An Innocent Bystander

I rubbed my arms, trying to warm them as I tried to get my bearings. Even though I had been to Greg’s house several times over the past few years, I had never cut through the woods to the other side.

“I thought you invited me over to play a game. Where are we going?”

Greg looked back long enough to send me a wicked grin. “To play a game. It’s going to be epic. You’ll see. We’re almost there.”

I could see a building up ahead, although there were still plenty of trees in the way. By the time we emerged, I recognized it. The high school. The school we had been attending for less than a week.

I shook my head. “Why are we here?”

“Come on. Everyone’s probably already here.”

“Who’s everyone?”

Greg didn’t answer me. He didn’t have to. We continued around the edge of the parking lot. When we turned a corner, I saw a number of people under a street light, crowding around a dark two-seater. The trunk was open and about a dozen people were peering in. No one saw us approach.

I only recognized a couple of people. I had known Nick since kindergarten. He was a freshman like me. Kevin was a sophomore friend of Greg’s who was really into gaming. I had joined him for lunch one day this week. The rest of these guys? Never met them before.

Greg looked like he was counting the people around the car. He looked at a guy smoking just off to the side.

“Is everyone here?”

The guy blew a puff of smoke off to the side. “I think so. You and your buddy should make fifteen.”

Greg turned to me. “Eliot, this is George. He and I designed this game.”

George flicked the cigarette to the ground, not bothering to extinguish it. “Should we get started?”

Greg nodded, the excitement in his eyes as bright as a kid on Christmas morning. I wanted to be happy for my friend. But, there was something about this situation that was making me uncomfortable.

Maybe it was the fact that we were at our school on a Saturday night. Maybe it was the fact that there was no moon and little light. Maybe it was the guns in the car.

Guns? I looked at the trunk again. Yup. There was a stack of guns. Some pistols, some rifles. Greg was obsessed with weapons and had posters all over his bedroom. I didn’t know much, but I knew the difference between a handgun and a long gun.

But, these weren’t normal guns. I watched George and Greg load them with round blue and orange balls. George aimed along the side of the car and fired. Blue paint splatted in the parking space beside him.

Nick push his way beside me. “Man, this is going to be so epic. Aren’t you excited?”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “I have no idea what we’re doing.”

“Oh, you’re going to have so much fun. Greg explained it to me at lunch yesterday.”

Yeah, he had explained it to me, too. It didn’t mean I had understood any of it.

Greg climbed into the trunk, turning to face the rest of us as he stood. “Okay. So, you all know how to play. In a second, I’m going to pass out the character cards. If your card says you get a gun, then grab one. If you don’t start the game with one, you can take one from corpses. If you get shot, check the color. Blue is a flesh wound. Orange is mortal. One orange or three blues and you’re dead. When you die, just lay where you are. Last team standing wins. Questions?”

I had many. Was this safe? Was this a good idea? Could I go home now?

I looked around. No one else seemed concerned. They all seemed excited. I shook my head.

Greg shoved a yellow index card in my hand. I glanced at it. There was an avatar of some elf-like creature and a character bio. I had no idea what most of it meant.

Nick held his card up to mine. “We’re on the same team. Come on. Let’s go get in position.”


Nick grabbed my arm, pulling me towards the school. The three other guys who joined us all had guns. I didn’t recognize any of them. One of them nodded towards me and Nick.

“Great. We’re all here. So, here’s the plan. You two.” He pointed towards me and Nick. “You’re going to stay here until we can get you some weapons.”

The guy talked for nearly five minutes. I didn’t understand a word he said. He was still talking when I heard the first crack. A paintball exploded against the side of the building beside us. Nick swore, running to stand behind the other players. One of them fired at our attacker.

People started running in all directions. I wanted to leave. I had no idea how they knew who was on what team. I wasn’t sure anyone cared.

I crept alongside the building, trying to find the driveway. I wanted to get out of here. But, the building was huge. A lot bigger outside than it looked inside.

I passed a set of garage doors. Since when did we have an auto shop? I turned the corner and nodded. I recognized the library. The main entrance was on the opposite end of the building.

Well, at least I knew which direction to go. I continued along the paint-splattered building and turned another corner. There was George’s car in the lot. I started headed towards it.

I heard the sirens a split second before I saw the flashing red and blue lights. Bright headlights illuminated me as four police cars raced towards the building. Behind them, I saw a dark figure running towards George’s car. As the police cars surrounded the building, George tore out of the student lot. I saw him hop a curb.

No one chased him. I’m not sure the police even saw him. They were too busy chasing down the rest of the guys. All except one officer. He was heading straight towards me.

“What’s going on, kid?”

I shrugged. I was too scared to speak.

“How many of there are you?”

I shrugged again.

The officer nodded, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Alright. Why don’t you just wait here for a few minutes while we go find your friends.”

The officer directed me to sit on the curb by the main entrance to the school. Soon, the rest of the guys were sitting with me. Greg and I were on opposite ends of the line. A few more cars had arrived.

A man in jeans and a polo shirt came to stand in front of all of us. His voice echoed in the covered entry way.

“My name is Joel Klugman. I’m the Youth Officer. At the moment, none of you are under arrest. We just want to find out what happened. We’re going to be interviewing each of you. If you cooperate, we’ll call your parents and send you home. If you don’t cooperate, we may have to bring you back to the station. For your protection, we will be recording the interviews and I am going to read you all your rights. Again. No one is under arrest.”

He read off the same Miranda warnings that I had heard in so many television shows. If I weren’t in so much trouble, I probably would have thought the situation pretty cool. Then, the man pointed to Greg.

“Officer Mullner? Why don’t you speak with that young man while I speak with this one.” He pointed to me.

He beckoned me to stand with him beside one of the cars.

“What’s your name, son?”


The man gave a ghost of a smile. “Eliot what?”

“Oh. Sorry. Eliot Mason.”

He nodded. “Okay. And, what were you doing at the school tonight?”

I shrugged.

The man sighed. “Eliot, you’re not under arrest. We’re just trying to figure out what happened. I’m sure it was an accident. Can you tell me what the plan was?”

“I really have no clue. My friend invited me to play a game. Some sort of RPG. I thought he meant on the computer. The next thing I know, we’re tramping through the woods.”

Without giving any names, I told the man what I knew. This was supposed to be some sort of game, but I didn’t understand any of it. I even showed him the character card I had shoved in my back pocket. Then, I explained how I was trying to find my way out of there when the police cars had shown up.

“Whose idea was it to create this game?”

I assumed Greg. But, I didn’t know for sure and I wasn’t about to point fingers. I shrugged again. “I have no idea. I was only told about it yesterday.”

“Where is the paintball gun you were using?”

“I never had one. Probably wouldn’t have grabbed one even if it was on my character card. I wouldn’t know how to use it.”

Klugman didn’t ask a lot more questions. He must have realized I really had no idea what was going on. Finally, he let me call my parents. My mom answered on the second ring.

“Eliot. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you for another couple of hours. Is everything okay?”

“Um, not really. I need you to come pick me up at the high school.”

“What happened?”

“I promise I’ll tell you all about it. But, um, the police are here and you need to come get me.”

My mother hung up on me. I looked up at the man interviewing me. “Um, I think my mom’s coming?”

He gave me a half smile and nodded. “Okay. I’d like you to go sit over there.” He pointed at a section of sidewalk away from the other guys. “So I don’t interview you again.”

I followed his instructions, looking at the other guys as I sat down. Greg was still talking with the other officer. A little while later, I saw the officer help him into the backseat of one of the cars. That couldn’t have been good.

The car pulled away as my parents pulled up to the building. I could see they were both in the car. Klugman whispered with another officer before going to speak with them. The other officer continued interviewing Nick.

I watched Klugman speak to my father through the open window. A moment later, he gestured that I should join them. As I climbed in behind my mother, Klugman passed my father a business card.

My mother waited until we were on the main road before turning around in her seat. “What happened?”

I was surprised that she was so calm. “Yesterday, Greg invited me over to play this new RPG he said he created.”

She held up a hand. “What’s an arpie?”

“RPG. Role-Playing Game. I swear, I thought he meant on the computer. So, when I got there tonight, I was really surprised when he said we had to walk there. Did you know the woods in his backyard lead right up to the school?”

My mother nodded. “You didn’t know that?”

I shook my head. “No. Anyway, he brought me to the school. And there was this guy there. A senior, I think. Might be a junior. He can drive. And he had all these paintball guns in his trunk. And then Greg gives us all these cards that tell us our characters and Nick brought me to our group. I still had no idea what was going on. While I was sort of huddled with my group, someone started shooting at us. The paintball hit the school. I decided to get out of there, but that place is really big. I think I went the long way. The police showed up. I told them pretty much what I told you. And that’s when I called you.” I took a deep breath and waited to hear how much trouble I was in.

“Okay.” My mother turned around in her seat and was silent the rest of the drive.

I couldn’t believe it. I expected yelling and screaming. I expected to be grounded for the rest of my life. Had I really escaped all that?

As we climbed out of the car, my mother put out her hand. “I’ll take your phone, mister.”

I sighed. Here come the punishments. I deserved it. I passed her my phone without complaint. She followed me all the way to my room.

“I’m taking your computer, too.”

“But, I need it for school.”

She shook her head. “It’s going on the dining room table. I will watch you do your assignments. I do not want you emailing your friends.”

I scoffed. None of the guys I was with tonight were my friends. Not even Greg or Nick. Not anymore. I begrudgingly handed my mother my laptop. She nodded.

“Your father and I will discuss the rest of your punishment and let you know in the morning.”

I nodded. As soon as she closed the door behind her, I plopped myself on my bed. I stared at the ceiling the rest of the night.

I woke up around noon the next day. My parents were waiting for me in the kitchen. My mother gestured that I should join them. They tag-teamed their lecture. I heard about how disappointed they were in me. What I should have done differently to avoid this entire situation.

I wasn’t really paying them too much attention. Most of what they were saying had run through my head while I was staring at the ceiling last night.

After about an hour of this, my mother’s phone beeped. She sent it a confused look. “There’s an email from your principal.”

I watched her face as she read it. She looked ready to cry. She passed the phone to my father and turned to me. “Back to your room. Now.”

I gestured to the fridge. “I didn’t get to eat!”

She pointed down the hall. “Out.”

I stomped to my room. It was one thing to ground me, but to make me starve? That was crossing a line.

My father appeared in my door a few minutes later. He had a plate in one hand, a bottle of soda in the other. He placed them on my nightstand and sat beside me on the bed.

“You’ve been suspended.”

I sat up. “What? Why?”

“The incident took place on school grounds. It involved destruction of school property and dangerous weapons. You are being suspended pending your expulsion hearing.”

I could feel my eyes grow wide. “Expulsion?”

“I wanted to let you know what was happening. I suggest you stay here until I can get your mother to stop crying.”

I nodded. I wanted to cry too. I hadn’t even been in school a week and I was already being expelled? For something I didn’t do? I glanced at the sandwich beside my bed. I wasn’t hungry anymore.

I stared at my ceiling all day. Part of me considered doing some schoolwork to pass the time, but I didn’t see the point. Why bother if I was just going to be expelled.

When my parents called me to dinner, I considered staying in my room. But, I didn’t want to do anything to make them even more upset or disappointed in me.

My mother looked like she had spent the entire day in tears. I felt so guilty for doing this to her. I had no idea how I could make it up to her.

She placed a plate of spaghetti in front of me and sat down. “I’ve been on the phone with Aunt Cathy all day. Did you know she has been a special ed teacher for almost twenty years?”

I shook my head.

“She told me that because of the paintball guns, the principal is required to have an expulsion hearing. But, as long as everything you’ve told us is true, she doesn’t think you’ll get in trouble.”

“So, I’ll be able to go back to school?”

“Eventually. But, so will many of those other boys. And, I don’t think I want you hanging around with them.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want anything to do with any of them. Not even Nick or Greg.”

My dad frowned. “It’ll still be difficult being around them. You and Nick have a lot of classes together.”

“So, I’ll ask my teachers to move me to the other side of the room. It’s not a big deal. Pretty much everyone has made a new set of friends this year.”

My mother stared at her spaghetti. “How would you feel about going to a new school? Getting a new start?”

I looked at her with wide eyes. “Seriously? Where would I go?”

She sighed. “Aunt Cathy suggested to go live with her for the year. Try Oakville High. It’s a lot smaller and has some fantastic extra curricular programs.”

“Do I have a choice?”

My father shook his head. “No. Your hearing isn’t until next week. Tomorrow, we’re going to go to Oakville. Register you at the high school. Get you situated. You’ll come home for your hearing. We don’t want an expulsion on your record. But, you’ll go back to Oakville for the rest of the school year.”

“So, let me get this straight. I get in trouble for something I didn’t do and I get kicked out of school and sent out of the house?” I surged to my feet, slamming my chair into the table. “That’s a little unfair.”

My mother looked at me with new tears in her eyes. “This wasn’t an easy decision.”

I didn’t reply. I was too angry. I marched to my room and slammed the door.

Moving to Oakville was a bit of a blur. I didn’t pack. My mother threw some of my clothes into a small suitcase, but I didn’t lift a finger to help her. I only followed my parents into the car because the alternative was them sitting in my room listing all the reasons this was a good decision. I stared out the window for nearly two hours while we crossed to the opposite corner of the state.

The center of town was small. There was bunting on the buildings for Labor Day. I blinked, and the town was gone. We were again surrounded by trees and houses. Ten minutes later, we pulled into the high school.

I was surprised that is was almost as large as my school, even though the town was so much smaller. My parents found the visitors parking section and marched me to the front door. Aunt Cathy was waiting for us in the office.

My mother neglected to mention that she worked at this school. I plopped myself in a chair while my parents joined Aunt Cathy in the principal’s office. An hour later, I was being welcomed as a new student. I just continued to glare at the floor.

Aunt Cathy walked with us to the car. After placing my suitcase in her car, she waited for me to say goodbye to my parents. I didn’t. My mother hugged me, tears in her eye, but I didn’t move. My father got the same result. As I watched them drive away, I felt betrayed.

I had been betrayed by the people I had called friends. Now I was being betrayed by my parents.

Would I ever find someone I could trust?

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