Final chapter. Many thanks to the two or three of you who are actually reading this! I hope you have enjoyed my tribute to my favorite Sweathog, although I was pretty tough on him. Reviews are love.
Epstein's first day back to school proved to be a trial. Weak and pale, he slouched through the day in near silence, frequently wiping his face with his bandanna. Occasional bouts of nausea and trembling kept him miserable, but Kotter believed that more was going on. He spoke to Julie about it that night.
"This is going to sound crazy, but he looks so sad, like he needs a hug."
"Then give him a hug!" Julie exclaimed.
Gabe gave her a look of disbelief. "Epstein isn't exactly the touchy-feely type."
"I'm not asking you to smother him with hugs and kisses! Just let him know that you care what happens to him.
"I can tell him that."
"Sometimes a hug tells more than words. Just try it, honey."
Julie smiled. "I think that crying may be what he needs. He's been through a lot, honey. I know you men think it's macho to not show any emotion, but believe me, a good cry can do a world of good."
"You don't understand, Julie. Women can cry in front of everybody and nobody thinks anything of it. But guys, well, we don't."
"I seem to remember Juan showing quite a bit of emotion during his stay here."
"That was different. I don't think he remembers much. He was pretty out of it."
"Just try it, honey. Please?"
Deciding to follow Julie's advice, Gabe looked for Epstein after school. He knew the boys usually hung around for a time before heading home, and he was not disappointed. He found Epstein sitting on the bench by the lockers, obviously depressed.
Juan looked up at him suspiciously. "Why?"
Gabe beckoned. "Just c'mere," he repeated.
Epstein slowly rose from the bench and took a tentative step forward. Kotter braced himself, then held out his arms.
"I think you need this," he said, trying not to smile.
"What?" Juan stiffened, his eyes widening and his breathing quickening.
Gabe closed the distance between them, and wondering if he was about to get slugged, tentatively wrapped his arms around Epstein.
He heard a gasp and felt Juan tense and try to pull away. He squeezed tighter.
"Just let it out, Juan," he muttered, surprising himself with the gentleness of his voice. "It's okay."
A muffled sniff broke from Epstein, and Kotter felt Juan's chest hitch. He carefully patted Epstein's back. "You're gonna be okay."
He waited, waited, and finally Epstein allowed himself to hug Kotter back. His contact was light, his hands stiffly placed on Gabe's sides.
"Mr. Kotter…I…I'm…" Epstein had to stop.
"Just keep holding on." Gabe rubbed the taut muscles of Juan's back. "You're safe with me."
"I…" Epstein was obviously struggling to keep from breaking down, and the effort made him tremble uncontrollably.
"It's okay to cry, Epstein. And it's okay to hold onto me." He lowered his head to Juan's, tightening his grip around the young man's shoulders. "I care about you, Juan."
Epstein suddenly either gave in or couldn't hold back anymore, and his shaking now came from wrenching sobs. He took hold of Kotter as well, grasping at his coat as though desperate for the contact. Surprised at the depth of emotion that Epstein demonstrated, Gabe remained very still, allowing the young man to feel his safety and support.
"Aw, isn't that cute!"
Epstein wrenched himself from Gabe's embrace and faced the lockers. Kotter had seen the Sweathogs approach, all of them fixed with huge grins, and he had hoped that for once they would pass up a teasing opportunity. Of course, they had not.
Arnold especially seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. "Look at Little Juan! I always knew he had a soft heart!"
"Cryin' on Mr. Kotter's shoulder!" Vinnie added.
"I ain't cryin'! I just got somethin' in my eye!" Epstein wiped his face without turning to them.
"Mr. Kot-taire's gotta change his shirt!" Freddie burst out, laughing. "You got it all wet with your tears!"
"Okay, guys," Kotter broke in. "That's enough. You know what Epstein's been through, so cut him some slack, okay?"
"Yeah, sure, Mr. Kotter," Barbarino agreed. "Come on, guys. Let Epstein finish his hug."
The boys all snickered and high fived as they sauntered down the hall.
Kotter watched them leave, then turned back to Epstein. "They're just kidding."
"I know," Epstein replied, his voice still thick. He once again wiped his face but could not seem to look at Kotter.
"Um, did you want to finish the hug?"
Epstein's breath hitched. "No, no, I'm good."
"Okay, well, I'll see you tomorrow, then."
Gabe wanted to leave, desperately wanted to walk down the hall like the boys had just done, but something kept him still. Juan's hunched form, missing the proud stance that was such an integral part of his character, made him hesitate. Wondering at his newfound feminist leaning, Kotter quickly went to Juan and enveloped him in a short but thorough embrace. He then rushed down the hall, somehow extremely satisfied.
It was two days later, and Kotter had just left school when he heard angry voices. He managed to get close enough to identify one of the speakers as Epstein. Not recognizing the others, he decided to stay out of sight.
"Hey, Epstein! Punk! You ratted us out, man!"
"No I didn't, man! I didn't say nothin'!"
"Yeah, well, you sure ain't with us no more. You let us down."
"Man, I ain't usin' anymore. I don't want nothin' to do with that."
"Hey, you can't just walk away, brother!"
"I already did."
"Man, Blake said you were cool."
"Well, Blake does stuff that I don't do."
"That's not what we heard. Blake said you did all right in Newark. Scored lots of cash."
"Yeah, and we took care of you when you couldn't shoot up. You owe us, big time."
"I don't owe you shit."
Gabe heard a sudden smack and a scuff of shoes and realized that someone had been hit.
"That's just the beginning, punk," someone snapped.
"Yeah, three against one. Real fair," Epstein replied, telling Kotter who had been hit.
"You just remember that when you come beggin' for a fix."
"That ain't gonna happen."
Gabe heard laughter. "Yeah, listen to mister big shot there! You'll be cryin' and asking for just a little bit, please just a little to make the pain go away!" He cringed, recognizing the pleas he had heard during Epstein's withdrawal and decided it was time to make an appearance.
"Okay, that's enough," he said, startling everyone as he emerged from his hiding place. "You guys need to go on home now. And Epstein, I need to talk to you."
The three toughs didn't hesitate, slinking away into the neighborhood. Epstein sighed in relief, then stared up at Kotter.
"How long were you there?"
"I heard it all, and Epstein, I'm proud of you."
"Proud that I can get hit with the best of them?" he said ruefully, rubbing his jaw.
"Well, that's part of it. But mostly I'm proud that you stood up to them. I understand how powerful peer pressure is, and you didn't let them get to you."
Epstein shrugged. "I guess. But…" He glanced around as if looking for the gang to return. "I still want it. I can't stop thinking about it. What if…what if I…can't stop…"
"Epstein, I know the guys will all agree. If you feel like you're going to slip, tell one of us. We'll help you."
"Those guys…they're not gonna give up that easy."
"Just stay away from them."
"Don't worry, I don't want to get my ass kicked." He winced. "Oops. Sorry."
"Bars of soap, Juan. Just keep picturing bars of soap."
Epstein stared at Kotter. "Didn't you…I seem to remember you saying something about…"
"You demonstrated a talent for interesting language. Colorful language. Very bad language."
Juan blushed. "Aw, man, I remember. I'm—I'm sorry, Mr. Kotter."
"All is forgiven. Just like the puking and the diarrhea, the sweats, wetting the bed. Shaking, intense pain. Screaming. Crying. Let's see—undressing you for a bath. Tying you naked to a cot. Trying hard to keep you decent so my wife could come into her own home. Yes, all is forgiven." He paused, knowing he was embarrassing Juan but wanting to drive home his point.
"Remember all that so that you won't ever—ever fall into the trap of drugs again. Never again!" He grinned, remembering something else. "And I have even more ammunition. The slightest slip-up and I tell the guys that you're extremely ticklish."
Epstein's head jerked up. "You wouldn't!" he gasped.
"I would in a minute."
"But they—they'd gang up on me if—Mr. Kotter, you gotta promise me that you'll never say anything about it to the guys!"
"Hmm. I see possibilities with this. Homework not done? One word to the guys and you'll be begging to do homework."
"Of course, it would be better to have a code with the guys. You know, just a single word, like ribs or sides or feet."
Epstein was backing away from his teacher. "Mr. Kotter, I mean it! Don't say anything to them!"
"Feathers. A good supply of feathers."
Gabe set his briefcase on his desk and prepared to open it for the day's lessons. Before he could get started, Mr. Woodman stalked into the room.
"A word, Kotter."
"Mr. Woodman. What a pleasant way to start the day."
"This concerns Epstein."
Kotter became serious. "He's doing much better, Mr. Woodman. He's off—"
"I know, I know. The Kotter Detox Program was a rousing success." Woodman seemed anything but pleased. "You could start a new profession taking in all of Brooklyn's losers. But I didn't come here to discuss careers."
"So what do you want?" Gabe couldn't keep the apprehension from his voice.
"I've decided that the best course of action is to drop all charges against Epstein. Of course, there was a lack of hard evidence that he was part of the break-ins, unless he said something to you…"
Gabe stared at the older man. "I wouldn't say anything if he had told me," he stated.
"Figures. So I've decided to let it go. I suppose he's been punished enough."
"Yes, he has."
Woodman started to leave, but stopped at the doorway. "Just one more thing, Kotter. What's the deal with the Sweathogs ganging up on Epstein?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Well, yesterday I got two reports of Epstein being chased through the halls, and just a minute ago I got a complaint that they had Epstein held down in the locker room. Something about tickling. What is this, Kotter? Some sort of game?"
Before Gabe could answer, Epstein scrambled past Mr. Woodman and dashed for Kotter.
"Mr. Kotter, hide me!" he gasped.
Kotter stood back and stared. "Epstein, why are you wearing only one shoe?"
Juan looked down at his feet. "They took it! They've got feathers! Mr. Kotter, you told them!"
"You forgot your homework," Gabe replied, waggling his eyebrows.
"Craziness!" Mr. Woodman snorted. "Absolute craziness!"