The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper


  “I wasn’t aware of every single pledge activity,” Mr. Culligan admitted. “I trusted the seniors,” he said as an afterthought.

  “So that’s supposed to make it okay?” A mother burst out as though exploding with anger.

  Mr. Culligan added weakly, “We’ve never had a problem before.”

  “Well, now you do!” she shouted.

  Mr. Culligan bowed his head and looked at the floor.

  Another mother jumped out of her seat and spoke. “My son wouldn’t tell me anything that happened when he got home each night. He mumbled something about some ’code of silence.’ I want answers. I want to know what other nasty little secrets this club is hiding.”

  “They are hiding nothing,” Mr. Zucker replied, stepping up to the microphone. “What the boys do, uh, did, up to this point, was all good, clean fun—character-building activities that teach responsibility and integrity.”

  “What part of their character was built tonight?” a father asked, his deep voice roaring from the back of the room.

  It was Mr. Zucker’s turn to say nothing.

  Jericho noticed that Mr. Zucker never really answered any of the parents’ questions. And he wondered whether it was integrity or responsibility he learned from standing in a Dumpster or drinking till he puked or being led around a room like a dog.

  The back door opened and Geneva and the boys came in. Todd and Rory, dressed in pajamas under their coats, ran to Jericho, their eyes wide, and hugged him. Geneva gave Jericho a strange look, then she smiled at him with a look of soft love. He was surprised at how glad he was to see her. He returned her genuine smile. Geneva then hurried over to her husband and whispered something to him. Jericho watched his father’s face crumple. And then he knew. Josh was dead.

  SATURDAY, JANUARY 31—3 A.M.

  JERICHO COULDN’T BREATHE. HE FELT LIKE HE was watching a terrible, grainy, slow-motion movie, and that he was trapped inside the screen—unable to escape from what was about to be said, unable to change the realities of the plot. He watched his father walk to a corner, take out his cell phone, and make a call. Jericho could not hear the words, but he could tell by the sorrowful expression on his father’s face that the world had caved in.

  His father then went over to Mr. Zucker and Mr. Culligan. They talked quietly and solemnly, their faces grim and ashen. Then slowly, very slowly, his father walked to the microphone. Jericho couldn’t make this horrible movie stop. He couldn’t turn it off to a channel with championship wrestling or baseball or even a love story.

  “May I have your attention, please?“ Jericho’s father said quietly. His voice was cracked and raspy. “I have something to share with all of you.”

  Jericho could not bear to hear the words, could not let this awful movie run to its conclusion. He jumped from his chair, knocking it over, and screamed, “Nooooooooo! I won’t let you say it! I won’t let you say it!“ as he ran from the warehouse, out of the door, and into the dark parking lot. Light snow had begun to fall, but Jericho didn’t notice. He screamed and screamed and screamed.

  Then Jericho felt someone’s arms around him. It was his father. He held him until the screaming subsided. “He’s gone, Jericho,” his father said gently.

  “No! Don’t say it! If you don’t say it, he still has a chance!” Jericho begged, sobbing.

  “I can’t change what’s happened, Jericho. I can only try to make this easier for you—for all of us. I can’t even imagine what Brock must be going through.” It was then that Jericho realized that his father was also weeping.

  “He’s not just my cousin, Dad—he’s like my brother, my very best friend! We’ve been together since birth!”

  “I know, baby boy. This has gotta be so hard for you.”

  “Hard? It’s impossible!” Jericho broke away from his father’s grasp and paced angrily on the sidewalk in front of the warehouse. “It just can’t be true! I won’t let it be true. Why can’t they fix him? What’s the use of having doctors and hospitals if they can’t fix one stupid, fuzzy-headed kid?”

  “They tried, Jericho, but it was too late. He was already gone when he got to the hospital,” his father told him.

  “Gone? What’s that supposed to mean?”

  His father placed his hand on Jericho’s shoulder. “It is so hard to fit all of this into our minds—it just doesn’t want to go there.”

  “Gone! Gone! I can’t deal with it. I won’t!” Jericho jerked his shoulder away from his father.

  “Kofi needs you now, Jericho.”

  Jericho stopped pacing. He had almost forgotten about Kofi. “What about Kofi? Is he okay?” he asked. “Please tell me he’s all right. I couldn’t take any more bad news tonight.”

  “He’ll be fine,” his father assured him. “His parents have been located and they’re with him.”

  “Does he know about . . . Josh?” Jericho asked.

  “I don’t know—we only just found out. Would you like to go to the hospital to see him?”

  “Yeah, Dad, I would. Thanks.” Everything still felt completely unreal. He realized he was waiting for someone to tell him it was all a horrible mistake.

  “What about Uncle Brock and Aunt Marlene?” Jericho felt a sharp stab in his own chest at the thought of Josh’s parents dealing with such pain.

  “They know.” Jericho’s dad sighed. “It’s the phone call that all parents dread—and all policemen dread making. I never imagined that I’d ever have to be the one to call my brother and tell him that his precious boy is dead.” He choked back more tears.

  “We gotta go see them, Dad.”

  “We will—we will.” He touched Jericho on the hand. “You don’t know how relieved I was when I got here and saw you standing there—alive and well. Makes me feel so guilty because Brock won’t get to feel that joy and relief—ever again.”

  Geneva and the boys walked out of the warehouse then. Geneva went to Jericho, held out her arms, and hugged him close. It was the first time she had ever done that, Jericho realized as he buried himself in her comforting brown coat.

  “Mr. Zucker made the announcement,” she said. “Everyone in there is pretty upset. How are you doing, Jericho?”

  “I want it to be yesterday,” he said honestly.

  “If only it could be so,” she answered softly. She pulled a couple of tissues from her purse and handed them to him.

  Jericho blew his nose, then looked at Todd and Rory, who stood quietly, their eyes large and frightened. “It’s gonna be okay, you little scrubs,” he said to them in what he hoped was a reassuring voice. “Go on home with Geneva and get some sleep, okay? I’m going with Dad to check on Kofi and then I’ll be home.” He scooped them into a hug, then said, “Now, scoot!” He thanked Geneva as she left with the boys.

  “You ready, son?” his dad asked. “We’ll get your car in the morning. You want to go back inside to talk to your friends first?”

  “Not now, Dad. I have a feeling there’s a whole lot of talking that’s gonna come after this.”

  “You’re right. There are lots of questions that must be answered.”

  “About the Warriors of Distinction?”

  “And their pledging activities,” his father added.

  “Some of it was pretty bad, Dad,” Jericho said quietly as they walked to the patrol car.

  His father looked at him and asked, “Was it hazing, Jericho?”

  “I’m not exactly sure what hazing is, Dad. We just did stuff.”

  “Dangerous stuff?”

  “Not really. Mostly stupid things.”

  “Were they character-building activities, like Mr. Zucker said?” his father asked as they walked to the car.

  “The daytime stuff was pretty straight—like helping teachers and janitors. But some of the nighttime things made me feel uncomfortable.”

  “Like what?” his father asked.

  “Dog collars, paddlings, toilet swirlies—stuff like that.” Jericho wasn’t sure if he was saying too much, but right now he
didn’t really care. Remembering it all didn’t make him feel proud—he felt ill. He kept thinking back to the phrase that Mr. Redstone had used—feeling ’less than yourself.’ That’s the way he felt right now.

  “Did you know that hazing is illegal in the state of Ohio?” his father asked as they got close to the police cruiser.

  “Yeah, but so is parking without putting money in the meter. People still do it.”

  “It’s not exactly the same thing,” his father replied gently.

  “I guess.”

  “Right now, Joshua’s death seems to be directly related to hazing activities. You know there will be serious consequences.”

  “Please don’t say the word ’death’ out loud,” Jericho pleaded. “It chokes me—I can’t stand it.” Jericho took deep, heavy breaths of the wet night air.

  His father unlocked the cruiser. “Some words won’t go away, Jericho.”

  “I’m scared, Dad,” Jericho admitted.

  “I know, son. I am too. But I’m right here with you.”

  SATURDAY, JANUARY 31—3:30 A.M.

  THE FIRST PEOPLE THEY SAW WHEN THEY GOT to the hospital were Josh’s parents. Brock and Cedric met each other’s eyes, then Brock collapsed into his brother’s arms. Jericho tried to approach his Aunt Marlene, but she would not be touched. She sat in a chair in the hallway of the hospital, eyes bleary with tears, her arms crossed tightly in front of her as if to ward off the reality and finality of what had happened. Jericho sat on the floor in front of her chair.

  “It had to hurt,” she mumbled. “It had to hurt so bad! My baby boy shouldn’t have had to suffer like that!” She put her face in her hands and sobbed. Her shoulders heaved. Jericho wanted to say something to make her feel better, but he didn’t know what. So he wept with her.

  “How could this be?” Brock asked his brother, pulling away from him. But Jericho could tell he didn’t really expect an answer. It was one of those questions that, even if you asked all day, heaven would not send down an answer. “I was so proud of him, Cedric, so very proud.” He broke down in tears.

  “I know that, Brock. Josh knows it too. He’s watching you now, trying to help you through this. Make him proud of you as well.” Cedric touched his brother on the shoulder.

  “This should not have happened—could not have happened,” Brock said to the ceilings and walls. He paced up and down the hospital hallway. Finally he turned to Jericho. “What went wrong, Jericho? I just don’t understand.”

  Jericho pushed himself up off the floor and looked at his uncle. “It was the Leap of Faith. We all jumped, Uncle Brock, but it seemed like Josh tried to fly. He was happy, having fun, in a really mellow mood. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. It was a horrible, horrible accident.” Jericho hung his head.

  “When we did the Leap of Faith, we jumped from a chair, Jericho,” Uncle Brock said, his voice choking with grief. “There was never any danger involved.”

  “Nobody thought . . .” Jericho stopped, unable to put his jumbled thoughts into words.

  “It’s clear no one was thinking,” Uncle Brock said angrily. “Where were the pledge masters, Jericho?”

  “On the ground, waiting for everybody to finish the jump. Josh was the last one.”

  “And where was Mr. Culligan?”

  “He ... he wasn’t there.” Jericho wasn’t sure if he saw anger or sorrow in his uncle’s eyes. Probably both.

  His uncle started crying once more. “At least you were there with him, Jericho,” he said finally. “There’s so much more I need to know, but right now, my brain is full of explosions.”

  Jericho knew exactly what he meant. His head felt full and his heart felt empty. He said weakly, “I’m so sorry, Uncle Brock.”

  “It wasn’t your fault, Jericho. Joshua would have been the first to tell you that,” his uncle whispered. Tears streaming down his face, he walked over to his wife and gently took her arm. “C’mon, Marlene. We have to go home now,” he told her softly.

  “I can’t leave my baby here,” she moaned. She grasped the arms of the chair and refused to get up.

  “He’s not here, sweetheart. He’s in a better place—he’s with God.”

  Marlene sat trembling for several minutes. Finally she nodded and he took her hand. They walked slowly down the hall together, leaning on each other for support.

  Jericho took a deep breath as he watched them leave. He wiped his nose, then said to his father, “Can we go find Kofi, Dad?” They went to the information desk and found his room. Kofi’s parents, looking confused and distressed, paced in the hall outside his room.

  “How is Kofi?” Jericho asked.

  Kofi’s mother had been crying. “You’re Jericho, right? Kofi talks about you all the time.” She took out a tissue and blew her nose.

  “The doctor said he’ll be all right,” Kofi’s father told Jericho. “He has a broken arm, but they’re going to keep him overnight to keep an eye on him.”

  Kofi’s mother added, “They said he had a heart condition.” She shook her head. “You know, the doctors told me they heard something unusual in his heartbeat when he was just a baby. I figured he’d outgrown it.” Jericho didn’t know how to respond. “They also told us he was really lucky not to have had something worse happen because of all the physical activity and the alcohol.” She continued to pace restlessly in the corridor.

  “Jericho, how much alcohol?” his father asked.

  “A lot, Dad. It got easier with every drink.” He looked up at the bright, fluorescent hospital lights. “I’ll tell you everything when we get home. Everything.” Jericho felt overwhelmed. “May I go in and see him?” he asked Kofi’s parents.

  “Sure,” Kofi’s mother replied, “but I think he’s sleeping now. And Jericho,” she added, “things are gonna change at our place. When Kofi gets out of the hospital, I want you to stop by sometime. I used to be a pretty good cook—maybe I’ll throw together some burgers or something.”

  “Yeah, I’d like that,” Jericho answered quietly.

  Kofi’s mother began to pace again, then she stopped and looked at Jericho. “I coulda lost my boy tonight. I’m gonna do right by him, you hear?”

  Jericho wasn’t sure what to say, so he asked, “Can I see him now?”

  Kofi’s father, tall and skinny like his son, put his arm around his wife and nodded. He said. “Go on in. He already has one friend in there with him. We’ll be right here if you need us.”

  Jericho asked his father to wait for him, then he opened the heavy hospital room door. The lights were dim and Kofi lay in the bed, an IV running into one arm, plastic tubing running oxygen into his nose, and a heart monitor beeping faintly in the background. His right arm was wrapped in a huge white cast. Sleeping soundly, he looked more pale, more slender, than usual. Dana sat in a chair next to him.

  “Hi, Dana,” Jericho said quietly. “How’re you handling this?”

  “Oh, Jericho, what are we gonna do? How will we make it without Josh?”

  “How’d you find out?”

  “I saw Josh’s parents in the hall a little while ago. Jericho, this is like some kind of nightmare!”

  Jericho just shook his head. It felt like the room was closing in on him and swallowing him up. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stay much longer. “Does Kofi know?” he asked finally.

  “I told him a few minutes ago. He was so upset that they had to give him a sedative.”

  Jericho touched Kofi’s cool, slim hand, then turned to leave the room. “I gotta get out of here. Take care of him, Dana.”

  “Fiercely,” she told him. “Jericho?” she called as he reached the door.

  “Yeah?” He turned to face her.

  “It wasn’t worth it.”

  “I know.” He left the room and took several deep breaths, but even the air in the hall was suffocating. He gave Kofi’s mother a quick hug and nodded to Kofi’s dad. He then turned to his own father. “Can we go, Dad?” he asked.

  “Sure, son. Let’s go h
ome.” Large heavy flakes of snow began to blanket the city as they drove.

  As soon as he got home, even though it was almost five o’clock in the morning, Jericho called Arielle. She answered on the first ring. He could tell she had been crying.

  “Are you okay?” she asked. Jericho thought she sounded really concerned.

  “I didn’t get hurt, if that’s what you mean,” he told her, “but I don’t think I’m gonna be okay for a long time.” He sighed. “Have you talked to November?”

  “She’s right here,” Arielle said. “Her mother brought her to my house right after they got the news. She said November could stay the rest of the night.”

  “How’s she doing?” Jericho asked.

  “Not good. Her voice is almost gone from screaming and crying. She was hysterical for a while, but my mother and her mother were pretty cool and helped to calm her down.”

  “Can I talk to her?” Jericho asked.

  “She finally fell asleep. Let her get some rest. The next few days aren’t gonna be easy.”

  “For real. My dad said there’s going to be a police investigation, and a school board investigation too. Plus there’s already talk about lawsuits. Looks like the Warriors of Distinction are in big trouble—probably gone for good.”

  “I heard all the Warriors—even the pledges—are going to be brought to the police station and questioned, maybe even arrested,” Arielle told him. “I have a feeling this is going to blow up into a real mess. You’ve got some serious trouble ahead. Are you going to be able to handle this?”

  “I guess I have to. I know I can if I’ve got you with me,” he told her earnestly. He suddenly felt dizzy with emotion—Josh’s death, his own fear, anger, guilt, grief, and lack of sleep swirled together in his mind and he blurted out, “I think I love you, Arielle.” He gulped. What had he said? The words somehow slipped right out. He waited for her response. At this moment he needed to hear her soft, sweet voice tell him he was loved.

 
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