"That's the way I am…"

Chapter 1: Year after year

The man slowly climbed the deserted steps of the 'L' train station. His strong hand grasped the railing and his heart thudded against his chest. Year after year he came to this very spot. As long as he lived he would never forget that night. It was a peak moment during his teen years when his sanity and his very life stood in the balance. It took the faith of his best friend and the kindness of a beautiful stranger to ease him away from the precipice.

The man walked briskly a few paces beyond the stairwell and halted. He stared at the tracks and followed the bits of paper and debris blowing across the rails. A tiny rat scurried across to find sustenance. He stared at his watch. It was a little after ten-thirty pm. He dug his hands into his denim pockets and waited.

Another man eventually trudged up the stairwell; he was winded, having somewhat ran the distance from his hotel. He peeked beyond the entrance and saw his best friend of thirty years pacing back and forth and hunching his shoulders up and down as he muttered to himself. No matter how big his friend got, the green jacket still fit him. He smiled and approached him.

"I made it, Linderman. Just like I said I would."

"I was wondering if you were gonna come…you know, I don't hold you to this anymore, Cliff. You look a little out of breath."

Clifford came up behind him and patted his shoulder. "I'm fine. Ricky, I told you I'd always be here if I'm available…and tonight I was, I made sure of it."

Ricky smiled wryly. "I know you're humoring me, but I appreciate it, man. I'm not gonna fault you for the years you were away at college, or the time you up and moved outta town for a while. I only come to this spot once a year and every time it feels exactly like that night."

Clifford chuckled. "Except you're not shoving me against a pole." He removed his jacket and placed it over his arm. The weather warmed up this time of year. "Hey listen, Shelly said to come by the apartment. She made her roast beef special and has plenty left over."

"Nahh, it's late, Cliff. I don't wanna be a burden. Daniel's probably sleeping anyway and when us grown ups get together, we got big mouths."

Clifford snorted. "Since when are you a burden, man? You're family, Ricky. Haven't you learned that in the past twenty years since me and Shelly tied the knot? And Danny…Ha! That boy doesn't know what sleep is, when I left him he was playing video games. He keeps telling me to get a Wii fit. I told him I already have a Ballys gym membership, thank you."

Ricky grinned. "And you don't take advantage of it, you're still a string bean…an out of shape string bean!"

Clifford punched his shoulder and sulked. "Hey, pal, we can't all be Hercules! Shelly loves me just the way I am."

"We all know that Shelly is Mrs. String bean. Ehh, maybe more like an asparagus." Ricky laughed.

"And you're still the Jolly green giant! You know I had to go there."

"Yep, I'll never forget the day Shelly made that comparison in front of the entire student body. So, now I gotta look over and protect my vegetables." Ricky clutched his chest. "It hurts me so to hear you say such things..."

"Oh please…nothing hurts…I mean...never mind." Clifford refrained from saying that nothing hurt Ricky.

The one thing that hurt him was part of the reason they were at this back end station in the middle of the night. It was the anniversary of the night teen-age Ricky Linderman finally released his pent-up emotions and revealed the source of his depression, and, it was the night that Clifford Peache proved himself to be a solid and true friend.

Clifford eyed Ricky with slight envy . Standing about 6'4, the man was a chiseled rock. Even at forty-six, Ricky barely aged a day, aside from his scraggly goatee and a few lines around the eyes and mouth. On this particular occasion, his handsome features encompassed the cherubic, yet stoic appearance he posessed at sixteen.

"So, how's my Erica? Need me to start busting any heads yet?" Ricky joked.

Clifford laughed. "Not just yet, but I'll give you a holler when it's time. That girl knows how to defend herself."

"I know. I taught your kids well."

Clifford's daughter recently turned sixteen and just started to discover the joys of the opposite sex. Ricky was considered like a loving and overprotective uncle to Clifford's children.

"When she was still little, she used to tell me she was gonna marry a man just like uncle Ricky. You remember?" Clifford asked.

"Oh yeah, she warmed my heart. Then she would look up at me with those inherited baby blues and tell me that if she didn't find someone just like me, she'd marry me instead, even if I lost all my hair and got a big belly."

Clifford couldn't resist teasing and ran his hand through his silvered mass of brown curls. "Funny how she said you'd lose your hair rather than go gray!"

Ricky pulled his black baseball cap lower over his brow and wagged his finger at him. "No comment! I'm not bald...yet!"

"Not completely." Clifford snickered.

"You just make sure any guy that wants to date my Erica doesn't have all my baggage, okay? If he does, I wanna talk to him."

"Alright, Linderman, you got it. But really, besides the obvious, what baggage could you possibly have? You never got married, never had kids…you have a solid career...two careers."

Ricky gazed up at the station lights. His smile faded. "Believe me, what goes on in my head sometimes is more than enough for anyone."

Clifford sighed and attempted to change the subject. "So, what's the dirt at Lakeview High? How are you handling those kids?"

Ricky shrugged humbly. "The same way I always have, with love, and a helluva lot of patience. You'd be amazed at how much respect you'll get from the students if you don't patronize, and then you can help them channel any aggressive..."

Clifford held up his hands. "Woah, okay. Now you're starting to sound like that therapist you're always yapping about. The one on the late night radio. What's her name? Dr. C?"

"She's great, I've been listening to her for six years, but I never had the guts to call in."

"Do you even apply her advice?"

Ricky looked away sheepishly. "Well…I try. I get real gung-ho about it, and even take notes for my students, but when it comes to me, I just uh…forget. I don't know why she's not more renowned."

"Maybe she wants to keep a low profile. Believe me, there are enough lunatics in Chicago to keep her busy for a lifetime."

Ricky glared at him and Clifford shrank back. "Umm...present company excluded of course…we can all learn from…anyway, next topic."

"Are you still afraid of me, Cliff?" Ricky teased.

"No, I just want to keep you focused."

"Thanks. I get you, man."

Clifford patted his shoulder and smiled. "Hey, thanks for taking care of my grandma's grave…and I know all those gorgeous pink roses last week came from you."

Ricky waved his hand. "I'd do anything for Grandma Peache! She taught me to trip the light fantastic!"

Clifford burst out laughing. "I can't believe you took her up on that half drunk offer! You actually came back over the summer and asked for Lindy and Charleston lessons. You sure did trip alright. That was a riot!"

Ricky did a few wobbly dance moves and threw his arms out wide. "She was a great teacher. We had a ball! You were too busy being embarrassed and missed all the fun."

Clifford rolled his eyes. "I joined in sometimes. But you two were insane."

"Insane enough to put on a show at the old folks home. Grandma Peache never gave up on me, she told me to live my life to the fullest and do what made me happy…I'm really trying, Cliff." Ricky replied soberly.

After graduation and a few indecisive years, Ricky applied himself to a career as a guidance counselor and he made their old High School his stomping grounds. Ricky's chosen profession amazed Clifford at first, but he gradually understood that it was what he desperately needed. Ricky carried a dreadful notion that he he was undeserving to pursue a normal home and hearth, or have the joys and tribulations that came with a marriage and children. Ricky felt that kind of happiness was beyond him. He made an intentional decision to remain in Chicago and devote his life to helping others. It was the only way he felt he could atone for his brother's death. In his spare time he freelanced as a full-service mechanic. Ricky always kept himself busy; otherwise, he often told Clifford, the stillness would drive him mad.

"How's that kid coming along, the most recent case you're handling?" Clifford asked.

Ricky's eyes lit up. "You mean Kelvin? He made some good progress! I got him to open up more about his home-life. His artwork gets better and better, and thankfully, less dismal. I even encouraged him to join the tutoring program, he excels in English."

Clifford nodded, satisfied that he drew Ricky's mind away from one tragedy. However, his students had plenty of their own. Kelvin Randall was an African-American sophomore student at Lake View. He was a generally well-liked and rambunctious class-clown, but Ricky and his teachers noticed that Kelvin's entire demeanor changed. He became hostile and withdrew from his peers. An above average student, his grades dropped dramatically.

Kelvin's little sister was killed in a crossfire shootout in their neighborhood. It started off as any normal evening in the projects –noisy and busy – but Kelvin always said everyone knew your name and had your back. Kelvin was supposed to go to the corner store for some last minute dinner staples, but lazily demanded his sister Kiara, do it. She never made it home alive.

Ricky understood his deep pain and consequent guilt. After attending the funeral, he tried hard to get Kelvin under his wing. He observed how the teen talked of revenge and betrayed aggressive emotions against the perpetrators through dark, yet hauntingly picturesque drawings and graffiti. Once Kelvin got past the 'You wouldn't understand because you're old and white' phase, he heeded Ricky's counsel and developed a sort of kinship with him. He warmed up further once he realized Ricky suffered a similar tragedy at his age.

"That's good to hear, Ricky. You're really making a difference in these kid's lives…I'll never forget how you saved that girl."

Ricky looked at Clifford and cringed, the memory struck him hard. A decade prior, Ricky helped establish a drug abuse program in the school. One of the first participants battled addiction, her parent's divorce, and a general overwhelming feeling of worthlessness. Both she and Ricky nearly took a tumble off the school rooftop one intense afternoon.

"That was too close a call, Clifford. I didn't get over it for weeks. She eventually got the proper help, and pulled through clean and sober. I never told you, but she came back to visit the school two years ago to thank me again for saving her. She said her life was spared in more ways than one. You know I hate crying in front of anyone, but she got my waterworks going. I really needed to hear that at the time, because I wondered whether or not to even continue as a counselor."

"That's beautiful. You are a fantastic counselor, Ricky. Everyone at Lakeview knows it too. You're not a quitter. They need you."

As a result of his heroism, Ricky's daring rescue made headlines. It also dredged up his past and news articles resurfaced from when he supposedly found his brother shot in the head. The horrible unspoken truth was that Ricky lied. His brother grabbed for the gun Ricky foolishly played around with. It happened so fast with just one slip of his finger against the trigger. Rather than take the blame like his dying brother warned him to, he put the gun in his hand and said…

"I found him that way…" Ricky announced.

Clifford noticed Ricky drift into his own world, but this time avoided bringing him back to his senses. It happened the same way every year. Ricky needed a moment to reflect and become that misunderstood teenager again. His eyes glazed over with deep regret.

"I could never bring myself to tell my parents. My mother died believing it was an accident. My father always blamed himself and drifted away from us. I barely see him now, but I try and help him when I can. He can't work anymore, doctor's orders. He's old and miserable. In a way I blame him too. How could you keep a loaded gun in the house with two boys? Talk about irresponsible!"

Ricky fumed and staggered around the walkway and cracked his knuckles. "My mom always told him to hide it, but dad just shoved it in a damn shoebox at the top of the closet. Anyone could have bit the bullet if they rummaged up there…arrgh…forget it! I'm sorry Clifford. All I do is repeat the same damn stories."

Ricky reluctantly faced Clifford as he had so many years ago. Hot tears sprinkled past his eyelids and down his cheeks and his face turned pink with grief.

"All this pain and guilt…it never ends for me, and then I have to drag you here like it's some religious rite of passage!"

Clifford hung his head, it was not a big burden for him to support his best friend, but he felt that Ricky somehow needed to let go of his past. Another thought crossed his mind about their fateful night. He cautiously put a hand on his arm.

"Hey, I think I know what else is eating you. You never found her, did you?"

Ricky wiped his eyes and kicked at the floor disappointed. "No…thirty years I've been in this city and we never crossed paths again. What a moron I was! We were stuck in that train car for over an hour during the black out and I never even got her last name."

"Well, Rick, I would hardly say you were in the mood to start a romance…but I know…it wasn't about that. She really helped you out, didn't she?"

Ricky clasped his hands across the back of his neck. "It's weird, Cliff. We just got to talking and the stuff she said brought me back to reality. I mean, she came on that train as depressed and wrecked as I was, but when she saw I needed help…"

"She forgot her troubles and comforted you…I understand. And she didn't coddle either, you told me she was pretty firm some of the time." Clifford grinned slyly. "You gloated about what a hot babe she was for weeks! I couldn't take hearing it after a while."

Ricky looked at him surprised. "Cliff, you never told me that!" He smiled. "You weren't so nice to me either that night. If I remember you called me a damn ape and said I built a bike to go nowhere."

Clifford shrugged. "It was the truth, wasn't it?"

"Yeah it was. I know I raved a lot about her. To this day, I can't get her face out of my head, even if the image dims with age. Her eyes were spectacular, they were huge and this soft shade of blue… she had a real cute nose and a giant smile. I loved her smile. A real…strong looking girl, but at the same time she was slight and fragile, ya know?"

Clifford laughed. "Geez, Rick, you sound sixteen again. Are you sure she's not your long lost twin sister? The way you always described her I pictured you in a long wig!"

Ricky shoved him playfully. "Get outta here! It's a known scientific fact that the people we become most attracted to and eventually marry usually have similar characteristics and facial traits…it's not absolute, but hey…"

"I get it, man. People always said Shelly and I somehow just 'go' together. We both have big blue eyes, curly brown hair and all that too."

"Cliff, nobody, and I mean nobody, could have helped me as much as you and your family did all these years…it's just…I wish I could see her again, just to tell her that I'm alright."

"I know, but who knows what could have happened to her? There are any number of things…"

Ricky put his hand up. "Believe me, I've counted them off in my head, marriage and family, death, she moved…death…dammit. She tried to tell me about her crummy life, but I was too caught up in my own mess. I hope it didn't come to that."

Ricky folded his arms and leaned out over the tracks. The eleven o'clock train rolled in and he wanted to make sure to be on it. "I'm just dreaming, man, don't mind me."

Clifford yawned and backed toward the stairwell. "Ricky, just like my grandmother said, whatever makes you happy, go for it. Because that's how I like to see you too…happy.