Jericho’s head firmly under the water. He flailed his arms, trying to signal he needed to get up, needed to breathe. He knew he couldn’t hold on one second longer. Suddenly he felt his head being pulled up, almost sucked out of the jaws of that toilet. He gulped in air, inhaling droplets of water that remained in his nose. He coughed and choked and angrily refused Madison’s extended hand of congratulations. When he stood up as Madison flushed the toilet, cold fingers of water trickled down his back.

  “Good job!” Madison said. “Proud of you, man! Wait till you get to do this next year. It’s so much fun!”

  Jericho didn’t smile. He stomped out of the bathroom in a hurry, his head dripping wet. He returned to the rest of pledges, got his towel, and dried off without speaking to them.

  Deshawn, Ram, and the others submitted to the procedure without complaint, although none of them looked pleased. Dana was the last pledge to enter the bathroom. Jericho saw her tense when it became apparent that Eddie Mahoney was the Warrior who was to accompany her into the bathroom. She walked slowly, not looking at him. They all watched quietly as the door closed. Then they heard it lock.

  “They didn’t lock it for anybody else, did they?” Kofi asked, concern in his voice.

  “I don’t think so,” Jericho replied.

  “Mahoney’s got it in for Dana,” Cleveland whispered. “He’s harder on her than the rest of us.”

  “She’s been holding her own in all this,” Josh said. “I’m kinda proud of her!”

  “Yeah, if we had to have a girl in the group, I’m glad it was Dana,” Luis admitted.

  Three minutes passed, then five, then seven. The pledges looked around in concern. Even the Warriors checked their watches. Kofi stood up to go and check on her, but Rick Sharp finally went to the door of the bathroom and knocked. “How long does it take, Eddie?”

  The door opened then, and Dana ran from the bathroom, dripping wet and crying. She smelled awful. She ran past the pledges and out of the door. Jericho and Kofi followed her into the parking lot and caught up with her at her car.

  “Dana, what happened?” Kofi asked.

  “Eddie peed in the toilet before he pushed my head into it!” she screamed. She sped off into the darkness.

  FRIDAY, JANUARY 30—MORNING

  AS JERICHO LEFT FOR SCHOOL ON FRIDAY morning, a cold, harsh rain was falling. It had rained all night, and he felt damp and chilled by the time he ran from the parking lot into the school. He and the rest of the pledges got to Mr. Culligan’s room early—before the senior Warriors got there. Dana was the last of them to arrive. She walked with a dignity that Jericho didn’t think he could have managed.

  The pledges instantly gathered around her.

  “They can’t do you like that, Dana,” Kofi began.

  “It wasn’t all of them—it was just Eddie,” Jericho reasoned.

  “They had to know what he was gonna do,” Cleveland said angrily.

  “Maybe not. Eddie’s just plain mean,” Luis added. “I think he hates you, Dana.”

  “I don’t think he hates you—I think he wants you,” Rudy observed. “And since you’re obviously more of a woman that he is a man, he treats you like dirt!”

  “I think they ought to punish Eddie—kick him out or something,” Kofi suggested.

  “Why don’t you ask me what I think,” Dana said softly. They were suddenly quiet and attentive. “I was ready to quit last night,” she told them. “I swore I could handle anything they asked me to do, and I swore I would not let them see me cry. But what Eddie did was too much.” She stopped and bowed her head.

  “If you quit, Dana, I’m quitting too,” Kofi stated.

  “So will I,” Luis added.

  “Me too,” Cleveland offered.

  Jericho listened to the others. He knew this might be his only chance to get out. Finally he took a deep breath and spoke. “If Dana quits, we all quit. We’re bonded, right?”

  They looked at him carefully, then one by one they nodded their heads. “Right,” most of them agreed. Josh was uncharacteristically quiet.

  “Think about this, Dana,” Josh said finally. “I think you should stay and show them that not even a lowlife like Eddie can chase you out. They’d be glad if you quit, glad to tell everybody you failed. Eddie would win.”

  “I see what you’re saying, Josh, but there’s more,” Dana said quietly. “All of you got ice on your back last night instead of the hot fork. Eddie didn’t use the ice. There is a legitimate burn mark on my back. It’s small, but it is very real.”

  Jericho was shocked. “What are you going to do?”

  Dana looked thoughtful. “I told you that last night I was ready to quit, but I decided, after taking about fifteen showers, that I would not let Eddie Mahoney stop me from doing what I really want to do.” She stopped and gazed at all of them intently. “But understand, this is not about making a mark for girls—this is about me and who I am. I am better than Eddie Mahoney, and I intend to prove it!” Kofi gave her a hug.

  “So Eddie just gets away with what he did?” Rudy asked finally.

  “Not exactly. I intend to make sure he’s punished, but not now. I am going to finish what I started.”

  “Are you really sure about this, Dana?” Jericho asked. “Is this what you really want?” He wasn’t sure if he was asking Dana or himself.

  “Yes, I’m very sure,” she answered clearly. “You guys have backed me up through this mess, even though I know you didn’t really want me at first,” she added with a smile. “And I am not going to be the one who spoils your chances to be Warriors! All of us or none of us!”

  The pledges cheered in agreement. Jericho knew that his path had been chosen.

  The senior Warriors walked into the room then. Eddie was not among them. Madison, his head freshly shaved bald, spoke first. “Good morning, pledges.”

  “Good morning,” the pledges replied quietly. They did not include the usual “Master Senior Madison, sir,” and Madison did not remind them.

  “We have much to discuss this morning,” Madison began, “but we must remember the rules. Rick?”

  Rick Sharp spoke with quiet intensity. “It is my duty to remind you, pledges, about rule number four: A Warrior of Distinction never breaks the code of silence. Repeat after me, please.”

  “A Warrior of Distinction never breaks the code of silence,” the pledges all said dutifully.

  “Nothing of last night’s events, or any of our activities, is to be shared with anyone. Never. Understood?”

  “Understood,” they repeated.

  “Now,” Madison continued, “we must deal with what happened. What we call the cleansing ceremony has been done dozens of times—hundreds if you count each individual member—and what happened to Dana was a first. It was not planned, we did not know, and we truly apologize.”

  “It’s not you who owes me an apology,” Dana replied sharply.

  “Eddie Mahoney has been officially reprimanded by the senior council of the Warriors,” Madison explained. “He understands what he did was totally inappropriate.”

  “He didn’t get kicked out?” Jericho asked, astonished.

  The pledges crowded close to Rick, who held up his hands. “We stand by each other, even if we make mistakes.”

  “So who will stand by me?” Dana asked.

  “The Warriors of Distinction are very proud of your efforts as a pledge, Dana, and we will stand by you, no matter what you decide,” Rick continued. “But we fully understand if you choose to drop out of the procedure at this point.”

  Dana looked at them in amazement. “So you’re gonna let me quit?” she asked angrily. “How noble of you!”

  “Sounds to me like you’re tryin’ to get rid of her!” Kofi yelled.

  “Not at all,” Rick replied calmly. “She simply might decide the effort and embarrassment are too much for her.”

  “You just finish what you have
to do!” Dana shot back at Rick. “But you’re going to have to deal with me while you do it! I will not quit!”

  Jericho glanced at the other pledges, who had gathered around Dana in encouragement. Josh looked relieved. Kofi looked proud. Jericho wasn’t sure how he felt, but he knew he was glad to be a part of the group that stood there together as one powerful team.

  Rick and Madison glanced at each other. Then they smiled at the pledges, and Rick said, “We have eliminated this morning’s service activity. However, normal pledge activities will resume this evening at eight at the warehouse. Tonight is the final night, and it will be an experience you will never forget.”

  Madison added, “Be aware that nothing will change tonight, and no activities will be made easier or less intense because of last night’s incident. Got that?”

  The pledges nodded without comment. At that point, Eddie Mahoney walked into the room. All was silent.

  “I want to apologize,” he said without hesitation, “to my brothers who are Warriors, to the pledges, and especially to you, Dana.” He looked directly at her. Jericho thought his eyes looked cold and distant; he didn’t look very sorry at all. “What I did was not worthy of a Warrior of Distinction,” Eddie continued. “Please forgive me.”

  Everyone looked at Dana. She stared at Eddie for a full minute. He finally had to turn away from her gaze. At that point she said, “Of course, Master Senior Mahoney, sir” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “But sometimes forgiveness comes with a price.”

  The bell rang then and she walked proudly out the door. Jericho and the rest of the pledges followed.

  “She’s some kinda woman!” Kofi said as they walked down the hall.

  “Probably more than you can handle, dude!” Josh teased.

  “Wonder Woman!” Jericho chuckled.

  “Super Girl,” added Kofi.

  “Do I hear you talkin’ about me?” Dana asked as they walked into the classroom.

  “Yeah, I was tellin’ Jericho about how sweet and feminine you are,” Kofi told her.

 
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