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The Hula-Hoop Heart

Published: July 1, 2016

Sammie’s Stand was a cobbled-together lean-to with faded paint that sat at the far end of the grounds shared by the Fillmore Middle School and Junior High. The stand straddled the property line between the school playground and the adjacent city park. That put it in a legal gray zone — both the teachers and park officials figured it was the others’ problem. All that confusion made it a nice place to go if you didn’t want an adult breathing down your neck.

I bellied up to the stand and rapped my knuckles twice on the wood countertop, just like I did every weekday about that time.

“The usual,” I said. A moment later Sammie appeared with a Dixie cup full of lemonade and a single lemon wedge.

I reached into my pocket, pretending to hunt for a quarter. Sammie waved it off.

“On the house, Sera” he said, and gave me a grin.

“You’re aces, Sammie.” Sammie was a sixth grader; a year older than me, but he let me drink for free in exchange for me not coming down on his operation.

I threw back the lemonade in a single sugary shot, then sucked on the wedge. The sour chasing the sweet made my jaw ache, especially where I’d recently lost a baby tooth. I shook my head, sending my pigtails whipping back and forth.

I stepped away from the lemonade stand and adjusted my neon-yellow vest. I wanted another round, but I was still on the clock. It was almost the end of the school day, and pretty soon there’d be kids who had to cross the street. I was about to head for the crosswalk when a voice stopped me cold.

“Well, well. Whatta we got here?”

I knew that whiney, just-beginning-to-crack voice. I turned around slowly, hoping I’d be wrong. But there he was: Kevin Breyers, accompanied by his oversized flunkie, Matt Stahl. They both wore dopey smiles and the orange sashes that marked them as hall monitors.

I hate hall monitors.

I squared my shoulders and hitched my belt.

“You’re outta your jurisdiction,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be inside busting kids for no hall pass, instead of wandering around on my turf?”

Behind me I could hear kids surreptitiously walking away from illicit card games, leaving forgotten Pokemon cards to languish in the dirt. No one wanted to cross the monitors. They were nothing but a bunch of thugs with detention pads, but they could make life hard for a kid.

“Special assignment,” said Breyers. Stahl said nothing.

Breyers and me go way back. Back in kindergarten we were even what you’d call pals, until he developed a sweet tooth and started making candy grabs from the class jar when the teacher wasn’t looking. I caught him in the act, my first bust. I got a gold star out of the deal while Breyers did a stint in timeout. He cleaned up his act afterwards, and we’d both ended up in the services: me a crossing guard, him a monitor. But there was bad blood between us ever since. The bruiser with him — Stahl — I didn’t know anything about, other than he was twice the size of a normal sixth grader and had been following Breyers around like a puppy for the last month or so.

I asked Breyers. “What kind of special assignment?”

He looked smug. “Someone’s been swiping gym equipment.”

“I heard.” I wasn’t sure about the going price for hot football flags and orange cones, but I guessed someone was making a pretty profit from them. Anyway, it wasn’t my problem.

Breyers nodded. “You hear that whoever it was left a broken Hula-Hoop in the shed?”

“I got ears, don’t I?”

“Well, we turned up a matching hoop. Bent up to fit in a locker.”

“Oh?” Ears or no, I hadn’t heard any of this.

“The perp’s turning himself in today.”

That was unexpected. Why would they turn themselves in? And why out here? Breyers crossed his arms and gave me a self-satisfied grin.

“Stick around,” he said. “You’ll see how a real bust goes down when I take this twerp in.”

“You will …” I shrugged. “Or you won’t. It’s all the same to me.” My lack of admiration pushed his buttons.

“Oh, it’ll matter to you,” he said. “I know all about your little empire out here, Vasquez. Shaking down Sammie for free drinks, turning a blind eye to kids running with suckers. Pretty soon you’re gonna take a tumble, and I’m gonna be here to watch you fall.”

I didn’t say anything. There wasn’t any “empire,” just kids being kids. And as long as things stayed civil, that was fine with me. I figured a crossing guard should be judicious about her use of authority.

“Besides,” he said, “there’s another angle on the gym heist.”

I kept my mouth shut, knowing he’d talk. He didn’t disappoint.

“Those Hula-Hoops? They were on loan from the Junior High.”

My blood ran cold at that. It meant that whoever had swiped the hoops had crossed the Big Kids. Dangerous and unpredictable, they were more like adults than kids. I pitied whoever was going to be taking the fall for this one.

There was movement in the grove of trees along the park.

“Here he comes now.” Breyers elbowed Stahl nervously. The bigger monitor shot an irritated glance at Breyers, but let it pass.

Then I saw who stepped from the trees. It was the last person I’d have expected to see caught up in something like this: maybe the only good soul in all of Fillmore Middle School. My sweet Markus.

Markus, the library assistant. He of the argyle sweaters and soft brown eyes. Jay-Z in coke-bottle glasses. He had perfect attendance and a gentle smile, and we’d once held hands on a field trip to the art museum. He had librarian’s hands, soft and fine-boned. The kind of hands that would never know the burden that came with carrying a crossing flag.

Right now those same hands were holding a broken Hula-Hoop. It was bent in the top, the arc bisected and coming together. The bottom side pinched in and pointed down. Markus held it in front of him and it looked all the world like an oversized, blue-and-white-striped valentine. My own heart melted a little to see him.

Markus looked at Breyers and stammered out, “I am here to turn myself in.”

Breyers widened his eyes. “Is that so? I am shocked to see you here, Markus.”

My librarian took a deep breath. “I am overcome with remorse.”

I’d heard less-rehearsed dialogue at Christmas pageants. I didn’t know what was going on, but someone had forced Markus into this.

“Stop talking,” I said.

“Shaddup.” It was big Stahl, the first thing he’d said since he and Breyers had shown their mugs on my playground. I glared back at him.

“Don’t you have something else to say, librarian?” Breyers stared at Markus and nodded his head, as if prompting him somehow.

Markus nodded back. “Yes —” I caught his eye, wordlessly pleading with him to stop this madness. I knew he could barely hold 20 Hula-Hoops, let alone run off with them. He sighed and looked back to Breyers.

“Just that I did this alone, is all.”

Breyers’ face went red. He opened his mouth to say something but I spoke first.

“So is this why you came out here, Breyers? So you could write him a detention slip in front of me?”

Markus swayed on his feet at the word “detention.” I reached out to steady him. “It’ll be okay,” I whispered. “You’ll do your time and get out. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Breyers shot forward and pushed himself between us, bumping my shoulder and knocking the crossing guard badge from my vest. It struck Sammie’s bar, spinning a lazy dance across the plywood before falling to the ground. Breyers and I were almost nose to nose.

“Detention?” Up close Breyers’ breath was a foul blend of Twizzlers and lemonade. “Nah, I don’t think so, Vasquez. There’s folks want to talk to this kid.” He jerked his chin to the north, across the parking lot towards Fillmore Junior High. Big Kids. My hand instinctively tightened on the crossing flag. I turned back to Markus, in a last desperate bid to talk sense into him.

“Markus, you didn’t do anything! Why are you caving in like this?”

My librarian couldn’t even look me in the eye, just stared past me to Sammie’s stand, as if he longed for one last Dixie cup-sized swig of sugar before he was hauled off to meet his fate.

“I acted alone —”

Stahl’s deeper voice rumbled over all of ours. “Save it. You’re coming with us.”

He and Breyers sidled up to either side of my sweet librarian.

Markus gave them a weak smile. “Hey, fellas. How about you do me a solid and let me say goodbye to Seraphina, huh?”

Breyers sneered. “Say goodbye while you’re walking, bookworm.” He pushed Markus forward, and all three of them started towards the junior high. From what sounded like a million miles away, I heard the end-of-day bell ringing its shrill declaration of release.

My brain and heart both screamed for me to do something

No, no, no. This was all wrong, such a heavy-handed setup, and I was useless. If I couldn’t save Markus, then I couldn’t save anyone. What was the whole point of being a crossing guard, anyway?

I looked down at the grimy badge at my feet. There was still some shine to it, even laying there in the dirt. I picked it up and cradled it in my hand, like an orphaned bunny. The shield had meant so much to me back when I first started guarding. Maybe it was time to make it mean something again.

“Sammie!” I barked. “Gimmie one for the road.”

My eyes were on the three figures walking away from me, but I heard the Dixie cup slam down next to me, and from the pour I could tell Sammie’s hand was shaking.

“You’re not about to do something stupid, Sera?”

I threw back the shot of lemonade and bit down on the lemon slice, but I didn’t spit it out. The yellow rind ringed my teeth, and acted like a makeshift mouthpiece.

“We don’t use that word,” I said, though I suppose the lemon probably muffled it. I sprinted forward, dodging in and out among the stream of kids exiting school doors, waving my flag to clear them, running through the playground like I owned it. My heart was pumping. The movement felt good, felt right. The world may still have been a cold and callous place, but for the first time in forever, I was doing something about it.

I caught up to the monitors and Markus halfway across the playground. Breyers was still whispering into Markus’ ear, and my librarian wobbled slightly on his feet as they walked. Probably telling him stories of wedgies and swirlies, and all the other enhanced detention techniques the Big Kids used.

I ran in front of them and dropped my crossing flag in their path. They halted immediately.

“Thith thetup thtinks.”

I got back only stares.

Breyers shaded his eyes. “What?”

I spit the lemon rind out of my mouth and tried again. “Something stinks about this, Breyers, and not just your breath. This is a frame job.”

“You know,” said Breyers, “I think you’re right. In fact, Markus here was just telling us that he’d maybe rather not deal with the Big Kids. He’d maybe like to tell us who he’s working for.” He smacked Markus on the back. “Isn’t that right, kid?”

Markus was quiet for a long breath. Never looking up from his feet, in a small voice he said, “Seraphina made me do it. She’s the mastermind.”

Breyers beamed.

My throat constricted, and I hunched over. I looked up at Markus and willed myself not to show how hurt I was.

“Why?” I said.

“All of you shaddup.” It was Stahl again, pushing us around like a typical monitor.

Well I was sick of getting pushed around. I was sick of good kids being ground up like yesterday’s meatloaf. And most of all I was sick to my stomach of Breyers’ sense of triumph, of his leering grin and foul breath, that unholy combination of Twizzlers and —

It hit me like a dodge ball across the face.

“Lemonade,” I said.

They all looked at me when I spoke. Everyone except Markus. His guilty eyes were still boring holes into the ground. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. If someone wanted to move stolen gym goods, they’d need someone to act as a fence. Someone who operated in a gray zone at the border of the school’s authority. I turned slowly. Sammie wasn’t at his stand. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen.

I pretend-spit on the ground. “That little booger-eater …”

Stahl rumbled, “Language, Vasquez.”

Breyers forced a nervous laugh. “What are you talking about? Stahl, do you know what she’s talking about?” His eyes danced back and forth. “I don’t know what she’s —”

“Shaddup,” Stahl cut him off. The brute was looking at me. “Breyers hasn’t talked to the perp in weeks, if that’s what you’re thinking. But he did tell Markus what’ll happen if he doesn’t come clean.” He turned to Markus. “I’d like to remind you that the Big Kids and I will look very unfavorably on any mistruths. You better come clean.”

“Markus,” I said, “I know who put you up to this. And I’ll bust him. So anything he has on you will come out in the open sooner or later.”

Finally breaking, Markus screamed, “Sammie made me!”

I pulled Markus away from the monitors, holding his shoulders and doing my best not to shake sense into him. “But why? Why were you taking a dive for Sammie?”

Markus covered his face with his hands, as if he could hide from what he’d done. “He was putting the squeeze on me, Sera. He knew about my library fines. If he went public with that, I’d be ruined. Ruined! All I had to do was turn you in.”

“He needed me out of the way before I got wise to his fence operation.”

“He said if I blamed you, I’d walk and he’d keep quiet about my — my overdues.” He dropped his hands then and looked at me. “But I couldn’t do it. When I saw you there, I couldn’t go through with it. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just —”

Stahl broke in. “So it was you and Sammie.”

I turned to him, ready to chew him a new one for still thinking either I or Markus was involved. But Stahl wasn’t looking at us. Instead, he had hold of Breyers’ shirt in one of his over-sized fists. “I knew you had a stooge, I just wasn’t sure who it was.”

Then I got it: All the times Stahl had spoken that day — the broken, barely intelligible commands of “Shaddup” — he hadn’t been telling me to stop talking, he’d been trying to get Markus to stop incriminating himself.

I pointed at Stahl. “So you’re …”

“Internal Affairs,” he said. The hulking monitor was still up in Breyers’ face. “I’ve been on you for a month now,” he thunked Breyers in the chest with an oversized finger. “I wanted to pop you for so many small things, but this … this is too good.”

Breyers was pale, shaking and — for once in his life — quiet. I wish I could say I didn’t enjoy seeing him twist, but it did my heart glad to be there to watch him fall.

Stahl spun Breyers around, facing the Junior High, then looked my way. “That was pretty fast thinking. And acting.” He paused, and I could practically hear the gears turning. “You ever think about joining the monitors?”

I hacked out a laugh and swung an arm, a gesture that encompassed the playground and parking lot. “What, and give all this up?”

Stahl grunted.

“You’re all right, Vasquez.” He shoved Breyers forward with one of his oversized mitts. “But keep your nose clean, or I’ll be back for you.” Then he and Breyers headed off towards the Big Kids’ school.

“Seraphina …” It was Markus. He held out one of his gentle librarian’s hands.

My voice was so cold it even surprised me. “That’s Officer Vasquez to you.”

His hand dropped to his side.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. Sammie said …” Those big brown eyes started to water up behind his glasses. When I spoke my voice was softer.

“You’re not cut out for this life. Get outta here.”

He started to say something else, but I cut him off.

“Go on, kid. There’s a Dewey decimal system that needs tending to.”

Markus looked away and waited a heartbeat, just long enough for me to hope that he’d refuse. Then he turned and began the long walk back to the library.

I watched him go, then looked back at the Big Kids’ school. Stahl and Breyers had reached the big glass doors of the Junior High. Justice was about to be served. I tugged my Hello Kitty shirt and turned my back to them, standing a little straighter in my neon-yellow vest.

It ain’t easy out here. There’s candy wrappers in the bushes and gum on the sidewalk. Two times a day there’s kids that need to cross the street.

And me? I’m Seraphina Vasquez.

I’m the crossing guard.

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