(sitting in the rented grey Chevy Malibu, parked on the street perpendicular to Eucalyptus Park, palms sweating slightly while clutching the steering wheel)
Mia: (says aloud to self) I never get nervous before a character interview… maybe it’s just that I’m across the country from home. And I’m waiting here alone—in a neighborhood I don’t know—for a boy I’ve never met. Yeah…that’s got to be it.
Mia: (pulling phone from pocket of jeans, finds text message in three separate long sections sent around dinner time from Lance Sepulveda, the boy to be interviewed) I’ll just brush up on Lance’s story. That should make this whole process a bit easier.
Hi, Lady Mia. Here’s my sorry-ass story:
I’m Lance Sepulveda. Least that’s what they called me in Children’s Services when I was a baby. On the streets today they call me “Pretty Boy” ’cuz I’m Mexican with long-ass hair and wicked green eyes. Basically, my life sucks and it’s always sucked. Never met my dad – that jerk split before I’s born. My mom, well let’s not even go there. I grew up in foster homes or the streets my whole life. How I made it to fourteen I’ll never know. Especially after . . . well, after what happened. Anyway, I don’t trust no one. I got no friends and I don’t want none, either.
School sucks big time. Not that I’m not smart – I’m hella smart. All my teachers said so since first grade. It’s just that everybody gots to do the same thing and the stupid schools act like everybody wants to go to college. Hell, everybody don’t wanna go to college and everybody don’t need it, either. What if a kid wants to be a mechanic or something? There aren’t no classes like that. I figured out long ago that the system isn’t about us kids, it’s just about the grownups and what they want and what they can get for themselves. I got one cool teacher at Mark Twain High named Ms. McMullen. She’s real pretty and seems like somebody I could trust if I needed to. But then, I don’t usually need to ’cuz I run my own, and I miss a lot of school, anyway.
Why? Cuz I skate. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. Right now I’m on the run from Children’s Services ’cuz I’m sick and tired of people using me or . . . , well, doing worse stuff, too. Much worse. That’s another system s’posed to be for kids and it’s the grownups who get everything out of it. Us kids don’t get jack! In fact, the whole city, no the whole country, is all about what grownups want and not what kids need. That’s why everything’s so messed up. So me, I just skate. I’m the best street skater around, and I’m goin’ to the X-Games one day and I’m gonna win a gold medal. Hell, a bunch ’a gold medals! At least, those were my plans. Until I met Arthur.
When I first met him, it was like, the baddest thing I ever seen. Here was this crazy knight on a horse. A horse! In ghetto Lennox! And an armored-up dude carrying the biggest-ass sword I ever saw! That caught my eye for sure. Like I said, I don’t trust no one, and didn’t trust him at first, neither. But something about the guy made me listen to his crazy-ass ideas. And yeah, they were the craziest I ever heard in my sorry life, but the most exciting, too. Something about a crusade, a children’s crusade, here in Los Angeles, a crusade to help all the throwaway kids like me. Hell, my so-called life wasn’t going nowhere at the moment anyway, so I figured, why not? Might be fun. So I joined up. And man, did everything change after that, and now I know sure that nothing will ever be the same.
Mia: (gets out of car) Well, that is really quite the bio…and he’s only fourteen years old.
Mia: (crosses street and walks to back side of skate park) This is where I’m supposed to meet him. But it’s ten at night and dark and…well, shoot, I’m talking aloud to my self again. If he hears, he’s going to wonder about me.)
Mia: (walks right up to fence and places hands on bars, looks in at what resembles an empty shallow swimming pool, by the light of the stars… watches the only boy, clad in a white tunic with long dark hair flying behind him in the breeze, skate around the empty park)
Mia: Uhh!! (gasps as the boy kicks and powers his board up a fairly steep ramp and sails into the air like a bird)
Mia: Oh, jeez! Please be careful!! (actually shouts this as he flies through mid-air)
Oh…um, hello. (sees she has caught his attention, watches as he lands clean and screeches to a stop, glancing in her direction warily)
Mia: “Um…Hi, there, Lance. I’m Mia Kerick…you know, the author friend of Helen’s. We texted each other earlier today? (points to her phone)
Lance: (walks slowly toward the fence, still extremely wary) Hello, ma’am.
Mia: I watched you on your skateboard for a while. You’re pretty awesome.
Lance: (his voice tinged with pride) Thank you, Lady Mia.
Mia: So, where would you feel comfortable talking? (very concerned that Lance might just bolt away into the night)
Lance: (pointing through the fence at a swing set nearby) Over there.
Mia: (wondering if this entire interview is going to be like pulling teeth, wipes moist palms on jeans) Sounds perfect.
Lance: (sticks skateboard though fence, then steps back and easily scales the high fence, dropping to his feet with the agility of a cat)
Mia: Well, I must say, I’m once again quite impressed. (is tempted to pick up Lance’s skateboard from the ground, but suspecting it would not be appreciated)
Lance: (grabs board and steps in front of her, but not so that his back is ever completely presented) This way.
Mia: (stays a few feet to his side, as Lance refuses to allow her any closer)
Thanks for agreeing to meet me here tonight, Lance. (breathing heavily, trying to keep up)
Lance: (stopping in front of a swing set and nodding toward the middle seat) You can sit here, Lady Mia. (steps over to swing to the right—on the edge, Mia suspects so he could make an easy getaway, if need be) I’ll sit here.
Mia: (glancing over at Lance, who is sitting still on the swing, one hand on the chain, one hand draped over the skateboard on his lap) So, I’m curious…why did you pick this place to talk?
Lance: (in a quiet voice) I love this place at night. It’s peaceful.
Mia: Arthur told me that you taught him to ride the swings here.
Lance: (breaks into the first smile I have seen yet, and it is so captivating that I gasp a bit) That was the most amazing time I ever had here. I always loved these swings at night cuz there be nobody around and I could just fly high in the sky and feel free. But with Arthur that time, it just felt . . . I dunno. Better. Not lonely no more, you know?
Mia: (nods and smiles) He said he loved it.
Lance: (still smiling) It was perfect.
Mia: (pulling a small pad of paper and a pencil out of her tote bag, along with her glasses that she puts on) Well, let’s start with this: Could you tell me about your earliest memory?
Lance: (looks over at me for clarification) You mean before I met Arthur?
Mia: (recalling his bio, she realizes that meeting Arthur was when Lance must consider his life having really begun) Yes, Lance. Tell me about your first memory in life.
Lance: (stares in front of him into the night) I ’member asking my foster mom for seconds at dinner and she slapped my hand and told me not to be so greedy. I didn’t even know what that word meant. Just knew I was still hungry. I was, like, three or four.
Mia: (frowning a bit, but jotting down the answer) Wow. I’m sorry. (pauses) How about a fun question—if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Lance: (without hesitation) I would be invisible fer sure. I always, like, felt like that anyway, and when one of my moods hits me, it’d be so dope to just disappear, you know, till I got myself together. (looks somber and thoughtful for a moment) ’Course, if I had that power no one wouldda ever hurt me like they done, cuz I couldda just got away easy. Too bad there ain’t no such thing, huh?
Mia: It sounds like you’d really prefer being invisible even now—but now you’re in the spotlight all the time, aren’t you? Like a celebrity… Is there anything you like about being in the spotlight? Or anything you really hate about it?
Lance: Um, dunno. I never wanted to be noticed much ’cept for my skating, so being in the spotlight, like you said, is mostly weird and makes me nervous. I believe in what we be tryin’ to do out here, and it’s cool being First Knight cuz that means Arthur believes in me, but seeing my face all over the Internet and stuff is kinda creepy. I guess the worst thing is that everybody’s looking at me all the time and I feel like they can see my secrets, you know, all the stuff I never want anyone to find out. (glances over in an attempt to establish eye contact)
Mia: (knowing Lance is still wary, but trying hard to stay engaged in conversation, smiles and returns his gaze) So, it seems that you are really dedicating yourself to this “crusade” with Arthur. Can you tell me about your current goals as First Knight?
Lance: We’re gonna make things better for kids, Lady Mia, kids like me who been treated like shit, my bad, like crap, kids like Mark and Jack who got kicked out by their folks just cuz they’re gay. (glances down, looking slightly embarrassed, and then back up) That kinda stuff, Lady Mia, it’s pura paja and I’m gonna help change it.
Mia: (looks confused) Pura paja? What does that mean?
Lance: (eyes her sheepishly) Spanish for ‘pure bullshit’. Sorry, Lady Mia, for cussing, but what grownups do to kids in this country is pure bullshit and Arthur and me and the others, we’re gonna stop it.
Mia: (nods admiringly and smiles to assure him his cussing isn’t a problem) Don’t worry about swearing, Lance. If you check out my books, you’ll see that my characters swear all the time… And, besides, I agree with you. Ready for another question?
Mia: Friends are usually very important to kids. You said in your bio you didn’t have any. Is that really true?
Lance: (kicking at the dirt with his beaten up black and white skate shoes) Yup. I’m a loner.
Mia: (surprised) No friends at all?
Lance: (shakes his head, his gaze focused on the silent skate park in front of him)
Mia: Well, how about this: if you could be any animal, what would it be?
Lance: (without hesitation) I’d be a wolf cuz then nobody would mess with me. I’d rip out their throats if they tried.
Mia: (coughing a bit from surprise) Kind of like a lone wolf? That’s how you grew up?
Lance: (nods, but doesn’t turn to look at her. He seems lost in memories of his dark childhood)
Mia: (clears throat and he finally looks over; the sadness on his face touches her) But you aren’t a lone wolf anymore, right? Now you have a group of other knights that are close to you.
Lance: (nods silently, biting his lower lip thoughtfully)
Mia: (smiles warmly) Let’s play a game. I will say someone’s name, and you say the first thing that comes to mind, okay?
Lance: (nods again)
Lance: buff as hell
Lance: first friend
Mia: Lady Jenny
Mia: (slightly out of breath) That certainly was rapid fire!! You’re very good at this game. You’re Arthur’s number one knight. So, of all the kids in this crusade, who would you say is your biggest supporter?
Lance: Chris is my biggest supporter cuz he, like, really loves me. Thinks I’m some kinda superhero or something. (laughs self-consciously) But so does Mark. I never had friends before and it’s hard for me. But Mark lets me in, you know, shares stuff with me, and makes me feel special cuz he does that. And he has my back. Jack does too. At first, Jack made me nervous, but now that I got to know him, he’s pretty amazing. But Mark is the first friend I ever really had, so I guess he’s my biggest supporter right now. But all three are there for me 24/7.
Mia: Chris is the youngest, right? Do you have any particular hopes for Chris’s life?
Lance: (faraway eyes) I wanna protect him, ya know, so he don’t gotta go through what I did. I wanna give him everything, an’ I just wanna hug him a lot cuz I never got any. But mostly I wanna see him stay innocent, ya know? I know I can’t do that forever, but it’d be cool to keep him that way for a long minute, wouldn’t it?
Mia: Yes, it certainly would be nice to be able to let children be children for as long as possible. I think maybe you will be his biggest role model in life. Who is your role model?
Lance: (looks back at me intently; I know he is serious about what he is going to say)
Arthur. He’s everything I wanna be when I grow up. He’s strong and real confident, but gentle, too, when he’s gotta be. Most of the men I been meeting my whole life are, like, whatever when it comes to kids. But Arthur listens to me. Most ’a the time, anyways. He’s been super busy these days with the crusade and all. But he’s a good man and I hope I can be like that too.
Mia: Thank you, Lance. Great answer! (frantically scribbling notes in notepad) Here are a couple of different kinds of questions, and they involve everything we have talked about so far. What does the word “family” mean to you?
Lance: (still staring into my eyes) Arthur and Chris and Mark and, well, the whole Round Table. Only family I ever had. Blood don’t make family, Lady Mia, love does.
Mia: (nods in agreement) And home? What does the word “home” mean to you?
Lance: It used to mean anywhere I could lay down my head. But now it means anywhere Arthur is.
Mia: (reaching in her bag for tissues) Well, that was a very sweet answer to a very sensitive question. And I think I’d like to ask you some more…well, personal, types of questions, at this point. Would you be willing to answer them?
Lance: (leans back on swing, his tone instantly cautious) Depends on the question.
Mia: (dabbing at eyes with tissue) Can I try?
Lance: (nods and swings just a little bit, as if he needs to distract himself) Okay.
Mia: (suddenly gets up off of swing, needs a break before personal questions…sees Lance jump back defensively) Oh, I’m sorry! Lance, I didn’t mean to startle you.
Lance: (eyes her cautiously before slowly sinking back down on the swing)
Mia: Would you care for a drink? (reaches in bag and pulls out two bottles of water, hands one to Lance)
Lance: (takes one and examines bottle cap carefully for evidence of tampering) Thanks.
Mia: Now for the personal questions. Let’s start with things you hate.
Lance: I hate school cuz it’s boring and never seems to be about real life, ya know? I hate crowded places like malls. I hate Children’s Services. I hate all my foster parents, especially . . . (stops then, refuses to go on.) Can we go to the next question, please?
Mia: (uncertain, but still hopeful he won’t shut down) What has been the most satisfying thing to have ever happened to you?
Lance: (speaking clearly, confident in this answer) Meeting Arthur. ’Fore him, my life was shitty. Sorry, crappy. When I told him the truth about me one night and he didn’t push me away like I thought he would, that was, like, the most amazing thing. I started to think I might really be worth something and not just trash like everybody always said.
Mia: (jots down a few notes and then places pencil behind ear) This one might be harder, so get ready. Do you believe in God?
Lance: (looks thoughtful a moment as he considers his answer) I never thought much about God till I met my, I mean, Arthur. He believes, so I guess I’m trying to. Some of my foster parents talked about believing in God when they were stealing my money and locking me in closets ‘for my own good’. That didn’t seem like something God would want and I figured if that was what believing in God meant, then I wouldn’t. But Arthur’s different. He says God is good and wants us to be good. And Arthur’s good, so maybe God is up there, after all.
Mia: This “personal” part is going very well, I think.
Lance: Uh, yeah, I guess, sure. (tries for that disarming smile he’s become known for)
Mia: Can you tell me about your biggest disappointment?
Lance: That I had no life till now. I never even got to be a kid, Lady Mia. Does that suck balls or what? (looks embarrassed) Oh, sorry.
Mia: Don’t worry, it is quite all right. I know just what you mean. I’m really very interested in how you see yourself. Can you tell me what you LIKE about yourself?
Lance: (fidgets uncomfortably) I’m a kick-ass skater. No BS, Lady Mia, that’s just truth. I like my hair. I guess that’s it.
Mia: And on the flipside, what do you NOT LIKE about yourself?
Lance: (sighs and looks out at the skate park again) Everything else.
Mia: (surprised) Really?
Lance: (nods silently, refuses to look at her)
Mia: (sensing that Lance is avoiding something very personal) Do you think that a person can hide from himself, Lance?
Lance: (squirms nervously and still refuses to make eye contact at all) Not sure I like that question, Lady Mia. If you be meaning stuff I hate about myself, then yeah, I do. Cuz I want to. I have to. Can we go to another question, please?
Mia: (certain now that she has overstepped Lance’s comfort zone, thus, the interview is, for all intents and purposes, over, studies the stricken look on Lance’s face and the way he is looking toward the ground) Well, then, on a positive note, let’s end our interview with this question: If everything went just right, where do you want to be one year from now?
Lance: (takes a deep breath, clearly relieved that the interview is almost over) Still with Arthur, running the crusade, helping kids like me and the others against the grownups who don’t care. All I used to want was to win the X Games cuz that’s all I ever thought I was, a skater. But now I know I can do somethin’ for real out here an’ I jus wanna keeping going, you know, see how far we can get. So Chris and other little kids can have a real life, you know?
Mia: I think it is only fair, since you answered my questions with such honesty, that you have a chance to ask one of me.
Lance: (looks over at her with a steady gaze) You been reading about me on the news and seeing me on TV, I know, cuz everybody has. So now that you got to meet me for real, whadda you think?
Mia: (wiping her eyes one more time with a crumpled tissue and smiling) I think that you are everything a boy should be. You are brave—or you would not have shown up to answer my questions—and smart—seeing as you answered them so completely. But you are kind and sensitive, too. You’ve opened up your heart to love a family you have chosen, and you act every day as a generous brother to the others, as well as a courageous knight. But what I am most impressed with is that you are able to care about the kids you cannot even see—just random kids you know are out there, suffering, and you are willing to sacrifice to give them a better life. That, Lance, is what I think.
Lance: (standing up, facing Mia) Thank you, Lady Mia. (pauses a moment, looking like he might tear up) That was the coolest thing anyone ever said to me. (bows to her in a courtly way)
Mia: (blushing, never having been bowed to so chivalrously) And I meant every word. Well, I suppose I should get back to the hotel now… I have