As the sun descended toward the horizon on a late August Sunday evening, a lone car prowled the streets of a Cincinnati neighborhood. The driver, a well-built African American, studied the streets as he moved up and down them, familiarizing himself with the area. Occasionally, he stopped to watch a group of teenagers caught up in a game of basketball or hanging out on the steps of one of the many row houses. At one of these stops, he was noticed. A group of a half-dozen young men and women moved toward his car. Rather than drive off, he switched off the car’s air-conditioning and lowered the window.
“What’re you doing, man? I seen you over on Hawthorne. Now you’re hanging around here. You some kinda cop or somethin’?” asked the tallest of the boys.
“Not me, guys. I’m just getting to know the neighborhood. I’m a new teacher at Carver High School.” He smiled and watched the small crowd.
“New teacher, huh? Whaddaya teach?” The girl who asked was short and heavy, with clothes that stretched tightly across her chest and backside. Heavy makeup stood out in stark contrast against her coffee-colored skin.
“English and Phys. Ed. I’ll be coaching the track team as well.”
“No $#!*.” A small, wiry boy with a heavy Latino accent moved forward. “I was on the track team last year.”
“Really. What events?”
“High jump, pole vault, and cross country.” He stood up straighter, his chest puffing up. “M’name’s Carlos — Carlos Montenero.”
The car door opened, and the driver stepped out. He stood nearly a foot taller than the runner and was just a bit taller than the boy who had first spoken. “Good to meet you, Carlos.” He extended a hand. “I’m Jeff Pierce.”
“Oh, man, you got to be kidding me! Jefferson Pierce? From the Olympics? Man, I remember watching you run! You were great, man!” Carlos grabbed the older man’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically.
“Wow, it’s nice to be remembered.” Jefferson grinned; he wasn’t used to being remembered for his Olympic accomplishments.
The others introduced themselves. Winston Rollins, the tall leader of the group; Tonya Beville, the short, heavy girl; Katie Ingram, a thin blonde girl who looked like she’d spent most of the summer with a bad case of sunburn; Marcus Powell, a short, muscular African American; and Angelo Marsala, a chunky, swarthy youth who kept a protective arm around Katie. “We all grew up here together,” explained Winston. “All except Carlos. He just moved here a couple years ago.”
Jeff leaned back against the fender of the car and crossed his arms. “Let me guess: you all keep an eye out for each other, and for the neighborhood. Right?”
Marcus eyed him warily. “Yeah. You got a problem with that?”
Casting his eyes up and down the street, Jeff turned back toward Marcus and looked at him intently. “If you’re really watching out for the folks around here, no. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s what my pals and I did, back in Suicide Slum in Metropolis.”
“Hey, don’t mind Marcus. He gets kinda, what do you call it, defensive? Yeah, I guess that’s it. He’s sensitive about strangers coming in here, ain’tcha, Marcus?” The smaller boy nodded back at Winston.
“Yeah, especially after those creeps tried to rough up Tonya last month.” Marcus put an arm around the shorter girl. “She spotted them passing some weed to a couple of kids down the block and called it in. Cops picked them up, and the next day they were back out on the street. Came by here, ready for a little payback. But me and my buds, here, we chased ’em off.”
“Hey, guys, I understand. And I’m glad you guys are looking after things. In fact, if you have any trouble around here or you see those guys back here, I want you to know, you can call me anytime.” Reaching into his shirt pocket, Jeff pulled out a small flat case. He flipped it open and passed out cards to each of them with his name and phone number. Putting the case away again, he looked at Carlos. “Now, if you’re going to be running on my track team, I need to know how well you run. Care to give me a little demonstration?”
“Like, what kind of demonstration?”
“Let’s see, I think I passed a sign back there for a Lincoln Park. There was a fountain there, as I recall. How about we race to the fountain?”
“A race? Two miles? You still got it in you, old-timer?” This was said with a big smile.
“You want me to drive your car over there?” asked Angelo.
“Might be a good idea. I don’t know that Carlos will be up for the trip back.” Jeff fished the keys out of his pocket and tossed them to the Italian teen. He hoped it wasn’t a mistake letting the youth drive.
“I’ll lead the way, just so’s you don’t get lost.” Carlos dropped into a starting crouch. Jefferson did the same. “Wanna call it, Tonya?”
On the first day of school, Jefferson Pierce found that he had Tonya, Carlos, and Marcus in his homeroom, and Winston in his last period English Literature class. George Washington Carver High School was like a lot of inner-city schools. The classes were crowded, the ethnic mix was varied, with higher proportions of blacks and Latinos. His two Physical Education classes both expressed disappointment that they wouldn’t be able to spend most of their classes playing basketball. When he told them that three weeks during the year would be spent learning archery, some of the students laughed out loud.
“What are you, crazy, man? Putting a bow and arrows in the hands of guys like Mario Ortega?” asked one girl. Mario was in the class, standing off to one side with another youth. Both were tall, heavy young men, and both wore frowns on their faces that deepened when they heard the laughter at Mario’s expense.
“Look, I don’t know what you got away with last year around here, and I really don’t care. The state says we have to cover certain areas, and it’s my job to make sure nobody kills themselves or anybody else in the process.” He directed the class to run five laps around the gym. A few of the students took off at a good pace, while most of them started half-jogging, half-walking around the large open space. Mario and his friend were at the back of the pack, lumbering along. Jefferson noted that Mario seemed to be having trouble, breathing very heavily. He was just about to tell the young man to stop when he collapsed to the floor. Jefferson dashed over and gently pushed Mario’s friend aside.
“Hot! So damn hot!” muttered the stricken teenager, his head swinging from side to side. “Feel like I’m in a damn oven!”
“Someone go soak some paper towels in the sink and bring ’em over here, quick!” shouted Jeff, pointing at a pair of boys near the door to the locker room. Seeing another teen near the hallway door, he directed her to fetch the school nurse. He pointed at a girl who had stopped to see what was happening. “You! Go grab a couple of cups of water!” As she ran off to comply, he checked Mario’s forehead and wrists. Oddly enough, they didn’t feel particularly warm. “Hang on, there, kid. We’ll get you taken care of.”
“Turn down the heat, would ya, coach?” Jeff looked down at Mario’s face. Sweat had beaded up on his forehead, but it looked odd somehow. He reached out a finger to touch one of the beads, and it was solid. Before he could figure out why, the girl he had sent for water returned.
“Here, sit up a little, Mario.” Jeff helped the boy to a sitting position and reached for one of the cups. He held it up to the boy’s lips. As Mario drank, Jefferson noticed wisps of water vapor wafting over the surface of the water. Mario reached up to hold the cup himself. When he did, Jeff felt a wave of cold brush over his hand. He looked down, and saw the water in the cup was frozen solid.