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White chalk screeching against a blackboard at the front of a dead-quiet classroom. A beam of brilliant sunlight bursting through dark, heavy clouds outside. That's what lake Evans would remember about the moments leading up to the chaos that brought about the first stage of his downfall. It was the calm before the storm, even though the thunder and rain had only just stopped. Jake could smell the chalk from where he sat. As it squeaked against the board, it trickled flecks as dry and powdery as fine ash; it made his nose tickle. His usual teachers used the whiteboard.
He was sitting in an aisle desk near the front of the classroom at his school in Chilliwack, British Columbia. The aisle position gave him a slight advantage for what was about to unfold. He'd only glanced out the window at the cloud break for a second. He was concentrating very hard on Nancy Sheppard's chalk. It was forming the words "final exam," and he was feeling pumped. He knew he was going to ace the test; all the students knew he was going to. He wasn't cocky about being this class's top dog, or about being the teacher's pet. That wasn't part of his personality.
It's not as if he was a brain in any other classes. It's just that at that particular moment-sitting there watching the word "final exam" take form-he was calm, primed, and wrapped in confidence. The pride before the fall, his mother would say.
Then the chalk fell from Nancy's hand, her mouth opened wide, and out came that word, the one that rattled Jake's confidence.
For a split-second everyone just sat dumbly at their desks, staring at their teacher as she waved her arms wildly at thedoor.
"Get out!" Nancy shouted louder, eyes wide. "File out to the parking lot, now!"
Jake felt a bolt of adrenalin lift him out of his desk and hurl him down the aisle toward the door at the back of the room. Soon a dozen other students were stampeding behind him in the same direction, screaming, pushing, jostling, crushing one another in their race to be first out of the building. Jake's fast reaction time put him at the head of the pack. Years of doing extreme sports gave him that advantage.
He looked left, right. Nothing but the empty, potholed gravel schoolyard, still damp from the rain shower. Then he looked twenty-five yards ahead at the parking lot and drew in his breath. He counted six bodies sprawled in unnatural poses on the dark, steamy tarmac. Only one was moving: a skinny, red-soaked figure dragging its lower body with the help of ragged jerks from its twisted upper body. Jake powered his long legs into an all-out sprint. Just as he reached the disaster scene, the crawling student -- a boy he knew -- collapsed into a stunned heap.
"Stay calm," Jake told himself as he drew near. "Just figure out who needs help first"
He stopped and squatted beside the closest student, a girl lying on her back, as the crowd behind him caught up and ran to other victims. Her eyes were closed and her face was as white as Nancy's chalk. He could see no wounds or obvious injuries, yet when he bent his ear over her mouth, he could feel no breath. Quickly, his fingers reached for the place on her neck where he'd feel her pulse.
"Nothing," he muttered soberly to a boy kneeled nearby who was going through the same motions on another still body.
"Same," the boy said solemnly, eyes large.
"Leave them," Jake ruled, springing up and glancing about, trying to take in the whole scene at once.
"You sure?" his classmate asked, looking hesitantly from the body he'd just declared dead, to the girl's body, to Jake.
"Yes!" Jake shouted, already on his way to the figure that had stopped crawling seconds before. "They're dead, Todd! Nothing we can do for them!" What kind of explosion had it been, anyway?
The guy who had been crawling only seconds before was definitely bleeding, Jake realized as he took a deep, steadying breath. Plus his hair looked as if it had been combed from the ends to the roots. His face and T-shirt were scorched black where they weren't stained red. Worse, where portions of his shirt had been burned away, the skin beneath was an even more shocking red. The boy had every right to be screaming, but he was barely whimpering as he lay on the wet blacktop, shivering and trying to focus on the crowd around him.
"He's burned," Jake declared as his mind raced through everything he'd read on what to do with burn victims. A circle of faces turned up to Jake expectantly. Nancy was nowhere in sight.
"Cover the burns with clean dressings. Don't touch them or they'll get infected. Give him a drink of water and watch he doesn't go into shock before the ambulance gets here," Jake said. "He should be first into the ambulance."
"How will we know if he starts to go into shock?" one of the onlookers asked another, but before anyone could answer, a high-pitched shriek sounded from the far end of the parking lot.
Jake recognized the voice as the scream traveled like a knife tip from his eardrum to his brain. His feet flew toward the sound of his best friend, Peter Montpetit.
"This one's got several broken bones," a girl called from his left. Jake turned his head, saw she was referring to a boy who was blinking and moaning. Jake slowed, but his feet refused to change direction. He thought he could see Peter sitting up, swaying from side to side, one hand clutching a shoulder as if it was about to fall off.
"Is he conscious, Lila?" Jake asked the girl. His head swiveled toward her but his body was already a few paces past her.
"Yeah -- barely," Lila replied, a tremor in her voice. "What do I do?"
"Leave him for later. Go help with the burned guy," Jake snapped, pouring on speed as Peter's cries went hysterical.
Peter's screeches were singeing Jake's nerves. He knew he wouldn't be able to focus on anyone else until he calmed his friend down. Peter never, ever screamed. Jake should know. The two had grown up together, and they were both into sports and adventure. They had tried almost every extreme sport around. Their mothers liked to joke they'd used up all their nine lives long ago.
Their latest fanaticism was mountainboarding: careening down hills at up to sixty miles per hour on what looked like a snowboard on wheels. They considered the scrapes and bruises no big deal. Jake and Peter loved living life to the extreme.
But hollering like a banshee? Never. Jake's legs felt as hollow as his throat by the time he reached Peter.
He tallied up the disaster scene's casualties. Two dead, one badly burned, one with broken bones but conscious. And Peter, who sounded pretty bad. Where was Nancy? Wait. There had been six bodies. Jake did a quick side glance to check out the last figure: a girl being helped to her feet near Peter. She looked like a poster child for road rash: seriously bloody scrapes and bruises all over. But the kid was talking to her helpers, a good sign.
"Anything broken? How bad are the cuts?" Jake gestured impatiently to the kids around the standing girl while he still made a beeline for Peter.
"Nope. Lots of scrapes, but nothing deep," someone answered.
"Then leave her. Help me with Peter here, or go help the burned guy," he suggested.
They nodded and began moving away from the girl, even as her sobs increased.
Jake placed a trembling hand on the shoulder of his blond, curly-haired friend. "Peter, what's wrong?"
"Noooo!" Peter screeched, batting Jake's hand away as if he'd just stuck a finger into a deep wound. Then his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he wavered as if about to pass out. His screams turned to sobs.
"Peter! Is something broken? What's going on?" Jake half-expected to see a bone end sticking right out of Peter's shoulder and a geyser of blood. Jake had never, ever seen Peter cry. Peter could suck it up better than anyone he knew.
"What's with him?" a girl asked. "We've been trying to help him, but he won't let us near him."
"Peter, you have to tell me what's wrong, or at least quiet down. I'm going to check you over?"
Peter's sobs turned to gasps as Jake lifted his shirt. Nothing. No blood, burns, or scratches. Still, might be internal bleeding. Something that could put Peter into shock any second. People can die when they go into shock. That much Jake knew.
Unlike most of his classmates, he'd had lots of first-aid training. As a junior outdoor guide for the local outfitter, Sam's Adventure Tours, he was required to have that kind of stuff under his belt. And he'd used it, more than once. So had Peter, a junior guide with Sam's company, too.
Jake knew his training meant he shouldn't be feeling rattled here in a school parking lot after some kind of explosion -- even if two people were dead and Peter was badly injured. But he was rattled, Jake realized as Peter's eyes rolled again.
"Make sure he's the second one into the ambulance, " Jake pronounced. But none of the students around replied. They were studying someone behind him.
Jake looked up to see Nancy standing over him, shaking her head. Her dark eyes fixed on him, revealing a level of disappointment he'd never seen before. His heart sank even before she spoke.
"The boy with the multiple fractures has died," she told him solemnly. "He went into shock right after you passed him to help Peter. He and the burn victim should have been your top priorities. Peter has nothing but a dislocated shoulder and an overactive set of lungs, isn't that right, Peter?"
Peter grinned as the six supposed victims of the pretend explosion jumped up and wandered over. "That's right, and I'm the best actor in this first-aid class, right? Sorry about psyching you out, Jake old buddy, but nice to know you care." Peter punched Jake's shoulder playfully.
Jake felt like punching him back, hard enough to give him a real dislocated shoulder. His bellowing had thrown Jake off. But it wasn't Peter's fault that Nancy was giving Jake a withering gaze while making notes on her clipboard. Jake had flunked, he knew. Flunked his final exam on this Saturday first-aid course -- right in front of schoolmates at his own school. But far worse, he'd let down Nancy, who also happened to be the manager at Sam's Adventure Tours.
"Sorry Jake," Nancy was saying. "Where you went wrong was ignoring the girl who told you that the broken-bones victim was only barely conscious. That meant he could go into shock. Remember, the level of pain someone seems to have does not always indicate what level of danger they are in. And we must never let favoritism for friends get in the way of a professional assessment in triage."
Triage, this class had learned, was coping with a disaster scene by dividing victims into three categories: the dead (beyond help), the ones needing immediate help, and the "walking wounded" or those who could wait. For this final exam, Nancy had arranged for six students to play-act two victims, complete with realistic makeup, in each of the three categories. Jake, playing the medical team's leader for this exam, was supposed to make sure his helpers left the dead and walking wounded until after they'd dealt with the more serious cases.
"I understand," Jake said, hanging his head and refusing to meet Peter's taunting eyes. "You're right. Do I have to take the whole course over again?"
"I'm afraid so," Nancy said, nodding sympathetically and resting her hand on his shoulder. "But there's still time to do that and renew your qualification before the mountainboarding trip in Washington state."
"Yes!" Peter enthused, punching a fist into the open palm of his other hand.
"No way -- luck-ee," a couple of kids murmured around them.
"You two're getting paid to go mountainboarding somewhere?" the burn victim asked.
Jake allowed a smile back onto his face. "Yup. That's what outdoor guides do. Hey, how did you get those burns to look so gross?"
The boy grinned and slid an arm around the shoulders of the white-faced girl who'd been holding her breath when Jake had positioned his ear over her mouth. She'd also whispered "no pulse" when he'd tried to get a pulse on her.
"Charcoal on the face," he informed everyone as he touched his face, "and my girlfriend's lipstick on my chest?"
That sent hooting and ripples of laughter through the crowd as his girlfriend blushed just enough to show color through her chalk-rubbed face. "I guess this shirt is toast now," the boy added, "what with the ketchup stains and the fun I had last night with a cigarette lighter."
Jake tried to smile, even though he was feeling totally bummed out. A flunkee. That's what he was.
"Okay, gang," Nancy said, lowering her clipboard and tossing her long, dark hair over her shoulders. "Back to the classroom to trade places for the next triage test. A different disaster this time?"
I'll pass this course next time, Jake promised himself as he watched black clouds outnumber white clouds once more. I won't disappoint Nancy again. He told himself that, but his heart felt heavy. His confidence seemed to have gone into hiding like the sun. He shivered and followed the kids back to the school building.
"I'm playing a victim next round," Jake said to no one in particular, jamming his unruly brown hair into his baseball cap. "Pass the ketchup."