The Guardians

by Nikolas Everhart

 

The rogue dragged the small boat ashore, and hid it among the boulders littering the craggy beach. Drayse drew out the map, laughing to himself that something so precious was won in a backroom card game, but the gods moved men in strange ways. He just hoped the worn vellum was as genuine as it appeared. His mouth watered as he imagined holding the fabled gems of the Guardians. With those gemstones he could buy his own duchy.

Long fingers swept his shoulder-length dark hair from his eyes. His angular features animated with amusement and more than a little anticipation. Drayse threw back his head, and laughed, his black leather trousers and white silk shirt out of place on the stony beach. He smoothed his dark vest as the wind blew in from the tumultuous sea.

Turning inland, his hand fell to the slender long sword belted to his waist. The gray sand shifted beneath his tailored boots, crabs scurrying underfoot. Silver rings glittered in the noonday sun as he hitched the pack higher on his shoulders. Sighing, he followed the map inland, cutting through vines that encroached upon the fading trail. After a few hours he cursed the oppressive heat, tangled flora, and buzzing insects. It would be a long journey to the tomb.

Heedless of the beauty that rose around him in colorful jungle flowers, he did notice a curious lack of animal life. Drayse wasn’t certain whether that boded fair or foul. The swordsman made camp after a long day of hacking through the dense underbrush, his limbs leaden. The coming of darkness brought with it a biting chill he combated with a fire that threw up green smoke.

Morning came, finding Drayse stiff after a restless night of sleeping under the stars. He was no lover of wilderness even under the best of conditions. Renewing his trek inland, he frequently referenced the tattered map. Midday came and went without incident, but shortly afterward Drayse heard a clamor in the brush. He crashed through the foliage to find a tall beauty entrapped by vines as thick as his wrist. Overwhelmed by her predicament, he doubled over laughing, his sides threatening to burst. Pale blue eyes glared at him from a face contorted with fury. A northern barbarian wench, she was tall and lean, with ivory skin and as muscular as any lancer.

His laughter evaporated, however, as Drayse noticed that the vines writhed with a life of their own. The gambler felt his stomach lurch as he saw barbs twisting into the flesh of the pale haired woman. Anyone else might have surrendered to the inevitable. From the woman’s fury, he doubted she knew the meaning of the word. Drawing closer, he could see that the savage bled from scores of puckered wounds. Her lips curled in a snarl, refusing his aid. Drayse was never one to swoon over a maid in distress and he turned to walk away. Most of those maids would put a knife in his back as soon as they were rescued and this one seemed more dangerous than most of the men he’d crossed steel with.

Frowning, he turned back to the woman. Despite his better judgment, he couldn’t leave anyone to die alone in the jungle. He stepped forward, leather hissing against steel. He raised the thin blade and a look of fear stole over the woman’s face. Sinuous muscle rippled beneath his shirt and the blade came down on one of the tendrils, cutting through it easily. It was short, unwholesome work with sap spurting as he struck at the rubbery vines. He cursed as he continued chopping and finally the vines sought easier prey. She flopped to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and Drayse wondered if his efforts had been in vain. He noticed the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest though, and fell to one knee to tend her wounds as best he could. As he cleaned blood and sap, he was struck by her beauty. She was a full head taller than any woman he had ever seen before and her arms bulged with hardened muscles. Her face was a plane of angular features that seemed angry even in unconsciousness. Even more shocking was her lack of clothing. She wore only the briefest of leather garments, barely covering her ample bosom and waist. No woman of his lands would ever walk the streets in clothing like that, but then again she was a godless savage. Shaking his head, he tried to put thoughts of the odd woman out of his mind as he sponged blood from her pale cheek.

The young gambler’s thoughts were interrupted as a calloused hand snaked upward to seize his throat in an iron grip. He had time to mutter one strangled gasp as the air was forced out of his body. Her pale eyes snapped open to gaze into his own darker ones with the anger of a wild beast. He found a round-bladed dagger thrust under his chin as she forced him to his feet. She released her grip and air surged back into his lungs.

“Well, I now see where the phrase, ‘Hospitality is a red blade in the north’ comes from,” Drayse said, his mouth turned upward in a sly grin. His humor was lost on her as he only found her dagger shoved that much further into his throat. He gave way before it, until the woman had him backed into the base of a broad tree.

“There is never hospitality for a thief!” She spat, shoving her dagger into his throat till a drop of blood trickled down his chest.

Drayse brought his knee up into her abdomen and then punched her in the jaw. The woman sank to her knees, clutching at her mouth. Smiling to himself, he sauntered over and delivered a lazy kick to the side of her face. The barbarian woman was thrown up and over by the force of the blow. She did not attempt to rise. Satisfied that she was out cold, he retrieved her strange weapon.

Clucking to himself, he stuck the dagger, along with its mate into his pack while retrieving several thick strips of leather. Rolling the inert woman onto her face, he bound her wrists. Yet again he was given reason to regret his soft heartedness.

When the savage woke, she maintained a cautious silence, eyeing her captor. Drayse felt a small measure of guilt for the ugly bruise that crept from the base of her neck to her high cheekbone but it was short lived. He remembered her dagger digging into the flesh of his neck. For her injuries she gave no regard, but only spat a desperate oath at him, which he didn’t think was altogether possible, even for an agile man. Drayse smirked. He grabbed her silken braid and pulled her eyes close to his own dark orbs. His face darkened as he demanded her name and the reason for her coming to the island. As if he didn’t already know.

“Kesira,” she grunted, and spat in his face.

The infuriated rogue wiped saliva from his face as he resisted the urge to cleave her head from her shoulders. Instead he pulled her to her feet. It was a shame he was without a steed. He’d relish dragging this hell cat over a few leagues of rough ground. Not that there was a league of land on the whole of the island.

“Come on then, wench, we’re only hours away from the tomb,” he said as he consulted his map again. From her surprised expression, it was evident that she had no similar guide. Most likely he’d been betrayed by one of the cartographers he’d consulted to find the location of the island. It was getting harder and harder to a buy a man’s loyalty these days.

“You should kill me, thief!” she snarled, stumbling before him.

“If I wanted your death, I’d not have saved you from the vines. After saving your life, I would expect a little appreciation,” Drayse murmured.

“Appreciation? For a thief? That’s grand. What respect is there for a greedy burglar or a cutpurse, or footpad? You’re no better than any other.” She spat on the ground as she sidestepped a root.

“So you berate me for being a treasure seeker, eh? To what great and noble purpose would you ply the gems of the Guardians?” He asked her, layering his words with the proper amount of sarcasm.

“Revenge!” the pale barbarian snarled as she trudged on without missing a step.

“You buy your revenge with jewels?”

“Spoken like a true thief!” she exclaimed. “My village was sacked by a rogue who pressed my entire clan into slavery. It was there they died. I have sworn to take his life, but he is too well guarded. However, I found the legend of the Guardians when I studied on the eastern islands. With them I can tip the scales in my favor.”

“How so?” he inquired, his curiosity piqued.

“Whosoever wields the stones, will also wield godlike powers. It was said that swords broke on the Guardians’ skins, their weapons clove through armor and stone alike, and they could rain fire from the sky. With the gems I can crush Balthis’s horde. That is if not for your meddling.” Scorn dripped from her lips like a stream of venom.

“You are young for a heart so cold,” he said, his voice tinged with regret. Kesira lapsed into a sullen silence that the rogue was loath to break.

Finally the grim duo arrived at the sepulcher which was little more than a long low slab of granite. It was set with a door leading down into the earth, covered with thick rope-like vines and dense lichen. Rats scurried along the top of the age old stone. A thick bodied serpent, roped in broad orange bands, slithered off as they approached. The young man swore, raking a hand through his shoulder-length ebony hair.

“If I cut those bonds, will you give me your word not to slit my throat until after we recover the gems?” He turned and asked the woman, as he unsheathed his dirk. “I’ll walk with you as an ally, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave you at my back as an enemy.”

She looked at him, her pale eyes shifting from his face to the glittering blade. Woodenly, Kesira nodded in assent. His eyes betrayed just a hint of uncertainty before sawing through the leather cords. He took a step back, tossing her daggers to her. She caught them and slid them into her boots in one fluid motion.

“Aye, but after we are safely away, we battle for the stones! I’ll hear nothing of splitting them between us. One stone is useless to me without its mate.” She massaged feeling back into her hands as she spoke and Drayse did not doubt the sincerity laced in every syllable.

They grunted over the panel for several minutes before managing to heave it free. As they laid it aside, Drayse found himself mesmerized by the intensity in the pale woman’s eyes.

The pair looked down into a ten-foot drop to a bare stone floor layered with dust. Drayse withdrew a knotted rope from his voluminous pack and lowered it into the inky darkness. Together they scurried down, and lit torches.

The air in the dank tomb was fetid and despite years of experience wandering similar haunts, Drayse’s nose wrinkled. Kesira’s more acute senses left her choking in the foulness. The swordsman swept cobwebs from his dark hair. Drayse had expected to find the walls washed in gold and jewels but this seemed more like a dreary corpse hole.

The light of their torches revealed a squat stone room with rough hewn walls. The only exit seemed to be the hole above. Kesira snorted as Drayse swung his torch around the room. They faced three blank walls, while the fourth held an austere seal of corroded metal. Frowning, Drayse leaned forward to inspect it. The seal was encrusted with lichen and verdigris but it clearly depicted a thin-bladed sword. Coiled around the blade was what appeared to be a snake. He cleared his throat, thinking that he’d seen enough snakes already to last a lifetime. Looking more closely, he perceived glyphs scrawled in an inexpert hand. The symbols etched onto the wall did not seem as old as the seal itself, and unless he missed his guess, they’d been inked in blood or some other viscous liquid. Touching the greenish seal, he felt the aged disk give beneath his fingers. He rotated the disk to the right with no results and then turned it to the left.

Drayse took a cautious step back while Kesira eyed him as the chamber began to vibrate. The wall with the seal shook and sunk into the floor with a crash. Drayse smiled, but his blood turned to ice as a mechanism shot down from the ceiling. Kesira dived at him, carrying them both to the floor as something whistled overhead.

Drayse got to his feet and inspected the passage that had opened up before them, while the barbarian sighed, holding her torch to the opposite wall where dozens of barbed darts were embedded.

“Something is out of place, thief.” The pale northerner commented, and she pulled one of the projectiles from the stone. Drayse glanced at her curiously, as she continued. “These darts are like new. That launcher is a few years old at best. This tomb has been entered since the Guardians were laid to rest.”

Drayse only nodded and held his torch before him as he started to descend through passage. Kesira followed, as he proceeded by the steady light of his torch. Gray walls crowded the pair, capped by a low ceiling that barely allowed them to walk erect. The rogue frowned, thinking it more like a dungeon than a tomb.

Hours slipped by while the pair wandered the cramped tunnels skirting pitfalls and traps designed to deter treasure seekers. Dusty stone crowded them on all sides as their progress came to a crawl with each dead-end. Curses filled the age-old passageways as they were forced to turn and retrace their steps dozens of times. Soon even Drayse was daunted. In a half day of searching they had yet to find even a single clue that these dank walls held the bodies of the ancient rulers.

Just as the duo was near surrender, they came upon a wide room decorated with vast friezes running from floor to roof. Misty red swirls marred the ancient artwork as Drayse ran a probing finger along their surface. The immense renderings were of such intricate detail that a single handspan held centuries of lore. The rogue exhaled at the beauty of the etchings. Behind him, the pale barbarian gasped, drawing his attention from the antique mural. She pointed to the fore of the chamber and Drayse felt his breath hitch in his chest.

A large bronze disk the height of a man bore the same seal they saw in the entry room but in finer detail. The serpent he thought coiled about the blade was actually a whip. Even the savage gaped in awe. The stone was seamed and on either side of the broad disk was a life-sized depiction of one of the guardian. Dalan was on the right and Sepsis on the left. Beside each startling image was a palm-shaped depression. The intention was clear; he pressed his palm to the space beside Dalan’s head, motioning Kesira to follow suit. She did as he asked, but not without complaint.

The stone behind the seal rumbled and rose into the ceiling. Kesira threw herself to the floor in preparation of an attack that never came and Drayse bent double grinning at her. She kicked at him playfully after she had risen to dust her self off. The rogue’s mirth died down to a few stifled chuckles as he gazed into the darkness.

Then, they heard a soft slithering behind them followed by an angry hiss. The two whirled to face six creatures cast from the mold of a nightmare. They stood a head and a half taller than any man on elongated tails. Each had four sinewy arms with hooked talons in the place of fingers. Their skin was a pasty grey, like the underside of a snake’s belly. Set upon bony shoulders, they had spade-shaped heads ending with snake-like snouts, forked tongues darting in and out of their lipless mouths. Hell had spewed forth its demons to protect this foul place.

Kesira faced the serpent-men, brandishing the torch in her hand, but they paid it no more mind than if it was a burning twig. Like lightning a barbed tail shot out, sending the lanky woman flying through the air. A snake man darted at her, eager for the kill, but her arm shot up, dagger in hand, to impale it through the chin. It thrashed in its death throes, chaos erupting among its brethren. Drayse lunged into action, drawing his blade and spearing one monstrosity through the eye while Kesira crawled to her feet. He withdrew his sword a moment too late, as its talons raked furrows in his chest.

Drayse and Kesira fought for their lives against the serpent men. Drayse distracted one with his blade, while Kesira leapt to its back like a mad woman. She sank her daggers into its tough hide until it shuddered. Another lost his head to Drayse’s blade, though it cut the thief with a wide gash along his torso. Exhausted the warriors backed toward the yawning doorway, seeking a respite. The serpents spat and hissed following them as Drayse swung his blade in wide arcs, his left arm hanging limp at his side. Nearly beaten, the pair retreated through the open doorway.

Almost before their heels crossed the threshold, the enormous stone rumbled and slid back into place. Drayse sighed with relief in the darkness as he put his back to the wall, blood flowing from his arm. This was more than either of them had bargained for. Leaning against the cold stone, Drayse thought he could feel a slight tremor and hoped that the serpents didn’t have a battering ram.

Piercing the black veil before him were dual glimmers of light and he felt his skin prickle in response. Beside him, Kesira muttered a prayer, while Drayse uttered a few less pious epithets. His hands shook as he drew the last torch from his leather pack, cursing as he dropped the tinder and had to stoop to fetch it. Light soon flared in the small chamber illuminating it with flickering flames. Kesira gasped as the bare walls of the room leapt in stark relief to the figures on the floor.

A man and woman lay bound with hundreds of chains designed to restrict even the most basic of movement. The two were beautiful beyond description, bronze with golden hair and frosty eyes. They were laid side by side, with barely a hand span between them but instead of serenity those bronze faces held agony. On the brow of each tortured visage was a glittering gem, one an emerald, the other a ruby. Garish light spilled from the jewels even as his torch showed walls, ceiling and floor of featureless stone.

“Thief, what deviltry is this? This is no tomb but a prison.” Kesira breathed in a whisper. Though the guardians appeared as alive as she, they neither moved or drew breath.

“Gods that I knew, woman. Gods that I knew,” was his only response, as he inched forward, sheathing his sword. Behind him, came the rasp of Kesira replacing her weapons.

Drayse knelt beside the silent pair reaching out to touch them. At his back, the faint vibrations behind the hidden door had become steady hammering. He jumped with every crash, as if the stone might give way at any moment.

Steeling his nerves, the young gambler wiped perspiration from his brow and reached out again to touch the golden brow of the male guardian. The flesh that his fingers found was like nothing he’d encountered in his entire life. It was warm to the touch, but felt hard as steel. Drayse shivered, as the ruby on the man’s brow pulsed with a life of its own. When he looked over his shoulder, he thought he could perceive a faint tracery of cracks spreading from the top of the stone wall.

Kesira knelt over the woman, evidencing none of the wonder that befuddled her companion. She perused the golden woman grabbing a length of chain in her pale fist as if to pull the Guardian to her feet. Though the northerner’s muscles bulged with strain, the dead woman did not raise so much as inch from the floor.

Kesira might have been tugging on a slab of granite as the body of a woman. Grunting her frustration, she withdrew a dagger from her boot and waved it at the unseeing eyes of the Guardian. Drayse raised a gloved hand to reprove her, but the words died on his lips as Kesira struck the statue-woman’s cheek with the pommel. The sound of metal on metal rang through the room like an iron gong. The warrior woman shook numbness from her arm. When she checked the head of her dagger it was warped from the impact, but the smooth face of the long dead woman was unmarked.

Drayse shook his head at the barbarian and turned back to Dalan, the male Guardian. A chuckle escaped him, as he ran his leather clad hand over its skin with the texture of metal and the feel of a boiling sun. His hand trailed past the chained chest, along the smooth neckline to the high forehead as he ignored the cursing savage. His finger caressed that glittering jewel that broiled with the fire of a sun at Dalan’s brow. His entire body was enveloped in scarlet light that burned his senses and he fell to the ground. The warrior woman screamed beside him as her own body was wreathed in emerald flames. In moments the light withdrew to leave them both shuddering.

Shaking like a leaf on the wind, Drayse rose to his knees, barely noticing the blows which now rained on the door outside. Cracks crawled from floor to ceiling but he had no mind for them. Kesira gasped beside him, fighting to draw breath. He saw two glowing forms rising over the bodies of the Guardians. Illumination wreathed them as if sunlight given life. Their brilliance blinded the treasure seekers.

“Malah’s ghost!” Kesira exclaimed, as she scuttled back on her palms. Behind her, the cracks widened in the time worn stone. The ghost-like form of the woman snorted, as she gazed down at her body. Her paramour bore into Drayse with luminescent eyes that peeled away flesh and blood, to regard his soul.

“Silence!” He commanded. “The gauntlet has passed.” His words were like the rumble of a god. Drayse felt his heart thundering in his chest. He and Kesira were like gnats to these beings who had lingered here for centuries.

“That which you sought, will now be yours,” the female said and laughed. “The gods have mercy on you.” As the woman spoke her final words, the pair drifted into nothingness. They were left alone in the room as chunks of stone fell onto the floor.

Drayse rubbed at a painful swelling in his wrist, only to find the glittering ruby embedded in the underside of his forearm. Shocked, he looked over to see the emerald pulsing at the base of Kesira’s throat. She clawed at its eldritch glow, trying to pry it free to no avail. He wondered how he’d ever manage to fence this lot but it would give him an excuse for separating the woman’s head from her shoulders.

Kesira shook his arm, pointing to the bodies on the floor. The pounding of the serpent-men was like a drumbeat in his mind as he saw the bodies crumpling to dust beneath their heavy chains. In moments there was no sign that they had ever been there, except for two fine weapons left in their place.

He crept forward by the glittering light of his torch, to withdraw a magnificent rapier from the pile of chains. The fetters fell away with the sound of broken crystal, as he brandished the weapon in the dim light. The sword was a dazzling blade of some metal as dark as night with glittering flecks of silver. A sword of the night sky. Beside him, Kesira uncoiled a glittering whip of interwoven silver links, crisscrossed with filaments the color of blood. She flicked her wrist and twined the whip around her arm.

Rubble crashed to the floor and serpent men slithered into the chamber, like death’s harbingers. As they saw Drayse and Kesira, they drew up short, hissing and spitting. The swordsman fell back, mindful of the ferocious speed of the serpents.

“’Ware! The Guardians are reborn!” The serpent spoke as if venom dripped from its darting forked tongue. The rogue crouched low, his blade outstretched.

Drayse felt power flowing through him and he swept his blade in a broad flourish, slicing the creature’s arm from its body. Beside him, Kesira’s whip was like lightning and a moment later the spade shaped head tumbled across the floor. Smiling in unison, they advanced on the remaining serpent man who screamed, hurling his blade at them. Drayse parried the spinning sword without even thinking. The creature began to speak in a series of clicks and gasps that made little sense to the advancing warriors.

By the time they had backed the creature into the large anterior room, realization dawned on Drayse. Snakes, by the hundreds, converged on the serpent man, who laughed with a fury that made the swordsman’s sweat run cold. Soon, the creature was covered in thousands of writhing serpents that doubled its mass, insuring no bite of blade or whip would reach it. In turn, every square inch of its body was alive with a hissing, spitting mouth.

The adventurers now began a wary dance with the beast, one they seemed fated to lose. Drayse whirled and cut at the creature like a dancing butcher, his blade raining gore throughout the spacious chamber. Kesira’s whip sang like an angel’s fury slicing snakes from the writhing reptile fury but like her companion, she couldn’t harm it.

Drayse parried a blow from the creature, only to find tiny fangs trying to wrest the blade from his hand. Infuriated, he struck with his other fist but his arm was scored by dozens of tiny mouths. Screaming in pain, he ripped his blade free and hacked with desperation, while Kesira looked on grimly.

For hours the battle was waged like that, with their strength waning by the moment, until Drayse noticed something that took him by surprise. While dodging away from the monster’s tail, Kesira brushed his arm and he felt a rush of power. Startled, he jumped back, but then gave a wondering glance to the ruby at his wrist. Biting back his dislike for the woman, he grabbed her hand and felt wonder like never before. The pair was suffused in boiling light. She looked at him with terror in her eyes, but didn’t try to break away.

Energy burst from them, a maelstrom of scarlet and green that arced toward the serpent creature. Flame, hotter than any natural fire, burned flesh and bubbled blood. Snakes fell by the score from the writhing mass. Charred and blackened, they continued to fall, as the energy came brighter and hotter from the two who now flowed together in an unearthly gestalt.

The last snake fell from the serpent man, still boiling in its skin, and the duo struck as one with blade and whip, until there wasn’t a body that could be recognized. They made short work of the remaining serpents in the catacombs who threw themselves against the pair in hopes of overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Like dervishes of myth, the Guardians reborn swept through the tomb, leaving a trail of blood and severed limbs in their wake. Hours later, the pair crawled from the tomb covered in blood, sweat, and stinking green ichor.

As Drayse got to his feet, Kesira eyed him in deadly earnest. He returned her gaze, as he fingered the hilt of his newfound blade. The rogue attempted to brush past her, but found himself shoved to the ground. He clambered to his feet, burning with embarrassment.

“I’ll have that gem now, city man. Give it freely or I’ll carve it from you,” she said, fingering her whip. Drayse gaped at her. “That bauble at your wrist holds the key to my destiny, and I mean to have it, one way, or another.” The whip uncoiled from her arm.

“Witch! Do you miss the very point of the Guardians?” he said, sweeping his blade before him.

Almost quicker than thought, the silvery links of the weapon flashed, but just as quickly his blade parried in the fading sunlight. A twist of his wrist twined the glittering weapon around his own and a fierce tug of war began. Lightning raced along their weapons to envelop them in an explosion that sent them hurtling away from one another. A dozen times they tried and a dozen times they were rebuffed in the same way. Drayse sat up and regarded his unwilling companion.

“Looks as if we are stuck with one another, barbarian.”

“Do not speak to me! Do not look at me! Oh the gods, but I am cursed with this lout!” She retrieved her whip from the ground, grinding her teeth. Drayse bent to fetch his own blade with a wry grin.

“The Guardians are dead. Long live the Guardians!”

As they made their way back to the beach, and an uncertain destiny, the sound of the woman’s curses mingled with the laughter of the dashing rogue.

 

Escaping Assemblies II: The Sign Campaign

by Allen Coyle

 

This story is a continuation of Escaping Assemblies.

 

– 1 –

The old custodian jiggled the key in the rusted lock of the narrow, iron door. With a quick twist, the ancient latch clicked open, the metallic noise resounding through the musty corridor.

Mr. Blair grasped the cold steel handle and pried the door open, the hinges squealing like a hog in slaughter. The dim light overhead flooded into the cramped cupboard’s interior. A foul scent of sewage drifted out.

“My god,” Principal Deakins muttered, fanning his nose. In his gray suit and shined black shoes, he looked out of place in the dingy, dank atmosphere that was the bowels of Anderson High School.

The figure inside twitched and hid its face from the penetrating light. Both Mr. Blair and Mr. Deakins took a step back, as if catching sight of a rabid animal.

Eighteen-year-old Cody Swimfarr shielded his face with his hands, twisting away from the awful glare. His head looked like a skin-covered skull. His clothes sagged around his famished limbs. His hair hung in greasy strands over his face mottled with rat bites.

Mr. Deakins took a silk handkerchief from his suit pocket and covered his face.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be spitting on me again?” he said.

The figure didn’t respond.

“Hmm. I thought not.” Mr. Deakins turned to the custodian. “Get him out of there, Mr. Blair.”

“C’mon you.” The custodian ducked into the tiny cupboard. He grabbed Cody’s arm and hauled him to his feet. Cody twisted in the man’s grasp, grimacing as he held his eyes shut, protecting them from the dull glare of the fifteen-watt bulb overhead.

“On your feet.” Mr. Blair shoved him against the wall and slammed the cupboard door shut. Cody teetered on the balls of his socked feet and hit the wall with his back. He barely had the strength to stand.

“I daresay you’ll be escaping fewer assemblies in the future,” Mr. Deakins said, stepping away from the corpse-like student. “Good lord, you reek. Mr. Blair, accompany this young man to the gym and see that he gets a shower.”

“You’re late,” Cody croaked. His throat felt raw and hoarse.

“What’s that?” Mr. Deakins narrowed his eyes.

“You’re late. You kept me seven days longer than you should have.” Cody touched a feeble hand to his forehead. “I counted. What else did I have to do?”

“Insolence!” Mr. Blair snatched his flashlight and slammed Cody in the stomach. The young man yelped and keeled over, holding his belly in pain.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” Mr. Deakins said. “The extra seven days, Mr. Swimfarr, were for spitting in my face. I ought to have given you another month.” He grinned his nefarious, evil grin. “However, I believe you’ve probably learned your lesson.”

Cody raised his head, gasping. “What about Sean?”

The principal and Mr. Blair exchanged looks.

“Oh, Sean?” Mr. Deakins said. He couldn’t conceal his wicked smile. “I so hate to be the bearer of bad news. Sean Kimble is dead, Mr. Swimfarr. The victim of a drive-by shooting.” He shook his head and exchanged another look with Mr. Blair. “I tell you. Kids these days.”

“Yeah. Kids these days,” the custodian echoed.

“What?” Cody struggled to stand. “He’s dead?”

“Dead as a doornail, yes. We found his body outside the school only hours after his release. Somebody shot him as he tried to make his way home. I am ever so sorry.” Mr. Deakins sneered.

“No… no.” Cody squinted his eyes and shook his head.

“Oh yes, yes,” Mr. Blair said. “Deserved it, too. That’s my opinion on the matter.”

Cody tilted his chin and stared hard at Mr. Deakins.

“It’s not true,” he said. “You’re lying.”

The principal gave the custodian a slight nod. Mr. Blair slammed the flashlight into Cody’s teeth. Cody hollered and collapsed to the floor.

Mr. Deakins took a casual step forward. He nudged Cody’s shaking body with the tip of his polished shoe.

“What I suggest,” he said, “is that you get upstairs and clean yourself up. We can’t have you arriving home smelling like a compost heap. Mr. Blair will escort you.”

“Up!” Mr. Blair grabbed Cody’s arm and yanked him to his feet.

“And one more thing,” Mr. Deakins said, taking another step forward. He removed the handkerchief from his face. Cody tried hard not to look away, though he could detect evil in the depths of the principal’s eyes. “Any more shenanigans from you, and your life will be over. There are far worse punishments than a short stint in solitary. If you so much as break wind in Geography and I hear about it, I’ll cast you away in Permanent Detention.”

Cody, blood drizzling down his chin, shot a wary glance at Mr. Blair, who stood with his flashlight ready.

“Sir,” he said, stifling a wet cough. “What do you mean?”

“If you mind your manners the rest of the semester, you’ll never have to know.” Mr. Deakins turned to the custodian. “Bring his things, Mr. Blair. Ten minutes is about all I can tolerate down here.”

– 2 –

The following Monday morning glowed dim with muted oranges and yellows as a winter sun rose over the town of Anderson. Bare tree limbs reached for gray skies as packed snow on the sides of streets held firm in the frigid temperatures.

“Why are we doing this again?” Frankie asked, as he and his pal Gilbert poked around in the thick shrubbery in front of Anderson High School.

“You know as well as I,” Gil said, plodding over pebbles, branches, and bushes clogged with garbage. “We’re pulling a Number.”

“I understand that,” Frankie said. He hunkered down and ducked his head as he went past a window. They didn’t want to be seen by administration personnel. “What I don’t get is what this is supposed to accomplish. If you ask me, I think it’s stupid.”

“Well, nobody asked you.” Gilbert’s foot struck something with an audible “thunk,” nearly pitching him forward. He looked down and kicked away an entangling juniper bush. “Hey, here we go. This will do nicely.”

Frankie caught sight of the big rock jutting from the ground. It looked the size of a small TV.

“Can we get it out?” he asked.

“I think so. Let me see if I can wedge it.” Gilbert braced his back against the building and plopped his feet on the top of the rock, his knees bent. Biting his lower lip, he jutted his legs forward. The rock shifted. He jutted forward again.

Frankie knelt down and grabbed the sides of the rock. He yanked as hard as he could while Gilbert pushed with his legs. After five tries, they finally pried the rock from its squishy bed of mud, leaving behind a gaping, wet hole.

“Dammit,” Frank hissed, jumping to his feet and wiping the sticky muck from his pants. “I’ll say it again: I think this is stupid.”

“Hold your tongue and help me.” Gilbert knelt down and grabbed the rock. Frankie sighed, but did the same.

“One, two, three—lift!” They both stood, each holding one end of the rock. It felt light with their combined strength.

“To the front door. Quickly.”

“I’m walking backwards here,” Frankie said, trying to turn his head. “I don’t want to trip on nothing.”

“Walk fast. We’re right by a window.”

They scampered until they reached the corner of the school building next to the main entrance and dropped the rock to the soft ground. It was still too early for other students to arrive. They had the place to themselves—for the most part.

“Go to the front doors and see if you spot anybody,” Gilbert said.

“Who made you the leader of this expedition?”

“You’re wasting time!”

“All right.” Frankie approached the front doors and peered through the glass. The florescent lights lit the hallways with a pristine glow. The lights in the administrative office to the left of the entrance also looked lit. However, he didn’t see anybody roaming the halls.

He returned to his friend. “Looks clear.”

“Okay.” Gilbert bent to collect the rock. Frankie stooped to help.

“On three?”

“Yeah. One, two… three.”

Like awkward dance partners, they lugged the rock to the front doors. Frankie slammed the handicap switch with his thigh. The main doors hummed as they automatically swung outward.

The two teens scurried through the foyer and dashed up to the office door. Bending slightly, they dropped the rock on the ground by the office entrance, flicking mud on the carpet and walls.

“I suggest we move,” Gilbert said.

Frankie reached in his pocket and grabbed a black business card. He dropped it on the rock and rushed to catch up with Gilbert, who was already on his way outside.

The card read, in handsome white letters: Affiliation For Independent Student Thought. “A.F.I.S.T.”

– 3 –

Allison Summers held her chin high as she cruised the corridors of campus. Around her, the hallway hustled with activity. Students lugging textbooks brushed past, lockers banged shut, and babbling voices melded together in a steady drone of simplicity. In the ten-minute break between periods, everyone rushed about to milk the time for all it was worth.

She admired the looks people gave her as she strode past on light feet. The boys stared with lust and longing in their eyes. The girls glared with jealousy, wishing for her looks, her beauty—her life. As an eighteen-year-old high school senior, Allison looked the part of the campus queen. Her short white blouse emphasized her bouncy breasts and slender middle. Her shoulder-length auburn hair glistened with the gleam of expensive conditioner. Her black slacks and thick clogs gave her a look of professionalism and confidence. She arched her back, stretching to her full six feet, towering above the younger students and even those in her own class. When people thought of Allison, they thought of perfection. Her presence alone summed up the concepts of popularity, style and elegance.

“Heya, Allison,” Mike Schwartz said, leaning against a closed locker like a model posing for an underwear ad. He gave her a toothy smile as she approached. His friends looked down at the carpet, hands stuffed in pockets, too timid to acknowledge Allison as if they were her equal.

She gave a slight smile, but continued marching forward. A person of her status didn’t need to concede to any male’s attention, even if that male was the star quarterback for the varsity football team. She could have laughed out loud as she heard his friends snickering behind her, no doubt poking fun at Mike’s chagrin for the cool response he’d received.

Around the corner she caught her friends Mandy Taylor, Sally Sudermin, and Elizabeth Lebolasky standing in a circle, gabbing like a coop full of clucking hens. They were all generic in face and intelligence, serving as mere cohorts to their beloved bellwether. All three beamed at her arrival.

“Ally!” Elizabeth cooed, stepping aside so Allison could join the circle. They quickly reformed to produce an inverted teardrop, with Allison occupying the topmost point. “We were just talking about you, naturally.”

“I’m so thrilled you’re running for senior class president,” Mandy said. “No one could do it better than you.”

“You have my nomination,” Sally said. “We’re all positive you’re going to win.”

“Let’s move this conversation to the bathroom,” Allison said. “It’s silly to gab in the corridor like a bunch of gossips.”

The girls followed her heels as Allison led them into the women’s restroom across the hall. Each claimed a sink and dug her cosmetic case from her purse.

“I heard Brooke Cassfen desperately wants to be class president,” Mandy said, dabbing her cheeks with blush. “I bet Henry Fottsworth will nominate her.”

“She’s such a stuck-up,” Elizabeth said, pasting her eyelids purple. “I’d absolutely die if she won.”

“She doesn’t have a chance,” Sally said. “No one’s better liked in our class than Allison.”

“Yeah, you’ll get it for sure,” Mandy said.

Allison extracted a tube of lipstick and started running it across her puckered lips.

“Brooke doesn’t have a chance against me,” she said. “Everyone knows she’s slept with every member of the football team.”

“Can anyone say ‘slut’?” Sally said, giggling.

“She is, for sure,” Elizabeth said. “She’s probably seen more meat than a steakhouse dining room.”

Mandy covered her mouth, spurting with laughter.

“Elizabeth Lebolasky, you’re positively disgusting!” Sally cried with delight.

“Brooke’s the disgusting one,” Allison said, putting her makeup away. She ran her fingers through her hair to give it more bounce. “Who knows how many diseases she has lurking beneath her skirt?”

“Allison!” all the girls screeched.

The bell resounded through the hallway.

Sally, Elizabeth and Mandy quickly stashed their cosmetics and made for the door.

“You coming, Allison?” Mandy asked, pausing at the doorway.

“In a minute,” Allison said. “I want to make sure I look absolutely perfect before the class meeting.”

The door closed, leaving Allison alone in the white, tiled bathroom. She studied her face in the mirror, frowning at every minor imperfection: every strand of hair out of place, every tiny brown blotch on her shiny, white teeth.

Once elected class president, she’d have all the power she needed. She would, in the most literal sense, rule the school.

Allison stood back from the mirror and smiled.

– 4 –

Cody sauntered into Algebra Two just before the final bell rang. Though he’d spent all weekend gorging on just about every known food in the universe, his body still felt weak and feeble. His stomach had shrunk to the size of a grape, and he’d thrown up a few times after stuffing his face. His muscles had atrophied so badly he felt as delicate as a leaf in a breeze. Any minor maneuver proved difficult.

He couldn’t avoid the stares as he took his seat in the back of the room. Every pair of eyes burned into him like a fiery hot branding iron. Nobody had spoken to him since his arrival in school that morning, and Cody found himself feeling grateful. He didn’t—couldn’t—explain the horror of his confinement. All weekend he’d had nightmares of enclosing darkness, the scrape of a metal slot sliding open, the scampering of rats as they crawled over his body and gnawed his unprotected flesh. He wondered if he’d ever feel the same again.

All eyes faced forward as Ms. Griffith took attendance. Cody slouched in his seat and took his books from his bag. His scrawny arms could barely lift them.

“Swimfarr? Swimfarr?”

The class turned around again.

“Oh. Here. Here!” Cody strained to make his voice heard as he raised his skeletal hand. The teacher spotted him and made a mark on her sheet.

Cody couldn’t pay attention during lecture. The empty desk in front of him proved an agonizing sight. He remembered months past staring at Sean’s back, taping “kick me” signs to his shirt, exchanging his homework with him during peer grading. Why couldn’t they have just both attended that assembly? It wouldn’t have been so bad. They could have brought earplugs, sat at the top of the bleachers, and read books for the whole thing. Why had they decided to tempt fate and take on the system? They should have known better. They should have known.

He couldn’t stand it any longer. “Ms. Griffith, may I be excused?”

The teacher paused in mid-sentence, holding a piece of chalk. The entire class, again, turned to look at him.

“What is it?”

“I need to use the restroom,” he said. “Please.”

“You should have gone before class.”

“I know, Ms. Griffith. I didn’t think.”

She sighed and motioned him out. “Be quick.”

“Yes ma’am. Thanks.” Cody eased out of his seat and dashed for the door. He could feel every eye in the class on his back as he left.

In the restroom, he stood at the sink, splashing water on his face. He glanced at the mirror and shuddered. He looked so gaunt. His cheeks curved inwards. His eyes bulged. Patches of hair had fallen from his head, nearly balding him.

The bathroom door burst open as Cody snatched a paper towel from the dispenser. Mike Schwartz and two of his pals wandered in.

“Grab him,” Mike said. Before Cody could look up, the two cronies had him pinned against the wall.

“Ow. God.” Cody couldn’t even struggle.

Mike stepped forward and leaned down into Cody’s face.

“Greg Thomas was my friend,” he said. “You killed him. Now you’re going to follow suit.”

“No, wait. Ah, Jesus!” One of the cronies squeezed Cody’s wrist so hard that something snapped.

Mike reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. He flipped open the blade with an audible click. The steel gleamed under the bright bathroom lights.

“Hold him tight,” he said, moving forward.

“You got to listen!” Cody said, shuffling his feet. It was all he could do. His arms were useless. “I didn’t kill Greg! Mr. Leonard did, I swear!”

Mike put the knife’s point to Cody’s stomach.

“Please!” Cody begged. “It wasn’t my fault!”

“Shut the hell up,” one of the cronies said, grabbing Cody’s head and slamming it against the wall.

“This is gonna hurt,” Mike said. He drew the knife back to strike.

“I swear!” Cody screamed. “I swear!”

Mike grinned and snapped the knife closed.

“The stall,” he said. “Now.”

The two cronies twisted Cody’s arms behind his back and wrestled him into a stall. The open toilet contained three logs draped in slimy tissue paper.

“You’re gonna eat shit,” Mike said. “Literally.”

“Oh god,” Cody stuttered, breathing hard. “Don’t make me, please.”

A crony slammed him in the back of the neck. Cody screamed and pitched forward.

Mike squeezed through the tight space and grabbed the back of Cody’s head. He took out the knife and held it in front of Cody’s face.

“Get a good look at this,” he said. “Remember it well. Because if you screw over this school anymore, you’re dead meat. Got it? The senior class isn’t losing any more spirit assemblies because of your crap.”

Cody closed his eyes.

Mike yanked a patch of hair from Cody’s scalp. Cody screamed.

“Got it?” Mike yelled.

“Yeah… yeah,” Cody said, gasping.

“Good. Have at it, boys.”

The cronies shoved Cody’s head deep into the filthy toilet bowl. They let him choke on putrid sewage for awhile before they flushed the toilet four times, pinning his weak arms behind his back. Even with his head submerged, Cody could hear their wicked laughter drifting down to his water-drenched ears.

They left him slumped over the porcelain bowl, his body splayed across the sticky floor, his head resting on the horseshoe toilet seat.

– 5 –

When the bell rang for homeroom, the entire senior class shuffled into the small meeting area adjacent the gymnasium. The custodians had set up rows of metal folding chairs for seating. At the front of the room stood Mrs. Prichard, the faculty advisor for the senior students. The deafening noise of excited chatter filled the room as everyone found their seats and settled in.

Allison and her crew had been among the first to arrive.

“I hope you’re not feeling nervous,” Sally said, as they proceeded to the front row. “I’d be scared to death to face all these people.”

“Allison doesn’t get nervous, do you?” Elizabeth said.

“Keep quiet,” Allison said, playing with the silver loop dangling from her left ear. “Everyone knows I’m the best one for the job.”

“Look, there’s Mike Schwartz!” Mandy squealed. “He’s got eyes for you, Allison. Look.”

Mike raised his head and threw the girls a grin. Allison pretended not to notice.

“He’s so adorable,” Sally swooned. “I’d absolutely die if he asked me out.”

“Don’t bother waiting,” Elizabeth said. “He’s saving himself for Allison. She’s the reason he dumped Brooke. Everyone says so.”

“I said to keep quiet,” Allison hissed. “Don’t give everyone the impression we’re a bunch of conceited snobs.”

The girls lowered their heads and obediently followed.

Mrs. Prichard checked her watch and scanned the crowd. Every seat appeared taken. She held up a fist for silence.

“Okay, okay, settle down please.” The chatter subsided and trickled to mere murmurs.

Mrs. Prichard cleared her throat. “As you all well know, the remaining members of the senior class government disbanded after the untimely passing of President Greg Thomas and Secretary Devon Childs. Many of you have expressed interest in reviving the government to promote community service projects and to arrange social functions. I have asked you to assemble here today for the very purpose of installing a new class government. However, as it is so late in the year, it is unfortunately impossible to hold formal elections for office. As a consequence, I’ll be asking you to nominate candidates who will be elected by a majority vote.” The woman picked up her clipboard from a nearby table and scanned down the page. “The first position to fill is that of the class president.” She looked up. “Any nominations?”

Eddy Hifflejaker, Anderson High’s resident clown, jumped up. “I nominate Sean Kimble for his unwavering dedication to this class!”

The seniors burst out laughing. Every student turned toward Cody, who sat by himself in the very back of the room. He scowled.

“Now, now, that’s not funny,” Mrs. Prichard said, holding a hand over her mouth to hide her chuckles. “Are there nominations for any living candidates?”

Mandy raised her hand. “Allison Summers!”

“Yeah!” several students hollered.

“Allison Summers.” Mrs. Prichard nodded. “Anyone care to second the nomination?”

“Me!” Mike Schwartz called out.

“Very well,” Mrs. Prichard said, jotting down the name on her clipboard. “Would you care to come forward, Allison?”

Allison arose from her seat and daintily tread to Mrs. Prichard’s side. She gave the class a large grin.

“Any other nominations?” the teacher asked.

“I nominate Brooke Cassfen!” Henry Fottsworth called out.

“Any seconds?”

“Right here!” someone else said.

“Very well. Please step forward, Brooke.”

Brooke Cassfen skipped to the front of the room and took her place beside Allison. Though fairly attractive in her own right, she was still a foot shorter than Allison and had neither her dazzling smile or her flowing auburn hair. She turned and gave her opponent a smug grin.

“Any other nominations?”

The class said nothing.

“Very well. I will ask our two candidates to step outside while the class casts its votes.”

Allison turned and stepped into the corridor, with Brooke following behind. They let the door fall closed behind them.

“I hope you’re prepared to lose,” Brooke said, crossing her arms across her chest and leaning against the wall. “I’ve got this election nailed.”

“Is that so?” Allison smiled. “Tell me, how many votes did you buy with your sexual promiscuousness?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

“Do you need me to define ‘promiscuous’?”
Brooke frowned. “You can put on all the airs you want, Allison Summers. But we both know who rules this school.”

“Well,” Allison said, “I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

“Yes, we will.”

The door opened and Mrs. Prichard beckoned them in. Both girls put on smiles and waltzed into the room.

“And the new senior class president is… Allison Summers!” Mrs. Prichard announced. The entire class cheered and applauded loudly. Brooke turned to shake Allison’s hand. She tried to smile through clenched teeth.

“I’m sure Miss Summers will work her very hardest to meet the expectations of her fellow peers,” Mrs. Prichard said. “And now, let’s have nominations for the senior class vice president…”

Allison threw smiles and nods to the crowd as she sat down beside her group. She felt relieved. Though she never would have shown it, Allison had been terrified the entire time. But her class had come through. They’d elected her president. They had entrusted her to lead their class to new horizons, to bigger and better places.

But most importantly, they had secured her with all the power she needed.

“I’m so thrilled!” Sally squealed in her ear.

“Shut up,” Allison hissed.

She was too excited to listen to the rest of the election proceedings. Brooke had been nominated for senior class secretary and won. But it didn’t matter. Nobody had as much power as the class president. The senior class, Allison thought, had proven once and for all who ruled the school.

The bell rang for lunch, and everyone stood to leave. Allison grinned at every person she passed, keeping distance from her herd so they couldn’t cause her embarrassment. She caught sight of Mike at the far end of the room. He smiled and gave her a wink. She condescended to wink back.

Her friends caught up with her as the crowd dispersed. They walked to the cafeteria for their daily helping of gruel.

“Mike Schwartz is sooo in love with you,” Elizabeth said. “I was going to second your nomination, but he jumped up before I got the chance.”

“This is so great!” Sally grabbed Allison’s hand and squeezed. “I’m actually friends with a real class president!”

“Don’t utter another word about it,” Allison said. “We wouldn’t want people to think I’m gloating, would we?”

“Absolutely not.” Mandy put her nose in the air. “That’s why I was holding my tongue. These two could take a lesson.”

They came to the chow line and paid the cashier. After collecting their plates, they turned to find a table to themselves.

“Look,” Mandy said, nodding across the room. “There’s that dreadful Cody Swimfarr. No one would be caught dead sitting next to him.”

“Look how gaunt he is,” Sally said. “I almost wish I could spend four months in the school dungeon. I’d lose so much weight.”

“He makes me sick,” Elizabeth said. “They should have kept him in there the rest of the year. The class would be better off.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Mandy turned. “You coming, Allison?”

Allison, who had been lagging behind, stared over at Cody as he picked at a burrito, taking tiny bites. He looked up and saw her. She continued to stare. He quickly bowed his head and looked down at his plate.

“Allison?”

She turned to see three faces giving her questioning looks.

“Yeah,” she said, blinking her eyes. “I’m coming.”

Elizabeth laughed. “She’s still in shock. After all, it’s not every day you’re elected senior class president.”

* * * * *

Brooke and her own band of followers sat together at a corner table, spooning yogurt and cottage cheese into their mouths.

“There goes that hotshot Allison Summers,” a girl named Diana said, food flying from her mouth. “Look how she holds her chin in the air, like she owns the place.”

“Snob,” Anne said.

Brooke put her spoon down and glared. She wanted to slap Allison’s smile right off her perky little face.

“I’m going to take her down,” she said, watching as a group of boys gave Allison the thumbs-up. “So help me god, I’ll take her down if it’s the last thing I do.”

“You go, girl,” Becky said.

– 6 –

Frankie and Gilbert, after skillfully picking a lock, had granted themselves access to an empty classroom and were now overturning desks one row at a time.

“Don’t drop them so hard,” Gilbert hissed. “Someone’s bound to hear us.”

Frankie sighed and set a desk down as softly as he could.

“You want to explain the concept behind these Numbers to me?” he asked, leaning against one of the desk’s legs. “I mean, really, what are we doing here? This is stupid. What are we supposed to be accomplishing?”

“Keep working. We haven’t got all day. Lunch is nearly over.”

Frankie sighed again and flipped over a second desk. “Are you going to answer my question?”

“The Numbers weren’t my idea.”

“So what are we doing here?”

Gilbert closed his eyes. “Have you ever read a book called I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier?”

“No.”

“Well, in that book, these teens pull what they call ‘Numbers.’ At one point, they go into a grocery store, heap six shopping carts full of stuff, and leave. They watch to see what the clerks are going to do. Soon enough, someone spots the carts, and suddenly six employees are gathered around, scratching their heads. No one knows how to react.”

“Okay. I still don’t get it.”

“The point is to basically weird people out. You make your presence known, but in a nonviolent way. Pranks like putting rocks in the hallway and overturning desks let the administration know that we’re here. In our case, we’re trying to draw attention to our cause, but not to ourselves. Also, we’re not vandalizing property or hurting anyone. We’re simply annoying people.”

“You said ‘weird out.’ Is that like what hippies used to do, when they did their weird-outs way back when?”

Gilbert shrugged. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Neither do I.” Frankie grabbed another desk and turned it upside down. Soon enough, the entire classroom was filled with overturned desks.

“Don’t forget to leave a card,” Gilbert said.

Frankie pulled a black business card from his pocket and dropped it onto the frontmost desk.

“You think people will start noticing us?” he asked.

“I hope so. Maybe we can bring some light to their shadowy worlds.” Gilbert checked his watch. “Let’s go.”

The boys turned out the lights and pulled the door shut behind them.

– 7 –

Tuesday morning found Principal Deakins sitting slouched in his office, chewing on an unlit cigar. Before him lay two black business cards proclaiming the presence of the Affiliation For Independent Student Thought. The cards had been brought to his attention by Vice Principal Nancy Chalmers. She reported that one card had been found atop a rock placed outside the office, the other in a classroom full of overturned desks.

Mr. Deakins had expected a slow-paced, relaxed day today—a day to catch up on pesky paperwork and other trivial matters. However, the sight of the cards had ruined any chance of that. Now he sat gnawing on the soggy end of the cigar, his pulse soaring. He knew something big was happening and that his top priority, as the designated leader of Anderson High, should be to control the situation before this “affiliation” undermined the very foundations of the institution.

Nancy Chalmers, sitting opposite Mr. Deakins, was dressed in a loose, scarlet dress, her long hair pulled back in a tight bun. With hands folded in her lap, she watched as the principal’s face changed from a light crimson to a dark purple.

Mr. Deakins slouched further, glaring at the cards on the desk.

“I don’t like this,” he said.

“I don’t like it, either,” Nancy said.

“I mean, I really don’t like this.” He sucked hard on the cigar, as if savoring the sugary flavor of a lollipop. “These both appeared yesterday?”

“To my knowledge.”

“I see.” He bit his lower lip. “Well, we know the obvious: Cody Swimfarr resumed attendance yesterday.”

“That thought crossed my mind as well. The coincidence seems uncanny.” Mrs. Chalmers toyed with her tight collar. “Shall we summon him?”

“No. Not just yet.” Mr. Deakins dropped the cigar into a football-shaped ashtray. “Though his release coincides with this brazen rebellion, I can’t imagine him regaining his faculties so quickly. Solitary confinement traumatizes seditious aspirations.”

“So you believe we’re dealing with a separate faction here?”

The principal shook his head. “I don’t know. Whoever they are, they must be organized. They’ve maintained invisibility so far. I’m assuming they’re intelligent, cautious, and dedicated to accomplishing their mission.” He sat up straight and glared at the black cards. “I’m also assuming they have a leader of some sort; a person who designs these pranks and orders others to execute them.”

“Shall we take it so seriously?” Mrs. Chalmers asked. “After all, it could be a senior prank. Remember how Bradley Kellger and his friends removed the clocks from each classroom last year?”

“Mrs. Chalmers, I take any violation of this magnitude seriously.” Principal Deakins slid the cards across the desk. “I’d rather overreact than do nothing. I can’t have social upheaval upsetting the daily administration of my school.”

“Yes, you’re right, sir.” The vice principal stared at the cards, shaking her head. “What do you propose we do? I’ll take any precautions you order.”

Mr. Deakins shoved the cigar back in his mouth.

“First thing, I want Cody Swimfarr monitored,” he said. “At the moment, he’s my only suspect. Inform his instructors. I want him watched every second he’s on campus.” He sniffed. “Second, enlist the assistance of the student government. Ask class officers to keep an open eye for suspicious activity. Any strange behavior by anyone should be immediately reported.” He looked up at her. “For now, I believe that’s the best we can do.”

“I’ll see to it immediately.” Mrs. Chalmers stood.

“I may have done wrong by those boys,” Mr. Deakins said, muttering.

“What’s that?” Mrs. Chalmers paused, still holding the arm of her chair. “What boys?”

The principal swiveled his seat and gazed out the window.

“Sean and Cody,” he said, folding his hands. “I hope I haven’t made martyrs out of them. Sean Kimble’s death, I’m afraid, may have provoked this coalition into action.”

“You didn’t order him shot.”

The principal shrugged. “Nevertheless, it happened. Now we must suffer the repercussions. Others like him may arise from the masses.”

“Sir,” Mrs. Chalmers said, lowering her voice, “we both know who did it, right?”

“I have no proof,” Mr. Deakins replied. “And until I collect evidence, the individual in question will remain employed at this school. Besides, though I admit he’s unbalanced, his methods of discipline have proven most effective.”

“Yes sir.” The vice principal stood straight and turned to leave. “I’ll see to your requests promptly.” The door closed behind her.

Mr. Deakins bent down, opened the bottom drawer of his desk, and removed a bottle of Black Velvet. He filled his coffee cup, replaced the bottle, and leaned back in his seat. He drained the mug in one long swallow, staring out the window at the dull gray colors of the early winter morning.

– 8 –

“Michael Schwartz to the office, please. Michael Schwartz, to the office.”

That little pansy, Mike thought, as the teacher excused him from class. He should have figured Cody would run and tattle. That pinheaded punk.

Mike sauntered down the corridor to the office. He didn’t feel remotely worried; after all, Cody had no solid proof that Mike had orchestrated the attack. Plenty of bullies roamed the school and brutalized nerds. It would be Cody’s word against his. And whose word would the administration be more likely to believe? Cody ditched assemblies and shunned social interaction. Mike, on the other hand, scored winning touchdowns on the varsity football team. Even a brain-dead moron could do the math.

“Mrs. Chalmers is expecting you.” The receptionist stood and pointed. “Her office is back that way.”

Mike didn’t need direction. He’d visited Mrs. Chalmers’s office several times before. In each instance, she’d overlooked his alleged infractions. Anderson High, she’d explained, couldn’t afford to suspend or expel such a valuable athlete. Every touchdown mattered.

“Ah, Mr. Schwartz.” The vice principal smiled and motioned to a chair. “Please, have a seat.”

“Ma’am.” Mike planted himself in the plastic chair by her desk.

“I’m sorry to disrupt your class time,” Mrs. Chalmers said, sitting down. “I’ll try to make this brief.”

“Take all the time you want,” Mike said. “I can’t stand political science.”

The vice principal smiled. “I’ve called you here to ask for your assistance. As you know, Cody Swimfarr has recently finished his term of solitary confinement.”

“To everyone’s disdain.”

“Now, Mike.” The vice principal stifled a chuckle. “As you may be aware, Cody’s delinquencies have tarnished this school’s reputation. He and people like him diminish the standard Anderson High strives to maintain.

“What I’d like,” she continued, “is to ensure his behavior, from this point on, does not interfere with the smooth running of this institution.”

“You want me to keep tabs on him?” Mike had some brains, though that mattered little in a public school. He’d learned long ago, like most boys, to rely on his muscles.

“Exactly. Nothing obvious or confrontational, mind you. Just make sure he doesn’t step out of line. Any suspicious moves—such as, let’s say, lugging huge rocks and overturning desks—should be reported directly to me.”

Mike nodded. “Sounds easy enough. I wouldn’t mind watching his back. He’s screwed the senior class one time too many.”

“Naturally, you’ll be rewarded for your cooperation.” Mrs. Chalmers opened a drawer and removed a sheaf of paper. “In addition to endowing you with all ‘A’s for the semester, I’ll also compose a recommendation to any college of your choosing. I have a sample draft here, listing your academic accomplishments and adjusted grade point average.”

“Adjusted?”

She slid the letter toward him. “A 3.7. You’re in the top five percent of the senior class.”

Mike considered the figure with his lips pursed—an indication his particle-sized brain was deep in thought.

“To be honest,” he said, “I’d much prefer having a 3.9. My parents would be so much prouder.”

Mrs. Chalmers nodded. “I’ll have that arranged. In the meantime, do we have a deal?”

“Oh, yes ma’am,” Mike said. “I’ll let my network know as well. We see anything funny, we’ll be sure to let you know.”

“I appreciate this, Mike,” Mrs. Chalmers said. “You’re a devoted student.”

“It’s not a problem. We’re more than happy to do it.”

He had just stood up to leave when a thought suddenly struck him.

“Just out of curiosity,” he said, “if Cody does happen to step out of line, and I feel the situation warrants a brutal beating, am I authorized to give him one?”

Mrs. Chalmers shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Use your best judgment.”

Mike smiled. “Thanks. That’s all I needed to know.”

– 9 –

About a quarter of the way into third period, two classroom doors on opposite sides of the school opened. Frankie and Gilbert slipped into the long corridor, each having obtained permission to use the restroom from their respective teachers. A quick look around revealed they were alone in the hallway.

They had intended this Number to be their most ambitious yet. The prank required perfect timing and efficient execution. Earlier, they had decided that five minutes should be the maximum time spent outside of class. A minute more, perhaps, and their teachers might suspect mischief.

Each boy reached into his pocket and palmed a handful of black business cards. With skillful movements practiced the night before, and starting on opposite ends of the long stretch, Frankie and Gilbert began sliding cards into the slots of lockers lining the hallway. They worked fast and efficiently, gripping the cards with their fingernails to avoid leaving prints and flicking them into the tiny slots. Within two minutes, they had met in the middle of the hallway.

Without speaking a word or otherwise acknowledging each other, they turned and started on the lockers on the opposite wall. They began in the middle and worked outward this time, shoving their fists into their pockets when needed to collect more cards.

Gilbert stopped at one locker, double checked its number, and took a folded paper from his pocket. They had a special message for the owner of this locker. He inserted a card into the middle of the folded sheet and slipped the package through the slot.

In another two minutes, and in perfect sync, they each delivered their final card. As planned, they had ended up exactly where they started, and all within a minute of their expectations. No administrators, teachers, or students had meandered the hall to catch them in the act. The Number had proven successful.

Frankie and Gilbert entered their respective classes and took their seats. By lunch, when students would open their lockers to shove in bags or collect car keys, the presence of A.F.I.S.T. would become well-known. Working against odds and hoping against hope, perhaps the Affiliation For Independent Student Thought could introduce the concepts of free thinking and individual liberty to the rank and file minds of Anderson High.

Someone had to dismantle the system brick by crumbling brick.

– 10 –

When lunchtime rolled around, Mrs. Prichard and the newly elected members of the senior class government settled in an empty classroom for their first official meeting. After dragging desks across the floor to create a slipshod circle, each amateur politician claimed a seat and dug out papers and pens from his or her bag for note taking.

Allison, looking sexually stunning as always, felt relieved to be away from her crowd of friends. Their presence always felt like a choke chain anchoring her to the confines of mediocrity. Without them, she felt enlivened, freed—especially so now as she assumed her lead role as the class president, with each of the other three student representatives occupying inferior positions.

To her right sat Mrs. Prichard, her bulky flesh bulging from the small desk. To her left sat Chuck Matthews, a small preppy whose benign disposition guaranteed his high ranking popularity. Treasurer Gail Alberts and Secretary Brooke Cassfen sat facing her. Allison tried not to notice Brooke’s grimace each time their eyes met.

“Well now,” Mrs. Prichard said, forcing a smile as she squirmed in the imprisoning chair. “It certainly has been awhile. There are several items on the agenda requiring discussion.”

“I propose we consider the upcoming spirit assembly,” Chuck said. “I heard the administration will be scheduling one two weeks from Friday. It will mark Anderson High’s first such gathering since the last debacle.”

“I second the motion,” Brooke said. “As it stands, the seniors rank far behind the other classes in spirit points. We need to devise remedies to ensure participation.”

“I’ll agree to that,” Gail said. “I’m sure all of us want to graduate knowing our class won the spirit stick. I couldn’t bear the humiliation if the freshmen won.”

“Noted. Topic is hereby open for discussion.” Allison took a pair of reading glasses from her breast pocket and put them on, letting the bridge rest on the tip of her nose. Instead of making her appear weak, as many might have assumed, the spectacles instead gave her an intelligent, accomplished appearance. The other class representatives, though they might not consciously realize it, would be more intimidated by someone who seemed so much older and competent. At least that was Allison’s intention.

“Thank you, Allison.” Chuck straightened his back, taking a deep breath through his nose. “Now, I’m sure we all know what killed us during the last spirit assembly. Sean Kimble and Cody Swimfarr’s pathetic escape attempt scarred our reputation. Their blatant demonstration of anti-socialism made us the laughingstock of the school. The seniors will continue to occupy last place in the School Spirit Competition unless we can compel all class members to participate.”

“Too true,” Gail said. “What they did made us all look bad.”

“I have a plan regarding that very issue.” Brooke squared her shoulders, pushing forward her fried egg breasts. “It’s not enough to merely encourage students to wear blue and yellow and scream loud during assemblies. We must institute severe discipline for those who refuse to participate. I say we establish strict guidelines and compel all class members to follow them. We can publish these rules and distribute copies to seniors during homeroom. Failure to meet any of our expectations should be met with various punishments, including loss of off-campus privileges, restriction from using school computers, and possibly even removal from graduation ceremonies.”

“That’s a great idea!” Gail said. “That’d show those nerds for sure.”

“Well, not so fast.” Allison adjusted her spectacles. “Though that plan may sound good in theory, I don’t believe it would work in practice.”

“Why not?” Brooke pursed her lips.

“A number of reasons: First, the senior class government has no authority to punish students. We can only encourage their participation, not demand it. Second, our fellow classmates didn’t elect us to legislate and enact regulations. Discipline is a function of Anderson High’s administration. Devising these so-called punishments would infringe on our principal’s jurisdiction and exceed our governing authority. We would have to ask him for the power. And I don’t believe Mr. Deakins would grant it.”

“That’s a good point,” Chuck said.

Brooke bit her lower lip hard enough to leave marks. “How can you be so sure Principal Deakins wouldn’t grant us authority? After all, he was as appalled by Sean and Cody’s behavior as the rest of us.”

“Asking for the authority to discipline couldn’t hurt,” Mrs. Prichard said. “As you pointed out yourself Allison, discipline is a function of the school’s administration. Since both Mr. Deakins and Mrs. Chalmers are both overwhelmed with administrative matters, I’m sure they’d be more than willing to delegate such authority to the senior class government. It would save their time and resources.”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Prichard,” Allison said. “But as a faculty member yourself, I’m sure you can see how ludicrous it would be for mere students such as ourselves to assume the roles of enforcers.”

The teacher shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Discussions concerning the debacle of the last spirit assembly traveled high up the food chain. Many believe more has to be done to ensure student participation. In my opinion, Brooke’s idea is excellent. Students would be compelled to obey established guidelines or suffer punishment. In any case, I don’t see how it could hurt to at least ask for the authority.”

“Yeah.” Brooke looked smug.

Allison took a breath. “As I said before, the plan sounds good in theory. But our authority as student representatives extends only so far. Our classmates did not elect us to govern their lives. Rather, they elected us to advance the status of this class. We do not—and should not—have the power to regulate conduct.”

“Most students would probably be in favor of Brooke’s plan,” Chuck said. “After all, it’s only a small minority who impedes our class status. We’re concerned with the Sean Kimbles and Cody Swimfarrs of this school. Since the rest of the class willingly participates in assemblies, they’d in no way be affected by Brooke’s proposal.”

“That’s an awesome point, Chuck,” Mrs. Prichard said.

“Mrs. Prichard, I feel I must remind you that as senior class president, it is my duty to moderate these proceedings, not yours,” Allison said. “I would appreciate it if you would refrain from either endorsing or denouncing propositions.”

The other three students dropped their jaws.

“But, well…” The teacher couldn’t speak.

“Thank you.” Allison turned to the other representatives. “As Mr. Matthews just pointed out, the majority of the class willingly participates in assemblies, which leaves us with a handful of offenders. If this is true, then disciplinary authority on our part is unnecessary. After all, there’s no reason to build a catapult if you want to fling a small pebble.”

Chuck looked at his desk, realizing he’d opened himself to the attack and could form no rebuttal.

Brooke seemed to realize this too.

“Well then,” she said. “What do you suggest, Allison? You seem to be good at picking apart our ideas, but not so good at devising your own.”

“As a matter of fact, Miss Cassfen, I do have an idea. I believe it’s painfully obvious that antisocial students want nothing to do with spirit assemblies or other class affairs. Instead of compelling them to conform and then reacting with outrage when they don’t, why not indulge their desire to remain removed from the herd?”

Brooke grimaced. “What are you saying?”

“What I’m proposing would be simple and effective,” Allison said. “Instead of forcing every student to attend an assembly, we could set aside a single classroom as a substitute destination. Those not wishing to participate could venture to this room to read books, play board games, chat, or whatever. A teacher could be assigned to monitor these students. This way, those who enjoy assemblies could attend and participate, and those who don’t at least have an alternative. Everyone would be happy, and we wouldn’t be confronted with fiascoes such as the one we witnessed four months ago.”

Silence hung in the air.

“What do you think?” Allison said. “Is this doable?”

Gail shrugged. “It doesn’t seem right that we should provide those deviants with an alternative when the majority of us view assemblies as the conventional standard.”

“What are you saying?” Allison asked. “That you favor tyranny of the majority? That’s not a practical policy, and certainly not one this body—as representative of the entire senior class—should endorse.”

“I agree with Allison,” Chuck said, nodding. “The nerds could do their thing while the rest of us did ours. We could exempt them from dressing out, which would raise the ratio of participating students wearing yellow and blue. Both groups could leave each other alone.”

“How about you, Brooke?” Allison gave her nemesis a smug smile. “What do you think?”

Brooke glanced down at her shoe, giving the heel a careful examination. She finally looked up.

“I can see what you’re saying,” she said. “But I agree with Gail. It doesn’t seem fair that we should provide an alternative when nerds comprise the minority. As far as I know, Anderson High has always had a mandatory attendance policy regarding assemblies. I don’t know why we should elect to change it based on the views of a select few.”

“Let’s put it to a vote,” Allison said. “All in favor of the proposition, raise your hand.”

Allison and Chuck put their hands in the air. Brooke laid her palms on her desk and stared at her peers with adamant defiance.

Gail turned to Brooke, then to Allison and Chuck, then back to Brooke. Slowly—hesitantly—she put her hand in the air.

“Measure passed three to one.” Allison scribbled something on a sheet of loose-leaf and handed the page to Mrs. Prichard. “That’s our decision. You can inform the school’s administration that the senior class no longer supports this institution’s mandatory assembly attendance policy.”

The teacher took the sheet and didn’t say anything. She didn’t look pleased to take orders from Allison.

At that moment, the bell rang. Lunch had ended.

“Meeting adjourned.” Allison rose from her seat. “Same time next week?”

“Yeah,” Chuck said. Gail and Brooke remained silent.

“Just a moment. Before you go, I need to pass this along.” Mrs. Prichard reached into her jacket pocket and fished out a memo. “Mrs. Chalmers has reported that a group calling themselves the Affiliation For Independent Student Thought has been making its presence known by committing numerous pranks on campus. She asked me to request the help of all student leaders in catching these miscreants. You should tell your friends to be on the lookout for anyone acting suspiciously and to report to her directly.”

“The Affiliation for what?” Chuck asked.

“The Affiliation For Independent Student Thought. A.F.I.S.T.”

“My god.” Gail put a hand to her mouth.

“I don’t see how it’s our responsibility to monitor student conduct,” Allison said. “We just got through discussing our powers of enforcement. It’s not proper for us, as student representatives, to behave as informants.”

“It’s for the good of the school, Allison,” Chuck said. “The least we can do is keep our eyes peeled. We don’t want a group of insurgents to undermine school doctrine.”

“Exactly. Well put.” Mrs. Prichard stood. “I just wanted to let you know. I’ll pass along more information as it’s made available. In the meantime, let’s hope these people are caught.”

“A.F.I.S.T. I don’t like the sound of that,” Gail said.

They pushed the desks back into rows and left the room. Allison galloped down the hall to her locker, with Mrs. Prichard and Chuck leaving behind her.

Brooke held Gail back before she could exit.

“Why did you vote for that measure?” she said. “You actually think nerds should be afforded such privileges? It’s outright scandalous!”

Gail shrugged. “It didn’t seem that bad. I suppose Allison’s right. The nerds are going to ditch assemblies, anyway. We might as well provide them some sort of substitute and save our class the embarrassment we suffered last time.”

“Don’t you know how the legislative process works? Mrs. Prichard has the tie-breaking vote. If you had stood with me against Allison and Chuck, she certainly would have taken our side.”

“I hold full confidence in my vote,” Gail said. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t deride my judgment.”

“Well, I’m surprised, that’s all,” Brooke said. “I always thought you had a level head. But it seems Allison Summers can talk you into anything.”

“Is that so?” Gail thrust her arms into her backpack straps. “You ought to hold your tongue, Brooke. You have jealousy oozing from every pore. Everyone knows you wanted to be class president. If you had any dignity at all, you’d grow up and act your age, instead of playing petty, childlike games, and behaving like the spoiled brat you are.”

She huffed and tromped out of the room, leaving Brooke alone.

Brooke grabbed her notebook and slammed it in her bag. Damn that Allison Summers! It wasn’t enough that she had stolen the class president position. Now she was turning Brooke’s own against her. Well, Brooke wouldn’t tolerate that. She simply wouldn’t.

She dug her sharp nails into her left arm, trying to vent her rage. Little Miss Summers would go down. Oh, yes. Somehow or other, she’d topple from her high pedestal of glory and plummet to the wretched depths of obscurity.

And Brooke would be the one to yank the rug from beneath her feet.

– 11 –

“Did you see this? I found it in my locker.”

“Yeah, I got one, too. What the hell is it?”

“A.F.I.S.T.? Who are these people supposed to be?”

Crowds swarmed the halls in the few minutes before fifth period. Students came to reclaim backpacks and squeeze in a few moments of chatter. Many had been surprised to find the black business cards tucked away inside their lockers. Now people conferred with one another, wondering if the cards were a threat or a joke.

“It’s got to be a senior prank,” one suggested. “Though I don’t know who’d be behind it.”

“This ain’t no senior prank,” another said. “This looks serious. Nobody would go to all this trouble just to pull a prank.”

Whatever the cards meant, most people agreed they didn’t like the message. If the cards were a prank, the joke wasn’t funny. If they were a threat, well…

Principal Deakins meandered the hallway, ushering students to class and instilling order with his general presence. He caught wind of a conversation as he walked past a circle of students.

“These Affiliation people seem scary. My dad says that free thought is dangerous and undermines a healthy society.”

“Excuse me.” Mr. Deakins snatched a card he saw clutched between one girl’s fingers. He glanced at the familiar white letters, feeling his jaw clenching.

“Everyone got one, Mr. Deakins,” someone said. “We found them in our lockers.”

“What does it mean, Mr. Deakins?”

“Is this a senior prank?”

The principal looked up and saw several pairs of eyes staring at him. The hallway had suddenly fallen silent. No lockers slammed, no chatter drifted down the corridor. All faces stared at him, waiting for an answer. As their leader, the pupils expected him to give one.

“These are rubbish,” he proclaimed, tearing the card to pieces. “Nothing more than a prank. Don’t give them another moment’s thought.”

A sigh of relief sprung from the crowd.

“Also,” Mr. Deakins continued, “if you see anyone depositing these cards, whether in a locker, classroom, or anywhere else, find out who they are and contact me. This behavior—this outrageous behavior—will not be tolerated.”

Heads nodded. Hands shredded the black cards; minds followed the example of the great, powerful principal.

“Good, good, tear them up,” Mr. Deakins said. “Tear them up to tiny bits. Forget you saw them. Don’t give these pranksters the satisfaction of knowing their message is being spread.” He paused. “And don’t throw your scraps on the floor. The janitors work hard enough as it is.” He turned and tread toward his office. Behind him, lockers started slamming again. Chatter resurfaced. The crisp sounds of paper shredding filled the air. Students hummed with happiness.

He made it to the office door and took a huge breath. His heart pounded. A sharp pain sprouted deep within his skull and sent out feelers that probed every section of his brain.

Mr. Deakins stood for a long while and breathed through his nose, trying to calm himself down. He remained planted in the doorway long after the bell had rung and the hallways cleared.

– 12 –

Fifteen minutes until the end of school. Cody watched the clock, the second hand slowly ticking away one lap after another. Time always dragged during final period. He thought back to the old saying that a watched pot never boils and decided to wait before gazing at the clock again.

He felt uneasy. Following lunch, he had gone to his locker to collect his bag and books. He’d noticed people collected in the hallways, each holding a card and whispering. Some looked downright frightened. Though he’d been curious, Cody decided not to ask anyone what was going on. He preferred to remain invisible, and communicating with another student might remind them that he, in fact, existed.

A folded sheet of paper fell to the floor the moment he opened his locker. He looked down, confused. He almost always kept a tidy locker, and stowing away loose sheets of paper wasn’t his style. He bowed down to the pick up the paper. As he stood, a black business card slid from the sheet to his palm. In block, white letters, it read: Affiliation For Independent Student Thought. A.F.I.S.T.

What the hell? Cody thought, scanning the card and looking at its blank back. That title sounded like something Sean would have devised. His friend had been a major fan of Orwell’s 1984.

He unfolded the sheet. It was a short letter, computer typed and printed. He turned his back to the students next to him and read:

“To Cody Swimfarr: We extend our sympathy regarding your recent imprisonment. Your unfair and unjust punishment, as well as the tragic death of Sean Kimble, paved the way for our organization’s founding. As such, we would very much like to meet you. If you are interested, please linger on campus about ten minutes following the final bell. An escort will meet you inside the male restroom on the east end of the main building. We very much hope you’ll give us the pleasure of your company. Sincerely, The Members of A.F.I.S.T.

“P.S. This letter is not a joke. We are very much real and sympathize with your views. Our aim is to change the school’s perspective on the downtrodden souls such as ourselves.”

Cody had read the letter twice, not knowing what to think. He instantly doubted the letter’s authenticity. It sounded like a prank. He could just picture Mr. Deakins producing this, hoping to somehow entrap him. Cody had made up his mind to lay low until graduation. He didn’t want any more trouble. He knew Mr. Deakins wanted any excuse to destroy his life, and falling into this trap—if it was indeed a trap—would justify any punishment the principal cared to bestow.

He closed his locker, shoving the paper and card into his jacket. He looked up to see Mike Schwartz across the hall, giving him a cold look. Cody had seen a lot of Mike today. He’d mysteriously been around wherever Cody went. Cody hadn’t liked it, and hoped Mike wasn’t planning on harassing him any further. He’d already learned his lesson.

So Cody had gone to class and now sat waiting for the final bell to ring. He couldn’t concentrate on anything the teacher said. His mind could dwell only on the letter. His better judgment told him to forget the meeting and dash to his car once class let out. He’d just been released from four months of solitary. He didn’t need or want the hassle. However, something kept nagging him from the back of his mind. It felt like a yearning, a longing. A chance to “do” something.

But to do what? He didn’t know these people. They could be like those two crazy Columbine freaks, looking for blood. Cody didn’t want that. Since those horrifying shootings in the not-so-distant past, people had compared Cody and students like him to those two maniac butchers who had slain so many innocent people. What if this A.F.I.S.T. organization wanted to do the same thing? What if they wanted Cody’s help for some sort of crazy scheme?

He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at the clock again. Five minutes now. He needed to make a decision soon.

I won’t do it, he thought. Those people are probably nuts. They think I’m like them, but I’m not. No, I’m going home. In fact, I’ll turn this letter in to Mr. Deakins. That’d be the right thing to do.

But the back of his mind wouldn’t quit nagging. Something told him there wasn’t violence in the letter’s words.

What would be the harm, his brain said, in merely meeting these people? See what they’re about? If they’re crazy, turn them in. If they’re not…

The bell rang. Cody crammed his books and papers into his bag and dashed into the hall. Swarms of students instantly filtered out of classrooms and melded in the corridor, everyone relieved the day had finally ended.

Cody turned left towards the entrance doors. Then he turned around, facing east. He turned back. Then again. Two different parts of his brain screamed at him to do two different things.

Finally, he sprinted to his locker and flung it open. He stashed his backpack and dug around, waiting for the crowds to disperse. He needed to decide, now.

Go home!

No! Meet these people!

Go home!

No! You should at least see who they are!

The battle inside his head raged until one side finally won. Cody checked his watch. Eight minutes had passed. Most of the students had gone. He closed his locker and trekked to the male restroom. He found no one inside. He casually walked to a urinal, relieved himself, and then visited the sinks, washing his hands. Outside, a voice or two drifted in from the corridor. Cody took a long time drying his hands. He had been standing right here when Mike and his crowd had shown up yesterday. Cody swallowed and hoped they wouldn’t drop by again.

As he threw his towel into the wastebasket, a door to one of the stalls clicked open. Cody turned, thinking he’d been alone in the room. He held his breath, his heart pounding. Something didn’t feel right.

A short kid with cropped black hair emerged. He looked at Cody and nodded.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, walking forward. He held out his hand.

Cody stared at him.

The kid smiled. “Don’t worry; it’s clean. I was only waiting in there, nothing more.”

Uncertain, Cody extended his arm and delicately shook hands with the young man.

This was a bad idea, he thought. I can still go home. All I have to do is leave.

“I’m Gilbert Summers,” the kid said. “I can understand if you’re a little perturbed. First, let me assure you that we’re not crazy, violent, or in any way demented. I figured that would be your first assumption.”

“Well…” Cody felt a huge surge of relief. At least one of his questions had been answered.

“Society has a tendency to fear people like us,” Gilbert said. “Many assume we’re nuts, off-balance, or whatever. But those of A.F.I.S.T. are like you. We just want to be left alone. Unfortunately, this school and the people in it don’t accept our kind. They want us to merge and be a part of their world. Only their world is a lie. Anderson High exists as a dark nightmare that only Orwell himself could have conceived.”

“I’m… I’m pleased to meet you.” Cody’s mouth had gone dry. “I’m glad you cleared that up. I thought about not coming.”

“Our letter was cryptic, I know. But you can understand why it had to be that way. If that note had fallen into the wrong hands, you could have gotten in serious trouble.”

Cody nodded.

“Well,” Gilbert checked his watch, “let’s get to it.” He opened the restroom door. “After you.”

Cody hesitated. “Aren’t there still people out there?”

Gilbert smiled. “We know this school inside and out. Its routines, its patterns. I guarantee nobody will bug us.”

“Famous last words,” Cody said. “I remember saying something like that to a good friend of mine four months ago. As you know, we got caught.”

“Trust me. If you can’t, you might as well walk away right now.”

Cody took a breath and looked at the wall. The gears in his head turned. Somehow, he’d taken an instant liking to this kid. He seemed, in a way, like Sean.

“Okay.” Cody stepped into the empty corridor. Gilbert came up behind him.

“Follow me.” Gilbert led him down the hall. As he had said, there was no one around. All the students had gone, and now only teachers and office personnel remained.

“Most teachers stay in their rooms at least a half hour past the final bell,” Gilbert said. “But even if they did spot us, what could they say? We’re not doing anything bad, right?”

“I don’t know.” Cody shrugged.

They came to an inconspicuous white door that blended in perfectly with the wall surrounding it. Cody knew this door led to a storage room containing office supplies and paper. He’d been in there once to collect a toner cartridge for his English teacher. The door usually remained locked to keep out thieving students.

Gilbert turned the knob and let them both in.

Cody held his breath as he walked into the small enclosure. He instantly met another young man about Gilbert’s size, except his hair was longer and untamed. The kid smiled at him.

Shelves lined all four walls of the small room. Reams of paper, ink cartridges for printers, books, and various sundries sat stuffed on them. A table with a copier, laser printer, and telephone occupied the left side. Cody turned his head and spotted a girl sitting on the table. He recognized her immediately, and his mouth dropped open. This had been a trap. These people had set him up, and now he was going to fall. It would be a long ways down.

The girl jumped to her feet, her clogs clapping the floor. She looked stunning in her gray jacket and white blouse. Her auburn hair flowed down her back and shoulders. Scented perfume wafted from her skin. Cody had always admired her, but from a far distance. After all, their social groups mixed like snow and summer.

She smiled and extended a hand. “I’m sure you know me, but you probably didn’t think I knew you. I’m Allison Summers, the senior class president.” She motioned to the long-haired kid. “That’s Frankie Halsen, and the guy there who brought you in is Gilbert, my little brother. They’re both sophomores.”

The two boys nodded.

Allison smiled. “Please, sit down. I know it’s cramped in here, but it’s the best we could manage. We thought meeting in an open classroom might be too brazen.”

Three folding chairs lay stationed next to the table. Cody, swallowing, sat down in one. Gilbert and Frankie rested on the others.

Cody had known Allison since she’d moved to Anderson six years ago. In all that time, they had never spoken, but he’d watched as she quickly climbed the ranks of popularity. By ninth grade, Allison had become one of the most beloved members of the class. She claimed her own circle of friends, participated in every social event, and attracted the lustful fancies of every male on campus—including Cody’s.

Allison reclaimed her seat on the table. Her feet dangled above the floor.

She smiled at Cody. “I’m sure you’d like an explanation for all this.”

“I, ah—” Cody looked from her to the two sophomores. He took a hard swallow. “This isn’t a trap, is it?”

Allison chuckled. “I’m probably not who you think I am. There’s a lot to tell. First, let me introduce ourselves. We are the Affiliation For Independent Student Thought, or A.F.I.S.T., for short. Our mission is to undermine the current authoritarian administration that runs this school and to emancipate the minds of our brainwashed peers. My brother and I had the idea some time ago. The group came to fruition only recently. The injustice you and your friend Sean suffered was the catalyst that incited us to stop talking and take action.”

“You’re the leader of this?” Cody stared at her. “But, I don’t get it. I always thought…”

“I know what you thought, Cody. That I’m popular and involved and in love with this place. Well, let me dispel you of that notion. A long time ago, I learned that power is everything. Without power, you remain trapped at the bottom. And when you’re at the bottom, people walk all over you. It’s as simple as that. I’ve always hated things like conformity, social strength, and authoritative leaders. But like they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. I joined, but I never renounced my faith in freedom. Now I find I have to play dual roles to accomplish my mission. The Allison you know is a member of the cheerleading squad. She participates in class endeavors and interacts with the social elite. Now, she’s the president of the entire senior class. But I despise those things. I really do. The real Allison is the person sitting before you right now. I want to destroy the communitarian doctrine this school instills and urge teens to think for themselves. Most students don’t realize what beautiful minds they have. They’ve been taught to work in groups, to obey the whims of leaders, to shun and harass free-thinkers like you. The world we live in is drab and gray. But if everyone embraced their individuality and let their colors shine, we’d live in a vibrant world of many brilliant hues. That’s what I want this school to be: A brilliant collage of color. Unfortunately, people find comfort in conformity. Blending in is easier than standing out. Our goal, we realize, may only be a distant dream. But we must try. We must. If not for our sake, then for the sake of our children. The problem can only grow worse. As time goes on, the disease of conformity spreads further and further. High schools implement stricter doctrine and punish those who resist. The truth is, we may already be too late.”

“Holy crap,” Cody said. He gnawed on his thumbnail. “You’re saying you’re like… me?” He shook his head. “But, how? I mean, how can you be involved with them and still think the way you do?”

“It’s not easy, I assure you.” Allison swung her legs back and forth. “I work on the inside and outside. But my goal is the same: to undermine the school. I’ve found you can accomplish a lot on the inside. For example, we just made a major victory today. The senior class government elected to dismantle the mandatory assembly attendance policy. Nonconformists now have an alternative to those noisy, idiotic affairs. I admit, it’s not like we abolished the assemblies altogether, but it’s nevertheless a step in the right direction.”

“That would have saved us four months ago,” Cody said. He closed his eyes. “Sean might still be alive.”

“I’m sorry about your friend. His death was one of the main reasons we started this group.” Allison looked at the ground.

Cody nodded, reopening his eyes. He shook the sadness of Sean’s memory from his mind.

“I never would have figured you for a rebel,” he said. “You’ve kept up the charade quite well.”

Allison gave him a grin. “It’s been a struggle, but highly effective. As a popular goody two shoes, I can work from the inside and annul tyrannical policies. As an ironclad insurgent, I can wreak havoc from the outside and pull more outrageous stunts than I could otherwise. I give the school a double dose of trouble. However, interacting with my enemies incognito can be distressing. There’s been so many times when I’ve just wanted to scream out loud, to tear out my hair, to pick up a desk and smash it on someone’s head. I’ve had to learn to keep my cool and continue the charade. It’s discouraging when you immerse yourself in their world and see how happy they are wearing their blinders. It feels, sometimes, like the effort isn’t worth it. But then I think of the injustice and the mistreatment this school perpetuates, and my resolve bursts forth with renewed strength. I love freedom, Cody. I love it more than anything in the world. And I’d die to see freedom reign. Our generation doesn’t know what it’s missing. Future generations deserve more than what we’ve got.”

“Amen.” Cody leaned back and relaxed, comfortable now knowing he was in the company of friends. “It’s reassuring to know there’s others like me.”

“Of that I’m sure. We’re certainly in the minority. Though it conflicts with our doctrine, you must admit, there is strength in numbers.”

Cody nodded, grinning. “So you’re the ones who placed those black cards in everyone’s lockers. I heard people talking about them after lunch.”

“And that’s just Phase One,” Allison said. “We’ve got bigger stunts planned. Mr. Deakins and all his sycophants won’t know what hit them.”

“Then I’m guessing you brought me here to recruit my services?”

“That’s right.” Gilbert sat straight. “There’s precious few like us. Sis has her hands full with the student council. Frankie and I work from the outside, and we’re only two people. We need all the help we can get.”

“Of course, there is a risk factor involved,” Allison said. “And after all you’ve been through, I can understand if you’re wary of additional trouble. But as seniors, you and I have only a few precious months before we graduate. If we want to make any change at all, now is the time to act.”

“Yeah.” Cody nodded. “Four months in pitch blackness wasn’t fun. I wouldn’t be too eager to do it again.” He frowned. “But I lost my best friend. Someone shot him, and I don’t know who. This school has given me nothing but heartache. If they could only leave us alone and accept us for who we are, then everything would be fine. Instead, they got to force us to conform, to ‘blend in,’ like you said.” He looked down at the floor. “Sean would have loved this. He’d have signed up in a heartbeat. Someone in this school took his life away, just because he thought and acted differently. His death shouldn’t be in vain. I’ll do anything I can to help you guys take this place down. I owe Sean that much.” He continued to nod, feeling a renewed sense of purpose. His spirit had been dead for months.

Allison smiled. “You’re a good guy. I’m sure Sean would be proud.”

Cody smiled. “Screw the danger. If Mr. Deakins thought I was a terror before, he’s going to be horrified to see me now.”

“We’ll be glad to have you,” Allison said. “We’ve already got plans in the works. Gilbert can fill you in on those.”

“Actually, Sis, before we get into that, there’s a small problem to discuss.” Gilbert nodded at Cody. “He’s got a shadow.”

“What’s that?” Cody said, looking at him.

Gilbert turned. “Mike Schwartz has been tailing you all day. He seemed mysteriously present wherever you went.”

“He didn’t see you come here, however,” Frankie said. “He took off for his car when the last bell rang. But something’s up. Someone must have told him to watch you, and he is.”

“You think so? I saw him around, but I thought I was just being paranoid.” Cody’s pulsed quickened. “I hope he’s not planning another attack. He and his pals already cornered me yesterday. They shoved me headfirst into a toilet. I ditched the rest of my class and ran to the gym to shower.” Cody balled a fist. “If only I had his strength, I’d knock his teeth out. Every single one of them. I hate that creep.”

“My god,” Allison said, cringing. “Mike did that to you?”

“Yeah. I suppose that was his way of welcoming me back.”

“I can’t understand his sudden obsession with you.” Gilbert shrugged and faced his sister. “Unless he backs off, there’s little Cody can do. We can’t have a snitch on our heels reporting our moves to the Principal.”

“Don’t worry,” Allison said. “I’ll have a kind word with him tomorrow. Mike Schwartz fawns over me like a moonstruck moron. He’ll gladly do anything I ask.”

“I’d be much obliged if you could keep him away,” Cody said. “That one confrontation was enough.”

“Don’t worry; it’s handled.” Allison turned to her brother and grinned. “Want to tell him the idea for Phase Two?”

“How many phases comprise this plan?” Cody asked.

“Just two so far. We devise each phase as we go along.” Gilbert reached into the backpack at his feet and pulled out a folder. He extracted a sheet and handed it to Cody. “Read this. I think you’ll like it.”

Cody brushed the hair from his eyes. The paper contained four lines written in 36-point font. “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Teachers, leave them kids alone.” At the bottom of the page, in 24-point font, he read: “Courtesy of A.F.I.S.T.”

Cody couldn’t help but smile. “This is one of my favorite songs. Pink Floyd totally rocks.”

“Those are among the best lyrics Roger Waters has written,” Allison said. “And they’ll work nicely for our purpose.”

“This is just one of about a thousand we’ve printed up,” Gilbert said, taking the sheet back from Cody. “Using school copy machines, of course.”

Cody smiled. “I love the song, but I don’t get it. What’s this for?”

“Imagine these posted all over the school,” Gilbert said, tapping the sheet. “In the hallways, on lockers, above drinking fountains. Maybe fifty a day. People will walk by and read them. Soon enough, the lyrics will be burned into the minds of every student, teacher and administrator in this school.”

“What we’re doing,” Allison said, “is starting a sign campaign. Like Gilbert said, we’re going to post these everywhere. It’s a harmless, nonviolent means to make an important point.”

“You’re using song lyrics to make a point?” Cody asked.

“This chorus sums up everything we stand for,” Gilbert said. “Besides, our signs will drive the administrators crazy. Each day, they’ll be ripping these down by the dozen.” He stood up, holding the paper high. “Apart from their obvious nuisance, these signs will also threaten Mr. Deakins. He’ll know that somewhere out there, lurking within the cluttered masses of the uniform student body, is a coalition committed to undermining the doctrine of this school. A coalition he can’t control. And that’s what scares him most: losing control. His position, his authority, and his mission all rest on his ability to instill fear in every student and to quash anyone who works against him. For him to lose even the slightest ounce of control can spell disaster. Successful dictators remove their opposition. The masses then view this dictator as the guiding light and accept all he says. After all, who else can they turn to? Themselves? No; that’s not an option under authoritarian rule. And as you well know, that very scenario has played out inside these walls. Mr. Deakins has no opposition. The teachers and students blindly follow his lead and never ask questions. But if we rise up, take a stand, and openly protest the tenets of this school, we’ll not only be attacking Mr. Deakins; we’ll be attacking the very policies he enforces. Students will hear two sides, not just one. And that fact alone sabotages Mr. Deakins’s control. Without control, he’s helpless. The principal has elevated himself on such a high pedestal that everyone must look up to him in awe. Therefore, it’s not the man we’re after: it’s the pedestal. For to remove it would be to fling him into the crowd, where he would stand to become another helpless face wanting of power and lacking control.”

Gilbert flopped back on his seat, his breathing ragged. He’d overexcited himself.

“My brother’s like me,” Allison said. “We’re both very passionate about freedom.”

“Then I think I’ll fit right in,” Cody said, grinning. “When does this sign campaign start, anyway?”

“We’re shooting for sometime next week,” Gilbert said. “We have one more stunt to pull tomorrow. A big one. After that, we want to lay low for awhile and catch our breath. Sis said they told the student council to look out for us.”

“It’s true,” Allison said. “The idiots in power are already scared. We’ve made quite an impression.”

“And we haven’t even started,” Frankie replied, finally speaking up. “This is only the calm before the storm. I can’t wait to see what happens when we barrage them with signs.”

“Only time will tell.” Allison turned to Cody. “Well, your moment of truth has come. Have we convinced you to join us?”

Cody smiled. “Does the sun rise in the east?”

“We already have a smart ass,” Gilbert said, pointing to Frankie. “And one is quite enough, thanks.” Frankie grinned and shook his head.

Allison hopped down from the table and held out her hand. Cody grasped her palm gently and shook. Her hand felt smooth and warm.

“Welcome aboard,” Allison said. She gave Cody a brilliant smile. “We’re glad to have you. We really are.”

In the six years they’d attended school together, Cody had never interacted with Allison face to face. He’d always thought she’d looked pretty from a distance, but up close, she was outright dazzling.

He blinked several times. “Thank you.”

Gilbert and Frankie held out their hands as well. Cody shook each of them. He’d never had more than one friend at a time in his entire life. Now he’d made three in a single afternoon.

Allison gathered her things from the table and gave a high-five to the other group members. “Gentlemen, that concludes another meeting. Until next time, savor life, embrace freedom, and reject tyranny in any form.”

“She’s got to say that every time,” Gilbert explained to Cody. “She thinks it sounds cool.”

“It does sound cool,” Allison said.

“Wait a minute,” Frankie said. “We haven’t sang our club song yet.”

Cody tilted his head. “You have a club song?”

“Of course we do.” Frankie stood straight and held his head high. “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control.”

Allison and Gilbert joined in: “No dark sarcasm in the classroom.”

Cody, laughing, helped finish the chorus: “Teachers, leave them kids alone!”

No one saw them as they ducked out of the storage room and headed for home.

– 13 –

The following morning brought heavy gray clouds and a piercing winter chill. Darkness pervaded as Mr. Deakins emerged from his glimmering luxury sedan. Around him, the parking lot lay cold and empty. As usual, he’d been the first to arrive. Outside his duties as principal, the man had no life. Mr. Deakins lived and breathed for Anderson High.

He unlocked the front doors and flicked a few switches. A series of florescent lights clicked on one by one down the shadowy corridors. The school had no overnight janitorial service to open the sleeping institution every morning. However, Mr. Deakins handled that task with rigid devotion. Each day, he awakened the beast and awaited the arrival of uniformed pupils who would devour their daily dose of government guidance.

The principal sensed trouble the moment he unlocked his office door. Something didn’t feel right. He made his way inside and turned on the light. What lay before him ruined any chance for what he had hoped would be a laid back day.

Someone had cleared his desk and turned it upside down. His computer monitor, keyboard, and printer sat scattered on the floor. His chair lay on its side. The bulb in the overhead fixture had been exchanged for one that cast a bright red beam. Each volume on his cluttered bookshelf had been removed and replaced upturned. A large rock sat in the middle of the room as if it’d always been there.

Mr. Deakins took a step forward, staring at the scene. He glanced down at the rock and the black business card lying on top of it. A dull ache sprouted in his head and blossomed with painful throbs.

The door to the main office opened and closed. The principal stepped outside to see the receptionist draping her purse on the chair at her station.

“Good morning, sir,” she said, flashing a smile. “I’m just about to put some coffee on.”

“Don’t bother, Gloria.” Mr. Deakins turned to his office and took a deep breath. “I’ll be needing something stronger this morning.”

– 14 –

She spotted Mike Schwartz standing at his locker, surrounded by his friends. He looked up and grinned when she approached. The friends quickly scattered.

“What’s up, Allison?” Mike leaned against the locker and flexed his bicep—a Mervyn’s model in the making.

“Hi, Mike.” Allison straightened her back and brushed the hair from her eyes. Her chest held his undivided attention.

“Congratulations on your election,” Mike said. “I knew you’d beat out Brooke Cassfen. The vote wasn’t even close. You won by a good two-thirds.”

“The class came through, just like I knew it would.” Allison bared her dazzling white teeth. “I wanted to thank you for nominating me. I couldn’t have won without you.”

Mike shrugged. “No big deal.” He tried to appear casual, though his insides squirmed with excitement. He’d been wanting to ask Allison out for awhile. Now seemed like a good opportunity.

“I heard about the lesson you taught Cody Swimfarr. I’m glad. That creep’s mere presence makes me sick.” Allison reached out and touched Mike’s shoulder, resisting the urge to gouge his skin with her sharp nails.

Mike instinctively flexed his muscles even harder.

“You heard about that?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “I told the guys not to say anything. Those idiots.”

“Oh, you know how things get around.” Allison ran her fingers across the exposed flesh of his arm. “Besides, I’m the class president. It’s my job to know all.”

Mike laughed. “I guess that’s true. I wish you had been there. We shoved that little prick’s head down a toilet and made him choke on turds. If he tries to step out of line again, I’ll cut him up and butcher his ass.”

“You’re making sure he minds his manners?” Allison traced a finger across Mike’s chest. She felt his pecks tighten slightly.

“Hell, yeah. In fact, get this—” Mike leaned closer and lowered his voice, “Mrs. Chalmers brought me to her office the other day and asked me to keep tabs on him. She’s afraid he’s going to try and pull something now that he’s out of solitary. I’m even authorized to kick his ass again if I want. The guys and I have been talking about jumping him after school sometime and breaking both his arms. He wouldn’t be able to wipe his own ass for a month.” Mike winked. “If you want to come watch, I’ll let you know in advance. The whole school would probably show up.”

“You got that right,” Allison said. She felt her stomach tighten and her face grow warm. She could easily ram her knee into Mike’s crotch and laugh as he contorted in pain.

Mike flexed his bicep to the brink of explosion. “Allison, I’ve been wanting to ask you, seeing as how we’re both available—”

“So, Mrs. Chalmers asked you to keep your eye on Cody?” Allison said, deliberately cutting him off. “She must think he presents some sort of danger.”

Mike looked taken aback. “Well, yeah. I guess so. After all, the guy did escape an assembly.”

“It’s funny, because we were just talking about that during yesterday’s class meeting.” Allison leaned closer to Mike, keeping her hand on his chest. “Our sources said the freshmen class is trying to sabotage us. They got punks putting these cards in people’s lockers and pulling other pranks around school.”

“Yeah, I got one of those cards,” Mike said. “I’d kill the guy who passed them out.”

“My feelings exactly. That’s why I need your help. Watching Cody Swimfarr is pointless. The guy’s beaten. He spent four months in solitary. He’s not a threat anymore. The real problem lies with these freshmen.”

Mike scrunched his lips. “What are you saying?”

“Forget Mrs. Chalmers. Forget Cody Swimfarr. Instead, if you really want to help the class, follow the freshmen around. Keep tabs on their activities. If you see one acting strange, report to me. If we don’t act, they’ll keep the spirit stick all year, and we’ll have nothing to show for ourselves come graduation.”

Mike nodded. “You’re right. I’m wasting my time tailing Cody. He’s a burnout anyway.”

“Right. It’s the freshmen we’re after. But do me a favor and keep this to yourself. If word got around, the freshmen could accuse us of starting a smear campaign and have our class disqualified. We’d have no chance to win the spirit stick.”

Mike grimaced and slammed his fist into his locker. “Damn those freshmen! I hate them. I hate them!”

“It’s okay,” Allison said, stroking his arm. “Just keep your eyes peeled. You’d be doing the whole class a favor.”

“Okay. You have my word,” Mike said. “And if I catch one doing anything suspicious, I’ll kick his ass.”

“No,” Allison reminded him. “You’ll tell me.”

“Oh. Right.” Mike nodded. “I’ll tell you.”

“That’s right.” She stood on tiptoe and pecked him on the cheek. “Thanks Mike. You’re one in a million.”

As he stood in temporary bewilderment, surprised by the kiss, Allison seized the moment to dash down the corridor. She’d narrowly sidestepped his romantic proposal and needed to flee before he could try it again. Outright rejecting Mike Schwartz might jeopardize her popularity ranking and political career. A high schooler’s social stance relied heavily on his or her dating partner.

She’d instructed her flock to wait for her by the south drinking fountain. In the meantime, she rushed to the restroom and dug some baby wipes from her purse. With vicious, violent strokes, she sterilized her lips and fingertips using the sanitizing cloths. Touching Mike had nauseated her.

– 15 –

The remainder of the week passed with no incident. No boulders materialized in strange places, and no black business cards accompanied them. The mysterious A.F.I.S.T. had suddenly gone silent. Some hoped it would be for good. Others, like Mr. Deakins, knew better.

The following Monday, Cody found another note in his locker, this one asking him to hightail it to the “D” building at lunch. He dashed from homeroom the moment the bell rang, keeping an eye over his shoulder. Nobody followed.

“D” building sat apart from the rest of the school near the trailer in which Mr. Leonard conducted his in-school suspension program. It housed the computer lab and the woodshop workroom. Students had to exit the main building’s rear doors and walk through a small, concrete courtyard to reach the “D” facilities. Cody did this, breaking away from a line of teens drifting toward the cafeteria. He hoped he wouldn’t be seen and spoil the whole thing. He’d been anticipating this for days now.

Walking into “D” always felt strange. Silence pervaded the narrow, filthy corridors that the janitors rarely cleaned. Ceiling lights buzzed and flickered. The place seemed abandoned and empty. Nobody came here except to attend class. Cody and his new pals would have the place to themselves for lunch.

The small building had been designed as a square with four connecting corridors. Cody dashed down one, turned left, turned left again, and spotted the team. Gilbert and Frankie stood hunched in a small recess that housed a drinking fountain.

“Hey, what’s up?” Gilbert shook Cody’s hand. “You must have rushed. We just got here.”

“What do you think?” Frankie pointed to the sign hanging above the slimy drinking fountain. They had neatly scotch-taped it to the wall. The rebellious lyrics blared out in bold print.

“I love it.” Cody grinned. “This is the first one?”

“The very first. I wish I’d brought a camera to capture the moment.” Gilbert stood back and admired their work.

“Gilbert and I brought everything we need,” Frankie said, shuffling through the items heaped in his hands. He gave Cody a thick folder. “Those are the signs. We shoved a bunch in there. And this—” he held up a metal tape dispenser, “came courtesy of Miss Derwaln. Without her knowledge, of course.”

“We should go pretty fast once we get a rhythm,” Gilbert said. “You can place the signs, I’ll tape them up, and Frankie can carry the stuff and be our lookout.”

“We’re aiming for fifty a day?” Cody asked.

“Well, we’ll test the waters and see if that’s possible. Fifty might be a stretch. I would be satisfied if we hung fifteen or twenty.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Frankie said. “There’s no way we could do fifty. I told you that from the start.”

“Whatever. We should get ourselves moving. We’re burning daylight.” Gilbert crept down the corridor and peered around the corner. “All clear. Let’s move.”

Cody and Frankie scampered behind as Gilbert dashed down the dingy hall. They came to the computer lab. Through the window of the closed door, they could see screen savers glowing on monitors in the darkened room.

“Let’s stick a sign on the door,” Gilbert suggested.

Cody fumbled opening the folder. He thought he heard footsteps coming down the opposite corridor. The stack of signs slipped in his hands, some spilling to the floor.

“Nervous?” Gilbert smiled.

“Hell yes. I’m not used to this stuff.” Cody looked around. The sound of footsteps had stopped.

“Don’t worry; I’ve got my eyes peeled,” Frankie said. “There’s no one here.”

“I’m all right. Let’s just do this.” Cody held a sign flat on the door. Gilbert unspooled some tape from Frankie’s dispenser and secured all four corners of the sheet. The second sign looked as great as the first.

The trio proceeded down the corridor, hanging a sign on the building’s main bulletin board and on the front entrance doors. They made their way to the courtyard and secured sheets to the concrete walls. They hadn’t seen a soul yet.

Soon enough, they worked out a rhythm and quickened their pace. The rebels hustled into the “C” building and posted signs down the corridors and on classroom doors. They could hear their quickened breaths resounding down the halls. Cody’s heart wanted to explode.

They scurried through the teacher’s parking lot to the side entrance of the main building. After posting two signs on the doors, all three conspirators slipped inside.

The hallways lay long and empty. In the distance, muffled chatter drifted from the cafeteria. Lunch would be over in twenty minutes. Plenty of time remained to post a few more signs.

Gilbert taped a sheet to the wall above the drinking fountain. Frank ambled over to the corner to take a quick look around.

“How many have we put up?” Cody asked.

“This one makes fourteen,” Gilbert said, stepping back.

“Coast looks clear to me,” Frankie said, returning. “How about we put one up in the restroom?”

“No, not a good idea.” Gilbert shook his head. “We don’t want to give away our gender.”

At that moment, someone yanked open the entrance doors behind them. An icy chill filtered into the hall. Cody jumped and felt every muscle in his body stiffen. Instinctively, he clenched the folder and held it close. Frankie quickly slipped the tape dispenser inside his jacket.

Mr. George, the freshmen comp teacher, stepped inside. All three of them noticed he held a handful of crumpled “We don’t need no education” signs in his fist.

“Gentlemen,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Roaming the halls is prohibited during lunch. You should know that.”

“Yes, sir,” Gilbert said. “We were just getting something from my locker.”

Quick thinking, Cody thought.

“I don’t care what you were doing. Report to the cafeteria this instant.”

“Yes, sir.” The three of them turned and started walking down the hall.

“Hold it. Just a second.”

Shit! Cody clenched his jaw as they all halted in their tracks. Mr. George approached from behind.

He held up the signs in his hand. “I just found several of these in the ‘C’ building.” He narrowed his eyes even further. Cody knew at any moment he’d ask to see what was inside the folder.

“Yes?” Gilbert’s voice had a frightened edge to it.

“Have you seen anybody around putting up unauthorized signs?”

Cody looked at Gilbert. Gilbert looked at Frankie. Frankie shrugged his shoulders.

“We just got back from off-campus,” he said. “We haven’t seen anybody.”

Mr. George nodded. “All right, then. Clear the halls before somebody writes you up.”

“Yes, sir.” The three comrades turned once again and made their way to the main corridor. They stopped at the library doors.

“Good god.” Cody took a deep breath and slumped against the wall. His heart jumped like a jack rabbit on heroin.

“We got fifteen minutes,” Gilbert said, gazing down the way they’d come. “Mr. George went back outside. Let’s get going.”

“No way. I’m done.” Cody slid down the wall and settled on his haunches.

“What are you talking about?” Gilbert stepped in front of him. “We got fifteen minutes. We haven’t even covered this building yet.”

“I told you, I’m through.” Cody held out the folder. “Go on. I can’t do this. My nerves aren’t made for it.”

“C’mon Cody,” Gilbert said, squatting down. “Mr. George didn’t see nothing. We need you, man.”

Cody looked down at the floor.

“If he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to.” Frankie took the folder from Cody’s outstretched hand. “Let’s you and me put the rest of these up.”

“Cody, listen.” Gilbert ran a hand through his thick hair. “There are risks, I know. But that’s the name of the game. We got to face some obstacles if we want to make an impact.”

“Here, let me run and put these up. I’ll meet you guys in the library afterwards.” Frankie took the folder and sprinted down the hall.

“Cody?” Gilbert sat down beside him, leaning his back against the wall.

Cody rested his head on his palm. “I’m sorry. That whole thing just gave me a flashback. Those four months swam back in my mind.”

“Oh.” Gilbert nodded. He turned to Cody and tried to smile. “Still kind of shell-shocked, huh?”

“Yeah.” Cody let out a breath.

“Well, dude, it’s fine. We’ll take a break for the rest of the day and start again tomorrow.” He paused. “That is, if you feel up to it.”

Cody nodded. “I’ll be fine. My nerves are just wrecked. Tomorrow—” He closed his eyes. “Tomorrow I should be cool.”

“Great. All right.” Gilbert stood up and held out a hand to help Cody to his feet. “We’ll give it a shot tomorrow then.”

“Yeah.” Cody dusted off his pants. The filthy carpet hadn’t been vacuumed in years.

“Want to chill in the library? Frankie said he’d meet us there.”

“No.” Cody looked down the hall. “I’ll be all right. You can go ahead and finish up with him if you want. I’ll just wait for the bell.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Cody nodded. “We’ll give it another shot tomorrow, like you said.”

“Okay.” Gilbert put a hand on his shoulder. “You sure you’re all right, though?”

“I’m fine.” Cody smiled.

“All right. I’ll run into you tomorrow. Same time, same place.”

“Sounds good.”

“Cool. Take care, comrade.” Gilbert turned and scooted off to search for Frankie.

Cody sighed and leaned back against the wall. The images of impenetrable black darkness still clouded his head, and his heart showed no signs of winding down.

– 16 –

The gears of Anderson High chugged to a halt, the clockwork winding down.

Another school day had come to an end. Outside, the afternoon sun seared the landscape with its languid, dreamy glow. Inside, the classrooms and hallways lay still and silent.

The clock on the wall read three-thirty, but Mr. Deakins figured it had to be five o’clock somewhere. He took the bottle of Black Velvet stashed in his bottom drawer and filled his coffee mug to the brim. A quick sip, then another, helped ease the weight from his shoulders and clear his mind. He slouched in his chair and let out a breath.

Ten minutes earlier, Mr. Blair, the custodian, had deposited the stack of signs on his desk. The principal stared at them now, massaging his forehead with his fingertips. The bold print blared out, impossible to ignore:

“We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Teachers, leave them kids alone!”

He took a gulp of Black Velvet—a very large gulp—and turned his head to the rear window. Outside on the football field, the varsity team practiced blocks, passes, tackles and snaps. Coach Bixbey, with his balding head and husky gut, blew his whistle, a palm in the air. All the players snapped to attention, standing with backs straight, shoulders level, eyes and ears and every sense waiting direction.

Mr. Deakins smiled. Order. Obedience. Respect. The components of a healthy society. One man guides, the others follow. Fail to obey: You don’t play. Amen to that.

The principal gulped down the remaining whiskey in one long swallow and quickly filled the mug again. The signs—all seventeen of them—stared up with adamant defiance. Mr. Deakins tried not to look at them. Somehow, the system had failed. Somehow, aberrations had emerged, divided from the whole. A coalition had sprung forth from the masses. Mutiny had no place in Anderson High. It had to be squashed, trampled… exterminated. Mutiny could infect the minds of obedient followers. It could overrun the institution, demolish society and destroy the very platform the school sought to instill.

A gentle tapping sounded at the door. The office receptionist poked her head in.

“He’s here, Mr. Deakins,” she said. Her mouth tightened as she spoke.

“Very well. Send him in.” The principal took another sip of whiskey.

The receptionist stepped aside, allowing the man to enter. His thick boots thudded against the carpet, his long coat rustling like a curtain near a vent. He removed his mirrored sunglasses and tucked them in his pocket.

“Mr. Deakins,” he said, nodding.

The principal nodded back. “Mr. Leonard. Please, sit down.”

The teacher took a seat.

Mr. Deakins pushed the bottle of Black Velvet forward. “Interest you in a drink?”

Mr. Leonard’s eyes narrowed. “No.”

“All right, then.” Mr. Deakins leaned back and drummed his fingers on the mug. “So tell me, how are things going in the in-school suspension program?”

“Well enough. I had three students assigned to me last week. Two broke down and wept on the second day. I’m still working on the third. I might resort to the switch, should he hold out tomorrow.”

“Beautiful. A little discipline goes a long way.” The principal took a small sip from his cup. “I have to say, I’m always pleased by your results. No student ever visits you twice.”

Mr. Leonard leaned forward. “Something’s up. I know you didn’t call me here to discuss my methods of correction.”

Mr. Deakins set down his mug. “No, I didn’t. We have a much larger problem on our hands. I’m enlisting your help.” He shoved the stack of signs across the desk. The teacher picked up the topmost sheet and read it. A quick scan was all he needed.

“Where did these come from?” he said, clenching his fist around the paper.

“From all over.” Mr. Deakins shifted in his seat. “Mr. Blair found them posted up everywhere. Of course, this is just one infraction in a series of many. This group—A.F.I.S.T., it’s called—has been pulling similar stunts for some time.”

“And you’re just informing me now?” Mr. Leonard crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it on the desk.

“I at first sought other remedies. None provided results.”

“I’m sure they didn’t.” Mr. Leonard scratched his stubbled chin. “This coalition cannot be allowed to persist. I’ll determine who they are and discipline them accordingly.”

“No,” the principal said. “I want you to determine who they are and send them to me. These acts merit more than in-school suspension. I’m prepared to play my last card and recommend the ultimate penalty.”

“Permanent Detention?” Wrinkles appeared on Mr. Leonard’s forehead.

“Permanent Detention, yes. A faction this organized, this secretive, has the power to influence every young mind in this school. I can’t have that. These insurgents have gone too far. They must be removed from society—permanently.”

“Hmm.” Mr. Leonard relaxed his rigid posture and slouched in the seat.

The principal gave him a sharp look. “Something on your mind?”

The teacher shrugged. “Not really. I’m just thinking that if you sent them to me, I’d show you results. I would love to lay my hands on those little creeps.”

Mr. Deakins poured himself some more whiskey. “My mind is made up. Just identify the perpetrators and bring them to me. The evidence I’ve amassed—including these signs, some signature cards, and photographs of their vandalism—shall be more than adequate to secure a conviction from the board. Infractions of this magnitude merit the most severe consequences available. I want these nonconformists in Permanent Detention by next week.”

Mr. Leonard nodded. “All right. If that’s what you want, I’ll do it. I don’t particularly like it, though. You should assign them to me, just as you should have assigned Sean Kimble and Cody Swimfarr to me. My methods, as you mentioned, have proven flawless.”

The principal didn’t say anything. Instead, he snatched a cigar and poked it in his mouth without lighting it.

“Will that be all, sir?” Mr. Leonard had once again straightened his back.

Mr. Deakins looked down at his desk. “Let me tell you something, Erik. I don’t like you. I never have. I think you’re crazy and twisted and… disturbed. And I’ll tell you one thing more: This entire situation is your fault. You made Sean Kimble a martyr. Without his death, this coalition would never have come into existence. You set the gears in motion. Now you’re going to have to clean up the mess.”

Mr. Leonard stared at him, his mouth a straight line. His eyes didn’t blink once.

“I’ll assume that’s the booze talking,” he said, following a few lengthy moments of silence. He pushed himself out of his seat and stood.

“The hell it is. Don’t talk to me like that. I made a very clear statement to the students when I imprisoned those boys. They got the message, too: Don’t screw around, or this will happen to you. But you just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? You had to go screw it up and secure Kimble a spot in the great, shining sphere of immortality. Now we got a whole new mess on our hands.”

“I don’t need to hear this,” the teacher said, turning. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take my leave.”

“Stay where you are. I’m not through yet. Understand this, and understand it well: I don’t want a major fuck-up like last time. I’m only asking you to do this because—and I admit this freely—you’re the best disciplinarian we got. But don’t go over my head on this one. Got it? I don’t want any more martyrs. These rebels, when we catch them, will disappear from society. Not a trace will remain. The students will forget they existed. Just find out who they are and bring them to me. We’ll let the board examine the evidence and determine their fate.” Mr. Deakins stared at him hard, his eyes red and watery. “Do we understand each other?”

Mr. Leonard extracted his mirrored sunglasses from his pocket and slipped them on.

“I said, do we understand each other?”

“Yeah, we understand each other.” Mr. Leonard gritted his teeth.

“Good. Then get out. But remember, you screw up this one and I’ll submit a referral of termination to the board. This is my school and things will be run my way. I will not tolerate insubordination from anyone, students and faculty included. Now, good day to you.”

“Good day.” Mr. Leonard flung the door open and slammed it hard behind him. The framed diploma hanging on the wall shook loose and fell.

Mr. Deakins took a breath and leaned back in his plush, leather chair. Outside, the sun had started its descent over the distant mountains. The great orange ball spread hues of violet and yellow across the backdrop of the darkening sky. The principal swiveled in his seat to gaze out the window. He watched as Coach Bixbey and his boys practiced a new play, one young man tackling another and tumbling onto the grass. The coach blew his whistle, waving his hands. The young man, gleefully obedient, stood at rapt attention, eager to follow orders.

The setting sun cast a somber shadow over the town, the field, the school. Mr. Deakins switched on a desk lamp. He struck a match, lit his cigar, and drained the whiskey remaining in the mug. Turning back to the window, he watched as the last smidgens of sunlight retreated from the valley. Moving like a wave rolling to shore, the failing light crept up the mountainside, bobbed for a moment on the tip of Hayek Peak, and, finally—like a candle smothered underwater—dipped into the basin beyond.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Kvetch

by Ken Kash

 

As I warm my hands next to a fire of burning hair, I remember the purity of days past. I remember the sun warming my face, playing in the mud after a storm, and smelling the fresh air of the mountains. Now the world is dark and cold. The air we breathe burns our lungs. The survivors are all here, the underground city of Kvetch.

Nuclear winter came and nearly eradicated the human race. Many of the survivors walk around in a daze, not sure of what happened to us. But me, I am cursed with knowledge and remembrance. The dazed are the lucky, I on the other hand, pray for death from an unforgiving god.

My now deceased parents took cosmic genes and made an entity. I was a raw hunk of clay made from the earth with potential to be of use to this world. Now I’m underground, a piece of clay covered in mud, swarmed by insects. Acid drops from the ceiling of the tunnels.

Kvetch is a reeking, vomitous, putrid place. Our torture is living pointless unproductive lives. We eat one meal a day. The meal is the remains of the recently deceased. The meal is less than raw. We don’t have much time left.

I am still an unmolded piece of clay. For the last month I have been searching for something—anything to accomplish. I had a thousand doors open to me before the war. Now I fear I have only two. The first door is death. The second door is a possibly impossible dream. The second door has a dim light to achieve one thing in my life. I will be the last!

* * * * *

I was born June 1, 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland. My parents kept a copy of the paper from the day I was born. The paper said the high temperature was 85 degrees. A cool breeze traveled east to west.

Mis parientes me daron todo el mundo. I loved my parents. I was an only child and my parents took great care of me. I always wished to be great someday to honor them. My parents raised me in a comfortable environment. However, they also exposed me to those less fortunate. We always did charity work in the inner cities from Detroit to Cleveland to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, D.C. and Baltimore. I knew how lucky I was.

I graduated from high school in the National Honors Society with a 4.0 grade point average. I spoke English and Spanish. I could have gone to any college I wanted with a 1450 SAT and my dad’s money. I decided to go to a small school in North Carolina, just north of Wilmington, called Conquest College.

By my junior year, 2005, the world was in turmoil. Tempers flared between Russia and China. Mexico was in upheaval. Brazil was on the verge of civil war over abuse of power by politicians and police. Violence in the Middle East was at an all-time high.

Things got worse in spring 2006 when Fidel Castro died. Not two but three leaders sprung up to take control of Cuba. The United States got involved by funding the democratic leader to finally get a democratic government in Cuba. Many people didn’t agree with the policy. But there was money involved, tourism to think of, and people to be bought.

At the time, all third world countries were in anarchy. The UN pulled all troops due to the AIDS epidemic. This decision forced African nations to fend for themselves. Most of Africa was unruled and out of control. Borders vanished and gangs took all control.

In early September, Iran launched chemical weapons on Israel. Millions lost their lives. The chemicals choked many to death and literally melted the skin off their bones. North Korea took a page from Japan’s secret biological warfare experiments of WWII They dropped bombs on Moscow and the rest of Russia. Inside these bombs were millions of fleas carrying bubonic plague. Russia was slowly dying.

Due to popular demand, the UN countries pulled all troops out of the Middle East. Only months later, the populations of those countries was down to thousands, due to war and chemical warfare. Russia, Asia and Europe were crippled with plague. The quarantines couldn’t be mobilized fast enough.

Through all the fighting the United States stayed strong. Schools kept on teaching, factories continued producing and taxes were still being paid as the Earth crumbled around us. We thought our space defenses would protect us. They didn’t. Death found a way.

The Agitation of the Aggressors, the day the Earth shook in space, took place September 17, 2007. The Agitation of the Aggressors came as not so much of a surprise from whom, but from where blew our minds. In the early morning, nuclear bombs were sent towards fifty major cities in the continental United States by international terrorists grouped in Canada.

The bombs hit. New York got hit at 6:13, Washington D.C. at 6:15, Los Angeles at 3:25. Our missile defense systems returned fire across the world.

Our bombs finished the job of total annihilation in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Mexico and Canada. Volcanoes erupted throughout the world, completely destroying South America and Africa. Tidal waves buried the islands under the sea. Earthquakes shook the world as Antarctica and Australia were shattered like bone and fell into the oceans.

Meanwhile, my roommate knew of a secret underground city near Sallisaw, Oklahoma. He claimed the city could hold 500,000 people. First come, first served to the underground city of Kvetch.

I arrived at Kvetch at 11:36 PM. I was one of only 62,530 people who made it. We are the last on Earth, if you can call living underground on Earth.

The city, still in the early stages of construction, was not ready for inhabitants. The cement was still drying when we arrived. Rations were short. The generators weren’t properly fueled.

We did what we could in the beginning. During the first few months, we worked day and night to make the place feel like home. But once the radiation passed over us, all our work was for not. Acid leaked into the city, making most of it uninhabitable.

We sealed the city and all lived in a commune of sorts. For unknown reasons, the cement was deteriorating at an impossible rate. Walls were falling, the air turned to soot and we were running short on edible food. Worst of all, the generators were failing. Hell was becoming a reality.

* * * * *

Since we arrived, I have been trying to keep track of time. I figure by now it’s December 2015. I’ve lived underground for eight years now. It’s time to do something with my life.

The generators have been silent for years. At first we burned clothes for light and heat. When we ran out of clothes, we shaved the hair off of our heads and bodies. Now we burn unused portions of corpses.

A few months ago I made my goal. The plot circled in my head like a vulture. Once convinced, I felt no grief killing the remaining 2,053 citizens of Kvetch. Not one of them was my friend or relative. Everybody looks the same—naked, hairless, and covered in mud. I considered my actions mercy killings.

Kvetch has no children. After three years of living underground, mating was abolished. The lead council decreed this when people still had their sense. We figured it impossible to return to the land, so mating would be considered an act of cruelty. Besides, no child born within the first three years lived past the age of five.

The night before I started the slaying, I sharpened sticks and planted them in different caves. I also had softball-sized rocks. I went to sleep an hour or so before most. In two hours I woke. I murdered the biggest men first. I struck while they were sleeping. I had never hurt anybody before that first night. I killed two hundred men by the end of the first night. I stabbed through hearts and bashed in brains. No one even woke. I had a feeling that my victims didn’t mind. They lost all hope years ago.

Over the first week I killed 1,400 men. A few times people awoke; but they didn’t say a word. A few extra dead bodies meant more food for the rest.

During the last few years females have been dying off more than men have. The only possible explanation is that their poetic and beautiful souls couldn’t stand the ugliness. I envy them. I look forward to my death as the last human soul on the planet.

I killed one hundred women a night over the last six nights. Fifty-two women were left for the last night. The women didn’t know I was alive because I no longer slept. I hid from them as they shuffled through the piles and piles of dead bodies. The final night, most women were awake as I drove stakes through their hearts as if they were vampires. They welcomed death.

Finally I came to the last woman on Earth. As she lay sleeping, I noticed she was not like the others. I thought she was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. Even with a shaved head and mud covering her body, she looked beautiful. She looked to be about thirty. She had a strong jaw and high cheekbones. Her body still possessed all of its natural curves. I had forgotten how beautiful women actually are.

I wanted to speak to her before I was finished. I woke her. As she looked up at me I stared into her sad and lonely eyes. I spoke to her.

“Ma’am, my name is Tom Lombardo; I am the last man on Earth. What’s your name?”

“It’s Carrie Lernoux,” she replied. Her voice was soft with a trace of a Southern accent.

“Nice to meet you, Carrie Lernoux, the last woman on Earth. You know when I was younger I used to kid with girls and ask them if they would mind if I was the last man on Earth and she was the last woman on Earth. Now that seemingly trivial joke is a reality. You are the last woman and I am the last man. Do you mind?”

She replied, with a smile, “I remember that game. I even told a few guys ‘not if you were the last man on Earth.’ But now it doesn’t seem funny.”

“I know. It’s a shame, it really is. I wanted to do so many things with my life. Before all of this, I just graduated from college. I was looking for the perfect job. Even through all the turmoil, I wanted to see the world. I wanted to speak every language and learn every custom. I wanted to help develop the economies of third world countries. My mother was from Argentina. I visited once and the majority of the people were so poor. I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”

She placed her right hand on my cheek. “Maybe it was all meant to be this way. Maybe, after we die, something will give us comfort.”

A brief silence followed. She broke the silence. “You know, some people say that when you die you just go in the ground. If that’s true, we were dead long ago.”

Even through all of this, the woman was still kind. I could see it in her eyes. She was still gentle; I could feel it in her touch. I asked, “Carrie, what did you have planned for your life?”

She let another smile escape her lips. I noticed her full lips. I assume she, too, had the world at her fingertips when the end of the world came upon us. She said, “Me? I was just beginning my career. I was an elementary school teacher. I loved my kids. I know it sounds cheesy, but I thought if I could just make a difference in one child’s life, then I would have felt accomplished.” Tears started streaming down her face. “But I never got that chance. I had just started my first full year with my own class.

“I was engaged to a gentle man, a humble man. We were going to get married, have children and live happily ever after.” She was trying to avoid sobs from overcoming her as she continued. “He was one of the first to pass in this place. He became ill and died the day before we were to be married. He shouldn’t have died.”

I dropped my stick and placed my hand on her cheek. I said, “If my calculations are correct, I think it is day out on top. I was planning to see the world one last time before the deathly air takes my life. I’ve always been a romantic.”

She shifted her eyes back and forth and said, “Tom, in the last ten years I have seen everything and everyone I love die. Now I’m the last woman on Earth and I don’t want to be. So please, I beg of you, end me as you have the others.”

She rolled onto her back, closed her eyes and spread her arms. I stood, slowly raised my stick and threw it to my side. I accomplished the only thing I could. I am Tom Lombardo, the last man on Earth. I wanted someone to share the end of mankind.

I said, “No, I’m not going to kill you. I want you to come to the surface with me. You are so beautiful, so kind, so gentle, I can’t kill you. I want to spend my last minutes with the woman who signifies everything good that once was. Carrie Lernoux, I would be honored to have you join me.”

She opened her eyes when I was done speaking. She said, “I accept, Tom Lombardo, last man on Earth.” She took my hand and we walked together.

* * * * *

I’m ready to die now. I will go to the surface and let the scorched sun take my life. I will watch as the symbol of woman and man meet their end. We crawl to the door through which we came over eight years ago. The door has not been opened since. As I open it, dirt and ash pour in, almost burying me. I am completely exhausted as I crawl out and reach the surface. I help Carrie out of the cave. We put our arms around each other as we prepare for the end.

The sun is so bright I can’t open my eyes. As we sit on the ground we feel two impossible things. First, the sun is not burning my skin. Secondly, I feel… I open my eyes to see… I see… grass! It can’t be! Wait, I hear something. I try to focus my dilated pupils three or four hundred feet ahead of me. It’s people! Impossible! We are not the last. Why? How?

I give up. I roll on my back, close my eyes and feel the sun warming my face. I feel my heart slowing. Carrie shakes me and forces me to open my eyes. Again, she puts her hand on my cheek. But this time I am the one lying and she is above me. She says, “Tom, don’t give up, stay with me. The Earth has healed. When we came out of that cave we were reborn. We can help rebuild this world into our own little heaven. Thank you for not killing me, there is hope.”

As she is speaking I see the sun over her head. She is like an angel, trying to save me. I reach up and place my hand on her cheek. My head rests in her lap. She is saving me as I spared her. One thing still bothers me.

“But I killed all those people. I don’t deserve to live.”

She replies, “But if you didn’t, no one would have made it out of that place. We would have all died down there. Everything happens for a reason; and remember what I said about being a teacher. I wanted to make a difference to one child, one person. Be that person for me, let me save you.”

She smiles down on me and I can’t refuse her.

 

The Day You Died

by Jonathan Doctorick

 

I

This was the hour the collective world was to die while living to know another day. One of those forever kinds of days, where man played God.

Dr. Brigham, tense with this knowledge, asked in a soothing, nearly whispered way: “Are you in pain?” The hooded lamps the reporters had erected caused the beads of sweat to glisten on his forehead. The doctor’s aides scuttled in and out of the hospital room.

Around Mr. Kapila’s bed, pencils and pens frenetically scritch-scratched, microphones recorded, three cameras stood on tripods and transmitted. Objective: catch every nuance of sight, sound, movement, emotion. Every last spoken word and sighed breath was jotted down to be catalogued, reviewed, and experienced by more people than were watching live. The viewing audience, though, could not perceive the singular scent of ethyl alcohol, Lysol, fresh flowers combined; a sterilized-funeral-parlor aroma. The media described such superficial items with well-written and spoken accounts, and allowed the world to become intimate with the scene. Admittedly, only the kin truly experienced the day’s full range as Mr. Kapila’s death clock ticked and tocked, his life strung out behind in one endless experience, leaving the world as he entered it—helpless in a hospital room.

This day was promised to be remembered more so than the infamous inferno of Hindenburg, the media’s declaration of VJ-day, or that dark day in Dallas with the slain JFK. The ratings challenged those of the replayed vaporization of Challenger, Columbine, and suspected O.J. with glove and chase scene. More sat captivated than had watched the invasions of the Middle East that had started with Iraq. The audience was bigger than any Super Bowl’s. It even overshadowed the revelatory days when the world, with lightened hearts, heard of the cure for cancer, the cure for AIDS.

Some feared the shaft of the abyss was being needlessly pried open with a medical hand. They claimed we were, once more, daring God—playing God, being God—to lay down our race in eternal slumber, setting us to dream apocalyptic dreams. Others felt it was a vital, natural, and logical step as they embraced the technology’s—now as common as cloning—potential. Both polarized sides had one underlying thought they in common shared: with curiosity, they wanted to know what was next. In some ways, humans never changed.

“No,” Mr. Kapila said. “S’okay,” between shallow, mechanized wheezes. “S’fine.”

Scratch, record, and video tape; live feed, satellite dishes, and Internet simulcast: experience and remember. Die with him today. The four reporters encircling the bed at the four points of the compass were the heralds for the U.S., Asia, Europe, and UN. A lottery, a name pulled out of the electronic hat, allotted each the role of hospital-room, historical scribe. The European rep was scolded, however, when later seen on replay secreting away a washcloth that had been removed from the patient’s head and put at the edge of the bed. He returned it to the family, publicly apologized, and chastised himself for not blocking the shot; the rag would have brought him a small fortune if sold at electronic-auction.

Mr. Kapila’s breath hitched once (the rest of the room’s breath drew in with a start), twice; a third time then caught. Rhythmic and paced it resumed again. All eyes together shifted to the screen mounted left of his bed. They could see themselves as he perceived them. He was, in a way, an organic mirror.

“Mr.—” Dr. Brigham began, watching himself as he nervously fidgeted. Only recently had he become immune to the peculiar situation in which a patient was transformed into a camera.

“Goin’ soon, I think,” Mr. Kapila interrupted.

His two children quickly bent over the bed. His frame was so gaunt, his skin so stretched and shrunken, nearly translucent (liver spots and cobalt veins the only dark coloring), that his sex seemed indeterminate. The walls of his failing heart were, like his skin, trace-paper thin, every beat one more (and one less) in his life. It seemed a brief, puffed breath could have blown to fine dust his body matured one hundred and one years, scattering it like dandelion spores floating on a balmy, summer zephyr.

Reuben, the son, brushed a hand across his father’s cool brow. A tear threatened, fell, one bead rolling to his lip. A camera caught this in high definition. Mr. Kapila’s daughter, Madison, next of kin, made the same motion, pushing back two thin wisps of hoary hair. Her hand stopped short of the wire threaded into an opaque, dime-sized bandage on her father’s temple. The skin-toned wire was taped across his head, draped behind the ear. It ran to a small computer standing vigil beside Mr. Kapila’s bed. The computer translated with a quiet whirring of internal hardware the meaning of the input. It transformed the information into comprehensible pictures which flowed across the screen beside the bed like a familiar film. Mr. Kapila could not see the screen as he could not twist his head.

Outside the hospital room in the neuroscience ward, billions kept watch as well. The Mind’s Eye Cam, patent pending, would win Dr. Brigham a Nobel Prize. With Mr. Kapila’s eyes open, the world saw his room, saw through his eyes. The viewer could see the family, the reporters, Dr. Brigham; wherever his glance fell. With closed eyes, any scene was possible, limited only by his mind. Understood in functional detail by few—Dr. Brigham and aides could hardly explain in lay terms the workings of the MEC—that slender wire, inserted deep into the gray, spongy tissue of his brain (no pain), gathered up cognizant thought and conscious perceptions. Packets of pulsed electronic data shot down the wire, permitting all to see what he experienced, reality or not. His eyes, dreamy (yet bright and aware) with drugs, slipped shut. A hush befell the hospital room, dorms, dens and offices, family rooms and kitchens, school houses and diners, every one tense, as if God’s hand was squeezing tight the globe.

“It’s working,” Dr. Brigham said, sighing relief. “Wonderful, simp—”

“It is,” Reuben and Madison interrupted gently.

“Amazing, Doctor,” the UN rep said.

“Shhhhhh,” the rest pushed out between tight lips, like a patched rubber seal leaking.

His unfolding thoughts, unreality seen on TV: A white, cube-like space, a serene room overly bright yet not harshly lit. Edges defined at right angles, perpendicular lines somehow seen. An elderly woman, standing still, smiling. Her gaze seemed trained on the viewer. The kin recognized her at once. Her garnet lips parted, moved, shaped words. Her tongue worked behind her teeth, creating soundless syllables and speech known only to him, Mr. Kapila.

“Missed ya, too,” Mr. Kapila whispered, his speech feather light. “Comin’… home.”

“It… it works. My God—” Reuben said.

“It’s Mom!” Madison cried out. “Doctor, we can see what he sees!” Rivulets of hot tears rolled down her cheeks, pattering drops on the linen draped over her father, drawn to mid-chest.

“Indeed, we just can’t hear what he does,” Dr. Brigham said. “Yet, anyway.” Onto his face worked a broad, proud grin.

“Missed… you…” drifted on Mr. Kapila’s last, aided breaths.

The reporters were speechless.

Mr. Kapila’s eyes opened, the white room vanished, their images seen on the screen once more. “See her?” he asked.

“Yes, Dad,” Reuben said.

Madison: “Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you.”

“We did,” added Dr. Brigham.

“How’m I doin’?” Mr. Kapila asked, beryl-blue eyes taking in the room.

“Doing just fine.”

“I’ll be… remembered?”

The reporters nodded, not a dry eye among them.

“You will,” said Dr. Brigham.

Reuben said, “Of course, Dad… of course.” He patted his father’s dry, limp hand. “For all time.”

“We thank you,” Dr. Brigham said, blotting his brow and eyes with a handkerchief. He sidled next to the bed. “The world thanks you.” Madison and Reuben tilted their attention up to Dr. Brigham, both smiling through joyous tears. “You have provided a great service.”

“Water, please,” Mr. Kapila said. He swallowed a small sip from the waxed paper cup his son held to his lips. His inhalations became ragged, irregular. His chest began to spasm, jerking out each phrase: “I think… then… that it’s time… for me to… to go.” A weak smile pulled up the corners of his lips. “Son?” He lifted up his hand, as if in blessing, and touched Reuben’s cheek.

“Yes, Dad.”

“Love… always.”

“I will, Dad. I love you.”

“Daughter?”

“I’m here, Dad.”

“Don’t fear… death. He spoke… of it as… a rest. Sleep. Love… always.”

“Always Dad, I promise. Hey, say hi to Mom, okay?” She managed a cracked laugh.

“I’ll.”

“Give regards to God.”

On his last exhale he said, “I—”

His chest did not rise again. His life—running down the corridor of existence non-stop since birth, this the culminating, set point to which every choice and decision had lead—ended. All eyes in the room and the world over jerked to the screen beside the bed.

 

First you saw blackness. A void so total it suggested only the infinite. Like a creeping dawn, grey began to filter in. Then the picture was white, a blinding white, as if showing a silent, cataclysmic destruction of a star. It lasted one infinitesimal moment.

 

II

What was seen by those watching TV during that moment: in Orlando, a terminal cancer patient saw a stunningly grand, snowcapped mountain range. The sky was washed in the velvety purple of twilight. Evergreens climbed the sides of an immense valley carved out of the rock below. It was beautiful. In Pittsburgh, a mother saw an azure sea marching out into the distance from white sand, merging with the heavens at a point unseen. Sunlight shimmered across the tops of swells in bursts of fool’s gold, and seagulls—only Vs in the distance—glided on the steady breeze. The clouds looked like soft cotton balls glued to the sky. Her breath caught. Her daughter, cross-legged in front of the TV, saw the circus. High-walkers tip-toed, trapeze artists flew through the air. In Santa Monica, a teen saw a misty forest of Sequoias, stretching forever upwards, disappearing like the legs of giant, placid sentinels into the morning fog. He could smell the damp carpet of needles and leaves, almost feel drops of cold dew forming on his skin. In Anchorage, a woman swam with orcas, touched their smooth skin, hunted with them, called to them, was them. She smiled. In Tokyo, a businessman saw a towering waterfall spilling over a ledge far above his head, and all around was dense foliage, the air heavy with tropical humidity. The roar resonated in his ears while a caul of mist caught the sun and exploded into a rainbow, coloring his vision with a heavenly, kaleidoscopic spectrum. In the languidly moving river at his feet, innumerable numbers of koi swam in flashes of orange and white speckled with black. His mouth momentarily dropped open, and only when the picture left his mind a split second later did he think to close it.

In Paris, a man howled in alarm and clapped his hands over his face, dropping the garrote he had been fondling. He saw the girl he had been stalking for weeks, all the while plotting and fantasizing. She was stripped nude, her face was purple and bruised, and there were ligature marks on her throat. The flesh there was scored open. She pointed an accusing finger. He would not follow her again.

In New York, a firefighter winced as he saw the charred out remains of what he thought was an abandoned apartment building. One crisp, blackened body was curled upon the floor. Its arm was turned up, fingers bent into a claw, the mouth forever open in a painful scream. Cracks covered the scorched skin, the red muscle underneath exposed and forming a gruesome roadmap. He deserted all thoughts that his pyromania told him were sane.

In Columbus, a man saw clouds and white; in Boulder, a woman saw an inferno and black.

Reuben, Madison, Dr. Brigham, eyes wide, gasped and smiled broadly. The reporters cried out in concert, two in terror, two in ecstasy.

What he, Mr. Kapila, experienced: The brilliant flare of white ceased. The white was the boundless infinite, a reality beyond human comprehension, all. He now knew his erstwhile world, where billions glimpsed what could not be seen or understood with mortal perceptions, had been a façade stretched like a piece of canvas over the white. Now part and particle of the white, fused into it like a drop of water in an endless sea, an overwhelming sense of completion, an end so sure and gracious, became him. Like his audience, not able to perceive of the white’s true form, foreign to the finite human mind, limited by the confines of lived experience, he understood and became the Truth in a way forced by structured conception: stretching out beyond his vision, surrounding him in total, was a scarlet sea. Roses; every rose; a floral carpet over all. The ground’s crimson pelt wavered in the gentle wind which peacefully sang in his ears like a conch. The red sea became one with a cloudless sky without a definitive horizon. The heavens above were of a blue so deep it looked thick enough to touch. The air’s sweet florid incense was not overpowering, but soothing and right and the apotheosis of every humanly sense. Arms lowered, palms outstretched towards the copious flora, he felt the silky tops of the blooms tickle and comfort. He saw it all, felt that it was good. Triumph filled him, he was happy. He began to walk. Like the breadth of his eternal panorama, the moment is forever.

 

Imagine what you love most; you saw it that day. Or imagine your keenest, whetted hate; you might have seen it that day. Each person’s interpretation of the white was there and gone so quickly that most were merely left with a feeling lacking explanation.

 

Then, ending almost as it began, the white on the screen beside the bed where one man had breathed his last breath gave way to the frantic electronic snow of a channel’s signal lost. Silence. Memories already fading like early morning dreams drowned under conscious thought. Around the world, video tape replays were being queued. They showed black… grey… white. Simple colors, and nothing more.

 

III

“Thanks for sticking with us through the break and welcome back to Morning Views,” the anchor said. A cheerful smile exposed straight, bleached teeth. “With me again is the creator of what ya’ll remember as the Mind’s Eye Cam. So, as you were saying Dr. Brigham, you still have hopes that we may one day get a glimpse of what waits for us, if anything?”

“Of course. We haven’t been successful yet, but I’m sure with some more refinement of the process, we’ll one day have a glimpse of someone’s last thoughts,” Dr. Brigham said.

“The world was sure ready that day almost a year ago when you first televised your MEC in action. When,” the anchor paused, looking up at the teleprompter as the name slipped his mind, “oh yes, Mr. Kapila let us in on a very private occurrence.” He chuckled, “Sorry… name almost got away from me there.”

“It happens,” Dr. Brigham said. “But yes, we were very grateful of him to let us broadcast one of the first trial runs of the MEC.

“Any more volunteers since then?”

“A few, but most are still quite young. It’s something very personal to lay out in front of the world, you know?”

“Very tough indeed. In the meantime, any other uses for the MEC?”

“Psychologists everywhere are making great use of it,” Dr. Brigham said. “Very useful for learning more about the dream process. That’s really the main reason I was honored with the Nobel Prize.”

“Ah yes, I can imagine. We only have a few moments here, so let me just wrap up by asking what you think happened that day with Mr., uh—”

“Kapila.”

“Yes, Mr. Kapila,” the anchor said, smiling.

“Honestly, I’m not very sure. While he was still living, after we had implanted the MEC, we were able to see whatever he saw with eyes open or what he conjured up with his eyes closed. Remember watching as he showed us his wife?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Well, when he passed on, the signal just sort of cut out. So at this point I don’t think we’re sure enough to comment.”

“Here’s a quick shot,” the anchor said. Footage of Mr. Kapila’s eyes closing, chest settling one last time, cut into Morning View’s live feed. The screen beside his bed goes from black, to grey, to white, then to electronic fuzz. Dr. Brigham and the anchor reappeared into view.

“But wouldn’t it be plausible that we should’ve been able to see any sort of thoughts his mind created, or experienced, right after death?” the anchor said, weighing the last three words.

“Certainly. The brain functions for a few minutes after the heart has stopped.”

“But nothing.”

“Correct, signal lost.”

“Not to bring down the importance of your wonderful invention—it certainly is a feat of modern science—but doesn’t that suggest something to you?”

Dr. Brigham hesitated, then said: “Not… yet.”

“That day sure showed us something, I suppose. Something so… final in that black then nothing at all.”

“I suppose.”

“Well, I almost forgot to congratulate you on your Nobel Prize—!”

“No harm done.”

“—and I’m sure you’ll have plenty of success in the future, Dr. Brigham.”

“Thank you.”

“Thanks for being here.”

The camera swung away from Dr. Brigham, leaving just the anchor in frame. “Well,” he began, “we certainly appreciate the Doctor being here with us today to talk about the creation of the MEC. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt that day, being able to peer into the mind of a fellow man. Our thanks go out to the Kapila family as well. Though we weren’t able to catch a glimpse of an afterlife,” he said dully, “only time will tell.”

The camera changed angles, and the anchor twisted to face the audience. His somber tone turned cheery as he said, “Coming up next on Afternoon Spotlight with Jennifer Lynn Rice is a segment about the inexplicable drop in global crime rates, which have been plummeting now for months. It’s an intriguing story, so make sure to stay tuned through the news at the top of the hour. As always, it’s been a pleasure. I’m Neil DeHubris, see you tomorrow.”

Shining Armor

by James Scotte Burns II

 

From the gates of an immense fortress rode a resplendent knight, sunlight glittering off the burnished steel of his fine plate armor. Cheers from the walls and towers embraced him as his mount tossed its head and stepped high through the flowers cast under its hooves. Amidst such revelry, the warrior’s first real battle beyond the spires of his home proved to be with his swelling pride; a struggle in which the outcome at that moment seemed uncertain at best.

Leaving the old stone keep behind, he took to a road through the nearby forest, reveling in the sounds of the wood and the smells of leather, horse, and newly oiled steel. His harness creaked slightly as he reached into his saddlebags for a small wineskin and waxed roll of hard cheese. Although he had broken his fast not two hours since, a simple meal taken on the trail completed his vision of the soldier perfectly, and he had been anxiously anticipating fitting that figure for so very long. The moment’s satisfaction of his martial desires was made even sweeter by the nobility of his cause—the rescue of an innocent and the slaying of the wretched beast that had taken her. His training was superb, his bloodlines beyond question, and his weapons, armor, and mount the finest that his house could provide. His attention, however, was at that moment not all it could have been, as a steel bolt glanced off his gorget and embedded itself, quivering, in a young tree beside the trail.

Choking on surprise, he spun his horse in time to see the next missile fly from a stand of thorny flowering bushes. With no time to pull his shield from its saddle harness, the knight’s left hand raised quickly to protect his face so that the bolt took him in the gauntlet, punching between its fine scales and lodging in the mail and flesh between his fingers. At the ratcheting noise of the crossbow being drawn once more, he bit hard on the shaft of the bolt just below its barbed head, screaming with rage and pain as he pulled it through his hand and spit it contemptuously onto the trail. Snatching a fine dagger from his belt, he let the blade fly in a whistling spin just as the next bolt flew past him from the hedge.

The master-at-arms would have been proud as the knight did not wait for his attacker’s next move, but immediately followed his flying blade in a rush, drawing his long sword and hearing a startled howl cut short behind him as the errant second bolt found another mark behind him. The knight’s dagger flew wide at the last, but caused the crossbowman to leap sideways and up to avoid its flight, exposing him perfectly to the slash of the knight’s sword. With full arm strength and the momentum of the horse’s charge behind the stroke, the brigand was cloven nearly in two, splashing the horse with gore and collapsing in an unpleasant heap. Wheeling, the knight turned to find the source of the second voice. The other highwayman, a larger and evidently slower fellow, was pinned neatly to the bole of a tree. The bolt through the ruffian’s throat seemed a more than equitable reward for the bruise the knight had suffered on his own.

Assuring himself of no more ruffians hiding nearby, the knight dragged the bodies into better view on the roadside. The detritus having been cleaned from his mount as best he could manage using the shabby coat of the crossbowman, he disdainfully tossed the rag on the midden pile and washed his hands from his water skin. Some woodsman would no doubt alert the sheriff and the mess would be disposed of properly. Lamenting the damage to his accoutrements, not the least to him the distasteful stains on tabard and horse blanket, he still congratulated himself on his martial skill, his field dressing—the bandage stopped the bleeding while the salve took nearly all the pain—and his luck with that final bolt. Luck was not something one could learn after all, but was certainly a part of any successful warrior’s desired equipment.

Clear of the forest, the knight took to wide plains that stretched out like the parchment of a tale waiting to be written. On the horizon lay the mountains that were his destination, their folds harboring his fearsome fate. No one knew from where the würm had come, but its travels in this realm were well marked in burnt countryside and the scorched remains of partially devoured livestock. Some thought that it had wakened from a long sleep, angered to find its lands now in the hands of a human king and peopled by his subjects. Others believed it the conjured horror of some amoral dabbler in arcane arts, no doubt slain for his efforts and leaving his creation without purpose or direction. Whatever the truth of the matter, the beast had developed a curious taste for the company of young ladies of high birth. The latest was the daughter of a noble of his father’s protectorate, hence the mission upon which the knight now found himself. A righteous cause indeed, but one that caused him no little concern, his armed prowess with brigands and the like notwithstanding.

Several evenings under the stars, pious prayers, meditations, and reflection upon his cause and his nobility fortified not only his faith, but also his righteous pride. He felt the very essence of chivalry and valor as he ascended the foothills and began the final days travel to his destiny. The hills gradually rose, becoming slopes too steep and rocky for his mount, so he found a small glacial valley with good fodder and a small stream carrying runoff from the heights. Removing harness and saddle, he curried the horse and picked its hooves, speaking gently to it of its part in his righteous mission, and his hope that it would wait faithfully for him to return with his rescued maiden. Then he hobbled it, not as a question of faith, but in goodwill toward the stablemaster, whom he knew held less stock in the horse’s honor.

The day’s climb in armor to the lofty cave mouth was difficult, the sweat running off his chest and back dampening the breeches underneath his leggings, his boots chafing at the heel as he scrabbled for purchase once the path became little more than a rocky cliff. Panting lightly, he finally pulled himself over the lip of an outcropping and spied the objects of his quest. While lying prone behind a slight rise that hid him from the cave mouth, he saw a young woman, plump and pretty for all the dirt that smeared her face, hints of tiny rivulets under her eyes showing the flow of tears now dried. Aside from her battered clothing and nearly matted hair, she appeared unhurt. Coiled about the stone pillar on which the lady was somehow fixed lay the würm.

Scales shifted as the creature breathed deeply with a broad rushing sound like distant wind through an olden forest. Wings folded along its back, the skin a golden leather, it stretched thirty meters or more, blocking the cave entrance behind and nearly encircling the small hill on which the pillar stood. Dreaming, its claws scratched narrow furrows in the soft stone. For a moment, the knight was taken with its beauty—a creature of immense power and legendary grace in flight. The maiden’s quivering sigh, cast from the depths of her own tortured sleep, broke his reverie and the knight cursed himself a fool for finding anything worthy in such an evil beast. It would die by his righteous hand, and he would return the young woman to her father.

Gently, the knight circled the cliff edge to his right, hoping to slip behind the beast’s flanks and take it from behind. Such a creature surely knew nothing of honor and deserved no better. The good leather boots he had donned for the ascent made for surprisingly quiet and swift passage as he rounded the little hill and silently drew his blade from its scabbard. A few more steps and he could clearly see the back of the beast’s head, the great horned crest protecting the softer flesh of the neck and throat before scales took that duty for the balance of its sinuous body. As he neared the creature, carefully choosing the place from which he would drive his steel into its tremendous skull, he could feel its heat, smell the ancient musk of its body. He envisioned the grateful kisses of the maiden and the gold her father would lay before him at the banquet in his honor. With great humility, he would at first gently protest, then accept graciously and later use the gold to purchase land and keep suitable for a slayer of dragons. He hoped he did not have to buy another horse, but that remained to be seen. For now, he raised his blade in the thrusting form he judged best, preparing the stroke that would see him into the ranks of heroes.

Silently, the dragon’s calm amber eyes slid partly open. Not that she needed to see the knight to know where he was and what he was doing. His clanking and stink had been a burning splinter in her rest since he began his ascent hours before. Relieved, she resolved to find fresh bait tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. Her tail whipped around, curling elegantly in a blur of sinewy grace over her back and toward the spot where she knew the knight stood ready. At the moment his thrust began, the small bony mace that was the tip of her tail caught him below the small of his back, snapping his spine and sending the blade darting over her head, splintering itself on the stone pillar inches above the maiden as she woke to the sudden tumult. The force and swing of the dragon’s blow having sent him skyward, the knight’s final vision was a jet of searing flame that caught him at the top of his arc over the far side of the cliff. Trailing smoke as it spun toward the ground, the carcass in its shining—and in places now glowing—armor crashed into a pile of rusting plate and chain, bones and broken weapons scattered at the base of the cliff’s far side. The dragon leisurely reached up and lightly tapped the pillar with a long foreclaw, releasing the maiden from the spell that had held her there. Blowing delicately at the tiny thing to encourage her flight, she hoped the girl would find the horse in the valley below like the others had. Then she closed her eyes once more and dreamed of the glory that would one day be hers when she returned home a great slayer of terrible knights.

 

Cancel My Three O’Clock

by Sam Kenyon

 

Lunch had only taken two hours so Alfred T. Nottingworth was feeling quite efficient and most pleased with himself. It was 1:47 PM when he glanced out his office window to see a nuclear blast heading his way. He pressed the power button on the windowsill, but the image remained.

“Damn, real life…” he muttered, now realizing it was not a nuclear explosion, but a tsunami of epic proportions emanating from some distant four-dimensional mushroom cloud, or so he guessed with his feeble imagination. Time was speeding up, and Alfred’s human senses could only comprehend a very small visible and auditory portion of the rapidly approaching front.

Alfred canceled two incoming calls and stabbed an emergency line to the smartest scientist on his payroll. “Brettfield! The world’s exploding in my backyard, what the hell is going on?”

“You’re talking too fast Al, slow down.”

“Turn on… the news… explosion… heading… for me.”

“What?” Brettfield went away for a few seconds. Distant sounds of swearing. Click, he swapped to someone else on the phone. He came back. “Al are you there? It’s not an explosion. You’re in the outskirts of an information entropy singularity… those fools at Montello Myron Laboratories have stored more data in a rigid volume then is possible in our curvature of space-time. It’s collapsed into an information whirlpool. You’ll be sucked in by about 2:00 PM. You must get out of there!”

“This… isn’t… us?”

“No, we’re not liable at all. It’s all Montello Myron Labs. But we might be able to stop it if we deploy the molecular structure compressors, you know the new landfill-shrinking nanobots? They might be able to reduce the total amount of information at the core if we set the compression ratio to non-lossless.”

“Good… do… it.”

“You must get out of there Al!”

“No… time… you… must… stop… this.”

He quickly messaged his secretary, but “quickly” seemed to last for hours. His brain wasn’t in the right time frame anymore, not even the same as his mouth. The last thing Alfred said before the event horizon reached him was in a lethargic bass tone: “Cancel… my… three… o’… clock—”

 

My Last Flight With Lola

by Al Pinto

 

“Well, young man, you certainly got yourself into a fine mess, didn’t you?” the snow-haired patrolman remarked after landing his black-and-white anti-gravity scooter upon the slightly-tilted platform. “What made you lose control of your aircraft?”

I scanned the place, surprised to see what was left of the aerial bus stop. Amid the unrecognizable mass of twisted steel and shattered glass, there were several scattered bodies bathed in blood. I knew that Lola had also spotted them.

How could I tell the cop that we were wildly making love behind the wheel as I sped down the lane? I simply forgot I was driving, didn’t I? Man! Lola was all I could ever think about. The same night we met, back at her agency, we got smashed and made love till sunrise. We did all sorts of things, including a few tricks I had never tried before. Yeah, she was the world’s greatest lover. She even taught me how to smile in spite of the crummy war that shook the world, regardless of the fact that I was expected back at the front within a short month. I don’t know how Lola did it, but she made a new man out of me practically overnight.

“Can I see your identification, please?” he asked me, stretching out his hand.

“Sure officer.” I snatched my pilot’s license from my wallet and handed it to him. He punched his password directly on the back of the card and instantly accessed my file. Luckily, Lola and I had managed to get dressed before the coppers showed up. At least this one had no way of knowing the truth—not as long as Lola and I kept or mouths shut.

The blue patrolman turned a speculative eye on me. “I see you’re part of the Army, just like my son was,” the cop said still reading from the plastic. “My boy got killed about ten years ago, you know, right after this damned war started.”

“I’m sorry about it, officer…”

“It’s okay, I guess. I’ve learned to cope with it. Now back to you, son, you turned this place into a real disaster! When I heard the crash I thought the city was facing another terrorist attack!

“What happened to you?”

“I really don’t know, officer…” A loud siren filled the air as an ambulance landed on the far end of the platform. Half a dozen men in white jumped out of the craft with their first-aid microkits in hand.

“Tell me, young man. What happened?” he insisted. “Well, officer, truth is I didn’t see a thing. Not before it was too late.”

I dug into my mind for a reply. “It was the fog, officer. It came out of nowhere and literally blinded me. You can ask my wife if you want. By the way, we just got married a week ago, you know…”

The policeman frowned in disapproval, “I didn’t see any fog!” he growled. “What about your obligatory radar warning signal?”

“Sorry, officer, but I don’t remember hearing any signal.” I know, I was lying. Actually, I had vaguely heard the radar warning just before we crashed. But it was only a weak and vain rumor next to Lola’s maddening cries and groans. Oh, Lola! You were so wild! I even believed I had finally found true love, if there is such a thing,  and that I would live “happily ever after” with her. Of course, I still ignored that my life was about to experience an unexpected and radical metamorphosis. But, back then there was no way of knowing it. Eventually the pieces would fall in place. Had-I-but-known, I would not have wasted my time in vain feelings.

“You sure about that fog, boy?” the cop inquired, raising a suspicious eyebrow.

I gave him a thumbs up with a smile. “You bet, officer. Like I said, the fog didn’t let me see a thing…”

My words were hushed by a loud siren coming from above us. A black-and-white patrolship flew overhead and landed on the platform before a dozen men in blue hopped out. Almost at once, the eager patrolmen started to cordon off the area with gleaming yellow tape.

“That’s all I’ve got to say, officer.”

The cop turned to my wife with inquisitive eyes. “What about you, young lady? Were you also blinded by the fog?”

I turned back to Lola, who still had her eyes glued on the paramedics working on the inert victims of the crash.

“Me?” she asked, turning unusually pale. I couldn’t figure out why she was so nervous. Maybe she was only bluffing. Maybe she was only trying to find a way out. After all, she was a bright girl. That was one of the three things about her that literally drove me nuts: her sensuality, her intelligence and her loyalty. Yeah, she must be bluffing, I concluded, probably only trying to buy time.

“Please Lola,” I said winking an eye, “just tell the officer what he needs to know.”

She frowned worriedly, watching the paramedics starting to shove the lifeless bodies into black plastic bags. “But… but what about those pedestrians that were waiting at the stop?” she asked with empty eyes. “Are they all… are they all dead?”

The cop turned to see a paramedic who was shaking his head. “I believe so, but you don’t have to worry about them. Luckily for your husband, they were only a bunch of second-generation humatrons. I can tell by their uniforms. No big deal. During the war, you know, humatrons die like flies.”

“But, officer, are they… are they dead?”

“Like I said, there’s no need to worry about obsolete versions. They’re not like recent models, who convincingly appear to manifest real feelings. Remember that humatrons are not considered living beings by the law unless they belong to the sixth generation or up.”

“I know that, but all that blood…”

“No buts. Just forget about the bloody hums, will you? Now, back to my question, did you see the fog your husband mentioned, young lady?”

I held my breath as Lola nervously shook her head and uttered her reply.

“No, officer, I didn’t see any fog. Truth is I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on outside our vehicle, officer. I’m truly sorry.”

Bingo! I knew I could trust Lola with my eyes closed. She evidently had a plan. Yeah, Lola had everything I ever wanted in a female. Sensuality, intelligence and loyalty. What a girl!

“Well, then,” the cop scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Do you have any idea of what could have caused the accident, young lady?”

“Not really, officer. I reckon my husband was too drunk to drive,” she suggested with a foxy smile.

I almost jumped out of my skin when I heard her say it. Was this also part of her plan? Did she have an ace up her sleeve and was getting ready to use it? Yeah, I concluded, Lola definitely had a plan.

“Is your wife right, young man? Have you been doing some heavy drinking today?” the cop asked raising a suspicious eyebrow.

I took a deep breath and tried to relax. “No way, officer. I don’t even like alcohol!”

“That’s bullshit!” Lola cried out raising her right fist. “Fact is, officer, my husband hasn’t stopped drinking since he got up this morning.”

I had no idea if this was part of Lola’s plan or not, but she was definitely playing with fire.

“What are you up to, Lola?” I asked her worriedly. “I’m afraid I don’t understand!”

“Sorry, honey,” Lola replied with a wicked smile. “But calling a spade a spade always helps. That’s what we say back at the agency. Admit it, honey, you’re drunk. That’s precisely why you’re always in a jam!”

“Cut it out, Lola!” I loudly complained, angrily clenching my fists. “Please stop before its too late, will you?”

“That does it!” the cop loudly demanded, caressing the black electrogun on his belt. “Can you please step out of the vehicle, young man?”

I cleared my throat. “Sure thing, officer, whatever you say.” I nervously stepped down to the shattered platform.

After testing my breath, the cop cleared his throat and placed his right hand affectionately upon my shoulder. “Look boy, you seem to need a man to man talk, don’t you? I don’t know, but somehow you remind me of my dear son, you know, the one that got killed in the war…”

“I’m sorry he’s gone, sir. I was in the front before I got married. And I’m expected back there in only a few weeks. This is our honeymoon, like I said. I hope you understand.”

He frowned. “Don’t you know that drinking and driving don’t mix, son?”

”Yeah, but…”

“Excuse me for butting in, officer,” Lola interrupted me, anxiously turning to the cop. “I forgot to mention that my husband also took some drugs just before starting the vehicle. Maybe you should also check out his blood…”

“Cut it out, Lola!” I turned to her angrily. “How careless can you get?”

“Sorry, honey. I’m only saying the truth and nothing but the truth, am I not?”

Where was my intelligent and loyal girl? Had the accident somehow messed up her mind? Or was this also part of a possible plan? Maybe that’s it, I concluded, deciding to play along.

“Is your wife right, son?” the cop loudly asked, increasing his grip.

I nodded. “Yeah, officer, I admit it. I was all junked up, like she says, officer… but so was she!”

“Oh, yeah?” Lola protested. “But I wasn’t doing any driving when you decided to crash against this bus stop, was I?”

“Shut up, both of you!” the policeman loudly demanded after dashing off a ticket. “Okay, young man, that will be twenty megadollars for destroying public property, five more for driving under the influence of prohibited substances, and two additional for using drugs and alcohol on weekdays.”

“Twenty-seven megs! Hell, officer, that’s basically all I’ve got on me!” I complained.

“You heard me, boy. Either you pay or you do three weeks of community service. It’s up to you.”

All I can say is that I was lucky enough to get my vehicle started and fly off with Lola before the cop changed his mind.

“I can’t believe that bastard fined me!” I exclaimed, watching the cordoned platform shrink in my rearview window. “Why did you tell him I was blasted, Lola? You’re supposed to be on my side, damn it, you’re my wife!”

“Well, honey, I guess you had it coming.”

“What do you mean, babe!” I exclaimed spotting a red traffic light before slowing down. “I don’t understand what’s gotten into you!”

“You don’t get it, do you?” She laughed.

“No, I don’t,” I turned to see her after easing my vehicle to a stop.

Wow! Lola was so good-looking! It was almost impossible to stay mad at her. Every time I saw her she literally took my breath away.

“Come on, Lola. I’m sure there must be a reasonable explanation for your behavior, is there not? Why did you turn your back on me?”

“Because of you and Sally, that’s why!” she answered coldly and crossed her arms. “I wanted to see you with your tail between your legs, that’s all.”

“But Sally is past history! I was dead drunk last time I slept with her. I’ve told you that a zillion times!”

“Yeah, that seems to be your endless problem. You always seem to be too damned intoxicated to know what you’re doing, don’t you?”

“But I don’t even remember if Sally and I did it or not!” I exclaimed stepping on the gas after the light turned green. “Neither does Sally for that matter…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the story from A to Z,” she remarked with evident sarcasm. “You don’t regret a thing, do you? What about all those pedestrians you just ran over?”

“What about them? They were only second-generation hums like the cop said. Don’t you know your agency can assemble twice as many in two shakes of a lamb’s tail?”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can go around killing hums in cold blood, does it? After all, they also have feelings…”

“But it was an accident! Please, babe, there’s a crummy war going on and I’m expected back in the front in less than a month. That doesn’t leave us much time for marital problems, does it?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t care. All I know is that you better stop intoxicating yourself if you don’t want to stop seeing me.”

“Say what?”

“You heard me. You’re always getting into trouble, so, either you forget about taking any more drugs and alcohol or I will leave you for good. I will file for a divorce, do you hear?.”

What makes females so unpredictable? This woman was not Lola. There was no way she could be my real Lola. Not the Lola I had met, the one I had married, the one I had always cared about. “Come on, my love, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you love me anymore, is that it?”

“You know I love you, sweetheart,” she answered. “I promised I would, at least for a whole month, didn’t I? After all, that’s what you paid for. It’s in the agency’s contract, remember? You wanted a complete month with the hottest bride in the world, didn’t you?”

“Come on, Lola, I only paid the agency for a couple of weeks of marriage. And I almost feel like writing the deal off only because you forgot to be bright and loyal when we were back there with the cop…”

“I forgot to be bright and loyal, you say? How dare you speak to me about such virtues? Where you bright and loyal when you went to bed with Sally?”

“Damn it! How many times do I have to tell you that I’m innocent, Lola?””Maybe I only want to see you with your tail tucked between your legs, that’s all. I’m really not through with you, not yet…”

Why was Lola so unrecognizable, so utterly unknown? The new Lola was evidently possessed by some horrible force, only meant to do me wrong. She was mean, impolite, foolish and disloyal. No, she didn’t look anything like my wife.

“How can you be so stubborn, Lola? I didn’t know you could be such a pain in the neck! I thought you were smarter than that. I even feel like breaking up with you and finding myself a new wife!”

“You don’t say!” She chuckled. “Face it, boy, you’ll never find another woman like me. Not with the female shortage caused by this foolish war. No, I don’t think you’ll ever leave me, hun. Not before your turn is up.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“No one has ever left me, honey. What makes you think you’re so special, you fool?”

As I heard her last words, something heavily fell and was shattered deep in my soul. I’ve always hated pretentious bitches—always have and always will. Especially when they try to make a fool out of me.

“Hey, babe, don’t forget I can cancel this wedding if I’m not completely satisfied. Satisfaction guaranteed, that’s what the contract says, isn’t it?” I said caressing my wedding ring obviously annoyed.

“Of course. But you will never leave me. I challenge you to do it.”

“You know I can’t refuse a challenge from a woman.”

“Yeah, honey, but I also know you simply don’t have the guts to leave me. Do you, you fool?”

“That does it!” I loudly exclaimed. “How about this for a try?”

Slipping the wedding ring off my finger was all it took. Almost immediately, Lola dropped her mouth, rolled up her tongue and fell back in her seat. She barely had time to turn to me before her tearful, lifeless eyes slowly dimmed out.

“Now that didn’t hurt much, did it? I bet my life will be a bed of roses from now on. Especially if I get myself a new virtual wife. After all, with this damned shortage caused by the war, a tenth-generation female humatron is the closest I can get to the real thing, don’t you agree babe?”

As expected there was no reply.

I drove off with a wide smile across my face. Life was good after all. Knowing I was still able to get a full refund, I made a right turn and headed straight back to the agency before finally disappearing into the starless night.

 

Escaping Assemblies

by Allen Coyle

 

It was an agreeable but not quite pleasant Friday morning. Sure, the air was clear, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, but it was also a school day. That fact drained the cheer out of everything.

Sean Kimble pedaled up to the bike rack in front of the high school and dismounted. He was dressed in his typical jeans with a white T-shirt and a plaid shirt over that. He never paid close scrutiny to his wardrobe; usually whatever was hanging in the closet sufficed. Fashion and clothing weren’t items high on his list of interests.

After chaining his bike to the metal rack, Sean heaved his backpack onto his shoulders and meandered into the front doors of the school. As usual, the foyer was filled with milling students waiting for the morning bell to ring.

Sean was immediately confronted by a big guy he knew was in his class but whose name escaped him at the moment.

“Hey dude, where the hell’s your school colors?” he demanded, a rather acerbic greeting in Sean’s view.

“Excuse me?” Sean asked.

The kid motioned to Sean’s clothes. “You ain’t dressed in blue and yellow. It’s Spirit Day. Everybody is supposed to be wearing the school colors.”

“School colors?” Sean was confused by this foreign concept.

“You want us to get docked for spirit points, you little sorry sack of shit?” the kid growled. “People like you make me sick. You screw it up for everyone else.”

He thankfully took his leave without beating Sean to a bloody mess. Sean stood there, puzzled over what had just happened.

One of Sean’s few friends, a young man named Cody Swimfarr, ambled by at that moment, having witnessed the confrontation. Being a friend of Sean’s, they shared many similar views, among them being the notion that school and anything that had to do with it sucked. Cody apparently was in the dark on these mysterious “school colors” as well, for he was dressed in tan slacks and a button-up shirt.

“What the hell just happened?” Sean asked, looking down at his clothes. He gave his friend a look of bewilderment. “Yellow and blue? School colors? Are those things I should be familiar with?”

Cody was a guy of medium height with short, blond hair and a mature baby face, whatever that was. That mature baby face right now was giving Sean a look of sympathy.

“We should have phoned in sick this morning,” he replied. “I didn’t know today was Spirit Day.”

The two started meandering down the hall to their first class. The bell was only minutes from ringing.

“What’s Spirit Day?” Sean asked.

“Today,” Cody answered. He sighed and looked down at his feet while we walked. “Today is when all the students dress up in school colors and, well, I guess show spirit to the school. Representatives from the student council come by during homeroom and survey how many students from each class actually wore blue and yellow clothing. The class with the most participants, ratio-wise, wins the spirit stick.”

“The spirit stick?” Sean felt like Rip Van Winkle who had awakened to a world totally alien from his own.

“The spirit stick,” Cody explained, “is essentially just that: a stick painted blue and yellow that is presented to the winning class during the spirit assembly.”

“Assembly?” Sean stopped in his tracks and turned to his friend. “There’s an assembly today?”

“One of those two hour ones,” Cody answered. He shuddered. “You know how it’s going to be, too. Lots of loud music. Screaming kids. Stomping feet. The class who cheers the loudest also wins spirit points. A guy could lose half his hearing going to one of those.”

“I vowed I was never going to another one after the last time,” Sean said. They had reached the entrance to the classroom and now both stood stationed by the doorway. “We got to get out of it, man. I hate those things. We’re going to stand out like sore thumbs in our nonconformist clothing.”

“No shit we got to get out of it,” Cody said. He motioned for Sean to come closer. He lowered his voice, not that it made any difference in the hall filled with boisterous students surging with adrenaline for Spirit Day. “We got to hatch an escape plan, dude. And something that will work. Not like the last time where they caught us.”

Sean grimaced at the memory. During the last assembly, though it hadn’t had anything to do with school spirit, they had tried to ditch by running out to the parking lot and hiding. They were captured before they even got to the front doors and accompanied to the gymnasium, where they were watched over for the entire thing.

“We’ll think of something,” Sean promised. “I’m definitely not going to another one of those assemblies. They can take the spirit stick and shove it up their ass.”

“The thing starts after fifth period,” Cody said. “The period right after lunch. They designed it that way so we couldn’t simply leave at lunch and not come back. There’s no way we can ditch class. With the computerized attendance, we’d be marked down truant for sure. But if we attend class and ditch right afterwards before the assembly, nobody would have no know a thing.” He grimaced. “Unless we get caught again, of course.”

“Not going to happen,” Sean said. The bell rang then, and the two of them waltzed into the classroom. “We’re going to do it this time, bud. The Great Assembly Escape will be a success.”

“Where’s your school colors, dick heads?” the teacher asked Sean and Cody, giving the boys a nasty look as they wearily took their seats. “Yeah, you better sit down, you little punk pieces of shit. You better have your homework ready to turn in, too.”

Homeroom was right before lunch, so right before lunch, Sean naturally found himself seated in homeroom. He kept his head down and buried in a book, performing his magic of remaining inconspicuous. Never being noticed had its advantages.

Cody was stuck in a different homeroom, so planning had to wait until lunch. There were a variety of options running through Sean’s head on how to ditch the assembly. Successful escapes from Anderson High assemblies were rare and certainly weren’t noted in history books. Although ditching school was always frowned upon, escaping assemblies was considered especially traitorous by the administration. It indicated a student’s unwillingness to conform to mediocrity and participate with his peers. The intent of the school was to indoctrinate students into becoming mindless masses of uniform groups so as to better prepare them for society. Educating young minds with knowledge was a secondary priority.

The intent of homeroom was to provide students with a quiet period for study, though it was rarely that. More often it was seen as a time to goof off, converse on daily trivialities and anticipate the upcoming lunch period. Sean buried himself in his novel, a classic titled 1984. He had read it once a long time ago and was now refreshing himself on it. He often felt he could identify with Winston, the oppressed main character trying to survive in a world governed by Big Brother. The book acted almost as Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and concealed Sean from the rest of the populous as he buried himself within its pages.

Mr. Braun, Sean’s homeroom teacher, was a small and timid man who had long ago given up trying to govern rowdy teenaged high school students. As always, he was stationed at the computer on his desk, pretending to be consumed in some important task when in reality he was merely surfing the internet. He never spoke to the class or administered discipline. Sean had the impression that Mr. Braun wasn’t too enthusiastic about assemblies or school spirit. As a member of the faculty, however, the teacher was most likely forbidden to voice his views on the subject. Such sentiments could pollute young, susceptible minds.

Isolated in his own world apart from the environment of rowdy teens, Sean hardly noticed as the classroom door swung open, allowing in a handful of pretentious-looking students. They were representatives from the student council, elected primarily on the basis of popularity. One, looking highly distinguished, carried in his hand a clipboard and pencil. He was Greg Thomas, the senior class president. The clipboard was his instrument of choice for tallying those dressed in the school colors of yellow and blue. An awed hush fell over the class as the prominent group entered.

“Everyone wearing yellow and blue stand up,” Greg ordered. His voice carried a tone of authority. Even Mr. Braun looked impressed, though he was easily subjugated by more ambitious leaders. The entire class stood like a proud troop called to attention. Sean stared at the pages of his book, not reading a single word. All eyes immediately fell upon him. The invisibility cloak’s magic had run its course.

“What the hell?” a male voice bellowed. Sean’s ears turned red.

Greg sauntered forward with a casual air of dignity and stopped at the first row of desks. He pointed his pencil at Sean. “You. What’s your name?”

Sean feigned ignorance.

“He asked you a question, you bitch-loving bootlicker.” The voice belonged to Devon Childs, the senior class secretary, part of Mr. Thomas’s entourage. He was known to have his way when he really wanted it. “You better answer when you’re addressed, dumb shit.”

“There’s no need for that language,” Mr. Braun weakly admonished.

“Shut the hell up!” Greg snapped, his eyes intense. Mr. Braun bowed his head. Greg turned back to Sean, who was wishing he could fall through the floor right now and be swallowed up into a black hole. “I asked you a question. What’s your name?”

Somehow, Sean was able to pull himself away from the comforting pages of the novel. How he wanted to be absorbed in the artificial world of imagination it provided. “What do you want to know my name for?” His voice sounded like a squeak.

Devon Childs looked like he wanted to extract a pistol from his coat and blow Sean’s brains across the classroom floor. He quickly moved forward but was halted by Greg, who held the position of command. Devon stopped.

“I know who you are,” Greg said, glancing around at all the other students eagerly watching the confrontation. The respect he held was admirable. “You’re one of them goddamn nerds polluting this student body society. Sean, right?”

Sean didn’t answer. His heart was pounding against his chest, but he remained seated with his back straight. He couldn’t appear a coward.

Greg nodded. “That’s right. Sean Kimble. I’ve seen you around. You’re one of those punks who thinks he’s too good for this school. A nonconformist, to sum it up.” He turned to the rest of the class. “We have a nonconformist among us, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Shithead Sean!” an anonymous voice called. It was a name that dated back to the first grade.

“I’m not sure I understand the implications of your address,” Sean said. His voice was timid but unwavering.

“I think you do.” Greg moved down the row until he approached Sean’s desk. He looked down with an air of superiority. “Where’s your blue and yellow?”

“I forgot it,” Sean answered.

“Unlikely,” Greg said. “Spirit Day and its comprising ingredients were posted well in advance. You had ample opportunity to observe today’s specified dress code.”

“Is this a tyranny?” Sean asked. He felt some courage bubbling up inside him. “Are you and your administrators now mandating what I may and may not wear during my daily undertaking of public education?”

Greg placed a flat palm on Sean’s desk. “Our aim is to win the spirit stick. Your ignorance to our established guidelines may prove dire during the judgment among the classes.”

“I have no need to be categorized as a member of any class,” Sean said. “Exempt me on the grounds of independent thinking.”

“You are a member of this class, Sean, whether the choice was yours or not. And as a member, you have an obligation to advance the status of this class in any endeavor we select.” Greg was starting to lose his patience.

“So my not adhering to your dress policy somehow engenders adverse results for the placement of the senior class?” Sean asked. His tone was one of sarcasm.

“Damn you, Sean Kimble—”

“No, damn you!” Sean jumped out of his seat in a sudden burst of anger, causing Mr. Greg Thomas to stumble back in surprise. “My attendance in this school is mandatory! I am compelled to be here every day against my will. My only concern is that I receive a solid education to prepare me for the future. Assemblies, spirit sticks, teenage culture and school pride are not worthy of my exertions!”

The class was silent. Nobody ever expected a nerd to stand up for himself and his beliefs. Even Greg and Devon looked surprised.

Greg was quick to recover his composure, however. “So you want us to lose, don’t you Sean? You didn’t simply forget to wear the school colors. I submit that you had full knowledge that today was spirit day. Instead of choosing to simply cooperate and save everyone a lot of heartache, you decided to rebel and somehow prove yourself as an individual.”

“That’s a lie,” Sean hissed, settling back down in his seat. The blood was pumping like mad through his body now. “I truthfully had no clue that today was spirit day. But had I known, I still wouldn’t have worn the school colors. You’d be right on that fact. I am an individual and don’t consider myself one among many.”

Greg stepped back to the front of the class and considered his clipboard. Everybody waited in angst to see what he would do.

“Only you and one other student chose not to wear yellow and blue today,” he observed, tapping on the clipboard with his pencil. “A Mr. Cody Swimfarr in Mrs. Banefin’s homeroom is also on my list of offenders.” His eyes narrowed at Sean. “Two students out of a hundred and eight chose not to wear school colors. Do you have any idea what this is going to do to the senior class, Sean?”

“Do I care?” Sean asked.

“The juniors, sophomores and especially the freshmen are noted for their zeal to advance the status of their respective classes. We’ve been lagging behind this year in our efforts to display school spirit. Our estimate was that a hundred percent turnout of seniors dressed would be imperative if we had any hope to win.” The grimace grew worse. “Because of you and Mr. Swimfarr, we’ll be lacking in this category. We’ll have to shout extra loud, stomp extra hard and perform exceptionally well in the talent show during the assembly if we hope to regain our footing.”

“I agreed to no contract, written or oral, that bound me to the whims of the senior class student government,” Sean said. “I refuse to feel guilty for supposedly ruining your chances of winning.”

“You don’t have to feel guilty, Sean,” Greg said. He looked around once again at the rest of the class. “You should probably feel more afraid than anything. Our class, who of late has been trying so hard to win the celebrated spirit stick, will have you and Cody to thank if we lose it once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if resentment ensues.”

“I will not have students intimidated in my classroom!” Mr. Braun announced, startling everybody. The timid teacher had suddenly come back to life. He pointed at Greg and his group of student administrators. “You are not welcome in this class. I suggest you pack up and leave.”

Greg, looking unfazed, turned to give Devon a nod. Devon understood the message and silently approached Mr. Braun’s desk.

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” Mr. Braun voiced. “Get out of my class!”

With one swift movement, Devon sent a left jab into Mr. Braun’s jaw. He quickly followed it with right punch in the eye, sending the helpless teacher falling to the floor. As Mr. Braun was unable to quickly get to his feet, Devon kicked him several times in the stomach, once in the groin and twice in the head. The teacher lay in agony, moaning softly. Devon approached his master and leader, the renowned Greg Thomas.

Greg motioned for his followers to take their leave. As they departed, he pointed a warning finger at Sean.

“If we lose the spirit stick, you won’t have to worry about getting punished like him,” he said, nodding to the subdued teacher. His last words were chilling: “You’ll be dead.”

When the lunch bell rang, Sean dashed to the “C” building, which was an entity by itself apart from the main school. It was rarely populated with either teachers or students during lunch. Sean and Cody chose its corridors over the cafeteria as a place to eat. It was just one more way they could keep their distance from the rest of the school.

Sean had lost his appetite after homeroom. He settled into the secret corner by the technology classroom and waited for his friend Cody. The smell of fried school food preceded his comrade.

“Hey dude!” Cody said, hunkering down with his paper tray of chicken tenders and fries. He gave Sean a curious look. “You’re not eating today?”

“I don’t have the stomach for it,” Sean said. He looked at the greasy food and reconsidered. “Well, I might have a few fries. And maybe a chicken tender if you’re not opposed to it.”

“Community food,” Cody declared, setting the tray between them. Sean grabbed some of the edibles (well, if you could call them that), and shoved the food in his mouth.

“So, we got to come up with a plan, man,” Cody said, wiping grease off his mouth with his shirt sleeve. “Everyone in homeroom had their head up their ass because I didn’t dress out.”

“Same here,” Sean said. “We absolutely have to get out of this assembly. Whatever we must do, whatever it takes, it’ll be worth it. I’d just as soon get my brains bashed in than go.”

“I’ve been doing some thinking,” Cody said. “Now, you and I both have Mrs. Wilson’s Literature Study course fifth period. This is convenient so we won’t have to meet up somewhere; we can both just take off together. The class will last only fifteen minutes due to the assembly. Basically, we have to show up there so our names appear on the attendance record. After class, we’re free to ditch.”

“That much is obvious,” Sean pointed out.

“Well, wait a minute. I’ve done more thinking than that. Now, I have a car here and you have your bicycle. Our primary concern should be to make it to my car so we can make a speedy departure. The bicycle rack is located right next to the principal’s office window, and if you dick around trying to unchain it, you’ll be seen for sure. I would suggest you just leave it here overnight and collect it Saturday morning.”

“Okay.” Sean nodded.

“Getting to my car will be the difficult part. We’ll have to duck and dodge through the parking lot so no one in the school will be able to see us.”

“One problem,” Sean said. “Even if we do get to your car, there sure as shit is going to be a teacher guarding the only entrance gate. Say we do make it to your car undetected. How do we get out?”

“In that instance, we simply wait until the teacher leaves,” Cody reasoned. “There’s no way they’d stand guard for the full two hours of the assembly. At the most, I’d give them a half hour before they get bored and leave. At that moment, we’ll fire up the engine and zoom to freedom.”

Sean shook his head. “It sounds like a clusterfuck to me. First we have to get out of the building undetected. Then we have to maneuver through the parking lot undetected. Then we have to wait in your car undetected. There’s too many opportunities to get caught.”

“But those are the risks we’re running,” Cody said. “I never suggested it would be easy.”

“I never counted on it being easy. I counted on it being possible.”

“It will be possible,” Cody argued. He gave his friend a look. “You don’t like the plan?”

“It’s a mess,” Sean said. “You know they’re going to have someone posted by the front doors to search for people like us. Getting to your car seems like the least possible component of this plan. Also, do you expect us to be able to waltz out the front doors when fifth period is over? There’s going to be a huge procession going to the gym. Somebody would see us—if not a teacher then a student snitch. I don’t know man, I just don’t know. I think we’ll get caught for sure.”

“Then how about this,” Cody said. “We don’t leave when there’s a mess of people. We wait it out until the crowd clears and most everybody is secured in the gym. We’ll have free reign to leave then.”

“What are you saying?”

“The men’s room is located two doors down from Mrs. Wilson’s class. When the final bell rings, we leave with the rest of the class, head down the hall toward the gym, and innocently make a pit stop at the rest room. We conceal ourselves in separate stalls, lock the door, stand on the toilet and wait until the crowd clears. Once the halls are empty, we’ll have a better chance to flee the building without being sighted by a casual observer.”

“Hey,” Sean said, nodding. He gave his friend an affirming look. “That might work.”

“Granted, there could be some difficulties. There may be janitors roaming the halls. A teacher might have forgotten something in her room and return just in time to catch us. They may have all the doors sealed with guards. But at least our chances will be better than trying to leave amongst the crowds.”

“No, I agree,” Sean said. “That definitely makes sense. Most everyone, teachers included, is going to want to attend the assembly. I doubt there’d be that much defense against escaping students.”

“It’s worth a try in any event,” Cody said. “And if we fail, we’ll simply ask to be detained in the office. As long as we don’t have to set foot in that clangorous gymnasium, I’ll be content.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Sean said. He gave his friend a look. “Do you think we have a chance?”

Cody grinned. “I think Frank Morris said the same thing when he and the Anglin brothers were planning to escape Alcatraz. They got away with it.”

“You don’t know that,” Sean said. “They might have drowned.”

“But in either case, they got away, didn’t they? From Alcatraz, I mean.”

Sean looked thoughtful for a moment and then snickered. “I guess you’re right.”

They finished the chicken tenders and fries, their synapses firing with the intricate plans only plotting men can devise.

Mrs. Wilson’s fifth period literature study course convened approximately when the late bell rang. Latecomers always ambled in after class started.

The old lady stepped to the front of her class looking as corpselike as ever. Her hair was frazzled and her eyes sagging.

“Please take out your textbooks and turn to page 357,” she said. “We’ll quickly go over a short Vonnegut story and start up again with public speaking next week when we once again have a full period.”

Groans.

“C’mon, Mrs. Wilson!” a girl named Nancy pleaded. “We have only fifteen minutes before the assembly. Can’t we just take it easy?”

“It is never a virtue to waste valuable time,” Mrs. Wilson admonished. “A lot can be accomplished in fifteen minutes. An industrious person will always try to occupy every minute of time so that they may live more productive and rewarding lives. Indolence has never been an attribute of a successful student.”

Everybody groaned. They had all heard the speech before.

Sean and Cody were seated next to each other in the back row, conspicuous in the class full of students dressed in yellow and blue. Nobody paid them any attention, and for this they were grateful. Their names had been taken for attendance. Now all they had to do was wait. The tension was almost palpable.

Fifteen minutes could get to seem like a long time under Mrs. Wilson’s instruction, and that added with Sean and Cody’s anxiety made the abbreviated period stretch on forever. Finally, when there was but a single minute until the assembly was set to start, the students starting packing their bags and chattering amongst themselves, anticipating the fun that lay ahead.

Sean zipped up his possessions into his backpack and gave Cody a nod. Both were trembling. If they succeeded this time, it would prove that escaping assemblies was indeed possible.

When Mrs. Wilson finally realized that nobody was paying attention to her, she finally relented and sauntered back to her desk in defeat. All eyes watched the clock.

When the early bell rang, the class was quick to jump up and swim toward the door. Sean and Cody eyed each other. Cody extended a fist, and Sean bumped it with his own.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

They filtered into the hallway amid a swarm of students. Everyone was chatting away mindlessly, eager for the assembly that lay ahead. Sean and Cody ducked into the men’s room a few doors down, quite unnoticed by the rest of the population. Each found his own stall and locked himself in it where they could be hidden until it was safe to venture back into the corridor.

“Oh shit,” Sean grumbled.

“What?” Cody asked from his stall.

“I meant that literally. There’s shit everywhere. Somebody used the toilet seat to wipe his ass.”

“You can’t worry about that right now,” Cody hissed. “Just stand on the toilet so your feet can’t be seen under the stall.”

Sean made a face. “This sucks. I just bought these shoes.”

“Dammit Sean, quit talking. Somebody’s bound to come in and hear us.”

With a sickened expression, Sean gingerly placed a foot upon the soiled toilet and followed it with the other. He hunkered over the bowl and tried not to touch anything with his hands. The smell in the room was making him want to puke.

“So how long do we wait?” he asked, speaking at the stall wall.

“I’d give it a good fifteen minutes,” Cody replied. “That’s just enough time for everyone to get settled into the assembly and for the janitors to make their rounds. I think we’re good for go after that.”

“Fifteen minutes, okay,” Sean said. He pressed a button on his watch. “I’ll time us.”

“Right.”

The two boys kept silent, the steady hum of the air filtration system filling the room. It did little to alleviate the stench. After five minutes, Sean’s legs had grown numb, but he grimaced and kept himself hunkered.

Six minutes. Seven. No sign of anyone or anything. Eight minutes. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Sean was sure that by now there was a permanent blood clot in his legs. Twelve. Thirteen.

The bathroom door creaked open. Sean and Cody instinctively went still. Their breathing was shallow and silent. Sean could feel his heartbeat pulsating in his head.

A heavy pair of footsteps entered the room. It could only be one of the custodians. They typically wore work boots to school. A few loud steps were taken, and then the clodhoppers were silent.

Sean could just sense a presence outside the stall bowing down to look for feet. The muscles in his legs were shaking by now and he was sure he was going to collapse if he didn’t relieve them soon. He bit his lower lip and prayed the man would leave.

The heavy feet approached the stalls. Sean could hear deep, wheezy breathing. The small gap between the stall door and wall was suddenly blocked. The janitor was standing right in front of the door.

“Smells like shit in here,” a gruff voice mumbled. “Damn kids don’t know how to flush.”

Man, please don’t let him try the door, Sean silently prayed. If the custodian found out the door was locked, he would know somebody was hiding inside. The escape would be over.

The figure moved to Cody’s door. Sean could almost feel the tension emanating from his friend. For some reason, the man didn’t bother himself with trying to swing the doors open to check for occupants. Instead, he moved away from the stalls. Sean held his breath and desperately wished the man would leave. His legs were shaking like crazy by now.

A zipper was heard, and then the watery sound of a stream of piss gushing into a urinal filled the room. Sean felt beads of sweat trickling down his cheeks.

“Ah!” the man moaned in pleasure. “Oh, man.” The stream became even more intense. “Whoa.”

“God, no,” Sean whispered. His legs were shaking like they were being electrocuted. He tried to shift his weight, but to no avail.

The cataract of piss continued for eternity. Finally, the discharge grew weaker and weaker until it was reduced to drops. A huge sigh of relief was heard, followed once again by the sound of the zipper.

God, just go! Sean wanted to scream. His legs were going to have to be amputated after this.

“Sector four-ten: clear!” the gruff male voice announced. Sean and Cody both jumped but otherwise maintained their positions. The decree had been most unexpected.

“Ten-four,” a similar voice replied. The custodian was using a walkie-talkie.

The footsteps trudged away from the stalls. The bathroom door creaked open and swung shut, and all was silent once again.

Sean and Cody’s individual sighs of relief were audible.

“Damn!” Sean cried, immediately jumping off the toilet. His legs felt like useless, solid stumps. Pins and needles quickly ensued.

“I thought he was going to check the doors for sure,” Cody said through the wall. “God was with us. I was praying the whole time.”

“Me too.” Sean examined his shoes for any traces of human feces. What he found he rubbed against the floor. “Is it safe to come out?”

“I think so. One sweep is usually sufficient. If he comes back, it probably won’t be for awhile.”

Cody and Sean exited their respective stalls and moved over toward the sinks. Both had clammy skin and were feeling anxious.

“That was just phase one, you know,” Cody told his friend. He turned on one of the sinks and splashed cold water on his face. “The most dangerous part is yet to come.”

“Thanks for reminding me,” Sean said. He didn’t want to think about the mad dash they would have to make to the parking lot. This was much worse than he had originally anticipated.

“I say we give the janitors at least five more minutes to make their rounds before we make our move,” Cody said. “They still have to look in all the classrooms to ensure they’re devoid of hiding students. Then they’ll probably stroll around the outside perimeter, although I’m not entirely certain of that.”

“How do you know so much about the mechanisms of this school?” Sean wanted to know.

“I do a lot of watching, my friend,” Cody said. “Watching and listening both. This institution has particular patterns underneath its initial layer of chaos. If you observe closely, you can find the patterns and exploit them for your own personal benefit.”

“You’re even more hardcore than I am,” Sean admitted. “I mean that as a compliment, of course.”

Cody grinned. “I wouldn’t take it any other way.”

Five minutes were spent sweating it out before the two fugitives dared to make their move. Both stood with an ear pressed to the door, listening for approaching footsteps or distant voices. Neither was heard. Cautiously, Cody creaked open the door to take a quick peek into the corridor.

“See anyone?” Sean hissed.

Cody closed the door and turned to his comrade. “Not a soul. The place is dead.”

“Are you absolutely certain? There could be someone posted at the end of the hall.”

Cody shook his head. “I would have seen them. I think we’re good for go.”

“Well, we know we can’t take the front doors,” Sean reasoned. “We’d be strolling right in front of the office.”

“No shit, Sherlock. We’ll take the rear entrance at the other end of the hall. That leads to the teachers’ parking lot. We’ll still have to pass along the front of the school to get to my car, but if we duck behind the front bushes, we should be okay.”

“Unless there’s a guard outside,” Sean said.

“If I had been smart, I would have just parked my car in the teachers’ lot this morning. They rarely check anyway. Then we’d have a clear shot.”

“Well, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it,” Sean said. “I’ve had about enough of this stinking bathroom.”

The door was creaked open once more, and two heads poked their way out to survey for teachers or custodians. No one. The hall was clear.

“Should we run for it?” Sean asked.

“It might make too much noise,” Cody answered. “I think we should maybe just walk fast.”

“Whatever you say, man. It’s your show.”

“Let’s go.” Quickly and silently, both boys shot out the bathroom and skittered down the length of the empty hall. They passed darkened classrooms with locked doors and rows of dingy lockers. Glances over the shoulder were necessary to ensure they had not been spotted or were being followed.

The rear entrance doors were in near sight. At the last ten yards or so, Sean and Cody both forgot about walking fast and practically bolted for the exit. Freedom was nearly in their grasp.

They made it. The two of them hastened outdoors and immediately concealed themselves behind a supporting pillar. They were in the teachers’ parking lot now. The exit gate could easily be observed.

“Shit,” they uttered in unison. There, standing erect like a proud solider, was Mr. Leonard, blocking the only way out with his massive physical disposition. He was the sadistic and ruthless disciplinary teacher who watched over detention sessions and the in-school suspension program. He was not a man to be messed with. There were rumors that Mr. Leonard was responsible for a few graveyard burials of especially abominable students, and nobody had ever entirely discredited these ghastly accounts. It was very true that some kids had entered the in-school suspension program and were never seen on campus again. Some just generally assumed that they had moved away, but still, it was just weird. In any event, it was agreed that Mr. Leonard was a little unsound in the mind. Students sent to him for discipline (at least those who returned) often made public vows never to do wrong again (or at least get caught). These individuals never expressed exactly why they were renouncing their criminal behavior, but clear mental scars were typically evident in their perturbed behavior. If Mr. Leonard did one thing right, he instilled fear. His mere presence was often a cause for panic.

Sean and Cody knew this well. They also knew if they were spotted by the infamous disciplinarian, their asses would be grass for sure. In-school suspension was considered the equivalent of “the hole” in prison. You didn’t even want to go there.

They looked at each other. Panic was written in bold print in their eyes.

“Son of a bitch,” Cody hissed. He kept his back pressed firmly to the column and dared not even to poke his head around. His lips were trembling. “We’re never going to make it to my car with him standing guard. He can spot trouble like a hawk.”

“I should have known something like this would happen,” Sean mumbled, staring up at the sky. “I should have known.”

“Maybe he’ll leave his post after an allotted time,” Cody suggested, trying to sound hopeful. “That was the plan all along, right?”

“I don’t think Mr. Leonard will be going anywhere soon,” Sean said. “See, he’s even got that smirk on his face, like he somehow knows he’s preventing our freedom. No, he ain’t going to stray. Besides, he probably would have done it by now. It’s already been twenty-five minutes since the assembly even started.”

“Keep yourself hidden!” Cody snapped. Sean ducked behind the column and stood beside his friend. “You know he’ll see you. Shit, he can probably smell us. Smell our fear.”

“Well, now what?” Sean asked. “Should we try waiting him out?”

“No.” Cody shook his head. “That’ll be a waste. We’ve already done enough waiting. By the time he leaves, the assembly might be over, and this will all have been for nothing. No, I say we try our chances going out the back.”

“Out the back?” Sean’s eyebrows raised. “You mean abandon the car?”

“Precisely. The front gate is being guarded, that much we know. Nobody is going to suspect us of going out the back.”

“But there’s nothing but a field of sagebrush that way,” Sean argued. “It’ll take us forever to get to the main road. You want us to just walk home?”

Cody shrugged. “We can walk or stay here. I’ll leave the choice up to you.”

“Well, I sure as hell ain’t staying here. If we’re going to be reduced to walking, let’s go for it.”

“Then it’s decided.” Cody poked his head slightly out and was quick to conceal himself shortly after. “He’s still there. If we hang next to the wall, it’s doubtful he’ll spot us.”

“I’m ready,” Sean said. They nodded at each other.

Flattening themselves against the side wall, they edged sideways along the length of the school, keeping a close eye on Mr. Leonard. He seemed to be staring straight ahead, as if expecting a car to approach. Very rarely did his gaze stray, but once the two boys thought they caught him looking over at them. Naturally, they froze, trying not to shudder. The teacher then simply resumed his position, leaving them safe to breathe a huge sigh of relief. They hastened their pace and finally wound around to the rear of the school. They found themselves in the gravel area where the busses were parked. A few trailers that housed extra classrooms were also present, but it was highly unlikely that they were occupied now. A simple chain-link fence divided the school property from the public lands beyond. One more mad dash, a quick hop, and they would be officially off grounds.

Just for safety precautions, Cody stole one last look around the building to eye Mr. Leonard. He turned to Sean with a bewildered, almost horrified look on his face.

“He’s gone,” he whispered.

“What?” Sean asked.

“Mr. Leonard’s gone.” He craned his neck again to take yet another look. “I don’t see him anywhere. I’m not sure if he simply left his post, or…”

“He couldn’t have followed us,” Sean reasoned. “You don’t see him anywhere out there, do you?”

“Not anywhere.” Cody, for the first time, looked as if he didn’t know what to think or how to act. “If he left his post, maybe we should try for the car.”

“Oh, hell no,” Sean said. “What if he simply moved to the front doors? He could still be out there somewhere. I’m not taking any chances at this stage. We’re going over the fence or nothing.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Cody said. He looked at Sean. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Can you hop fences very well?”

“I don’t typically make a habit of it, but I think I can manage.”

“I think I can too. Okay then, on three. One… two… THREE!”

They dashed across the gravel yard, not bothering to look for witnesses or potential patrollers. The fence was quickly reached, and both boys scrambled to climb over it. The cuff on Sean’s pants got stuck at one point, but after loosening himself, causing an audible tear, he hopped over with Cody and landed on the hot desert sand.

“Run!” Cody cried. They got to their feet and sprinted across the public land filled with sagebrush and collected debris. They ran as fast as their legs could carry them, the foreboding school building behind growing farther and farther away.

Sean threw his arms in the air and tossed his head back to the sky as he ran, crowing: “Freedom! Freedom!”

They ran until their lungs and legs ached from the exertion. Stumbling to a halt, Sean and Cody took in great breaths and exchanged huge smiles.

“We frickin’ did it, man!” Cody gasped between breaths. “We frickin’ did it!”

“Thank God and all that’s holy!” Sean exclaimed.

It was a time for joyous laughter and praising God. Imagine, they had finally made it. They had escaped. Sean pictured the masses of students sitting in the gym right now, all wearing yellow and blue and cheering loudly for their respective classes. Music would be blasting, people would be screaming and the cheerleaders would be running about, motioning for all to stand and stomp their feet. A regular portrayal of hell. And they weren’t there. Oh, how sweet was the day! They had finally set out to escape and had made it.

The school was now a considerable distance behind them. Not far ahead was a residential community divided from the school by the field of federal land. A line of fencing shielded the backyards facing the field.

“I can’t believe we did it,” Cody said, just then getting his breath back. “I didn’t think we were going to for a while back there. I mean, with Leonard guarding the entrance and everything.”

“This will go down in the books,” Sean said. “I’ll be telling my grandchildren about this day when I’m old and weary and resigned to warming my bones beside the fire.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to go now,” Cody said. He motioned to the neighborhood ahead. “My grandparents live only a few blocks away from here. They’ll probably give us a ride home.”

“Sounds like a sweet deal,” Sean said. He grinned and held his hand out. “Good work buddy.”

Cody shook it hard, smiling. “The same to you Sean.”

Triumphant from their success, the two men set off at a casual walking pace toward a vacant lot that gapped two houses. The concern and anxiety about avoiding school authority was gone now. They were safely off school grounds and could stroll like free men. They both felt free, too. Every day in that horrid school was almost like being confined in a prison. The other students with their conforming stances, the administration with its authoritarian policies and the grueling churn of going through it day after day caged their souls like a beacon in an iron box. But out here, they were free men. Free to hold their heads to the sun and appreciate their life. Free to unleash their minds and take great whiffs of the sage-scented air. Free to be themselves without fear of harassment, ridicule and humiliation. This wilderness was the promised land. Out here in the drifting sands with the expanse of the blue sky above them, Sean and Cody couldn’t care less about the gray and cold world that lurked within the confines of that wretched school. They left it behind and didn’t look back.

After cutting through the vacant lot, upon which a foundation was being poured for a new house, the two fugitives found themselves strolling down the neighborhood street. It was a peaceful area. A small breeze made the leaves on the tree branches up above shudder. A dog yapped for a few moments several houses away. A lawn sprinkler connected to a garden hose swished swished swished, shooting out tiny droplets looking like liquid gunfire. It was a community to which one could easily retire and spend the day in complete relaxing solitude.

Sean and Cody bantered back and forth on mindless topics as they walked. Cody had a crush on a girl named Amanda. Sean didn’t know her, but had Cody ever seen a girl named Melissa who rollerbladed a lot? Cody said he hadn’t. Sean said he hadn’t seen her at school, but that she had just moved into his neighborhood. Cody said he’d have to watch for her.

Just two free men taking a stroll on a beautiful day in the greatest country where freedom reigned. They had successfully fled the assembly, and for the time being, everything was right with the world.

There was a distant rumbling sound behind them. Sean briefly turned his head and looked back and continued walking. Then he halted in his tracks. He turned again in the direction and stared. Cody stopped and gave Sean a funny look.

“What’s up?” he asked, looking concerned.

Sean squinted his eyes. “What is that?”

The rumbling was growing louder. It sounded a lot like a cluster of diesel engines passing along a freeway. At the far end of the street, there were vehicles approaching. It was difficult to make them out.

Cody also squinted and stared down the road. The rumbling was growing consistently louder. The two young men started to feel vibrations in the ground.

The vehicles were coming down the street rather rapidly. As they grew closer, Sean’s mouth widened in horror. The rumbling filled his ears and sent a stiffening chill throughout his entire body.

A group of three yellow school buses in a triangular formation was rapidly approaching. Their headlights glowed a dim, piss yellow. The engines were roaring like a jet engine preparing for flight. Cody’s mouth also dropped in awe.

“Oh shit,” Sean mouthed. All he could do was stand there. From their position on the sidewalk, they watched as the busses ripped ahead, the clamor of their gunned engines now deafening. They were now close enough to observe clearly. The head bus, forming the topmost vertex of the triangle formation, had crudely painted lettering splashed at the top of the front window. It read: Anderson High Forever. Nerds Must Die!

There was a familiar figure standing beside the driver in the head bus. It was Mr. Leonard. In his hand was what looked to be an automatic assault rifle.

“Oh shit!” Cody screeched, actually saying the words out loud. He grabbed Sean, pulling him out of his daze. “We got to go, man!”

Sean continued to stare as if in a trance.

“C’mon!” Cody screamed. He tore at Sean’s shoulder and nearly caused his friend to topple. Sean came back to reality, and the horror of the situation struck him like the scent of a locker room at maximum capacity.

They tore off down the street, running as fast as the wind itself. The busses took on a new burst of speed. The driver of the lead bus leaned on the horn.

It was a posse who had come after them. Mr. Leonard hadn’t simply vanished when they were hiding at the side of the school. He had seen them flee and was now coming to take them back.

“Run!” Cody screamed. Though he had never been much of an athlete in his high school career, his pace could have broke sprinting records that day.

Sean, though he had long legs, couldn’t quite catch up. The busses were getting closer behind them.

“Cody, wait!” he gasped, his lungs stinging like they had suffered electric shock. Cody turned and saw his friend flailing. Sean’s pace slowed, his legs becoming dead limbs. His face was sweaty and flushed. He wasn’t going to make it.

The head bus jumped onto the curb and sped toward them. Acting on impulse, his body relying on pure instinct, Cody dove and sent both he and Sean tumbling into the front yard of a house. The head bus and its followers slammed on their brakes and came to a screeching halt, sending putrid, black smoke into the air.

Cody pulled Sean to his feet. Panicked, they started running for the side gate. Their bodies were being fueled by pure adrenaline. Now was not the time to exercise the luxury of reason. Their animal impulses told them to get out, and to get out now.

Together they dashed over the gate and ended up in a backyard. They ran together, criminals bonded by the convict’s code. Neither one would leave the other behind.

“Dammit!” Mr. Leonard screamed, slamming the driver of the bus in the head with the butt of his rifle. “You almost killed those boys!”

“I was just trying to scare them!” the driver stuttered, holding his bleeding scalp. He was a retired truck driver making minimum wage shuttling children to school, not an officer of the law. He had never been on a pursuit.

“The boss wants them alive,” Mr. Leonard growled. The “boss” was Mr. Deakins, Anderson High’s principal.

The bus doors opened and Mr. Leonard marched out. He was dressed in a long black overcoat and combat boots for the occasion. He sniffed the air and held his assault rifle ready. He could smell the potent stench of fear.

The rest of the posse filtered out from the remaining two busses. Among them were Mrs. Hartford, a gym teacher who had recently transferred from Willow Tree High. Mr. Tinderman the shop teacher followed suit. Other teachers, custodians, office personnel and even students grouped into one big cluster in the street. Among the students were Greg Thomas and Devon Childs. All were armed.

“The fugitives will be taken in unharmed!” Mr. Leonard announced, stepping to the front of the group. With his long black overcoat flapping in the breeze, he looked the part of authority. “I have orders from my superiors that they are to be tried for their acts of treason.”

“Not if we get to them first,” Greg said.

Mr. Leonard stepped forward, a penetrating gleam in his eyes. “Are you refusing to obey an order, son?” he barked.

“I am not under your command!” Greg shouted back. Devon stepped forward beside his leader. “I am president of the student council. You have no authority over me.”

“Those boys will be taken alive, soldier!” Mr. Leonard hollered. The rest of the congregation jumped at the intimidating tone the man had. Greg didn’t flinch. “You will obey my orders! The combat zone is not a place for mutiny!”

“Say what you will,” Greg said. He turned to Devon and gave him a knowing look. “But if me or my men get my hands on Sean Kimble and Cody Swimfarr, I guarantee you you’ll be towing their corpses back to fertilize the football field.”

Mr. Leonard snarled but moved away. The fugitives were getting away during all this talk. Time was wasting.

“Let’s move out!” he screamed, thrusting his rifle into the air. “They won’t be able to get far. Surround the perimeter of this neighborhood. Those boys will not escape!”

The group split into all directions, racing after the fleeing boys. They had been extensively trained for a situation like this. Anderson High was known for its coldly efficient staff.

Sean and Cody had jumped fences, ducked under trees and had just avoided a vicious doberman. Sean’s face was pallid, his clothes drenched with sweat. His eyes bulged like a weary man tired of running.

“We got to stop,” he panted, slowing down.

“Keep going!” Cody hollered, continuing to run.

Sean shook his head. “I can’t… I can’t… I… can’t.” Letting out one last gasp of breath in resignation, he fell to his knees and slumped toward the ground. He was done for.

“Dammit, Sean!” Cody screamed. He bent to his friend and slapped him hard in the face. “Get up, you lousy piece of shit! They’re coming after us!”

“Go, go, just go without me,” Sean mumbled. “I can’t make it further.”

“I won’t leave you!” Cody screamed. He grabbed Sean under his armpits and forced him to stand. His hands were instantly drenched. “Get up and move!”

“Hey!”

Cody turned and was certain his heart stopped. There, standing at the far end of the shaded back yard, was Devon Childs. His weapon was aimed directly at them.

He grinned evilly, showing his rotting, disgusting yellow teeth. “Time to die, suckers. I’m going to pump your asses full of school spirit and silver bullets. Eat my shit and steel, nerds.” He pulled the trigger.

Cody yelled and flung himself and Sean out of the way. A spray of bullets hit the fence behind them. Cody, lugging Sean, ducked behind a tree, just as another spray nearly missed them.

Another gunshot sounded and the spray stopped. Cody peeked around the tree and saw Mrs. Hartford standing over a slumped Devon Childs. He was saturated in his own blood.

“I’m sorry boy,” she said, speaking in that gruff voice of hers. “But orders must be followed.” Cody watched as she took a wadded up old P.E. uniform shirt out of her jacket pocket and covered Devon’s face with it.

Greg Thomas came running out from behind a corner and stumbled onto the gruesome sight. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw his second-in-command shot dead. Greg stared up at Mrs. Hartford with an open mouth.

“He disobeyed orders,” she said, rising to her feet. “And disobeying orders during combat earns death.”

For once in his life, the usually loquacious Greg was speechless. Here lay one of his own, shot dead from friendly fire for insubordination. The implication was clear: He was out of his league. He had no authority here.

Perhaps it was this realization combined with the rage that followed that compelled him to do what he did next. In any event, he raised his gun as if to shoot Mrs. Hartford. She quickly raised hers to fend him off. They stood in a standoff, with Cody watching, his eyes wide in disbelief.

“You murdered him, you heartless bitch!” Greg screamed. “My only friend, the only one who I truly trusted to stay by me!”

Cody couldn’t believe it. Even with all his popularity and the splendor of his student council position, Greg Thomas actually considered Devon Childs to be his one true friend? Was he really that pathetic?

“Don’t do it, Greg,” Mrs. Hartford said, holding her aim steady. “I did what I had to do to protect the operation. I had orders from Mr. Leonard.”

“I could give a shit less about Mr. Leonard!” Greg screamed. He was near tears now. “I could give a shit less about this entire school!”

“You don’t mean that,” the gym teacher told him. She took a single step forward. “Give me the gun. You don’t want to do this.”

Greg shook his head. “You murdered my only friend. And now you’ll pay.”

“Greg,” Mrs. Hartford said. Her voice took on that warning tone as if she were simply reprimanding a student for dribbling with two hands.

Greg shot her. She didn’t have time to react. Mrs. Hartford fell back, landing against a hedge.

Cody knew this was his chance.

“Let’s go Sean!” he screamed. Sean had apparently recovered some of his breath and all of his resolve. He had heard what had just happened. Together, they jumped toward the back fence and flung themselves over it, landing again in the field. They found themselves on a dirt utility road that ran along the length of the neighborhood on the back side.

Mr. Leonard appeared in the backyard and saw Greg Thomas holding his weapon and standing over a dead Mrs. Hartford. He spoke not one word or changed so much as his facial expression. He simply shot Greg in the head.

Sean and Cody heard the firecracker-like explosion and took on a new burst of speed. Sean had a severe limp from having torn his thigh jumping over the fence. Cody urged him to forget the pain and continue on. Their lives were clearly at stake.

Mr. Leonard’s head appeared over the fence.

“Get back here traitors!” he screamed. He fired some warning shots in the air. The teens ran faster. Mr. Leonard, not as young as he had once been, gingerly eased himself over the fence. He tore his overcoat on the same picket that had claimed flesh from Sean’s leg.

“Dammit, that was a new coat, too,” Mr. Leonard muttered. “What the hell?”

Sean and Cody kept running along the row of fencing, not knowing where they were going but determined to get there anyway. Up ahead, they saw a small blue car tearing down the road toward them, creating a huge dust trail.

Cody slowed down and came to a stop. Sean did the same. Both boys were thinking the same thing: it was all over now. Mr. Leonard was behind them and this car was ahead. They were in between. There was nowhere to go. They were too exhausted to hop another fence. It was all over.

The car skidded to a stop in front of them. The front windows were down.

“Get in!” a man cried. “Hurry!”

Mr. Leonard was running toward them. He hadn’t lost so much of his youth that his legs were worthless. He held his weapon high, his boots tearing through the sand.

Sean stumbled forward. He got a good look at the man in the car.

“It’s Braun!” he exclaimed, turning to Cody. “Mr. Braun! My homeroom teacher!”

“Get in!” the driver hollered. “He’s coming!”

Sean had always known that Mr. Braun sympathized with their position. He and Cody both jumped into the backseat, slamming the door behind them. They were breathless and sweating. Mr. Braun quickly floored the vehicle and tore down the direction he had come. He left Mr. Leonard choking in a huge cloud of dust.

“Thank you, thank you!” Sean cried, nearly sobbing. Cody was so out of breath that he couldn’t speak. He felt like his heart was going to explode from the exertion.

Mr. Braun, though being the small and timid man he was, maneuvered the car like a wild savage. He pulled onto the pavement and tore down the neighborhood street, flying past the various members of the posse with their automatic weapons. He steered the car past the busses and raced onward, leaving Mr. Leonard and his team of enforcers behind.

“I couldn’t let them do that to you guys,” he said, looking at his two passengers in the rear view mirror. “For too long I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about the way they run that school. Well, no longer. It’s time I take a stand. I’m tired of the way people like you guys are treated.”

“Sir, you are a sight for sore eyes!” Sean said. “I always knew you were among us. Even though you never said it, I could tell.”

“I was just like you back in my high school days,” Mr. Braun said. “Weak, scrawny, ugly, hated. I was there. I know how it is. Things have been going on that way for too long now. I won’t stand by anymore and tolerate it.”

“Amen!” Sean exclaimed. “I don’t know how we can ever thank you for getting us out of there.”

Cody had finally gotten some of his wind back. He leaned forward. “You’re a saint, sir. A real saint.”

“Wrong,” Mr. Braun said, keeping his eyes on the road. “I’m a nerd. Just like you guys.”

Sean let out a heavy sigh and sank back into the seat cushions. His body felt weary and tired. His clothes were matted and dirty, his hair windblown and face grimy with dried sweat. He tried to force himself to relax, though every time he closed his eyes, he could still see the horrible image of Mr. Leonard standing there in his long overcoat, holding that frightening rifle. He had to convince himself that it was all over. His pulse, however, refused to abate and his heart continued thumping like mad.

Cody groaned and shifted his position in the seat, his eyes closed to the world. He looked totally drained as well. Both boys had gotten more than they had bargained for this afternoon. School spirit, they were beginning to realize, truly was a matter of life and death.

Sean took a casual glimpse out the window and watched the bare fields of sagebrush whizzing past them. The desert surface looked scalded and cracked. It was lonely out here. Not a manmade structure in sight. Not even the typical empty booze bottle on the side of the road.

“Hey, Mr. Braun,” Sean said, leaning forward. He tapped the teacher on the arm. “Where are we going? I think we passed the city limits.”

“I’m taking you up to my house,” Mr. Braun answered, his gaze not averting from the road. “The school’s going to be staking out your places in hopes of catching you. They wouldn’t think to find you at my house. I have a cottage to myself at the end of this dusty trail here.”

“I sure appreciate it,” Sean said, leaning back. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t even know there were houses up here.”

“There’s not,” Mr. Braun said. “Just mine. I’m like you, Sean. Antisocial.”

Sean nodded. That one word description fit him like a knitted sweater. Words like community, group and assembly always sent a shiver up his spine. He was most definitely a loner.

They continued driving for what seemed like forever. The asphalt eventually ended and turned to a washboard dirt surface. The car banged over the grooves that had been worn into the road from frequent use. Cody awoke from the noise.

“Huh?” he mumbled. He had apparently taken a short snooze.

“Mr. Braun’s taking us to his house to hide,” Sean told him, filling his friend in. “Our places are no longer safe. They’ll catch us there.”

“Oh,” Cody said. He rubbed his grainy eyes with his dirty hands. “Thank you, Mr. Braun.”

Mr. Braun didn’t answer.

“How far is your house?” Sean asked. “It seems like this road goes on forever. This is one nasty commute to make every day.”

The teacher paid him no mind.

Sean glanced out the window, looking ahead. Clouds had covered the once sunny sky, throwing the world into a subtle darkness. It looked like rain.

Something ahead caught his eye, and Sean snapped his head to look. Up ahead were several gray vehicles stationed in the middle of the road. Some had lights on top. An army of people stood in the way, many holding guns.

“Oh shit!” Cody hollered, seeing the cars as well. “It’s a frickin’ roadblock!”

“Oh boy,” Mr. Braun said. He shook his head. “How did they know?”

“Mr. Braun, you got to turn around!” Cody said. The teacher kept driving. “Mr. Braun, please! You got to turn around! You can’t let them stop us.”

“I’m sorry Cody,” Mr. Braun replied. “I’m not turning around.”

“What?” Cody hollered.

The hairs on the back of Sean’s neck stood up. He didn’t like the tone in Mr. Braun’s voice.

He leaned forward. “They got to you, didn’t they?” Cody looked at him, the horror evident in his face.

No response.

“Mr. Braun,” Sean said.

The teacher sighed. He pulled to a stop directly in front of the roadblock. The assembled group of teachers, school officials and other county personnel instantly swarmed them. He finally turned in his seat. His eyes were mournful, his mouth trembling.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “They promised me early retirement, Sean. They promised—”

Sean shook his head and closed his eyes. “How could you have done it? God, how could you? You betrayed us.”

The back doors flew open. Sean and Cody were each grabbed by an arm and flung outside. They were thrown against the car by strong arms and handcuffed with their wrists behind their back.

From the crowd, a figure wearing an impressive suit stepped forward.

It was Mr. Deakins, the high school principal. He approached Mr. Braun, who had also climbed out of the car.

“Good work Gerry,” he said, patting the timid teacher on the shoulder. “We knew we could count on you to come through.”

Mr. Braun looked miserable. He watched as Sean and Cody were frisked and heavily chained, their ankles secured in iron shackles, their necks choked with steel collars. He looked away as he caught Sean’s hateful stare.

Mr. Deakins’s smile suddenly turned horribly wicked. “Unfortunately, the teaching staff is severely sparse for the upcoming academic year. I’m afraid your retirement plan is no longer an option.”

Mr. Braun’s face fell. “But… you promised! You promised! You said I could take my retirement…”

“Take this man away!” Mr. Deakins hollered. Mr. Braun was instantly flanked by two beefy soldiers. The principal made a grin swelling with wickedness. “See that he gets himself busy grading the proficiency essays for the eleventh grade.”

“No! No!” Mr. Braun screamed, his eyes filled with terror. “You can’t make me! I’m a man of science, not an English teacher… no!” He was led away kicking and screaming and pushed into a gray van. It took off immediately.

Mr. Deakins strolled forward to Sean and Cody, who were now bound and chained and under heavy guard. The cocky look on his face said it all: You’re captured. Game over. I won.

“Ah, boys,” he said, that despicable smug grin never far away from his face. “Why such glum looks? Where’s your school spirit?”

“Eat my shorts,” Cody said.

The grin disappeared, much to the teens’ pleasure. Mr. Deakins stepped forward, frowning. “What did you say, young man?”

Cody pursed his lips and churned his mouth, looking as if he were thinking deeply. Then, without warning, he shot a wad of spit forward and hit the principal right in the face. A guard immediately extracted an electric baton and sizzled Cody until he was a quivering heap on the pavement.

Mr. Deakins wiped the spit away from his face with an expensive-looking handkerchief. He turned to Sean, his eyes menacing.

“You boys are dangerous,” he said, his voice a growl and not quite human. “You stray from the norm, openly disobey and conceal hate behind your eyes. You’re both a detriment to society. I’m going to put you away for a long time.”

“Sir,” Sean said, “we are guilty of no crime except for exercising our independence.”

“Independence has no place in this modern era, son,” Mr. Deakins snarled. The grin suddenly reappeared without warning. “Or didn’t you know that? Independent minds cause harm to the masses. So-called independent minds can bring on mutiny in a uniform society. Independence, young man, can undermine the authority of a righteous dictator and bring anarchy to a peaceful kingdom.”

“With no disrespect, sir,” Sean said, “America is not a kingdom and is not ruled by a dictator.”

“You think so?” Mr. Deakins asked. He reached out a single finger and rubbed the bottom of Sean’s chin as if he were a stupid little boy. “What do you call me, then? High school is not a democracy. The student council has no authority over administration policy. I am the ruler of the school, young Sean. Why do you think public education exists? What important information have you learned in your high school career?”

“That P.E. sucks and that most teenagers are assholes,” Sean said. “Sir.”

“Have you not realized that you have also been indoctrinated to venerate authority?” Mr. Deakins asked. “What rightful power do your teachers have over you? Students are coerced into attending school by law, yet they address their instructors as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ as if they were their masters. Students are taught from kindergarten to do what the teacher says and obey rules. They form single-file lines after recess. They are told what books to read. They are spoon-fed ideas and subtle political commentary. They have to ask permission to use the bathroom, for god’s sake!”

Sean didn’t say anything.

“You see, every child in every public school is being molded to respect authority,” Mr. Deakins continued. “Your teachers are your superior officers. The principal is your dictator. You fall out of line, you are severely punished.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Sean said, looking down at Cody, who was still jerking with slight spasms.

“School is not for education as you might think,” Mr. Deakins said. “To educate young minds with knowledge would simply be reckless! You must keep a mind empty if you wish to fill it with your own logic. Students are crushed rather than educated. Their souls are manipulated and twisted so that by the time they receive their diploma, they believe everything authority tells them and ignore their own yearnings for liberty. They willingly accept what their government says. They have been manufactured to function as a group and to shun independence. Public education has then served its true purpose.”

“It’s good to finally hear somebody say it aloud,” Sean said. “People used to think I was a lunatic for saying those things.”

Mr. Deakins smiled. “Someday Sean, America will be ruled as it was meant to be. As it should be. A great dictator will arise from the masses and take the reigns of leadership. The chaos of freedom will be eliminated. Until then, we are working hard toward that goal. All students are to be indoctrinated and rendered completely obedient. Someday, we will make our perfect society. It will just take time.”

“But people like me don’t quite fit the mold, do they?” Sean asked.

Mr. Deakins blew his nose on his handkerchief and tucked it back in his pocket.

“People like you, Sean,” he said, “are to be expected to turn up every so often. People like you have somehow rejected your years of gradual brainwashing and still cling to the archaic notions of freedom. You openly demonstrate your rebellion with antisocial behavior. You and those like you refuse to attend dances and other school functions. You avoid peer contact and pay no heed to teacher instruction. You… ditch assemblies.”

“They’re noisy,” Sean said.

“They’re an essential ingredient in the indoctrination process,” Mr. Deakins replied. “Assemblies provide the opportunity for the ignorantly oppressed to bond. The cogs of the gear come to feel united and stronger. This unity is essential. It crushes any lingering independence. Petty notions like school spirit help to make the masses feel as one. The students willfully homogenize into one entity to avoid being left out. Thus, they become a single, easily dominated faction, and free thinking is eliminated and openly despised by the group itself.”

“So the students come to hate those who are different from them,” Sean said. “Like an organism rejecting a germ.”

Mr. Deakins smiled. “Of course I don’t need to be telling you any of this. You know it already. You’re a free-thinking, independent son of a bitch. Somehow you escaped the remedial instruction of your teachers and set out on your own.”

“Of that I’m proud,” Sean said.

Mr. Deakins stepped forward, his nose an inch away from Sean’s. His grin was wide and wicked.

“But like I told you son, you’re a detriment to society,” the principal said. “You have the ability to undermine everything we’ve been trying to accomplish for the past several decades.” He leaned closer so his mouth was next to Sean’s ear. “Because of that, you must be destroyed.”

Mr. Deakins gave a nod to the guard standing by Sean. The man took out his baton and whopped the teen on the scalp. Sean slumped forward, unconscious. He joined Cody on the ground.

* * * * *

“But sir, the losses sustained were minimal!” Mr. Leonard cried. He placed his hands on the principal’s desk, his eyes almost pleading for forgiveness. “The mission would have succeeded had the student council not intervened!”

Mr. Deakins leaned back in his desk chair, his expression icy. Presently, Mr. Leonard was stationed in his office, attempting to explain the failure of the afternoon’s operation. Mr. Deakins was in no mood to hear bumbling excuses.

“Your mission was unauthorized,” Mr. Deakins said, raising his voice only slightly. Mr. Leonard bit his lower lip. “You failed to seek my approval and instead requisitioned busses and enforcers on your own whim, costing a mint in taxpayer money, an expenditure I must now explain to the board. Besides that, you allowed two students to die, personally executing the senior class president yourself!”

“But let me explain,” Mr. Leonard said. “I saw the students escaping from my post at the front gate. At the time I felt that they would get away if I consulted you. I acted on my own solely to reclaim the fugitives and bring them to your justice in a timely manner.”

“You lied and told your enforcers that I had authorized the manhunt,” Mr. Deakins said.

Mr. Leonard squirmed. “I simply wanted to mobilize quickly, sir. I didn’t want to waste time with administrative bull—” He interrupted himself with silence.

Mr. Deakins smiled and played with an unsharpened pencil, fiddling it around in his hands. “You failed to alert me to your mission. When I caught word of the escape, I organized my own plan and went over your head. Needless to say, I was decidedly more efficient and successful. You didn’t know what hit you when Braun showed up.”

“You taught me a lesson sir, and for that I’m grateful,” Mr. Leonard said, gritting his teeth. How he hated kissing ass! However, it was required for personnel serving under Mr. Deakins. “Let me undo my wrongs. Assign Mr. Kimble and Mr. Swimfarr to my in-school suspension class. I’ll give you the results you want. They’ll be broken.”

Mr. Deakins only smiled with that annoying goddamn grin. How Mr. Leonard wanted so much to slap it right off.

“Those two boys are my stars,” the principal said. “I expect to make an example out of them. Your in-school suspension program does deliver results. However, I have other plans for the two boys.”

“Please!” Mr. Leonard said, his voice rising. “I must have the opportunity to break those young men! After all the heartache they caused to me and my team today, I feel I have that right.”

“You have no right, Mr. Leonard, as your mission wasn’t authorized in the first place,” the principal said. He leaned forward and pushed a button on his desk. “I’ve grown tired of discussing this matter. Dismissed.”

“Sir,” Mr. Leonard said.

“Dismissed!” Mr. Deakins snarled, shooting a nasty look up to his subordinate. The office door opened and Mrs. Trainor, the secretary, stood waiting.

Mr. Leonard retreated and allowed himself to be escorted out with the young secretary. Before she could close the door behind her, Mr. Deakins called out.

“Yes, sir?” she asked.

He smiled and lit a cigar, leaning back in his seat with his feet on the desk. “Send in the two boys, will you?”

“Yes sir.” The door closed and Mrs. Trainor departed. Mr. Deakins let a cloud of smoke into the lavish office.

* * * * *

The holding cell for detained students was an iron cage just down the hall from the principal’s office. Sean and Cody both sat on opposite sides of the cell on separate benches, still chained. Both were weary.

“I’m really sorry about trusting Braun,” Sean said, his head cast down to the floor. He shrugged. “I thought he was a man we could rely on.”

“That’s all right,” Cody said. He tried to smile, but his distraught face wouldn’t allow it. “We gave it a shot, didn’t we?”

Sean nodded. “We did. And I’ll always remember it.”

“Sean,” Cody said, looking his friend in the eye. “You know what’s coming next, don’t you?”

Sean stared at his grubby tennis shoes. “In-school suspension?”

“With Mr. Leonard.” Cody rubbed his cuffed hands together. “I just want you to know, in case we don’t survive… you were always my best friend.”

“You were mine too,” Sean said.

Cody nodded. “My parents always used to tell me that I was destined for great things. College, medical school.” His eyes took on a dreamy look as he gazed about the cell. “I always believed them. I mean, I’m no genius, but I always knew I was smarter than the majority of my peers. I always wanted to be successful, too. I wanted to have a big house, fancy cars… a loving wife.” He looked at the bars surrounding them. “Funny. I never thought it’d end up like this.”

Mr. Blair, the head custodian, appeared at their cell with an electric baton and two collars.

“The principal wants to see you,” he growled.

The two teenagers looked at each other and then down at the floor. They were resigned to their fate.

The sentencing officially took place at 4:36 p.m. in Mr. Deakins’s office. There was no trial or defense allowed. In high school, suspects were presumed guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. Sean and Cody could not do that. They were convicted men even before they had entered the room.

Mrs. Trainor, Mr. Blair and several summoned teachers were designated as official witnesses to the sentencing. Sean and Cody, secured in their chains, stood quietly as Mr. Deakins spoke.

“You are both guilty of unlawful departure from school grounds without administration approval,” he said, reading from a list he had hurriedly prepared. “You are also guilty of student misconduct, evading authority, sassing personnel and undermining Anderson High assembly participation policy. These crimes are fully delineated in revised state statute and permit punishment as designated by the principal of the educational institution offended.” Mr. Deakins looked up. “That’s me.” He gave narrow looks to Cody and Sean. “Do either of you two have words to speak before I pronounce sentence?”

Cody shook his head. Sean thought for a moment. He had always dreamed about a moment like this which would call for him to give an impassioned speech on liberty, independence and individualism. He always imagined his eloquence swaying the people involved and causing a renewed way of thinking. He realized now that the dream that had seemed so glamorous then was impractical now. Nobody cared about his view on things. A speech wouldn’t save him from punishment. What was the point?

Sean also shook his head.

“Very well.” Mr. Deakins lowered his paper and glowered at the two boys in front of his desk, his reading glasses slipping onto his nose. “By the power invested in me by the Anderson County School District, I sentence you both to four months in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. No visitors, no extraneous materials, no sunlight.” He looked around at his desk and motioned his secretary over.

“You were supposed to get a gavel,” he hissed in her ear. She shrugged helplessly. The principal made a face and shooed her away. He produced a fist and slammed it on his desk. “Adjourned. Take them away.”

Sean and Cody were led to the basement of Anderson High by two custodians. The stairway descended forever, and both teens were sure they were headed for the bowels of the earth. They finally emerged in a narrow hallway lit by two light bulbs hanging above on wires. Small cupboards guarded with iron doors were on either side.

Cody was led down the hall by one custodian as the other removed the chains from Sean. He unlocked and opened up the iron cupboard, which was about as big as the trunk of a luxury car. There was no light and only a tiny hole in the floor for waste products. A tiny slit in the iron door provided a means to pass through bread and water.

After removing all the items from his pockets, his shoes and his glasses, Sean was ushered into the cupboard. He curled himself up so he could fit. Once inside, the custodian gave him a wicked smile and slammed the iron door shut, plunging the tiny enclosure into darkness. The squeal of a heavy latch was heard, and then nothing more.

Sean settled back and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. As he did, something brushed out of the hole beneath him and squeaked. It was a gluttonous rat. Sean kicked at it with his foot and the rat ducked back into the sewage hole.

Sean grabbed his knees and shuddered. The silence was so sterile it was almost maddening. He couldn’t even hear the footsteps of the retreating custodians from within his cupboard. He was entirely alone. Ironically, this is what Sean had always wanted: to be separated from the rest of the school populace and on his own. Just not on these terms and certainly not in this cupboard. God no. Now the bound and determined and decidedly independent Sean found himself wishing for the company of others. Did this make him a hypocrite? Was this the lesson Mr. Deakins was trying to instill, that being a cog in a gear was the human way?

Sean held his knees and sighed. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t. He was hardened now. He had been through so much turbulence and seen so much evil that he was no longer a shielded little schoolboy. He was a convicted man. He had so far rejected the school district’s indoctrination. Now they were going to rehabilitate him into a model student.

Society would be saved.

 

FOUR MONTHS LATER

The latch on the iron cupboard squealed and the heavy door slid open, allowing a beam of dim light to shower into the cell. Sean, his clothes grubby, hair matted and face covered with patches of an adolescent beard, squirmed and buried his head under his arms like a frightened animal. His eyes, which had seen only pitch darkness for many months, were blasted by the sudden bright light.

Mr. Blair was standing outside, his ring of keys hanging limply at his side. He was wearing an evil grin.

“Time’s up,” he said. Sean peeked up over his shirt sleeve and quickly hid his face.

The elderly custodian had experienced this before. Students confined for long periods in solitary were often mentally destroyed after their tenure of imprisonment. They tended to behave like dogs accustomed to beatings.

“Out!” he snarled. Sean, his limbs feeble from lack of exercise, crawled out of the cell using his hands. He couldn’t find the strength to use his legs. Mr. Blair immediately jerked him to his feet and pushed him against the wall. Sean squinted his eyes and moaned in protest.

He was no longer the person he had been. Once lanky and healthily skinny, he was now totally gaunt and impotent. His stomach was concave. He had lost a few teeth from the bread and water diet enforced upon him. Those remaining were brown and rotting. His arms and legs looked like sticks. His eyes were beady and timid like a rodent’s. The exposed skin on his arms was covered with gnaw marks from the vicious rats that lurked in the sewage. Mr. Blair wasn’t sure if the boy was still human.

The custodian thrust Sean his wallet, shoes, glasses and other possessions that had originally been seized. Sean looked at them as if they were completely foreign objects.

“Get your shit and get out,” Mr. Blair snapped. “I got floors to sweep.”

Sean put away his belongings and stumbled into his shoes.

“Mr. Deakins is giving your friend another week for spitting in his face,” Mr. Blair said. “After four months here, a week is but a second of time, I’d reckon.”

Sean didn’t answer. He merely nodded and groped the wall for support. He cautiously made his way toward the staircase, uncertain on his feet.

“You goddamn kids,” the custodian said. “You ain’t so hot now, are you? A little less liable to talk back, I’d say.” He leaned on a broom he had brought with him and grinned. “Excellent. That’s just how we like you.”

It took Sean a full fifteen minutes to adjust to the sunlight outdoors. It was a cloudy winter day, but still, he hadn’t remembered the sun being so intense. He also hadn’t remembered the world being so big. The land stretched on for infinity, its bounds endless. It was like coming back to a place that had been familiar in childhood except with the opposite effect. Everything was huge.

His bicycle was no longer attached to the rack outside the school entrance. It had disappeared altogether, probably stolen. Sean didn’t mind. He probably wouldn’t have had the strength to make it home on that contraption anyway. Merely walking provided ample difficulty.

It must have been the weekend, because the school was devoid of people, the classrooms and office locked and dark. There were no cars stationed in the parking lot. Sean stepped forward and collapsed on the cement walkway, hitting his chin. He felt like he did when he first awoke in the morning and couldn’t get out of bed. His strength was sapped, whatever muscle he had once had gone. He was malnourished and sick. He wasn’t sure if he could make it home.

Sean eventually regained his footing and stumbled toward the entrance gates. A foot seemed like a mile. This outside world was tremendous. It was also very beautiful. Sean had forgotten the absolute beauty of nature. How could he have ever taken it for granted? The trees were in hibernation, the sky covered with dark clouds, but it was still a masterpiece of God. If heaven looked even half as great as this, it was a glorious place indeed.

He staggered and fell into a slow pace with his feet dragging. It was all he could manage now. His sentence was up and his life given back to him. Whatever remained of it, anyway. Home was just a few miles ahead. He could make it. He had the will. He had survived four months of solitary for ditching a high school prep assembly. He could find the courage and the strength to make it home.

At that moment, Sean heard a car speeding up behind him on the street. He quickly turned and saw a small car gunning it in his direction. The driver was unmistakable: it was Mr. Leonard. Sean froze in his spot, his blood chilling like an early winter frost. He sucked in a gasp of air and held it in.

Something metallic flashed in Mr. Leonard’s hand. It happened so fast there was no time to think about it. Just a moment before Sean heard the loud pop, a queer thought ran through his head. It reminded him of something, but in that fleeting instant, he couldn’t remember exactly what. It seemed vaguely like a passage he had once read.

The car sped away and Sean was on the ground. He felt no pain. His thoughts were clear. The yellow sun was blazing above and the sky was colored a pure blue. Yellow and blue. Forever yellow and blue.

Sean felt himself slipping away. The thought, however, stayed lodged in his head like an annoying tune. It was weird, but as he faded slowly into the enveloping darkness, he found himself starting to believe it.

He loved Anderson High School.

 

This story is continued in Escaping Assemblies II: The Sign Campaign.

 

Harold the Magnificent

by Troy Masters

 

A few swift blows and blood covered the screen. The shrieks came a moment later. Greg watched until the blue set of units finished destroying the buildings, at which point he turned to the designer sitting nearby.

“What the hell was that?” he asked. The impending deadline for the project did not allow for any pleasantries.

“Well,” one of the designers started, “clearly we have some balance issues to fix.”

“Quite an understatement, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, you guys should lower some of the stats on the ogres.” Tim Aralis’s comment made Greg shake his head. This was the man he was training for his replacement? Greg had no idea why the board had recommended Tim for the apprenticeship; the young man seemed to be the only member of the human race that lacked gaming knowledge.

The two designers were equally appalled. They avoided any direct confrontation of the ignorance, but managed to reveal a couple of arrogant smirks.

“We can’t just lower the stats on the ogres,” one started to explain.

“What if we decrease their speed a little? We allow the archers more time to fire on the ogres before they reach them.”

“That ain’t gonna work,” the other designer said.

“What do you mean it won’t work?”

“I mean that it’s like giving heroin to a crack addict to cure his habit,” the man responded coldly. After working on the project almost non-stop for the last three days, he was losing patience. Greg could understand his unwillingness to answer ignorant questions, but he could not completely undermine Tim in front of them. He would talk to Aralis in private.

But Tim just stared blankly at the designers. Finally, one designer decided to translate.

“He means that changing the speed might solve this problem, but it would far worsen the other problems. For example, the ogres are already too slow to wage any sort of battle against centurions. Centurions can go around and kill everything before the ogres even get a chance to strike.”

“So we just make the ogres weaker!” Aralis was making a complete fool of himself, and Greg decided he had better save the man before allowing the designers to answer another question.

“I think what Aralis is getting at is… what will it take to balance the various clans to make their array of characters even?”

“Well, if we increased the speed of the ogres just a little, everything else would be balanced. Unfortunately, this leaves us with an even greater difference between the elves and the ogres.”

“So you’re saying we’ve got five sides of a Rubik’s Cube.”

“Basically.”

“This is just great,” said Greg. “We’re supposed to have this at VR by now, and we have to tear apart all the balancing! Alright, how much can we salvage?”

“Well, the base units are pretty standard and remain unaffected. However, with the larger ones…”

A young gamemaster slammed open the door, interrupting the lead designer.

“Mr. Conwell, we have a real problem.”

“Not right now,” answered Greg.

“I’m afraid it’s an emergency, sir.”

Greg turned from the computer screen to the young man. He could see the sweat dripping down the forehead of the gamemaster.

“The world better be ending,” Greg admonished.

The young man took a deep breath. “It is.”

“I’m getting too old for this,” mumbled Greg as he headed for the door. The world of Hero Kingdom 7 was supposed to hold out for at least another year before becoming obsolete. Hero Kingdom 8 was hoped to be out within the week, but from Greg’s discussion, it appeared as though it would be another six months.

He was in such a hurry to leave the room that he failed to bring along Tim, who continued to ask the designers some more imprudent questions.

“Is it hackers?” Greg asked.

“No, I wish it were only that,” the gamemaster explained. “We’ve got a simple hardcore gamer on our hands. A solid player—knows all the rules, executes perfectly.”

“How far has the HG gotten?”

“He’s approaching the demon portal.”

“That’s impossible,” Greg managed to say through grinding teeth. He was glad that they had replaced the reflective windows along the wall. He would have hated to see himself at that moment, as a grumpy old man, listening to the young gamemaster blabber on about the HG’s incredible combination of strategy and skill.

Greg suddenly despised the nervous young man walking beside him. He loathed the effortlessness that the man exerted in crossing the office, when it took Greg such pain to move at the same pace. But most of all, Greg hated the gamemaster’s praise of the hardcore gamer. This designer—though he worked for the company—was just like every other member of the indolent public.

The public. They filed into work every morning, put in their two hours, and rushed home to plug in. All day they remained in that VR world, playing whatever current version of Hero Kingdom was out, often forgetting to sleep.

Oh, how Greg hated them. He was going to hear plenty from the board for this blunder. Hero Kingdom 7 had only been out for two years, and already someone was on the verge of becoming Grand Champion.

“You should’ve made it harder,” they would say. Never mind the fact that the worst twenty-five percent of the public already complained it was too difficult. Greg would spend hours explaining that if it were any harder that twenty-five percent would rebel. This lower class would not stand for being frustrated all the time. Greg did not want to be responsible for a whole revolution.

The board would research more into the problem and then question him once again. “Hero Kingdom 7 was far too similar to Hero Kingdom 6. The gamer was already too good at the game because of his skills in 6. You never added a learning curve.”

Of course it was similar. It was a sequel! If Greg changed any important aspects of the game, the public would have hated it. That would be worse than a revolution—it would be complete anarchy! What would people do with sixteen hours of idleness every day?

But Greg would get fed up with their questions and leave, as he had done so many times before. Each time, he harbored the secret hope that they would fire him. He was tired of his job. He was the only one in the entire human race that worked full-time. Not the new definition of “full-time”, which had popped up in the last twenty years, but the old working hours of the early twenty-first century.

Greg and the young man arrived at the giant, twelve inch mainframe. Collins, the head gamemaster, was sitting with his arms crossed and a VR mask over his face.

Stan Collins was in charge of overall maintenance of HK7. While this sometimes included technical stuff like fixing bugs and combating hackers, it more than often dealt with maintaining gameplay fun for everyone.

Greg got a mask for himself and plugged into the system. A fully interactive world of 3D graphics surrounded him, as the introduction to Hero Kingdom 7 sent him flying across a seemingly never-ending world of dragons, knights, and magical wizards.

He stamped his foot quickly upon the ground, and was immediately transported into a room with four doors. The three on the left looked exactly the same, except for the signs. They were labeled “New Character”, “Load Character”, and “Spectator Mode”. The spectator mode door was unique to the company mainframe. On the far right, there was a fiery red door with thorns growing all around it. It looked as though it opened into Hell itself. This door was labeled “Quit”.

Greg walked in through the spectator door. He found himself amongst a collection of clouds, falling fast through the air. The VR mask and body suit provided mini gusts of wind that made sure he felt the same sensations that he was seeing. Pretty soon, he had made it through the layer of clouds, and the figures on the ground were growing ever larger.

He was terrified of heights, and was not particularly fond of the designers that had added this little animation in “for fun.” But when he was within ten meters of smacking into the realistic landscape, a fluffy cloud appeared out of nowhere and caught him in place. Greg released his breath. No matter how many times he went through the drill, he still couldn’t manage to exhale during the falling animation.

“He named his character Harold the Magnificent,” said Collins from a nearby cloud. They both stared down at the soldier below. He was battling a sort of mutated wolf, jumping out of the way each time the wolf tried to strike. In one hand he carried a giant hammer, and in the other hand was a flaming sword. His body was engulfed in some sort of neon green armor.

“Is that the Radiant Armor?” Greg asked in disbelief.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I thought I told them not to put it in the game!”

“Yeah, I talked to Burns. He said some of his people put it in there just for the heck of it. He says they put it in a place where nobody could find it, guarded by a monster that nobody could defeat.”

“Well, they were wrong! For heaven’s sake, is that guy unbeatable now or what?”

“Not entirely. It’s got a lot of extra buffs, sure, but it’s not invulnerable.”

Harold the Magnificent finished off the wolf with one strike, spouting pixels of blood all the way up near the clouds where Collins and Greg were sitting. Suddenly, a giant of a monster came bounding into view, traveling the remaining ten yards in only a few steps.

“That’s Mackie,” pointed out Collins. “He chose a war troll. Best thing we could figure for one-on-one encounters.”

Mackie’s position as senior gamemaster was desired by almost everyone in the company. He, along with the few other elite GMs, had the privilege of trying to stop the best players in the game from getting too good. They would throw obstacle after obstacle against the top players, and, if need be, would engage in direct confrontation.

The players themselves did not mind the intervention, so long as they knew there was no cheating to beat them. The people that did encounter GMs felt flattered, while anyone that beat a GM was worshiped as a god by the rest of the world.

Mackie’s character completely dwarfed the smaller Harold. The only thing more intimidating than the hideous green skin covering the troll’s body was the jagged and bloodied axe that it carried. The troll started twirling the giant axe with his fingers.

“What is he doing?” Greg asked impatiently.

“He’s showboating, knows you’re watching him. Mackie’s a cocky bastard, you know, but he gets the job done. A death at the level of Harold will send him back quite a few months.”

The troll grinned ferociously, mimicking the movement of Mackie’s face.

“He had better win this,” said Greg. “For all our sakes.”

Harold the Magnificent was the first to make his move. His double weapon attack was impressive and difficult to parry, but the war troll managed to fend it off. Then, as if to demonstrate his superiority, the troll began doing the worst impression of an Irish jig that Greg had ever seen. He turned and saw Collins crack a smile, but he himself remained horrified.

The troll ceased his jig and refocused upon Harold. With all the power of his giant hind legs, he leapt towards the soldier, growling furiously. Harold was not intimidated. He mumbled a few words and threw dust into the air, freezing the troll for a second in his motion.

Harold then took the time to jam his fiery sword into the ground, sending a wave of rock directly in a path for the troll. Greg and Collins watched helplessly as the troll’s life drained to three-fourths of its total hit points.

“That powerful attack is damaging, but not devastating to a character as strong as Mackie’s,” Collins explained. But Greg could sense that even as he spoke, he was losing some confidence in the giant war troll.

Harold wasted no time while the troll was trapped underneath the rock. He managed a quick swipe with the giant hammer, taking away another quarter of the troll’s health. The troll’s face grimaced and he threw the rock off haphazardly, revealing Mackie’s anger.

“I didn’t know we were going to use lame spells,” growled the troll. “Time to even the score.”

The troll began to utter something in a low voice.

“He’s using a confusion spell,” said Collins. “He can see that Harold is strong and wants to use that strength against him.”

A gust of blue smoke flew towards Harold, showing the graphical representation of the spell. But Harold had been mumbling something as well, and the smoke quickly turned around and struck the troll.

“Geeez, he just used a reversal spell!” Greg shouted.

The troll started to wander aimlessly about.

“Mackie’s smart, he won’t try to attack while he’s confused.”

“Doesn’t look like he’s going to have a choice, look!”

Harold had used a taunting move, which managed to bring the troll’s attack against Mackie’s will. The giant troll swung his giant axe carelessly, horribly missing the enemy and striking himself. The remainder of the troll’s life disappeared. It fell to the ground, disappearing from the game soon after.

Harold the Magnificent looked towards Collins and Greg, giving them a giant thumbs up.

“I thought he couldn’t see us,” said Greg.

“He can’t, but he knows we’re here. We’ve been sending all kinds of obstacles and GMs at him. None as good as Mackie though.”

“Mackie’s the best you got?”

“I’m afraid so,”

“Did you try the younger GMs? Maybe we got a prodigy in our midst.”

“Nah, I already checked. None of them can hold a candle to Mackie. If he can’t beat Harold, none of my guys can.”

“So you’re telling me this guy has a legitimate chance to beat the game?”

“I hate to say it—but I don’t see anything that will stop him.”

Nobody ever beat the game. It was a scenario they could not let happen. Once somebody had defeated it, what would the people do? The game was the only source of entertainment; it was not as if they could just spend their time elsewhere. The company had to pump out the next version before anyone could beat the current one.

Early on, the company had debated whether they should even make an end to the game. It was risky after all. But they found that people would not stay addicted for long unless there was an end, a goal, something that they had to strive for. The public had to feel as though it was moving forward.

“What do I pay you for?” asked Greg in bitterness. “You can’t stop a freaking HG?”

“Come on Greg, that’s not fair. Ever since the labor unions decreased the full-time hours per week from ten to eight, people have an extra day to play the game. How can we compete with that?”

“I don’t care. It’s your job to stop them.” But Greg did care, and he could understand Collins’ position. The entire race played the game relentlessly.

“I think the only way to prevent this catastrophe is to use a cheat. It will be real…”

“No cheats!”

“I can understand your hesitation Greg, but I’m not sure we have any other choice.”

“Stan, you weren’t around when we used the last cheat. It was back in the second Hero Kingdom, when I was only a middle-aged designer myself.”

“I read about the devastation, but in the midst of our current…”

“They were worse than animals Stan. When they found out we had used a cheat, that their world was a lie, they reacted as bloodthirsty piranhas. Riots around the world! If the public had known the location of this company building, I guarantee you I would not be alive.”

“I suppose it’s your call, Greg,” mumbled Collins. A long pause ensued. Finally, Collins began to speak once more.

“You think we can avert this disaster?”

“I sure hope so,” Greg answered as he watched Harold the Magnificent dance shamelessly. “Let’s get out of here and back to the real world.”

Greg removed his mask after stepping through the red door. Collins followed a second later, looking significantly concerned.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“We need to buy some time. How strong is Harold’s base?”

“He’s made some solid allies to protect his stronghold. It would take a long time to break through their defenses.”

“We’ll have to try. Get all of the GMs that aren’t currently working on stopping Harold, and send them to attack his base. Maybe we can get Harold to return home.”

“And what should we do with Mackie’s group?”

“Keep putting up obstacles for Harold. We might not be able to stop him, but we can sure make it tough on him. What day is today?”

“Thursday.”

“Damn, the weekend starts tomorrow. We have to wait four more days before he’ll have to leave the VR.”

“What about sleeping?”

Greg shook his head. “Guys like this won’t sleep. I’m afraid we won’t either until we can get out of this.”

“What do you want me to do?” Tim asked from the doorway.

Greg had failed to notice him in the room. Tim was technically the leader on the upcoming Hero Kingdom 8, but his frequent incompetence had forced Greg to take over a significant amount of the responsibility.

“Tell the designers to get HK8 to VR.”

“What about all the balance issues?”

“We’ll have to deal with it in the patches. Try to hide them the best you can for now.”

“Right.”

The giant screen in the room was now exclusively focused on tracking Harold the Magnificent’s movements. A small crowd of designers and gamemasters started to gather around the monitor.

It took uncomfortably long for any members of the crowd to notice Greg glaring at them. With annoying carelessness, these members subtly notified the others, and pretty soon everyone was back to work. But Greg was not simply upset at their lax work ethic—it was the fact that they idolized Harold just as much as the rest of the public.

Greg had always remained optimistic that at least everyone in the company, those that designed and maintained the game, would remember it was only a game. That they would somehow know what was real. Yet all around there was proof of just the opposite. Only their slight sense of professionalism hindered their praise from rising to the surface.

Why could nobody else see that Harold was a fool? He could be responsible for destroying the entire human race; a feat which he would regard as the greatest victory. Perhaps after reality struck he would finally see his error. Greg could take his comfort in that thought.

But his own workers had no excuses for their admiration. They knew the consequences.

“I’m surprised he chose human,” said Collins.

“It is a little unusual.”

“Yeah, humans are very versatile; they’re usually picked by the worst players who just want to make an immediate impact on a team. They’re mainly good for leeching off of the better players. But Harold here is the heart of his team.”

Even Collins alluded to a slight admiration towards Harold.

“I wish he knew how big of an idiot he is. How by beating the game he could destroy us all.”

“Yeah,” Collins chuckled. “That sure would make our job a lot easier.”

Greg shook his head. “I have to wonder if it would even matter to him. They live sixteen to twenty hours in that machine everyday; to them it’s more real than anything in the outside world. For them, the period outside of the game is just like a bad dream.”

Collins nodded along with Greg but no longer seemed to be listening. Either that or he didn’t totally agree.

Another young gamemaster entered the room.

“We’ve started our assault on Harold’s base, if you want to watch.”

“Turn half of the monitor to follow the assault on the stronghold,” Collins ordered to one of the nearby technicians. Instantly, a collection of menacing beasts appeared up on the screen, ready to attack the gates of a city.

“Tell them to go,” said Greg. The gamemaster punched a couple keys and the creatures began moving in formation towards the walls of the base.

“Where are they?” asked one GM. The collection of character continued moving hesitantly into the mysterious stronghold. There was no sign of any protectors within the base.

“They are sure to have lightning towers to protect their base,” said one of the attacking monsters.

“We’ll take them out before they get back,” another one answered, and the entire horde pressed in through the door. Immediately, a collection of towers started firing at each of the heroes, but the defenses did little damage against such powerful characters.

“Take them out,” one ogre ordered. However, before the heroes could begin smashing the base’s defenses, a collection of new heroes appeared around the ogre. The sound of blades and arrows emanated from the screen as they focused upon killing the ogre, sending it to the ground and out of the game before any of the gamemasters could react.

“They were just camouflaged!” shouted Collins.

“Your GMs walked right into a trap,” said Greg. They watched helplessly as the remaining GMs were killed off amongst the deadly combination of towers and defending heroes. A pathetic amalgamation of men emerged from the gamemaster room within two minutes, their heads low to the ground.

“What do we pay you guys for?” screamed Greg. “The players know more about the game than our own GMs!”

“To be fair, this was the first game that fully implemented camouflaging. I suppose we forgot about that aspect.”

Greg scoffed. He was too angry to even bother scolding the thoughtless GM. He had not expected them to win, but he had at least expected them to force Harold’s return to the base. Instead they were mowed down in a matter of minutes by a fairly simple maneuver. With such incompetence throughout the company, its fall was inevitable. He left the room without a word.

At the moment, there was a certain need to find Tim that had never been present before. Greg discovered him a few offices down the hall.

“Tim, how long before we are set to go to VR?”

“About a week.”

“A week! I need it done by the end of the day!”

“That’s what I tried to tell the designers. But they insisted that they just iron out some of the balance issues…”

“I told you not to worry about the damn balance issues!” Greg burst out of the office and headed for the designers. Tim had no sense of priority, and did not command the least bit of authority.

“I want this going to VR now!” shouted Greg, startling the three designers present in the room.

“We told Tim that we would have it done once…”

“I know what you told him and that isn’t good enough. Do you think I’m completely ignorant of the problems with the new design?”

Greg was shocked by their stares. They sat with their lips pursed, as if weathering the temper tantrum of a small child. He was just a senile old fool in their minds. Since when had he lost all of their trust? “If we don’t get this out today, we will have far worse things to worry about,” he said meekly. The door closed uncomfortably slow behind him.

As he stumbled along the bleak walls of the office, the vague hint of unfamiliarity evolved into a full sense of alienation. It was not the vast amount of remodeling over the years that made him uneasy. Rather, it was the subtle changes in people’s expressions when they saw him; a small but visible doubt in his ability, lying just behind their empty smiles.

Collins was at his usual spot, monitoring the screen in hopes that one of his GMs would be able to stop Harold.

“I want to go in,” he said to Collins.

“Sure, we can watch up close again if you want.”

“No, I mean I want to battle this ‘Harold the Magnificent’.”

Collins began to chuckle, but held it back when he noticed Greg’s solemn expression. “You can’t be serious. When was the last time you even played in a VR machine?”

“I’ve done some testing.”

Collins frowned. “Very early on, and that’s completely different.”

“So, I know all the designs, I know how the game works.”

“Generally, that’s true. But let’s face it, you haven’t focused on any of the specifics of the game for some time.”

“We’re running out of options here. Just give me a shot at it, we got nothing to lose.”

Collins sighed. “Look, I really would like to give you a try. It really doesn’t matter. But the problem is that it will matter to the rest of the people here, who might see your failure to defeat Harold within the game as a reflection of your ability to run this company.”

Blood rushed to Greg’s face, yet he could see that Collins was sincere in his concern. “Who are they going to replace me with? Tim’s an idiot, everyone knows that!”

Collins brushed his hand across the back of his neck. “I don’t know if Tim is quite as dumb as you think. Some of the people really like his style. I’d sure like to see you run the company over Tim, but with others I don’t know.

“But if you still want me to hook you up, I’ll do it. In the end, I take my orders from you.” He smiled. Greg nodded and reached for the mask.

He was relieved to find himself within the body of a large rock giant. For one, it was more suited towards his tendency for slow, precise moves. In addition, it provided him with the ability to look down upon the smaller Harold, and eliminate early any chance of intimidation.

However, when the magnificent Harold came bounding into view, he could not help the sensation of inadequacy from sneaking up once again. There was something inherently different about battling Harold face-to-face. Somehow, this seemed scarier, even more real, than facing him outside of the machine.

“I can do this,” he told himself.

His strategy was simple—he would wait for Harold to approach and only swing when the character came within range. The rock giant’s strong resistance to magic and ranged attacks would turn the battle into a melee bout.

Harold entered into the giant’s attack zone. Greg swung his fist towards the smaller hero, expecting to feel the full impact. None came. Instead, Greg was thrown off balance, giving Harold just enough time to jump up from the crouch and strike the rock giant on the side.

Though the giant lost very little life in this first attack—primarily due to the tough rock armor—Greg immediately started to panic. He felt the slow, bumbling motions of the giant in trying to recover, and seemed to overcompensate in every movement.

Greg’s assaults grew more and more awkward. Each one was easily avoided and countered by Harold, who managed to strike back with a barrage of powerful—and more effective—attacks.

In less than a minute, Harold’s steady swipes and slashes managed to drain all remaining life from the rock giant. Greg felt a twinge of pain as his character slumped to the ground, and he was thrown back to a fiery altar.

“Get me out of here,” said Greg, not wishing to wait for his character to resurrect.

Outside, Collins’ expression was a mix of sorrow and inevitability. He seemed to be holding back a strong “I told you so”. Greg just shook his head in humiliation. On the screen behind him, he could see Harold slumped over and laughing heartily.

“Send me back,” he ordered.

“Greg, come on, you just witnessed…”

“Not to battle this time,” Greg interrupted. “I just want to talk with him.”

“Alright, but I don’t know how much good it will do. You haven’t been watching these people over the last few years. Their obsession with the game goes beyond all logic.”

“I have to try, before…” Greg stopped. Before the world ends. He was thrown back in front of Harold, this time in a smaller character and wearing a sort of diplomat outfit. Harold looked up from the grass where he had been laughing.

“What do you want?” the hero asked.

“Harold, I’ve got to talk to you,” answered Greg.

“You have two minutes.”

“Harold, I’m the leader of this project, the one who created this game. I’ve worked on all of the Hero Kingdoms.

“Yeah, so?” Harold was unimpressed. Greg had expected him to ask for a kind of sign to prove such a statement. Instead, there was no doubt that in Harold’s egotistic mind that he was being visited by the creator of the game. And still he did not care.

“You’ve done a good job so far,” said Greg, trying to hide his irritation behind flattery. “You have done all but beat the game. There is almost nothing left. You’ve beaten all of the obstacles and gamemasters that we have sent at you.”

Harold nodded along, looking very bored.

“You even beat me. I was the last one to come as a rock giant.”

A giant smirk appeared on Harold’s face. Instantly, Greg realized he should not have made this last statement. “That was you?! The creator of the game?” Harold started laughing uncontrollably. “I’ve seen worse heroes back at Narperring!”

Greg glared at Harold and waited for the character to finish laughing.

“You’ve won. You have defeated everything in the game. We need you to quit now.”

A sense of hatred appeared in the eyes of Harold, reflected impossibly well in the character itself. “Get out of my way!”

“Harold, don’t do this. If you win, if you beat this game, you will bring an end to the goals of all these people. You will doom the world.”

“I will not! I will be a hero in their eyes, the first one to ever beat a Hero Kingdom game!”

“Maybe at first, but in the history books you will look like the bringer of destruction.”

“You’re lying! Get out of my face,” Harold said as he pressed past the diplomat. Greg’s character quickly teleported back in front of Harold’s face. It must have been Collins’ doing—he always was good with effects.

“Think about what you’re doing Harold. Right now you have everyone’s respect, the most famous of all gamers! Why would you wish to bring down this game, and be lowered to the same level as everyone else? Don’t chew off the hand that feeds you, Harold.”

Harold jiggled his head angrily. “I can’t do it. I won’t let down the people who believe in me. I will be a hero!”

Greg did not know how to respond. Harold’s combination of arrogance and ignorance seemed impossible to defeat. Suddenly, he heard a low voice in his ear—Collins.

“Tell him that we’ll kill him,” it said. Greg nodded.

“Harold, there are plenty of side quests that you can still have fun with. But if you decide you want to beat this game, I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to terminate you.”

Greg noticed the eyebrows of the character lower, and Harold’s face became unusually somber. “You can’t shut off my service—everyone will notice that I’m gone. Then you’ll have your riots.”

“I mean we will be forced to kill you,” said Greg in a serious monotone.

Harold scoffed. “You can’t kill me! You said yourself you have been trying all day.”

“Not in the game, I’m talking about in real life.”

But Harold did not heed the warning. He sprinted past Greg and began shouting. “You can’t kill me! You can’t kill me! I’m too strong!” The last spec of the character disappeared beyond the horizon, and Greg exited from the machine feeling increasingly like a failure.

“He called our bluff,” he said to Collins upon removing the mask.

Collins rolled his tongue around within his mouth. “It wasn’t exactly a bluff.”

“What do you mean?” In the background, one could see Harold approaching the final monster. It would only be a matter of minutes.

“Well, we’ve developed a sort of contingency plan. We’ve created a special program that overloads the senses of anyone we choose that is hooked up to the VR, causing powerful seizures that can kill a person. We basically fry the brain.”

“What? When did we make this thing?”

“Tim authorized it. He said we needed something in case of an emergency. Perhaps he was right.”

Greg could not believe Tim would do such a thing behind his back. “Why can’t we just terminate Harold’s account?”

“The same reason we can’t hack into it—he will start complaining to everybody about what happened, and people will believe him.”

“So you’re saying we kill him and take over his account?” Greg shook his head violently. It seemed like an easy aversion, but to murder everyone that got too far was not a good policy to begin. “I can’t allow us to do something like that.”

“I know it’s a tough decision,” responded Collins. “But we don’t have much time.” He motioned towards the back screen. The final boss had already lost a majority of its life. Greg could feel all the sweat that had been on the verge of escaping finally breaking through his skin.

“Maybe not,” he answered. A touch of optimism sparkled in his voice.

Harold was backing away from the beast, despite an obvious advantage. He shook his head and threw down both weapons, walking slowly back towards the green fields. The hero shrugged his shoulders.

It was impossible to tell exactly why Harold had finally given in, and Greg did not care to know. It might have been the realization that the game would end and leave him with nothing. Perhaps he was overcome with sympathy for his fellow humans. Or maybe he was simply afraid of losing his own life. Either way, Greg had been successful in his negotiations. With a cheer from the designers in the room, he breathed a sigh of relief. It was time to go back to the office.

Suddenly, as he was about to walk out the door, he heard Collins curse.

“He’s going back to finish it!”

Greg froze. It made no sense—that look on Harold’s face had been unmistakable. The man was completely sincere.

“Where is Aralis?” asked Greg. Collins shook his head in defeat.

Greg burst out of the room on a quest to find Tim. If this man had created the murder program, what else had he come up with in case of emergencies? Greg was pumped so full of adrenaline that he seemed to shrug off the limitations that had come with age, arriving in Tim Aralis’ office within a matter of seconds.

“Where were you?” he asked Tim, who was startled from an intense focus on the computer screen.

“In here,” answered Aralis in a pathetic voice. The majority of his attention remained on the computer screen.

“What are you doing?”

“Come and see for yourself,” chuckled Tim. Greg felt uneasy about the cheeriness at such an inappropriate moment, and slowly approached the computer.

A second later, he covered his mouth in horror. Harold had completely destroyed the last monster, prompting Tim to remove his hand from the mouse with a grin.

Greg stared at Tim in disbelief. “How long were you controlling Harold?”

“For about the last two minutes. I gave him some help along the way, but once I saw that he wouldn’t get the job done, I took over his account.”

Greg could not wipe the bewilderment from his own face. “Why would you do it?”

“Wow, you really are getting senile. I want your job, of course.”

At last, as the absurdity of the entire situation broke through, Greg was relieved of all tension. He started to laugh.

“Hah, you could’ve had my job any time you asked.” Clearly this was not the response that Tim had expected. “I hate this job!”

Tim shook his head. “You’re lying. How could you hate it? Seven billion people are hooked up to a machine for the majority of their life, playing a game that you created. At your fingertips you have the ability to make the rich poor and the poor rich, depending on how you balance the game. You can destroy the world in a heartbeat.”

Greg stared coldly at Aralis. “And you’ve just doomed it yourself.”

“Well, technically you doomed it. You were the one in charge of the games, and you failed. You decided against using the cheat, you did not want to kill Harold either. Your list of allies is much thinner than mine now Mr. Conwell. You retain everyone’s respect, but few believe you are actually fit to continue running this company. And everyone will see your pathetic attempts to blame this on me as simple excuses.”

It was Greg’s turn to laugh once again. “You don’t have to worry about me trying to report you. I want no part in this job.” He turned towards the window. “The world doesn’t move anymore for me, and it won’t for you. Everyone is so worried about playing the game, about advancing in that world of pretend, that they don’t care the least bit about reality. Outside of this game, there have been no technical advances within the last twenty years. I have felt like a caveman frozen in time. Perhaps it is best that I leave this company now.”

He turned once more towards Tim, and then reached for the exit. Aralis could not resist making his last remark.

“You are just a senile old man,” he said. Greg turned around deliberately.

“It’s funny. All along I thought it was your ignorance that would ruin this company. But ignorance can be fixed.

“If you want to know why I’ve done this job so well over the years, it’s because I’ve always hated it. The very fact that you want it shows me that you are least fit to have it.”

“You act as if the world is going to end,” Tim scoffed.

“No,” Greg replied, looking him directly in the eye. “It ended a long time ago.”

 

One Long Night

by Daniel Dean

 

1.

The smooth voice of an alto sax drifted over and around the people milling about on the River Walk, the easy flowing sound which had become the theme for sunset in New Orleans.

John stood with Nell, his thirteen-year-old daughter, her long brown hair twisted in a pony tail, the few wisps that had escaped being tugged playfully by the evening breeze off the river, and watched the water turn purple, then slowly deepen to red, as it reflected the light above in brilliant contrast to the darkening world around them.

Nell was crying softly, the tears running down her face were as red as the river, giving them the disturbing semblance of blood.

Nell buried her face in John’s shirt, her arms wrapped around his waist, her hitching sobs against his stomach seeming in tune with the fear which had settled there.

He knelt and wrapped his arms around her comfortingly, but only part of his mind remained to perform the task, the rest, back in February of 1998, was watching his wife as she paced angrily at the foot of their bed, purposefully not looking at him in the way she always did when trying to control her temper…

* * * * *

“I thought we were happy where we are. What on earth makes you think we should even consider moving after all the work I put into this house?” she said, still not looking at him.

“I’m not happy here. It’s an hour and a half commute to the hotel each way, and with the schedule I have to keep; I never even get to see Nell anymore.”

“Don’t you make this about Nell, don’t you dare.”

She turned her blazing eyes on him and he took a couple of steps back involuntarily.

“But I have always—”

She cut him off before he could finish, but not with words. Her right hand rose almost of its own accord, grasped the front of his shirt, and pulled him forward while the other cocked back to the side of her head.

He realized suddenly in a blaze of realization what she meant to do an instant before the back of her hand exploded against the side of his face, his left eyeball feeling as if it had been jellied by her wedding ring.

She let go of his shirt and quickly supported him in her arms, the look of anger disappearing from her face.

“John, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. Oh gosh, you’re bleeding. Let me get you a towel.”

She sat him down on the edge of the bed and went into the bathroom to get a towel off the rack near the door.

He picked up the little mirror sitting on the side table. The eye she had hit was not popped or jellied, but it was swimming in blood, the lid split open by the stone in her ring.

She came out of the bathroom and held the towel out to him, the back of her hand smeared with his blood. He took the towel and pressed it over his eye.

“You should go wash your hand before we go to the hospital.”

“Why should we go to the hospital?” she asked sharply.

He almost gasped, but he controlled it and attempted to make himself sound unconcerned. She had been close to him, her eyes staring right into his, and when he had mentioned the hospital her pupils had changed for a second, expanding and elongating slightly then returning to normal.

“I am going to have to get this gash stitched up, but we can tell the doctor that I fell in the shower and cut myself on the faucet,” he said, hoping she might be assuaged.

She was.

Jane called the babysitter and, after agreeing that an extra ten dollars was in order because of the late hour, Jane loaded him into the car and they made the two hour drive to the hospital in relative silence.

After that night Jane ended all of their fights in the same way, by slapping him in the face, and later by kicking or punching him in the balls, but after that first night she never hit with her left hand, always with her right, which was unadorned by rings which might require another visit to the hospital.

John hid his bruises pretty well, claiming that a drinking problem caused most of them, and no one questioned the claim.

It just goes to show the mentality of the time we live in, he thought more than once. When a man can fall down the stairs drunk three times a month and no one questions, but a woman falls down the stairs once and her husband is automatically a suspect.

He preferred the story, would rather have people think him a lush than know that he was being beaten by his wife, a woman who weighed forty pounds less than he did and stood five inches shorter.

It was something he couldn’t let people know, especially Nell.

After awhile John stopped fighting with Jane in hopes that without an argument she would have no reason to become angry, but without the direct stimulus from John she began finding things to become angry about. Every time Nell fell down, or Jane had a bad day in her little basement studio and a picture she had been trying to develop went bad, she would accuse John of being unfaithful, or claim that he didn’t spend enough time with her and Nell, and once had not said a word, just walked into their bedroom and hit him across the face as hard as she could as he lay in bed reading, then calmly went into the bathroom to take a shower.

While the changes in Jane’s temper were disturbing the changes in her physically were even more so.

These did not show when she was calm, but each time she became enraged her face would change, taking on an elongated appearance, the skin going white, as if bleached, and the pupil’s of her eyes would become either vertical or horizontal slits.

At first John thought the changes were only some strange mental image he imposed on his wife when she boiled over, but as they became more pronounced with each successive change he realized that what he was seeing was no illusion, but a real change.

The breaking point had come in mid-March, and John had just gotten home from work.

His key clicked as he inserted it into the deadbolt, but the sound was hollow this evening, and though his intuition told him to turn around and leave, he turned the key and opened the door.

The only light in the main hall came from upstairs, through the open door of the room he and Jane shared on the third floor.

He sloughed the jacket off his back letting it drop down his arms, catching it in his hands before it could drop to the floor. He tossed it over the seat of the old rocking chair near the door and started up the stairs, tucking his keys into his pocket.

He stopped on the second floor landing, the light from the bedroom door cloaking half of his face with yellow, and leaving the other half in a strange mask of shadows that moved slightly even though the light was steady.

Jane’s form had appeared in the lighted doorway.

She was completely nude except for the long brown hair hanging around her shoulders and covering most of the firm curves of her breasts.

She still has the breasts of a teenager, he couldn’t help thinking to himself, even while staring into the black holes where her eyes were hidden by shadows and knowing that the pupils would be slits, either vertical or horizontal; it didn’t really matter which.

She took a step forward, most of her features hidden in shadows, only the curve of her buttocks and the shiny skin of her legs showing in the light from their bedroom.

“Do I frighten you, John?” she asked in a low seductive voice with a shivery undertone John knew to be both anger and mocking cynicism.

“Yes,” she said, then paused, looking not just at him, but into him in some unfathomable way that felt like a slime-covered worm crawling inside his skull.

She had come to the top of the stairs now, and was looking down at him. At this distance he could see that more changes had occurred; these even more disturbing than her eyes.

Her skin had become a milky white, and he could see a pattern beneath moving as if her skin was just a piece of tight-fitting clothing worn over something more substantial.

She continued after giving him a moment to inspect her.

“I can smell the fear wafting off of you like the smell of shit stuck to the bottom of a shoe.”

“You aren’t my wife,” he said, his voice unsteady and unsure.

“Oh, but I am.”

She spun around, showing off her lithe form, her breasts bobbing up and down slightly as she did.

“I am Jane Talibith.”

She smiled, flashing pointed glittering teeth.

“Your wife.”

John felt a chill move up his spine, and when he spoke next his voice was not quite steady.

“You might have been Jane once, but you’re not anymore.”

Without another word she flew at him, leaping down the short flight of stairs that separated them.

He was frozen in place as she came, her hair fluttering out behind her like a banner, then she was on him.

Her right hand wrapped around his neck like a vice and he thought, she is going to strangle me on the stairs and leave my corpse here to rot.

It was the last thought he could remember having before the pain, which filled his whole world for…

…well, he didn’t know just how long, but he could remember the ambulance, the sound of the sirens, the voices almost shouting but the words still unclear, and the endless hum of honking horns and running engines overlaying it all.

These snatches of memory recurred to him later, but he wished they wouldn’t, wished it could be like it was in television shows like Criminal Justice and NYPD, where getting attacked made the screen go black for a few seconds before depositing you in a hospital bed.

His first real memory after the attack was waking to find a doctor standing beside his bed shining a penlight into his left eye.

“Welcome back, John,” the doctor said, clicking off the penlight and dropping it into the pocket of his white lab coat.

“Do you know where you are?”

“The hospital?”

His voice was weak and his throat felt like it was coated with a layer of coarse sand.

The doctor nodded, taking the chart from the end of the bed and folding back some of the sheets to make a small note on one of the lower pages.

“Yes, Mr. Talibith, you are in the hospital.”

He read something off the chart and grimaced as if in pain himself.

“My name is Doctor Hutton. You suffered a severe trauma to your testes, which caused a subarachnoid hemorrhage in your brain.”

“What is a subarcnoid hemorrhage?” he asked.

“It is the rupture of one or more blood vessels in your brain. The effect is bleeding inside your skull which puts pressure on the brain, causing—in your case—respiratory failure.”

He paused, searching the chart for something.

“We removed a small section of your skull and drained the blood to relieve the pressure and repaired the vessels which were causing the bleeding, but you may experience continued symptoms due to minor brain damage.”

“We were able to save your right testicle, but the left was too severely damaged and had to be removed.”

John looked up as the doctor finished and grimaced slightly.

“That’s strange, doc.”

“What’s strange?” Doctor Hutton asked.

“I don’t feel like a man with one ball.”

 

2.

John shook off the remnants of the memory and saw that the sunset was over. The sax player was gone, likely moved to Bourbon Street for big tips from the drunks who wandered from bar to bar all night.

“I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said, out loud but to himself, and lifted Nell into his arms.

She had stopped sobbing, but it was his first day back after being in the hospital and he had just picked her up from the foster family she had been staying with for the past two months, and she clung to him like a barnacle to the face of a sea cliff.

She was heavy, and he was still weak from his ordeal despite the physical therapy, and though he was able to carry her a few feet, he was forced to put her down long before they reached the edge of the River Walk.

“You will have to walk on your own. Daddy just can’t carry you right now.”

She continued to cling to him, her arms around his neck.

“No.”

“I can’t carry you Nell, you are just too heavy. But I will hold your hand while we walk if you want.”

He pulled her arms from around his neck and took her hand, then started down the road to the Grand Plaza Hotel.

It was a fairly large hotel near Bourbon Street, just far enough away that the crowds weren’t a bother, and had been one of the few holdings of John Talibith Jr., John’s father.

He had died when John was seventeen, and had left him a legacy consisting of three broken down cars, fourteen dollars in change, and this hotel.

The suite he had procured was not lavish, only serviceable. The main room was large, with a cabinet in the corner which John assumed housed a television and perhaps a VCR, a couch the color of egg yolks, a round table, and three chairs.

Also in the main room was a small kitchenette equipped with a stove, oven, microwave, and mini-fridge that he could stock with whatever he wanted.

The walls of the room were, he was sure, once white, but had been stained a sickly orange-yellow from cigarette smoke accumulated over the years.

“Well, here we are.”

He flicked on the lights in the main room and led her inside.

“It isn’t much, but it will do until we can find a place in town.”

“Are you hungry, honey?” John asked as he led Nell to the table and pulled out a chair for her.

“I could eat,” she responded, her voice still choked with tears.

“There isn’t much here, but I can always call downstairs for whatever you would like and have it brought up.”

“How ’bout some ice cream?” she asked.

She still loved ice cream, and she always wanted some after her feelings had been hurt by a boy at school, or if she had a fight with a friend, and had even once eaten almost an entire half gallon by herself when her pet goldfish, Goldy, had died and she had caught her mother about to flush the unfortunate creature down the toilet.

“Sure,” he said, removing the carton of chocolate-covered cherries ice cream from the small freezer.

“Want some whipped cream with that?” he asked, removing the can of spray whipped topping from the door of the fridge.

She nodded.

Taking a spoon out of the drawer he opened the carton, jabbed the spoon in and handed the entire thing to her.

He sprayed a mountain of whipped cream onto the top of the ice cream in the carton then went back to the fridge and opened the door.

After a seconds hesitation he closed the door again, and set the can of whipped cream next to the carton of ice cream.

He knelt down beside her and pointed to the door across the room.

“That will be your room. When you get done wash up and get on to bed. It has its own bathroom, so you won’t have to share one with me.”

He smiled, straining against his mood to hold it while he spoke.

“Things will be strange for awhile, but we will make it.”

He hugged her and she hugged him back, her mouth full of ice cream, and the spoon dripping both ice cream and whipped topping down the back of his shirt, but he ignored it.

“I promise.”

He pulled away and stood.

“I’m going to take a shower. If you get scared or you need something just knock.”

He looked down at her questioningly.

“Alright?”

She nodded and scooped another huge spoonful of ice cream into her already overstuffed mouth.

* * * * *

John took a hot shower then dressed, and though his aches and pains felt much improved, his nerves were on edge; a strange feeling settling over him like a shroud.

The little apartment was quiet when he came out of the bathroom, the empty carton of ice cream sitting on the table, the spoon next to it, and the can of whipped cream sitting on its side near to where he had left it.

The strange feeling magnified.

He rushed to the door of the bedroom and opened it slightly to peek through the crack.

Nell lay on the bed, the covers tucked around her, her face hidden under one bent arm.

He closed the door gently, sighing with relief, then went to the couch and began searching for the remote, the strange feeling now subsiding but not completely gone.

After a moment of fruitless searching he looked up and saw that the remote had been left on top of the cabinet.

He got up and retrieved it, but thought for a moment that putting the remote that close to the TV was pointless since the whole purpose of the remote was so you didn’t have to get up.

He pushed the power button, and the television made a small popping sound as the power kicked in and the picture began to light up the screen.

For just a moment he could see a picture filling the screen behind the remaining blackness, but he couldn’t make out who the photo might be, then before the black could fade away enough for him to make out the picture it was replaced with a picture of a large sign reading, “The Dallas-Fort Worth Psychiatric Institute for the Mentally Disturbed.”

He sat forward, suddenly recognizing the name, and turned up the sound slightly so he could better hear the anchor talking in the background.

“Three prisoners escaped from the Institute this morning after a guard, identified as Kate Benigan, 32, entered the ward where the three women were being held…”

He stopped listening as understanding dropped down on him like a half-ton weight.

The feeling he had been having since he got out of the shower came back, but now it was accompanied by a splinter of fear sinking deep into his gut.

He rushed to the bedroom where he had peeked in to see Nell sleeping soundly, the smell of Jane’s perfume becoming stronger with each step he took towards the door.

The smells of shampoo and soap had covered it before. The scent was light and fruity, much like that of his favorite shampoos, but now he could almost feel its presence in the air as he flung the door open, no longer worried about waking Nell, and tore the covers off the bed to reveal the rubber sex doll, its partially deflated body posed to look like a sleeping child, its rubber arm bent up to cover its gaping horrible hole of a mouth.

Seemingly without thought he hurried from the room, and turning left he pushed through the door at the end of the hall marked DO NOT USE, EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY, in large red letters on the door, and in smaller more polite looking letters on the unlocking bar was printed, Warning Alarm Will Sound.

The alarm blared out as he pushed through the door and into the dimly lit street.

People turned to look in his direction, but he paid no attention, just ran around to the front of the building where the baggage carts stood.

A Toyota Corolla was the only car parked at the curb, the trunk open; a man standing behind the car with two bags in his hands staring at John as he brushed past heading for the driver’s door.

The man dropped the two bags and raised his right hand to point at John, waggling his finger impotently.

John dropped into the driver’s seat with a plop and slammed the already running car into drive.

The front wheels spun for a moment sending billows of white smoke from the tires, then caught, the car jerking into motion, its front swerving back and forth as he raced away from the hotel in the direction of the house he had so wanted to leave behind.

Of course she would take Nell to the house, there wasn’t much logic to this he knew, but somehow he knew it was true, she would take Nell to the house and would do something to her.

She might not kill her, but as most people knew, there were worse things than death.

He drove without being reckless, trying to avoid the time delay of being pulled over for speeding or reckless driving.

Once he was out of the most populated section of the city however, he floored the accelerator and the little Toyota’s engine whined almost pitifully as the odometer needle jumped to around ninety and hovered there.

It was dangerous to go so fast along the dark country road, a twisting one lane blacktop that ran west through the swamps and bayous, but the faster his heart beat the more his foot seemed to want to press down on the accelerator.

The house he and Jane had shared for most of the years of their marriage was an old plantation house built sometime after the Civil War, though he wasn’t sure of the date since he had never really been interested in the history.

At some point most of the land around the large house had been sold off to other farms or was given to children and grandchildren of the original owners, and by the twentieth century a small town had sprung up around the place.

Witchinia was what the locals had named the town, though in truth there wasn’t all that much to name, just a small filling station, a pool hall and bar, and one stoplight which stood at the corner between Evans and Albertson Streets and blinked yellow most of the time.

He had only been driving for ten minutes when the car began to decelerate rapidly, not screeching to a halt, but seeming to lose power.

He raised one hand and looked down at the panel of electronic instruments behind the steering wheel and saw that the gas gauge read zero miles.

That’s a new feature, he thought with a touch of irony and cursed himself for a fool.

He had just passed a small gas station a couple of miles back, but it had been closed, and he had not thought to check how much gas was in his stolen ride.

He cursed again and banged his left hand on the steering wheel while using his right to guide the car to a slow stop on what passed for the shoulder but was really just a few inches off the road and as close to leaving the embankment as he ever wanted to get.

He looked in the rearview mirror to see if the gas station was still within sight, but found his view blocked by the raised trunk. Hope surged through him for a moment as he flung the door open and stepped out, his sneakers crunching the small bits of loose gravel dotting the road.

He knew that many people carried a gas can on long car trips just in case.

He rounded to the back of the car and peered in the trunk but found no can lying there in red aluminum splendor as he had hoped.

Instead he saw the staring eyes of his wife, unchanged, nothing about her was any more or less than human now, but she was dead, her mouth twisted in a half grimace, half scream, showing her jagged and broken teeth.

The eyes were glazed, and the murder weapon, what appeared to be a normal everyday claw hammer, was still buried in her skull. Her right hand still grasped the handle of the hammer, and a clear mental picture of Jane smashing out her own teeth with the thing flashed through his mind.

The form of his dead wife sat up, her glazed eyes turning to look at him, his hand rose to cover his mouth, the expression there feeling like a grin beneath his fingers.

The apparition raised its mangled and broken left hand, the fingers twisted unnaturally as if someone had repeatedly smashed it with the claw hammer.

Her wedding ring, crushed and buried into the flesh was just visible as she pointed the nub of one twisted finger in the direction he had come.

She spoke silently, her lips forming out words that they did not seem able to speak, but John could understand them anyway.

“Go back. She is mine now. You are already too late.”

He backed away in horror, the blood seeming to rush into his head with a roaring sound he could hear in his ears and feel in the back of his eyes.

His sneaker scuffed the ground harder than he had expected and he fell, his arms pinwheeling as he tried, too late, to recover his balance.

He heard the crack as his head hit the pavement, but did not feel any pain, only saw many pinpoints of light form in his vision, and the floating image of his wife’s face above him, almost transparent in the moonlight, her mouth now twisted into a horrible sneering smile.

Then the darkness closed in.

 

3.

John woke to the sound of running water, his head pounding like a hammer on an anvil, the spray of water cold on his naked back. He rolled over and raised himself to his knees in front of the toilet.

A shadow of memory flitted in his head for a moment, then was gone, something insubstantial and odd, but after a bump like that, he could feel a throbbing on the back of his head that he knew would be a large purple knot before long. You couldn’t expect all your mental faculties to be working perfectly right away, he thought.

He took a washrag from the rack next to the toilet and, pressing it to his head, he got to his feet a little unsteadily and got dressed.

He opened the bathroom door, intending to get some ice on the back of his head before the knot got too large, and stopped, his nerves firing up and making him want to jitter.

The carton of ice cream he had given Nell sat empty on the table, the spoon on the floor beneath the chair, and the can of whipped cream turned on its side near where he had left it.

A strange feeling came over him, and though he could not identify its cause, he looked from the table to the bedroom door, which stood slightly ajar.

He walked quickly across to the door and pushed it open just a little more, enough for him to look at the bed inside.

Nell lay on the bed, the covers tucked around her, her face hidden under one bent arm.

He closed the door gently, sighing with relief, then went to the couch and began searching for the remote, the strange feeling now subsiding but not completely gone.

Looking up after a moment of fruitless searching, he saw that the remote had been left on top of the cabinet.

He got up and retrieved it, but thought for a moment that putting the remote that close to the TV was pointless since the whole purpose of the remote was so you didn’t have to get up.

A thought so powerful and disturbing that he could not ignore it went through his mind.

This has happened before! You have done this before!

He sat forward, his mind suddenly on alert, and the first thing he noticed was the light fruity scent of Jane’s favorite perfume lingering in the air.

 

4.

Jane stood at the bedside, the doctor beside her holding a clipboard, his frazzled red hair standing on end, giving him the look of a mad scientist.

“Your husband suffered a severe rupture of blood vessels in the brain during the psychotic episode and he has shown no brain activity since.”

The doctor ran one hand through his tousled hair before continuing.

“He is living without the help of machines, but it is not likely that he will ever recover from his condition.”

She took the clipboard without him first offering it and flipped back the first few pages.

“What are these again?”

“They are just legal forms concerning your understanding that your husband’s condition is not the fault of this hospital or any of its personnel.”

Jane nodded and took the pen from the doctor when he held it out for her. She signed each of the forms then gave the clipboard and pen back to the doctor.

“I can’t afford to pay for long-term treatment or hospitalization,” Jane said.

The doctor took the chart from the end of the bed and flipped through it to the insurance information page, then shrugged.

“The health insurance will cover it for a short time, after that he becomes a ward of the state and will be transferred to a state mental facility.”

She nodded.

“Doctor, could I have a few minutes alone with him just to say goodbye?”

The doctor looked from Jane to John then back, nodded, and left the room, the clipboard tucked under one arm, leaving Jane standing at the side of John’s bed, her hand slightly touching his, her red painted nails looking like blood against his pale skin.

She waited until the doctor’s footsteps had disappeared, then turned to the head of the bed and smiled, her pupils becoming vertical slits, and her face seeming to drain of color and elongate, the nose melting away, leaving only smooth reptilian features.

“Pleasant dreams, John,” she said, then turned to leave.

“You will be having them for a very long time.”

She left his room smiling, her face now just like any other person’s.

In his bed, John did not move, and but for a single tear running from the corner of his eye, he might have been taken for a corpse.