Escaping Assemblies

by Allen Coyle

 

It was an agreeable but not quite pleasant Friday morning. Sure, the air was clear, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, but it was also a school day. That fact drained the cheer out of everything.

Sean Kimble pedaled up to the bike rack in front of the high school and dismounted. He was dressed in his typical jeans with a white T-shirt and a plaid shirt over that. He never paid close scrutiny to his wardrobe; usually whatever was hanging in the closet sufficed. Fashion and clothing weren’t items high on his list of interests.

After chaining his bike to the metal rack, Sean heaved his backpack onto his shoulders and meandered into the front doors of the school. As usual, the foyer was filled with milling students waiting for the morning bell to ring.

Sean was immediately confronted by a big guy he knew was in his class but whose name escaped him at the moment.

“Hey dude, where the hell’s your school colors?” he demanded, a rather acerbic greeting in Sean’s view.

“Excuse me?” Sean asked.

The kid motioned to Sean’s clothes. “You ain’t dressed in blue and yellow. It’s Spirit Day. Everybody is supposed to be wearing the school colors.”

“School colors?” Sean was confused by this foreign concept.

“You want us to get docked for spirit points, you little sorry sack of shit?” the kid growled. “People like you make me sick. You screw it up for everyone else.”

He thankfully took his leave without beating Sean to a bloody mess. Sean stood there, puzzled over what had just happened.

One of Sean’s few friends, a young man named Cody Swimfarr, ambled by at that moment, having witnessed the confrontation. Being a friend of Sean’s, they shared many similar views, among them being the notion that school and anything that had to do with it sucked. Cody apparently was in the dark on these mysterious “school colors” as well, for he was dressed in tan slacks and a button-up shirt.

“What the hell just happened?” Sean asked, looking down at his clothes. He gave his friend a look of bewilderment. “Yellow and blue? School colors? Are those things I should be familiar with?”

Cody was a guy of medium height with short, blond hair and a mature baby face, whatever that was. That mature baby face right now was giving Sean a look of sympathy.

“We should have phoned in sick this morning,” he replied. “I didn’t know today was Spirit Day.”

The two started meandering down the hall to their first class. The bell was only minutes from ringing.

“What’s Spirit Day?” Sean asked.

“Today,” Cody answered. He sighed and looked down at his feet while we walked. “Today is when all the students dress up in school colors and, well, I guess show spirit to the school. Representatives from the student council come by during homeroom and survey how many students from each class actually wore blue and yellow clothing. The class with the most participants, ratio-wise, wins the spirit stick.”

“The spirit stick?” Sean felt like Rip Van Winkle who had awakened to a world totally alien from his own.

“The spirit stick,” Cody explained, “is essentially just that: a stick painted blue and yellow that is presented to the winning class during the spirit assembly.”

“Assembly?” Sean stopped in his tracks and turned to his friend. “There’s an assembly today?”

“One of those two hour ones,” Cody answered. He shuddered. “You know how it’s going to be, too. Lots of loud music. Screaming kids. Stomping feet. The class who cheers the loudest also wins spirit points. A guy could lose half his hearing going to one of those.”

“I vowed I was never going to another one after the last time,” Sean said. They had reached the entrance to the classroom and now both stood stationed by the doorway. “We got to get out of it, man. I hate those things. We’re going to stand out like sore thumbs in our nonconformist clothing.”

“No shit we got to get out of it,” Cody said. He motioned for Sean to come closer. He lowered his voice, not that it made any difference in the hall filled with boisterous students surging with adrenaline for Spirit Day. “We got to hatch an escape plan, dude. And something that will work. Not like the last time where they caught us.”

Sean grimaced at the memory. During the last assembly, though it hadn’t had anything to do with school spirit, they had tried to ditch by running out to the parking lot and hiding. They were captured before they even got to the front doors and accompanied to the gymnasium, where they were watched over for the entire thing.

“We’ll think of something,” Sean promised. “I’m definitely not going to another one of those assemblies. They can take the spirit stick and shove it up their ass.”

“The thing starts after fifth period,” Cody said. “The period right after lunch. They designed it that way so we couldn’t simply leave at lunch and not come back. There’s no way we can ditch class. With the computerized attendance, we’d be marked down truant for sure. But if we attend class and ditch right afterwards before the assembly, nobody would have no know a thing.” He grimaced. “Unless we get caught again, of course.”

“Not going to happen,” Sean said. The bell rang then, and the two of them waltzed into the classroom. “We’re going to do it this time, bud. The Great Assembly Escape will be a success.”

“Where’s your school colors, dick heads?” the teacher asked Sean and Cody, giving the boys a nasty look as they wearily took their seats. “Yeah, you better sit down, you little punk pieces of shit. You better have your homework ready to turn in, too.”

Homeroom was right before lunch, so right before lunch, Sean naturally found himself seated in homeroom. He kept his head down and buried in a book, performing his magic of remaining inconspicuous. Never being noticed had its advantages.

Cody was stuck in a different homeroom, so planning had to wait until lunch. There were a variety of options running through Sean’s head on how to ditch the assembly. Successful escapes from Anderson High assemblies were rare and certainly weren’t noted in history books. Although ditching school was always frowned upon, escaping assemblies was considered especially traitorous by the administration. It indicated a student’s unwillingness to conform to mediocrity and participate with his peers. The intent of the school was to indoctrinate students into becoming mindless masses of uniform groups so as to better prepare them for society. Educating young minds with knowledge was a secondary priority.

The intent of homeroom was to provide students with a quiet period for study, though it was rarely that. More often it was seen as a time to goof off, converse on daily trivialities and anticipate the upcoming lunch period. Sean buried himself in his novel, a classic titled 1984. He had read it once a long time ago and was now refreshing himself on it. He often felt he could identify with Winston, the oppressed main character trying to survive in a world governed by Big Brother. The book acted almost as Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and concealed Sean from the rest of the populous as he buried himself within its pages.

Mr. Braun, Sean’s homeroom teacher, was a small and timid man who had long ago given up trying to govern rowdy teenaged high school students. As always, he was stationed at the computer on his desk, pretending to be consumed in some important task when in reality he was merely surfing the internet. He never spoke to the class or administered discipline. Sean had the impression that Mr. Braun wasn’t too enthusiastic about assemblies or school spirit. As a member of the faculty, however, the teacher was most likely forbidden to voice his views on the subject. Such sentiments could pollute young, susceptible minds.

Isolated in his own world apart from the environment of rowdy teens, Sean hardly noticed as the classroom door swung open, allowing in a handful of pretentious-looking students. They were representatives from the student council, elected primarily on the basis of popularity. One, looking highly distinguished, carried in his hand a clipboard and pencil. He was Greg Thomas, the senior class president. The clipboard was his instrument of choice for tallying those dressed in the school colors of yellow and blue. An awed hush fell over the class as the prominent group entered.

“Everyone wearing yellow and blue stand up,” Greg ordered. His voice carried a tone of authority. Even Mr. Braun looked impressed, though he was easily subjugated by more ambitious leaders. The entire class stood like a proud troop called to attention. Sean stared at the pages of his book, not reading a single word. All eyes immediately fell upon him. The invisibility cloak’s magic had run its course.

“What the hell?” a male voice bellowed. Sean’s ears turned red.

Greg sauntered forward with a casual air of dignity and stopped at the first row of desks. He pointed his pencil at Sean. “You. What’s your name?”

Sean feigned ignorance.

“He asked you a question, you bitch-loving bootlicker.” The voice belonged to Devon Childs, the senior class secretary, part of Mr. Thomas’s entourage. He was known to have his way when he really wanted it. “You better answer when you’re addressed, dumb shit.”

“There’s no need for that language,” Mr. Braun weakly admonished.

“Shut the hell up!” Greg snapped, his eyes intense. Mr. Braun bowed his head. Greg turned back to Sean, who was wishing he could fall through the floor right now and be swallowed up into a black hole. “I asked you a question. What’s your name?”

Somehow, Sean was able to pull himself away from the comforting pages of the novel. How he wanted to be absorbed in the artificial world of imagination it provided. “What do you want to know my name for?” His voice sounded like a squeak.

Devon Childs looked like he wanted to extract a pistol from his coat and blow Sean’s brains across the classroom floor. He quickly moved forward but was halted by Greg, who held the position of command. Devon stopped.

“I know who you are,” Greg said, glancing around at all the other students eagerly watching the confrontation. The respect he held was admirable. “You’re one of them goddamn nerds polluting this student body society. Sean, right?”

Sean didn’t answer. His heart was pounding against his chest, but he remained seated with his back straight. He couldn’t appear a coward.

Greg nodded. “That’s right. Sean Kimble. I’ve seen you around. You’re one of those punks who thinks he’s too good for this school. A nonconformist, to sum it up.” He turned to the rest of the class. “We have a nonconformist among us, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Shithead Sean!” an anonymous voice called. It was a name that dated back to the first grade.

“I’m not sure I understand the implications of your address,” Sean said. His voice was timid but unwavering.

“I think you do.” Greg moved down the row until he approached Sean’s desk. He looked down with an air of superiority. “Where’s your blue and yellow?”

“I forgot it,” Sean answered.

“Unlikely,” Greg said. “Spirit Day and its comprising ingredients were posted well in advance. You had ample opportunity to observe today’s specified dress code.”

“Is this a tyranny?” Sean asked. He felt some courage bubbling up inside him. “Are you and your administrators now mandating what I may and may not wear during my daily undertaking of public education?”

Greg placed a flat palm on Sean’s desk. “Our aim is to win the spirit stick. Your ignorance to our established guidelines may prove dire during the judgment among the classes.”

“I have no need to be categorized as a member of any class,” Sean said. “Exempt me on the grounds of independent thinking.”

“You are a member of this class, Sean, whether the choice was yours or not. And as a member, you have an obligation to advance the status of this class in any endeavor we select.” Greg was starting to lose his patience.

“So my not adhering to your dress policy somehow engenders adverse results for the placement of the senior class?” Sean asked. His tone was one of sarcasm.

“Damn you, Sean Kimble—”

“No, damn you!” Sean jumped out of his seat in a sudden burst of anger, causing Mr. Greg Thomas to stumble back in surprise. “My attendance in this school is mandatory! I am compelled to be here every day against my will. My only concern is that I receive a solid education to prepare me for the future. Assemblies, spirit sticks, teenage culture and school pride are not worthy of my exertions!”

The class was silent. Nobody ever expected a nerd to stand up for himself and his beliefs. Even Greg and Devon looked surprised.

Greg was quick to recover his composure, however. “So you want us to lose, don’t you Sean? You didn’t simply forget to wear the school colors. I submit that you had full knowledge that today was spirit day. Instead of choosing to simply cooperate and save everyone a lot of heartache, you decided to rebel and somehow prove yourself as an individual.”

“That’s a lie,” Sean hissed, settling back down in his seat. The blood was pumping like mad through his body now. “I truthfully had no clue that today was spirit day. But had I known, I still wouldn’t have worn the school colors. You’d be right on that fact. I am an individual and don’t consider myself one among many.”

Greg stepped back to the front of the class and considered his clipboard. Everybody waited in angst to see what he would do.

“Only you and one other student chose not to wear yellow and blue today,” he observed, tapping on the clipboard with his pencil. “A Mr. Cody Swimfarr in Mrs. Banefin’s homeroom is also on my list of offenders.” His eyes narrowed at Sean. “Two students out of a hundred and eight chose not to wear school colors. Do you have any idea what this is going to do to the senior class, Sean?”

“Do I care?” Sean asked.

“The juniors, sophomores and especially the freshmen are noted for their zeal to advance the status of their respective classes. We’ve been lagging behind this year in our efforts to display school spirit. Our estimate was that a hundred percent turnout of seniors dressed would be imperative if we had any hope to win.” The grimace grew worse. “Because of you and Mr. Swimfarr, we’ll be lacking in this category. We’ll have to shout extra loud, stomp extra hard and perform exceptionally well in the talent show during the assembly if we hope to regain our footing.”

“I agreed to no contract, written or oral, that bound me to the whims of the senior class student government,” Sean said. “I refuse to feel guilty for supposedly ruining your chances of winning.”

“You don’t have to feel guilty, Sean,” Greg said. He looked around once again at the rest of the class. “You should probably feel more afraid than anything. Our class, who of late has been trying so hard to win the celebrated spirit stick, will have you and Cody to thank if we lose it once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if resentment ensues.”

“I will not have students intimidated in my classroom!” Mr. Braun announced, startling everybody. The timid teacher had suddenly come back to life. He pointed at Greg and his group of student administrators. “You are not welcome in this class. I suggest you pack up and leave.”

Greg, looking unfazed, turned to give Devon a nod. Devon understood the message and silently approached Mr. Braun’s desk.

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” Mr. Braun voiced. “Get out of my class!”

With one swift movement, Devon sent a left jab into Mr. Braun’s jaw. He quickly followed it with right punch in the eye, sending the helpless teacher falling to the floor. As Mr. Braun was unable to quickly get to his feet, Devon kicked him several times in the stomach, once in the groin and twice in the head. The teacher lay in agony, moaning softly. Devon approached his master and leader, the renowned Greg Thomas.

Greg motioned for his followers to take their leave. As they departed, he pointed a warning finger at Sean.

“If we lose the spirit stick, you won’t have to worry about getting punished like him,” he said, nodding to the subdued teacher. His last words were chilling: “You’ll be dead.”

When the lunch bell rang, Sean dashed to the “C” building, which was an entity by itself apart from the main school. It was rarely populated with either teachers or students during lunch. Sean and Cody chose its corridors over the cafeteria as a place to eat. It was just one more way they could keep their distance from the rest of the school.

Sean had lost his appetite after homeroom. He settled into the secret corner by the technology classroom and waited for his friend Cody. The smell of fried school food preceded his comrade.

“Hey dude!” Cody said, hunkering down with his paper tray of chicken tenders and fries. He gave Sean a curious look. “You’re not eating today?”

“I don’t have the stomach for it,” Sean said. He looked at the greasy food and reconsidered. “Well, I might have a few fries. And maybe a chicken tender if you’re not opposed to it.”

“Community food,” Cody declared, setting the tray between them. Sean grabbed some of the edibles (well, if you could call them that), and shoved the food in his mouth.

“So, we got to come up with a plan, man,” Cody said, wiping grease off his mouth with his shirt sleeve. “Everyone in homeroom had their head up their ass because I didn’t dress out.”

“Same here,” Sean said. “We absolutely have to get out of this assembly. Whatever we must do, whatever it takes, it’ll be worth it. I’d just as soon get my brains bashed in than go.”

“I’ve been doing some thinking,” Cody said. “Now, you and I both have Mrs. Wilson’s Literature Study course fifth period. This is convenient so we won’t have to meet up somewhere; we can both just take off together. The class will last only fifteen minutes due to the assembly. Basically, we have to show up there so our names appear on the attendance record. After class, we’re free to ditch.”

“That much is obvious,” Sean pointed out.

“Well, wait a minute. I’ve done more thinking than that. Now, I have a car here and you have your bicycle. Our primary concern should be to make it to my car so we can make a speedy departure. The bicycle rack is located right next to the principal’s office window, and if you dick around trying to unchain it, you’ll be seen for sure. I would suggest you just leave it here overnight and collect it Saturday morning.”

“Okay.” Sean nodded.

“Getting to my car will be the difficult part. We’ll have to duck and dodge through the parking lot so no one in the school will be able to see us.”

“One problem,” Sean said. “Even if we do get to your car, there sure as shit is going to be a teacher guarding the only entrance gate. Say we do make it to your car undetected. How do we get out?”

“In that instance, we simply wait until the teacher leaves,” Cody reasoned. “There’s no way they’d stand guard for the full two hours of the assembly. At the most, I’d give them a half hour before they get bored and leave. At that moment, we’ll fire up the engine and zoom to freedom.”

Sean shook his head. “It sounds like a clusterfuck to me. First we have to get out of the building undetected. Then we have to maneuver through the parking lot undetected. Then we have to wait in your car undetected. There’s too many opportunities to get caught.”

“But those are the risks we’re running,” Cody said. “I never suggested it would be easy.”

“I never counted on it being easy. I counted on it being possible.”

“It will be possible,” Cody argued. He gave his friend a look. “You don’t like the plan?”

“It’s a mess,” Sean said. “You know they’re going to have someone posted by the front doors to search for people like us. Getting to your car seems like the least possible component of this plan. Also, do you expect us to be able to waltz out the front doors when fifth period is over? There’s going to be a huge procession going to the gym. Somebody would see us—if not a teacher then a student snitch. I don’t know man, I just don’t know. I think we’ll get caught for sure.”

“Then how about this,” Cody said. “We don’t leave when there’s a mess of people. We wait it out until the crowd clears and most everybody is secured in the gym. We’ll have free reign to leave then.”

“What are you saying?”

“The men’s room is located two doors down from Mrs. Wilson’s class. When the final bell rings, we leave with the rest of the class, head down the hall toward the gym, and innocently make a pit stop at the rest room. We conceal ourselves in separate stalls, lock the door, stand on the toilet and wait until the crowd clears. Once the halls are empty, we’ll have a better chance to flee the building without being sighted by a casual observer.”

“Hey,” Sean said, nodding. He gave his friend an affirming look. “That might work.”

“Granted, there could be some difficulties. There may be janitors roaming the halls. A teacher might have forgotten something in her room and return just in time to catch us. They may have all the doors sealed with guards. But at least our chances will be better than trying to leave amongst the crowds.”

“No, I agree,” Sean said. “That definitely makes sense. Most everyone, teachers included, is going to want to attend the assembly. I doubt there’d be that much defense against escaping students.”

“It’s worth a try in any event,” Cody said. “And if we fail, we’ll simply ask to be detained in the office. As long as we don’t have to set foot in that clangorous gymnasium, I’ll be content.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Sean said. He gave his friend a look. “Do you think we have a chance?”

Cody grinned. “I think Frank Morris said the same thing when he and the Anglin brothers were planning to escape Alcatraz. They got away with it.”

“You don’t know that,” Sean said. “They might have drowned.”

“But in either case, they got away, didn’t they? From Alcatraz, I mean.”

Sean looked thoughtful for a moment and then snickered. “I guess you’re right.”

They finished the chicken tenders and fries, their synapses firing with the intricate plans only plotting men can devise.

Mrs. Wilson’s fifth period literature study course convened approximately when the late bell rang. Latecomers always ambled in after class started.

The old lady stepped to the front of her class looking as corpselike as ever. Her hair was frazzled and her eyes sagging.

“Please take out your textbooks and turn to page 357,” she said. “We’ll quickly go over a short Vonnegut story and start up again with public speaking next week when we once again have a full period.”

Groans.

“C’mon, Mrs. Wilson!” a girl named Nancy pleaded. “We have only fifteen minutes before the assembly. Can’t we just take it easy?”

“It is never a virtue to waste valuable time,” Mrs. Wilson admonished. “A lot can be accomplished in fifteen minutes. An industrious person will always try to occupy every minute of time so that they may live more productive and rewarding lives. Indolence has never been an attribute of a successful student.”

Everybody groaned. They had all heard the speech before.

Sean and Cody were seated next to each other in the back row, conspicuous in the class full of students dressed in yellow and blue. Nobody paid them any attention, and for this they were grateful. Their names had been taken for attendance. Now all they had to do was wait. The tension was almost palpable.

Fifteen minutes could get to seem like a long time under Mrs. Wilson’s instruction, and that added with Sean and Cody’s anxiety made the abbreviated period stretch on forever. Finally, when there was but a single minute until the assembly was set to start, the students starting packing their bags and chattering amongst themselves, anticipating the fun that lay ahead.

Sean zipped up his possessions into his backpack and gave Cody a nod. Both were trembling. If they succeeded this time, it would prove that escaping assemblies was indeed possible.

When Mrs. Wilson finally realized that nobody was paying attention to her, she finally relented and sauntered back to her desk in defeat. All eyes watched the clock.

When the early bell rang, the class was quick to jump up and swim toward the door. Sean and Cody eyed each other. Cody extended a fist, and Sean bumped it with his own.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

They filtered into the hallway amid a swarm of students. Everyone was chatting away mindlessly, eager for the assembly that lay ahead. Sean and Cody ducked into the men’s room a few doors down, quite unnoticed by the rest of the population. Each found his own stall and locked himself in it where they could be hidden until it was safe to venture back into the corridor.

“Oh shit,” Sean grumbled.

“What?” Cody asked from his stall.

“I meant that literally. There’s shit everywhere. Somebody used the toilet seat to wipe his ass.”

“You can’t worry about that right now,” Cody hissed. “Just stand on the toilet so your feet can’t be seen under the stall.”

Sean made a face. “This sucks. I just bought these shoes.”

“Dammit Sean, quit talking. Somebody’s bound to come in and hear us.”

With a sickened expression, Sean gingerly placed a foot upon the soiled toilet and followed it with the other. He hunkered over the bowl and tried not to touch anything with his hands. The smell in the room was making him want to puke.

“So how long do we wait?” he asked, speaking at the stall wall.

“I’d give it a good fifteen minutes,” Cody replied. “That’s just enough time for everyone to get settled into the assembly and for the janitors to make their rounds. I think we’re good for go after that.”

“Fifteen minutes, okay,” Sean said. He pressed a button on his watch. “I’ll time us.”

“Right.”

The two boys kept silent, the steady hum of the air filtration system filling the room. It did little to alleviate the stench. After five minutes, Sean’s legs had grown numb, but he grimaced and kept himself hunkered.

Six minutes. Seven. No sign of anyone or anything. Eight minutes. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Sean was sure that by now there was a permanent blood clot in his legs. Twelve. Thirteen.

The bathroom door creaked open. Sean and Cody instinctively went still. Their breathing was shallow and silent. Sean could feel his heartbeat pulsating in his head.

A heavy pair of footsteps entered the room. It could only be one of the custodians. They typically wore work boots to school. A few loud steps were taken, and then the clodhoppers were silent.

Sean could just sense a presence outside the stall bowing down to look for feet. The muscles in his legs were shaking by now and he was sure he was going to collapse if he didn’t relieve them soon. He bit his lower lip and prayed the man would leave.

The heavy feet approached the stalls. Sean could hear deep, wheezy breathing. The small gap between the stall door and wall was suddenly blocked. The janitor was standing right in front of the door.

“Smells like shit in here,” a gruff voice mumbled. “Damn kids don’t know how to flush.”

Man, please don’t let him try the door, Sean silently prayed. If the custodian found out the door was locked, he would know somebody was hiding inside. The escape would be over.

The figure moved to Cody’s door. Sean could almost feel the tension emanating from his friend. For some reason, the man didn’t bother himself with trying to swing the doors open to check for occupants. Instead, he moved away from the stalls. Sean held his breath and desperately wished the man would leave. His legs were shaking like crazy by now.

A zipper was heard, and then the watery sound of a stream of piss gushing into a urinal filled the room. Sean felt beads of sweat trickling down his cheeks.

“Ah!” the man moaned in pleasure. “Oh, man.” The stream became even more intense. “Whoa.”

“God, no,” Sean whispered. His legs were shaking like they were being electrocuted. He tried to shift his weight, but to no avail.

The cataract of piss continued for eternity. Finally, the discharge grew weaker and weaker until it was reduced to drops. A huge sigh of relief was heard, followed once again by the sound of the zipper.

God, just go! Sean wanted to scream. His legs were going to have to be amputated after this.

“Sector four-ten: clear!” the gruff male voice announced. Sean and Cody both jumped but otherwise maintained their positions. The decree had been most unexpected.

“Ten-four,” a similar voice replied. The custodian was using a walkie-talkie.

The footsteps trudged away from the stalls. The bathroom door creaked open and swung shut, and all was silent once again.

Sean and Cody’s individual sighs of relief were audible.

“Damn!” Sean cried, immediately jumping off the toilet. His legs felt like useless, solid stumps. Pins and needles quickly ensued.

“I thought he was going to check the doors for sure,” Cody said through the wall. “God was with us. I was praying the whole time.”

“Me too.” Sean examined his shoes for any traces of human feces. What he found he rubbed against the floor. “Is it safe to come out?”

“I think so. One sweep is usually sufficient. If he comes back, it probably won’t be for awhile.”

Cody and Sean exited their respective stalls and moved over toward the sinks. Both had clammy skin and were feeling anxious.

“That was just phase one, you know,” Cody told his friend. He turned on one of the sinks and splashed cold water on his face. “The most dangerous part is yet to come.”

“Thanks for reminding me,” Sean said. He didn’t want to think about the mad dash they would have to make to the parking lot. This was much worse than he had originally anticipated.

“I say we give the janitors at least five more minutes to make their rounds before we make our move,” Cody said. “They still have to look in all the classrooms to ensure they’re devoid of hiding students. Then they’ll probably stroll around the outside perimeter, although I’m not entirely certain of that.”

“How do you know so much about the mechanisms of this school?” Sean wanted to know.

“I do a lot of watching, my friend,” Cody said. “Watching and listening both. This institution has particular patterns underneath its initial layer of chaos. If you observe closely, you can find the patterns and exploit them for your own personal benefit.”

“You’re even more hardcore than I am,” Sean admitted. “I mean that as a compliment, of course.”

Cody grinned. “I wouldn’t take it any other way.”

Five minutes were spent sweating it out before the two fugitives dared to make their move. Both stood with an ear pressed to the door, listening for approaching footsteps or distant voices. Neither was heard. Cautiously, Cody creaked open the door to take a quick peek into the corridor.

“See anyone?” Sean hissed.

Cody closed the door and turned to his comrade. “Not a soul. The place is dead.”

“Are you absolutely certain? There could be someone posted at the end of the hall.”

Cody shook his head. “I would have seen them. I think we’re good for go.”

“Well, we know we can’t take the front doors,” Sean reasoned. “We’d be strolling right in front of the office.”

“No shit, Sherlock. We’ll take the rear entrance at the other end of the hall. That leads to the teachers’ parking lot. We’ll still have to pass along the front of the school to get to my car, but if we duck behind the front bushes, we should be okay.”

“Unless there’s a guard outside,” Sean said.

“If I had been smart, I would have just parked my car in the teachers’ lot this morning. They rarely check anyway. Then we’d have a clear shot.”

“Well, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it,” Sean said. “I’ve had about enough of this stinking bathroom.”

The door was creaked open once more, and two heads poked their way out to survey for teachers or custodians. No one. The hall was clear.

“Should we run for it?” Sean asked.

“It might make too much noise,” Cody answered. “I think we should maybe just walk fast.”

“Whatever you say, man. It’s your show.”

“Let’s go.” Quickly and silently, both boys shot out the bathroom and skittered down the length of the empty hall. They passed darkened classrooms with locked doors and rows of dingy lockers. Glances over the shoulder were necessary to ensure they had not been spotted or were being followed.

The rear entrance doors were in near sight. At the last ten yards or so, Sean and Cody both forgot about walking fast and practically bolted for the exit. Freedom was nearly in their grasp.

They made it. The two of them hastened outdoors and immediately concealed themselves behind a supporting pillar. They were in the teachers’ parking lot now. The exit gate could easily be observed.

“Shit,” they uttered in unison. There, standing erect like a proud solider, was Mr. Leonard, blocking the only way out with his massive physical disposition. He was the sadistic and ruthless disciplinary teacher who watched over detention sessions and the in-school suspension program. He was not a man to be messed with. There were rumors that Mr. Leonard was responsible for a few graveyard burials of especially abominable students, and nobody had ever entirely discredited these ghastly accounts. It was very true that some kids had entered the in-school suspension program and were never seen on campus again. Some just generally assumed that they had moved away, but still, it was just weird. In any event, it was agreed that Mr. Leonard was a little unsound in the mind. Students sent to him for discipline (at least those who returned) often made public vows never to do wrong again (or at least get caught). These individuals never expressed exactly why they were renouncing their criminal behavior, but clear mental scars were typically evident in their perturbed behavior. If Mr. Leonard did one thing right, he instilled fear. His mere presence was often a cause for panic.

Sean and Cody knew this well. They also knew if they were spotted by the infamous disciplinarian, their asses would be grass for sure. In-school suspension was considered the equivalent of “the hole” in prison. You didn’t even want to go there.

They looked at each other. Panic was written in bold print in their eyes.

“Son of a bitch,” Cody hissed. He kept his back pressed firmly to the column and dared not even to poke his head around. His lips were trembling. “We’re never going to make it to my car with him standing guard. He can spot trouble like a hawk.”

“I should have known something like this would happen,” Sean mumbled, staring up at the sky. “I should have known.”

“Maybe he’ll leave his post after an allotted time,” Cody suggested, trying to sound hopeful. “That was the plan all along, right?”

“I don’t think Mr. Leonard will be going anywhere soon,” Sean said. “See, he’s even got that smirk on his face, like he somehow knows he’s preventing our freedom. No, he ain’t going to stray. Besides, he probably would have done it by now. It’s already been twenty-five minutes since the assembly even started.”

“Keep yourself hidden!” Cody snapped. Sean ducked behind the column and stood beside his friend. “You know he’ll see you. Shit, he can probably smell us. Smell our fear.”

“Well, now what?” Sean asked. “Should we try waiting him out?”

“No.” Cody shook his head. “That’ll be a waste. We’ve already done enough waiting. By the time he leaves, the assembly might be over, and this will all have been for nothing. No, I say we try our chances going out the back.”

“Out the back?” Sean’s eyebrows raised. “You mean abandon the car?”

“Precisely. The front gate is being guarded, that much we know. Nobody is going to suspect us of going out the back.”

“But there’s nothing but a field of sagebrush that way,” Sean argued. “It’ll take us forever to get to the main road. You want us to just walk home?”

Cody shrugged. “We can walk or stay here. I’ll leave the choice up to you.”

“Well, I sure as hell ain’t staying here. If we’re going to be reduced to walking, let’s go for it.”

“Then it’s decided.” Cody poked his head slightly out and was quick to conceal himself shortly after. “He’s still there. If we hang next to the wall, it’s doubtful he’ll spot us.”

“I’m ready,” Sean said. They nodded at each other.

Flattening themselves against the side wall, they edged sideways along the length of the school, keeping a close eye on Mr. Leonard. He seemed to be staring straight ahead, as if expecting a car to approach. Very rarely did his gaze stray, but once the two boys thought they caught him looking over at them. Naturally, they froze, trying not to shudder. The teacher then simply resumed his position, leaving them safe to breathe a huge sigh of relief. They hastened their pace and finally wound around to the rear of the school. They found themselves in the gravel area where the busses were parked. A few trailers that housed extra classrooms were also present, but it was highly unlikely that they were occupied now. A simple chain-link fence divided the school property from the public lands beyond. One more mad dash, a quick hop, and they would be officially off grounds.

Just for safety precautions, Cody stole one last look around the building to eye Mr. Leonard. He turned to Sean with a bewildered, almost horrified look on his face.

“He’s gone,” he whispered.

“What?” Sean asked.

“Mr. Leonard’s gone.” He craned his neck again to take yet another look. “I don’t see him anywhere. I’m not sure if he simply left his post, or…”

“He couldn’t have followed us,” Sean reasoned. “You don’t see him anywhere out there, do you?”

“Not anywhere.” Cody, for the first time, looked as if he didn’t know what to think or how to act. “If he left his post, maybe we should try for the car.”

“Oh, hell no,” Sean said. “What if he simply moved to the front doors? He could still be out there somewhere. I’m not taking any chances at this stage. We’re going over the fence or nothing.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Cody said. He looked at Sean. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Can you hop fences very well?”

“I don’t typically make a habit of it, but I think I can manage.”

“I think I can too. Okay then, on three. One… two… THREE!”

They dashed across the gravel yard, not bothering to look for witnesses or potential patrollers. The fence was quickly reached, and both boys scrambled to climb over it. The cuff on Sean’s pants got stuck at one point, but after loosening himself, causing an audible tear, he hopped over with Cody and landed on the hot desert sand.

“Run!” Cody cried. They got to their feet and sprinted across the public land filled with sagebrush and collected debris. They ran as fast as their legs could carry them, the foreboding school building behind growing farther and farther away.

Sean threw his arms in the air and tossed his head back to the sky as he ran, crowing: “Freedom! Freedom!”

They ran until their lungs and legs ached from the exertion. Stumbling to a halt, Sean and Cody took in great breaths and exchanged huge smiles.

“We frickin’ did it, man!” Cody gasped between breaths. “We frickin’ did it!”

“Thank God and all that’s holy!” Sean exclaimed.

It was a time for joyous laughter and praising God. Imagine, they had finally made it. They had escaped. Sean pictured the masses of students sitting in the gym right now, all wearing yellow and blue and cheering loudly for their respective classes. Music would be blasting, people would be screaming and the cheerleaders would be running about, motioning for all to stand and stomp their feet. A regular portrayal of hell. And they weren’t there. Oh, how sweet was the day! They had finally set out to escape and had made it.

The school was now a considerable distance behind them. Not far ahead was a residential community divided from the school by the field of federal land. A line of fencing shielded the backyards facing the field.

“I can’t believe we did it,” Cody said, just then getting his breath back. “I didn’t think we were going to for a while back there. I mean, with Leonard guarding the entrance and everything.”

“This will go down in the books,” Sean said. “I’ll be telling my grandchildren about this day when I’m old and weary and resigned to warming my bones beside the fire.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to go now,” Cody said. He motioned to the neighborhood ahead. “My grandparents live only a few blocks away from here. They’ll probably give us a ride home.”

“Sounds like a sweet deal,” Sean said. He grinned and held his hand out. “Good work buddy.”

Cody shook it hard, smiling. “The same to you Sean.”

Triumphant from their success, the two men set off at a casual walking pace toward a vacant lot that gapped two houses. The concern and anxiety about avoiding school authority was gone now. They were safely off school grounds and could stroll like free men. They both felt free, too. Every day in that horrid school was almost like being confined in a prison. The other students with their conforming stances, the administration with its authoritarian policies and the grueling churn of going through it day after day caged their souls like a beacon in an iron box. But out here, they were free men. Free to hold their heads to the sun and appreciate their life. Free to unleash their minds and take great whiffs of the sage-scented air. Free to be themselves without fear of harassment, ridicule and humiliation. This wilderness was the promised land. Out here in the drifting sands with the expanse of the blue sky above them, Sean and Cody couldn’t care less about the gray and cold world that lurked within the confines of that wretched school. They left it behind and didn’t look back.

After cutting through the vacant lot, upon which a foundation was being poured for a new house, the two fugitives found themselves strolling down the neighborhood street. It was a peaceful area. A small breeze made the leaves on the tree branches up above shudder. A dog yapped for a few moments several houses away. A lawn sprinkler connected to a garden hose swished swished swished, shooting out tiny droplets looking like liquid gunfire. It was a community to which one could easily retire and spend the day in complete relaxing solitude.

Sean and Cody bantered back and forth on mindless topics as they walked. Cody had a crush on a girl named Amanda. Sean didn’t know her, but had Cody ever seen a girl named Melissa who rollerbladed a lot? Cody said he hadn’t. Sean said he hadn’t seen her at school, but that she had just moved into his neighborhood. Cody said he’d have to watch for her.

Just two free men taking a stroll on a beautiful day in the greatest country where freedom reigned. They had successfully fled the assembly, and for the time being, everything was right with the world.

There was a distant rumbling sound behind them. Sean briefly turned his head and looked back and continued walking. Then he halted in his tracks. He turned again in the direction and stared. Cody stopped and gave Sean a funny look.

“What’s up?” he asked, looking concerned.

Sean squinted his eyes. “What is that?”

The rumbling was growing louder. It sounded a lot like a cluster of diesel engines passing along a freeway. At the far end of the street, there were vehicles approaching. It was difficult to make them out.

Cody also squinted and stared down the road. The rumbling was growing consistently louder. The two young men started to feel vibrations in the ground.

The vehicles were coming down the street rather rapidly. As they grew closer, Sean’s mouth widened in horror. The rumbling filled his ears and sent a stiffening chill throughout his entire body.

A group of three yellow school buses in a triangular formation was rapidly approaching. Their headlights glowed a dim, piss yellow. The engines were roaring like a jet engine preparing for flight. Cody’s mouth also dropped in awe.

“Oh shit,” Sean mouthed. All he could do was stand there. From their position on the sidewalk, they watched as the busses ripped ahead, the clamor of their gunned engines now deafening. They were now close enough to observe clearly. The head bus, forming the topmost vertex of the triangle formation, had crudely painted lettering splashed at the top of the front window. It read: Anderson High Forever. Nerds Must Die!

There was a familiar figure standing beside the driver in the head bus. It was Mr. Leonard. In his hand was what looked to be an automatic assault rifle.

“Oh shit!” Cody screeched, actually saying the words out loud. He grabbed Sean, pulling him out of his daze. “We got to go, man!”

Sean continued to stare as if in a trance.

“C’mon!” Cody screamed. He tore at Sean’s shoulder and nearly caused his friend to topple. Sean came back to reality, and the horror of the situation struck him like the scent of a locker room at maximum capacity.

They tore off down the street, running as fast as the wind itself. The busses took on a new burst of speed. The driver of the lead bus leaned on the horn.

It was a posse who had come after them. Mr. Leonard hadn’t simply vanished when they were hiding at the side of the school. He had seen them flee and was now coming to take them back.

“Run!” Cody screamed. Though he had never been much of an athlete in his high school career, his pace could have broke sprinting records that day.

Sean, though he had long legs, couldn’t quite catch up. The busses were getting closer behind them.

“Cody, wait!” he gasped, his lungs stinging like they had suffered electric shock. Cody turned and saw his friend flailing. Sean’s pace slowed, his legs becoming dead limbs. His face was sweaty and flushed. He wasn’t going to make it.

The head bus jumped onto the curb and sped toward them. Acting on impulse, his body relying on pure instinct, Cody dove and sent both he and Sean tumbling into the front yard of a house. The head bus and its followers slammed on their brakes and came to a screeching halt, sending putrid, black smoke into the air.

Cody pulled Sean to his feet. Panicked, they started running for the side gate. Their bodies were being fueled by pure adrenaline. Now was not the time to exercise the luxury of reason. Their animal impulses told them to get out, and to get out now.

Together they dashed over the gate and ended up in a backyard. They ran together, criminals bonded by the convict’s code. Neither one would leave the other behind.

“Dammit!” Mr. Leonard screamed, slamming the driver of the bus in the head with the butt of his rifle. “You almost killed those boys!”

“I was just trying to scare them!” the driver stuttered, holding his bleeding scalp. He was a retired truck driver making minimum wage shuttling children to school, not an officer of the law. He had never been on a pursuit.

“The boss wants them alive,” Mr. Leonard growled. The “boss” was Mr. Deakins, Anderson High’s principal.

The bus doors opened and Mr. Leonard marched out. He was dressed in a long black overcoat and combat boots for the occasion. He sniffed the air and held his assault rifle ready. He could smell the potent stench of fear.

The rest of the posse filtered out from the remaining two busses. Among them were Mrs. Hartford, a gym teacher who had recently transferred from Willow Tree High. Mr. Tinderman the shop teacher followed suit. Other teachers, custodians, office personnel and even students grouped into one big cluster in the street. Among the students were Greg Thomas and Devon Childs. All were armed.

“The fugitives will be taken in unharmed!” Mr. Leonard announced, stepping to the front of the group. With his long black overcoat flapping in the breeze, he looked the part of authority. “I have orders from my superiors that they are to be tried for their acts of treason.”

“Not if we get to them first,” Greg said.

Mr. Leonard stepped forward, a penetrating gleam in his eyes. “Are you refusing to obey an order, son?” he barked.

“I am not under your command!” Greg shouted back. Devon stepped forward beside his leader. “I am president of the student council. You have no authority over me.”

“Those boys will be taken alive, soldier!” Mr. Leonard hollered. The rest of the congregation jumped at the intimidating tone the man had. Greg didn’t flinch. “You will obey my orders! The combat zone is not a place for mutiny!”

“Say what you will,” Greg said. He turned to Devon and gave him a knowing look. “But if me or my men get my hands on Sean Kimble and Cody Swimfarr, I guarantee you you’ll be towing their corpses back to fertilize the football field.”

Mr. Leonard snarled but moved away. The fugitives were getting away during all this talk. Time was wasting.

“Let’s move out!” he screamed, thrusting his rifle into the air. “They won’t be able to get far. Surround the perimeter of this neighborhood. Those boys will not escape!”

The group split into all directions, racing after the fleeing boys. They had been extensively trained for a situation like this. Anderson High was known for its coldly efficient staff.

Sean and Cody had jumped fences, ducked under trees and had just avoided a vicious doberman. Sean’s face was pallid, his clothes drenched with sweat. His eyes bulged like a weary man tired of running.

“We got to stop,” he panted, slowing down.

“Keep going!” Cody hollered, continuing to run.

Sean shook his head. “I can’t… I can’t… I… can’t.” Letting out one last gasp of breath in resignation, he fell to his knees and slumped toward the ground. He was done for.

“Dammit, Sean!” Cody screamed. He bent to his friend and slapped him hard in the face. “Get up, you lousy piece of shit! They’re coming after us!”

“Go, go, just go without me,” Sean mumbled. “I can’t make it further.”

“I won’t leave you!” Cody screamed. He grabbed Sean under his armpits and forced him to stand. His hands were instantly drenched. “Get up and move!”

“Hey!”

Cody turned and was certain his heart stopped. There, standing at the far end of the shaded back yard, was Devon Childs. His weapon was aimed directly at them.

He grinned evilly, showing his rotting, disgusting yellow teeth. “Time to die, suckers. I’m going to pump your asses full of school spirit and silver bullets. Eat my shit and steel, nerds.” He pulled the trigger.

Cody yelled and flung himself and Sean out of the way. A spray of bullets hit the fence behind them. Cody, lugging Sean, ducked behind a tree, just as another spray nearly missed them.

Another gunshot sounded and the spray stopped. Cody peeked around the tree and saw Mrs. Hartford standing over a slumped Devon Childs. He was saturated in his own blood.

“I’m sorry boy,” she said, speaking in that gruff voice of hers. “But orders must be followed.” Cody watched as she took a wadded up old P.E. uniform shirt out of her jacket pocket and covered Devon’s face with it.

Greg Thomas came running out from behind a corner and stumbled onto the gruesome sight. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw his second-in-command shot dead. Greg stared up at Mrs. Hartford with an open mouth.

“He disobeyed orders,” she said, rising to her feet. “And disobeying orders during combat earns death.”

For once in his life, the usually loquacious Greg was speechless. Here lay one of his own, shot dead from friendly fire for insubordination. The implication was clear: He was out of his league. He had no authority here.

Perhaps it was this realization combined with the rage that followed that compelled him to do what he did next. In any event, he raised his gun as if to shoot Mrs. Hartford. She quickly raised hers to fend him off. They stood in a standoff, with Cody watching, his eyes wide in disbelief.

“You murdered him, you heartless bitch!” Greg screamed. “My only friend, the only one who I truly trusted to stay by me!”

Cody couldn’t believe it. Even with all his popularity and the splendor of his student council position, Greg Thomas actually considered Devon Childs to be his one true friend? Was he really that pathetic?

“Don’t do it, Greg,” Mrs. Hartford said, holding her aim steady. “I did what I had to do to protect the operation. I had orders from Mr. Leonard.”

“I could give a shit less about Mr. Leonard!” Greg screamed. He was near tears now. “I could give a shit less about this entire school!”

“You don’t mean that,” the gym teacher told him. She took a single step forward. “Give me the gun. You don’t want to do this.”

Greg shook his head. “You murdered my only friend. And now you’ll pay.”

“Greg,” Mrs. Hartford said. Her voice took on that warning tone as if she were simply reprimanding a student for dribbling with two hands.

Greg shot her. She didn’t have time to react. Mrs. Hartford fell back, landing against a hedge.

Cody knew this was his chance.

“Let’s go Sean!” he screamed. Sean had apparently recovered some of his breath and all of his resolve. He had heard what had just happened. Together, they jumped toward the back fence and flung themselves over it, landing again in the field. They found themselves on a dirt utility road that ran along the length of the neighborhood on the back side.

Mr. Leonard appeared in the backyard and saw Greg Thomas holding his weapon and standing over a dead Mrs. Hartford. He spoke not one word or changed so much as his facial expression. He simply shot Greg in the head.

Sean and Cody heard the firecracker-like explosion and took on a new burst of speed. Sean had a severe limp from having torn his thigh jumping over the fence. Cody urged him to forget the pain and continue on. Their lives were clearly at stake.

Mr. Leonard’s head appeared over the fence.

“Get back here traitors!” he screamed. He fired some warning shots in the air. The teens ran faster. Mr. Leonard, not as young as he had once been, gingerly eased himself over the fence. He tore his overcoat on the same picket that had claimed flesh from Sean’s leg.

“Dammit, that was a new coat, too,” Mr. Leonard muttered. “What the hell?”

Sean and Cody kept running along the row of fencing, not knowing where they were going but determined to get there anyway. Up ahead, they saw a small blue car tearing down the road toward them, creating a huge dust trail.

Cody slowed down and came to a stop. Sean did the same. Both boys were thinking the same thing: it was all over now. Mr. Leonard was behind them and this car was ahead. They were in between. There was nowhere to go. They were too exhausted to hop another fence. It was all over.

The car skidded to a stop in front of them. The front windows were down.

“Get in!” a man cried. “Hurry!”

Mr. Leonard was running toward them. He hadn’t lost so much of his youth that his legs were worthless. He held his weapon high, his boots tearing through the sand.

Sean stumbled forward. He got a good look at the man in the car.

“It’s Braun!” he exclaimed, turning to Cody. “Mr. Braun! My homeroom teacher!”

“Get in!” the driver hollered. “He’s coming!”

Sean had always known that Mr. Braun sympathized with their position. He and Cody both jumped into the backseat, slamming the door behind them. They were breathless and sweating. Mr. Braun quickly floored the vehicle and tore down the direction he had come. He left Mr. Leonard choking in a huge cloud of dust.

“Thank you, thank you!” Sean cried, nearly sobbing. Cody was so out of breath that he couldn’t speak. He felt like his heart was going to explode from the exertion.

Mr. Braun, though being the small and timid man he was, maneuvered the car like a wild savage. He pulled onto the pavement and tore down the neighborhood street, flying past the various members of the posse with their automatic weapons. He steered the car past the busses and raced onward, leaving Mr. Leonard and his team of enforcers behind.

“I couldn’t let them do that to you guys,” he said, looking at his two passengers in the rear view mirror. “For too long I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about the way they run that school. Well, no longer. It’s time I take a stand. I’m tired of the way people like you guys are treated.”

“Sir, you are a sight for sore eyes!” Sean said. “I always knew you were among us. Even though you never said it, I could tell.”

“I was just like you back in my high school days,” Mr. Braun said. “Weak, scrawny, ugly, hated. I was there. I know how it is. Things have been going on that way for too long now. I won’t stand by anymore and tolerate it.”

“Amen!” Sean exclaimed. “I don’t know how we can ever thank you for getting us out of there.”

Cody had finally gotten some of his wind back. He leaned forward. “You’re a saint, sir. A real saint.”

“Wrong,” Mr. Braun said, keeping his eyes on the road. “I’m a nerd. Just like you guys.”

Sean let out a heavy sigh and sank back into the seat cushions. His body felt weary and tired. His clothes were matted and dirty, his hair windblown and face grimy with dried sweat. He tried to force himself to relax, though every time he closed his eyes, he could still see the horrible image of Mr. Leonard standing there in his long overcoat, holding that frightening rifle. He had to convince himself that it was all over. His pulse, however, refused to abate and his heart continued thumping like mad.

Cody groaned and shifted his position in the seat, his eyes closed to the world. He looked totally drained as well. Both boys had gotten more than they had bargained for this afternoon. School spirit, they were beginning to realize, truly was a matter of life and death.

Sean took a casual glimpse out the window and watched the bare fields of sagebrush whizzing past them. The desert surface looked scalded and cracked. It was lonely out here. Not a manmade structure in sight. Not even the typical empty booze bottle on the side of the road.

“Hey, Mr. Braun,” Sean said, leaning forward. He tapped the teacher on the arm. “Where are we going? I think we passed the city limits.”

“I’m taking you up to my house,” Mr. Braun answered, his gaze not averting from the road. “The school’s going to be staking out your places in hopes of catching you. They wouldn’t think to find you at my house. I have a cottage to myself at the end of this dusty trail here.”

“I sure appreciate it,” Sean said, leaning back. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t even know there were houses up here.”

“There’s not,” Mr. Braun said. “Just mine. I’m like you, Sean. Antisocial.”

Sean nodded. That one word description fit him like a knitted sweater. Words like community, group and assembly always sent a shiver up his spine. He was most definitely a loner.

They continued driving for what seemed like forever. The asphalt eventually ended and turned to a washboard dirt surface. The car banged over the grooves that had been worn into the road from frequent use. Cody awoke from the noise.

“Huh?” he mumbled. He had apparently taken a short snooze.

“Mr. Braun’s taking us to his house to hide,” Sean told him, filling his friend in. “Our places are no longer safe. They’ll catch us there.”

“Oh,” Cody said. He rubbed his grainy eyes with his dirty hands. “Thank you, Mr. Braun.”

Mr. Braun didn’t answer.

“How far is your house?” Sean asked. “It seems like this road goes on forever. This is one nasty commute to make every day.”

The teacher paid him no mind.

Sean glanced out the window, looking ahead. Clouds had covered the once sunny sky, throwing the world into a subtle darkness. It looked like rain.

Something ahead caught his eye, and Sean snapped his head to look. Up ahead were several gray vehicles stationed in the middle of the road. Some had lights on top. An army of people stood in the way, many holding guns.

“Oh shit!” Cody hollered, seeing the cars as well. “It’s a frickin’ roadblock!”

“Oh boy,” Mr. Braun said. He shook his head. “How did they know?”

“Mr. Braun, you got to turn around!” Cody said. The teacher kept driving. “Mr. Braun, please! You got to turn around! You can’t let them stop us.”

“I’m sorry Cody,” Mr. Braun replied. “I’m not turning around.”

“What?” Cody hollered.

The hairs on the back of Sean’s neck stood up. He didn’t like the tone in Mr. Braun’s voice.

He leaned forward. “They got to you, didn’t they?” Cody looked at him, the horror evident in his face.

No response.

“Mr. Braun,” Sean said.

The teacher sighed. He pulled to a stop directly in front of the roadblock. The assembled group of teachers, school officials and other county personnel instantly swarmed them. He finally turned in his seat. His eyes were mournful, his mouth trembling.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “They promised me early retirement, Sean. They promised—”

Sean shook his head and closed his eyes. “How could you have done it? God, how could you? You betrayed us.”

The back doors flew open. Sean and Cody were each grabbed by an arm and flung outside. They were thrown against the car by strong arms and handcuffed with their wrists behind their back.

From the crowd, a figure wearing an impressive suit stepped forward.

It was Mr. Deakins, the high school principal. He approached Mr. Braun, who had also climbed out of the car.

“Good work Gerry,” he said, patting the timid teacher on the shoulder. “We knew we could count on you to come through.”

Mr. Braun looked miserable. He watched as Sean and Cody were frisked and heavily chained, their ankles secured in iron shackles, their necks choked with steel collars. He looked away as he caught Sean’s hateful stare.

Mr. Deakins’s smile suddenly turned horribly wicked. “Unfortunately, the teaching staff is severely sparse for the upcoming academic year. I’m afraid your retirement plan is no longer an option.”

Mr. Braun’s face fell. “But… you promised! You promised! You said I could take my retirement…”

“Take this man away!” Mr. Deakins hollered. Mr. Braun was instantly flanked by two beefy soldiers. The principal made a grin swelling with wickedness. “See that he gets himself busy grading the proficiency essays for the eleventh grade.”

“No! No!” Mr. Braun screamed, his eyes filled with terror. “You can’t make me! I’m a man of science, not an English teacher… no!” He was led away kicking and screaming and pushed into a gray van. It took off immediately.

Mr. Deakins strolled forward to Sean and Cody, who were now bound and chained and under heavy guard. The cocky look on his face said it all: You’re captured. Game over. I won.

“Ah, boys,” he said, that despicable smug grin never far away from his face. “Why such glum looks? Where’s your school spirit?”

“Eat my shorts,” Cody said.

The grin disappeared, much to the teens’ pleasure. Mr. Deakins stepped forward, frowning. “What did you say, young man?”

Cody pursed his lips and churned his mouth, looking as if he were thinking deeply. Then, without warning, he shot a wad of spit forward and hit the principal right in the face. A guard immediately extracted an electric baton and sizzled Cody until he was a quivering heap on the pavement.

Mr. Deakins wiped the spit away from his face with an expensive-looking handkerchief. He turned to Sean, his eyes menacing.

“You boys are dangerous,” he said, his voice a growl and not quite human. “You stray from the norm, openly disobey and conceal hate behind your eyes. You’re both a detriment to society. I’m going to put you away for a long time.”

“Sir,” Sean said, “we are guilty of no crime except for exercising our independence.”

“Independence has no place in this modern era, son,” Mr. Deakins snarled. The grin suddenly reappeared without warning. “Or didn’t you know that? Independent minds cause harm to the masses. So-called independent minds can bring on mutiny in a uniform society. Independence, young man, can undermine the authority of a righteous dictator and bring anarchy to a peaceful kingdom.”

“With no disrespect, sir,” Sean said, “America is not a kingdom and is not ruled by a dictator.”

“You think so?” Mr. Deakins asked. He reached out a single finger and rubbed the bottom of Sean’s chin as if he were a stupid little boy. “What do you call me, then? High school is not a democracy. The student council has no authority over administration policy. I am the ruler of the school, young Sean. Why do you think public education exists? What important information have you learned in your high school career?”

“That P.E. sucks and that most teenagers are assholes,” Sean said. “Sir.”

“Have you not realized that you have also been indoctrinated to venerate authority?” Mr. Deakins asked. “What rightful power do your teachers have over you? Students are coerced into attending school by law, yet they address their instructors as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ as if they were their masters. Students are taught from kindergarten to do what the teacher says and obey rules. They form single-file lines after recess. They are told what books to read. They are spoon-fed ideas and subtle political commentary. They have to ask permission to use the bathroom, for god’s sake!”

Sean didn’t say anything.

“You see, every child in every public school is being molded to respect authority,” Mr. Deakins continued. “Your teachers are your superior officers. The principal is your dictator. You fall out of line, you are severely punished.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Sean said, looking down at Cody, who was still jerking with slight spasms.

“School is not for education as you might think,” Mr. Deakins said. “To educate young minds with knowledge would simply be reckless! You must keep a mind empty if you wish to fill it with your own logic. Students are crushed rather than educated. Their souls are manipulated and twisted so that by the time they receive their diploma, they believe everything authority tells them and ignore their own yearnings for liberty. They willingly accept what their government says. They have been manufactured to function as a group and to shun independence. Public education has then served its true purpose.”

“It’s good to finally hear somebody say it aloud,” Sean said. “People used to think I was a lunatic for saying those things.”

Mr. Deakins smiled. “Someday Sean, America will be ruled as it was meant to be. As it should be. A great dictator will arise from the masses and take the reigns of leadership. The chaos of freedom will be eliminated. Until then, we are working hard toward that goal. All students are to be indoctrinated and rendered completely obedient. Someday, we will make our perfect society. It will just take time.”

“But people like me don’t quite fit the mold, do they?” Sean asked.

Mr. Deakins blew his nose on his handkerchief and tucked it back in his pocket.

“People like you, Sean,” he said, “are to be expected to turn up every so often. People like you have somehow rejected your years of gradual brainwashing and still cling to the archaic notions of freedom. You openly demonstrate your rebellion with antisocial behavior. You and those like you refuse to attend dances and other school functions. You avoid peer contact and pay no heed to teacher instruction. You… ditch assemblies.”

“They’re noisy,” Sean said.

“They’re an essential ingredient in the indoctrination process,” Mr. Deakins replied. “Assemblies provide the opportunity for the ignorantly oppressed to bond. The cogs of the gear come to feel united and stronger. This unity is essential. It crushes any lingering independence. Petty notions like school spirit help to make the masses feel as one. The students willfully homogenize into one entity to avoid being left out. Thus, they become a single, easily dominated faction, and free thinking is eliminated and openly despised by the group itself.”

“So the students come to hate those who are different from them,” Sean said. “Like an organism rejecting a germ.”

Mr. Deakins smiled. “Of course I don’t need to be telling you any of this. You know it already. You’re a free-thinking, independent son of a bitch. Somehow you escaped the remedial instruction of your teachers and set out on your own.”

“Of that I’m proud,” Sean said.

Mr. Deakins stepped forward, his nose an inch away from Sean’s. His grin was wide and wicked.

“But like I told you son, you’re a detriment to society,” the principal said. “You have the ability to undermine everything we’ve been trying to accomplish for the past several decades.” He leaned closer so his mouth was next to Sean’s ear. “Because of that, you must be destroyed.”

Mr. Deakins gave a nod to the guard standing by Sean. The man took out his baton and whopped the teen on the scalp. Sean slumped forward, unconscious. He joined Cody on the ground.

* * * * *

“But sir, the losses sustained were minimal!” Mr. Leonard cried. He placed his hands on the principal’s desk, his eyes almost pleading for forgiveness. “The mission would have succeeded had the student council not intervened!”

Mr. Deakins leaned back in his desk chair, his expression icy. Presently, Mr. Leonard was stationed in his office, attempting to explain the failure of the afternoon’s operation. Mr. Deakins was in no mood to hear bumbling excuses.

“Your mission was unauthorized,” Mr. Deakins said, raising his voice only slightly. Mr. Leonard bit his lower lip. “You failed to seek my approval and instead requisitioned busses and enforcers on your own whim, costing a mint in taxpayer money, an expenditure I must now explain to the board. Besides that, you allowed two students to die, personally executing the senior class president yourself!”

“But let me explain,” Mr. Leonard said. “I saw the students escaping from my post at the front gate. At the time I felt that they would get away if I consulted you. I acted on my own solely to reclaim the fugitives and bring them to your justice in a timely manner.”

“You lied and told your enforcers that I had authorized the manhunt,” Mr. Deakins said.

Mr. Leonard squirmed. “I simply wanted to mobilize quickly, sir. I didn’t want to waste time with administrative bull—” He interrupted himself with silence.

Mr. Deakins smiled and played with an unsharpened pencil, fiddling it around in his hands. “You failed to alert me to your mission. When I caught word of the escape, I organized my own plan and went over your head. Needless to say, I was decidedly more efficient and successful. You didn’t know what hit you when Braun showed up.”

“You taught me a lesson sir, and for that I’m grateful,” Mr. Leonard said, gritting his teeth. How he hated kissing ass! However, it was required for personnel serving under Mr. Deakins. “Let me undo my wrongs. Assign Mr. Kimble and Mr. Swimfarr to my in-school suspension class. I’ll give you the results you want. They’ll be broken.”

Mr. Deakins only smiled with that annoying goddamn grin. How Mr. Leonard wanted so much to slap it right off.

“Those two boys are my stars,” the principal said. “I expect to make an example out of them. Your in-school suspension program does deliver results. However, I have other plans for the two boys.”

“Please!” Mr. Leonard said, his voice rising. “I must have the opportunity to break those young men! After all the heartache they caused to me and my team today, I feel I have that right.”

“You have no right, Mr. Leonard, as your mission wasn’t authorized in the first place,” the principal said. He leaned forward and pushed a button on his desk. “I’ve grown tired of discussing this matter. Dismissed.”

“Sir,” Mr. Leonard said.

“Dismissed!” Mr. Deakins snarled, shooting a nasty look up to his subordinate. The office door opened and Mrs. Trainor, the secretary, stood waiting.

Mr. Leonard retreated and allowed himself to be escorted out with the young secretary. Before she could close the door behind her, Mr. Deakins called out.

“Yes, sir?” she asked.

He smiled and lit a cigar, leaning back in his seat with his feet on the desk. “Send in the two boys, will you?”

“Yes sir.” The door closed and Mrs. Trainor departed. Mr. Deakins let a cloud of smoke into the lavish office.

* * * * *

The holding cell for detained students was an iron cage just down the hall from the principal’s office. Sean and Cody both sat on opposite sides of the cell on separate benches, still chained. Both were weary.

“I’m really sorry about trusting Braun,” Sean said, his head cast down to the floor. He shrugged. “I thought he was a man we could rely on.”

“That’s all right,” Cody said. He tried to smile, but his distraught face wouldn’t allow it. “We gave it a shot, didn’t we?”

Sean nodded. “We did. And I’ll always remember it.”

“Sean,” Cody said, looking his friend in the eye. “You know what’s coming next, don’t you?”

Sean stared at his grubby tennis shoes. “In-school suspension?”

“With Mr. Leonard.” Cody rubbed his cuffed hands together. “I just want you to know, in case we don’t survive… you were always my best friend.”

“You were mine too,” Sean said.

Cody nodded. “My parents always used to tell me that I was destined for great things. College, medical school.” His eyes took on a dreamy look as he gazed about the cell. “I always believed them. I mean, I’m no genius, but I always knew I was smarter than the majority of my peers. I always wanted to be successful, too. I wanted to have a big house, fancy cars… a loving wife.” He looked at the bars surrounding them. “Funny. I never thought it’d end up like this.”

Mr. Blair, the head custodian, appeared at their cell with an electric baton and two collars.

“The principal wants to see you,” he growled.

The two teenagers looked at each other and then down at the floor. They were resigned to their fate.

The sentencing officially took place at 4:36 p.m. in Mr. Deakins’s office. There was no trial or defense allowed. In high school, suspects were presumed guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. Sean and Cody could not do that. They were convicted men even before they had entered the room.

Mrs. Trainor, Mr. Blair and several summoned teachers were designated as official witnesses to the sentencing. Sean and Cody, secured in their chains, stood quietly as Mr. Deakins spoke.

“You are both guilty of unlawful departure from school grounds without administration approval,” he said, reading from a list he had hurriedly prepared. “You are also guilty of student misconduct, evading authority, sassing personnel and undermining Anderson High assembly participation policy. These crimes are fully delineated in revised state statute and permit punishment as designated by the principal of the educational institution offended.” Mr. Deakins looked up. “That’s me.” He gave narrow looks to Cody and Sean. “Do either of you two have words to speak before I pronounce sentence?”

Cody shook his head. Sean thought for a moment. He had always dreamed about a moment like this which would call for him to give an impassioned speech on liberty, independence and individualism. He always imagined his eloquence swaying the people involved and causing a renewed way of thinking. He realized now that the dream that had seemed so glamorous then was impractical now. Nobody cared about his view on things. A speech wouldn’t save him from punishment. What was the point?

Sean also shook his head.

“Very well.” Mr. Deakins lowered his paper and glowered at the two boys in front of his desk, his reading glasses slipping onto his nose. “By the power invested in me by the Anderson County School District, I sentence you both to four months in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. No visitors, no extraneous materials, no sunlight.” He looked around at his desk and motioned his secretary over.

“You were supposed to get a gavel,” he hissed in her ear. She shrugged helplessly. The principal made a face and shooed her away. He produced a fist and slammed it on his desk. “Adjourned. Take them away.”

Sean and Cody were led to the basement of Anderson High by two custodians. The stairway descended forever, and both teens were sure they were headed for the bowels of the earth. They finally emerged in a narrow hallway lit by two light bulbs hanging above on wires. Small cupboards guarded with iron doors were on either side.

Cody was led down the hall by one custodian as the other removed the chains from Sean. He unlocked and opened up the iron cupboard, which was about as big as the trunk of a luxury car. There was no light and only a tiny hole in the floor for waste products. A tiny slit in the iron door provided a means to pass through bread and water.

After removing all the items from his pockets, his shoes and his glasses, Sean was ushered into the cupboard. He curled himself up so he could fit. Once inside, the custodian gave him a wicked smile and slammed the iron door shut, plunging the tiny enclosure into darkness. The squeal of a heavy latch was heard, and then nothing more.

Sean settled back and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. As he did, something brushed out of the hole beneath him and squeaked. It was a gluttonous rat. Sean kicked at it with his foot and the rat ducked back into the sewage hole.

Sean grabbed his knees and shuddered. The silence was so sterile it was almost maddening. He couldn’t even hear the footsteps of the retreating custodians from within his cupboard. He was entirely alone. Ironically, this is what Sean had always wanted: to be separated from the rest of the school populace and on his own. Just not on these terms and certainly not in this cupboard. God no. Now the bound and determined and decidedly independent Sean found himself wishing for the company of others. Did this make him a hypocrite? Was this the lesson Mr. Deakins was trying to instill, that being a cog in a gear was the human way?

Sean held his knees and sighed. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t. He was hardened now. He had been through so much turbulence and seen so much evil that he was no longer a shielded little schoolboy. He was a convicted man. He had so far rejected the school district’s indoctrination. Now they were going to rehabilitate him into a model student.

Society would be saved.

 

FOUR MONTHS LATER

The latch on the iron cupboard squealed and the heavy door slid open, allowing a beam of dim light to shower into the cell. Sean, his clothes grubby, hair matted and face covered with patches of an adolescent beard, squirmed and buried his head under his arms like a frightened animal. His eyes, which had seen only pitch darkness for many months, were blasted by the sudden bright light.

Mr. Blair was standing outside, his ring of keys hanging limply at his side. He was wearing an evil grin.

“Time’s up,” he said. Sean peeked up over his shirt sleeve and quickly hid his face.

The elderly custodian had experienced this before. Students confined for long periods in solitary were often mentally destroyed after their tenure of imprisonment. They tended to behave like dogs accustomed to beatings.

“Out!” he snarled. Sean, his limbs feeble from lack of exercise, crawled out of the cell using his hands. He couldn’t find the strength to use his legs. Mr. Blair immediately jerked him to his feet and pushed him against the wall. Sean squinted his eyes and moaned in protest.

He was no longer the person he had been. Once lanky and healthily skinny, he was now totally gaunt and impotent. His stomach was concave. He had lost a few teeth from the bread and water diet enforced upon him. Those remaining were brown and rotting. His arms and legs looked like sticks. His eyes were beady and timid like a rodent’s. The exposed skin on his arms was covered with gnaw marks from the vicious rats that lurked in the sewage. Mr. Blair wasn’t sure if the boy was still human.

The custodian thrust Sean his wallet, shoes, glasses and other possessions that had originally been seized. Sean looked at them as if they were completely foreign objects.

“Get your shit and get out,” Mr. Blair snapped. “I got floors to sweep.”

Sean put away his belongings and stumbled into his shoes.

“Mr. Deakins is giving your friend another week for spitting in his face,” Mr. Blair said. “After four months here, a week is but a second of time, I’d reckon.”

Sean didn’t answer. He merely nodded and groped the wall for support. He cautiously made his way toward the staircase, uncertain on his feet.

“You goddamn kids,” the custodian said. “You ain’t so hot now, are you? A little less liable to talk back, I’d say.” He leaned on a broom he had brought with him and grinned. “Excellent. That’s just how we like you.”

It took Sean a full fifteen minutes to adjust to the sunlight outdoors. It was a cloudy winter day, but still, he hadn’t remembered the sun being so intense. He also hadn’t remembered the world being so big. The land stretched on for infinity, its bounds endless. It was like coming back to a place that had been familiar in childhood except with the opposite effect. Everything was huge.

His bicycle was no longer attached to the rack outside the school entrance. It had disappeared altogether, probably stolen. Sean didn’t mind. He probably wouldn’t have had the strength to make it home on that contraption anyway. Merely walking provided ample difficulty.

It must have been the weekend, because the school was devoid of people, the classrooms and office locked and dark. There were no cars stationed in the parking lot. Sean stepped forward and collapsed on the cement walkway, hitting his chin. He felt like he did when he first awoke in the morning and couldn’t get out of bed. His strength was sapped, whatever muscle he had once had gone. He was malnourished and sick. He wasn’t sure if he could make it home.

Sean eventually regained his footing and stumbled toward the entrance gates. A foot seemed like a mile. This outside world was tremendous. It was also very beautiful. Sean had forgotten the absolute beauty of nature. How could he have ever taken it for granted? The trees were in hibernation, the sky covered with dark clouds, but it was still a masterpiece of God. If heaven looked even half as great as this, it was a glorious place indeed.

He staggered and fell into a slow pace with his feet dragging. It was all he could manage now. His sentence was up and his life given back to him. Whatever remained of it, anyway. Home was just a few miles ahead. He could make it. He had the will. He had survived four months of solitary for ditching a high school prep assembly. He could find the courage and the strength to make it home.

At that moment, Sean heard a car speeding up behind him on the street. He quickly turned and saw a small car gunning it in his direction. The driver was unmistakable: it was Mr. Leonard. Sean froze in his spot, his blood chilling like an early winter frost. He sucked in a gasp of air and held it in.

Something metallic flashed in Mr. Leonard’s hand. It happened so fast there was no time to think about it. Just a moment before Sean heard the loud pop, a queer thought ran through his head. It reminded him of something, but in that fleeting instant, he couldn’t remember exactly what. It seemed vaguely like a passage he had once read.

The car sped away and Sean was on the ground. He felt no pain. His thoughts were clear. The yellow sun was blazing above and the sky was colored a pure blue. Yellow and blue. Forever yellow and blue.

Sean felt himself slipping away. The thought, however, stayed lodged in his head like an annoying tune. It was weird, but as he faded slowly into the enveloping darkness, he found himself starting to believe it.

He loved Anderson High School.

 

This story is continued in Escaping Assemblies II: The Sign Campaign.

 

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