Fire's Edge
a novel by
Alan Siporin

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Chapter One

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Chapter One


Hannah Turnfeld tastes the stale courthouse air, and a wetdog aroma from wool moistened by the Oregon drizzle, mingling with whiffs of floor-polish, perfume, and sweat. She feels as if she could sink into the deep ruts of the worn, wooden stairs. She hesitates, then mounts the last few steps and turns into the expansive corridor. A hubbub of voices echo off the high ceiling and marble walls. The line is more of a mass than single file, with some people standing by themselves, most gathering in groups of two, three, or four, facing each other, talking. As many as fifty people wait for a seat to watch the Robert Hanson trial.

She hurries around the corner to the back of the line in the isolated side hall, where another thirty people cram into the more limited space. Some wear jeans and sweaters, others suits and ties. A few bright-colored, waist-length rain slicks provide splashes of green and purple. They remind her of Anthony's black, nylon jacket with lime green trim around the pockets and collar. Her throat tightens.

She knew the Hanson trial would evoke him. She's suffered worse losses - her mother and father, taken in the same instant. But Anthony's murder stole her passion for teaching.

Hannah starts to rummage through her last encounters with him, except something nags at her - a strange yelping that isn't quite dog-like. The insistent barking intrudes, yanking her from her thoughts, like an alarm rattling a dream. She focuses, glancing quickly from one person to the next, until she spots the source of the disruption - a teen in full Nazi uniform stands five or six places down the line from her. The boy's head is shaved. His brown coat bears a red Nazi arm-band with a white circle and the twisted, black cross. Hannah feels the sudden thump of her pulse.

She glances around to see how other people are reacting, but no one else seems to notice him. Perhaps because the boy's growl sounds more prankish than threatening. Or maybe they avoid him out of fear. He's with two friends, smiling and laughing. If not for his shaved head and Nazi garb, Hannah might see him as playful. Her heart backs off her throat, but queasiness lingers.

She expected to see skinheads at Hanson's trial - not Nazi dress. To her, Nazi uniforms belong in the past - in films or in the Holocaust stories of her grandmother and great aunt. She tries to turn away. She can't. She's drawn to the boy. In a way, he is what she came for.

His friends have shaved heads, too, and wear similar Nazi attire. One is short like him, the other tall and massive. But something strikes her as out of place. The uniforms on the two smaller boys are too big for them - their shoulders hang loose and the sleeves droop nearly to their fingers - and the big skinhead is bursting out of his tunic. The odd fit makes her chuckle, inwardly, soothing her for a moment.

She follows the fix of the young Nazi's stare to an old man who slumps forward as if he were leaning on an invisible cane. His thin shoulders curve inward, and a thick tuft of white hair stands atop his head like a rooster's comb. She glances back toward the young Nazi, who whispers something to his buddies and gestures with his head. They nod in agreement. The three skinheads brush past a couple in front of them, strutting toward the man. A woman with a baby in her arms moves closer to the man she's with, and, together, they move away from the boys, closer to the wall. The boy emits his yelp again. The old man glances at him, then quickly looks away, rocking back and forth, from heel to toe.

Hannah searches for allies who might assist the man, but the crowd remains turned away, in private enclaves. She wonders if people are oblivious, or if she is making something out of nothing. The din from the crowd around the corner cascades off the walls. Her great aunt and her grandmother told her the Holocaust began with isolated acts of intimidation. Hitler's thugs, they called them, grew bolder because no one stepped forward to hold them accountable.

The boy and his buddies slip closer to the old man, until no one stands between him and them, and they're only a few feet away. Hannah's heart races. Her legs feel heavy. But she urges her body forward, slides out of her place in line, past a handful of people, and places herself between the boys and the man. The kid glares at her.

His eyes are red. Not a dull, bloodshot maroon - but an icy crimson.

She winces.

The boy smirks.

She measures his distance. Could he take a swing at her and connect? It's close. She takes a breath, straightens her spine and shoulders, and stares back - hard, with her scolding teacher's scowl.

Undeterred, the teenager puffs out his chest and shoves past her. His buddies follow. She looks down at her own, shaking hands. The three skinheads surround their mark. The big one hulks behind the old man; the red-eyed kid takes up a post directly in front of him, face-to-face. The third one hesitates, a shoulder's length behind. Hannah, to the kid's side, feels a sudden urge to rip his swastika arm-band.

She wonders if the last image Anthony saw was a swastika. She swallows hard. And, again, she questions her reaction. The kids are playing with the old man, like older brothers teasing a younger sibling. After all, the courthouse hallway is filled with people. But when she looks at the man, she sees his arms and shoulders tremble. His head wobbles. Hannah feels a bead of sweat run down her side as she psyches herself to act. Fear cements her feet as if she were in a nightmare with a monster on her heels, her legs unable to move.

She focuses on her self-defense training, centers her energy, tightens her stomach, and slightly flexes her knees.

Steadied, she encroaches on the threatening trio, wedging herself between the man and the boy. This time the boy's strange eyes are inches away; hard and dark, emanating a reddish tint as if fire burned behind the blackness. A tiny swastika tattoo is blazoned below his left eye. His breath descends on hers.

Her trembling, barely at bay, easily returns. She fights an exacting knot twisting at her gut, twisting around and around, forming a larger and more entangled gnarl.

But she finds the strength to make her voice firm. "Leave him alone."

The kid grins. She stiffens, braces for whatever will follow.

She feels something brush her shoulder, and she jerks. A man slides past her. He sticks a microphone in the young Nazi's face.

The man's voice is strong and compelling. "If you're with White Nation, I would like to ask you a couple questions."

The red-eyed boy tenses his arms, forms his fists. But he hesitates and looks down. Then he belches out a barely audible grunt before he backs off a couple paces. The kid appears as a vampire to Hannah now, cowering before a priest with a cross.

The man, at first glance, is not physically imposing - a dark brown man of medium height wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses. His hair is part dreadlock, but mostly just unkempt. He presses his advantage. Pivoting, he thrusts the microphone in the face of the huge kid behind him. "How about you?"

The big Nazi kid shakes his head. Again, no words. Hannah feels the tension between them, but the standoff ends as quickly as it began, and the three invaders slink slowly back to their places in line.

"I can't believe these guys." The commanding intensity is gone as the man addresses Hannah and the old man. His voice turns light, though it holds a hint of disgust. "They act so tough, but you can't get a word out of them. At least a black guy can't." He laughs, then shakes his head from side to side, flip-flopping his dreadlocks.

She wants to say something, but the man doesn't give her a chance. "Actually, I'm not sure these fools are capable of talking. They fight you at the drop of a hat, but they're scared to death to debate you. Underneath that bravado they're just scared, little kids."

The old man smiles. "I'm afraid I'm the scared one here."

"Are you all right?" She lightly touches the old man's arm.

He sighs, and his body droops. "I'm okay now. Thank you."

Hannah turns to the black man. "I'm not sure they would have done anything here, but I'm glad you stuck your nose in there. Thanks. I was a little freaked-out."

He laughs, short and halting. "I hear that. These kids can be scary. But they wouldn't hurt you here. This place is crawling with cops."

She glances around in a quick attempt to spot the police. More people have squeezed into the side hall, compacting the line. But she doesn't see any comforting blue uniforms. Only the boys in their brown, Nazi garb. They huddle together, now, talking in hushed tones; still too close for Hannah to relax. She twirls a lock of hair and tucks it under her bangs.

"My name is Hannah." She shakes hands with both men.

"Earl," the old man says.

"Fil." He shakes hands with the old man. She looks Fil over. His dress is disheveled. And he's so talkative he's practically bubbly. Probably because he's young, she thinks.

"So what brings you folks to the trial?" He looks back and forth, from Hannah to Earl and back to her.

"That's kind of a long story," Earl shrugs.

Fil grins. "This line doesn't seem to be going anywhere."

"I got a kind of personal interest in seein' this trial." Earl pauses, looking back and forth from Fil to Hannah. "My neighbor is the grandmother of Tommy Larson."

Fil and Hannah look at Earl, then at each other, but no one says anything. She feels a lump well up and fill her throat. After a moment, Fil asks, "One of the kids who killed Anthony Jones?"

"Yeah."

Hannah looks away, but she can still see Fil glancing at her, then back toward Earl, as the old man continues.

"I haven't seen the boy in years. Seemed like a real nice kid when I seen him last. He was maybe ten, then. His grandma is the salt of the earth. She's awful shook up."

"I can't imagine," Fil says. "I've often thought about Anthony Jones' parents. But that's gotta' be rough, too."

Earl cocks one eyebrow. "Nothin' I'm gonna' see here is gonna' make her feel any better. Nothin's gonna' take Tommy off the hook. I know that." He sighs and shakes his head. "But I want to see this Hanson get what's comin' to him. You know what I mean?"

"Sure," Fil says. The two men look directly at each other. Then Earl looks away and shakes his head.

"Tell me more about his grandmother," Hannah says. She thinks her voice will crack, but it comes out fine. "What does she say about her grandson?"

"At first she wouldn't believe it. But, you know, all three of those boys admitted they done it." Earl shakes his head. "That set her back. She was a lively, happy gal before that. She keeps to herself now. Won't go out." Earl raises his voice and his shoulders and arms shake. "I know I can't help her, but I thought maybe I could see this Hanson for myself and come back and tell her the guy is a snake in the grass, and he coulda' got the next kid as well as her Tommy."

Fil glances at Hannah. She creases her lips, attempting a halfsmile.

Earl's head wobbles, his eyes blink, then close. His body slumps toward the floor. Fil and Hannah grab him and hold him up.

"Are you okay?" Fil asks, still holding him up.

Hannah wonders if Fil is taking all the weight - the old man feels so light and frail. After a moment, Earl opens his eyes. He looks back and forth from Fil to Hannah, but he doesn't say anything.

"Earl. I think you blacked out for a second," Fil says.

"Yeah, things are a little fuzzy."

"Maybe you should sit down," Hannah says.

"I think I'm okay now. Thanks."

"Are you sure you're okay?" She pats his arm." There's a place to sit over there." She gestures toward a well-worn bench along the wall, about ten feet away.

"That's a good idea. This hallway is still movin' on me."

Fil and Hannah each hold onto an arm and slowly guide Earl toward the bench. She notices a hand-painted no smoking sign on the wall and a metal ash tray nearby. She wonders what the three skinheads are doing, but she can't see them without being obvious. Earl turns around and eases himself down to the seat. He looks up at Hannah.

"I'll be fine. Don't give up your spot in line on account of me. I ain't too sure everybody's gonna' get in. There's a lot of folks here, and that's a small courtroom. I seen it before."

"Are you sure you're okay?" Fil asks.

"Positive."

"We'll be right over there," Hannah says, gesturing toward their previous place in line. "If you need a hand, let us know."

"You're very kind. But I'm fine." As they return to the line, she glances at the skinheads. They don't seem to be paying any attention to her or Earl.

"What a sweet, gentle man," she says to Fil.

"I didn't realize you didn't know each other."

"I can't believe I'm the only one who saw those kids." She raises her voice.

"I think the cops would have intervened before it got serious."

"I thought it was serious. That old man - Earl - could have had a heart attack. Those kids were intimidating him, at the least. And I didn't get the feeling anybody, police or otherwise, were paying any attention."

"You were." Fil smiles.

"Apparently you were, too."

Fil shakes his head. He seems a little embarrassed. Hannah smiles, then looks away. After a second she glances back toward him. Fil is still looking at her. He flicks his hair out of his eyes with his flip-flopping motion, smiles and asks again what brought her to the trial.

"Checking it out, like everyone else. How about you?" She points to his microphone and tape recorder. "I thought you must be a reporter. But you haven't been recording any of this, have you?"

"I work with an anti-racism organization in Eugene. I document connections between groups like Hanson's and the skinheads." He looks down, then back up, making eye contact again. "I bet you a cup of coffee it's more than curiosity that brought you here."

"I'm not really sure what brought me." Hannah glances at the skinheads again, still in their spot. "I mean there's a number of reasons."

She tries to imagine Anthony running into Tommy Larson and his friends in the alley. But, other than a fuzzy news photo, she doesn't know what Tommy Larson or his friends look like, and she doesn't want to let herself drift while Fil is waiting for her answer.

"I don't know. I guess being Jewish has something to do with it. I'm not exactly sure."

"I guess that makes you more curious about Hanson's trial than your average white guy, anyway." He laughs.

His laugh lights up his eyes, and makes her laugh, too. Hannah thinks the sound of his laugh is a bit dorky, but the smile and the way he shakes his head when he laughs engages her.

"I guess that's part of it," she says. "But there's a lot of reasons for being here."

Hannah isn't sure why she's reluctant to mention Anthony. Probably because she'll start sobbing. She recalls her first day back in the classroom, two days after his murder. She had canceled her planned lessons and held a circle meeting. The kids were quieter than usual, obviously aware the feeling-sharing session would be about Anthony.

She could feel a flood forming inside and thought her voice would waver when she invited them to talk about him. But she sounded composed, and the expected catch in her throat failed to manifest. The kids remained quiet. Finally, Mickey Serano, usually one of her more gabby kids, whispered that Anthony showed him how to get in front of ground balls. Mickey sounded more like four than twelve, and her repressed tears almost burst out as laughter. But she was grateful for any response because it allowed others to follow.

Four or five boys prattled on with more sports-related connections, until Joyce Chapman suddenly shouted, "What's the matter with you? This isn't about baseball. Anthony was murdered for being black." She sobbed, and the girls on each side of her embraced her. Other kids wept.

Fil stares at Hannah with an earnest gaze. "Are you okay?" he asks.

She shakes her head. "Yes. I'm fine." Her voice cracks, slightly. If Fil notices, he doesn't let on.

"You were saying there are a number of reasons that brought you here."

"Hope." She pauses. "Fear. But not fear of these guys. I mean - I am afraid of them, but that's not why I came. I guess fear of them is just a bonus." She laughs.

Fil laughs, too, his eyes lighting up again. Then he sets his jaw and his voice takes on an urgency. "These guys scare the crap outta me."

"I thought you said they were just scared little boys?"

"Oh, they are, but they're like cornered beasts, too. Their fear won't keep them from lashing out. Like I said, though, I don't think they would do it here with cops everywhere."

"Don't bet your life on it, nigger." The red-eyed kid is at Fil's shoulder, with a mocking grin. It all seems like a big joke to him, Hannah thinks. But she's afraid he won't stop at verbal threats. She feels the big skinhead crowding her from behind. She turns. He looms over her, staring down. She had been glancing at them and can't believe they managed to get so close, undetected. And she wonders how much they heard.

The big kid says something to Hannah, low and muffled.

She can't make it out. He whispers it again.

"Race-mixer."

Before she can move or speak, she's pushed aside by two men, one in a dark-gray sport coat, the other in dark blue. They place themselves between Hannah and the kids, moving Fil to the side as well. The hall feels packed, Hannah realizes. Suffocating.

"Is there a problem here?" One of the men asks Hannah, but he rivets his gaze on the young Nazi. His voice holds a booming, commanding authority.

"No -" Fil starts to respond.

"Yes," Hannah interrupts. "I think there is."

The man has a receding hairline and a hard, square chin. He's a big man, but still considerably smaller than the massive teen. He presses close to the big kid.

"Back off. Your business here is finished. Understand?"

"It's a free country." The big kid fidgets, but stands his ground.

"Oink, oink." The red-eyed Nazi wedges near his buddy.

"Back off, unless you wanna' spend the night locked up."

The other man, dark-haired with a stern, angry face, shouts his command.

The big skinhead leans his chin and chest forward. "Fuck you, you motherfucking pigs!" he shouts in their faces.

Everyone in the hallway turns, looking at the plainclothes cops and the skinhead kids. More spectators from around the corner crowd into the side hall, gawking. Three more men, two in plain brown suits, the third in a plaid sport coat, quickly emerge from different parts of the crowd and are immediately in the faces of the three young Nazis. A crackling, walkie-talkie sound cuts through the corridor.

"Get some uniforms up here right away. Second floor, side hall."

Hannah isn't sure which detective is talking.

"We're on our way." The answer is broken up, but easy to make out. The big Nazi stares at the cops, daring them. The redeyed kid glares at Hannah instead of his immediate adversaries.

"You've been warned." The cop looks right at the big skinhead.

"You're either on you're way out the door, or you're on your way to lockup."

"Fuck me, pig."

The words are barely out before the two officers pounce on the big Nazi. One goes low and takes the kid's legs out from under him. The other grabs the teen's left arm. When the boy crashes to the floor, the officer goes with him, yanking the kid's arm behind him and cuffing it in a swift, practiced motion.

The other officers hold the two remaining skinheads at bay with their presence. The red-eyed boy tenses. His companion backs up. Police in blue uniforms arrive and together with the detectives, hoist the big kid to his feet.

He wrenches back and forth, spits and curses, but he can't break loose. "Fuck you!"

Hannah has never been this close to anything so violent and frightening. She feels a shiver, and her body trembles. She thinks of her self-defense course, how lame her kicks and blocks would be in the face of this boy. Then she remembers the red-eyed Nazi, but when she looks for him, he's gone. She looks around to make sure he's not behind her, but she can't locate him.

The hallway buzzes with chatter. Fil jerks out a little laugh. "I never thought I would feel good about having cops around."

Hannah is quiet.

"Are you all right?" he asks softly.

"Yeah. I've never seen anything like this. You know? I'm okay, though." Hannah sighs and takes a breath. She feels her body sag. The hallway feels hot, the air stagnant. The clatter of the crowd simmers back to a low, constant murmur.

"What is wrong with these kids?" Hannah suddenly blurts out, catching herself by surprise.

"I don't know." Fil clenches his jaw and his voice hardens. "That's part of what I'm trying to find out. But I'm not optimistic."

He hesitates, as if he doesn't know what to say next. Hannah realizes her most disruptive students are a breeze compared to these hard-cores, and finally understands why Anthony was no match for kids like them.

At the circle meeting after his murder, none of the kids ever mentioned things Anthony might have done to them- hitting them or bullying them. Hannah wondered if the kids were observing a don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead rule, or if Anthony had really changed that much. She had no doubts that, at his worst, he was one of her most disruptive students - stealing, picking fights. He never seemed vicious, though, and she believed he was turning it around. He hadn't been in a fight, that she knew of, in three months. He was reading, and completing his assignments. But she would never know if he had turned it around.

Copyright @2002. Alan Siporin. All rights reserved.
2002 / hardcover / ISBN 0-9722806-0-X / 5-1/2" x 8-1/2" / 320 pgs.
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