Chapter One of “Jasper Lilla and the Wolves of Banner Elk”

jasper-lillaMy name is jasper Lilla, and this is the story of how I got a man killed. I don’t know if he deserved what he got, but he wasn’t innocent and he wasn’t nice. Guilty or not, he deserved his day in court, and it’s my fault he didn’t get it. I doubt you’ll believe what I’m about to tell you. I’m not sure I believe it myself, but it’s the true account of what happened. The story starts when I met William “King” Lyons.

* * *

It all began in the eighth grade when Phily Dunkin, our designated class bully, was making fun of my name again. He had been calling me Jasper the Friendly Ghost since third grade, but it was different that day. He must have caught me staring at Riley. He knew I was crazy about her, so he started telling me how she couldn’t see me because I’m a ghost and asking if I was trying to haunt her down.

I told him to shut up, which made him mad. I had never talked back to him before. When Phily stood in front of my desk and grabbed my shirt, Riley tried to pull his arms away. She’s so small that it didn’t take much of a backhand from him to knock her over. As she fell backward she hit her head on a desk and then landed on her right shoulder. I thought she had broken her neck when I heard her scream. She was trying to protect me.

They sent us to the gym for the rest of that period while an ambulance came to get Riley. As soon as I got home my mom took me over to the hospital to see her.

Riley wasn’t in her room when I got there, but her father was. He was just a little taller than me, wider shoulders, a bald head, and glasses.

“Who are you?” he asked me.

The question scared me. He scared me. I was there to check on her, but mostly I was there to apologize for getting her hurt. Instead of being alone with Riley I found myself alone with her father. He wasn’t scary big. He was intense, though. When he looked at me he tilted his head back, and even though he was only a little taller than me, he was looking down his nose at me. And he didn’t just look at me. He lined up a shot at me.

“I’m Jasper, Jasper Lilla,” I managed get out.

“How do you know Riley?” He hadn’t shifted his eyes or even blinked since I walked in.

“I’m in her class,” I told him.

“Come in,” he told me. “I’m Riley’s father. Please sit down. She’ll be glad someone from school came to see her.” The intensity was gone, and he was more like a school nurse than the sniper he had been a moment before. “Were you there when it happened?” he asked.

In the room there were two padded chairs by the window. I sat in one of them, and he sat in the other. His attention was still fully focused on me, but instead of looking suspicious he sounded interested.

I didn’t want to answer that question because if I told him I was there when it happened he was surely going to ask what happened and I didn’t want to tell him that either. Riley’s interested father was tough enough to be with. I for sure didn’t want her suspicious father to come back.

“Yes sir,” I answered. I’d have lied if I had been clever.

“Tell me what happened,” he told me as he scooted closer to the edge of his chair.

I distinctly remember thinking, Don’t say it was my fault, just before I said, “It was my fault.” I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help crying either.

It was more of a sob than a cry, but I still leaned forward and rested my face in the palms of my hands. I’m not sure why I cried then. While I sat in the gym waiting for class to be over, all I could picture was Riley lying there on the floor. The nurse had her wrapped in a blanket. She wasn’t moving. As I sat in the bleachers I had to stop thinking about her lying there because I was on the verge of losing it in front of everyone.

Then, when Riley’s father asked me those questions it all came back. I got myself back under control as best I could and lifted my face. I was certain I was going to get yelled at. In fact, I was a little surprised he hadn’t grabbed me the way Phily had grabbed me in class. But when I looked at him it wasn’t what I expected at all. He was still completely focused on me, but he was crying, too.

“I don’t know what happened, son, but it wasn’t your fault.” He swallowed hard. “What happened to Riley was my fault.”

At first I thought he was tricking me, but he looked serious.

“This is the first time it’s happened in a couple of years, but she used to separate her shoulder fairly often. That’s why I wouldn’t give her permission to play soccer anymore.”

I didn’t know she was a soccer player but I wasn’t surprised.

He kind of rocked back and forth a little. “It’s my fault her shoulder does that.” He looked at the door like he was expected someone to walk in. His voice cracked, “Riley has always been a very strong-willed child. When she was about two and a half, she and her mother would have battles of will all the time. I got fed up with it one day when Riley was sitting in front of the TV instead of doing what her mother told her to do. I took her by the hand and jerked her up.”

He was still facing the door, but I could see a tear roll down his check.

“I’ll never forget the sound her shoulder made.” He took a long, slow breath and looked at me. “I hope you never have to hear a sound like that, son.”

I felt like I was supposed to say something, but I had no clue about what would be okay. No adult had ever talked to me that way before. I felt sort of special while he talked to me. I felt like an adult, but I was also terrified of saying the wrong thing.

Luckily a nurse came in right then. “She’s fine. It’ll be tender for a bit, but the shoulder is back in place. They’ve taken her down to do an MRI.”

Riley’s father stood up as he listened. “Is that necessary?” he asked.

“She’s got a pretty nasty bump on the back of her head, but it’s just a precaution. She’s probably fine,” the nurse said while she rubbed her hand across Mr. Lyons’s arm. “It’s just a precaution.”

* * *

When the nurse was gone Mr. Lyons came back and sat next to me again. “I know Riley lied to me about what happened. I talked to the school nurse while I drove over here. I know a boy in your class pushed her, and I know he’s going to be suspended. I know he was fighting with you before it happened, but that’s all I know. So, please, tell me.”

“The whole thing was my fault.” My heart started racing again. I was so caught up in what Riley’s father was telling me that I forgot how I fit into the whole mess. “I lost my temper,” I blurted. “I told a kid to shut up.”

“The kid that pushed Riley?”

“Yeah.”

“Why’d you tell him to shut up? What was he saying?”

“He was just making fun of my name. I didn’t have to let it bother me.”

He shrugged. “That sounds like something an adult would say—‘Just don’t let it bother you.’”

It surprised me to hear him say that. It was an adult slogan, and I was only saying it then because there was an adult listening to me. But he responded to me like he remembered what it was like to be in junior high.

“So, what was he saying?”

I almost told him that Phily was making fun of me staring at a girl. I thought he’d understand how being caught staring at a girl feels, but I decided that since the girl was his daughter he might not. “Jasper the Friendly Ghost,” I told him.

“Casper the Friendly Ghost,” he said. “I’m surprised people your age know that cartoon. Nickelodeon?”

I nodded yes.

“Jasper,” he said as he extended his hand, “I’m Mr. Lyons, Riley’s father. We skipped over introducing ourselves earlier.”

I shook his hand.

“My daughter has spoken well of you since we moved here.”

I tried hard not to smile too much when he said that.

“Do you know what I got teased about when I was your age?”

I shook my head no.

“I got stuck with the nickname ‘King.’ It’s a name that has stuck with me because my last name is Lyons. The name ‘Lion’ was originally intended as a put-down. It was the summer before the seventh grade and my family was on vacation in San Diego. We were at the zoo, and my little sister got her face painted like a tiger. It was her whole face. I thought it was so cool that I got a lion for myself. I wouldn’t have done it if we were closer to home in San Francisco, but I thought I was far enough away to be childish.” He smiled on one side of his face. “But, of course, Linda Walls, the biggest blabbermouth from my school was at the zoo with a camera.” He laughed. “Seventh grade was hell for me after that. It really bothered me then,” he smiled. “But now I’m the ‘King.’ I even named my company Lion Pharmaceuticals.”

It was the second time I felt like I was being talked to like an equal.

My phone began to vibrate in my pocket. It was a text saying Mom was waiting for me.

“I have to go,” I told him. “My mom is waiting out front.”

He stood up and held his hand out again. “Thank you for coming by, Jasper. I’ll make sure Riley knows you were here. She’ll be glad you came by.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said as I let go, but he didn’t let go of my hand.

Instead of letting go he stepped closer to me. He almost looked like he was going to cry again. “Thank you for being a good friend to my Riley, too.”

* * *

That was three years ago. A lot has happened since then, but I still remember how tall I felt when I walked out of that hospital.

 

 

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