Monty had found it strange that Daniel Hovane was at the party after the football game on Friday night, but at the time he’d been too focused on prying Muriel away from Tad again and too focused on getting his fair share of the beer to give Daniel’s presence a second thought. By the time he’d gotten through a second party on Saturday night and spent most of Sunday recovering and avoiding Muriel’s calls, he’d almost forgotten that Daniel Hovane even existed.
But as Monty stood at his locker on Monday morning after trying to convince Muriel that she was much better off with Tad than with him after all, he saw Daniel approaching out of the corner of his eye and a hazy mental image from Friday night came back to him: Daniel, standing in a corner of the kitchen by himself, scowling at everyone, and in his hand, not a can of beer or a red plastic cup, but a digital camera.
As Monty stared into the depths of his locker and tried to remember what he’d been searching for, Daniel’s slow approach down the hall filled him with a mounting dread. Daniel was coming for him. Monty decided to hazard a quick glance in Daniel’s direction in hopes that he would see some evidence that he had been mistaken, that Daniel wasn’t coming for him after all. He looked and saw that Daniel’s eyes were fixed only on him. The digital camera was in Daniel’s left hand, an expression that almost certainly meant business was on his face. He drew closer. He stopped.
“Monty,” said Daniel. His shoulders were stooped, his hair was parted crookedly down the middle, his shirt appeared to be both brand new and very cheap.
“What do you want?” asked Monty, flashing an easy-looking grin that was anything but easy to produce.
“You,” said Daniel Hovane, “have officially played your last football game for Multioak High School.”
“And then you smashed his camera?” asked Cecil later that day. He and Monty were hanging out in Cecil’s basement, watching college football highlights on mute and devouring a plate of cookies Cecil’s mom had made to thank the neighbors for the plate of cookies they’d given to Cecil’s family, which Cecil and Monty had also devoured.
“Not yet,” said Monty. “Then I was like, ‘My last game? What?’ And he was like, ‘You’re gonna get suspended. I’ve got all these pictures of you partying.’ So I was like, ‘Let me see.’ So he shows me all these pictures of me with beers in my hand at the party. So that’s when I grabbed the camera from him and spiked it on the floor and busted it and then stomped on it. And then he’s just stunned, like, about to cry, but he says, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’ve got ‘em all saved on my computer at home. I just wanted you to know who brought you down when the principal calls you into his office tomorrow and tells you you’re kicked off the team. Now you know.’”
“He won’t send ‘em to the principal, though,” said Cecil, eating the last cookie in one casual bite.
“I don’t know,” said Monty. “He might. I wasn’t worried at first, but now I’m freaking out a little.” Monty saw the effect that his admission had on Cecil, his eyes narrowing, his chewing slowing.
“What if he does show the pictures to someone?” asked Monty.
“You’d get kicked off the team,” said Cecil, weighing the enormity of what that would mean for Monty’s young life, and, of course, what that would mean for the success of the Multioak High School varsity football season.
“We should go to his house,” said Monty.
“I know where he lives,” said Cecil. “He used to ride my bus before we moved.”
The boys got to their feet, leaving two intensely becrumbed patches on the pale blue couch cushions where they’d sat. On the TV, a feeble punter, doing his utmost to prevent his punt from being returned for the go-ahead touchdown, grabbed the returner by the facemask with both hands and dragged him to the turf like he was breaking a calf. Monty and Cecil would have loved it had they still been in the room to see it.
There were no lights on in Daniel’s house and there were no cars in the garage, which was unlocked. Monty and Cecil stood in the middle of the Hovane’s empty garage and pondered their next move.
“I just remembered something,” said Cecil. “Today at school they announced something about the Academic Challengeers having an exhibition match in Heavenburg tonight. Doesn’t Daniel do that?”
Monty snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure he does. That seems like his kind of thing, right?”
“So he and his parents are probably gone all evening,” said Cecil.
A smile crawled its way across Monty’s face. “We could get inside, get on the computer, and delete the pictures. He’d have nothing on us.”
Cecil nodded. “Let’s do it. In quick, out quick. Try the door.” He pointed at the door leading from the garage into the house.
Feeling crafty, Monty walked over to the door and tried the knob. “It’s open,” he said, motioning for Cecil to follow him. “Look. Wide open.”
Once they were inside, Monty closed the door and the two boys stood in the Hovane’s dark kitchen and savored the feeling of impending victory. It felt like a three touchdown halftime lead with the other team’s starting running back visibly favoring his left ankle.
“Let’s find Daniel’s room,” said Monty in a low voice, even though the Hovanes were gone. A low voice just seemed more appropriate.
Monty assumed that Daniel’s room would be upstairs and it was, down at the end of the hall behind the first door he checked.
Cecil flipped the light switch as Monty crossed Daniel’s immaculately arranged bedroom to his desk where his computer sat hibernating, humming softly. Monty sat down in Daniel’s leather, rolling desk chair and jiggled the mouse on the pad. The computer monitor lit up and Monty grunted in irritation.
“What?” asked Cecil, walking up behind Monty and bending down to look over his shoulder at the monitor.
“It needs a password,” said Monty.
“Try his name,” said Cecil. “Type ‘Daniel.’”
“That’s too simple,” said Monty.
“Just try it.”
Monty tried it. “See? Access denied.”
“Huh,” said Cecil, standing up and cracking his neck. “I don’t know.”
“That’s your only idea?” asked Monty. “You can’t think of any other passwords?”
“Maybe it’s his middle name,” said Cecil.
“Shut up,” said Monty, his fingers hovering over the keyboard.
“Just try it,” said Cecil. “It couldn’t hurt.”
“Fine, genius, I’ll try his middle name. What is it?”
“I don’t know,” said Cecil, and he flopped down on Daniel’s carefully made bed and looked up at the ceiling.
Monty tried “Daniel” again, but in all capital letters, “111111,” and the word “Password.” None of these were the password. His access to the information on Daniel’s computer was still flatly denied.
“What kinds of things is Daniel into?” asked Cecil from the bed, holding his hands straight up and inspecting them from arm’s length. “What are his hobbies?”
“I don’t know,” said Daniel, swiveling in the desk chair to glare at Cecil. “I don’t know anything about this stupid kid. I barely even knew he existed until he started threatening to ruin my life.”
“Then how are we going to guess his password?” asked Cecil.
Monty looked around Daniel’s bedroom for any inspiration. “Not a single poster on the wall. No bands, no sports teams. This kid is so boring.” Monty tried the words, “Boring” and “nothing,” but neither was the correct password.
Monty clenched his eyes shut and pounded the heel of his hand against his forehead.
“Let me try,” said Cecil.
“What are you going to try?” asked Monty.
“Just let me try.”
“Fine.” Monty relinquished the seat to Cecil who cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath like he’d probably seen a password-guessing expert do in a lousy movie. Then he ran his fingers over the keyboard at random and hit “Enter.” Access was denied.
Cecil tried again. ClickCliClickClickCliCliClick. Click. Access denied.
CliCliClickClickClickCliClick. Click. Access denied.
“This idea sucks,” said Monty. “I’m going to use the bathroom.”
When Monty came back to Daniel’s room from a refreshing trip to the bathroom, the situation had changed dramatically. Cecil was not at the computer, but was rather kneeling atop a pajamas-clad Daniel on the floor and saying, “Just tell us the password and we won’t have to beat it out of you.”
Daniel, not struggling, just glared up at Cecil with eyes that seemed capable of vengeance plots that Monty wanted no part of.
“Where did he come from?” asked Monty, sensing that it might be about time to admit to himself, if no one else, that mistakes had been made and that some of those mistakes had been his doing.
“His parents are gone until Thursday,” said Cecil. “So he was napping in their bed. He woke up, saw the light on in his room, came in and found me on the computer, said, ‘Hey,’ and then I jumped him.”
“He told you all that?” asked Monty.
“Yeah,” said Cecil, smiling. “He’s scared.”
“What about the Academic Challengeers?” asked Monty. “He’s skipping the exhibition match?”
“I’m not in the Academic Challengeers,” said Daniel. “I would never be in the Challengeers.” His chest was heaving as his breath hissed in and out through his nostrils. He looked at Monty with even more fury than he had when Monty had smashed his camera. Monty couldn’t tell if it was because he’d assumed Daniel was in the Academic Challengeers or because he and Cecil had broken into his house and pinned him to the ground.
“What’s your password?” asked Monty. “We just want to delete those pictures and we’ll let you get back to your nap.”
“I’m not telling you anything else,” said Daniel.
“Tell us the password,” said Cecil, balling the front of Daniel’s pajamas in his fist and shaking him as much as he could from his position on top of him.
“No,” said Daniel. “Beat me up, I don’t care. My wounds will heal but you guys won’t get your senior football season back no matter what.”
“Tell us the password or I’ll smash the computer like I smashed your camera,” said Monty, stepping towards Daniel so he was looking straight down at him, Daniel’s head at Monty’s feet. “You know I will, Daniel.”
A look of genuine panic appeared on Daniel’s face, warring with the fury for dominance of Daniel’s features. “OK,” he said. “I’ll log on and delete the pictures for you.”
“No,” said Monty. “You might trick us. Or you might manage to run away. Tell us the password. Then when we’re logged on, you can tell us where to find the pictures.””
“It won’t matter!” shouted Daniel.
“What do you mean it won’t matter?” asked Monty. “What are you saying?”
“I already sent the pictures to someone else,” said Daniel. “Even if you delete them from my computer, someone else has them. We can still show the principal.”
Monty and Cecil looked at each other. “He’s probably lying,” said Cecil. “Smash his computer.”
“I’m not lying!” wailed Daniel, his brave front disintegrating.
Monty couldn’t believe this pitiful little kid was in the same grade as him, much less the fact that he was the person who controlled Monty’s destiny. “Tell me the password,” said Monty. He didn’t know what else to do. He needed a victory, even a hollow one. “This is your last chance. If the next word you tell me isn’t your password, I will throw your computer out of your window and it will smash into pieces on your driveway.”
Daniel’s eyes filled with tears. Then he said something that made Cecil frown and furrow his brow, though it was too quiet for Monty to hear. “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Muriel,’” said Cecil. “I think.”
“Muriel? Did you say ‘Muriel,’ Daniel?”
Daniel nodded miserably.
Monty walked over to the computer and typed “Muriel.”
“Did it work?” asked Cecil, twisting around on top of Daniel in an attempt to see the monitor.
“It worked,” said Monty. He stood up and looked at Daniel, scratching the patches of stubble on the sides of his face with his left hand, first one side, then the other. “OK,” said Monty. “Let him up, Cecil.”
“Finally,” said Cecil, getting to his feet. “I was starting to feel weird about that.”
Daniel sat up, breathing heavily, looking down at his lap.
Monty and Cecil stood on either side of him, hands on their hips. Finally, Monty spoke. “So you’ve got a crush on Muriel? Tad’s Muriel?”
“Your Muriel,” said Daniel. “And it’s not a crush. I love her.”
“Well, she’s probably getting back with Tad,” said Monty. “But, whatever, you love her, fine. So that means you’d do what she wanted, right?”
“I’d do anything for her,” said Daniel, his voice soft and reverent.
Monty broke into a broad smile. “Well, then, perfect. Let’s call her.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket, dialed, and Muriel answered after the first ring. “Hold on,” Monty said to her. “Let me put you on speaker. A-a-and…there. Can you hear me, Muriel?”
“Yeah,” said Muriel, her voice tinny and distant. “Where are you?”
“You’ll never guess,” said Monty.
The boys were silent for a moment but Muriel didn’t guess.
“I’m at Daniel Hovane’s house,” said Monty.
“Why are you calling me?” asked Muriel.
“Well, me and Cecil are here with Daniel and we’re having a little disagreement. Remember those pictures he has of me partying and stuff that I told you about? And how he threatened to show them to the principal?”
“Yeah,” said Muriel. “Are you threatening him? Are you breaking more of his stuff?”
“Not really,” said Monty. “Cecil and I just came over here to convince Daniel that spreading those pictures around would be a bad idea and that he should just delete them and forget about it. But he says he already sent them to someone else. But guess what else, Muriel. He says he’s in love with you and that he’ll do anything you tell him to do.”
Daniel was still sitting on the floor, refusing to look up.
“So,” continued Monty. “I figure if you just tell him to make this problem go away, he’ll make sure whoever he sent those pictures to deletes them and this will all be over.”
“Why would I do that for you?” asked Muriel. “Tad and I got back together.”
Monty smirked at Cecil and said, “Tad again? You don’t want to be with Tad, Muriel.”
“Then who?” asked Muriel. “You again?”
“Well, ha ha, why don’t you just tell Daniel to make sure those pictures don’t get to the principal and then we can talk about this at school tomorrow.”
“It’s too late,” said Muriel. “Daniel can’t stop anything now.”
“What?” asked Monty. “What do you mean? How do you know?”
“Because,” said Daniel, looking up from the floor. “You guys are idiots. She’s the other person I sent the pictures to. She’s the one who told me to go to the party to take the pictures in the first place. Why would I just decide to get you kicked off the football team, Monty? Why else would I do something that’s gonna make everyone in school hate me? How does that make sense?”
It didn’t make sense. Monty wondered why he’d never thought to question Daniel’s motives. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t cared about Daniel’s motives whatsoever.
“Muriel,” said Monty. “What are you going to do with those pictures? Will you delete them? Please? For me?”
“Of course not,” said Muriel. “You don’t always get a heads up when you’re on your last chance, Monty.”
“Well, you did tell me it was my last chance, like, twenty times Friday night,” said Monty.
“All the more reason for you to never get another chance!” shouted Muriel, and she hung up.
Cecil wouldn’t meet Monty’s eye. He scratched his left bicep with his right hand and said, “Should we, uh…?”
“She won’t send the pictures,” said Monty, trying to believe. “She’ll give me more chances. And you,” he said to Daniel. “You need to get her to pay for that camera.”
“You’re the one who smashed it,” said Daniel.
“Come on, Daniel,” said Monty. “Now that the whole story’s out, it’s pretty clear whose fault that was.”
“You didn’t have to smash it!” said Daniel, starting to rise to his feet.
“Hey!” said Monty. He put his hand on the top of Daniel’s head and shoved him back down to the floor, his spirits rising as he saw worry come back into Daniel’s expression. “I made you tell me your password, Daniel. Don’t forget what that means.”
Daniel stayed down, but he said, “I’m changing that password as soon as you leave, Monty. And then you won’t know anything.”
Monty wanted to fire back with an irrefutable counterpoint, with example after example of things he knew, but none sprang immediately to mind. So he gave Daniel one mild punch in the face, bit his tongue to keep from apologizing, and went home to wait for events to unfold like every other sucker in town.