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

 

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