Fat Busters, Inc.

by Louis E. Catron

Good golly, Saint Molly, what we have here is a
Munchkin! That’s something you don’t see every day,
she thought. A Munchkin in a rock star’s outfit. 

She thought she heard a strange voice whispering her name as she bustled to work, panting a bit because she had to walk a whole block from the bus stop. “Luccee. Luccee. Here!” Lucy Thompson looked around but there wasn’t anyone near. Well, now, that’s weird, she thought.

As she looked to see who was calling her, she saw the fresh sign painted on the shop window—“Fat” in a big red circle with a red slash over it like a traffic sign saying no left turn or no through trucks. Elaborate gold letters announced “Fat Busters, Inc. INSTANT RESULTS!”

Funny way for a sign to hang, she thought. It was just sort of—well, as if it were floating, not touching the glass. Must’ve been amateurs who didn’t know how to hang a sign. Sure hard to get good workers these days. She had time to pause to check out the window before she had to get to work at the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe, Clothing Hollywood Stars Wore And Now You Can Dress Like A Star, Too, because it opened later on Wednesdays.

This city, she half smiled. Nothing stays the same. The most consistent thing is change. For weeks this has been an old, dusty, empty store. Now look. I wonder how these new people made such major renovations overnight.

Weird name, “Fat Busters, Inc.” A peculiar floating sign, too, that didn’t seem to be attached to anything so it looked like it could fall or drift away in a breeze. Sure didn’t say this was a stable outfit.

The sign was nicely painted, even attractive, she’d give them that. But “fat busters”? Oh, puhlease. That’s so… so… so undignified.

Lucy didn’t know why the sign grabbed her attention. There were many things she needed, but not to bust fat, whatever bust meant. She wasn’t fat. Oh, maybe a teensy puff here, a miniscule bulge there, a wispy sag or two sneaking loose. But not fat. Comfortable, that’s what she was. Although almost two decades had passed, she was proud she still had that lithe and smooth body of Lucy at seventeen Well, almost anyhow. Give or take a little here or there, and that’s the way life is, Mabel.

If you want to talk fat, now, there’s Mrs. Albrecht, upstairs, the universe’s big bang theory in human form, who has to get new outfits twice a year to accommodate her ever- expanding self. Fat is Mrs. Ronson, who seemed to be getting her hair done, her hocks firmly wedged in the shampoo chair, every time Lucy went to Dainty Dee’s Affair D’Hair to have her blonde highlights renewed. Dainty Dee herself, come to that, is no delicate wisp, lord knows, with arm jello that flaps as she briskly rubs scalps. And fat is both Mr. and Ms. Welles, who own the Pre-Loved Shoppe and who look more and more like Mr. and Ms. Pillsbury Doughboy on an eating binge every time they come wheezing into the shop with armloads of more Clothing Hollywood Stars Wore, piling the suits and jackets and dresses on Lucy to organize on the racks.

Lucy knew the difference between fat, which is what those folk were, and comfortable, which is what she was.

“Fat Busters”? Silly, she thought as she walked away. Some people start businesses without thinking if there will be customers. Pre-Loved Hollywood Star Clothing, now, that’s smart. But this…?

* * * * *

That evening as she went home the window had more gold lettering, sort of shimmering as the sign floated about. “GUARANTEED RESULTS.”

Oh, sure, guaranteed. Like those folks who phoned her at night with special offers, always guaranteed. “May I speak to Mr. or Miz Thompson?” That was the dead give away that a phony offer was coming. There was no Mr. Thompson, hadn’t been for eight years since Harold had gone vaguely off to who knows where, talking about siren songs and desert islands and nubile maidens bringing him iced drinks with little teeny paper umbrellas. “But why, Harold?” He threw clothing into his suitcase and yelled at her, “I have dreams! I’ve got to go find them! You’re a lead weight on my rainbow!” That hurt. “Yeah? You wouldn’t know what to do with a maiden, nubile or reptile or otherwise,” she had shouted after him as he went thumping down the stairs. Good riddance,she told herself. Now we can have some peace and quiet, just Aloysius and me. She repeated it so she’d believe it.

* * * * *

Each night was exactly the same. She’d fix dinner for Aloysius and nuke a hefty frozen meal for herself. Later she’d settle down to watch Jay or David, eat her box of chocolate covered cherries, and drowse off there on the yellow sofa wrapped in her Granny’s blue and green afghan. Aloysius would curl on her stomach, prodding her soft flesh with his paws like fluffing a pillow, and purr to sleep. Ahh. Peace and quiet.

Comfortable, that’s what she was, the way she looked, the way she lived, although once in a while she felt lost and hungry for something else… No. We’ll have none of that, she said to herself firmly. I will not fall into that trap of whimpering. Life is what it is. I’m comfortable.

Routine, she assured herself. That’s the secret of a comfortable life. Each Monday and Tuesday after work she’d go to the Crup Shelter for the homeless and forlorn. As she served food to the folks, she’d get their lives in order with brisk instructions to each about showers and laundry and haircuts and being sure to sing out the hymns to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Reverend Martin hovered around, praising her. “Madam Cruise Director”—that was his name for her, which he thought was worth a smile but she didn’t know why—“You have the heart of an angel and the managerial skill of the CEO at General Electric.” She’d nod at him and wonder how she could catch the attention of the GE folks. Each Friday she’d play bridge with The Girls, and they’d get the gossip—well, no, not that; “The Local Newscast”—straightened out while letting Sally Lyndon know they were watching her so she wouldn’t cheat when she dealt. Saturday was grocery and drugstore shopping for Mrs. Martinio, who couldn’t get around well, poor thing. Sunday was Clean The Place day. She was amazed how much cleaning was necessary in a single woman’s home. How come, she’d wonder, Aloysius isn’t bald as Jean-Luc Picard, all the hair he keeps losing?

Comfortable. Routine. She sighed deeply.

* * * * *

Thursday morning she heard the whisper again. “Luccee. Luccee.” Must be some trick of the wind blowing across a loose piece of metal. But then she noticed there wasn’t even a little breeze.

A new sign was in the window, just hovering there like a helicopter, except it didn’t have those whirly blade things. “LET US HELP YOU BE MORE ATTRACTIVE SO YOU’LL NEVER BE LONELY!” There was a painting of a slender man and slender woman sitting at a table with fancy silver and one slender rose in a crystal vase, looking lovingly in each other’s eyes, holding slender hands, with a night sky and a big yellow-orange moon behind them reflecting off blue water and backlighting a slender palm tree on the sand. Lucy stared at the picture, feeling hungry somewhere in her mind.

Hmmpfh. Who said I was lonely?

She wondered if Harold had found his nubile maidens.

If Harold can look for nubile, she’d think about virile. She thought what it would be like if she went off to a desert island where a handsome male brought her icy drinks with umbrellas. She would sit slenderly on a chaise lounge under a blue and white umbrella, her slender fingers trailing in the sand, and the male would smile, and he would and she would and they would and… She made a face at herself. Don’t go getting silly!

“Free!” the sign announced. “Free! Free! Free!” Oh, sure. Free like the aluminum siding estimate, free like the telephone switcher.

“Fat Busters, Inc.” sat forlornly alone. She never saw anyone going in or out of the place. With a name like that, what else could they expect?

* * * * *

Friday the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe was hectic. She had never seen so many people in the shop, demanding her help to find this or that Star’s dress or pants or suit so they could emerge from the dressing rooms to see their new Star Self in the mirror. The customers posed for each other, laughing, the Hollywood Stars’ Pre-Loved Clothing shaping softly to their trim bodies, Julia Roberts’ dresses flowing lovingly over gentle curves, Tom Hanks’ suits tucked into slim waists, Meg Ryan’s petites all cute and girly, Britney’s skimpies hugging on desperately for fear they’d fall to the ground. The people smiled happily, bought armloads of stars’ clothing, asked her to help lug their booty to their shining cars with never a concern about the miles she was putting on her feet.

Her last customer was a man. He smiled at her, touched this or that Star Wear, smiled more at her, asked polite questions. He liked Mel Gibson’s leather jacket, as well he should. He smiled again at her. And again. Oh! Interested, are you?He liked her. She could tell. Well, why, yes, perhaps—just perhaps—I might have dinner with you tonight. But you have to ask just right. She thought he’d pass that test.

Then a woman breezed in. Willowy, trim, neat. The kind whose blonde hair simply wouldn’t dare frizz, whose feet would be slim and painless, who knew about cruises and islands. Hmppfh. Lucy decided not to help her look for a Star Outfit. The woman went to the Star Gown section and selected slim Charlize Theron’s red ball gown and slender Nicole Kidman’s green dress, then stood in front of the mirror, putting first one and then the other in front of her. She asked the man a question. Lucy watched as the man replied, pointing at Charlize’s outfit. She watched them talk, confer about the clothes, smiling, heads close together. She watched them leave together slender arm in slender arm, their laughter making soft echoes that lingered long after they were gone.

Lucy sighed. I suppose they’re going to have dinner where there’s bright silver and a vase with one slender rose.

She locked the door behind them and looked at the stars’ dresses no one had wanted. Which would she select for the weekend, Camryn Manheim’s black suit or Kirstie Alley’s flowery caftan? She didn’t like The Practice as much as Fat Actress, and anyway she thought Camryn was silly to write that book bragging about her fat, so she changed into Kirstie’s floral. Ahh. She admired herself in the mirror. Those yellows look good on me and the blues bring out the azure color of my eyes. She liked that word, azure. Sometimes she’d say they were indigo eyes. Or cerulean. Dumb ol’ Harold couldn’t handle that: “So what’s wrong with the good, clear, American word ‘blue’?” Those nubiles would find out Harold just didn’t have taste.

This time, as she shuffled home on tired feet past the new shop, she heard gentle music like a warm breeze touching with palm leaves, a wistful soprano singing unintelligible words. The music slipped into her mind, touched her so she felt goose bumps, held her with harps and strings and a primitive tom-tom, made her see cruise ships and candles and white linen and silver settings and silken sheets.

Her eyes went to the window. The painter had been busy again. There was another golden sign that hung on an invisible hook. “SPECIAL OFFER TO NEW CUSTOMERS!! SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS WILL BE PAID!”

That kind of advertising, she thought disapprovingly. The owner surely must be one of the foreigns. Americans know better than to give products away for free.

Something flickered by the sign, seemed to circle it, blinking too rapidly for her to be sure. Did… did I see my name? She shook her head. Gotta get more rest. Maybe I better not watch Dave tonight.

Again voices whispered, “Here, Luccee! Here!”

What…? No one was close enough to whisper.

Then she saw a three-panel mirror. Where did that come from? It was fixed so Lucy could see herself front, back, and profile.

And a TV camera that broadcast all of Lucy on a screen.

All of her.

She blinked. A—well, there was no other word—a chunky Lucy looked back at her, broad and expansive. What she had thought was a little bitty puff here and a teensy bulge there was… was… yuckers! Kirstie Alley’s flowers swept up and down Lucy hillsides. Not just small little slopes but big hills that rolled and bubbled with more round mounds than valleys.

That isn’t me, she thought. It must be some trick of the evening light. Or—yeah, that’s it—it’s one of those sideshow funny house mirrors. Well, that sure as hell isn’t a nice thing to do to a lady.

Then she noticed a new sign. How could she have missed that? “TONIGHT ONLY: anyone with the initials L.T. will be paid for a FAT BUSTER session!”

L.T.? Paid?

The sign changed. “GIVE IT A TRY, LUCY!”

Amazing, these modern computers—I wonder how they can figure out so much.

She didn’t much like signs talking to her, but you had to expect machines to be on a first-name basis in a world where automated phone voices try to get you to buy timeshares in North Alaska.

The glass and wood door swung open, although there wasn’t anyone there.

She looked around, but no one was paying any attention. People were rushing that direction, running the other, all of them so eager to get home to get ready for weekend dates that they ignored her. She had nothing to rush to get ready for.

She hesitated a moment, then shrugged. A few minutes, why not? They’ll have a chair and I can sit and soothe my poor feet. Maybe they’ll have some tasty munchies, this being their grand opening. And I bet I can get off some great punch lines when they talk about free and guarantees.

She stepped in. Yeow. What kind of place is this? Candles. Flowing purple drapes over the walls, thick carpet like a putting green. A rich smell like… like… oh, sure, like those little things Sally Rodriquez burned in a saucer when she was Madame Arkcodia telling fortunes. In the corner was a lurking metal sculpture of—what? an eagle, maybe?—something vaguely horrible with big wings and a sharp beak or two, and sticking up out of its head was what might be a bad feather day or maybe horns. On the ceiling was a painting—or something—of stars and moons that moved and spun and made her feel dizzy. A desk seemed to float above the floor.

Must be foreigns from one of those oil countries because they’ve sure got money. But they ought to get a better interior decorator so the place would look more like a business than a French whorehouse. Whatever one of those places would look like.

“Welcome, Luccee,” a small voice whispered. “Pleasssee entry in.”

Who…? She looked down. Oh. There you are. Good golly, Saint Molly, what we have here is a Munchkin!

A tiny man. Or perhaps a woman? Over its head and ears it wore one of those turban cloth helmets like a Prince, or maybe a Princess, of Araby. The poor thing had been in the desert sun too much and gotten the color of toast. Big—really huge—black eyes in saucers of white. Great clothes, though. She studied the tiny thing’s outfit with a practiced eye. Gold threads running through dark blue fabric that shimmered, long robe cascading to the floor, batwing sleeves flowing down over the fingertips, a shawl collar climbing up in back almost to the top of the turban. That’s something you don’t see every day, she thought. A Munchkin in a rock star’s outfit. That gown would be a socko hit at the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe, except only a kid could wear it.

“I am Glacksohn and to meeet you isss pleasssuring meee.” He or she bowed deeply, the robe spreading wide around its feet like a puddle of blue gold. The way it talked sounded like a snake with peanut butter stuck to the roof of its mouth.

“I’m Ms. Thompson. Lucy Thompson. I was just passing by…”

“Yesss. Aware of that knowledge, I’m know name of you.”

These foreigns. Why didn’t they learn to speak proper Americanese before they across the ocean come?

“I was just passing by,” she repeated firmly, the way you had to do with foreigns. “And I saw your signs. I thought I would find out what you do here. About fat. Not for me, you understand, because I don’t need any busting or whatever it is you do, but for a friend of mine who is, um, you know, horizontally advantaged.”

“Friendsss, yesss, yesss.” It nodded its head.

“So tell me, Mr.? Miz? Glackshon…” She paused hopefully.

“Yesss.” It bobbed its head enthusiastically. “Glackshon.”

Just one name? Oh. Well, sure, okay. Madonna and Britney got a lot of miles outta that gimmick.

“So tell me, Glackshon, what you do here?”

“Pleassseee Luccee followsss me to our exhamining rooomm by preceding first.”

He or she had a voice that sounded like the flute her mother had tried to make her learn to play. Pretty sound, really, soft and lilting. If you liked someone singing when they talked.

Glacksohn pointed to the back. Lucy saw a shimmering brass door, looking like it was framed in metal with heavy bolts on the sides. Huh. Curious, she hadn’t seen the door earlier when she had looked around.

A pretty woman never can be too careful around foreigns in this city. For all I know, this could be a white slave outfit, with those Araby folks looking to carry off a handsome woman like moi. “I can’t stay long. My Al, he knows I came in your shop. I’m not home soon, ol’ Big Al will be here looking here for me.” She grinned secretly to herself. Not as good as her best punch lines, but clever anyhow, even if she had to say so herself.

“It takesss time of ssshort ssstay,” Glacksohn said. “Pleasssee to sssee accommingdationsss for you.”

The examining room didn’t have that hospital white glare. Instead it was all soft brown and blue velvet drapes. Lucy looked around, awed. In one corner were a series of shiny empty glass jars topped with cork stoppers that had rubber tubing running off to a black machine with dials and flashing buttons. From the machine plastic hoses ran to a luxurious recliner. In another corner was a box made of something like stainless steel except there seemed to be light coming through the metal. Everything seemed to float above the floor. There was a persistent hum like heavy machinery working somewhere, vibrating like the motor on the ferry.

“Luceee, sssitsss down yourssself on this sssitter, pleassseee me,” he or she said, pointing to the recliner. “Beee comfort table and relax at eeeassse.”

Well, her feet were sore and the “sitter” looked comfortable despite its weird shape like some giant’s hand. She settled into it and felt it buzz as it moved and shifted to adjust to her.

“Look, Glacksohn, I want to ask…”

The sitter opened, leaned back, wrapped around her, cuddled her, began to vibrate soft fingers against her neck, her back, her butt, her thighs. Oh? Oh! Yes!

From somewhere a soft pad slipped across her forehead, warm, comforting, lightly rubbing right above her eyes where she got headaches. Ahh.

The sitter’s footrest raised and another piece pushed up against her feet. It began to ripple. Oh, my. She kicked off her shoes and the ripples rubbed, caressed, stroked. Don’t stop! Heaven!

A nozzle came out from the head of the sitter and squirted a little spray toward her nose. It smelled like the way her sheets smelled, years ago, after her mother had hung them to dry in the sun. Mmmmmm.

“Oh,” she said. She yawned. “Oh! Glacksohn, what’s…?” The squirter did its thing again, reminding her of summer and fresh cut grass. She yawned again, more deeply. Her eyelids felt heavy.

“Shhhhhh,” Glacksohn said. “Ressst you. Deeply breathing breathsss, yess. In the breath. Out the breath. In. Out. Peaccce now. Sssshhhhhhh. Eyesss closéd now. Everything isss lovely, lovely.”

Yes, Lucy thought, closing her eyes while the sitter vibrated and the footrest rippled and the squirter bathed her nostrils with summer sun. Rest me. Is lovely. Yes. Deeply breathing breaths. Yes. Peace now.

“Peaccce.” Its voice sang lovely. What a lovely, lovely voice. What a lovely, lovely smell. What a… Ahhh.

Maybe something very cold rubbed for a moment against her arm.

Maybe the cold touched briefly her belly, her hips, her thighs.

Maybe she felt a sort of… of a… pulling sensation all over her body. A taking. Inside of her.

Maybe she heard a machine making soft slurping sounds.

She didn’t know because she was…

…running and leaping in slow motion like a gazelle through a hill full of flowers, lovely, lovely flowers,

…and she was in a white ballet skirt, dancing light-footed along a sandy beach next to the blue, blue ocean, lovely blue ocean, and the rising yellow moon grew larger and larger behind a tall slender palm,

…and she was riding a golden horse through a field of yellow, lovely yellow wheat bowing in the wind, and her hair was streaming behind her,

…and she was at a dinner table and there was a rose, lovely, lovely red rose,

…and across from her He was sitting, smiling, lovely, lovely smile at her,

…and they held hands and a violinist stood next to the table, playing,

…and everything disappeared, table and silver and rose and violinist,

…and they were alone,

…and her clothes drifted away and hung themselves on invisible hooks in front of the window that opened to the sea,

…and He and she were on soft blue cushions, lovely, lovely cushions, floating in the sky and fluffy white clouds wrapped around them and the stars made arcing red and purple and white and green and yellow streaks across the night sky,



Oh oh oh OH!

* * * * *

A chucking noise made her open her eyes, blinking. I must’ve dozed for a moment. I dreamt. She thought of the dream. Yeow! She wanted to hit the instant replay button.

The chuck-a-chunk noise caught her attention and she looked around the room. The Munchkin was holding up two quart bottles in elongated fingers that looked like, well, like the legs of a tarantula. The poor thing probably has some form of arthritis that distorts its fingers. He, or maybe she, looked carefully at the swirling cloudy stuff in the bottles. “Yesss, yesss,” it said, bobbing its turbaned head up and down. It made the chuck-chunk-a-chuck noise again. That’s a weird laugh, Lucy thought. But, hey, ol’ Harold’s laugh sounded like a chain saw missing some gears.

Lucy watched as the Munchkin took the bottles to the stainless steel box and gently put them in, then moved those funny spider fingers over a yellow light on top of the box. The light flashed green and the bottles shimmered, grew brighter, then faded out of sight. It chucked-a-chunked and did a strange dance. She thought of the Mayor of Munchkin Land doing a jig but without exactly touching the ground.

The Munchkin sighed, slumping his? her? shoulders. Tired, huh? Well, you try selling Hollywood Star clothes all day. Then you’ll know tired.

It turned and saw her watching. “Luceee, she feelsss fine?”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. I feel wonderful!

“Look, Glacksohn, can we talk?”

The sitter had stopped doing its thing. She reluctantly got up and started to walk to Glacksohn, but she almost tripped over the hem of Kirstie’s flower dress. It was slipping down off her body. “Whoops,” she said, grabbing the shoulders and pulling it back up. “It must’ve stretched or something.”

As she adjusted the dress, she ran her hands over her body. There was, she discovered, less Lucy. The little puffs and bulges… Well, now, that’s interesting, she thought. Something’s changed. Or gone.

“Wait, Glacksohn,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

Grasping Kirstie’s dress so it stayed up, she went outside the Fat Buster shop and stood in front of the mirrors and TV camera. A svelte, shapely, lovely Lucy looked back at her. Wow! And look—cheekbones, like a model! She turned, preened, pulled handfuls of the excess dress material tight around her body. Kirstie Alley’s flowers were a neat, well-tended, garden with only the bumps that ought be bumpy. And now they were firm bumps. She could toss out her Wonder Bras and her support hose and those form shaping panties. She turned to admire the rear view, pulling Kirstie’s flowers snug over her butt. Yes! I haven’t looked like this since I was seventeen. Hell, when I was seventeen I didn’t look this good!

A man walking by stopped, turned, and came back to her. “Excuse me,” he said. “I don’t want to be rude and I certainly don’t want you to think I do this all the time when I see a strange woman—I really never have done this before—but I just have to say that I wonder if you’d permit me to ask you out to dinner? If not tonight, tomorrow? Or the next night? Or the next? We could go to my club, or any place you’d prefer. And some weekend, we could take my jet to a marvelous island I know.”

Oh! It’s Him! The slender man in the painting in the window, the one who was on the pillows and we… She felt her cheeks warming. Blushing? Me?

“I, um, ah, oh,” she said.

He was elegant, graceful, tall, broad-shouldered. His suit looked like the one Clark had worn when he swept Scarlet up the stairs, and his hair had that hyper Brad Pitt look. His voice warmed the inside of her ears and rolled all the way down to her stomach.

He reached into his jacket. “I know. I’m rude. Please pardon me. But would you kindly take this”—he opened his wallet and pulled out a white card—“and perhaps you might call me after you’ve had time to think about it? Please?”

She took the card, feeling the engraved letters. “Um, er, I, ah,” she said.

She looked up into his eyes. They were warm. Little smile crinkles at the sides. His black hair was lush and thick and she thought of wrapping her fingers in the curls. The center of his chin had an indentation that her finger could just fit into.

“Please?” His lips were magnets.

“Ah, um, I, oh,” she said.

He bowed. “I am sorry if I intruded.” He turned to leave.

Her mouth caught up with her mind. “No! Wait!”

“Yes?” His smile was lovely, lovely, and her knees were feeling like marshmallows.

Momma always said that if you act eager, men lose respect. She struggled to get control. “One might,” she said aloofly. “Perhaps one might consider it. Sometime. One has, however, prior arrangements this evening.”

“Of course a beautiful woman like you would have plans. I’ll wait, hoping. Anytime.”

She watched him leave. She fingered the card. Yikes!

“Glacksohn!” She rushed back into the shop.

The Munchkin retreated in fear. “Nooo hurt I’m,” it said.

She sat down on the floor so they’d be eye to eye. “We gotta talk. You and me, we gotta make some plans here. Listen. You need a receptionist. No, not a receptionist. A manager. A partner. We’re gonna be so busy that you won’t have time to handle all the business. And, pal, this idea of giving it away free? Forget it. No one trusts the word ‘free.’ We’ll charge. A lot. Got that, Glacky? That way the people will know it is worth a lot. I’ll make appointments and collect the money and handle the advertising and deal with the zoning laws and pay the rent and keep us in supplies. While you take people to that sitter and do whatever it is you do. Yeah, partner, we’re gonna be very busy!”

“Bizzzee no goot. Mental work overstresss,” it said softly, pointing at its belly. “Wearing out I’m mental mind.”

It thinks its mental mind is in its stomach? Well, hey, Dainty Dee thinks with her stomach. “That’s okay. You’ll get used to it. And we’ll need to expand. Six more rooms with sitters.”

“Sssix more? Ssso many!”

“No, six won’t do it,” she said thoughtfully. “For a start, twelve more.”

“Twelf?” It moaned, shook its head, and pointed again to its belly. “Mental tired and achesss.”

“I’ll schedule you carefully.” She looked around the room. “I need a phone.”


“I’ll call Mrs. Albrecht and Mrs. Sweeney and Mr. and Mrs. Welles. And Dee. Especially Dee. Once you’ve had her in the sitter, she’ll tell all of her ladies, and that will bring in dozens more. And each will tell her friends and…”

He or she was shaking its head.

“What? You have a problem with this, Glacksohn?”

“Am sssupriséd. Wasss warned peoplesss here were hossstile to usss,” it said. “Wasss warned your peoplesss would object to usss collecting their fat extrasss for usss to ussse to fuel our transpormagorator.”

“Say what?”

“Transpormagorator move home into new orbitersss. You peoplesss call it touristsss.”

“Yeah, well, whatever.” These days, geeks liked strange terms. “You’ll find that we Americans are friendly folks, so don’t worry about what those foreigns told you. Just leave everything to me. Okay?”

She looked at the desk. “I’ll want a sign there with my name on it. It’ll read… not Lucy, not Thompson, that’s too common…” She snapped her fingers. “‘Marguerite Morningstar. Co-Executive Partner.’ You got that?”

Glacksohn suddenly had a little gray box. The spider fingers played on the buttons and on the desk appeared a silver sign:

Co-Executive Partner
Fat Busters, Inc.

Lucy looked at it, her head tilted to one side. She spoke softly. “Today Fat Busters, tomorrow GE, and next week…”

“Sssign meetsss your pleasssednesss?”

“It’s great.” She laughed, danced a small pirouette. “Great! Partner, you’re gonna have to tell me how those tricks work.”

Glackshon showed her the box. “Isss a kowtskizty. Jussst think what you need and touch here…”

“You can teach me later. Let’s nail down the finances here. I take fifty percent of income. Right?”

“What iss incomme?”

Lucy smiled gently at him. Or her. Lovely child. “Never mind. I’ll handle the books. And each week, regular, you’ll put me in that sitter. Right?”

It nodded slowly, blinking its large eyes.

She looked around the shop. “I’ve got some ideas about re-decorating. We need a new look, Glackey. Those purple drapes have to go. And that stuff you’re burning—bad idea ’cause we don’t want the narcs coming here. We gotta make a friendly atmosphere. Over here we’ll put an aquarium with angelfish. Big plants by the door. That bird thing, too, we’ll toss it in the junk ’cause it is just too hostile. Like fearsome, pal.”

Glacksohn looked mournfully at the purple drapes and the sculpture that looked vaguely like an eagle. “Ohhhh,” it said sadly. “Ohhhh. They make I’m feel home.”

“And maybe we can find you a good speech therapist you can visit.”

“Not like go odder peopless,” it said shyly. “Bessst ssstay here.”

“Well… okay, keep that accent, then. Hey, look what an accent did for Arnold whatshisname and Henry Kissinger. We’ll tell people you’re from Germany, like that Doctor Fraud.”

Lucy Marguerite looked meditatively at the window. “We need a bigger sill. That’ll make the perfect place for Aloysius. He likes to keep up with what’s going on in the outside world.”


“He’ll make the place look homey, friendly. Relax the patients.”

“What iss theee Allyoitisss?”

“He’s my big ol’ special cat.”

Glockshon’s face lost several shades of toast color. “K-k-kat? Indoctrination film ssshowed I’m k-k-kat thingsss like tigersss and lionsss. Too big. Much too big. Clawesss and toothesss!”

“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll like him, Glackey.”

“Worry he’ll like I’m! For food!”

“Don’t be a goose. There’s not enough of you to make a good snack.”

Glacksohn looked around as if wondering where to find a place to hide.

She thought a moment. “Glackey, that little box? The cowtsie thingie? Can it track down somebody, like maybe someone named Harold Thompson, and can it make him have really big juicy zits and give him fleas and put sand in his skivvies and give him a big bald spot?”

“Needsss programingsss that is difficulter hard, but yesss.”

She laughed. “Lovely. Just lovely. We’ll talk.”

She patted him or her on the shoulder, then stopped when sharp protrusions like cow horns hurt her hand. “There’s something you need to tell me, Glacky. I hope you don’t mind a personal question, but partners gotta be open with each other.”

The Munchkin backed up several steps, its eyes darting left and right, like it wondered how it could escape. “Actually innocent I’m. Falssse witnessess at the trial. Truthfully I tell you the honest.”


“But they sssaid guilty I’m anyhow and sssent I’m here.”

“That’s not what I was going to ask, Glacky.”

It sort of shrunk. “Yesss?”

“What I need to know will help us get on a firm footing here. Tell me straight out. Are you a male or female?”

Glackshon lowered its head shyly. “This month, am fertilizer, what you sssay male. Next month will change to bearer.”

“Really?” She looked at him skeptically. “Glacky, you’re not from Los Angeles, are you?”

“From Klanock Q7o3z I’m. Isss Angelesss in orbit?”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “It’s pretty far out there. Never mind. So now you’re a he. Fine. Just keep me posted what you are, pal. Okay?”

She fumbled in her purse and found the keys to the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe. “Now. You get things ready, use that cowski thingie to get us new sitters and all that stuff, while I run down to the other store. I’ll be back in a flash and we’ll get to work. First, though, I’ve got to get rid of Kirstie’s flowers and find something that fits. There was that really smooth Britney Spears outfit that’ll look great on me…”

Lucy Marguerite Thompson Morningstar blew Glacksohn a kiss as she ran out the door, tripping on Kirstie’s extra flowers. Her giggle pushed against the purple drapes.

Alone, Glacksohn fumbled with the little black box. A chair materialized, floating above the floor, and he sank down. He pulled out a golden-thread cloth and wiped his brow with shaking spider fingers, and looked forlornly around the room.

A cloudy shape fuzzily wandered around the room and bumped against the walls, grunting “ow!” before settling in front of him. A face appeared, like Glackshon’s but it didn’t have the turban. One large pointed rabbity ear stuck up sideways and the other one flopped down almost over the face’s eyes.

“This is Klanock Q7,” it said brusquely. It pushed the ear out of its eyes. “We received your transmission of the shipment. We tested it. The substance was of the highest quality. Excellent. We will quadruple our drive and therefore we shall expect frequent shipments from you.”

“Isss hard difficulter…” Glacksohn tried to say.

“Frequent shipments,” it repeated sternly. It wiggled its nose. “More. Much more.”

“Oh.” Glacksohn shook his head.

“Staff congratulates you for subduing the natives and turning them into our slaves without having to put the martonquekz substance in their consumables.”

“But… but… but,” Glackshon moaned.

“You’ll remain on station for seventeen of those earth time zones the humans call years.”

“Ssseventeen?” There was something like a sob in his voice. “Here? Not here, pleassse! Much would prefer even Iccce Planet ZRt8+X. Life form here dangerousss I’m.”

The face shook its head. The ears flopped and it pushed both of them from its eyes. “Where you are is the penalty that staff decided was appropriate in your case. Out.” The face started fading away. The cloud bumped against the walls. “Ow!”

Glacksohn could hear Lucy Marguerite laughing happily as she skipped back to him from the Pre-Loved Clothing Shoppe. There was a hubbub of other voices, too.

“No, no, no,” Glacksohn whimpered. “Wait! No leave I’m here!”

The cloud disappeared. From somewhere there was a crash and a loud “Owwwch!”

Lucy was excited. “Come on, you guys! Follow me! I’m the Pied Piper of Fat Busters, Inc.! You’ll love it! Ms. Welles, Mr. Welles, come on! Dee, I’m so glad we happened to run into each other! Come on! And—I’m sorry, the rest of you, I forgot your names, but come on in and I’ll make appointments for you. All of you. Now, while we still have our special introductory rate of $495.95, cash or plastic. And it is guaranteed! Come on in and let me introduce you to our Special Consultant, Professor Glacksohn from Germany. It takesss time of only ssshort ssstay!”

The door swung open and the crowd poured buzzing with excitement into the shop, following Lucy Marguerite who strutted like a drum majorette in her low-slung tight pants with rhinestones and her short-short tight-tight t-shirt accenting firm boobs above her trim bare stomach. Something shiny glittered in her belly button.

“Okay, Professor Glacksohn,” she bubbled. “To the sitters!”

Glacksohn made a sound that if he was a human might be a whimper.

Lucy Marguerite looked back at the crowd. “A minute, please, you guys. The professor and I have to have a short conference.”

The people turned and milled about the room, chattering good-naturedly, looking at the eagle-thing in awe.

Lucy squatted next to Glackshohn. “Oof,” she said, pulling at the crotch of her pants. “That hurts. Well, that’s something I just learned. I don’t know how Britney could even bend in this outfit. How about giving me a little chair, Glacky.”

“Chair, yesss.”

He manipulated the box with spider fingers and a chair floated under her.

“Much better. Now listen, partner. I’m not going to chew you out for not getting us the aquarium and skylights and all that. Tomorrow will be fine. Now. I’ll send these people in to you. We’ll make an assembly line.”

“Ssso many,” Glacksohn moaned. “Tired I’m even before ssstart.”

“Off with you, pal. The boss tells you: to work, to work.”

Glacksohn sighed. “Yesss, Bosss. Work I’m.” He turned and stood in the brass doorway, waiting for the first person to enter.

“All right,” Lucy said briskly, smiling at the throng of faces. “Fat Busters is in business!”

She sat at the desk that floated above the floor, adjusted the silver sign, and took out a pad of paper and pencil. “I am ready to make the schedule,” she said aloofly. “Remember, now: our work has a lifetime guarantee! Who wishes to be first?”

Glacksohn moaned softly and went, head bowed, tarantula fingers tenderly rubbing his belly, into the examining room to wait for the people.

The crowd surged forward to the desk, chattering, buzzing, checks and credit cards extended. Lucy laughed gaily. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “We’re gonna have us a fat-bustin’ blast!”



by Paul Maitrejean


“Gumption, son—it’s the one thing you gotta have if you’re gonna get anywheres,” Gramps Purpicott said. He leaned back in the old rocker he’d been using all morning, stuffed his pipe again, and lit up. “Gumption is the key to everythin’.”

I sat on the front step of Gramps Purpicott’s Ozarks cabin, listening to his words of wisdom. Usually, all that talk about being ambitious—going to school, in my case—would have had me feeling guilty, but I figured if Gramps didn’t let it bother him, I wasn’t going to let it bother me.

“What’s gumption, Gramps?”

“Well, like I said, it’s the key to everythin’. When I was young, I had that key. Used it to get into everythin’. When I got older, I done what most folks does with their keys—misplaced it somewheres and never got a new one.”

“When was that?”

Gramps considered for a minute. “Oh, I was probably your age.”

“How did you lose it?”

“Played hooky, for one—sorta like you is right now.”

I frowned and shuffled my feet. “Now don’t you get after me, Gramps. I get enough about playin’ hooky from Pap.”

Gramps’ eyes got big, and he looked at me as if I’d accused him of stealing. “I ain’t gettin’ after yeh. Heck, it’s high time you started losin’ your gumption.”


“Sure.” Gramps started rocking and blew a big cloud of smoke.

“But Gramps, if gumption is the key to everything, won’t I get locked out if I lose it?”

“That goes without sayin’,” Gramps replied. “But if you get locked out, it means you ain’t expected to do the chores.”

I thought about that for a while and looked around. Gramps Purpicott’s yard, cabin, clothes, and smell proved he knew what he was talking about—he probably hadn’t done chores of any kind for about eighty years.

“Gramps, don’t most folks expect other folks to have gumption—y’know, like work and go to school and stuff?”

“You bet they does,” Gramps said. “See, that’s why you should lose your gumption. It shocks folks. Makes you stand out as an example, and makes them sit up and look. Before you knows it, you’re makin’ converts to your own ways of livin’.”

“Really, Gramps? Do you have converts?”

“No.” He winked at me. “But I’m makin’ ’em.”

“But Gramps, look at George Washington and Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison. They had gumption, didn’t they? And they got famous.”

Gramps shrugged. “I don’t know about them. Never knowed ’em. But some folks I knowed—Gun-Totin’ Vic, the Alabama Kid, and Jailbreak Jake and the rest—they had plenty of gumption, and look what happened to them.”

“Who were they?”

“See, son? They had gumption, but they never got famous. They was gangsters, back in ’35. Didn’t have time to get famous, they had so much gumption. All ended up in jail or shot down in a gunfight or somethin’.”

“You knew ’em?”

“For a while, sort of.”

“You were friends?”

Gramps chuckled. “Heck, no. They just came here now and again to hide out in my cabin.”

My eyes bugged. “Really, Gramps? Didn’t you tell the Feds?”

He looked at me, disgusted. “No.”

“You didn’t try to fight ’em off?”

“Of course not! Son, ain’t you listenin’ to a single word I’m sayin’? Doin’ that stuff takes gumption!”

I hung my head, ashamed. Gramps was showing me how hard it is to break nasty habits and natural reactions.

“Now, now,” Gramps soothed. “Don’t feel so bad, son. You’ll catch on in time—you ain’t a bright boy. Now listen. You mosey inside and grab the jar of cookies off the table. Should be right next to that pheasant I never got around to dressin’ out. Then come back out and I’ll tell you more about losin’ gumption.”

I dashed inside, holding my nose while I ran to the table. I found the cookie jar beside the festering feathers, but I had to use both hands to pick it up. I was gagging by the time I ran out again.

Gramps waggled a warning finger. “Take it easy, son,” he said. “You’re usin’ gumption.”

I settled down, grabbed a handful of cookies, and handed Gramps the jar. The ginger snaps were still pretty fresh—hard, but not spoiled.

“I suppose you don’t make your own, Gramps.”

Gramps broke a fragment off his cookie and let it soften in his mouth. “That’s kind of a dumb question, ain’t it?”

“Then does somebody bring them to you?”

Gramps shook his head. “Nope. Nobody bothers. I don’t think some of ’em is so sure I’m alive yet.”

“Then how do you get ‘em?”

“Oh, they turn up here and there. Under rocks, up in trees, on windowsills—places like that.”

“Really?” Gramps impressed me more every minute. “Wow! How do you find ’em?”

“Oh, I just kind of runs acrost ’em now and then.”

I thought for a bit. “Y’know, Gramps, I’ll bet you’ve been finding the Swamp Fiend’s hiding places.”

Gramps glared at me. “The what’s hiding places?”

“The Swamp Fiend’s. That’s what folks have been calling it.”

“Calling what?”

I struggled to get a bite out of my cookie, gave up, and chucked it off the porch. It hit a rock with a clack. “Haven’t you heard? There’s something creeping around, swiping things like eggs and chickens and bread and all sorts of stuff—mostly food. Mrs. Tibblehead says she saw it one night a few weeks ago, making off with a pan of ginger snaps she’d set out to cool. She swears she saw the horns and the spiked tail.”

“Folks should know better than to talk like that!” Gramps burst out, his face a funny shade of red. “The durn rascals! Horns and tail, eh? They should know better than to talk like that about me.”

“Oh, they ain’t talking about you, Gramps,” I said. “They’re just talking about the weird old critter swiping their stuff.”

“Weird old critter! Why you—well—oh.” Gramps calmed down a little. “Well, now.” He chuckled to himself. “Folks does have themselves funny imaginations, doesn’t they?”

“But they seen it, Gramps.”

He went on chuckling. “Maybe, but I get a kick out of it, anyways.”

I didn’t see what was so funny about it, but I let him laugh and tried another cookie.

Suddenly, the brush on the edge of the yard crackled, and big Russ Cumberson, the local steer farmer, walked up along the place where the path should have been. He was a big man, and mean-looking—but maybe that was because he was scowling and growling, huffing like one of his steers and red in the face.

“All right, Purpicott,” he bellowed, walking up to the porch. “We’ve had it! We know who this blamed Swamp Fiend is, and I’m gonna stop its stealin’ everything.”

“Well, good, Russ,” Gramps said. “I was gettin’ a mite concerned myself. I was just tellin’ Rex here the Fiend prob’ly snitched my gumption. Ain’t seen it in a while.”

“Shut up and listen, Purpicott!” Russ Cumberson snapped. “My boy seen you last night, makin’ off with the puddin’! There was no mistakin’, Purpicott! The moon was full, which explains why you was out there, and it lit up your face clear. I don’t care if you’re an old coot, either—I’m gonna learn you to—hey! Get back here!”

Gramps’ rocker still rolled back and forth, but Gramps was gone. Somewhere behind the cabin, something crashed through the brush and faded into the distance. Me and Russ Cumberson listened to it a while.

“I’ll get him later,” he muttered. “I got work to do.” Then he looked at me. “And if you don’t light out for school now, I’ll be tellin’ your pap you been playin’ hooky.”

Well, I don’t know which of us ran faster that morning, but I do know one thing—both me and Gramps had sure found our gumption again.


Tea Time in the Halls of Prophecy

by George R. Taylor


“Good day, Hapless Adventure-Seeker of Tuesday the Twenty-Third, Number Forty-Three. What brings you to the Halls of Prophecy?” The spindly old man stepped around the cluttered desk, bending on a creaking knee to elegantly kiss her hand. His clear eyes twinkled with joy at the meeting, as if it were a rare delight to welcome a visitor into the halls of which he was the curator. His hair was thin and gray, and in places shed onto his black robes, standing out against the dark backdrop.

“Pray tell, dear, what is your name?”

“My name is Vena Llena. I wish to read the prophecies.” Her lightning green eyes flicked over the man’s thin shoulder, observing the office behind. The sturdy desk was scattered with scraps of parchment and quills, and one corner seemed to be devoted to the manufacture of ink—from what Vena could see, it was a messy science.

“Of course, of course. But that is so boring. I assure you, the Halls offer much better diversions. For instance, the mountain you undoubtedly climbed on your way to this distant, out-of-the-way, unfortunately misplaced building is the roost of a fully grown dragon? Its incredible! She’s a beauty—name of Esmerelda. She’s green, see?”

Vena’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “There is a dragon? Here?”

“Oh yes, my dear. Oh yes. There has to be something to deter the heroes hasn’t there? They can’t just waltz right in. That’d not make a very heroic tale, now would it?”

“Deter the heroes?”

“Heavens, yes. Always coming up here on a grave mission to save the world from some impending doom. Always need to study the ancient prophecies to find a way to defeat their respective dark villain. It’s dreadfully dreary, really. Always the same story, and the same group. There’s Hero—he’s the fighter, the main enemy of the villain, you know. And then there is Helping Wench. She’s the scantily clad one; I’ve always liked her. And last but not least, there’s Wizard. He’s the fool that undoubtedly told Hero he must come here to search for his answers. Never think to search themselves for answers any more, now do they?”

“But doesn’t the dragon get killed whenever someone wins?”

“Oh, no. Esmerelda just pretends. You should see her at it—quite an act. If you wait another hour you’ll probably get to see her show. Things slow down around midday, when all the heroes are eating lunch or sparring or whatnot; but we still see a party every hour or so.”


“That’s right. Esmerelda and I.”

Vena shook her head in disbelief. “I need to see the prophecies. It’s important.”

“’Course it is,” he said with a smile. “Right this way.”

He bowed her out of his small office, and into the towering chamber beyond. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows, emblazoned with the image of a mighty sword being drawn from its scabbard. Long shelves stretched through the room, which was easily the size of a cathedral, all filled to their entirety—and haphazardly so—with parchment.

“It’s so messy!” she exclaimed.

“Can’t make it too easy on the heroes, can I?” He threw her a look that told her quite plainly he thought her crazy; well, she thought the same of him.

“Now, what is your particular interest? Save the world? Natural disaster? Stopping dark magic? Evil lord?”

“Lost love,” she grunted.

“Ooh, lost love. That’s a favorite of mine, don’t see much of those in here.” He looked her up and down. “Should’ve known, you don’t look the Helper-Wench.” He frowned. “Too plain. But, you’re in luck, there aren’t as many lost love prophecies, so it won’t take as long to find yours—if it’s in here.”

“What do you mean if it’s in here?”

“Fates are busy too, aren’t they? Can’t spend all day writing about people’s love lives, can they? I’d hope it wasn’t in here if I were you. They’re a pessimistic lot, really. Only ever write about something if it’s really sad. For the heroes, at least. They always give the evil ones what they want. Rule of all the lands or unending magic or whatever it is they want.”

“The evil guys always win?”

“Do you see any evil lords around?”

“No… But you just said they always get the good prophecies.”

“Hmm, I suppose I did. Yes, that’s right. Evil ones get the good prophecies—your lost love isn’t evil is he?”


“That’s a shame. What did you say your name was again?”

“Vena Llena.”

“Hmm. Now where did I? Ah, yes, here it is.” He cleared his throat. “Vena Llena, born to the sign of Capricorn, in the land of Hyerlon, et cetera, et cetera. Ah, here is the good stuff… hem, hem. The one whom you hold most dear shall leave you forever, and you will be doomed to eternal despair. And furthermore, it is foretold that you will never again cross the doors of the Halls of Prophecy as a living woman.

“You… you can’t be serious? It must be wrong, it must be!”

He placed the parchment in her hands and took her around the shoulder, leading her back to his office. “Serious as stone, my lady. You wouldn’t want a cup of tea, would you? No? Well, you don’t mind if I do? What about a biscuit? Nice and fresh, made them myself. Oh, listen. I think I hear Esmerelda roaring now, I bet someone is here. Care to watch?”

“I… I guess. My life… It’s ruined.”

“Now, now, precious. Don’t say that. No need to cry over spilled ink. Just watch, and I promise you’ll feel better. Quick, hide in my office. There, yes. Crack the door so you can listen.”

“Greetings, worthy adventurers. You have bested the fiercest of dragons left to the world. I am humbly at your service.” The curator bowed.

The Hero—Vena could tell which he was because he had a great big sword and a cape—nodded to the Keeper of the Prophecies. “I have traveled far and with great need to read the words of the foresighted. I must defeat Delekand Han, the scourge of the east, before he closes his grip upon this very world, enslaving us all.”

“Then be of noble heart, worthy one, for the words of the future are both blessing and curse.” His tone became lighter. “Third shelf on the left, second rack. Just leaf through them. You’re number forty-eight, by the way. That’s who it will be addressed to.”

The hero nodded once more and disappeared amongst the tall shelves, the Wizard and the Helper-Wench started forward, but the curator stopped them.

“The words of the forespoken are only for whom they apply. You cannot read the prophecies.”

The Helper-Wench gazed at him for a moment, then asked “Then how will Kent find the prophecy about Delekand Han’s death, if it is not about him?”

The Keeper jumped in delight, clapping his hands. “Oh, you are a rare one. Surprisingly intelligent, yes. Hmm… There is some ancient magic… I don’t remember it exactly… but it said something about Helper-Wenches and Wizards not being able to read the words of the ancients or they will suffer terrible, gut-wrenching deaths. Oh, and ruin the chances of Hero, if I remember correctly.”

“What did you call me?”

“The noble and valiant aid to the hero, without whom he would be doomed to defeat.”

“Oh… I thought you said something else.”

“A trick of the acoustics, I imagine. Tricky building, big, vaulted ceiling, see? Ah, look here comes Hero now. My, he does look ash-faced.”

“Kent! What’s wrong?”

“The prophecy… It… I can’t say. All is lost! Let us leave this cursed place, quickly.”

The curator smiled at him. “Sorry you couldn’t stay. I’m boiling tea in my office. Splendid flavor, all the way from the far east. Out of the dark lands, come to think of it. That’s ironic, eh?” He opened the door, and began shoving them out. “Come back if you need anything! Stay in touch!”

Boom. The oak doors slammed shut, causing the parchment to vibrate on the shelves.

“Now, what were you worried about, Miss Llena?”

“My prophecy… I’ve lost him forever. And I am doomed to die when I leave here. What if I never leave? Can I stay here?”

“Hmm, afraid not. Sorry, dear, but the missus wouldn’t like that. Not a bit. She gets dreadfully jealous.”

“The missus?”


“Am I doomed to die then?”

“Of course not! Didn’t you just see what happened? The dark lord can’t always win. I’m sure Hero will do a little soul searching and find a way to work around the words of the prophecy so he can still slay the evil one.”

“Wait… the words can be broken?”

“No, no. But you can find a creative solution to work around them.”

“But how will I get out of here alive?”

He strode to the window and pushed it open. “Can I offer you a window? No door-crossing involved.”

“Oh! Thank you! But… why would I have died if I went through the door?”

He stuck his balding head out the window. “I suspect one of the dragon-whelps is out there. Yes, there she is. Fira, dreadful temper. Watch out for her on the way down.” He ushered her out the window.

“Come back if you need anything!”

Once her body had withdrawn from the frame, the curator closed the window, fastening the shutters tightly shut and sliding a latch over them.

“Now, about that tea.”


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.


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?”


“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.”


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.



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.”


“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.”


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?”


“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!”


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.



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.


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.”


Words to Live By


Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sheryl Nantus


Ah, a visitor! No, no don’t be surprised. We get a lot of them about this time of year, when the freighters have room for tourists and family to visit. And I know you’re not family ’cause you’re looking at the statues.

Beautiful, hmm? I tell you, you won’t find workmanship that fine between here and Mars and Earth. And after all these years, as breathtaking as ever. That white granite just holds the eye so well… and if you’re interested, there’s a wee ’lil gift shop at the spaceport that sells miniatures for you to take on home.

I can tell that you’re confused. After all, who would put up two identical statues at opposite ends of the square? Don’t be embarrassed; you’re not the first nor will you be the last, I figure. We actually have a scoreboard back at the hotel. Really. And for a small fee we’ll take a pic of you standing right there with your own piece of local history. Oh, but I digress…

It all started decades ago when the first set of colonists came down here to try and scratch a living out of the soil at this edge of the continent. Well, that’s what the history books say but we know that the ground was so fertile that the first crop enabled them to sit back and enjoy a hearty feast much like your grand old Thanksgiving festival back home. But, like everyone else, leisure time leads to laziness and a lot of talking space garbage.

One fellow, Eric Bytoff was convinced that we needed more defenses against… well, nobody. The preliminary surveys had shown nothing larger than a whatterwhip for miles and that was hardly enough to build a fort for. Not when you can catch a dozen, roast them up and still have room left for a burkleberry pie. Oh, the gift shop also has jars of burkleberry jam for sale as well. Just don’t declare it to Customs.

But Eric, well… he was determined and eager to get this thing built. He even put together a little display in his house, calling everyone in to see it and sell them on the idea. It was a pretty thing, all made up of spare metal and wood and the cutest little stick men… oh, the original one’s in the Museum but there’s also kits you can buy and make up at home, of course. For ages 3 to 300; fun for all. Sales tax extra.

So, for the off-season he gathered some of the men around him and started to build the walls that used to surround this city. You can still see some of the original wall in the Museum—we had it transplanted when the city outgrew the walls, of course. Now, don’t get the idea that everyone was jumping at Eric’s idea—it was mostly out of boredom that the men started working for him. After all, with a full stomach and most of the women already expecting, you need to put that energy somewhere. Did I mention that we also have the best fertility clinics in the sector? Not that I think a manly man like yourself would need any help, but if you have any friends…

His main opponent was a quiet fellow called Chu, Yu Chu. Seriously, that was his name. Well, what was on the passenger roster at least. Rumor has it that he was a scientist or a librarian of some sort who just sought a quiet place to live out the rest of his life; atoning for some sin or other. Probably one of those religious things. Whatever you believe, he was definitely not a fighter and even less of a ditch digger, which is what Bytoff wanted.

And, as you can guess, there was a lot of yelling and a wee bit of pushing between the two factions—one wanting to build the fort during the downtime between harvests and the other wanting to build useful buildings like a school and library. No one was ever really hurt, but a lot of mouthwork, as you can guess.

It only took another season for both contigents to have what they wanted, in spite of themselves. Eric had his walls surrounding the colony and Yu had not only managed a library and a school, but also a general meeting hall for the democratic process to muddle through the banalities that every colony has to deal with. Oh, our first town meeting minutes are for sale at the shop as well—laminated and everything. Very nice for that person you want to give something to but not really anything expensive, if you get my drift.

The funniest thing was that Chu claimed to be descended from the Mongols—you know, those great warriors in the history books? And he turned out to be the most peaceful colonist around… but I digress.

Second year it hit the fan, so to speak. The harvest was great and once again the storage tanks were full, but word spreads when you get a good break. And the second colony that had come down on the other side of the continent hadn’t been so lucky.

It was nothing more than bad luck, sure of that. There was no big secret plan to put them into a bad harvest year, no conspiracy despite what the what-if historians want to say. Bad soil, bad farming, bad luck—whatever you wanted to blame it on, they had little to nothing and we had a lot here to spare.

I see you jumping ahead of me here—seeing a whole lot of fighting and yelling and dead bodies, hmm? Well, I hate to disappoint you and the rest of the tourists, but it didn’t work out that way. Good thing too, when you figure that our last two Planetary Governors can trace their ancestry back to the other colony.

When they came over the hill and saw the defenses put up by Bytoff, they backed off quickly. Even the most eager of them had no wish to die by another Earther’s hand, no matter how bad things were. So they sat down there at the top of the hill and wondered what to do, knowing their families were going to starve if they did nothing. But going back with nothing… well, it was a choice to starve here or starve there.

First one with a solution was our own “Khan” Chu. That was the nickname that he had picked up between his gentle ways and his heritage. Hey, I never said they had a great sense of humor, right? Well, he went up and out there all by his lonesome that same night and negotiated a way for them to save face and get some of our harvest. No one looked bad, no one looked like a hero—and it started a friendship between the two colonies that lasted to this day. And before you ask, Eric wasn’t that upset at all. Given a choice between killing fellow Earthers and not killing them, he would have rather not. Whatever you may read about him, Eric Bytoff wasn’t stupid. He knew blood spilt now would travel for generations, as we all know.

Actually, you can buy a reproduction of his original journal at the shop as well. Quotes lots of military men, Sun Tsu and the rest of them. Leather-bound. Well, not really leather, but the bark off the jukujub tree is just as good. And very reasonably priced.

Oh, I see you’re still confused. The two identical statues and all.

Well, of course everyone wanted to make a big event out of this. Some wanted to put Chu on the honor roll for his sweet talking ways; some heralded Bytoff for building the defenses that allowed Chu to get it done in the first place. Almost came to blows over that quite a few times as it was discussed and talked over both in and out of the meeting hall and the local bars. And let me tell you, a few glasses of the muskta and you’ll be arguing both sides of a double-sided coin. By the way, you’re allowed to take two bottles with you off-planet, but I know for a fact that three won’t be noticed and four, well… just make sure you have a little extra coin and all’ll be well.

Finally the agreement came down that both of them were heroes in their own way and had to both be commemorated. Remember, back then people everywhere, especially back home, were eager for a good story and getting the positive vibes that a story like this would give. No one likes to read about colonists killing each other when they can read about destroying ancient civilizations.

But then the fighting over the monuments started up—you know, what to make and how to make it and what to put on it… too many options, as you can imagine. Some wanted a kind of obelisk; some wanted their images engraved on the Tastala Cliffs… personally, I don’t think that would have looked too good with all the venctry crap on them, but no one asked me. And I wasn’t alive back then either, so…

Finally an agreement came down. Two identical statues at opposite ends of the Square so that both men could be equally honored for their individual skills and accomplishments. It was even put into the official City Charter than neither man would be exalted over the other in order to maintain a balance between physical force and mental prowess.

So it was written at the bottom of both statues and in our official Charter: Never Bytoff more than Yu “Khan” Chu.

Hey, where are you going?



Friends and Food

Layout 1

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Sandy Parsons


I checked the address on the crumpled piece of paper as I stepped from the cab. I hadn’t been to this bar before, much less to this part of town. But Juvy asked me to come. And when Juvy asks me to go somewhere I go.

I peeled open the dilapidated door and almost keeled over from the smells. Smoke, sweat and something like citrus soaked in lighter fluid circled around me. I squeezed onto the only barstool left and scanned the tables for Juvy. The place was crowded for a weeknight. The bartender tapped me on the shoulder.

“I’ll just have some water,” I said, only half-turning.

He scratched the stubble on his neck. “Two-drink minimum.”

“What? Oh. Well then, a beer I guess.”

He nodded, satisfied that I had come into line. Then, as if to mollify me, he leaned in close and spoke from the side of his mouth, “The little tart’s worth it. But the alcohol doesn’t hurt either if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t, but I smiled and took a big swig, raised the bottle in his direction. Come on Juvy, I thought. This better be good.

The crowd was getting thicker, and the pitch in the background noise quickened in urgency. The house lights dimmed and the stage lights came up, momentarily blinding me. There was loud clapping, then hoots, then a hush as the curtains parted. I took a drink and gagged as my eyes took in the sight before me.

The alien was smaller than on TV. Her upper body was stuffed into a denim jacket and the lizard-like tail had been contorted into a sort of bun against her back. The lower set of eyes was ringed with blue makeup and the feather boa shaded the upper set. Sparkly earrings dangled from vestigial earlobes. Something akin to stilettos wobbled beneath the clawed feet, but the worst, by far the most incomprehensible sight, was the stockings. Mottled skin dripped like candle wax through the diamond mesh, and the nylon squeezed and stretched around the warty thighs, sagging and baggy at the knees and hindquarters.

I’d always considered myself a leg man until then. I’d never seen one of the fulgur queek in person, much less in drag. I shuddered a little when the alien waddled around and I caught sight of the zigzagging seam along the back of its legs. It took me so long to recover from my shock that I hadn’t noticed the singing. I think it was “Strangers in the Night,” but with all the squealing and grunting it was impossible to be sure.

I was on my fourth whiskey sour when Juvy showed up.

“Isn’t she great? I’ve been dying for you to come out and see her.” Her head swung to the side and her eyes rolled back as she emphasized the word dying.

I gestured somewhat shakily at the stage. “So, this really is what you wanted me to see? I thought it was some kind of joke.”

She laughed, and as she slid into a barstool and stretched her long legs I began to recover a bit from my revulsion. “So, why’d you want me to come out here?”

“To see the act for one. Didn’t you think it was phenomenal?” She leaned in and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “To be honest, I didn’t even know they could make human sounds until I saw her perform.”

“So what? Does this have anything to do with the big case you’ve been working on? Wait, don’t tell me, you’re representing the fulgur queek.” I laughed, warming to my joke. I held my hand up, as if reading a newspaper headline. “I can see it now, Juvy Mallowtine inks million-dollar contract for flabby life form.”

“That’s way too long for a headline. And Marilyn isn’t flabby, she’s germinating or something.”

“Germinating? Who’s Marilyn? Oh wait, you aren’t serious. I was only kidding about you representing those… them… the aliens. Aren’t they like plants or something anyway?” I’d studied the discovery of life on one of Jupiter’s moons like everyone else but it wasn’t my best subject. My grandfather said the knowledge gave everyone on Earth a new respect for terrestrial life, but it’s hard to imagine how different the world was back then. He even said that before interplanetary space travel, humans actually ate other Earth species.

Juvy was smiling at me over the rim of her drink.

“What?” I could tell she was up to something.

“I’ve got a surprise for you, that’s all. I can’t wait.”

“So Marilyn wasn’t the surprise?” I gestured to the stage but realized the alien was gone. I was a little disappointed I had missed her final number. “She’s coming back for a second act, right?”

“Hmm. Maybe. But no, the fulgur queek isn’t the surprise. At least not that one.” She drained her glass and signaled for another.

“What? You mean there’s more than one that can squeeze into a pair of fishnet hose and belt out “I Gotta’ Be Me”?”

She looked hurt. “I don’t represent entertainment. I am strictly food and drink. Didn’t I ever tell you about Simplicious Foods? That’s my big client. The biggest. And you, as my ever-patient boyfriend, are getting the chance of a lifetime tonight.”

I was glad to hear it, but I couldn’t help turning my head every few seconds to see if Marilyn was coming back.

“Yes, tonight, baby, prepare to feel your taste buds sing. Are you hungry yet?”

Something to absorb all that nervous alcohol sounded good. “Yeah, I guess I’m ready. Where are we going? I hope it’s not far.”

“We’re staying here,” she said in her all-business voice, snapping fingers with sharp red nails over my shoulder. She mouthed something and made wiggling motions with her hands. Then she turned to me. “Great. It’ll be out in a minute.”

I shuffled my feet on the sticky concrete floor and rubbed my elbows across the graffiti-laden bar top. I wouldn’t have thought a place like this could raise enough in bribes to run a kitchen. But Juvy never let me down before. I decided to be optimistic. “What are we having?”

“Ah, that’s the surprise. But I’ll tell you this much. It’s something you’ve never tried before.”

“The last time someone told me that I got arrested.”

She smiled wickedly. “No one told you to take all your clothes off.”

I started to argue, but my mouth suddenly began to water so much I couldn’t open it without fear of drooling. I felt light-headed from the aroma. I inhaled deeply, and my stomach, if it could, would have cried with joy.

Juvy rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “I think they braised it this time.”

I wasn’t listening to her. There was sizzling. There was steam. There was a plate in front plying my nostrils with a delicate yet pungent fragrance.

Juvy was already eating. “Dig in. You should really eat it when it’s hot.” Her chin was glistening, and her lips were a glossy ginger hue.

It was too good to be true. My suspicions were aroused. “What is it, Juvy? Is there some kind of drug in here?”

“No, no. Absolutely not.”

My hand had already decided to pick up the fork. I raised the first bite to my lips. My tongue wriggled in anticipation.

“It’s the fulgur queek. The chef’s specialty.”

My mouth clamped shut.

“What? Trust me, it’s best if you eat it hot.” She picked a little something from her teeth. It looked suspiciously like fishnet stocking fiber.

I turned back to the stage. It had a forlorn emptiness. “Marilyn?” I managed to croak. I was having a hard time making eye contact with Juvy.

She leaned her head back to laugh and her long mane of luxurious curls swung out around her. “You are so sweet. I’ve heard of people becoming attached to the fulgur queek before but that is just too rich.”

My brain was preparing an angry response but my hand, stomach and mouth had their own plan. I can remember fighting it for only a second and the next thing I knew I was licking the last bit of gravy from the plate.

“Don’t you have any manners?” grumbled Juvy, but she looked more satisfied than angry.

I pushed the plate away. “Oh Juvy, how could you have made me eat Marilyn?”

“You idiot, you weren’t eating Marilyn. Do you have any idea how long it takes to train one of them to tolerate the costumes? Much less find one who can make enough sounds to mimic a human voice.”

“Then what were we eating? A slow learner?”

She tossed her crumpled napkin on her plate. “I guess so. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if this is last month’s entertainment. People do get bored with the same old song and dance, you know?” She slid her tongue along her teeth and lips. “Now that beats seaweed stew any day, don’t you think? Simplicious Foods is going to make me very rich. And you too, if you’re smart enough to invest now.”

I had to admit she had a point. At every table, people were merrily munching away. Still, I was bothered.

“But we aren’t supposed to eat other species. Humans decided long ago that that was wrong. I mean just because something tastes good…”

She stared at me innocently, with her lovely slanted eyes.

The waiter, who was clearing our plates, gave a knowing little laugh. “We hear that one all the time in here. Put your mind at ease, my friend. The fulgur queek are plants. They are plucked from the stem like fragrant onions, living only to be sautéed in a light cream sauce.”

“But the singing… and the eyes…” During one song I kind of thought Marilyn was singing to me.

“Those are just tricks. Their minds, nothing but wheat. Their bodies, nothing but the ripe fruit of the vine.”

I thought about the flesh oozing from the stockings, and wondered where he got his images from. “Don’t be so conflicted,” he continued, “It’s okay to eat the fulgur queek.”

Juvy piped up. “It better be okay, because they are just too delicious to give up.”

“Juvy, I have to go.”

“What? Wait, don’t you want to discuss your investment options?”

I pushed away from the table and stood up. “No. I don’t think this is the deal for me.”

She looked crushed.

“Thanks though. Really. I’ll see you ’round.” I threw bills on the table and got out of there as fast as I could.

It wasn’t easy finding the back alley entrance that would get me backstage. I had to bribe both a bouncer and a fat woman with hairy underarms guarding what I guess you could call the dressing room. But it was worth it.

I knew I had done the right thing when I saw the fishnet stockings, stretched in all the wrong places, folded neatly beside the denim jacket and the makeup kit. Plants didn’t fold clothes.

I picked her up gently from the nest of newspapers she had been sitting in, rubbing her claw-like feet with her stumpy little appendages. She was smaller than she appeared on stage. “Come on, Marilyn,” I whispered, turning my head a little so she couldn’t smell the betrayal on my breath, “I won’t let you become dinner.” I tucked her gently into the crook of my arm, and before I had gotten a block she had fallen fast asleep.


E-mails: 10

by KT Pinto


! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: wykedwytch, h8u4eva, bludfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, d-manspaun, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Please Believe Me!

I don’t know how much time I have, so please read this!

We are all in grave danger! Some things are killing off humans and replacing us with others—only we don’t notice it!

Lately I’ve become aware of subtle changes about my co-workers. Eye color, skin tone, dimples… things I could have always dismissed as my own bad observation skills.

But then I saw them! Little grey creatures with eyes like headlights. At first I thought they were shadows, tricks of my imagination, but then there was that day at work. I was on the night shift with Little John, and he was rambling on and on about his new car, when these creatures attacked him, ripping out his eyes and eating them. They then replaced his prone body with a blue-eyed version and no one, not even he, knew what had just happened! I mean, the kid is oblivious most times, but you think he would notice that his eyes were being torn out of their sockets. Instead he just continued yammering on about how much horsepower his V6 engine had…

Lunchtime’s over! I must get back to work! I’ll keep you posted…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: wykedwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, d-manspaun, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: It Happened Again

This time the victim was that wispy blonde actress at the community theater! Right in the middle of a performance, three of those grey monsters pulled her to the ground and scalped her dead. A red-headed copy took her place. I know actors believe that the show must go on no matter what, but really! They walked through her blood and brains as if the mess wasn’t even there! Half of them, as well as the first three rows of the audience, were splattered with the gore, and no one seemed to realize this but me… did you know that blood actually does taste like copper?

There has to be a way to stop these creatures before one of us is next…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: wykedwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Watch Your Backs!

And your fronts, too!

I thought these monsters couldn’t stoop any lower than killing us all, but now they aren’t even trying to hide their substitutions! Last week Michael (you all may now know him as Michele) was attacked… need I go into the gory details of his painful death?

We were at a strip club, (don’t ask what I was doing there—I’m just that good a friend!), and he was getting a lap dance from a buxom brunette, when out they came: four of those creatures, and one of them was holding a scythe. After such an arousing display from the dancer, it was easy for the creatures to find their target… Talk about a bris gone bad!

Please be careful…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Need To Lose Weight?

No one needs a weight loss program the way Kayla from the mega-store just received one! I think the monsters know that I can see them, because this time seven of them dragged the poor girl to the ground, stuck tubes with sharpened ends into her body, and literally sucked the life out of her, chatting all the while over her gut-wrenching screams. It was like they were hanging out at a diner drinking a milkshake rather than slurping tons of fat out of an outrageously large woman.

I swear one of those creatures waved at me as a svelte Kayla stepped to the register and tried to figure out how much change I should get back from $21 for a $16 purchase. You would think they would have improved her brain along with her figure…

Is it obvious that I’m not really upset about her demise? It was tragic, of course, but the girl was so loud and obnoxious, and spent way too much time at my job keeping her eye on her poor boyfriend, that I really can’t find enough grief to feign any sort of emotional display. This thin Kayla seems a whole lot more passive and demure than the large one, but I think there might be dark times ahead for her boyfriend, who couldn’t get a hot number like the new Kayla if he tripped over her… but I digress…

We have to figure out a way to save ourselves…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: They’re Getting Creative

It would be conceited to say that they are now doing their gruesome antics for my benefit, but sometimes I think there could be no other reason.

I was visiting a friend in the hospital, when the beasts grabbed the extremely tall nurse checking his heart monitors and slowly pulled her white clad legs through a meat grinder, splattering blood all over the antiseptic hospital room. It was freaky to see bits of white nylon among the chopped meat, but when I went to comment on it to my friend, I realized that he wasn’t seeing the massacre going on right at the foot of his bed. He just stared up at the ceiling, lamenting that he was missing the last episode of his favorite superhero cartoon. You would think by the way he was bitching about it that he was seven instead of thirty-seven, but that’s the way he normally is when it comes to his superheroes. What isn’t normal is him being so preoccupied that he wouldn’t observe someone getting shredded into dog food!

He didn’t even realize that nurse that took his temperature was now only five feet tall. Not only did I notice that, but I also noticed that she was no longer wearing stockings…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Acknowledgement

I now know for certain that they are aware of me.

I was at work today, gritting my teeth at the moans and whines coming from the crowd of kids in the toy department, when a handful of the grey creatures traipsed past me in single file, each carrying a gleaming knife. The last one in line turned and beckoned to me.

I don’t know what made me decide to follow…

I told Little John (the one with the new blue eyes) I would be right back, then took off for toys. I found the creatures, still in a row, walking silently up to a little red-headed boy who wouldn’t stop whining about a pocket video game he wanted, and neatly cutting his neck in two. They then went up and down the aisles, grabbing the other wailing children and slicing their throats. The blood of the dead filled the toy department like an invisible river, which the unknowing parents idly waded through on their way to appease their pampered striplings. Meanwhile, little replacements sprung up in the dead brats’ places, and I must admit that the new children were much, much quieter…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jade73
Subject: Ring Around the Collar

Have you ever wondered what it was like to see someone hanged? It’s a slow painful process if the neck isn’t broken immediately. The person chokes to death, gagging and clawing at his throat, trying to find some way to release the constriction on his windpipe…

How do I know this? I got to watch it first-hand as the little monsters strung up the guy who sits in front of me at night school, choking the life out of him. Meanwhile his replacement—who by the way has an incredibly deep, husky voice—sat at his desk, ignoring the feet twitching inches above him, and started chatting with me for the first time ever!

Be forewarned: if there’s one thing that ruins a good flirting session, it’s a guy being hanged right above your heads…

We have plans to go out this Friday; hopefully we will both still be the same people we were when we made the plans.

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, campfire09, jade73
Subject: Crazy? Me?

I’m trying not to be, but how else can you see all of the things I’ve seen and still stay sane?

Everywhere I look, replacements are being made. Men, women, children… yes, even pets are not safe from their thirst for blood… which may explain why you sometimes see Rottweilers with names like “Fluffy”…

I don’t know how much more I can take before I snap. I saw at least ten people replaced during my date this past Friday. A couple of men, some women, a handful of kids and three dogs beaten, mangled and slaughtered right in front of the little bistro table where my date and I sat. Next time we’re going to have dinner indoors.

I’m so lucky to have a stable group of friends like you to keep me balanced.

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafriend4, angelkin, campfire09, jade73
Subject: Spectator or Mascot?

While I was watching a set of triplets get turned from identical to fraternal siblings, I wondered why I was being shown the creatures’ talents… what makes me different. Is it just some sort of dumb luck (good, bad or otherwise) that gives me the power to see their handiwork? Or do I have that much of a wicked streak that I am able to see the horrors of another plane? Or am I just crazy? Maybe the stress of dealing with the public every day, 40+ hours a week is making me hallucinate—I’ve heard being inundated with stupidity can affect the mind.

The sad part is that I’m starting to really enjoy the visits I’m getting from these creatures. They are so creative in their methods of torture and murder; it’s fascinating to see. Their acts seemed so random—yet so precise—it was like watching alien artists at work. Their weaponry would make an executioner drool: knives, axes, hammers, spears, daggers, throwing stars, flails, maces, rapiers, swords, ropes… it’s like a game of Clue gone mad. And was there really any harm in what they did? I mean, it’s not like the people disappeared completely… they were still there, just different, usually better.

Sometimes, though, I have this niggling in my brain that I’m not as secure in my position in life as I think I am. I mean, as wonderful as I am, there might be something in me that the creatures might find distasteful. You might talk to me one day, and I may no longer be the cheerful goth girl that you’re speaking to now. I might be bubbly and perky and start wearing—ugh—pink! So, for that reason, I am going to remind you what I look like, so if something does happen to me, you will have written proof that I am no longer me. I’m 5’7″, size 14W, 36DD, black hair, brown eyes, a dimple on each cheek, sultry voice, sarcastic demeanor… you know, your basic goddess on Earth…

Please guys, whatever you do, don’t forget me… promise you’ll save this letter and won’t forget me…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: newlif150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, campfire09, jade73
Subject: Too Good to Be True

Can you believe that Slim & Sexy is having a sale on pink and lavender push-up bras? It’s like they knew I needed them! Who’s going to the mall with me!?!


Mr. W.

Mr. W.

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Rand Bellavia and Adam English


Captain’s on a holiday
First Mate has gone away
And Data’s down in engineering for repairs
Dr. Crusher’s got a cold
Wesley’s only twelve years old
And all the other children are mind controlled

Who will lead the crew? What are we to do
When the enemy ship comes into view?
When the pressure’s on who will take the con?

Geordi’s visor’s on the blink
Deanna Troi is on the brink
O’Brien’s been reassigned to Deep Space Nine
Barclay’s on the Holodeck
Tasha’s dead and Ro’s a wreck
Garibaldi’s not on Star Trek

Who will lead the crew? What are we to do
When the enemy ship comes into view?
Who’s to be obeyed when the Borg invade?
This is just what I was afraid of

Mr. Worf comes through
Mr. Worf will lead the crew
Mr. Worf’s our man
Mr. Worf will take command

I was hoping for someone else and I’m not just thinking about myself
I’m afraid for all our lives if Worf’s in charge of the Enterprise
We wouldn’t care: if Data’s cat was in power we’d follow her
If we received our orders from Nurse Ogawa we’d say,
“Yes, sir!”

Weren’t you the one who pointed your gun
At the viewscreen and you tried to stun
The grinning image of Q, what were you trying to do?
I seem to remember that was you

Mr. Worf don’t get mad
You’re the best Klingon we’ve ever had
But Mr. Worf you must see
We need a different kind of security

We’re glad you’re strong and brave
But we’d prefer a captain who fears the grave
Our standards aren’t that high
We only ask that we not die

“I am a Klingon, and in my point of view
It would be dishonorable to cower like the rest of you
I have the ridges of a warrior, I do not fear death
I deposed the House of Duras with a flourish of my Batleth
Star Fleet’s only Klingon, I’m a full Lieutenant Commander
I’ve got two dead wives and a son named Alexander
No matter what I am equal to the test, I’ll kill them before I maim the rest
So be it Romulan Warbird or a cargo freighter, I’ll fire phasers first and ask questions later”