Permanent Detention

by Allen Coyle

 

I saw a woman recently. I mean a real woman; not a magazine clip-out or a poster. Honest to god, a real-life woman.

It’d been more than twelve years since I’d seen one.

It was Clancy who introduced us. He’s the captain of the guards. Over the years he seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m not sure why. I think maybe it’s because I’m soft-spoken and obedient, and not loud and rebellious like some of the others. I don’t give him any problems.

It was after dinner when, unannounced, Clancy asked me to accompany him to the fifth floor. Much of the area is restricted, but I’d been there before to clean—under a guard’s supervision, of course. They keep a sharp eye on you here.

I figured maybe he’d spilled some coffee and needed a trustee to clean it up. So I was surprised when he led me down the corridor and into a large, dark room filled with files. Along the far wall, nestled between two shelves, stood a tall, nondescript door. Clancy unlocked it and swung it open, revealing a room that was a mirror image of the one we were in.

And there she stood, as if she were waiting. I gasped, and froze.

She, too, was accompanied by a guard—an older woman. And like me, she wore the regulation uniform: white shirt, white pants, white sneakers, white socks. All white. She had a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look—as I’m sure I did—and she stood with her knees slightly bent, as if she was prepared to scamper. She sort of reminded me of a young Scarlett Johansson, that actress from the old-time movies I liked to watch, before I came here. She had the deep, mature eyes; the red, parted lips. And her light, blonde hair flowed in waves well past her shoulders.

Clancy let out a laugh—a loud, whooping, bottom-of-the-belly laugh, which made his large gut quiver.

“Well,” he said, “don’t just stand there staring at each other. Say something! Introduce yourselves!”

But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t. And neither, it seemed, could she. We both just gazed, awestruck, as if trying to comprehend one another’s existence.

“We wanted you to have the opportunity to meet,” Clancy said. “You’re both nearly thirty, and we thought you deserved a nice birthday present.”

He and the female guard shared a knowing smile. The girl and I remained speechless.

Clancy checked his watch. “We’ll give you both a half hour. The corridors will be clear. Introduce yourselves; get to know one another. Make the most of your time, because we can’t promise another opportunity like this. The risk is too great.

“And whatever you do,” he continued, “don’t talk too loudly. These rooms echo, and your voices might carry.”

He took a step toward me then and clasped my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father encouraging his son before a big date. He said nothing more; he simply squeezed and let go. He had a large, brawny hand, and I felt small under his grip.

Clancy and the female guard looked at each other, then both retreated to their own wings, like duelers marching in opposite directions. Clancy left through the door behind me; the female guard, through the door behind the girl. The latches clicked into place loudly, making me jump. More than anything, I hate the sound of doors closing—especially the barred door of my cell when it slams shut at night. Even after all these years, I’ve never gotten used to it.

We looked at each other, the young woman and I. My mouth and throat were dry. She tried to smile, but her lips were shaking. Her whole body, in fact, was shaking. Mine was, too. And the fifth floor was warm, especially on this particular summer evening.

I swallowed. “Hi,” I said.

She let out a nervous laugh. “Hi.”

“I, ah…” I let my voice trail off. “Do you know what this is all about?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I really… I don’t know.” She raised her shoulders, her head tilted. She forced a smile. It was awkward, almost like a wince, but nonetheless endearing.

I tried to smile back. I can only imagine how I looked. Grotesque, probably. “I’m Paul. I’m… it’s good to meet you.”

Another nervous laugh. “Hi Paul.” She smiled, though, and this time, it didn’t seem quite as forced.

I grinned. “Hi.”

All this stuttering and stammering, you’d have thought we were inexperienced teenagers.

Which made sense, in a way. The last time we’d interacted with members of the opposite sex, we’d both been in high school.

*****

I’d always known there was a women’s wing. All of us did. It was a place of legend: a mystical location we could only dream about, but never visit. I imagined it to be a mirror image of the men’s wing, with cells and a cafeteria and a library and classrooms, except with women inmates instead of men.

Not especially imaginative, but exciting nevertheless.

Others speculated it was a paradise filled with luxurious amenities, including a private deck for sunbathing, and a spa where the women could soak in mud. An oasis so close, and yet so far. Someone always would claim to have seen it—to have snuck in once, undetected—but when prodded for details, their elaborate story would sputter to snickers and a shaking of the head.

It was all bullshit, of course, but a way to pass the time. And when you’re dragging a rake across the dirt exercise yard, grooming the sand, or wiping spots off of hot trays that the dishwasher missed, you need a way to fill the void—the aching emptiness in your life. And if you’ve got nothing else, bullshit works quite nicely.

The conversations about the women’s wing made me feel young and immature, like a five-year-old and his buddies envisioning what it must be like in the girls’ restroom. Deep down, you suspect it’s nothing spectacular—probably no different from the boys’ restroom (except for the lack of urinals, of course)—but it’s nonetheless alluring because it’s off-limits and forbidden.

For all of us hard up male inmates, legends of the women’s wing became our grown-up version of the girls’ restroom.

I knew the main entrance to the women’s wing was from the lobby, the same as the men’s. I’d been to the lobby plenty of times—always with a guard escort, of course—sometimes to visit the warden’s office, but most often to mop the floors in the visitors’ area. I’d seen the entrance to the wing, but the double doors were always closed tight. I couldn’t get so much as a glimpse inside.

I’d never have guessed that the men’s and women’s wings connected from within, especially from a nondescript door in a random filing room on the fifth floor. Of course, if I’d have told any of the guys about the door, they’d have laughed me off; said I was full of shit. Thing was, though, I had no desire to tell. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep the secret to myself. It was that telling the guys would tarnish my memory of meeting the woman—cheapen the experience somehow. Because there was more to that encounter than simply getting a glimpse into the proverbial women’s wing.

That night, you see, for the first time in my life, I fell in love.

*****

The woman’s name was Pam. She was a couple of months younger than me—we both were twenty-nine—and she’d been in Permanent Detention since she was sixteen. Sixteen. Like me, she’d spent almost half of her life in this place.

She’d never even had the chance to get her driver’s license.

It took awhile for us to get over our nervousness, but once we got going, we talked and talked and talked. The conversation just flowed. I’d never known I had so much to say. I never was much of a talker to begin with, and over the years I found I spoke less and less. It seemed the longer you spent in Permanent Detention, the more difficult small talk became.

Mainly, we chatted about our present lives and our living conditions. Like most inmates, we spent our days working in the laundry (separate facilities, of course; you can imagine the kick male inmates would get sniffing female garments). We also pulled kitchen duty from time to time, and both of us liked to spend Sundays reading in our cells.

Like me, good behavior had helped elevate Pam to trustee status, which allowed her special library privileges and access to otherwise forbidden areas, such as the officers’ lounge. (Not to hang out, of course, but to clean—being the meek, obedient little servants we were.)

We didn’t touch at all throughout our conversation… except at one point I did clasp her hand. I’m not sure why; it felt right. She let me; she didn’t recoil. Her hand felt very soft, and very warm, and it filled my whole body with a tingling sensation I hadn’t felt for years, as if dead nerves were sparking to life.

I’d wanted to kiss her—in fact, I ached to kiss her—and it wasn’t because of any sexual urge, but rather a desire to get close to her, to meld with her—to become almost as a single living entity. I suddenly wanted to feel connected to someone—attached. I wanted to feel her warm skin pressed against mine; her soft hands clasped inside mine. I wanted to feel her head on my shoulder, her hair in my face… and I wanted to hold her and protect her from the world; from the pale gray walls of the institution; from the bleakness of our reality—from the harshness of our world.

But we didn’t kiss. Our hands, instead, slackened… and our fingers slid apart. Not because we didn’t want to hold hands, but rather, I sensed, from a tacit understanding that we were treading on forbidden territory… and that we only were setting ourselves up for a more painful goodbye.

That half hour flew faster than any time I’ve ever known. And when the door behind me clicked open and Clancy returned, I wanted to cry. But I somehow contained myself as he led me from the filing room and downstairs to the main cell block, accompanying me to 4D, fourth cell from the left—my home for the past dozen years. He called out to the operator, and the barred door slid shut behind me.

It was only when I was curled up in my bunk with my back to the corridor, facing the pale, gray wall, that I started crying. They were intense, guttural sobs, springing from a sadness buried so deep inside of me, I hadn’t realized it existed. Or maybe I did know it existed, but I’d grown so numb to it over the years that I no longer was aware of it, like the way you don’t think about your heart beating.

Thankfully, nobody heard me crying. You can’t let your emotions get the better of you in this place. The only way to live is to recede within yourself; to numb your soul and senses. It’s no way to live, but in here, it’s the only way to live.

I turned my pillow to the dry side and tried to fall asleep, but sleep was a long time coming that night. It was only a couple of hours before dawn when I finally dozed off, and then my dreams were bright and colorful and lifelike… and all of them featured Pam.

And then a loud buzzing was sounding, and my cell door was sliding open, and I was struggling out of my bunk, hurrying to get dressed before the morning count.

*****

I dream about women sometimes. Not as much as I used to, but occasionally.

Sometimes they’re sexual dreams, and I awake feeling all perverted and gross—and guilty somehow. More often, though, they’re romantic dreams—simple depictions of companionship—such as walking hand-in-hand in a park, or cuddling and watching a sunset, or sharing a laugh over a candlelit dinner. I often awake from these dreams with a warmth that stays with me the whole day, as if the woman will be waiting for me when I return to my cell—from a long, brutal day in the laundry—to hold me after lights-out.

I imagine it’s how a close relationship must feel: a warm, comforting sensation that stays with you all day, even in those moments when you can’t be with your partner.

I never did have a girlfriend; not really. Probably the closest was eighth grade, when I kissed the neighbor girl. She was my age and lived next door. We didn’t hang out often, and we weren’t great friends. However, she came over one morning and asked me to walk with her. She led me down the street to a home under construction. We snuck inside—there were no workers that afternoon—and she cuddled with me in a crook formed by two walls.

She started kissing me: deep, wet, gooey kisses that, to me, seemed gross and invasive. We quit after a couple of minutes; it didn’t feel right. She left me on my own, to wonder what had happened—to ponder on what I’d done wrong.

A month later, she moved away. We never even said goodbye. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, that experience was the closest I’d ever get to feeling true love.

Until now, that is.

A lot of the guys here had girlfriends in high school, and a few even got laid. That’s what they call it; they say it as if it were an accomplishment, a trophy. The way they describe it isn’t the way I imagine it. They talk in terms of thrusting, banging, fucking. I always envision it as more of a gentle thing, a sweet thing—something where you’re simply together, looking into each other’s eyes, loving each other.

Some of the romance books in the library depict it like that, but I wouldn’t want anyone to catch me reading those; not when I finally have some seniority and the respect that comes with it. That perk could disappear in an instant, and I’d be right back where I was when I first arrived: a timid seventeen-year-old condemned to a life behind bars, aching for death.

Though I suppose I’m not all that different now: I’m no longer seventeen, but I’m still timid and condemned to a life behind bars. And though I no longer ache for death, some days I don’t think I’d mind it that much.

*****

I was sentenced to Permanent Detention shortly after my seventeenth birthday. My crime? Possessing a book.

Not just any book, of course—an illegal book. And the sad part is, I didn’t even read it.

Well, I did read some of it; the first couple of chapters, anyway. It was a giant tome of a novel, and the print was microscopic. It had belonged to my father, and according to my mom, he’d always wanted me to have it. He said it was an important book: a book of ideas.

I remember it was called The Fountainhead and it had been written in my great, great grandfather’s time, when printed books were still available. I vaguely remember it had something to do with architecture, and a student talking to his dean. But that’s all. At the time, I thought it was boring and dense, and if it had any useful ideas, they were way over my head.

But that book was one of the few things I had to remember my father by. He’d proudly printed his name on the inside front cover, in big, block letters. In fact, it was the only part of the book I enjoyed reading. I’d often run my fingers along the penciled name, retracing each letter, as if trying to forge a connection to the dad I never really knew.

He was killed when I was seven, gunned down in a demonstration outside the capitol. It was an inevitable end, my mother said. He’d served time once for publishing seditious content, and he spoke often at underground anti-government rallies, which usually were infiltrated by undercover informants. He was a marked man, according to my mother, and he had been living on borrowed time for ages. If he hadn’t have been shot in that demonstration, then he probably would have been stabbed in a back alley somewhere, or taken to an underground detention center and never seen again.

She claimed agents watched our house and followed us wherever we went. I remember being a young child crouched in the backseat of the car, on the verge of hysteria as my parents tried to out-maneuver a van they claimed was following them.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I grew up to be so timid and anxious.

After my father’s death, agents raided our house, searching for seditious material. They confiscated my dad’s computers, file servers, notebooks, pamphlets—you name it. They also arrested my mother for conspiracy and put me in protective custody.

She claimed she didn’t agree with my father’s viewpoints (which wasn’t true; she simply was less vocal). The state’s case against her was weak. All of the confiscated materials belonged to my father, and none of the writings bore her name.

She’d also never demonstrated her treachery in public. The state claimed she was a traitor by the simple virtue of remaining married to my father. She countered that she remained married only for my sake, because she lacked the income to raise me on her own.

In the end, the tribunal decided to show leniency. Not because they didn’t have the proof (proof was only a convenience for these sorts of trials, not a necessity), but rather because it was an election year, and nobody wanted to look bad for imprisoning a young, widowed mother, even if she had been married to an enemy of the state.

The surveillance only got worse after my mother’s release. They were ready to pounce at the slightest perceived misstep. Black cars followed us wherever we went. Figures hid in darkness across the street, like silent, watching shadows. My mother never again mentioned my father, except to curse his name—convinced as she was that our home was riddled with bugs.

As the years passed, my memory of my father devolved to a shadow, then dissolved to a ghost.

The surveillance became less intrusive as time wore on, but whether seen or unseen, the government always was a constant presence—the uninvited white elephant in the room. I learned to accept fear as a normal part of my life: the fear of my mother being arrested; the fear of me being taken away from her. The fear instilled in me a rigid compliance to government dictates, and it snuffed out any rage that otherwise might have consumed my soul.

By the time I entered high school, I’d pretty much forgotten my father. So I was surprised when one evening, as I sat at the dining-room table doing algebra homework, my mother silently approached me, her index finger pressed against her lips. She handed me a handwritten note, as well as a tattered hardcover edition of The Fountainhead.

She tapped her lips with her finger, emphasizing the need for silence. Then, she pointed to the note, beckoning me to read it.

I unfolded the paper. In my mother’s tiny, neat script, she’d written: “This belonged to your father. He always wanted you to have it. He said it helped define him as a person, as an individual. He loved you more than anything, even freedom. It’s the only thing of his I have left, and I’m giving it to you.”

The note continued: “As a young man, you need to understand: this is a dangerous book. Not so much for the ideas it contains, but because so many people fear those ideas. The book’s also number six on the top-ten banned list, meaning anyone caught with it could be imprisoned—maybe for life. So whatever you do, keep it hidden. You’re old enough now to be trusted with it.”

I read the note twice. When I was done, I looked at my mother. She held out her hand, to take back the note. She stepped into the kitchen, then held the paper over the gas burner, setting the page on fire. She let the flames creep silently toward her fingers, then tossed the paper into the sink.

I looked down at the book, all worn and grubby and beat-up. Its pages were yellowed; its cover pockmarked. I opened it and immediately noticed my father’s name on the inside cover, scrawled in his erratic, blocky script.

It was the first time in eight years I’d seen his handwriting.

That book became my only link to my father. And for some reason I figured that if I could understand the book, I could come to understand him.

Unfortunately, like I mentioned, the writing was so dense, and the printing so small, that I made it through only the first couple of chapters—and even then, I understood none of it, which frustrated me. If the book had helped define my father, and I found it inaccessible, then what did that say about me? Was I even worthy of being called his son?

I kept the book carefully hidden under my bed, and I never took it out of the house. I looked at it only at night, with the door and blinds tightly closed, and even then I felt watched—haunted, almost. The fact that the book was banned—and that I could be imprisoned for owning it—filled me with a terror so intense, it made my stomach churn. In fact, it often felt more like a burden than a gift.

In the end, the book might have been too great a responsibility for a fifteen-year-old to bear. Even at the time, I wondered if my mother was naive to entrust me with it. I think on some level, she might have known I was too young. After all, I couldn’t help but notice how tightly she’d held her finger to her lips when she gave it to me, and also how quickly she’d reclaimed her handwritten note, to hold it over the fire.

*****

I feel like a lovestruck schoolchild.

Whether I’m stacking sheets or mopping the cell block or pulling weeds near the perimeter, my mind keeps drifting back to the fifth-floor filing room—to the wide, mature eyes taking me in; to the warm, soft hand clasped in mine.

To Pam.

I can’t get her out of my mind.

“Easy!” snaps Bruno, the lead cook, when I drop an empty casserole dish near his feet.

“Sorry,” I say, mumbling.

“Dammit, Paul.” Bruno waves his spatula at me. “You’ve had your head up your ass all day. You drop one more thing and I’ll smash your face against the goddamn grill. I swear I will.”

I want to tell him that my head’s not up my ass, but rather in the clouds… soaring high above this dreary compound, surveying the world. But he wouldn’t understand. Like everyone else, he’s tethered to the ground, mired in existence, with no thoughts or dreams to defy gravity—to launch him into flight.

I especially think about Pam after lights-out, as I lie awake, staring at the ceiling. I wonder if she thinks about me, too, during those long, drawn-out nights when you’re teetering toward madness, with only your thoughts and your dreams to keep you sane.

I wonder.

I start to think maybe Pam and I could be something—maybe friends, maybe more—if only we were a million miles away, with no bars to keep us confined; no walls to keep us contained. I imagine walking with her along a beach: the ice-cold waves splashing against our ankles… the blood-red sun sinking along the edge of the earth.

I imagine making love to her, the ocean’s roaring pulse resounding in the background, our breaths quick and hot against the chilly saltwater air.

But then I curse myself. It’s dangerous to play the “if only” game. Tottering down that path can lead only to lunacy. Pam and I never can be anything: not acquaintances, not friends, and certainly not lovers.

The truth is, we’ll probably never see each other again.

It’s a bleak, heartbreaking realization, but it’s a fact as cold and as hard and as impenetrable as the walls of my cell.

What I feel for Pam can’t be love. It can’t be. Even I know that love isn’t forged in an instant, but rather cultivated over time.

Which leads me to wonder: what if what I’m feeling isn’t really love, but rather lust in disguise?

After all, I hadn’t seen a woman for more than twelve years. What if it had been another female inmate that night, instead of Pam? Would I still have been swept away in the same lovestruck stupor?

It’s a question that haunts me at night, well after lights-out. Because, if true, it would mean the only genuine feelings I’ve felt in years aren’t really genuine after all.

It would mean that what I’m feeling for Pam, I could feel for any random woman.

It would mean that, in the end, I wasn’t in love with a person, per se, but rather with an idea—a fantasy.

So when I’m lying awake late at night, crying silently in my cell, it’s not because I know I’ll never see Pam again. I can live with that, I think.

What’s slowly killing me inside is the fear that my love for her might not be real.

And if that’s true, then maybe that was Clancy’s intention all along: a sort of psychological torture. If so, it would be the harshest, cruelest punishment I’ve ever endured in this place.

*****

Before we get into how I came here, a little about Permanent Detention:

It’s a relatively recent program. They started it twenty or so years ago to prevent young undesirables from joining society.

By “they,” I of course mean the government.

And by “young undesirables”… well, I suppose you’re looking at one.

I suppose.

According to the powers that be, sedition is the number-one problem facing our country. They say it’s a national-security issue. How can they effectively fight wars, they say, or protect the homeland, if their own citizens speak against them? For a nation to prosper, everyone must be beholden to the same philosophies—devoted to the same ideals.

And those who reject those philosophies and ideals need to be eradicated, like an organism rejecting a germ.

As I understand it, there was a time when you could disagree with the government openly, either in public, or in literature, or on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine. In my grandfather’s time the nation abided by what was known as the Constitution, which empowered individuals with certain rights. And though it was abolished long ago, its spirit still exists in the hearts and minds of many—including my father, who publicly advocated its reinstitution.

Of course, look how he ended up.

Hell, never mind that: look how I ended up. At least my father had a life before he died. I’m not sure you could call what I’ve got a life. I exist; that’s about it.

But at least I’m alive… so I suppose I should be grateful.

I suppose.

Permanent Detention started as an experimental program, but it proved to be so successful—and was looked upon so favorably by the population—that it became a cornerstone of the national agenda. The basic premise was simple: Identify potential nonconformists—those most likely to hold anti-government attitudes—and sentence them to life imprisonment, effectively cleansing society of its undesirables; the organism rejecting the germ.

And who better to target than high-school students?

After all, said the government, your basic philosophical foundations are laid during your youth. If you display treasonous tendencies as a young adult, chances are you’ll grow to become a rebel.

And if you were a rebel, there was no place for you in their fist-pumping, anthem-chanting, single-minded society.

High schools everywhere became a patriotic litmus test. If you obeyed, marched in line, said “yes sir” and “yes ma’am,” you generally were safe. Potential nonconformists, on the other hand—those who avoided sports and clubs, shunned cooperative learning, who ate alone and had few friends—these folks were hauled before a military-style tribunal. An administrator—most often a principal—presented evidence against the defendant. The defendant—most often a trembling, teary-eyed dweeb; you know, the quintessential menace to society—was given a chance to rebut; to claim how passionately he loved his country.

The tribunal, then, would render its verdict. Those deemed a danger to society were condemned to life imprisonment—to Permanent Detention. The gavel would slam down, and they’d be led away sniffing and sobbing… their lives effectively snuffed out before they began… and their parents would be watching in horror, knowing a raid likely was on the way, as well as additional arrests. After all, no child became rebellious in a vacuum. They had to acquire their attitudes from somewhere.

The program was a resounding success, and the senator who proposed it later won the presidency. According to government statistics, crime plummeted, national unity surged, and once again we became a great and prosperous nation, united by a common thread… beholden to the same philosophies… devoted to the same ideals.

A healthy, happy, germ-free organism.

Which, I suppose, was best for everyone.

I suppose.

*****

Looking back, I was probably on the fast-track to Permanent Detention all along. I had few friends; I didn’t play sports; I belonged to no clubs. I was quiet and kept to myself, which alarmed several of my teachers.

Plus, my father was a known radical.

My mother begged me to become more socially active. Begged me. Rather than to help me blend in, she said my meekness and timidity made me stand out.

“They’re going to peg you as a loner,” she said. “And once they do, you’re as good as done. Nothing upsets the establishment like obstinate individualism.”

I tried, but I couldn’t change my nature. Besides, I was weak and small, and if I wasn’t cowering in a corner, I was being confronted by bullies. Withdrawing was easier than asserting my presence, which usually resulted in my ass getting kicked.

But in the end, it was the book that did it. The book… coupled, of course, with my own stupidity.

I was sixteen then, and driving. I’d spent the previous summer working as a laborer on a prevailing-wage job, which allowed me to put a down payment on a used car. It was a total piece of shit—not exactly a chick magnet (not that I was, either)—but it ran, and it was mine.

The construction company I’d worked for had a yard-maintenance service, so for three hours after school I mowed lawns, pruned hedges, adjusted sprinklers. After work I’d head home for dinner, and then I’d do homework, which I always completed dutifully. Not that it scored me any points with my teachers, who all seemed to regard me with disdain.

That car gave me a freedom I’d never known before (or since, I might add). On a moment’s notice I could grab my keys and take off anywhere. My mother didn’t care, as long as I ensured I wasn’t followed.

By that time, though, my father had been gone for so long—and my mother and I had behaved so well—that the surveillance had trickled from constant to occasional. Only twice did I notice the familiar black SUVs in my rear-view mirror, trailing a few car lengths behind. Most often, they left me alone, to savor the solitude of the open road… to leave behind the burdens of school and society… to feel unconfined, unconstrained, unencumbered… free.

Free.

I especially enjoyed driving at night. I felt more shielded, somehow; less conspicuous, less visible. It was just me and my headlights cutting through the darkness, finding the way. Often, around 9:30 or so, after my homework was done, I’d grab my keys and dive into my car, to go cruising. Unlike most teenagers, though, I didn’t head to the city. In fact, I went in the opposite direction: into the wilderness; as far away as I could get from civilization, from people—from society.

I crawled along bumpy mountain roads—the ones I could navigate with a two-wheel drive, anyway. I explored some cool, seemingly untouched scenery. My favorite place was this dry, desert lakebed I discovered a couple miles off a windy stretch of utility-company right-of-way. I would park in the middle of it and lie on my warm hood… my fingers interlaced behind my head… and I’d stare into the deep, expansive night sky, letting my mind wander, my thoughts drifting toward the heavens, my dreams searching out the stars.

I’d return home around midnight, long after my mom was asleep. And as I slunk into bed and shifted on my mattress, I’d feel it—the book I’d hidden—its bulk pushing into my back, reminding me of its presence.

It always left me with an ache when I awoke: a sharp reminder of reality; a pain that dissolved my dreams.

*****

I’d always wanted to read the book, to understand the ideas it contained.

And, perhaps, to understand my father, and why he cherished those ideas.

I’d tried to read it at home, but I felt too uncomfortable—too compromised, somehow. I’d grown up hearing our house was bugged, so I’d spent my whole life feeling watched, spied upon. I never truly felt at ease in my own home. When I jerked off, I did it as quietly as I could, under the covers, and even then I felt like eyes were boring into my back, judging me. The only place where I felt any seclusion, any privacy, was at the dry, desert lakebed, surrounded only by the sky and the darkness.

And it hit me: Why not read the book there?

It made sense, and the risk seemed small. I visited the lakebed about three nights each week—including Saturdays—and I figured if I read half a chapter a night, I could get through the book in no time.

The hardest part, for me, was smuggling it from the house to the car. I shoved it in my backpack one morning, took a deep breath, then dashed from the front door to the driveway, scurrying like a rodent evading a cat. I prayed no agents were watching from across the street—ensconced in shadows, as I imagined them: smoking, squinty-eyed, suspicious.

Once I was safely away, I crammed the book under the front seat, along with the crumbs and loose change. It seemed a safe place—I’d never had my car searched at school, and I’d never been caught speeding. I figured it’d be fine there, at least for the month or two it’d take me to read it.

My progress was slow-going. For one, as I mentioned, the print was microscopic, and I had to hold the book close to make out the words. For another, I had only my car’s dim dome light to read by; it cast a sickening, piss-colored orange upon the pages.

But perhaps the biggest problem was that I simply wasn’t used to reading off paper. Up till that point, most everything I’d read had been on electronic tablets. The text I knew was fluid, adjustable. I was used to changing the text size and fiddling with the fonts.

Words on paper, on the other hand, seemed static and dead, as if engraved in stone. They were like viewing an unchangeable past: unadjustable, unmovable—mired in time.

I’d read while lying across the backseat, the windows down to let in the cool, evening air. The crickets chorused in time to my breathing, providing the perfect backdrop to the unfolding story.

It took me a few nights, but I reached the end of chapter two. I sat up, checked my watch, and saw it was after eleven. Not that I had to get home right away. As strict as life was, few communities enforced curfew ordinances. The fear of Permanent Detention kept most teenagers in line.

I rumbled over the rocky dirt road, headed back to town… the book carefully concealed under the front seat. And that’s when I saw it, about a mile up the road: several sets of headlights, barreling over the low brush… and the flashing red and blue lights, spinning like wild cyclones.

I froze, slamming to a halt. It looked like a big cluster of cars, haphazardly spaced. They were racing toward the road I was on, following a perpendicular line.

On instinct, I flicked off the headlights and steered the car off the road. Brush scraped at my side; the metal undercarriage ground against rock. I shut off the engine, my breathing strained, my muscles tight.

There were about ten cars, and they were racing across the desert landscape, bouncing over rocks pockmarking the ground; slamming through narrow gullies carved by rainwater.

And then a chopper appeared, casting a brilliant spotlight upon the scene.

I could see, then, that it was a pursuit. Three lumbering SUVs struggled to outpace seven or so patrol cars. Their front grills were mashed; their paint and sidings torn. The rough terrain was tearing them up so badly, I was surprised their tires and suspensions had remained intact.

As the cars approached, I held my breath, wondering if they would cross my road… or take a sharp turn toward me. It seemed likely they might turn; compared to the outlying terrain, my road was smooth and unobstructed.

And then, it happened: the frontmost SUV hit a hole—or maybe one of its tires blew out; I couldn’t tell—and in an instant it was flying in the air, turning on its side… and then it landed, hard, twisting into a heap of shattered glass and mangled metal, pushing up a pile of sand as it slid to a stop.

A handful of patrol cars screeched to a standstill, and officers emerged, guns drawn, screaming. I saw shadowy figures moving, running.

Then, gunshots… more yelling… and pained, anguished screams.

The other two SUVs kept going, and the remaining patrol cars followed.

And when they reached the dirt road, they took a sharp, right turn… and started soaring in the direction of the lakebed.

Right toward me.

*****

I remember watching the headlights as they rumbled toward me, bright and unblinking. And I remember the dazzling glare as the chopper cast its searchlight over the road, illuminating my car as if it were the focal point of an onstage display.

I remember hearing more gunshots… and a nearby zinging. And then I was cowering on the floor, hiding my head, the roar of the chopper deafening.

I remember the blue and red lights flashing before me… surrounding me; engulfing me. And I remember strong hands wrenching me through the door, dragging me onto the ground. And then there was a boot on my throat, and bright lights all around… and then more of the yelling: deep, primitive, indecipherable.

I remember gasping for air, my face pressed against the dirt, small puffs of sand billowing from my strained breaths. And I remember glimpsing an officer fishing through my car—most likely searching for weapons—as others leveled their rifles at my head, screaming at me.

He didn’t find any weapons. Instead, he emerged from the car holding the book.

I remember more of the yelling… and then a sharp, blinding flash of pain as someone slammed the butt of a rifle across my head, nearly knocking me out. After that, all I recall is a dreamy, spacey feeling, as if I were sinking underwater… and the warmth of the blood as it flowed down my face… pooling on the ground, staining the sand.

*****

Later on, I learned the men the police were chasing that night were members of an outlaw survivalist organization that took refuge in the desert, migrating from camp to camp. They were considered armed and dangerous—known enemies of the state.

That night, four were killed and six were captured.

Well, seven, I guess… if you included me. Which is what the headlines did. It was a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Though I was never charged with being a member of the group, the news portrayed me as a teenage malcontent, armed with a copy of The Fountainhead… the son of a known radical, captured in hostile territory near an enemy camp.

A camp, it turned out, with whom my father had associated once, eons ago.

That juicy fact emerged during the trial, a three-day public spectacle complete with reporters, cameras and jeering spectators. Most juvenile inquisitions were small, private affairs, but in my case, they wanted to make an example.

Teachers testified against me, as did my principal. Said they knew all along I was a rebel; apparently, they’d pegged me long ago as an antisocial malcontent.

I remember when the inquisitor raised The Fountainhead for the audience to see—all the murmurs and gasps that erupted from the crowd. That damning piece of evidence alone was enough to put me away for life—never mind the alleged connection to the survivalist group.

They ripped out the pages right there during the inquisition and threw them in a metal receptacle. The inquisitor lit a match, then let it sizzle between his fingers for a long, dramatic moment. Then, looking at me and grinning, he tossed it into the bin, setting the pages aflame.

The fire was bright, its flames fierce… but within moments it had petered out to a smoldering, useless clump of ashes.

*****

The verdict, of course, was inevitable: immediate, lifetime removal from society.

Permanent Detention.

My mother didn’t make the trial. I heard that after I was taken into custody, agents raided our house and arrested her for crimes against the state. I don’t know what became of her; no one’s ever told me. I don’t know if she’s in a detention center somewhere, like me… or if she’s even still alive.

If she’s alive, she’ll be turning fifty this year.

If she’s alive.

*****

Permanent Detention involves not only discipline, but re-education. Three days each week we take classes in national history, to learn the importance of patriotism and unity. We’re told these lessons will help us function in the event we rejoin society.

Not that anyone ever rejoins society—at least not that I know. At age thirty, we’re supposed to undergo an evaluation to determine whether we’re fit for release. What I’ve heard happens is that we stand in front of a board to plead our case. If you can convince them you’re no longer a nonconformist threat (and good luck with that), then you’re sent to a halfway house and placed in a low-end, menial job somewhere. Those who lack the charm to dazzle the board are transferred to a maximum-security prison, to finish their lives with society’s other scourges—including rapists, child-molesters, and murderers.

You know, real criminals.

That’s what scares me more than anything, especially as my birthday approaches. Permanent Detention is horrible—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a different sort of place than an everyday prison. For one, all of us inmates are of a similar mindset. Each of us lost our freedom for the unpardonable crime of offending the government. And though we’re all a little too individualistic to form groups or cliques, we’re all very much brethren, bonded by our ideals.

I wouldn’t call anyone here a criminal; not really. In fact, I’ve never encountered violence in Permanent Detention. There were initiations when I first arrived, but they were of the high-school variety, and they certainly didn’t involve beatings or rape. And though there is a pecking order delineated by seniority, I’d say for the most part, all of us treat each other respectfully.

So the idea of being integrated with real criminals terrifies me, because I know I won’t survive. I’m weak and timid… and any anger I’m capable of feeling I direct inward (this is what I’ve been told, anyway), so that when an external force oppresses me, my only defense is to self-destruct… which, essentially, is surrender.

Generations of inmates have matriculated since I joined Permanent Detention, and now I myself am inching toward the end. No one I know has ever been released. If they have, they’ve never written to report on the outside (unless, of course, their letters were intercepted by the powers that be; none of us knows for sure).

If I’m transferred from Permanent Detention, I’ll die. One way or another, I’ll die. I’m not a survivor. As fucked-up and cruel as this place is, it insulates me from life’s other horrors. And that’s what’s funny, if you think about it: the fact that my life depends on me remaining in an institution whose very purpose is to strip my life away from me, piece by excruciating piece.

So, in the end, I’m faced with an impossible question of what’s better: a quick, violent death… or a slow, agonizing one?

Not much of a choice, really.

*****

“You’re angry,” my counselor says.

“Huh?” I ask, looking up.

He smiles. “You’re angry. You may not think so, but you are.”

I meet with a counselor for an hour each week. It’s part of the re-education program. He’s supposed to help me understand the depravity of my individualism. So far, he’s been less than successful.

I shake my head. “I’m angry? I don’t think so.”

“I know so.” He leans forward. “The guards tell me you’ve been moping for weeks. You don’t eat much, and I can tell you’re not sleeping. Something’s making you angry.”

“I’m not angry,” I say. “Tired, maybe.”

“Tired?”

“Yeah. Tired.”

The counselor smiles. “Paul, when a patient exhibits symptoms of depression, it means deep down they’re angry about something. Depression is merely anger turned inside-out. Did you know that?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s true. Depression emerges when we’re unable to direct our anger outwards. Which, in your case, makes sense. As a prisoner, you’ve probably learned to bottle your emotions, for fear of punishment. So when you’re angry, you clam up, directing all those feelings inward.”

“And that means I’m angry?”

“It means your anger is manifesting itself as depression—yes.” He leans back and steeples his fingertips. “Anything happen to you lately that would arouse these emotions? A confrontation, perhaps, that I should be aware of?”

An image of Pam flashes through my mind. “No.”

“No?”

I shrug. “I can’t think of anything.”

The counselor tilts his head. “Perhaps you’re nervous about your upcoming evaluation?”

“My evaluation?”

“You’re turning thirty in about… what is it, a month?”

“Oh.” I shrug again. “Maybe.”

“Your anger might be rooted in a feeling of helplessness.”

“Helplessness?”

“You might be feeling you have no control over your future or your destiny.”

“Well, I don’t, do I?”

The counselor frowns. “You make choices each day that affect your circumstances. That’s why you ended up here.”

“It is?”

“You made a choice to flout rules. No one held a gun to your head. You alone made the choice to be disobedient—to disobey.”

“They did hold a gun to my head,” I say. “Literally. I’ll never forget that.”

“They only held a gun to your head because you broke the law.”

A stupid law, I want to say. But I don’t. I’m sure the counselor wouldn’t appreciate it, and I don’t need a black mark on my file, especially not this close to my thirtieth birthday evaluation.

The counselor takes a deep breath. “Paul, I think deep down, your feelings of helplessness anger you. You’re nervous you’ll fail your evaluation, and you’re angry that you’re being put in a situation where you have to defend yourself. But you’re unable to direct your anger outward, so you’re deflecting it inward, instead. Which is why you’re exhibiting symptoms of depression.”

“Oh. OK.” My mind wanders, and suddenly I’m thinking of Pam. She’s standing in the filing room doorway, her hair flowing past her shoulders, her eyes glinting like jewels in the dimness.

“Paul?”

I look up. “Yeah.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“What I’m thinking?”

“Yes, what you’re thinking—right now, at this very instant.”

I smile. “I’m thinking a beautiful thought.”

The ends of his lips twitch upward. “A beautiful thought?”

“Yeah.”

“Care to go into detail?”

“No.” I shake my head, slowly. “No, not really.”

He rests his pen on his clipboard. “For a second there, you seemed genuinely happy. That’s why I asked. You actually had a smile on your face.”

“I did?”

He nods, and a slight grin forms.

I think of Pam again—I see her smiling at me, holding my hand, telling me about herself, about her life… and suddenly it’s as if someone’s grabbed the back of my collar and is dragging me out of the room. Pam’s still standing there, but she’s growing farther away—she’s reaching out to me… and I’m digging my heels into the floor, to slow myself, but I can’t stop the force that’s yanking me backward. And suddenly Pam’s gone, and I’m back in my cell, staring at the brick wall… and then the daydream’s gone and I’m back in reality: I’m sitting in a hard, metal folding chair, my hands clasped in my lap… and I’m facing the counselor, who’s staring at me, a clipboard in front of him. There’s a window a few feet above his head, and the morning sun is pouring through it, casting the room in a golden glow.

Only the window is cloudy, opaque… and at least a foot thick. And though it’s letting the morning light through, I can’t see through it to the outside world.

*****

I jolt awake in my cell. It’s the middle of the night.

I’ve just had a dream; a terrible dream. Pam was in it. I’ve had several dreams with Pam, but none like this.

It starts out as usual, with the two of us in the filing room. She’s looking deep into my eyes, and she’s smiling. I smile back. We clasp hands, standing there, together, savoring the moment… a moment we know won’t last—can’t last—because in time we know we’ll be taken from each other, back to our individual wings… to our individual cells… to the lonely, tedious, individual grinds we call our lives.

But then the dream takes a different, unfamiliar turn. I’m reaching out to touch her face; I run my fingertips along her cheek. Pam rests her head on my shoulder, pressing her body against mine.

And then the scene accelerates. Suddenly, I’m pulling off her shirt—my heartbeat quickens—and Pam’s fumbling at my pants, trying to yank them off.

And in the next instant she’s naked, and she’s crouched on her hands and knees, her back to me. And I position myself behind her—I have to sort of squat—and she’s reaching between her legs, to guide me into her.

I place my hot hands on her buttocks, tilting my head back… and then I start thrusting, banging, fucking—I begin slowly and work up a rhythm. With each thrust Pam is moaning, grunting… and I’m moaning, too. My eyes are closed, and my hands are caressing her smooth hips, which she arches backward, to press against me.

My heart and my body are moving to the same hammering rhythm… and then I’m crying out, gasping, heaving… then my body’s slowing to a standstill, my breaths growing deeper, less strained.

I drape myself across Pam’s back, exhausted… and I bury my nose in her hair, which smells like sweat and the lilacs we used to have in our front yard.

Pam’s moaning, softly… and like mine, her breaths are deep and even. The two of us lie there, together, fingers intertwined, gazing into each other’s eyes.

The filing room door flies open then, and though I can’t see who’s entered I can feel them: a dark, hovering presence, which surrounds us—like a chilling mist—to break us apart.

And then Pam starts screaming, and screaming—her high-pitched wails echo across the darkness.

And I’m screaming, too, because the mist has encircled me… it’s cinched around my throat… and it’s pulling me away—out the door and down the hall… and Pam’s screams are growing fainter, and fainter.

That’s when I jolt awake. It takes me a moment to orient myself. The dream is still bright and vivid and alive; the last few moments replay themselves in an endless, terrifying loop.

I sit there for a few minutes, breathing heavily, the nighttime darkness seeping into my soul. Then, hesitantly, I reach under the blankets, my arm creeping like a snake, as if afraid of what I might find. I wince when I finally feel it, what I know has to be there: the hot, sticky pool of semen, some of which clings to the sheets, with the bulk covering my stomach like syrup.

And I start to cry, then—my body trembles with the familiar guttural sobs that lately have become a late-night ritual. Only this time, they’re much more intense—and much more profound—because I know I’ve forever tarnished my wholesome, unblemished memory of Pam. What we did in the dream wasn’t loving—it was primitive, mindless, and violent… with no depth, no sensuality—no meaning.

I fucked her as if she were a whore… and I enjoyed it.

I close my eyes, and I try desperately to revisit that night in the filing room, when Pam and I were holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes—and nothing more.

Only the perverted dream keeps returning in graphic snippets: the thrusting, the sweating, the gasping, the fucking.

And I start to cry harder—not for me, or even for the precious memory I’ve ruined—but for Pam.

I feel like I’ve violated her.

*****

I spend the following morning in the laundry, as always, sweating buckets in the hot, steamy enclosure. I speak to no one. At lunch I eat alone, sitting at a small table in the very back of the cafeteria. The food seems even more bland than usual. I take a few bites, then push the tray away, sighing.

After lunch, I sit on the dirt in the exercise yard, my back against the cafeteria wall. I fold my legs against my chest, resting my chin upon my knees.

It’s a warm, mid-summer day; the air is hot and still. I sigh and gaze at the sagebrush-covered mountains in the distance, draped in shadows in the afternoon sun. They’re so majestic, so imposing. I imagine myself lost in their wilderness, hiking up a narrow deer trail, pausing every so often to sip water from my canteen.

I love to gaze at the mountains. They give me a horizon to focus on: a dream upon which to set my sights. And if I hold my palm in front of me, I can almost block the twelve-foot-high perimeter fence, topped with gleaming barbed wire… as well as the twin guard towers, which stand like sentries on either corner of the yard.

Most people are milling around, loafing, waiting for the whistle to sound the beginning of the next shift. No one stops to talk. In the past weeks I’ve severed myself from the rest of the population, spending as much time alone as I can, either in the library or in my cell.

My only companion is Pam—she remains with me at every moment.

As I stare at the mountains, I glimpse Clancy walking toward me. He’s huffing with his heavy-footed gait, the brim of his cap pulled low over his eyes. He approaches me and leans against the wall, sucking in deep breaths.

“What’s up, Paul?” he asks.

I shrug, staring straight ahead. “Just enjoying the day, Clancy.”

“Yeah?” He pulls out a handkerchief and dabs his forehead. “Word is you’ve had your head up your ass the past couple of weeks.”

I swallow. I don’t say anything.

“Well?” Clancy says, glowering. “What’s the deal?”

“No deal,” I say, shrugging again. “Just tired, Clancy.”

“‘Just tired’—that’s bullshit. Something’s up… and I think I know what it is. You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”

“Her?”

“Don’t be a smart ass, Paul—you know what I’m talking about. You’ve got to get that girl off your mind. You’ll go crazy daydreaming about her.”

I swallow. “Take me to see her again, Clancy. Please?” My voice cracks on “please,” and my face flushes with heat.

“Oh, shit.” He turns away and surveys the yard. “I knew it. I knew it was a mistake. Goddammit.”

“Please,” I say. “Even if it’s just for ten minutes. I won’t cause any trouble. It’s just… I think I’m in love with her.”

Clancy glares down at me, his lower lip protruding. “In love? Come on, Paul. That’s stupid. You barely know her.”

I sigh, staring down at my shoes. “It’s true.”

“Paul, listen to me.” Clancy hunkers down, his gut hanging over his knees. “You don’t know what love is. You have no idea. It’s not your fault; it’s just you’ve never learned. Love comes about through time; it don’t just happen just like that.”

I take a deep breath. I don’t say anything.

“I want to be clear on this,” Clancy says. “That was a one-time thing. You understand? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t take you to see her again. I couldn’t. The risk is too damn big. Hell, do you know what would happen to me if they found out? I’d be right in here with you, spending my retirement staring through bars. No, actually, I take that back—I’d probably be executed for a stunt like that: for aiding and abetting a convicted enemy of the state. I only did it because the situation allowed for it… and because I wanted to do you a favor. I think you’re an all-right guy—I do. But I’m not going to risk my job and my freedom playing matchmaker to a couple of convicted felons. I won’t do it.”

I swallow again. My throat has gone dry, and my voice sounds raspy. “Please, Clancy.”

“Nope, no way. Not a chance.”

I turn away, blinking. Even though it’s a warm summer afternoon, my body’s trembling.

Clancy lays his hairy, brawny hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Paul. Enough of this. You’re a grown man, and you’ve got to face reality. You and her, you’re prisoners. That’s just the way it is. There’s some things in life you can’t control.”

“I’d be a good husband to her,” I say. “I know I would. I’d be so kind, so attentive. I’d hug her if she were sad. I’d stroke her hair if she were scared. I’d always be there for her. I would. I’d be a good man; the kind of man she deserves.”

“Paul,” Clancy says, nudging me, “that’s enough. Get up.”

I look at him. “You’re married, right Clancy? What’s it like? Having somebody, I mean?”

“I said get up.”

I take a long, deep breath and let it go, staring straight ahead. I remain seated.

“Paul.” Clancy squeezes my shoulder, digging his thumb into my flesh. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Slowly, I rise to my feet. Clancy does, too; his left knee pops like a gunshot.

“I’m going to have you pull weeds the rest of the afternoon, instead of working in the laundry,” he says. “You need the fresh air to get your mind out of the gutter. And I mean it:

I want you to forget about her. You’re never going to see her again—ever. Do you understand me?”

I take another deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“Paul, do you understand me?”

“Yeah,” I say, my throat dry. I give a small, imperceptible nod. “Yeah, I understand you.”

He rests his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, you’re going to be all right. You’ll get over this; you’ll see. You’ll forget about her eventually.”

I don’t say anything.

Clancy grins. “You want to know what I think? And I’m only being honest here: I think you’re just hard up.”

I look at him. “Hard up?”

“Yeah. I mean, think about it: You hadn’t seen a woman for… well, how long have you been here? Ten years, right? So then you meet a woman, and all of a sudden you’re in love. C’mon. You know how pathetic that sounds? That’s like a guy who fucks a prostitute, then thinks he’s fallen in love.”

My eyes widen. “Pam’s not a prostitute!”

“Hey!” Clancy holds up his finger. “Don’t raise your voice to me. What I’m saying is that you’re mistaking lust for love. You, my friend, need to get laid big time. And why you didn’t seize the opportunity that night is beyond me. Hell, we gave you a half hour. I thought you would have been all over her. You missed your chance, bud. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you completely blew it.”

I stare at the ground, blinking. My shoes start to blur.

Clancy grins. “You know what would solve your problems? One of those handheld rubber cunts they sell in sex shops. I’ve seen them smuggled in from time to time. Maybe I’ll get you one for your birthday. A few nights alone with that, and you won’t have to daydream about that chick anymore.”

He nudges me again. “Get going to the tool shack. I’ll have Bernard meet you there. Go on—hoof it.”

I start walking, looking down at the hard, dry dirt. I can feel Clancy watching me as I walk, his eyes burning into me like branding irons.

I look up and turn, facing the mountains. God, they’re so beautiful: a picturesque image I only can reach for, ache for, but never touch, never feel.

And as I look, I have to squint against the sun hanging lower in the sky. I wince as it glints off the barbed-wire strands intertwined along the top of the fence, connected together like links of chain.

*****

I remember the last time I saw my mother. It was the night I got arrested.

She looked so tired—so worn-out and defeated. It was after dinner, and she was sitting in the living room recliner, the newsman prattling on in the background. She was looking at the screen, but I could tell her mind was somewhere else. She sat with her back slouched, her eyes unfocused and faraway.

“Mom?” I asked.

No answer.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?” She glanced over; her eyes seemed to look right through me.

“Is it all right if I go out driving later?”

A small shrug, a slight nod. “Sure. Yeah. Just be careful, hon.”

She turned back to the screen, letting out a small sigh.

I remember thinking she must have had a long day, or maybe she hadn’t slept well the previous night. It was only later, after I’d been in Permanent Detention for a while, that I came to understand that flaccid posture, that defeated look… because I recognized them both in me, in those rare times when I studied my reflection, looking hard at myself.

They came not from overworking, or from lack of sleep.

They came, I learned, from being alone.

From longing.

*****

Despite having only each other, my mom and I weren’t that close. After my father died, she sort of receded within herself. I recognized it later as a defense mechanism—the same one I adopted in Permanent Detention. As I said before, it’s no way to live, but sometimes, it’s the only way to live.

We spoke little. In the evenings we went our own ways—Mom to the television and me to my homework. Later, she would go to bed and I would go driving.

And that was our routine. We were virtual strangers living under the same roof.

At one time, my mother was as radical as my father. In fact, I think they met at a political rally. But while my father never lost his political fervor, over time my mother became less outspoken, less passionate. Not because she abandoned her beliefs, but rather, I think, because she grew up, faced reality… and recognized the futility of it all.

Plus, of course, she had me… which I think triggered a protective, nurturing instinct—an instinct that sought to preserve life, instead of endangering it by challenging authority.

I have few memories of my mother, and even those are beginning to fade. One time I’ll never forget, though, is when we took a week-long road trip to the California coast. It was summer, and I was out of school. I was about thirteen. The whole thing was Mom’s idea; she’d finally accumulated enough vacation to take off a whole week, and she wanted to go someplace special.

“I’m tired of living in a goddamn desert,” she’d said. “I want to see the ocean.”

And so we went to the ocean.

It was a gorgeous drive, filled with lush, green scenery. Giant, lumbering redwoods towered on either side of the road, grasping for the clouds. Mountainside springs coursed through brush and vines, pooling into slick, granite basins draped in moss. Claustrophobic forests gave way to sprawling green valleys patchworked by vineyards and fenced-off fields.

When we arrived at the coast, I pressed my face to the glass, staring at the scenery. I’d never seen the ocean before… so large and so sprawling… the white-tipped waves collapsing onto the shore, then grasping at the sand as gravity reeled them back.

It was late afternoon; the day was tapering to twilight. We parked along an empty beach to watch the blood-red sun melt into the turbulent water. Waves crashed and gasped… seagulls circled and squawked… and Mom and I cracked the windows to let in the cool, seawater air—so heavy and humid; so mist-tinged and sharp.

I glanced at her, and I saw her eyes—as usual—were unfocused and faraway. She stared at the ocean, her lips pursed.

We didn’t speak; not then. Instead, we watched as the sun descended into the horizon, its light dissolving along the waves; its fingers straining for the sky. Then, with a flicker, it slipped away and disappeared, retreating into the sea… plunging the world into an ashen, murky dusk.

Someone knocked on Mom’s window, then; she and I jumped. A cop stood outside, making a motion with his hands.

She rolled down the window. “Something wrong?”

“Your documents, please.”

Mom fished in her purse, handed him some papers. He snatched them and skimmed the information. “Thank you. Now your hand, please.”

Mom extended her left hand, palm-up. The officer unholstered a laser scanner, focusing the beam on the center of Mom’s palm—on the electronic chip embedded beneath the skin.

He scanned her as if she were a barcode on a cereal box.

I held my breath; my throat constricted. I couldn’t help staring at the officer’s gun dangling from his belt, along with a baton and a set of handcuffs.

Mom, I noticed, had retracted her hand and curled her fingers into a fist, which she clenched tightly alongside her lap.

“You’re from out of state,” the cop said, reading his electronic tablet. “You got a traveling permit?”

“Right here.” Mom tapped on an orange card affixed to the dashboard.

“Pick it up and hand it to me, please.”

Mom obeyed.

The officer scanned it, then handed back all the documents in one big clump. “You aware there’s a law against parking on this beach?”

“We were just leaving.”

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?”

“My son and I were watching the sunset—that’s all.” Mom’s voice sounded flat, tired—defeated.

The officer typed onto his electronic tablet. “Says here your husband was registered as a class B civil offender.”

“My husband’s been dead for six years.”

“May I ask your purpose for visiting the state of California?”

Mom sighed. “I went through all this already at the border. They granted me the permit.”

“I’m not a border agent; I’m a law-enforcement officer. And I asked you a question.”

“We’re taking a vacation. That’s all.”

“Is that so?” The officer hunkered down till his face was level with Mom’s. He wore large, mirrored sunglasses that masked his eyes. I could see my mother’s face reflected in them; her mouth was even, betraying no emotion. He glared at her, then looked at me. I swallowed.

“How old’s the boy?” the officer asked.

Mom took a long, slow breath. “What’s he got to do with anything?”

“I asked you a question.”

“You saw his documents, didn’t you? He’s thirteen.”

The officer turned to me; now it was my own face I saw reflected in his sunglasses: pale, timid—cowering. “What’s your name, kid?”

“What are you asking him that for?” Mom asked, her voice raised. “You saw his documents.”

“You just let him answer, now.” The officer’s voice remained even.

My mouth and throat felt parched all of a sudden. I struggled to breathe.

“I asked you your name.” The officer’s large, mirrored eyes burned into me like branding irons.

“Paul,” I finally managed to say, croaking. My heart seemed to hammer in my ears.

“Paul.” The officer continued to look at me, as if trying to read my mind. I knew I was quivering, and it made me ashamed, because I knew I wasn’t behaving like a man, but rather like a frightened schoolboy… leaving my mother to defend not only herself, but me, as well.

And I hated myself for that: for how small the man made me feel. It’s a memory I’ve dwelled on often; a feeling that’s haunted me my whole life.

“I wasn’t aware of the law,” Mom said. “I swear. We were just leaving, anyway.”

The cop stood. “You staying anywhere in particular?”

Mom hesitated. “We don’t know, yet. We were going to find a motel.”

The cop took a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Law requires us to monitor any out-of-state citizen our system flags as a potential threat. Once you know where you’re staying, you call that number and report your whereabouts. The same goes for any time you change motels, and also for when you head home.”

Mom raked her teeth along her lower lip. “I was tried once for sedition. They declared me innocent.”

“Don’t none of that matter: it’s the law. Someone with your background—and your husband—it’s automatic twenty-four-hour observation.”

“For god’s sake,” Mom said, her voice cracking. “We don’t deserve this. My son and I are loyal citizens. We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“It’s the law.” The cop turned to leave. “You be sure to call that number, now. If you fail to check in by 10 p.m., we’ll put an APB out on your vehicle. Failure to comply is a serious offense. Mandatory jail term is six months, I believe.” He tipped his hat and started walking away. “Have a nice day, now.”

“Yeah, right,” Mom said, rolling up her window. She flung his card on the floor.

We watched him climb into his car and speed off, his rear tires spewing sand. Mom started the engine, then backed out slowly. She didn’t say anything as we pulled onto the highway, merging with the heavy traffic.

I swallowed again. My heart was beginning to slow down, now that I knew we weren’t going to jail.

“Close call,” I said, trying to laugh. It came out as more of a hiccup.

Mom stared straight ahead, her eyes narrowed. She clenched the wheel tightly.

I took a deep breath. I wanted to say something to make Mom happy—to bring back the laughing, carefree person she’d become on the ride over; the person I suspected she’d been when she was younger, when Dad was alive.

The person I rarely got to see, and who I really wanted to get to know.

“That was a good idea, watching the sunset,” I said. “I thought it was awesome—thank you.”

Mom sucked in a deep, long breath, then expelled it slowly.

“The last time I saw the sun set over the ocean, I was a little girl,” she said, her voice soft. “I remember it so clearly, like a picture pressed upon my mind. Seeing it again, after all these years… it takes me to a better time, a better place.”

She huffed. “I just wish he hadn’t have showed up. He ruined it for me—he really did. Now, whenever I look back, all I’ll see is that smug, condescending face… and I’ll be flushed with the same anger I’m feeling now.” She sighed. “I hate the power they wield—I really do. It makes me feel so helpless, so hopeless… like I’m an inferior life form with no backbone who can be bent and twisted into any direction they choose. They have a way of doing that to you—of making you feel so little; so insignificant and small.”

She shook her head and gave me a sideways glance. “I’m sorry—I’m just a little shaken. I hate the way things are, sometimes.”

Shame surged through me then, and my guts bunched into a hard, tight knot. According to Mom, the cop had made her feel small, just as he had me… and yet she’d maintained her composure while I’d frozen like a startled deer.

Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have bothered me (I was only a child, after all, while Mom was emboldened by adulthood), but at the time I felt so emasculated, so little… and I hated myself for my cowardice—so much so that I wanted to die at that moment, in the most painful and violent way possible. I imagined the cop wrenching me from the car and slamming my face into the asphalt… then kicking me in the stomach, the chest, the face—repeatedly—till I was gasping for air and choking on blood. He’d slip out his baton and bludgeon my skull, walloping and wailing till bones split apart and my brains slid out in a gooey, bloody pool. Then he’d stand over me and piss on my corpse, as my mother screamed from the car, crying.

And as those cruel, sickening images flashed through my mind, hot tears stung my eyes… and yet I smiled. I smiled, because—strange though it might sound—it felt good for me to envision my own demise, as if it were a means of retreating within myself—of denying the cop the satisfaction of exposing my weakness, my cowardice.

Only later—much later—did I realize what I was feeling was inverted anger. I’ve always directed my emotions inward. It’s a reaction, I suppose, that comes from a lifetime of oppression; of withdrawing from the world. And when you lack the guts to stand up and fight, all you can do is envelop yourself in a snug blanket of self-destruction.

And it feels good.

It feels good, I guess, because it’s a feeling… and any sort of feeling is better than numbness—than nothing. Pinpricks sting, but when they’re all you feel, they feel downright orgasmic.

Mom glanced over at me. “You OK, hon?”

I blinked. “Huh? Yeah. I’m fine.”

“You sure?” She was looking at me, hard… and frowning.

I turned away to watch the scenery. I didn’t answer.

She reached over and touched my knee. “It’s OK, honey. It’s over—he’s gone. Nothing’s going to happen to us. We’re going to be OK.”

A sharp pang of sadness shot through me. The way she’d spoken—the quiet, toneless inflection of her voice—had such a forlorn, lonesome quality to it, like the notes of a harmonica drifting over the desert… and I realized then how alone we were, my mother and I; how fragile and delicate and helpless we were… especially in that moment, miles and miles away from home, with the gorgeous sunset now only a memory, and the impenetrable darkness closing in.

And I wanted to make my mother feel better—again, to make her the happy, carefree person I knew she could be—so I swallowed and tried to strike an optimistic note: “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”

She laughed—a dark, humorless laugh—and she looked at me and said: “You’re so young. Do me a favor, will you? When you look back on this day, try to think only of the sunset, and nothing else. I want you and I to share that one, unblemished moment. Life is bleak enough without the real world marring your memories.”

She gazed at the road then, at the scenery unspooling before us. The engine hummed with the rhythm of the road. Only a few other drivers had flicked on their headlights, to cast their beams upon the impending darkness.

“You know,” my mother said, after a couple of moments, “seeing that sunset reminded me: there’s still some sanctuary in the world. They can take a lot from you: your freedom, your self-worth, your dignity, your pride. And they can prevent you from reading certain books, or from expressing certain views. But one thing they can’t take—no matter what the threat, no matter what the punishment—is your ability to think beautiful thoughts. In the end, all we have is our mind, and if we use it to immerse ourselves in beauty, then we can always escape… no matter where we are.”

She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. And as we continued driving the hot, vivid flashes of euphoria I’d felt envisioning my own destruction tapered away to a cool, calming peace, as my mind drifted back to the ocean, and to the sunset… and to the white, blinding beauty of the sun’s rays as they grasped for the sky, reaching for the heavens… before being swallowed by the sea.

*****

It’s after dinner, and I’m shuffling in a line with the other inmates to the cell block—to 4D, fourth cell from the left.

My home for the past dozen years.

As we round a corner, I see Clancy standing there. He motions me over.

“Paul,” he says, his voice quiet, “you’re coming with me. Don’t say nothing.”

My eyes widen, and my lips part, but no words emerge.

Clancy nods, as if in response to the question I was trying to ask.

The line of prisoners keeps marching, but I follow Clancy in the other direction. I’m thinking we’re heading to the elevator—to the fifth-floor filing room—so I’m surprised when we keep marching toward the exit.

A guard buzzes us through, and we emerge into the glistening white lobby.

The door slams shut behind us. Only a few feet beside it lies another door, a mirror image of the first.

The door to the women’s wing.

It remains tightly closed. I can’t get so much as a glimpse inside.

Clancy walks behind me now, following procedure. He guides me to a guard post near the prison’s entrance. Two guards immediately come out and frisk me. Then one cuffs my hands behind my back while the other secures chains around my ankles.

Clancy tells them he’s checking me out for off-campus detail—he gives them my name and number, then fills out a form.

“Open your mouth,” one of the guards says. He checks under my tongue and between my gums, prodding with a gloved finger.

Then they lead me outside, into a spacious parking lot, where a minivan is waiting. The chain between my legs is short, so I have to walk with a shuffle. The guards usher me into the van’s backseat, which has a cage separating it from the front. Steel mesh covers the windows.

Clancy climbs behind the wheel, huffing. He slams the door; the front windows are rolled down.

“See ya, Clancy.” One of the guards waves—he’s a young man, fresh-faced and eager, probably in his early twenties.

I wonder suddenly if he has a wife, or a girlfriend—if he’s ever fallen in love.

I glance, but I don’t see a ring on his finger.

Clancy fires up the engine, and we’re off. We drive toward the main gate, which lies at the end of a long, two-lane driveway. Tall fences stand on either side, affixed with bright, blinding lights.

My heart is beating fast. This will be my first time off the prison grounds in more than a decade. I remember my ride in here, along this very driveway, as I sat in the back of a rickety, stuffy bus. It seems like eons ago, when I didn’t qualify as a man.

I swallow, wondering if I even qualify now.

We approach the gate; Clancy slows to a stop. A trio of guards emerges from the shack to inspect the vehicle.

“Keep your yap shut,” Clancy says over his shoulder, his voice gruff. But he doesn’t have to worry about me—I’m too nervous and excited to say anything.

The guards shine flashlights in the vehicle, into my eyes. Clancy leans his head out the window, answers their questions. He’s the captain of the guards, so they mostly nod in obedience. Then they retreat to the shack, and the tall, double gates swing open… and then we’re driving along a narrow desert highway, in the middle of nowhere. The headlights sweep through the darkness as we drive around curves and bends.

I remember this road. It’s all coming back to me.

“You’re excited to see her again,” Clancy says. “I can tell.”

My breathing has quickened. “Where are we going?”

“Up the road a ways, into the desert. We figured it would be safer to do it away from the prison, where there’s no chance of you guys getting caught. You’ll be able to talk all you like, as loud as you like.

“And,” he continued, stealing a quick glance at me over his shoulder, “who knows—you might even get laid. Right?” He laughs.

“Is she already there?” I ask.

“Yeah, she should be. They got a half-hour head start. The story is we’re taking you to my mother-in-law’s party, to wait tables and do dishes. It’s not strictly procedure, but I’m the captain, and I get my perks, which includes state-provided slave labor.”

“Thank you, Clancy,” I say. “I really… I mean—”

“You don’t know what to say? You’re speechless?”

I smile. “Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”

He turns again, briefly. “Happy birthday, kiddo. Next week, right?”

“I guess,” I say, shrugging.

“You guess? You don’t even know when your own birthday is?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“‘It doesn’t matter,’” he mimics. “Fuck you; you’re turning thirty. When you’re an old codger like me, with one foot planted in the grave, then suddenly it’s going to matter. You’re going to look back and wonder where the hell your life disappeared to.”

I gaze out the window. I don’t say anything.

Clancy glances back at me and smiles. “This will be a better birthday present than a fake rubber snatch. Am I right?”

I only nod, closing my eyes. I don’t want to think in such sordid terms. All I want to think about is Pam—her beauty, her voice—and the way my stomach fluttered when she looked in my eyes. I don’t want to think about the seedy sexual overtones of runaway lust. I only want to think about love, and light, and the vision of myself in the embrace of my soulmate.

We continue driving; it feels like we’re going uphill. The van shifts down a gear, and the engine whines.

“She’s a good-looking girl,” Clancy says. “I picked her out for you myself. You and her, you seem alike. You’re both the quietest inmates we’ve got.”

“Why are you doing this for me?” I ask. “I mean, you’re putting yourself at risk, right?”

“You’re damn right I am,” Clancy says, nodding. “But I’ve always said, a man’s got to lay his eyes on female flesh once in awhile. You really do. You got to get laid every so often to keep your mind working right—to keep the cobwebs clear. You know what I mean?”

Before I can answer, he laughs and shakes his head. “No, you wouldn’t know what I mean; not really. Fuck that. What I’m saying is… well, you deserved a nice birthday present. Let’s just leave it at that.”

I stare out the window; the wide, desert flats stretch along on either side of the road like a dry, giant lakebed. The moon and stars gleam brightly in the cloudless sky.

I stare at the heavens, mesmerized. I haven’t seen the night sky like this since I was that lonely kid who went off driving at night. It seems so long ago. I’m used to the prison’s bright perimeter spotlights, which blot out the stars, as if to keep your thoughts and dreams from reaching too high.

We turn onto a rough, bumpy dirt road. We bounce over rocks, and I press myself against the door, to steady myself. My hands are cuffed behind me; I have them burrowed into my lower back, and by now my wrists and shoulders are burning with pain.

We continue driving. There are no trees out here; only rocks and sagebrush. The outlying terrain is rough and ripply, like a wavy, stormy sea. The air that drifts in through the open front windows is cool—much cooler than seems normal for a summer evening like this.

We approach a second minivan, which is parked on a hump alongside the narrow dirt road. Clancy eases next to it and kills the engine, plunging the world into an awkward, sterile silence. There aren’t even any crickets. All I can hear is my own breathing, along with Clancy’s labored wheezes.

“Well,” he says, finally, “this is it.”

He climbs out of the van and slides open the back door. Taking my elbow, he helps me step outside.

“Let’s get these off,” he says, motioning to the chains. He extracts a small, metal key and unlocks the cuffs—the ankles first, then the wrists.

I rub my arms; the chains left bright red indentations.

“This way,” Clancy says, motioning me. “You lead.”

I start walking, and Clancy falls in step behind me. My heart is pounding, and it’s hard for me to breathe. Even though the sky is bright, it’s difficult to see. I step over rocks and brush, but my shoe catches on a small gopher hole, and I almost trip.

“Easy!” Clancy says. “I hope you’re not this clumsy when you dance.”

I laugh. “I’ve never danced before.”

“Ever? Not even at a wedding?”

“I’ve never been to a wedding.”

“Damn,” Clancy says. “Ain’t done much in your life, have you?”

I don’t know how to answer that… so I continue walking.

There are small hills scattered about, some as large as haystacks; others, the size of tanks.

“To your left,” Clancy says. “They’re behind that hill, waiting. Don’t piss your pants now. You feeling up to this?”

“Yeah,” I say, my voice soft. I wring my hands.

“What’s that?”

“I’m up to this—yeah.”

Clancy laughs. “Nervous?”

We round the hill, and I think I see two figures standing against the rocky wall, but it’s dark, and I can’t quite make them out.

“Keep going,” Clancy says. “Don’t stop.”

“Is that them?” I ask, meaning Pam and the female guard.

“It’s them. Keep moving.”

I continue walking, but it’s difficult to see where I’m going. Unexpectedly, one of the figures switches on a flashlight and shines it in my eyes. I trip on a large rock, which causes me to stumble and scrape my shin.

“Hey!” Clancy calls out. “It’s us!”

I rub my shin; there’s a dirty mark on my white pants, and my shoes are covered with dust.

“Over here!” the figure calls, lowering the flashlight.

I pause, abruptly. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, as if electrified.

The figure’s voice was masculine.

Clancy pushes the end of his baton into my lower back. “Keep moving, Paul.”

“Clancy,” I say. “Who’s the —”

But I don’t get a chance to finish: my voice is cut off when Clancy slams the baton into the back of my head. I pitch forward, falling onto a stickery brush. Branches scrape my stomach.

I hear shuffling footsteps; then, a couple of strong arms are hauling me to my feet.

“This the guy?” someone asks.

“Yeah,” Clancy says. “Be gentle with him; he’s probably got a hard-on. He came out here thinking he was going to get laid.”

The men laugh. My vision is wavy, but I can make them out: they’re a couple of younger guards who work in the towers. I don’t know their names.

“Where is it?” Clancy asks.

One of the guards points. “Over there, by the hill.”

“Bring him, then. I want him to see.”

Clancy starts walking, and the guards drag me toward him, toward the hill. My head is aching; I’m almost sure it’s bleeding.

Clancy stops and stands with his arms folded. “Look, Paul.”

My head is tipped backward; my skull is throbbing in time to my pulse.

“I said look!”

I struggle to focus my eyes. I follow Clancy’s finger, which is pointing to the ground.

There’s a large pile of fresh dirt; two shovels protrude from it.

And beside the pile, carved from the earth, lies a long, deep hole.

My head pitches forward. I feel like I’m going to vomit.

“It’s nothing personal,” Clancy says. “I really do think you’re an all-right guy. That’s why I introduced you to the girl. I’ve never done that for no one else. But this is the way things are. This is the way things have to be.”

I take a deep breath. I try to say something, but it comes out as more of a moan.

“What’s that?” Clancy asks.

“Pam.”

“Pam?”

“Pam.” I swallow, feeling groggy.

“Not in this life, bud. I’m sorry. She’s already gone.”

I moan, softly.

“Well?” asks the guard to my left.

“Yeah,” Clancy nods. “Go ahead; take your time. I’m going to head back; I don’t need to be here.”

He reaches out and clasps my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father comforting a son.

“See you, Paul.”

And then he leaves. I hear his footsteps retreating into the darkness—shuffling through sand, crunching through brush.

The guards let me go. One pushes me back, and I stumble, trying to keep my balance. They extract their batons, slowly, as if their thoughts are synchronized. They stand and stare, their eyes steely and cold, their weapons held ready.

They look like snakes poised to strike.

The one on my right swings at me first: he whips the baton in a long, sweeping arc that catches me smack in the jaw.

I yelp and fall backward.

They’re both on top of me, then, walloping and wailing… the batons smash me in the face, the head, the stomach, the groin, the knees. The pain is sharp, and blinding—everything is white.

I hear them hollering—deep, primitive, indecipherable yells. One drives the toe of his boot deep into my stomach. I gasp, spitting out something—maybe blood, maybe the contents of my guts.

The batons slam into my arms, my chest, my back, my lower legs. I try rolling, but I succeed only in exposing my stomach—one guard strikes blows to my chest and belly; the other slams me alongside the cheek and in the mouth.

My eyes are squeezed shut—one of my sockets is gushing blood—and all I see is a hot, blinding whiteness, as if I’m staring into the sun.

And from the whiteness, a figure emerges, transparent and tinged with mist; it drifts toward me like a silent, sailing ship. I hold out my hand, as if to touch it, to greet it… but one of the guards grabs my fingers and bends them backward. The bones snap like twigs.

The figure is defined, now: it’s a woman. She has deep, mature eyes and red, parted lips. Her light, blonde hair flows in waves well past her shoulders.

It’s Pam.

She’s smiling at me, and she’s extending her hand, to hold mine.

We’re back in the filing room, and we’re looking into each other’s eyes.

And the guards are bashing my skull, my neck, my back. One gives me a smooth, swift kick in the ribs, and I’m falling, falling… and I land hard on my stomach; my mouth takes in dirt.

I cough, but my lips and tongue are coated with sand. I gag.

And then I’m back with Pam; her fingers are entwined with mine, and she’s telling me about her life, how she likes to read in her cell on Sundays. And I’m aching to kiss her, to hold her, but I don’t. Instead, I give her hand a gentle squeeze, and I listen: I take in everything she says, her lilting voice swinging me like a melody—like the soft, sweet notes of a long-forgotten song.

And then there’s a crushing, searing pain in my back: one the guards has dropped a rock on me. I gasp; the wind’s knocked out of my lungs, and I can’t breathe.

I vaguely hear their warbled laughter… but then again, the night dissolves, and I’m back in the filing room with Pam, and we’re sitting on the floor together, leaning against a shelf, sharing stories. I’m telling her how I once burned the brownies at lunch, and how Bruno, the head chef, threatened to smash my face against the grill—how he’s always threatening to smash my face against the grill, even for the slightest transgressions—although he never does, because he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.

And I’m only faintly aware that the guards are tossing shovelfuls of dirt on me… but again, I’m back in the filing room, back with Pam, and the pain devolves to pinpricks… then, it dissolves away to nothing.

And I’m no longer numb; I’m feeling all there is to feel, but there’s no pain. There’s only beauty, and light, and love. And I’m immersed in all of it.

And I’m looking into Pam’s eyes… and she’s looking into mine, and whispering… and I know now more than ever that my heart was right—that all my tender, anguished yearning was not in vain—because right now I’m holding the girl of my dreams… the woman I want to be with, forever… because I love her so much. I love her so, so much.

She’s so sweet, so perfect, so pure.

And she’s so beautiful.

She’s so, so beautiful.

 

The Secret Keeper

by Christopher Iozzo

 

The stocky, hammer-faced man sitting behind the wheel of his late-model sedan leaned forward on the steering wheel. Flicking a cigarette onto the sidewalk to his left, he looked up at the lighted window across the street to his right. For many people, especially during the past few days as the riots broke out, it would not be safe to sit in a parked car in this section of the capital city. Frank LaFoe was not concerned, however. This was his neighborhood, his world. He’d shown up just in time to see the light go on behind the sheer curtains in Elwood Ducksworth’s office up there on the second floor. Hardly a need for the light tonight, he thought, looking left at the multiple orange glows lighting up the western horizon over the building tops. He looked at his watch and wondered if one of those glows was the actual sunset.

Noting the time, he redid the math in his head. LaFoe had some severe constraints to deal with. It’s gonna be close to get all three of them before the axe falls, he thought. Still, he needed patience, he told himself. You can’t rush it on a night like tonight. No second chances.

The truth was everyone was running out of time but almost no one knew it. Just like every other day, he chuckled. LaFoe had chosen Ducksworth as the second of his four stops for two reasons. First, he knew Ducky would not be around before a certain hour and, second, once he gave his lieutenants their marching orders, there’d be little in the way of security to deal with at this hour. The need for swift action kept competing with the need to wait until the only door into the building under that lighted window opened and eight or nine men walked out.

Admittedly, Ducksworth was out of his way but LaFoe knew it to be the biggest score on his list. The last two stops were close to each other and headed north, out of the city. First stop was that little weasel Scarandolo who LaFoe was seriously considering ending after he took his stash and then up to the cusp of town to that push-over Hartsdale and his book-making operation. Right here and now, he did not think Ducky would give him a hard time if Frank got past his men. Elwood was the boss of this quadrant for a reason and he’d see the only play left to him.

Red light poured out of the doorway of Ducksworth’s establishment. Red, thought Frank, Ducky enjoys being a throwback. One after another, a line of serious looking men emerged from the brothel. Some broke right, others left, down the street to their assigned duties. The fifth walked straight across the street and hopped into the driver’s seat of the vehicle parked five spaces ahead of him and pulled off. The door shut and the street returned to its usual mix of shadow and yellow street light.

Opening the sedan’s door, LaFoe reached for the leather sap lying on the seat next to him. Old school, he grinned. His sap was eight inches long and flat. The thin, flat handle was bound in leather and contained a spring within. This gave it more impact force when swung. The handle spread out to a flat, circular striking surface containing a medallion of lead for weight, earning it the nickname ‘beaver tail’. When swung relatively lightly, the weapon was capable of injuring. When swung hard, it could break bones. It was, of course, illegal to possess one in the capital city.

Rising from the car, he dropped the sap into his inside left jacket pocket. He locked the car with a swipe of his hand down the door jamb and strode down the sidewalk. Coming abreast of the Blue Parrot Cabaret, LaFoe crossed the street and banged loudly on the steel door. Nominally, the joint was a strip club but everyone, except for the occasional stray, knew what the place was really about.

A slat in the steel door opened and a familiar eye appraised LaFoe. It said nothing.

“Tell Ducky I gotta talk to him.” He waited a second and then added, “Now.”

“Hey man, he just got here,” said the eye. “He got shit to do first, ’fore he can take visitors.”

“I’ll burn this place down, you don’t let me in,” LaFoe’s expression was humorless.

The eye hesitated for a moment. Finally, the slat shut and LaFoe heard the latch release.

The door opened to reveal the rest of the man on the other side. Reagan Whitaker filled the hallway. He did not look pleased. LaFoe knew him fairly well. Not too bright but slow to anger, steady and reliable, with good judgment. He had a good temper for working a strip club/brothel where alcohol and hormones mixed in unexpected and sometimes explosive ways.

Frank stood only five foot nine but was thick. Whitaker had more than six inches on him with an arm nearly as big around as Frank’s thigh. Reagan began walking down the narrow, red-walled corridor saying over his shoulder at LaFoe, “Shut that.” Frank heaved the door as he walked away from it. It made a clattering sound as it hit the metal jamb and the latch clicked back into place.

Emerging into the club, the two men confronted a bartender behind his island bar and two women spinning lazily around the poles located at either end of it. The customers consisted of three men at the bar who looked more likely to be there for the drinks and drugs than the show and two men sitting off alone in a back booth. The man in the booth facing LaFoe glanced over the other’s shoulder for a moment as Frank entered the club and then resumed his intent gaze at the man who held him in conversation. Reagan nodded at the bartender as they passed him and pointed up at the ceiling. The bartender took two steps farther down the bar and reached under it. The door the two men were headed toward opened before Reagan got to it.

This hallway was painted a deep blue and was considerably wider than the entrance. No need for a bottleneck here, thought LaFoe. Whitaker entered, stood to the side to let LaFoe pass and shut the door behind them. When he got to the stairs, LaFoe climbed the first step and then turned to face Whitaker.

Reagan said, “I buzzed him. He watched you come in the club. The door should be open,” giving his head a nod up the stairs toward the door at the top of the landing.

“Thanks.” Frank said. As Whitaker turned to go, LaFoe pulled out his sap, “and… Sorry.” He swung with medium force and connected with the back of Whitaker’s head with a dull slapping sound. Reagan collapsed in a heap in the hall, unconscious.

Now! Frank thought. Now! Move! Move! He took the stairs two at a time, not knowing if Ducky had cameras in this hallway. At the top of the stairs he grasped the door handle and twisted. It opened.

* * * * *

“So what’s it gonna be… Mr. D?” The two men’s faces were literally inches apart. Seconds earlier, LaFoe had burst into Elwood Ducksworth’s office, sap in hand, and knocked out both of Mr. D’s “bodyguards” with two swipes. He then climbed over Ducky’s desk as the man tried to retrieve a pistol from one of its drawers. Before Elwood could get a handle on it though, LaFoe hit him in the chest with a foot, sending him and his wheeled office chair clattering against the curtain-covered, bulletproof picture window beyond. LaFoe then lifted him out of his chair and pinned him against glass.

Dropping the sap, Frank lifted his right leg and pulled out a Smith and Wesson double-edged boot knife, placing the blade to the man’s throat. This action was followed by the demand for all the gold in Ducksworth’s office.

Still confused about this turn of events, all Ducksworth could manage was, “You wouldn’t!” Then, desperately confused, “This ain’t you, man!” he objected.

“Let me show you something Ducky,” LaFoe said. He pulled the man away from the curtains and whipped them open. He then slammed Ducksworth back in place.

“Hey!” Ducksworth protested as his head bounced of the lexan. He struggled a bit until LaFoe pushed the blade harder against his throat, bringing the man to stillness once again.

Frank paused, looking over Ducky’s shoulder for a second to take in the scene outside. To Frank, there seemed to be more orange glows rising from more quadrants of the Capital city than the past few days. Are the riots getting worse? he thought to himself. Maybe. Or maybe it looks worse because I know what’s coming.

Bringing his attention back to the man in front of him, “You see that out there?”

Elwood struggled not to grimace at the smell of LaFoe’s stale tobacco breath and twisted his head to take in the view with one eye. “Yeah? So? That shit’s been goin’ on for days, man.”

“Maybe so, but there’s something new in the air tonight, Ducky,” Frank said firmly. Then changing his tone, “I’m not stealing from you tonight Big D, I’m trading you.” LaFoe eased back slightly from Ducksworth. Ducky had a good four inches on LaFoe and maybe twenty pounds but LaFoe was certain, as soon as he’d laid hands on the man, that success had made him soft.

“And what’ve you got that I need?” Ducksworth demanded bringing his attention back to the man with the knife at his throat.

He’s got a lot of sand for a guy with a knife at his throat, LaFoe thought. A smile came to his face. “I’ve got this: the government’s falling. Tonight.”

Elwood blinked. Two heartbeats passed. Then, “WHAT?!” as the news registered.

“I’ve got my sources. The government fell already, in fact. The news is being held back until key people can make their escape from the city, or the country. We’ve got two hours, at most, until the news can’t be contained and the whole city—hell, the whole country probably—tears itself apart.”

“So here’s the deal, Elwood. You’re a piece of shit but you’re a smart piece of shit. I know that after the last two currency devaluations you lost a lot of your worth and that you’ve been collecting gold and silver from customers instead of cash whenever you could. I know that you have at least two stashes. You have a little one here for emergencies,” LaFoe nodded his head slightly back toward the center of the room indicating the office they were in, “and a bigger one, your real stash. So the deal is this: you give me the stash here and I let you walk out of this office with a two-hour head start on the rest of the world or I slit your throat right here and now and walk out that door alone. Your choice.”

The spot just under Frank LaFoe’s left ear began to vibrate and, within that ear, he could hear a low-toned ringing. “Great. Perfect timing,” he said to himself. To Ducky he said, “Elwood, you’ve got ’til the end of this phone call to make up your mind.” With that, Frank let go of Ducksworth with his left hand and tapped the spot that was vibrating under his left ear. “LaFoe,” he said.

“Frank?”

LaFoe reclaimed his grip on Elwood’s suit, “Yeah… Who’s this?”

“Pickering.”

Frank’s eyes narrowed, “Yeah… ahhh… this ain’t really a good time,” he attempted.

“There’s no other.”

Shit, he thought. “Where are you?”

“The National Archives.”

That’s halfway across the goddamned city! he thought. “And this can’t wait?” No answer. “OK. Give me…” Frank paused and looked at Elwood Ducksworth. He could tell the man had made up his mind, “…twenty minutes. It’s bad out there.”

“Great. And Frank?”

“Yeah?”

“Bring your squad car.”

* * * * *

“Bring your squad car.” As LaFoe drove his unmarked vehicle across the city, trunk filled with four attaché cases of gold and silver jewelry, coins, heirlooms, and various other items, he wondered about the request. Bring your squad car? How else did he think I would make it across the city during a riot in twenty minutes? Better yet, why make a point of saying it?

LaFoe had, of course, gotten the loot from Ducksworth. Elwood was slippery and conniving and faithless but he was shrewd too. If the government had fallen, which it had, the only advantage left was to see it coming before anyone else and prepare. Ducksworth had been preparing for the worst in recent years by collecting gold and silver. His payoff to LaFoe gained this valuable information in advance of everyone else and continued his life. Two hours is a lot of time to prepare when all hell is about to break loose. Ducksworth had not only come to a decision during the time the phone call gave him, he’d formulated a plan and even helped Frank carry the cases to the car as he headed out to wherever his plans told him would be the best place to meet what was coming.

For his part, LaFoe really would have killed Elwood if it came to that. Elwood knew this too. The information was not free and only a co-conspirator could own it. During the few seconds of that phone call, Ducksworth had worked out that he was either in the-know or he was dead. Cop or no cop, LaFoe could not let that information spread before implementing his own escape plans. This truth was the reason LaFoe was considering killing Scarandolo at the next stop whether the man paid him or not. He’d never keep his mouth shut.

Bring your squad car? The last person LaFoe had expected to hear from on this night was Pickering. Dan Pickering had saved Frank’s life in the line of duty almost fifteen years ago. Pickering was a straight-laced cop who’d grown up in the suburbs and believed in the oath, believed in making the world a better place. LaFoe had grown up poor in this very city and had seen early on that one of the best ways to be a crook was to own a badge. He had managed to pretty much keep himself out of trouble during his youth in anticipation of gaining entrance to the police academy as an avenue to success. The two men had crossed paths once, coming at each other from opposite directions in life.

LaFoe was on the crooked end of a drug deal gone wrong. The two had met while LaFoe was lying on the ground, cocaine in a satchel next to him, a bullet in his chest, and Bobby Featherstone standing over him about to put another in his head. Pickering chanced upon the scene while on patrol. Not only did Pickering save LaFoe’s life by putting Featherstone down but he did not report the scene as he came upon it and LaFoe got a commendation instead of jail time. After the hospital photo-op and the decoration ceremony, they had never spoken again. LaFoe was left wonder about Pickering and why he had not turned him in.

Now, tonight of all nights, Pickering was calling in his marker. It could not be a coincidence. Not tonight. Could Pickering know what was coming? When Frank had said that this was not a good time, the response was “There’s no other,” and that troubled Frank.

LaFoe pulled up to the Archives to find a newer model Ford sedan parked on the sidewalk. No one actually lived anywhere around here and, though he could hear sirens and shots in the distance and see the skyline of the city behind him lit up in a fiery orange glow, LaFoe felt an eerie silence around him.

Popping the trunk, Frank pulled out his shotgun. He tapped his neck to activate his phone, and said, “redial last.” The connection was made and LaFoe said without preamble, “Dan, where are you? I’m out front.”

“Just come in the front door. It’s open. Take a left. I’m in the side atrium.”

The scene was nothing Frank LaFoe had expected. There were four dead bodies around the room. Three of them were normal looking punk kids with tattered clothes and odd haircuts, the kind he’d seen protesting on the streets the past few years. The fourth was an officer. The officer was propped upright against the wall and had a multi-pronged stainless steel device sitting atop his head. The whole atrium was wired with explosives. There was a detonator device sitting on a box about ten feet from the officer’s body.

Dan Pickering stood facing LaFoe as he came in the room. He too was taller than LaFoe. He still looked fit, LaFoe thought. Pickering was wearing casual civilian clothes and in his hands he held a small monitor. LaFoe saw this, along with the device on top of the officer’s head, and his heart sank. “Oh, shit,” he said. “Why’d you call me Dan? Tonight of all nights?”

“You’re the only one I can trust,” Pickering replied.

That was the last answer LaFoe expected to hear. “Me?!” he asked incredulously. He looked around the room again.

“You know that officer?” Dan pointed at the cop in the corner.

“No. Why? Should I?”

“Not really,” Dan shrugged. “I know him though. Pete Simpson. He was top of his class. Four-square, Internal Affairs, commendations, et cetera, et cetera… I shot him.”

“You…” Frank could just gape. This whole evening was beginning to go sideways on him.

“That’s why you’re the only one I can trust. You’re the most crooked cop I know. I can’t trust the ones I’m supposed to. Not after this,” he looked down at the monitor. “I was headed to work. They put out the call for all off-duty personnel about half an hour ago, right?”

“Right. I heard.”

“So I live out this way and, as I’m coming in, I see the lights on in the Archives. Just one room. It’s my job to stop and look, so I stop and look. They put the call out for everyone and that means big trouble, right? I parked out front and came in and, well…” He waved the monitor out in front of himself.

The hairs on LaFoe’s neck stood up and he felt a chill run down his spine. Definitely don’t like the way things are going, he thought.

He walked over, handed Dan the shotgun and took the monitor from Pickering’s outstretched hand. His right index finger hovered over the “Play” button on the screen.

The NXT-138, or NeXT Questioner, was a device the department had owned for about three years. The capital city was a test market. The metal device on the officer’s head had needles embedded within its six tips. These needles bored into the skull of the deceased and if the victim was recently expired, within about ten minutes depending on conditions, the NeXT Questioner could reanimate the memories and answer questions. The whole process was unsettling to witness or even watch on video because the victim’s mouth would move as the device worked off the victims artificially recharged electrical impulses and picked up the thought-words, playing them over the monitor’s speakers. A robotic voice synced with a moving corpse’s mouth did not make for a pleasant experience. Frank did not relish the idea of watching the video.

“Can you just give me the highlights?” he asked.

Pickering paused, thinking. “You’re going to want to see it after I tell you, but yes. That officer,” he pointed, “was setting the explosives. Those three,” pointing at the kids, “were brought here, dead, by him as patsies. I shot him when I interrupted his plans to blow up the Archives. He went for the detonator after I caught him. He was going to kill us both to achieve his plans.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah.”

“And you have that on here?” Frank looked down at the monitor in his hand.

“Yes.”

“OK,” Frank said and hit “Play.” The monitor showed a propped up Officer Simpson against the wall where he now sat. Down the right side of the screen there was a set of displays which showed the corpse’s temperature, synaptic response capacity to questioning, and the estimated time to signal degradation and session completion. On the device he could hear Dan Pickering ask, “What were you doing here?”

Simpson’s mouth moved. Roughly timed to its movements could be heard the artificial, emotionless male voice of the monitor, “Setting explosives to destroy the Archives.”

A surprised Pickering could be heard asking, “Why would you be doing that?!”

Simpson’s lips moved, “The government is falling tonight. There are secrets here that cannot see the light of day.”

“How do you know that? Who sent you?”

The corpse responded, “I am part of the Secret Keepers. I was tasked with this mission three hours ago.”

Now it was LaFoe’s turn to be shocked, he pressed “Pause.” He had a source high up within the government and he’d only heard about this news an hour ago.

Pickering interrupted LaFoe’s thoughts, “Now you know why I called you?”

“Huh?” Frank said absently.

“The government is going to fall and this guy is tasked with burning down the Archives to keep the secrets of some of the most corrupt people in government. If the public gets in here and goes through this building, who knows what they’d find?”

Focusing again LaFoe said, “Well, obviously, he and his buddies know what they‘d find,” nodding at Officer Simpson, “

“You don’t find this news unsettling? The government is collapsing!”

LaFoe managed to actually look a little embarrassed, “Yeah… well… I already knew about that.”

Pickering stared blankly at him for a full two seconds and then shook his head, “Of course you did. You’re you.

Getting back on topic LaFoe continued, “You called me because…?”

“Because this guy is the most reputable kind of officer I know. Because he’s connected high enough up into the government to know that it is falling. Because he was sent here by someone to blow up this building. Because this guy says that all the Secret Keepers are clean cut, upright citizens. They are on the side of the authorities; they don’t deal in the seedy world of criminals. Because if this guy is hiding in plain sight as a reputable officer, I need to find the most corrupt guy I know. That’s you. You are the only person in the world I know for sure isn’t working for these guys.” Pickering paused, “And I know you’ll help me.”

Frank shifted uncomfortably at the allusion to owing Pickering his life. “Alright,” he said resignedly. “What else does it say?” handing the monitor back to Pickering.

“I’ve got the full ten minutes on this thing,” Pickering said, shaking the monitor at LaFoe. “He says that this group, these Secret Keepers, have been doing these various jobs for centuries. When I asked him how long, he says theirmythology tells them they burned the ancient library at Alexandria in Egypt to keep the information within it from getting out. The library wasn’t sacked by barbarians. When I asked him why, he said that governing is messy and people would not like it if they knew the truth. This group of theirs cleans up little messes mostly but when something like tonight happens they have to wipe the whole slate clean. He says the corpses were to be left here and made to look like an act of vandalism by amateurs had gone wrong in the aftermath of the collapse. He says he killed them in Century Park and brought them here. He says…”

“OK, OK,” LaFoe interrupted, raising his hands in the air for the man to yield. Pickering was beginning to sound panicked repeating what he’d heard, as if saying these things out loud made them more real. “I get it. This information is dangerous. It could change the country; hell, the world. I get it all. It’s personally dangerous for you to know and I get why I’m the only one you can trust. What do you need?”

“You know more about saving your own skin than anyone. You know how to operate in this environment. I need your advice.”

“That’s easy. My advice is to move on out of here and forget this ever happened. Or you could blow up the Archives and destroy all the evidence.” LaFoe was serious, then added, “Your choice, because you’re you, includes whether or not to tell the world what you discovered.”

LaFoe waited a moment for his message to sink in, “And my car? Why’d I need to bring my squad car?”

“Rumor has it that there are a few unassigned monitors making the rounds on the black market. I needed you to bring your squad car because I am hoping that you have another monitor in it.”

Frank stared at Dan. He did have monitor and it was unassigned. The monitors used to activate the NeXT Questioner were assigned to a select group of officers. Each monitor had to be keyed in biometrically with the officer to whom they were assigned. Once keyed in, their ownership could not be altered. Once data was recorded into a device, that data could be neither altered nor erased. These were failsafe measures installed to assure that the devices could not be tampered with. They helped sell the public on the inviolability of the use of such technology and the unimpeachability of the information collected.

Dan Pickering had obviously wanted to collect the answers to why he had just been forced to shoot a fellow officer when he strapped that device to Pete Simpson’s head. Now that he had landed himself into a whole other mess, he was desperate to get himself out of it unscathed. Both Pickering and LaFoe knew that the Secret Keepers would be able tell the officer had been scanned. The bored holes in the skull could not be hidden. From that evidence, it was a short walk to finding out how many NeXT Questioners were issued in the capital region and even less distance from there to approaching these officers and requesting their monitors. Two of the three choices Dan had to get himself out of this jam required a new, unrecorded monitor.

“I do have a monitor, unassigned.” LaFoe carried an unassigned monitor for the very reason that he thought he might one day have to swap one out to keep a secret. The cost had been astronomical even with the dirt he had on the man he’d traded for it. LaFoe would most likely not need a monitor in the future with the way things were going tonight so he said, “I’ll get it,” without protest.

Three minutes later Frank LaFoe handed Pickering a new, unassigned monitor that had cost him seven months of a policeman’s salary. They shook hands, calling it even. As he was leaving, LaFoe turned and asked, “Why didn’t you ever turn me in?”

Pickering paused and then said, “I thought about it after you passed out and I was waiting for the ambulance. It was a close call. That was a mess you put me in. The problem was ‘what is the greatest good?’ You’re a corrupt cop but, relatively speaking, you’re small potatoes. The damage the news about you would have done to the department after the Murray affair, the betting scandal, the resignation of the Commissioner and the rest of the bad press at the time just seemed like unnecessary fuel on that fire. Our popularity was already pretty low and corrupt cops aren’t really news to the department even though they might be to the public. Letting you slide seemed like the better choice.”

“That was the only answer I could work out after all these years but it’s good to know for sure,” said LaFoe. “Good luck with this new ‘greatest good’ question you‘ve got in front of you now,” he continued, glancing over at the four dead bodies. He nodded and continued toward the door.

“Thanks.” Pickering did not seem pleased at the decision he was about to have to make as he looked down at the new monitor in his hand. “Thanks, Frank.”

* * * * *

Walking toward his squad car, LaFoe took one last look over his shoulder at the Archives building. He was pretty sure that Pickering wouldn’t blow it up. Pickering was a good man and that came with strictures: he couldn’t commit an overt wrong. As LaFoe saw it, the choice for Pickering was to tell the world or to cover his own ass and hope the mobs made it to the Archives before the Secret Keepers learned their plan had failed, sending someone else to finish the job. Personally, LaFoe knew, he’d blow the Archives up. At times like these, life turned into a stark math problem. There’s no sense in taking the chance that someone would come looking for you, he thought. Especially not someone calling himself a ‘Secret Keeper,’ and especially not when you had the world’s biggest secret. LaFoe thought self-sacrifice was a noble concept to wrestle with in the abstract but in real life he preferred considering self-preservation.

Frank’s plan was to get out of the city for the first week or two of what was coming. LaFoe wanted to make it to at least the suburbs before the news broke. Suburbanites weren’t too bright and the new reality of their situation would take a while to sink in. While they watched their world end on TV, he’d get past them and out to the hunting cabin his cousin owned. His hope was to avoid the worst of the carnage. He knew from experience that when everything went to hell people go crazy and everything becomes too unpredictable. Once order was restored, no matter what type, or by whom, LaFoe could safely operate in the world again.

Frank began putting the shotgun back into the trunk and then looked once again at the western horizon with its multiple orange sunsets and thought better of it. It couldn’t hurt to leave it on the passenger seat, he thought. With that thought, he looked at his watch. Just under an hour and a half left, at most. Two more hoodlums to hit up before this world ends, he thought. He started the car and put it in gear, pretty sure Scarandolo would not see the next dawn.

 

In the Slammer!

Layout 1

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Melanie sat rigid on the iron bench, panting as her gaze darted around the jail cell. She wore her best navy blue outfit, flattering but demure, the sort of thing you wear to visit your boyfriend’s parents or your grandmom, or to appear for trial in criminal court. Across from her, the security field sealing the entrance shimmered with a soft red glow, red for danger, red for no-go. Melanie had learned not to mess with the security field while still in high school.

But I’m not supposed to be in lockup. Sid guaranteed I’d get probation if I took the damn plea. Where the hell is he? She could hear her heart thumping as she panted. At least they didn’t put me in a cell with some pervert dyke. And then she shivered. At least, not yet.

The security field buzzed and shifted to a shade of sky blue. Melanie didn’t move, blue just meant the security field had polarized so someone could walk through from outside. A balding guy wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a battered briefcase strode down the hall and stepped through the opening without pausing. He was sweating and looked harried as the field flashed to red behind him.

“Okay Sydney, what’s going on? Why am I in lockup?” Melanie felt her heartbeat ramp up worse when Sydney sighed and didn’t look her in the eye. “Shit, Sydney, did you screw up?” His jaw clenched and he glared.

“No, Mel, I didn’t screw up. The deal was going just like we discussed, up until this morning. You’ve pled guilty to three felony counts out of ten bad check charges. The rest will be nolle prossed. And the prosecutor is locked into not making any recommendation on the sentence. This should’ve been a walk in the park. We go see Judge Jones, he gives you probation and you walk out. I got no idea why they grabbed you. An order came down this morning for you to be held until sentencing.” He paused and glared again. “In fact, I should be asking if you screwed up. You got some new charge I don’t know about? Not smart Mel, it’s guaranteed to piss off the judge.”

Melanie glared back and balled her fists. “No, goddamn it! You think I’m an idiot?”

She and her attorney argued back and forth until Melanie clenched her teeth and looked away. Well, somebody screwed up and it’s my tail in the ringer. Jesus!

The security field buzzed again and a tall man in a starched white shirt and pressed black suit stepped through the entrance gingerly, wincing with bald fear of it.

He straightened his tie, glanced from her to Sid, and grinned the kind of smile Melanie would expect a veterinarian to give a mutt just before he neutered it. “Sydney, my man! I wanted to be the first to tell you how thoroughly the shit has hit the fan. I take it you haven’t heard about Judge Jones?”

Her attorney plopped on the bench next to Melanie and ran his hand through his sparse hair. “Quit jerking us around, Jim. Spill it! We’re scheduled before Judge Jones in half an hour on Ms. McCarthy’s sentencing. Has it been continued?”

The prosecutor just flashed another smile that sent chills down Melanie’s spine. “No, no! We’re on for 10:30. But we’ll be before Judge Harkins, not Jones. Judge Jones’ father went into the hospital yesterday. He made arrangements for Judge Harkins to handle the calendar. So your little client here goes before Ironman Harkins instead. I gotta give the guy credit. Harkins was in his office before dawn reviewing files, and had detainers issued on a bunch of the cases.” The prosecutor paused to glance over to Melanie. “I don’t think he likes you, sweetheart. If he’s got you in lockup now, I can just guess what’s coming when we go upstairs.”

“Jesus, Jim! That isn’t fair!” Sydney jumped up and stood toe to toe with the prosecutor. “And we agreed, no jail. She’s only had a couple of juvenile convictions and a misdemeanor conviction last year. You need to tell Judge Harkins the deal was probation, not jail.”

Melanie shivered as the prosecutor’s smile just widened. He shook his head once, back then forth. “The deal was I would make no recommendation, and I won’t. And what the good judge does after that is entirely up to his honorable conscience. It’s the luck of the draw, Sid, you know that. But your client is a good-looking young lady, she has options.”

“Shut up!” He poked the prosecutor in the chest. “And get out! I haven’t discussed that with her, I didn’t think it was necessary. Now go, you’ve given us your news.”

The prosecutor chuckled and waved his electronic passcard in front of the security field. It flashed to green and he stepped through.

Sydney rubbed his forehead, then sat on the bench and patted her on the knee. “Okay, things aren’t happening the way we thought. Not my fault, not your fault, but that’s the way it is. You need to make some decisions before we go upstairs.”

“Can’t we just withdraw the plea?” Melanie fought tears and bit her lip. “I mean, this wasn’t the deal.”

“I can make the request, but I expect Judge Harkins will deny it. You’ve already entered the plea in open court, admitted guilt and agreed to all the terms. Nobody guaranteed you would get Judge Jones for the sentencing. And that’s not a basis to withdraw a plea. Now listen up, I need to explain some things.”

Melanie took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “Okay, how deep is the shit I’m in?”

“Pretty deep.” He grimaced, took a deep breath. “You got three options. First is jail.”

“Okay, I was in detention as a juvenile. I can do that.”

Sydney just shook his head. “Juvenile detention isn’t adult jail. The State has an obligation to rehabilitate juveniles. That means the State pays. But the Governor and the Legislature changed all that three elections back for adults. You remember the campaign, ‘Criminals should be responsible for their punishment.’ Jail costs the good citizens of this State over fifty grand a year per inmate. Nowadays, detainees are expected to reimburse the State, at least for a fat percentage. Anyone in your family got money?”

“Hell no! You think I’d be buying my date-night outfits with rubber checks if I did?”

Sydney grunted and continued. “Second option, public service in a needy community. I know you don’t have a college degree, but have you got any kind of job skills I can sell to the judge? The ghetto communities always need medical technicians, teachers, and drug counselors. Understand, if I sell this you’ll be signing away your life for the next five years. You got anything I can cobble into some sort of specialized skill?”

Melanie stared at the floor and shook her head. She dropped out of school in 11th grade. Never worked at anything but minimum wage jobs since.

Sydney grunted. “Too bad. Last option, what some call the meat option. You sign away your rights and agree to take part in an unskilled public service project.”

Melanie felt tears burning her eyes as she glanced up.

Her attorney continued. “You volunteer for medical experimentation. The government always needs subjects for testing new drugs and medical appliances. Ever since the passage of that animal rights act, testing on dumb animals isn’t allowed.”

“Yeah, but I’ve seen what can happen.” Melanie stood and paced the cell. “A guy on my street can’t hardly walk or talk after they tested a new drug on him. Nerve damage, they told him.”

Sydney just shrugged. “Of course there are risks, that’s why they need volunteers.”

He looked away and fidgeted with the handle of the briefcase. “And they’re always looking for licensed comfort liaisons for the military. The Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 2050 guarantees members of the military will have appropriate companions available when they’re off-duty. Most of the liaisons are licensed prostitutes hired out of Las Vegas and New York City.”

Melanie shivered. Dead meat or fresh meat was the way it’s described on the street.

“What if I just refuse, tell the judge to go to hell?”

Sydney chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend it. The law is clear, the State can’t be burdened with the cost of your punishment. The good citizens voted that referendum in back when you were still in high school. The old prison system cost millions of dollars, produced nothing and rehabilitated nobody. People came out more dangerous and crazy than when they went in. Let the criminals pay for their own punishment the politicians used to say. Make them give something back. Anyway, you refuse to cooperate and the Ironman Harkins gets to pick.”

“Jesus, Sydney!” Melanie closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “How the hell can I choose? This ain’t fair.”

“Neither is stealing from the merchants of our fair city, and you ripped them off for a bundle. But don’t sell the comfort liaison gig short. It’s Federal, which means good food, good housing, good medical, and decent working conditions. You work at the clubs on military bases.”

He glanced at his watch. “Think it over. We’ve got ten minutes.” The security field flashed blue and a burly guard stepped into the cell. Sydney stood and stepped aside as Melanie was cuffed and patted down. He waved his passcard at the security field and it flashed green. “See you upstairs.” He walked out.

 

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

 

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.

 

The New Semester Schedule

by Allen Coyle

 

The first day of the new semester was always a cause for excitement at Willow Tree High School. Students fresh from Christmas vacation funneled in through the front doors, most with sullen faces. The front foyer was a scene of havoc, as students sought to obtain their semester schedules at a mess of tables cluttered together by the library doors.

A young man named Randall Tenmin was able to snatch his schedule from the alphabetically categorized P-T table and worm his way to a corner of the foyer. He unfolded the paper and scanned it quickly, curious to discover if he had been assigned the classes he had signed up for.

“Oh no,” he mumbled, just as his pal Charles Wirsen sauntered forth, glasses slipping forward on his pronounced nose, his jeans hitched up tight with the shirt tucked in. Randall and Charles, though they cared little, were looked upon as nerds by the general school population. They didn’t dress, think or behave like normal teenagers. The concepts of school spirit and contemporary fashion standards were alien to them. For the two boys, graduation from the mediocrity and stupidity that ran rampant in this backward school couldn’t come soon enough.

“Oh no what?” Charles asked, removing his heavy backpack and letting it flop to the floor. He pushed his glasses back up his nose.

“This is all wrong,” Randall said, staring at the paper as though he were deciphering a cryptic code. He looked up at Charles. “Let me see yours.”

“I don’t have mine yet,” Charles said. He nodded toward the chaotic crowd. “I’m waiting until things cool down a bit. I’m in no hurry to get to class.”

“Look at this,” Randall said, holding the paper for his friend to see. His face was sour. “Look at the classes they gave me.”

Charles took the schedule. “PhysEd I, PhysEd II, Weight Lifting, Introduction to Aerobics, Advanced Track, Overview of Popular Sports.” He broke into laughter as he handed the paper back to its owner. “Those are all P.E. classes, man.”

“I know they’re all P.E. classes,” Randall growled, snatching the schedule out of Charles’ extended hand. “I didn’t sign up for any of them.”

“Don’t worry, man. It’s probably just a computer glitch.” Charles didn’t seem too concerned.

There was a hint of relief on Randall’s face. “You think so?”

Charles shrugged. “I would bet on it. I mean, why would they assign you classes you didn’t even sign up for? Not even the administration here is that cruel.”

“That’s what I was wondering,” Randall replied. “Why would they assign me classes I didn’t ask for?” He didn’t look thoroughly convinced, however.

Charles saw the doubt in his friend’s eyes.

“Look dude, if you’re that concerned about it, why don’t you talk to the guidance counselor? She’s the one you have to see to switch courses and stuff like that.”

Randall looked up and nodded. “You’re right. She’d probably take care of it if I asked her. I’ll have to make an appointment.”

“No way,” Charles said. “March right in there and demand her service this very instant! These so-called school officials are paid with tax money. There’s no reason for you to revolve around their whims and schedules.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right!” Randall said, his voice inflamed with passion. “My parents have to work their butts off just so they can throw their money into this black hole of bureaucracy. Why shouldn’t I get immediate service?”

“Exactly,” Charles said. “If more students saw the situation from that perspective, perhaps they’d be a little more hesitant to behave so subserviently.”

“I’ll go talk to her right now,” Randall said, tightening his grip on the paper in his hand. “Thanks, bud.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Charles replied.

Randall twisted through the mass of students still without schedules and approached the door to the counselor’s office. He made his way inside to the very cramped quarters and marched to the receptionist’s counter. The elderly woman was busy typing something on her computer.

“I need to speak with the counselor,” he said, slapping his schedule on the counter.

“Just a minute,” she said, without looking at him. Randall waited as she pounded on her keyboard.

The receptionist was just finishing as a girl barged through the door and brushed past Randall. The older lady turned away from the screen and stood up.

“How may I help you?” she said.

Randall made to speak, but before he could even open his mouth, the girl beside him blurted: “I need to see the counselor right now. I just got a copy of my transcript and the grades are all wrong!”

“Oh, goodness,” the receptionist said. She motioned to the closed door behind the counter. “Go right ahead, dear. She’s free at the moment.”

“Thanks,” the girl said. She heaved her backpack onto her shoulders and made for the doorway.

“Wait, hey!” Randall sputtered.

The receptionist turned to him. “Do you need help, young man?”

“I need to see the counselor!” Randall exclaimed. “That’s what I was waiting here for.”

“She’s busy right now,” the lady said. “You’re going to have to make an appointment for later.”

“But that’s ludicrous!” Randall said. “That girl came in after me and got to see her first. The counselor wasn’t busy then!”

“Well, she is now,” the receptionist said. “I’m afraid you’re simply going to have to make an appointment and come back later.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Randall said.

“You can fill out an appointment request form and I’ll submit it to her as soon as possible. Just go to your first period class and we’ll call you over the intercom when she’s available.”

“But I can’t go to my first period class,” Randall said. “My schedule is all wrong and I need her to fix it.”

“You can wait until she’s free,” the lady told him. “However, the counselor has several appointments scheduled for today. The wait probably wouldn’t be worth all the class time you’d miss.”

“She wasn’t busy with appointments a moment ago!” Randall said.

“She’s busy now,” the woman replied. She looked as if her patience was running short. “Do you want to fill out a form or what?”

“I’ll just sit here and wait,” Randall said. “If she has the time to see that girl, then she can make time for me. This is ridiculous.”

“You need to watch your attitude,” the lady admonished him. “It can get you into trouble.”

Randall snatched his schedule from the counter and moved to the waiting bench. He sat next to a small kid with greased black hair and a baby-faced scowl.

“What a crock,” he muttered, thrusting the paper into his backpack. His parents were forking over the taxes that paid these people’s salaries. He felt he was entitled to better service.

Randall glanced over at the kid sitting next to him, wondering if he was also waiting for an appointment. The young man gave him a sharp look.

“What are you staring at?” he snapped.

“I, ah…” Randall stammered, jerking back. He shook his head. “I wasn’t staring at anything.”

“You got a problem?” the kid asked. His eyes were fierce. “You don’t like the way I look or something?”

“Dude, take it easy,” Randall said. “I wasn’t staring at you.”

“Now you’re lying. I just saw you staring at me with that stupid look on your face. You got the gall to give me dirty looks and then lie about it?”

Randall put his hands in the air. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t give me that crap. If you’ve got a problem with me, spell it out. I’m not going to be pushed around by the upperclassmen.”

The kid was so small he didn’t even look like he belonged in high school. He obviously had to be a tough-talking freshman trying to make up for his size.

“Look, why don’t you just lay off me?” Randall growled. He was already in too sour a mood from his schedule conflict to deal with this twerp. “I didn’t do anything to you, and I resent the accusation.”

“What the hell’s your problem?” the kid said, his eyes becoming even more fierce. They were almost glowing with rage. “I’m sitting here waiting for my appointment with the counselor and you waltz in, stare at me, lie about it and then accuse me of doing something wrong. Just who the hell do you think you are?”

“You know what my problem is?” Randall snapped. “When I was your age, I showed respect to those in the classes above me. Not out of some deep, heartfelt reverence. More out of the fear of getting my ass kicked.”

“Is that a threat?” the kid asked, dropping his backpack from his lap to the floor. “Are you saying you’re going to kick my ass?”

“You seem like somebody who needs a good ass kicking to put you in your place,” Randall told him. “And don’t be too shocked if you get just that in the future.”

“So, you’re threatening to kick my ass,” the kid said, more stating than asking. “Do you know that’s considered hazing? I got a right to receive a public education without being harassed by students in higher classes.”

“Then quit harassing me!” Randall hollered, exasperated. “I didn’t do anything to you!”

“What’s going on over there?” the receptionist called, craning her neck to look at them.

“This guy’s trying to haze me,” the little shrimp declared. “He specifically told me he was going to kick my ass.”

“That’s a lie!” Randall exclaimed. “You little punk.”

The receptionist was immediately standing over them. She glowered at Randall. “Are you aware that hazing the younger students is forbidden, young man?”

“I didn’t do anything to this sniveling little twerp!” Randall hollered, jumping to his feet. He pointed to the baby-faced freshman, now wearing a smug grin. “He started accusing me of staring at him when I didn’t do jack!”

“I think you need to see the vice principal,” the receptionist told him quietly. “Your behavior in here is unacceptable.”

“This entire system is unacceptable!” Randall shouted. “First you let that girl go in ahead of me to see the counselor when I was here first. Now this little jerk is accusing me of harassing him. What’s next?”

“You need to leave right now,” the woman said, taking a hold of his arm. “I won’t tolerate hazing or cursing under my watch. If you refuse to go I’ll call the vice principal to escort you out.”

Randall shook her arm off. “Keep your hands off me. I’ll go myself.” He narrowed his eyes at the kid on the bench. “You little punk. I deserve some respect.”

“Get to the office!” the lady screamed.

Randall turned and kicked open the door with his foot and slammed it shut behind him, shaking the entire wall. He stomped to the main administrative office, which was just down the hall. The crowd waiting for schedules had simmered down to a mere trickle of students. Most had already gone to their first period class.

He barged into the office and plopped down on a seat in the waiting area. The woman behind the counter looked at him over the top of her glasses.

“Do you need help?” she asked.

“I need to see the vice principal,” he said. “The bitch across the hall sent me here.”

“Oh, okay. She’ll be with you in a moment.” The woman pushed her glasses up her nose and turned back to her work.

Moments later, Mrs. Conrad, a bulky, impressive woman with an air of dignity, sauntered into the waiting area. She had a notorious reputation for being one of the most hardcore vice principals in the history of Willow Tree High. Randall shivered when she entered.

“I got a call that a hazer and a curser was sent here,” she said, looking directly at Randall.

“I’m not sure about a hazer, but we definitely have a curser,” the receptionist spoke out. “My ears were appalled by his mouth. He just referred to the woman across the hall as an F-word bitch.”

“I did not!” Randall exclaimed. “Where did that come from?”

“Are you trying to lie about it?” the receptionist asked. “I just heard you say it not two seconds ago.”

“It is decidedly inappropriate to utter the F-word in any circumstance, especially in school,” Mrs. Conrad said. “Students who curse in school under my watch are risking suspension.”

“I was misquoted!” Randall cried. “I didn’t say the F-word!”

“I heard you with my own ears,” the receptionist said, looking adamant. “Don’t you dare lie and try to say different!”

“Enough! You’re both behaving like children.” Mrs. Conrad looked miffed.

“He started it,” the receptionist said, pointing.

“I said to knock it off.” The vice principal waddled over to the seating area and settled down in a chair next to the troublemaker. She seemed to be carrying that typical why-don’t-we-just-have-ourselves-a-little-chat attitude that most disciplinarians had when they were about to slam you for even the most minor infraction. The receptionist huffed and turned back to her work.

“Are you the boy who just came from the guidance counselor’s office?” Mrs. Conrad asked.

“Yes,” he snarled.

“It was reported to me that you attempted to haze a freshman student,” Mrs. Conrad said, her tone not necessarily accusatory, but more conversational. “I was also told there was quite a bit of swearing involved as well.”

“My swearing was minimal,” Randall said. “The hazing charge, however, is bullshit. I never did anything to that kid. He started in on me.”

“It seems you have a definite proclivity to express yourself coarsely. I’m only going to remind you once to watch your language.”

“Sorry,” Randall said. He looked around at the various office personnel who were milling about. “You know, wouldn’t this discussion be more appropriately held in your office, ma’am?”

“My office is currently under renovation,” Mrs. Conrad explained. “In addition to enlarging the quarters to accommodate a lounge, I’m also having a fireplace installed for ambiance.”

“Wow,” remarked Randall. “Is that all coming out of your paycheck?”

The vice principal let out a jolly laugh. “Oh, heavens no! The annual budget will cover all expenditures.”

“You know, my political history class last year could have used new textbooks,” Randall said. “The ones we were issued were battered and worn. I remember the copyright date was way back in the sixties.”

“Yes, well, all textbooks are evaluated prior to each academic year,” Mrs. Conrad explained. “Many can still serve their function even years after their publication. Besides, topics such as political history don’t tend to alter much with passing time.”

“The Soviet Union no longer exists,” Randall pointed out.

“That’s not relevant to the discussion,” Mrs. Conrad said. “I want to talk about this hazing incident that occurred earlier.”

“I didn’t haze anybody,” Randall told her. “I’m dead set against hazing. I think it’s wrong.”

“The receptionist told me she witnessed the incident,” Mrs. Conrad said.

“No, she didn’t,” Randall said. “The kid told the lady I was hazing him. She never actually saw it.”

“So you’re implying that you hazed him?”

“No!” Randall cried. “I didn’t do anything! The kid started going off on me! I was just trying to ward him off. He wouldn’t stop.”

“So you resorted to hazing him.”

“Jesus, no!” Randall exclaimed.

“I already warned you about cursing, young man. I’m going to have to write you up a detention for that.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Randall said. “That wasn’t a curse word. I said ‘gee-whiz.’”

“I’m a devoutly religious person and cringe each time the Lord’s name is used in vain. I also certainly don’t appreciate being lied to.” She took out a pad and pen and started scribbling furiously on it. “That’s two now.”

“I seriously didn’t do anything wrong!” Randall declared. He unzipped his backpack and dug for his schedule. “All I wanted to do was to get my classes fixed. I just picked up my schedule this morning and everything’s all wrong.”

“Well, that’s a matter for the guidance counselor, not me,” Mrs. Conrad said. She tore the two detention slips from her pad and handed them to him. “You’ll have to make an appointment with her.”

Randall felt like he was going to explode. “I tried to make an appointment! This girl cut in ahead of me—”

“What I suggest,” Mrs. Conrad said, interrupting him, “is that you go to your first period class and attempt to make an appointment with the counselor during lunch.”

“I don’t want to go to my first period class!” Randall hollered. “It’s a P.E. class! They’re all P.E.! I hate P.E.!”

“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me! Do you want another detention?”

“You can’t make me go to class!” Randall said. He was pleading like a little kid, and it made him sick. However, it was his last resort.

“I will not allow you to stay here in the office. If you don’t go to class this very instant, I’ll mark you as truant.”

“Mrs. Conrad, please, you have to understand—”

“My understanding is that in one morning you have hazed a fellow student, lied about it, cursed and raised your voice to me. Now you’re threatening to ditch class. The way I see it, young man, this meeting is over.”

“I can’t go to that class,” Randall said, his voice soft now. He looked at her with a beggar’s mournful eyes. “I’ve been in P.E. before. It’s torture. They make you dress out in a little suit and change with the other guys. It’s… demeaning.”

Mrs. Conrad raised her pen and held it above her detention pad, ready. “I’m waiting.”

“Jesus,” Randall sighed, getting up from the seat and shoving his crumpled schedule into his backpack. “I can’t believe this.”

“That now makes three detentions.” The vice principal quickly scrawled again and handed him another slip. Randall snatched it and shoved it into his pocket.

“Thank you,” he snarled. He jerked his bag onto his shoulders and took his leave.

* * *

Randall timidly opened the gymnasium door and peeked inside. The class was standing in neat rows performing calisthenics. He shuddered as the haunting memories percolated through his layers of mental barriers.

Not left with much choice, he quietly slipped inside. Darting like a mouse, he rushed for the bleachers and took a seat, hoping that he wouldn’t be noticed.

Noticed he was. The gym teacher, a gruff and buff man named Mr. Roberts, halted the morning exercises and stopped to look at him. The rest of the class did the same.

“Who are you, young man?” he asked. It sounded more like a military command than a simple question.

“I, ah…” Randall looked at the faces of the students. They were mostly athletes in supreme physical condition. Their mere presence was harrowing. “I’m… Randall Tenmin.”

“Are you supposed to be in this class?”

“Well, technically yes,” he said. His voice echoed across the expanse of the room. “But, I have a slight glitch with my—”

“If you’re in this class, you need to immediately dress out and join us for morning stretches. There’s uniforms in the locker room. We’ll expect you in two minutes.”

“Well, wait, see sir, I’m not really in this—”

“Two minutes. That’s a hundred and twenty seconds.” Mr. Roberts looked at his watch. “Now it’s nineteen… eighteen…”

“Sir,” Randall stood from the bleachers, “you’re not listening, see—”

“You exceed two minutes and you’ll be doing ten laps around the gym. Seventeen! Sixteen!”

Randall flew.

* * *

The class found themselves on the track outside. It was the middle of winter and all they had for clothing were extra short shorts and thinly lined shirts. Everyone huddled together and shivered.

“You wussies!” Mr. Roberts screamed, though he himself was dressed in a full sweat suit. “Line up at the starting line! I’ll warm you up!”

Everyone reluctantly obliged. Randall took the rear.

“You’re going to be running two miles!” Mr. Roberts screamed. “That’s eight laps! Anyone who slows their pace will get my tennis shoe up their ass! Got it?”

The class mumbled.

Mr. Roberts blew his whistle. “I can’t hear you, maggots!”

“GOT IT!” everyone screamed.

“Go!” Mr. Roberts hollered. The class took off in a sprint. Randall lagged behind. He wasn’t in shape for this. He was a sedentary scholar, not a track star.

The teacher took a seat on a lawn chair at the side of the track. He popped open a beer, settling back to watch his pupils. He noticed Randall sluggishly jogging and blew his whistle. “Tinman! Quit dragging your ass! Move!”

“Dammit!” Randall cursed. He tried to run faster. Everyone else was way ahead of him now. His sides were already aching, his stilt legs burning with exhaustion. What was this, a torture session? He wasn’t designed for this crap.

Mr. Roberts took another large gulp of beer. “Move it, shit-sniffers!”

Everyone else took on an extra burst of speed and raced. The class as a group had already completed one lap. Randall had yet to complete half of one.

“C’mon!” the teacher screamed. He shook his fist from his lawn chair. “You’re all pathetic!”

Randall’s lungs were burning with the sting of the icy winter air. His body felt like it was deteriorating and coming apart. He reached the halfway point. There was no way he could do eight of these things. The man couldn’t be serious.

He eventually made it to the three-quarter mark. The mass of students overtook him and left him in a cloud of dust. They easily finished their second lap.

“Tinman, you’re going to be doing push-ups if you don’t get going! Move it!”

“Shut up, dumbass,” Randall muttered. He knew he had to look stupid doing this. Here he was, in the middle of one of the coldest months of the year, dressed in ripped shorts and a mangy shirt, running around a track. If anyone halfway intelligent saw him, they’d cry their eyes out laughing.

“Tinman!”

Randall made it to the starting line. Lap two. He passed Mr. Roberts, his pace growing slower and slower.

The teacher crumpled up his empty beer can and hurled it at Randall like a football. It struck his back with brute force and stung.

“God!” Randall screamed, curving into a “C” shape. His arms flung behind him.

“It’ll be a rock next time if you don’t move your sorry ass!” Mr. Roberts screamed. It was amazing how his voice never seemed to get sore. It was also amazing that he was in such supreme physical condition when all he did was sit there. For the millionth time, he hollered: “Move!”

Screw this! Randall had had enough. He felt a renewed surge of energy move through him. His limbs and strength were suddenly restored. His breath came back and the exhausted fog in his mind cleared. He broke out in a mad dash, running faster than he had ever run before.

Right in the direction of the school building.

“Tinman!” Mr. Roberts flung his chair, but it didn’t even come close to its fleeing target. “Get back here!”

But by the time the teacher had screamed the last word, Randall was already in the school.

* * *

Randall barged out of the gymnasium before Mr. Roberts had a chance to catch up with him. He didn’t want to risk certain death. Scampering down the hallway, he plunged into the counselor’s small office, avoiding Mrs. Conrad and any other administrators who might be prowling about.

The receptionist was mysteriously gone and the waiting quarters unoccupied. The door to the counselor’s actual office was closed. Randall rapped his knuckles on it, knocking loudly.

“Come in,” a voice called.

Randall shot in and took a seat in front of the woman’s desk.

The counselor looked up from some papers and gave him a funny look. “May I help you?”

“I have a major problem,” Randall told her. He was still out of breath from escaping P.E.

“You’re supposed to have an appointment to see me, you know,” the woman told him. “I’m afraid you’ve interrupted me at a very busy time.”

“I have a problem with my schedule and I was hoping you could fix it,” Randall said, ignoring her remark. He removed the battered piece of paper from his backpack and slid it across to her. She took it from him, still wearing the funny look. “They gave me all P.E. classes. I didn’t sign up for any of them.”

“Really?” She scrutinized the document, appearing interested.

“Really. If you could just find the glitch in the computer and fix it, you’d save my life.”

The counselor—whose name was Miss Mollion, as indicated by the plaque on her desk—pursed her lips as she studied the schedule.

“These are all P.E. classes,” she remarked.

“Yes, I noticed that,” Randall said dryly. “Is there any way you can fix them?”

She looked up at him. “Fix them? How do you mean?”

Randall closed his eyes. “I don’t want any of the P.E. classes. What I want are the courses I signed up and registered for over a month ago.”

“Did you fill out a course request form prior to Christmas break?” Miss Mollion asked, shuffling through loose papers on her desk.

“Yes, I did,” Randall said. “And I’m always very punctual about getting things in on time.”

“Well, if you failed to submit a form, the error would be explained,” Miss Mollion said. “The computer randomly assigns classes for students who haven’t submitted forms.”

“I submitted the form,” Randall growled.

“Well, this situation would suggest otherwise,” the counselor said. “In any event, however, let me just see if I can erase your current schedule and slip you into some new classes.” She turned toward her computer and started clicking buttons.

“I’d appreciate that,” Randall said. He sighed and leaned back in his chair. This day was just too much.

Miss Mollion brought up Randall’s file and started typing. She seemed to know what she was doing, which was unusual for a school employee.

“I think we may have it,” she said, after a few moments had passed. She clicked a button and her printer churned out a single piece of paper, which she handed to Randall. “Are those classes a little better?”

Randall took the schedule and studied it. He didn’t need to look at it for long.

“This isn’t going to work,” he said, holding the paper out for her to take.

The counselor looked confused. “Why not? I got rid of all the P.E. classes.”

“Let me read the new list,” Randall said. He held up the paper. “Biology I, Chemistry, Oceanography, Intro to Physics, Earth Science, Geology.”

“So?” the woman asked.

“So? These are all science classes!”

“Well, what about it?” Miss Million wanted to know. “They’re the only classes available.”

“But I hate science!” Randall exclaimed. “These can’t be the only open classes!”

The counselor looked slightly affronted. “Let me get something straight. You come in here complaining about P.E. classes, and then when I try to help you, you complain you don’t like science. May I ask you a question? Are there any classes that you do like?”

“Any classes that I do like?” Randall repeated, his voice rising. “Sure, there’s several: I like English, history, geography, computer programming, structural engineering, recess, lunch, even some math, but nothing having to do with P.E. or science! On the whole, I don’t really think I’m that picky.”

Miss Mollion shook her head and placed an elbow on her desk. “Well, I’m not sure what we can do. All the other classes are full, and there’s no way I can squeeze you in. P.E. and science are the only courses available.”

“Well, I’m flexible,” Randall said. “I’m sure I can work something out. How about me taking adult ed for a semester?”

Miss Mollion shook her head. “Not an option. That’s for adults.”

“Well, what do you call me?” Randall asked. “I’m eighteen. That’s the legal adult age the last time I heard.”

“You’re what we call a young adult,” Miss Mollion said. “You’d be ineligible for adult ed.”

“I can enlist in the army, for God’s sake!” Randall exclaimed. “I can be picked to serve and possibly die for my country. Doesn’t that entitle me to enlist in adult ed?”

“You can’t drink alcohol,” the counselor pointed out.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Randall said, looking confused. “You’re saying you have to drink alcohol to be an adult ed student?”

“Most of them do,” the counselor explained. “That’s how they ended up there in the first place.”

Randall let out a heavy sigh. His head was throbbing.

“Look,” he said. “I seem to be running out of options here. You can’t tell me there’s no way to squeeze one extra student into these other classes. One person isn’t going to devastate the fire codes.”

Miss Mollion shook her head. “There’s no way. If the computer says the class is full, then it’s full. End of story.”

Randall muttered some words under his breath.

Miss Mollion looked at the new schedule. “As far as I can see, you’re either going to have to take the science or the P.E. classes.” Her face suddenly brightened. “Or, if you want, I can create a mixture of both so you don’t have all of one or the other.”

Randall squirmed, his face pained. He shook his head.

“I can’t do that,” he said. He appeared sad all of a sudden. A realization had suddenly struck him, one so powerful and so strong, it was almost an epiphany.

“I’m not sure if you understand the scope of the situation,” Miss Mollion said. “If you don’t take these classes, you won’t graduate on time. They’ll hold you back another year.”

Randall sighed and shook his head once more. “I can’t do it.”

The counselor gave him a sharp look. “You must!”

“Ma’am, I’m tired,” Randall said, his voice weak. “I’ve been slaving away here trying to maintain a good GPA and to get into a respectable college. This last semester was supposed to be my best. None of this was supposed to happen.”

“What are you saying?” the counselor asked.

Randall peered up at her with gloomy eyes. “I want out. Now. I can’t do this anymore.”

“Out?” she said. “You don’t mean—”

“Yes,” he said. “I want to withdraw, dropout, whatever you call it. I just can’t deal with this kind of thing anymore. The bureaucracy is too much. I had big plans for this final semester of mine, and now they’re crushed. When it comes down to either P.E. or science, I have to take the third option of simply calling it quits. I’m not angry at you. I’m just disappointed with the system.”

Miss Mollion stared at him with an open mouth for the longest time. She didn’t know what to say. Randall’s lips quivered, but his eyes looked like stone. He was a defeated man.

“If that’s your choice,” the woman said slowly, her arm creeping toward a drawer. She halted abruptly. “But, are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Randall said. “Just give me the forms and I’ll fill them out.”

“Okay then,” she relented, opening a drawer and extracting some loose papers from it. She placed them on the desk in front of Randall. “After all, you are a legal adult.”

“That I am,” Randall said. He extracted a pen from his pocket and got to work filling out the forms. It was the last bureaucratic obstacle he would have to go through as a student in this school. He finished and slid the papers to the counselor.

“Okay,” she said, after a quick review. “Your signature declares you are no longer a student in this school. You’re a free man.”

“It’s actually a good feeling,” Randall said. He stood to leave.

“You’re sure you don’t want that diploma?” she asked, stopping him in his tracks. He turned toward her. “It’s just a good thing to have… these days.”

“Ma’am,” he said, giving her a little grin, “when a man escapes from prison, he doesn’t ask for a certificate. The joy of freedom is all he needs.”

He took his leave. Miss Mollion was speechless.

* * *

It was almost sad emptying out his locker and removing the few items it contained. Sad, but not tear-jerking. It felt like the end of an era. Well, that’s exactly what it was, really. Just without the cap and gown, the relatives and the sacred diploma rolled up and tied with ribbon.

Randall trudged to the front doors, his spirits crestfallen. He stopped abruptly when he saw the bulky mass of Mrs. Conrad blocking the exit.

“Miss Mollion just told me what you did,” she said. “I won’t have any of it.”

“Huh?” Randall said.

She handed him a piece of paper. “Your new schedule. We decided to overrule the computer and put you in the courses you want. I won’t tolerate quitters in my school.”

Amazed, Randall studied the schedule that had been handed to him. It contained the classes he had wanted.

Speechless, he looked up at the vice principal. She put a hand on his shoulder.

“Staying in school is the only option, Mr. Tenmin. It’s a vicious world out there.”

“Does this mean I’m still a student?” Randall croaked.

Mrs. Conrad smiled. She actually smiled. “Yes. We figured one extra student per class couldn’t violate fire codes.”

She guided him down the hall to the locker he had just emptied out.

“However,” she said, “I will still be expecting you for detention at three o’clock sharp this afternoon.”

Randall gaped. “I still have the detentions?”

“Of course.”

“What a crock,” he muttered.

“And that makes a fourth.” She took out her pad and started scribbling on it. “Welcome back, Randall.”

 

The Failure

FlutegirlSMALL

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sue Lange

 

Jennie Knot sat in dismay in the graffittiless powder room of the Student Union, constipated. This was due in no small part to the fact that she had eaten nothing but animal by-products for a number of weeks. She simply wasn’t getting her fiber. But it also was an indication of her psychological state. In her final term at the famed Schloss Institute for Excellent Musicians, she was alternately relieved to be done with six years of grueling study and scared shitless—so to speak—about the fact that now she’d have to go out and be somebody. As if fitting into the big picture would ever be a problem for Jennie Knot.

In the fourth grade, after she took the musical aptitude test, it was discovered that not only could she keep a good beat, but she could dance to it as well. In other words, she was musically-inclined. She wasted no time in taking up the Boehm’s Instrument—a hollow tube that generates a sound when the operator directs his or her breath over the principle opening at the near end. The pitch of the subsequent vibrating air column inside the tube changes as the operator opens or closes valves and holes situated on the far end.

By high school graduation Jennie had mastered the Boehm, enjoying no less than first chair in the orchestra and bands—symphonic, pit, jazz, and marching—as well as holding featured soloist status on “special music” Sundays at church. In that span of time she’d memorized the entire body of important music that had been written since the beginning of time. Even if nobody was writing anything after 2302, that’s a lot of music. From Bach chorales to Led Zeppelin drum spectaculars, Jennie knew every solo line transposed to the correct key for the Boehm.

For her diligence and sacrifice of personal life, in 2396, Jennie Knot was accepted to the Schloss Institute—Soloist’s Track—and came to the astonishing conclusion that it was high time she got serious about her music. She began practicing twelve hours a day and relearned all that archived music in the remaining eleven keys of Western harmonic thought.

And now, with only one examination left and a final performance before the talent scouts for the Big Symphonies (BSes), she was both elated and frightened that graduation loomed. She was the Institute’s star pupil and all the BSes were chasing after her, trying to entice her on board. They alluded to gifts of solid gold flutes, free long-distance for a year, exotic trips to Germanic countries. The baby combos didn’t even bother. They knew they’d never attract someone of her stature.

Still, as is often the case with the overly-talented, she had doubts about herself.

She emerged from the antiseptic powder room, red-faced and uncomfortably bloated. Spotting her curly-headed pal, Loonie, over at a table on the side, she walked over and gingerly sat down in a vacant chair.

“I saw that peasant with the glass eye again today,” Loonie said.

“What peasant? There’s no peasants anymore,” Jennie answered.

“Okay, okay, you know what I mean. That old lady in black with the babushka thing.”

“Oh, right. The ‘gypsy.’ She’s standing on the corner waiting for the light to change. You’re on the bus. She looks at you with her glass eye. Big deal. What is that supposed to mean?”

“It’s the third time. And she looks at me. Nobody else.”

“How can you tell where she’s looking if she has a glass eye?”

“I can tell. And it’s the third time!”

“Yeah, all right. Bad luck. Can’t you go home and break a mirror or something to cancel it out?”

“No, I have to live through it whatever it is. This is the worst time this could happen with finals and everything. I gotta go home and light a candle.”

“Why don’t you go home and practice? You’d do a lot better.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve never even seen second first chair.”

“Because I practice.”

“And you’re the most talented person I know.

“No, I’m the hardest worker. You’re the most talented. You’re pulling straight C’s and you never practice.”

“I burn incense.”

“I practice.”

“No shit. When was the last time you made it to the Congolese?”

“Orientation Day.”

“Jesus! You need a drink.”

“I have my instrument.”

“Yeah, please. You sound like you’re in band camp.”

The conversation degraded from there and soon Jennie and Loonie left for their respective abodes; Jennie to practice, Loonie to do whatever it was that Loonie did to ensure she passed her classes.

Two days later, as the March winds scoured the last bits of dried October leaves from the landscape oaks around town, Jennie sat on the airbus headed for home. She stared at the piece of paper with the number grade of her final exam slashed in red ink across the top: 8.5. Numbed by the sheer impossibility of the grade, she sat in silence. Never had she received a mark lower than 9.5 on anything. Even penmanship back in third grade.

She was beyond the point in the tragedy where she repeatedly asked herself how this had happened. She knew how it happened. In the middle section of her final challenge—the solo duet in “Unraveling Ravel,” where the performer sings along with herself—she jumped to the third instead of the prescribed perfect fifth for the vocal harmony. And with that capricious move came all the emotion the third entails. Not only was it a mortal sin at this late date, when every schoolgirl should play a solo note-for-note like an ice skater carving the figure eight countless times on top of itself with nary a skew, but the choice of a third to be the point of the revolution was nothing short of, well, revolting. After that she might as well have come waltzing in with a wholly-owned new piece of music. The damage for changing an “as written” was the same.

Not that writing music was against the law or anything. Just that around the turn of the previous century, it dawned on people that nobody had come up with anything original in two hundred years. New music represented a mere rehash of older ideas. The glory days were over. The big recording companies took note of the situation and fired all their uncreative songwriters and composers and fat copyright lawyers and went on to make more money in the tribute band arena than even they had dreamt about. Nobody wrote any more music after that.

Jennie stared at the stain on the paper in her hand, worrying for her future. Suddenly the airbus jolted to a stop to let passengers board, momentarily rousing Jennie from her gloom. She looked up. Through the moving line of arriving passengers she could see an old woman standing outside on the corner dressed in black. The woman seemed to be staring at Jennie and even at this distance it was obvious the old woman had a dead eye capable of seeing into the future. The airbus jumped into motion again and continued on its journey.

Once in her room on Denison Street, she tossed the Boehm in its black leather case onto the bed, flopping next to it, face forward, without removing her spring slicker. She lay staring at the faux-linoleum floor tiles until she heard her next-door neighbors slamming the door, signaling their return home to start supper and the nightly bicker session.

Jennie reached up to the wall unit next to the bed and pushed the “send” button.

“Who?” the unit asked.

“Loonie,” she answered.

The line remained silent until Loonie on her end, pushed the answer button and said, “What’s up?”

“I, uh, I’d like to go out tonight. Are you doing anything?”

“Whoohoo!” Loonie hollered. “Let’s Ceeeeeelebrate good times, C’mon!” Loonie sang out from the middle of the room, probably dancing on the furniture.

“Cut that out or I’m not going. I hate that song,” Jennie yelled into her speaker.

“Okay, okay, okay. I’ll pick you up at seven. I got a great little place for you. Strictly hush-hush. It’s a blind pig.”

“I’m not really hungry. I was hoping we’d go get drunk.”

“Not to worry, hon. It’s a speakeasy, but we’ll talk later and don’t forget to erase this conversation.”

“Uh.”

“See you at seven.” Loonie clicked off.

“Uh.”

At seven-thirty-two on the dot, the drone buzz of the downstairs call-up signaled Loonie’s arrival. By seven-thirty-eight Loonie had packed Jennie into the back seat of an unmarked cab, inside of which sat a couple of characters of the male persuasion.

Loonie made the appropriate introductions. Apparently their names were Raif and Tonál. Raif, the guy that was sorting out to be Jennie’s date, smiled at her. The inside of the cab was almost completely dark, and she wouldn’t have known he smiled at all except that he had a gold tooth which reflected just enough light from a passing street lamp to show his lips. Was that tooth shaped like a fang? No, it was just her imagination. If Jennie was insecure about going to what she thought Loonie had said was a sleaze-easy, going with someone of the opposite sex with teeth made out of metal, drove her to near panic. She racked her brains for a good opening line.

“What’s your major?” She cringed as soon as she said it.

The boy, or man, or wolf, laughed. Thank god the only light in the cab came from that tooth so nobody could see how red her face was.

“These cats don’t go to school, Jen,” Loonie butted into the conversation. “They’re in the band.”

“Oh,” Jennie answered, as if being in a band was an excuse not to participate in life’s activities. Not to go to church, for example—on a par with being a conscientious objector or a vegetarian. One didn’t have to do what everyone else did if one was in a band. For some odd reason it didn’t occur to Jennie that she herself was in a band.

There were a few more gold-glinting smiles and uncomfortable conversation starts—comments on the weather and such—with no help from Loonie who was slurping at her partner’s face the whole ride until the chatty group reached their destination. The cab pulled up in front of a brownstone, flanked on each side by identical brownstones. Jennie noticed the name of the street was “Ludlow” and realized she had no idea where she was. A wrought iron fence ran down the length of the sidewalk in front of the houses and the boys made a big show of opening the gate for their ladies. As she passed through, Loonie, in turn, made a big show of stopping to apply lipstick using the glow of a nearby retro gaslamp in her compact mirror.

“Want some?” she asked Jennie, handing the tube over.

“No thanks,” Jennie answered. “I can’t wear that and play. It’s like trying to whistle through wax lips.”

“You’re not playing tonight, Sweetie.”

“Thanks anyway.”

The group bustled inside and the boys escorted Loonie and Jennie to the “band table,” ordering a round of comp beers before jumping up to the stage.

The room, packed by patrons sitting six to eight at tiny oil-rubbed oak tables, was lit by candlelight. Incense mixing with stinky perfume and pomade permeated the air. The room smelled like smoked Vicks and Jennie worried about damage to her lungs. She left her coat on until Loonie admonished her to stop fussing, relax, enjoy, and take a swig. Finally the band dug in.

From the moment the first trombone sliced through the trademark intro and the big bass drum slapped down on the one, Jennie was blown away. It was all she could do to stay in her seat. But nobody else was dancing so she didn’t either. They all stuck by their tables, screaming and singing with the band, feet stomping on the floor, hands clapping, heads bobbing in whiplash timing. Once in a while somebody stood up and did a couple of steps, ground against a wall pole, or slapped a knee, but nobody danced as the band assaulted the stand, swaying back and forth to punctuate the rhythm. The standing bass twirled his big guitar, the piano player trounced the keys, the saxes lifted their instruments up on the squeal notes.

The first set—the show set—swept Jennie away. During a lull, she leaned over into Loonie’s face and demanded to know where this music had come from. She’d never heard it before. “Who wrote it?” she asked.

“It’s not written, you jerk,” Loonie answered. “They make it up as they go along.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Jennie said.

“No, it’s not. It’s just not done,” Loonie laughed. “Man, you are really square.”

The second set was the dance set. By now all the undercover cops had gone, satisfied that no illegal dancing was going on, so everybody jumped up raring to go. A couple of goofy college guys wearing mobster hats and smoking alpha cigars dropped by Jennie and Loonie’s table. Jennie, by now committed to the scene, hopped up without giving a thought to the poor union dancers and how she was taking bread out of their mouths by doing her own hoofing. She was on her fourth comped beer by this time and kicking higher than anybody.

The evening continued in this sweaty vein until around three when Loonie dragged Jennie out by the slicker tails to the all-night bus stop. Raif and the boys were still going strong thanks to chemical enhancers passed to them by loyal followers, but it was officially a school night so the girls somehow talked themselves into going home. They tearfully said “g’night,” to their heroes and swam home in a puddle of sweat, alcohol, and rain. A spring shower had commenced sometime during the night.

A blistering hangover developed the next day, but Jennie smiled through the pain. New music she’d never heard before existed in the world. Fresh music. Sinful and unmemorized. Virginal.

She sat on the toilet and evacuated her bowels for the first time in weeks. Nothing works on the impacted quite like skunky beer.

She excused herself from her classes claiming an intestinal virus, and spent the day in bed. She tried listening to Mahler, Babich, Rose, even her favorite—Tchaikovsky. They were nice, but she kept her finger on the tuner and flipped through the selections of piped-in music showing up on the view board. She searched for something she had never heard before but for some odd reason knew was there. She stopped on each milli-Hz band and listened for a hint of sound emerging from the static.

Finally at the high end of the spectrum—the black bar end, the section that requires parental guidance—lay the unnamed, uncatalogued 20th offerings. She had never listened to anything from this section. Hadn’t bothered to study anything beyond the monotony of Philip Glass, John Williamson, and Elvis. It was frowned upon for one thing. Not only was it ridiculed and maligned in public opinion, it was rated X and had to be paid for.

She picked through the unfamiliar names and stopped on one—Basie at Saranoff Hall. She had no idea what it was but she selected it, punched in her debit code, and lay back into the pillows of her headboard within arm’s reach of the Alka Seltzer.

She soaked in the music the entire day, shelling out her last few weeks of food allowance. Boehm kept packed away in its case. She made life-changing resolutions—promises to study newfound musical forms and get out a little more.

The next day, of course, hangover and money gone, constipation settling in again, she slammed back to reality and the 8.5 she’d received two days previously. She got up early and punished herself for her day of truancy by practicing nothing but études in C—no sharps or flats—for several hours.

She did penance in this way for the next few days, practicing major scales down one mode and up another, circling through the fifths. Each day she exercised through the entire set of microtones before even taking a sip of water. For sustenance she ate oyster crackers or whatever she could scrape from the walls of her cold unit—leftovers from days gone by when the food allowance had not yet run out. She avoided the Student Union and Loonie like an albino avoids the sun. She dropped ten pounds and urinated hourly.

Finally the eve before the big final performance came. She felt like she was on the edge of a precipice. Everyone else thought so as well. Her periodic weeping and flailing and praying to God to exorcise the sinful thoughts of free music from her head left her red-eyed and pale. Professor Linn stopped her on her way out of the final sectional.

“What’s wrong, Jennifer?” she asked. “You look terrible.”

As soon as the last student had exited, Jennie broke down and cried. “I am so, so sorry, Dr. Linn. I have sinned. I have strayed. I don’t deserve to be here.”

Dr. Linn closed the door to the practice room. “Uh, what’s with the dramatics?”

Jennie told her teacher the whole story of the night at the no name club, the intestinal flue lie, and the improvised music.

Seeing how miserable Jennie was, Dr. Linn stifled the laugh that threatened to erupt from within. She hugged her protégé close and invited her home to supper, explaining how everyone “dabbles.”

“It’s okay,” Dr. Linn said later at dinner. “It’s important, in fact, to sample the other side. It’s unhealthy to never experiment or wonder.” She recounted her own dabblings wistfully, pointing out that Jennie had a serious career in a fast, high-paying field. She was desired by all the BSes, and why not just put this little insurrection behind her?

Having confessed her story to Dr. Linn, Jennie’s spirits lifted. Especially after hearing the bit about the BSes. Of course a double helping of pork chops with gravy plopped onto a mound of mashed potatoes, buttered wax beans on the side, did its part as well. She departed for home stuffed and gladdened, and practiced her part in the next day’s performance for four hours before lying down from exhaustion.

Unfortunately as soon as the lights went out, Benny Goodman popped into her head. And no amount of finger exercises got him out of it. She slept a mere half hour before the biggest, most important day of her life.

The exam performance was scheduled for noon. Jennie spent the morning visualizing. She sat cross-legged facing the mirror, eyes closed and humming her part. She became one with her instrument, even as it lay untouched in its case, unassembled. She became her instrument, breathing the air inside the tube. Its melody was in her and it was her. By 10 a.m. she was ready. She dressed in her performance uniform, black gabardine slacks with matching dress jacket, white ruffled shirt, make-up—no lipstick—combed and sprayed hair, glossy eye shadow, garnet earrings, powdered neck, shined shoes. Finally she removed to the symphony hall.

The place was filled with parents. Hers were there somewhere as well. (They’d flown in the night before, but as per Institute guidelines in order to avoid bad luck omens, did not visit with their kid before the performance.) She’d meet them afterwards for lunch at The Songbird so Mom and Pop could tell her how wonderful she was and how proud they were.

The performance was a blur. Later she couldn’t tell much about it or when the idea hit her. Everybody including Jennie was playing perfectly up to the point of the indiscretion. Her duet with herself went off quite well in the first half—she received a standing ovation. Numbers of nametag-wearing recruits scribbled continuously on pocket pads.

But just after that something inside Jennie struck.

The second half began with the violins warming everything up. The kettle drum revved. The cymbal woke the members of the audience who were dozing. Then the French horns took it all back down. The audience lulled. The orchestra swelled and then quelled. It was time for the second Boehm duet—the dramatic dreamy section symbolizing the death of the nightingale. It has been said that this nocturne is the saddest, most moving music that has ever been written. Jennie was crying even before she raised her instrument to her lips and took in a breath. She began and became one with the instrument. Its breath was her breath, and the melody came from within her, the notes sounding like the weeping of a stricken soul. At the start of the duet she obediently raised her voice to the fifth but then quick as an eyelid flutter, dropped back to an incorrect flatted third. The conductor looked at her, he couldn’t believe his ears. The audience collectively gasped. They too knew this piece by heart. Jennie dropped the Boehm completely and sang the remainder of the duet (solo at this point) alone, vocalizing the tormented bird’s song. The audience was mesmerized. The other players, astonished, stopped their quiet accompaniment altogether. Jennie, with her naked voice, stood alone in death. Tears streamed from her eyes as she communicated the nightingale’s pain.

When it was over, after the bird had expired and all that was left was the broken-hearted lover leaping to his death courtesy of the shocked but obedient remainder of the orchestra, the hall was silent. Finally one child in the front row sniffed back a tear. The audience let out its breath. Someone’s dad started clapping and immediately everyone else joined in. They hooted and hollered. Most jumped to their feet. Only Jennie’s parents and the BS talent scouts remained silently seated.

Jennie stood up, bowed, and walked off. As she moved past the conductor, he snarled, “You’ll never get any work!”

“I hope not,” Jennie answered over her shoulder.

The rest is not recorded history, of course. Jennie’s parents eventually forgave her and invited her over for Thanksgiving.

Loonie, the straight C student, stood by her friend and applauded her and, in fact, got her in with Raif’s band. Jennie dated Raif for a while—hypnotized by the gold tooth and all—but eventually broke up with him and started her own little combo, playing the blind pig circuit, never recognized by the legitimate music-loving public. But she built up a huge following in the hip crowd who consistently showed up for her shows, passing her “enhancements” throughout the sweaty nights to keep her “head straight.” Loonie sat in once in a while. She had a permanent gig with one of a LKSes (Lesser-Known Symphonies) but snuck out for a hoot with Jennie’s group every once in a while, breaking a few clauses in her contract. Nobody ratted her out though.

Many, many years later they both died of natural causes. Naturally, bad beer mixed with unindexed chemicals would kill you.

Two years after Jennie Knot’s death, her underground followers, which was practically everybody by that time, started a movement, got a representative elected to Congress, and a law enacted to promote the writing of music once again. Funds were allocated for research and fellowships granted. Three hundred years later, pop artists became the behemoths they once were back in the primitive twenty-first century and the music naturally degraded into a multimillion dollar industry again. As before, pop music was churned out at a rate of a bad song a day and played on the air waves until the puking populace took to the streets and started flailing songwriters and industry execs alive. Inevitably a new music law was passed banning the writing of music and that’s why thankfully today, we have no new music.

 

Meat Bag

Meat Bag

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Noise! Raucous, giddy, clamoring noise pulled BoyTen’s mind six ways. He couldn’t think, couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, it was so overwhelming. He stumbled along buffeted by the crowd as his bare feet slapped the wet pavement. His head barely reached the waists of all these big people, so his view was blocked by the fleshy forest. A trail of angry shouts marked his passage. Seeking asylum, BoyTen’s gaze darted about but only found more people, more bewildering sights. The big people loomed over him, generally acting like he wasn’t there. An opening, dark and unpeopled, appeared between a man dressed in bright holiday colors and a gleaming silver cart pushed by a sad, withered woman. The boy leapt, startling the woman, and scrambled into the dark and quiet. Sighing, he crawled between two dumpsters smearing smelly filth on his oversized green coveralls. He hugged his knees to his chest and pulled his knit cap over the blue marks on his forehead.

“I’m a good boy, a very good boy,” he murmured. “But I done a bad thing.” He rocked as his gaze darted about. “KeeperJohn, I’m sorry. I wanna go home. Come find me.”

But how could that happen? He’d gotten so turned around that he had lost track of his turns and twists. How would KeeperJohn, or even ChiefKeeperSimon, unravel the trail if he could not? He’d treaded the path with his own feet!

As his breath slowed and his heart quieted, BoyTen worried at the puzzle. Try to remember the path back? He grunted and grimaced as he tried to remember. But the chaos of his passage defeated him. Follow his own tracks? No, there was no dirt to hold his tracks. He clutched his knees as his eyes burned with tears. There had to be a way!

He sat up and sniffed. Yes! He clasped his hands and sniffed again. The air was rich with exotic scents he’d never smelled. But laced in and through them was his own familiar musk. Normally he ignored it, but not today!

BoyTen stood and padded down the dark alley. If he could follow his own scent-trail back the way he’d come, he could find his way. Hot tears blurred his vision as a sob burst up from his belly. He needed to be home so bad! He missed his pen, the compound with its climbing structures, his fellow boys and girls. Oh, this crowded, dirty, noisy place was terrible!

BoyTen pinched himself. Not now! He needed to be calm if he had any hope. Breathing as he’d been taught, BoyTen stilled his mind and heart. He exhaled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Sniffing, he smiled. Yes, it was there.

At the entrance, BoyTen stared wide-eyed at the swirling crowd. His trail turned to the right, back the way he’d come. He hugged his sides and took a cleansing breath, then slipped in between two men striding along and marched within the human canyon they formed. Good, a left here and straight ahead.

He walked a good long way, turning left and right, and only lost the scent once. With his eyes half-closed he ignored everything, threading his way through the sea of smells. The further he came, the fainter his scent grew. It was spreading and drowning in the sea of smells. Suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder, jerking him around.

“Got you, ya little bastard!” said a man with a face the color of a looming thunderstorm. “You knock over my table, you break my goods, you pay!”

BoyTen squirmed and pulled, but the man held tight. He twisted his one hand around to gather the loose cloth of BoyTen’s coveralls and punched BoyTen in the head so his knees buckled.

“Stop it! Hold still!” the man shouted. “You wait for the police.” He smacked BoyTen again so he saw sparkling lights before him. A cold breath on his scalp warned him he’d lost his cap. Before he could grab it, the man hoisted BoyTen up and thumped him on the side of the head so that everything blanked out. He returned to gasps and shouts as he spun helpless in the man’s hand.

“Look! He has blue numbers on his forehead.”

“It’s the meat bag! Like on the video. Hold him. There’s big money for him.”

“Yeah, grab him. Call the cops.”

Several of the big ones closed to pull and paw at him until BoyTen thought he would go insane. KeeperJohn had taught him to always mind keeper folk, but this was too much!

He shrieked so that his throat burned. Biting, clawing, kicking and butting, he cleared a space around himself. Several clutched bitten hands or bloody nail-scratched faces. He spun and screamed his outrage so they swayed back, then bounded forward. The fat lady before him fell, and the boy stomped across her belly and bust. His bare feet barely touched the pavement as he hurtled left, then right, under, then over. The pounding feet and angry shouts faded. Soon he huddled in a courtyard surrounded by tall brick buildings.

As he panted, BoyTen’s eyes froze and a sob hiccuped through his teeth. He’d lost them, sure, but he’d also lost his original scent trail! Worse, he couldn’t backtrack to pick it up. These big people were mean. They’d grab him if he went back. So he was truly lost now. Shivering, BoyTen dropped to the ground and wailed. The buildings around him echoed the mournful sounds until the courtyard rang with his sobs.

“Boy? Are you hurt?”

A soft, quavering voice jolted him to his feet. He jumped up and crouched, jaw jutting with teeth bared, hands raised with fingers bent to claw. Growling, he glared defiance at the woman standing in the nearest doorway. She was thin, so her wrinkled skin hung loose from her cheeks and neck. She was pale, so even her hair was the fluffy color of clouds in a blue sky. And frail! BoyTen had no doubt she would shatter into a dozen pieces if he touched her trembling frame. She was unlike any big person he’d ever met.

She called again. “Boy, are you okay? You needn’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

He rubbed his nose on his sleeve and gulped. “Um, I’m lost. I was trying to go home, but a bunch a people grabbed me and hit me.”

She frowned and glanced at the blue marks on his head. “You can come inside if you want. I’ve got apples and bananas, and some cookies I was baking.” She held out her hand like KeeperSue.

The boy turned to flee, but stopped. Run where? The yearning to be someplace safe with a friendly person ached within him. He crept forward and took her hand. It was softer than any hand he’d ever held, and she smelled of clean and quiet. At the same time, his stomach knotted painfully as odors wafted through her open door. Yes, cookies and fruit like she said, but also bread and meat and fish and veggies, older smells from other days but all good. He shrank against her as he entered the house wide-eyed. The food-smell wrenched his throat until he whined. He grabbed an apple and banana from a bowl as soon as she sat him at a small table and laughed as he rammed first one then the other into his mouth until he cheeks bulged with the gooey fruit mush. Gulping, he cried as his stomach shuddered with pleasure.

The woman set milk and cookies in front of him and sat. “I think I know where you belong. Would you like me to call so your friends can come?”

BoyTen slurped the milk and shoved a warm sweet cookie into his mouth. “Yeth,” he mumbled and picked up another. She nodded and walked to a black phone thing by the door. She murmured at length into it. Smiling she turned back as he sat clutching the last cookie.

“They’ll be here soon. Are you full? You look tired. Would you like to lie down?”

His stomach bulged and his eyes were hot and heavy. He took her hand and she led him to a big couch in the next room like the one in KeeperDoc’s office, but lots softer. He curled up on it and the lady began to sing. KeeperSue sometimes sang, but not this song. It was about all kinds of silly things like babies and cradles and trees. He giggled even as waves of sleepiness washed over him. Soon he was afloat with a dreamy lassitude.

When he awoke, he knew a long time had passed from the way the light came in the window. BoyTen jerked up at the sound of voices. There was the nice lady’s soft quavery one, but whose was that deep booming voice? He smiled as his heart thumped. KeeperJohn! He kicked the blanket that covered him but just got tangled. Rolling, he thumped onto the floor, cutting off the voices. He grabbed the blanket and peeled it away as KeeperJohn filled the doorway.

“Hey, champ! I am so glad to see you.” The man walked over. The boy smiled, but his chin was quivering even as he did. Oh, he hated it when he blubbered and that just made it worse. Tears welled and the boy clutched the man’s heavy green coveralls.

“I’ve been such a bad boy. I snucked out the gate when KeeperBill left and took his hat and clothes, but now I lost his hat and I got lots of people mad at me…”

“It’s okay, sport. It’s all over. I’m not mad.” KeeperJohn rubbed the boy’s back and said this over and over until the tears stopped. Kneeling down, he looked the boy in the eye. “It wasn’t your fault. KeeperBill should have been more careful. You ready to go home?”

BoyTen panted at the thought. The compound, the other boys and girls, his pen! Oh, he couldn’t wait. “Yes! Now, please.”

“I’ll just be a minute. I have to finish talking to Mrs. McCarty.”

He stood holding the boy. “I really can’t tell you how grateful Universal Medical Supplies is, ma’am. This little fellow is worth a small fortune.”

The old woman frowned. “They had his picture posted at the store but the manager there called him a meat bag. I didn’t understand that.”

KeeperJohn frowned and snorted like he did when he was angry. BoyTen clutched tighter. “That’s a nasty word. This young fellow is a donor-clone. One of Universal’s clients paid us to grow a clone from his own tissues for use as an organ donor.”

“But they’re going to take his heart and liver and such someday, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yes. His owner has contracted for the normal array of transplants; organs, corneas, endocrine glands and marrow. But this little guy’s lucky. His owner also asked for a full skin transplant, and he isn’t big enough. We’ll start hormone therapy soon to force him to stretch out, but he still has years yet.”

“Oh, dear,” she sighed with a tremor in her voice.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. He’ll live a wonderful life full of fun and happiness, until one night he’ll go to sleep. And that will be it.”

BoyTen clutched KeeperJohn. There was so much he didn’t understand! And the tone of KeeperJohn’s voice was scary.

“Besides, you’re entitled to a sizable reward. You’ll be getting a call from the main office. Please don’t talk to any media people before then. Universal will pay very well for your discretion.”

The old woman smiled at last, and BoyTen smiled back. “You ready to go home?” KeeperJohn asked.

BoyTen nodded and pushed the big man’s chin around until he faced the door. KeeperJohn laughed and walked out the front door.

“Bye!” the boy called over KeeperJohn’s shoulder and waved to the nice lady.

 

Question Everything

by Catherine E. Twohill

 

Waiting. Shifting from one foot to the other. Leaning against the cold tile walls, my backside is growing numb. Come to think of it, my hands are, too.

Originally, I was only here to be a spectator. A witness. You know, everyone loves to see what’s going on—better than the evening news. The naked eye beats the electronic eye any day. Rubberneckers. Slowing down in false tribute to safety. We only get peeved when we’re in a hurry, otherwise, we’ll slow down, too. Just for a glimpse. Is it gruesome? Is it bloody? Do I know anyone

But now I’m not so sure I’m a spectator any longer. I’ve been waiting too long and have seen nothing that should be seen. By definition then, I’m a “waiter.” Would you care for fresh ground pepper, sir? Just say when.

Concentration camp detainee is the mood of the moment. It’s part of the fashion scene and reflected in the eyes of my fellow waiters. Unable to feel. Uncertain of the future. Unaware of our fate. Oh wait—we’re moving. Our hollow line marches forward and the doorway ahead becomes clearer. As does the sound.

Click click click click click click thwump

Brows furrow. Heads turn sideways, swiveling question marks.

Click click click click click click thwump

Straining toe-to-nose to see above the crowd, I catch sight of the source. A large bull’s eye with a wooden arm resting in the center hangs on the far wall visible through the doorway. An attendant stands beside it. Respectfully solemn. Robotically, he turns toward the device and pulls the arm downward in one fluid movement. He’s well practiced. The arm locks into its own mechanism and, after a moment’s hesitation, begins its methodical trip upward, one click at a time.

THWUMP

To the average spectator, the sound means nothing but to me, the waiter, it now means everything. This is it. This is how it happens. Accidents don’t do it. Cancer doesn’t either. Neither do guns, suicide, AIDS, or bad shellfish. When it’s your time, you’re herded into a great line and forced to stand in a dark clammy corridor—not unlike the hall leading to your high school gymnasium—and made to wait. Wait for the thwump.

I wonder if everyone else in this line knows why they’re here. Probably not. After all, I’m pretty darn clever. More clever than most. But I suppose if I were truly clever, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Or perhaps I’m mistaken. How could this be right? Why would I be here? I’m young, strong, and healthy. My number cannot possibly be up. I’ve got way too much going on to be here right now. Is this like jury duty? Can I get a waiver or something?

Excuse me, but who might be in charge? I believe a terrible mistake has been made. You see, my life is finally on the right track, things are going very well and I’d like a little more time to see how everything turns out.

Damn it! Who is responsible for this? I promise you, heads will roll. You have NO idea who you’re dealing with, here. Don’t make me come back there.

Okay, I’ll make you a deal. If you let me step outside for some fresh air, I promise I’ll come back. Really. I just have some unfinished business to attend to. My mother always said, “When you start something, you’d best be prepared to finish it.” So, how come I can’t?

No one’s listening. No one cares.

The line is narrowing and dwindling down to just me. I’m not sure now if I’m going with the flow or if I really want this to happen. Rapid eye movement is a tricky state—is it a somnambulist’s bliss or cold, hard reality? We all want to know what happens when we die. Will we remain cognizant of the world around us or will we be thrust into a world beyond our own in sound, smell, and touch. What about those who die and return to their corporeal state to tell tales? Are those stories only so because they came back? Is the experience different if your ticket is punched for a return trip? And what if it happens within a dream? I’ve heard that if you experience death during sleep, you will die in reality.

The room is much too bright. The blinding fluorescent light descends from massive fixtures flooding it into a sterile cube. Dozens of men without faces line the cinder block and tile walls, politely whispering their condolences to anyone who will tolerate their banality. They are the disposers; cleanly and efficiently ridding society of the festering remains.

In the center of the room sits a large wooden chair connected by overhead wires to the bull’s eye on the far wall. As I walk to the chair, one irony-laden thought exists: I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life. What a story this is going to make!

Do I subconsciously know that this is not really happening? Am I dreaming? It’s all so real, I’m not certain any longer.

Oh my God, he’s just pulled the arm down. Why is everyone staring at me? Don’t you all have something better to do? Go rubberneck somewhere else and leave me alone. This is my moment; let me experience it in its finality.

Click click

Death. I’m not sure that I’m ready to embrace it yet. This is unbelievable—it’s happening so fast and there’s no time left to stop it.

Click click click

Life. No matter how you look at it, death is the final reality. So, go with the flow, huh?

Click click thwump

Cold. Like a dry ice fog on a warm summer’s day. Am I floating? I can’t tell. Perhaps I’m only riding on a cloud of percale and down. A 200-thread count nimbus to call my very own.