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Fan fiction for The White Shadow

"Okay you clowns, listen up!" Coach Reeves strode into the gym. The season was over but the team still congregated on the bleachers to eat lunch. "Moose Basketball Camp..." He had to pause as the group did a series of moose calls and Falahey put his hands to his head and in a cartoon voice said, "Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat."

The coach nodded. "Cute, guys. Moose Basketball Camp happens to be a camp for underprivileged kids..."

"What do you think we are?" That was Coolidge.

Reeves rolled his eyes. "Little kids, Coolidge. Grade school kids. They get to spend a couple of weeks learning the fundamentals from high school players such as yourselves. So who's up for two weeks of fun in the sun?"

Salami waved an arm. "Pasadena"

"Yeah, man," Thorpe put in. "I graduate next week. That means I am no longer a high school player." He and Salami gave each other five.

Reeves continued anyway. "Look it wouldn't kill you to give a little of your time here." He took a few steps closer pinning Salami with a hard gaze. "And some of you might not graduate at all if they don't pass a certain social studies final." The team laughed.

Salami grew sheepish. "You know about that, huh?"

"I know about everything, Salami."

"It's just old lady Fisher gives the hardest tests."

"I know something that would make them easier," the coach offered.

"Yeah?"

"Studying," he told him. "Try studying for the final. You'll be amazed how much easier it will be."

"I ain't too good at that."

"We know. Look, Salami, I've got two words for you." He paused. "Michelle Ford"

He paused again as the team howled and made barking noises.

Salami reacted. "Barky? I gotta let Barky help me. No way."

The coach gave another eye roll. "She has a name. And she happens to be the top student in social studies and the only person left willing to tutor anybody on any of the sports teams." He shook his head and started for the door. "See me in my office if you want to go with me to the camp."

When school let out Salami was still on a roll as he complained to his cousin and Morris Thorpe. "I can't believe they want me to spend the rest of my school career afternoons with Barky."

Thorpe grinned. "Too bad Barky's sister Roxie can't be the tutor. She is one good looker."

"Are you nuts," Vitaglia spoke up. "She's even dumber than my cousin here... sorry, Salam."

Thorpe laughed and playfully whacked Nick in the stomach. "Yeah, she's finally graduating. Only took her three years in the twelfth grade."

"You know, working with Barky might not be so bad," Salami told the two. "I'll pass the test and maybe get an inside track with that sister of hers and what she could teach me."

The three made a dash for the motel california.

Three in the morning and the party was still growing strong. Mario Pettrino Jr., had put in his time with "Barky" and passed social studies with flying colors. He's wasted no time in asking her sister Roxanne to the post graduation ceremony party. The two emerged from the house not drunk but no doubt impaired.

"And to think," Roxie crooned. "If my sister hadn't been helping us both pass we never would have hooked up." She giggled as Salami leaned against the motel california and pulled her to him. They kissed for a few seconds.

"Let's go somewhere more comfortable," Salami suggested.

Roxie nodded her agreement. "Can I drive?"

Salami laughed. "I don't know. Can you," he joked.

Roxie smiled and batted her eyelashes. "Please," she said sweetly. "I've always wanted to drive a convertible. She gently kissed his lips. "Pretty please."

"Ah, what the hell." Letting the wrong end do his thinking Salami handed over the keys.

The beep of the heart monitor seemed amplified by the starkness of the hospital room. Mario Pettrino Sr. stood looking down at the motionless form of his son. Nick Vitalgia stood beside him, his hands jammed into the pockets of his sweat jacket. He looked haunted. And if one had not been looking directly at him one would not have known that he was crying. There was no sound. Just a slow path of tears snaking their way down his face.

The doctor was talking but might as well have been speaking a foreign language. Their loved one was in a coma. It was not known when or if he would wake up. But for the time being where there was life there was hope. Roxanne Ford had not been so lucky, crashing the cutlass the impact of the steering wheel against her chest killed her instantly.

The doctor closed the chart and exited the room. There was really nothing more medical science could do.

Mr. Pettrino brushed the hair back from his son's face and kissed his forehead. He straightened and indicated for Nick to do likewise. The young man shook his head. Mr. Pettrino shrugged. "I need to make some phone calls." There was a pause. "You want anything? Juice?" Nick just shook his head again. Sr. exited. Not taking his eyes off his cousin Nick pulled up a chair and sat.

Mario Sr. and Ken Reeves stood in the doorway of the hospital room. It had been four days and there had been no change... in the younger Pettrino or in Nick Vitaglia.

"I don't know what to do," Sr. lamented. "He won't leave the room. Doesn't talk to him. Doesn't hold his hand. Doesn't kiss him. Just sits there." He paused to sigh. "He eats a little if we bring him something. He dozes off sometimes but wakes up immediately. I've tried talking to him..." There was a beat. "Hey, maybe you can talk to him."

Reeves started to protest but relented. "Yeah, it's worth a try." He took a step and stopped. "What exactly am I talking to him about?" Mr. Pettrino gave a 'what do you think look.' The coach shrugged and continued into the room approaching the young man sitting vigil. "Hey, Vitaglia, how're you doing?"

"How do you think?" he answered not taking his eyes from his cousin.

"Look, Vitaglia, I know how you feel, but not taking care of yourself isn't going to help..." His words were cut by an empty pop bottle sailing through the air, smashing against the far wall.

Eyes still focused on the bed Nick spoke, "You have no idea how I feel. Nobody knows how I feel. And if anyone really cared how I feel they'd stop trying to get me to leave."

Reeves moved closer and stooped hoping eye level would help. "Okay, I get it. You're worried he's going to wake up and you'll miss it. But he'll know you were here..."

For the first time Nick Vitaglia turned his head to glare at the coach. "I knew you didn't get it." He looked down, then back up. "I'm worried he's going to die and I need to be here."

"Vitaglia..." Reeves spoke his name almost apologetically..

The young man turned his attention back to his cousin. "Just get out."

Reeves knew he'd lost. Rising he started to say something more but changed his mind. He emerged from the room to find Mr. Pettrino waiting. "Well?"

"Apparently, I said the wrong thing."

"That you know how he feels?"

"That's the one."

"I'm getting concerned here..." He stopped short as Reeves started down the hall. "Hey, where you going?"

"To find someone who knows how he feels," he called back.

Michelle Ford was surprised to see that her visitor was the school's basketball coach.

"I need your help," he told her.

Now she wasn't too surprised. "I just buried my sister," she reminded him. "Not even an offer of condolence."

"Yeah, I'm sorry about Roxanne," he stammered. "But this relates. Please, just hear me out."

Michelle folded her arms waiting.

"It's about Nick Vitaglia, Salami's... Mario Pettrino's cousin..."

"I know who he is."

"Of course, well, see. He's in a bad way right now. Won't leave the hospital. He's not sleeping. He says nobody understands how he's feeling so I figured..."

"That since it was my sister in the car with Mario that night that I'm the choice to talk to him."

Reeves nodded. "Yeah, something like that. Can we go?"

"Go where?"

"To the hospital. To talk to Nick Vitaglia."

Michelle shook her head almost chuckling. "I don't believe this. Mr. Reeves, you have the sensitivity of a rattlesnake. I just buried my sister. And you know something else. School's out. I just graduated which means that I no longer need to dedicate time to helping those less fortunate in the academics department who by the way, showed their appreciation by calling me Barky." There was more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

"I'm sure they meant it... affectionately," he stammered, sheepishly. "Come on. I know you. You wouldn't turn away from someone who needed help."

"You don't know anything about me," she countered. "Just what everyone else does. That I have a 137 IQ and my sister was Hotsie Roxie that every guy in school wanted to date." She paused then added, "All six years she was there." Michelle took a breath then spoke more softly. "She was the pretty one. I was the brain. You know what the family is saying now?"

Reeves shook his head.

"If she'd had my brains she'd be alive. She didn't know how to drive, Mr. Reeves. Bet you didn't know that. Bet Mario didn't either." There was a moment of silence. "Nick's really not sleeping?"

"His uncle says he dozes off but wakes up immediately. He looks awful."

"I can relate to that," she told him. "What are we waiting for. Let's go."

"From what you've said I'm still not sure how I can help," Michelle stated as she and Coach Reeves made their way down the hall of the hospital.

"We're just hoping he'll open up to you," the coach told her.

Michelle threw him a look. Nick Vitaglia open up. Yeah, he wasn't asking much. "I'll do my best."

"That's all I ask."

They met Mr. Pettrino outside his son's room.

"This is Michelle Ford." Reeves made the introduction.

Mr. Pettrino was surprised. "You're Barky?" he blurted without thinking. Michelle took a startled step back. "I mean, um. You're the tutor." He hemmed a bit. "From what my son said I was expecting... well. ..um. I ought to thank you for helping Mario pass "

"It was my pleasure," she lied politely, not wanting to let the grieving man know that Barky was actually the nicest thing his son had ever called her. Asking herself why she was subjecting herself to possible verbal abuse she entered the hospital room. "Nick." She approached tentatively.

"Barky," he acknowledged flatly. Then he glanced to her momentarily. "Sorry." There was a pause. "Coach Reeves send you here? Be honest."

"Yes. He's worried about you. So's your uncle." She took a chance and stooped beside his chair.

"You gonna tell me you know how I feel?"

"No," Michelle said matter-of-factly. "I have no idea how you feel." She thought for a moment. "I'm still trying to come to terms with how I feel."

Nick looked at her again. "That's right. Sorry about your sister."

"Thank you," she said barely meaning it.

"Everyone keeps telling me they know how I feel," he continued. "My family, the coach, even the nurses. How can they possibly know how I feel? I'm not sure I know how I feel." He looked at her again realizing she had said the same thing seconds before. He looked back to the bed. "All I know is I've got to stay here. I can't leave him." He reflected a moment. "Do you think he knows I'm here?"

"I've heard that people in comas do have a part of them that is... aware."

"But what do you think?"

"I don't know."

"I can't believe it. Something you don't know. We always thought you knew everything."

"This isn't exactly my area of expertise," she admitted.

"I hope he does," he muttered.

"Well, have you been talking to him?"

"No."

"Holding his hand?"

"No. I ain't kissed him either."

"I didn't say that."

"My uncle keeps telling me to. I just can't bring myself to touch him." He turned back to her. "I know. How's he's supposed to know I'm here?"

"I didn't say that either."

"You didn't have to." Nick swallowed hard. "When we were fourteen I was in the hospital with pneumonia. They wouldn't let Salami visit me cause he wasn't eighteen. Dumb hospital rule. He was the one person I really wanted to see. One night I woke up in the middle of the night and there he was... lying in the bed with me... asleep."

Acting on impulse Michelle reached out and took Nick's hand feeling the need to do something. She thought he would pull away but he squeezed tight and kept talking.

"Found out later that he'd snuck out of the house and into the hospital." He paused to chuckle slightly. "The next morning they found us but the staff didn't have the heart to kick him out" There was another pause. "Um, would you mind leaving?"

Michelle released Nick's hand and stood. "No, I understand."

"Thanks, Bark...Michelle." It was the first time he'd ever called her that. "Sorry," he offered.

"It's okay. I know how it is My sister got the looks."

"Come on. You ain't so bad," Nick told her.

"Aren't," Michelle corrected.

"Really. Thanks."

"It was my pleasure," she told him. This time she meant it.

"I can't believe the coach sent Barky to talk to Vitaglia," Morris Thorpe said the next morning as the team sauntered down the hospital corridor.

"Yeah," Wardell added. "I think he's feeling bad enough."

The rest of the team laughed in agreement. Thorpe turned into the hospital room and stopped short causing the guys to bump into each other. Eyes bugged. Jaws dropped. Nick Vitaglia lay asleep in the hospital bed his head resting on his cousin's shoulder.

"Aw, now ain't that cute," Coolidge said teasingly. Everyone laughed.

"Looks like he's got himself a life-size teddy bear," Thorpe commented. And everyone laughed again.

Mitchell wiped an imaginery tear from his eye and said over dramatically, "Sweetest thing I've ever seen."

The next round of laughter was halted as Salami's eyes popped open suddenly. "Hey, you idiots, pipe down. Nicky's sleepin'!"

Nothing lingered but stunned silence.

A month later the refurbished motel california packed with the Carver team moved down the road, Salami at the wheel.

"Glad we decided to help the coach at that camp," Thorpe announced. "Earned us all tickets to the Dodgers game!"

The others responded with shouts of "Woo Hoo!"

"But aren't we headed in the wrong direction?" Mitchell asked.

"Nicky invited Michelle to go with us," Salami informed them.

The team reacted with their usual barks and howls, Thorpe asking, "Hey, Vitaglia, is she going as your date... or our mascot?"

Laughter rose in the vehicle as Nick turned sharply. "She's going as my date. You gotta problem with that?"

"Nah, man," Thorpe responded. "But maybe you gotta problem with your eyesight," he added under his breath.

"What was that?"

Thorpe waved him off. "Nothing."

The covertible came to a stop in front of the Ford house. Nick jumped out and headed for the door.

Thorpe was still on a roll. "Man, you were in the coma but I think your cousin suffered the brain damage."

"Aw, Thorpe, knock it off." Rutherford whapped him on the arm. "She's not so bad."

"Hey, you were barking too."

"Can it. Here they come," Salami warned.

Nick and Michelle were making their way to the motel califormia. "Nick, are you sure want to go through with this. Maybe this isn't a good idea. You're friends will just give you flack."

"I give it back," he told her. "And if they say anything to you just blow them off." Nick put his hand on her back slightly pushing her the rest of the way.

"Hi ya, Barky," Thorpe greeted when they got to the car. He was pleased when the others minus Salami and Rutherford woofed.

Michelle smiled, "Nice to see you again, guys." She climbed over the door plunking in the middle of the front seat. Nick hopped in beside her.

Wardell leaned forward. "Hey, Barky, you remember your collar?"

Michelle turned slowly to face him. "Yes, thank you. And Wardell," she added. "I hope you'll be able to pass next year without my help."

Wardell's smug face fell and the others prodded him about his not so great grades.

Nick and Michelle exchanged a look. Boy that felt good!

The End

I adopted the name Barky from the TV show Step by Step. I felt it more appropriate than some of the name I used to be called.