The Apocalypse of Robert Goldner
Series: Eve of Light
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One false move and the snow warriors would kill him. Robert couldn’t escape this feeling. He couldn’t escape them.
He’d broken free from the cheerleader tug-of-war between Suzi and Debbie, and fled from the entire teenaged party crowd at Brian’s house, clomping fifty feet or more through the snow, heading—he thought—to his Mustang. But space and time in his mind blinked, and he somehow ended up in the middle of a maze of seemingly undead snow creatures.
The revelry in the house behind him rattled windows almost to the point of shattering them, and all the noise fed his vision of a frozen-over personal hell: him lost amid dozens of swaying snowmen and snowwomen, the latter outnumbering the former. Most of them were a few inches taller than his six feet, but all of them were armed.
Part of him knew these were simply snow-and-wood sculptures, not alive at all. Their stick arms rubber-banded with other sticks so each seemed to hold a wooden sword, or a spear, or a gun. He really had nothing to fear. And yet, as he maneuvered between them, another part of him swore these things could do him serious harm if he wasn’t careful. The broken beer-bottle fragments acting as nipples on the snowwomen nurtured this belief.
He couldn’t reason with them, nor could he wrestle them down. The only useful skill left was his skill with geometry, but he couldn’t think straight for more than a minute at a time. He tried to keep an arm’s length distance from each one; half-arm’s length was the best he could do. Try as he might to watch their trembling tree-limb arms, he couldn’t help but gaze into the cat’s-eye marbles acting as their eyes as he passed each one. Nor could he help but consider the absurdity of their form: their robust snow bodies, white like bone, and their skeletal wood arms, brown like his skin. Half alive, half dead.
Through sheer dumb luck, Robert emerged from the thicket of snow warriors after what seemed like an hour. But he was still unsure of his sanity. On the white and uneven ground in front of him, he saw the snow warriors’ elongated shadows shifting in rhythmic movements to the pulsing music coming from the house behind him. An orgy, he thought as he watched the shadows, his among theirs. A violent one. Not so long ago, it wasn’t just shadows on the ground.
He shook his head and turned around. That fucking party. The riotous noise shook not just the house’s windows, but its entire structure, including the back porch lights, accounting for the shadows that really moved and the snowfolk that just seemed to. That was rational. He needed a good dose of rationality to chase away his more fantastical ideas. But just how the hell had he ended up among the snowfolk in the first place? Had he stepped into a wormhole? Or had he been so lost in his own thoughts that he’d wandered around blindly?
He chuckled. Thank fortune no one on the wrestling team saw him wandering around like an idiot. They might figure he wasn’t fit to represent them at the tournament next week. The team knew he didn’t drink or do drugs, so they’d no doubt take his behavior as a sign of him going nuts. It was fine to go crazy on the mat, within the rules, but off of it, the wrestlers had another reputation to uphold.
Robert chuckled again at his temporary bout of goofiness, and then he saw it: PARADISE LUST. Partially obscured by the shadows of low-hanging, snow-stressed branches, the sign gave a title to the art exhibit from which he’d just escaped. It looked like someone else was upholding their reputation.
In all the years he lived in Wallace, Virginia, Robert had never experienced the record snowfall as seen during the last week of January. He figured the moment it was safe to come outside, Brian’s prurient little brothers had taken advantage and constructed the latest in their unending series of disturbing masterpieces. Graffiti artists, garbage sculptors, and overpass banner hangers—those two thirteen-year-old snarks had talents and visions well beyond their years. Presently, Robert just had a headache. The evening had started out fun, but as it progressed and more and more girls had come up to him—whispering in his ear, grabbing his biceps and other muscles, promising favors he definitely didn’t need or want—it had devolved into confusion.
Brian always threw the best house parties. And the worst. He and Robert went all the way back to third grade. It was an extremely rare feat to keep such a friend through the purgatory of middle school and into the junior year of high school, especially when they went to different schools, so Robert had felt obligated to attend the Valentine’s Eve party. But he wasn’t obligated to accept everything that fell into his lap, blew on his neck, or tugged at his wrist; he was never doing that again. He’d tried to bail, but somewhere between the house and the car, he was plucked and placed in the exhibit. Now free, he tried again, trying to reorient himself in Brian’s unreasonably large backyard. Having upper-middle-class friends could be such a pain in the ass.
He plodded through the snow like a man playing human checkers against himself. They must’ve been smoking some serious weed back in the house, and he was undoubtedly experiencing a considerable contact high. That was another probable reason for him ending up in the middle of the exhibit, and a very good reason to leave the party early—if after midnight could be considered early.
While stumbling, Robert looked up at the full moon, bright and slightly blemished. He saw something phenomenal encircling it, something at first glance so unbelievable yet so beautiful and amazing it made his eyes glaze over. The spell broke, though, when he heard something moaning behind him.
He stopped walking, shocked that something else alive was out in this weather and a little afraid of what it might be. He turned around slowly. After a little more moaning, he located its source. Just beyond the reach of the house’s lights and hidden from moonlight by branches, a figure lay curled up in the snow.
Certainly not a victim of the mock battle of snow warriors, the person may’ve been wounded in some other fight, possibly a victim of a beating who’d tried to make it to safety but failed. Or maybe it was a drunk who’d ambled aimlessly through the woods and collapsed when entering the clearing. As he neared, Robert concluded it was most likely a con man, waiting to perpetrate a sick trick—robbery, violence, rape—upon any passerby naive enough to approach too closely and give the Samaritan passkey: Are you okay? If that was the case, he was ready to handle himself.
As he came within a few paces, however, he sighed and unclenched his fists. He wasn’t the only brown-skinned wrestler who’d lost his way in the snow. Robert snickered before speaking.
“Uh, Davin, my man…that isn’t how you make a snow angel.”
It was, however, a sure way for the sixteen-year-old to get sick. Davin tipped the scales at just over one hundred pounds when wet, and here he was in only his boxer shorts, socks, and a ripped T-shirt, lying on his side with his knees almost touching his forehead, his arms crossed and pressed close to his body, both hands clutching his chest. He wasn’t shivering. He wasn’t even moving. But he was conscious. Robert’s joke drew a groan in response.
He stared at the clenched eyes and the grimace on his friend’s face, his relief and good humor plunging into concern. He then looked around for missing clothes and saw a sweater, stretched all out of shape and hanging from a tree branch several feet away. The dress shirt Davin had been wearing under it had been ripped off and was lying on the ground near something that glinted—a belt buckle—which had somehow become separated from the belt. He saw no sign of Davin’s belt, pants, or shoes.
He knelt down to put his hand on Davin’s shoulder. “What happened, man?”
“Can you speak?”
A grunt this time.
Robert didn’t smell any trace of alcohol, so he ruled out the possibility Davin had gotten drunk and engaged in some kind of party-animal dare. He noticed scratch marks on his arms and legs, and someone had obviously tried to rip his T-shirt off. But if this was the result of a fight, it had been a strange one. Excluding his own, the only other relatively fresh footprints nearby indicated one person who’d come from the direction of the house and stumbled near the edge of the woods before collapsing and rolling into the heap that was Davin.
A breeze nipped at Robert’s face. Act now and ask questions later.
Robert picked him up and carried him around the side of the pulsing house toward his car; he couldn’t help but notice that his friend felt lighter than he should have. Robert weighed 159 pounds and benched 260. Still, Davin should’ve felt closer to a sack of sand than a sack of Styrofoam in his arms. Yet another question for the list. He considered a hospital, but Davin’s home was closer. Hell, it might not be that serious anyway.
After carefully laying him in the backseat of his Mustang and spreading a blanket over him, Robert paused to look up at the sky before getting into the driver’s seat. It was still there. A set of seven concentric circles, each a unique color, encircling the full moon. Was he the only one who saw them? Were others outside, looking up on this early Valentine’s morn, taking it as some kind of portent? Fuck it. Right now he had to see to the safety of his friend.
Robert sped off toward Davin’s house, praying his parents wouldn’t assault him with questions for which he had no answers.
Even though Robert didn’t drink at the party, lack of sleep after the stress of dealing with Davin’s mom did no favors for his head. After just three hours of rest, he woke up with a very faint but distinct buzzing sound lodged somewhere in his cranium, initiated by his alarm clock but not silenced even after he unplugged and tossed the damn thing. Now pushing through one of his school’s side entrances, the morning buzzing bloomed into a pounding headache. Out of bed and into bedlam.
Howard Phillips High School’s social landscape wasn’t much different from central Virginia’s other public high schools. There were jocks and mean girls, preppies and rednecks, geeks and motorheads. All run-of-the-mill for a twenty-first-century American public school with a student population just over one thousand.
But there were also the eccentrics, those who may’ve been unique to schools in the mid-Atlantic region, or maybe even just unique to Howard Phillips. Like the five brawny Jewish guys who could’ve dominated the football team if they’d had any interest in sports. They shaved their heads bald every morning and covered their pates with red, white, and black yarmulkes. The skullcaps’ designs resembled targets, and they were nothing less than dares to the sneering rednecks and the feverish evangelicals who couldn’t resist doing a double take every time they passed. Robert was friendly with a couple of them and was pretty sure none of them were particularly religious, but the five felt they were in enemy territory and refused to bow or keep to the corners. He admired the hell out of them for that.
Jewish skinheads aside, there were other kinds of skins: those guys and gals who wore as little clothing as they could get away with. Autumn, winter, spring—it didn’t matter. The stripteasers weren’t shy, but neither were the teasing onlookers who thought each of them should spend at least one day a week in the gym.
And then there was the slumber party: those kids (mostly stoners) who came to school dressed in whatever they’d fallen asleep in, usually either sweat suits or flannel pajamas. Robert was waiting for one of them to show up in nothing but boxer shorts and a robe; he’d once made a bet with Davin on whether they’d get away with it.
When the United States Heartland Security Agency was created a few years ago, in that chaotic period following the President’s murder, odd effects rippled through all levels of society. At the lowest levels, some public schools saw some of the nuttiest results. Robert guessed the confused adults running the government wanted to keep the wheel spinnin’ by instilling the same confusion about rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts, in those who were on the cusp of adulthood. Guns had been outlawed for the general populace, but it was still mandatory for public schools to have metal detectors. Cigarettes and marijuana were legal (the hard age limit being eighteen, while the shake-the-head-but-look-the-other-way limit was sixteen), but possession on school grounds meant an immediate five-day suspension. Students were generally allowed a little more freedom of expression when it came to fashion, but there was still a dress code. Shoes, boots, or sandals were mandatory. Hats and nonreligious head coverings were banned. No individual could show off more than two tattoos at a time. And a display of racist language on one’s skin or clothes was a definite no-no—though Robert had noticed no one ever seemed to get in trouble for homophobic slurs.
He’d dressed in his usual way this Monday: sweatshirt, sans names or logos, and blue jeans, sans holes, patches, rips, or decorative chains. Unusual when compared to the fifty other African-American students’ styles. Just a few days away from seventeen, he was long past the age where he gave a damn about fitting in.
He weaved through the in-crowds and out-crowds, neglecting eye contact with them all. Not a one of them intimidated him in the least, but his jack-hammering headache kept his thoughts out of focus, his body a little off balance. It was only when he was a few steps away from his locker that he realized he was being followed by that unique clique of one: Leigh, the only girl in school who wore a striped or polka-dotted bow in her hair every single day. She’d apparently been yipping at his heels as he walked—for how long, who knew. She and her words only came into focus when he stopped in front of his locker and faced her standing in front of hers, two doors down.
“How in the hell could you go to a party without me?” she said, shaking her finger in his face. “Without even asking me?” Her fingernails were painted black, with a cherry-red dot in the middle. A black bow with dark red polka dots tied up her hair on the left side.
In personality, Leigh had come a long way from the freckled and four-eyed dishwater blonde who’d caught his eye during a junior high field trip to the zoo; tall for her age, and appropriately clumsy, she’d almost fallen into the wild dogs’ pit while the rest of the class was several feet away, listening to a lecture about zoo safety. He didn’t flinch to rescue her. He just saw and laughed, never speaking to her until their freshman year when she confronted him about the incident, her bluish-gray eyes staring deep into his brown ones. Why did you just laugh and not try to help? The confrontation coming a year after the fact was a shock, as was the confession of her long-held secret crush. At the time, he was hurting from a personal tragedy, and her attention—her affection—was like a potent medicine: effective, but dangerous. The danger was in him being black, her being white, and them living so near the capital of the undead Confederacy. Virginia was changing, but racist ghosts still roamed.
Now the glasses were gone, the freckles were less prominent, and, at six feet, the girl had mastered her body’s movements. But this was still Wallace, Virginia. And the girl still owned her share of goofiness. She insisted on going to the extreme in color-coordinating her outfits, and taking it further on special occasions. Like today. Neither her voice nor her black-and-cherry Valentine’s Day getup was doing any favors for Robert’s head.
“We’re supposed to be girlfriend and boy—”
“Shhh!” Robert raised his hands, as if his shushing alone would be ineffective.
“We are supposed to be dating,” Leigh said even louder, as Robert winced, “but no gift, no surprises—except the fact that you can’t even take me to a Valentine’s Eve party!”
It took a moment for him to digest just what she was going on about. Then he fell into guilt-defense mode. After a few stuttering attempts, he managed to spit out: “What Valentine’s Eve party?” He then grimaced as something jabbed, sharply, from inside his skull at his right temple.
“Don’t lie. Don’t even start. Florence said she saw you there.”
Robert snorted. “Florence seeing things…as usual. Everything but the glowing, growing nose on her makeup-caked face.” Even as he was saying it, he noticed but couldn’t prevent the weird poetic phrasing.
“Shut up and answer me,” Leigh said. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going?”
“I wasn’t going…I mean, I didn’t mean to go. And I didn’t stay. I was only there briefly. Davin’s sick. I spent much of the night with him and his parents.” Now he rambled, involuntarily, but at least closer to his usual manner of speaking.
“Bull! Florence said—”
“Screw Florence! That girl is seventeen years old and still doesn’t even know the entire alphabet! You can’t trust her to construct a complete proper sentence, let alone trust her to say anything close to the truth.” From incoherent fragments to an unfiltered rant—he wondered if that was progress.
For a moment, Leigh seemed ready to defend her friend, but the shifting expression on her face showed she thought better of it.
“If you don’t believe me,” Robert said, “ask Davin’s parents.”
Robert smirked. “Because you know I’m telling the truth.”
“No,” Leigh said. “Because I’d look like an idiot calling two adults I don’t even know to ask about you.”
“Well, then, you just have to trust me.”
“I’d definitely be an idiot if I did that.”
Robert rolled his eyes then frowned as the hall began to empty at the first-period warning bell. “We’re going to be late for class. We’ll get in trouble.”
“Be late. You go anywhere before we’re finished and you’ll be in trouble with me.”
At the beginning of the school year, Robert thought it fortunate their lockers were so close in proximity. He thought much differently now.
“Tell me straight,” Leigh said. “Honestly and clearly. Why didn’t you take me, of all people, to the party? What, was your dad there?” While they both intended to attend law school after finishing college, only Leigh already acted like a prosecuting attorney, cross-examining without mercy some hapless witness for the defense. “What can possibly be a good excuse for not taking your girlfriend to a Valentine’s party?”
“’Cause that ain’t the point of Valentine’s Eve parties, cooch!”
Robert turned at the sound of the voice, though he really didn’t want to. It was an irresistible urge, like looking at a car wreck. Herman was a one-man wreck. A do-rag wearing, grinning, six-foot-three example of everything a young black kid shouldn’t be. The obnoxious fool was wearing the even more obnoxious jacket that had the phrase “Gutta Step” prominently displayed on the back. He’d apparently been watching Robert and Leigh spat from nearby and decided to get closer to the action, undoubtedly to make things worse. At least he was alone, for once; his fellow Gutta-Step boys were nowhere in sight.
“Valentine’s Eve parties aren’t for couples,” Herman said. “They’re like bachelor parties set in a whorehouse. You go to get away from your hitch, and hook up with a bunch of hos. Once it’s over, you come out, repledge your heart to your ball-n-chain, and pretend it never happened. That’s the real, shorty!”
Leigh looked at Robert with eyes that wanted to shoot bullets. “So that’s how it was!”
He wasn’t sure why she was directing all her anger at him rather than the guy who’d used at least four sexist terms in less than two minutes.
“That’s how it wasn’t,” he said. “Brian’s party was nothing like that…while I was there.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Herman muttered.
“Shut up, germ,” Robert said. “You weren’t even there.”
“But you were!” A stamp of her foot further punctuated Leigh’s words.
“But I—” The first-period final bell interrupted Robert’s words and exacerbated his headache. He covered his ears with his hands.
“Fine,” Leigh said. “Shut me out now, but we’re not finished.” She grabbed his locker’s door and slammed it. He hadn’t even had a chance to get his books out.
Leigh hurried away toward class as Robert fumbled with the combination lock. His first period was health, which, fortunately, the head wrestling coach taught. The coach wouldn’t give one of his star wrestlers extra work or even a hard time for showing up late—at least, not during school hours. Robert knew he’d probably have to run a few extra laps around the gym after practice that evening, but he never minded extra exercise.
Herman leaned against Leigh’s locker, smirking as Robert tried his best to ignore him. He opened his locker to grab his book and folder, glancing down the hall in time to see Leigh turning a corner and disappearing from sight—most of her anyway.
At the corner where she’d turned, the colors of her ebony-and-red outfit hovered in space, forming a vague outline of her body. The edges of the image blurred into the background scenery of steel lockers and painted bricks; still, Robert could clearly make out the shoes, the pants, the belt, the top, and even the buttons on the top, not to mention that stupid polka-dotted bow. Without an actual body to fill out the image, it appeared two-dimensional and, for a moment, the image simply shimmered, like glitter covering the surface of a wall of water, flowing but going nowhere. In a blink, however, the image developed another dimension, appearing as if it truly did have a body. Its “legs” and “arms” swung as the image “walked” toward the intersection of the two halls and moved a few paces toward Robert before stopping.
He refused to blink as the “clothes” peeled off, dropping into a heap at the “feet” of what remained standing: a skeleton, comprised of “bones” that were shafts of pulsating orange and indigo lights. The thing stood rooted as its left “arm”—pulsating faster than the other shafts—rose into a gesture that looked as if it were offering something to him.
His eyes dried as he stared at this bright appendage. He considered whether he should blink or, lest he miss something, keep holding off for just a few seconds more.
“I see you’re still listening to that gay shit.”
The words jerked his attention to Herman, who was focused on the picture taped to the inside of Robert’s locker door: cover art for an old Psi-Kyll Soul CD. He sneered at Herman and looked down the hall again. There was no trace of the image.
“Homo. No wonder you can’t get anything better than that pale scarecrow.”
“Go suck yourself, you—” Robert stopped himself. He didn’t have time to engage in a verbal battle with someone as witless as Herman. He grabbed the books and folders for his second- and third-period classes and, not caring for his headache, slammed the door, holding a faint hope Herman would stick out his hand and get his fingers caught. No such luck.
Robert turned to jog to class, but a green light flashed in his eyes. He stumbled, dropping a book as Herman chuckled.
“Valentine’s Day is a real bitch for you, isn’t it?” he said. “Just like your girlfriend.”
Robert grabbed his book and hurried away, wondering when would be a convenient time to stop by the nurse’s office for some aspirin—not that she was legally permitted to dispense anything, even over-the-counter stuff, but she sometimes hooked certain students up, those who knew how to ask nicely. He did his best to ignore Herman trotting behind him and making goofy sounds, but when he opened the classroom’s door and Herman ducked out of sight, shouting, “Happy V.D.! Ho ho ho!” Robert wished he’d just decked the guy back by his locker.
Mr. Myers stopped midlecture as everyone turned to see Robert standing in the doorway, his face contorted with embarrassment and rage. Herman was now halfway down the hall, laughing behind Robert’s back while most of the class laughed in front of him. Myers looked pissed.
Robert closed the door and trudged to his seat, calculating the number of times he’d be forced to circle the gym.
Robert wondered why he’d even bothered to come to school today. At the very least, he should’ve skipped advanced biology. His temples hammered, breaking his clear thoughts into shards. And Mr. Sailers did what he could to stain those shards with his usual environmentalist theology.
“It should be obvious by now,” Mr. Sailers lectured, “to anyone with eyes to see, and a mind to comprehend, that we humans are a suicidal species. Homicidal and suicidal. We give more abuse and visit more horrors upon our environment—our generous nurturer—than we heap upon ourselves. We seem to be sick. It is no wonder some philosophers have equated human beings with a disease spreading, crawling on and under the skin of the planet Earth, living off of the planet to its detriment.”
There was no way this was appropriate for a public school setting, but Robert would be the last to protest. Outside of calculus and physics, he got his highest marks in biology. But today, did he have to suffer abuse from without as well as from within?
“The discovery and perfection of our ability to make fire was the beginning and end of modern human civilization,” Mr. Sailers said. “We’re inconsiderate, careless creatures who don’t think or plan much beyond dusk. Seeking only to acquire what it takes to engage in carnal pleasures in the dark, we forget the Earth turns, new light comes, and with the return of new light, we see, dimly, that our nighttime actions have destructive consequences for the near future.”
He wasn’t sure of his headache’s source, but the pinch in his rear, prompting him to stand and head for the door, was conscience. And shame.
The hallways during third period featured only a handful of sleepwalkers—those who were cutting class but unsure of where to go or what to do. Their numbers usually increased after the lunch periods. Robert was rarely among them. He couldn’t go home, and he didn’t want to go anywhere else. He’d a brief thought of hopping in his ’Stang and going to the nearest pharmacy for something stronger than aspirin, but anything stronger could interfere with his acne medication. Rather than head for the exit, he climbed the stairs and headed for the second-floor window overlooking the parking lot.
Leigh had parked next to him. Or had he parked next to her? If the latter, it was a mistake. He was in such a damned fog today, but one thing was clear: that dent on his passenger’s side door wasn’t there yesterday. Even from this distance, he saw the red paint in the dent’s groove. Red in black. Leigh’s Volkswagen Beetle was fire-brick red. Her outfit today was ebony and red. “Black and cherry,” she’d said at some point this morning when he was hearing but not listening. She’d been hinting.
Davin had once hinted. During that one crazy, stupid time last year he’d talked Robert into going to a “party” hosted by some girls he knew in the city. Davin knew from the outset “party” was a euphemism for “orgy.” Neither participated at first; they just watched, pointed, and commented. But Davin took a few tokes of something and was soon getting into it. Robert had wanted to leave, but he got caught up in the mood, in the haze; it wasn’t too long before he got caught up in a tangle of arms and legs. After some time into it, when his and Davin’s shoulders happened to brush, Davin leaned over and whispered. He had an idea…and it turned into a mistake, one never spoken of or hinted at again. But Robert saw it in the cracks of anything incongruous, read it between the lines of anything poetic, heard it in the breaths that were the pauses between misspoken words. The mistake wouldn’t escape him.
It struck him again last night when Davin’s mom—the only parent home at the time—looked as if she wanted to strike Robert. She stayed her hand, but not her mouth, chewing Robert out left and right as she worried over Davin’s unconscious body. What’d you do to him? Why didn’t you take him to the hospital? What’s wrong with you? The last thing she said after placing Davin in the minivan was, “It was a mistake for you two to ever be together.” She then slammed the driver’s door and sped off for the ER.
In the parking lot below, a few cars down from his, two girls were leaning against a Camaro making out. Robert sighed. They were asking for it. But maybe they couldn’t help it. Maybe one of the girls was like him. Every other step he took was a mistake. How could it be otherwise? He was a mistake.
He’d known it for years, ever since his five-year-old self had wandered from his bedroom to the living room where his parents were hosting one of their wine-night get-togethers. He innocently asked his parents to keep it down. In return, his mother blurted out her guilt while spilling red drops on the cream-colored carpet. She’d never wanted a damned kid. She’d never wanted to be a damned school nurse. She’d wanted to be a jazz singer. Unwanted and unplanned, Robert had ruined her life. And Robert’s dad, a “towering bully” in her words, had ruined her life. And both of them were ruining her life at that moment, trying to stop her from speaking her mind, trying to stop her from telling her wine-party audience what she really thought about herself and about them. The damned men in her life were trying to stop her from saying all the things she could never take back.
Even at that age, Robert understood mistakes; he made them all the time. It seemed he couldn’t get out of bed without doing so. What he didn’t understand was the anger behind his mother’s words, the rage behind her eyes when she looked dead into his. Maybe he wasn’t meant to understand. He sure as hell never saw that look again, nor did he ever hear her use that tone of voice. After that night, his mom and dad never drank again, not even a sip of bubbly on New Year’s. His mother never got angry at either of them again. She spoiled them both, often unreasonably, until she was gone.
Robert wasn’t about to go back to class. He wasn’t in the mood to take another minute of Mr. Sailers’s crazy rants. He stayed at the window, letting his gaze drift from the parking lot to the football and soccer practice field, coated now with at least two inches of hardened snow. His mind followed the lead of his eyes, drifting this way and that, as they regarded the sun rays filtering through the gray above to dance with the snow’s diamondlike crystals. He saw shimmering apparitions here and there; the thoughts nearest and dearest in his mind shaped them into vague outlines of human figures. It was a party, with two figures standing out among the others. His mom and his dad, dancing…fighting…plotting…whatever. A murder of crows descended on the field and shattered the entire reverie.
Damn, those are big birds. Big black birds on a sea of white. Had someone scattered crumbs out there? Had the birds seen something else appetizing that Robert couldn’t? A half-buried rat’s carcass? They didn’t seem to be pecking for food. They weren’t even walking or hopping around. Their beaks and their eyes were all oriented in one direction—Robert’s.
He turned away and shook his head. From last night’s snow-warrior incident to this morning’s light skeleton to this. It all had to be a side effect of his new acne medication; that was the latest and most plausible theory. At least the pounding in his head had finally gone away. He’d take hallucinations over headaches any day. Still, he could do with a splash of water in the face. He walked to the nearest restroom.
Shit, again. Wrong room.
Howard Phillips was a relatively peaceful high school. It was nothing like the war zones in the city. Still, it was a public high school. Each hall corner, each section of the parking lot, each lunchroom table, and each bathroom belonged to some clique. Robert was cool with many and didn’t give a shit about most; he generally went wherever he pleased. But there were some groups that didn’t give a shit about him either. There were even some in those groups who would’ve loved to kick it out of him, given the opportunity. Wandering into cutter territory alone, Robert had just given them one.
Mostly white, with two or three light-skinned Hispanics, the cutters were body-art enthusiasts. Tattoos, piercings, what have you. They were also total assholes. In class, they often wrote obscenities and slurs on their palms, flashed them to friends or foes, then licked off the evidence with a studded tongue. Their main reputation, however, rested on knives and razors, the blades everyone knew they carried but that no teacher or security guard could ever find. They passed through the metal detectors each morning without so much as a blip. And they always passed the pat-down test. And yet, whenever they needed it, they always seemed to be able to slip a razor blade from under their tongue or pull a knife out of their ass.
Of the seven boys in front of Robert, the five youngest tossed their cigs into the urinals and flicked switchblades at him. The two who were Robert’s age gave him the stink-eye but kept right on puffing.
Robert gave the stink-eye right back to all of them, not even flinching at the switchblades. His flight response was rabbit-punching his gut, and his fight response was crouching somewhere in his backside, but his head fought both instincts. He’d do what he came to do then leave. He turned an indifferent shoulder to the menaces as he walked toward the middle sink.
“You lost?” Nate asked before taking another puff of his cancer stick.
“No.” Robert turned the cold water knob. “But I think you are.” Nate was actually an honors student. Both he and Hank, the other boy who kept on smoking, were in two of Robert’s classes. Hell, Hank was the vice president of the French Honor Society. The two were smart, and “cut-ups” in more ways than one.
“Oh yeah?” Hank said. “We’re in the men’s room. This ain’t the place to powder your nose.”
“Maybe not.” Robert splashed a second handful of water into his face and turned around. “But it might be a good place to paint yours red.”
Two of the knife-wielders stepped closer, both of them freshmen, one of them muttering. “Jig…”
Robert looked him in his eyes. “I’ll be happy to dance. On your broken neck.” He didn’t want to fight—his head didn’t—but he stepped closer to the boy, his instinct kicking him in the ass.
“Hey…hey…” Nate, the nicotined voice of reason, held up his hands and took a step closer to the boys, ready to save them from themselves. “Not today. Not this day.” A sentimentalist, not wanting to see his buddy get his nose split on Valentine’s Day.
But it appeared the freshmen didn’t want to go out like punks. Not around these older boys. Not when most of them—they hoped—had their backs. They stopped advancing but continued to brandish their knives. Robert could see it in their eyes. Tough fronts, but they really didn’t want to take it further.
Robert glared for a moment then turned to spit in the sink before walking out. He wasn’t sure why he’d done it, but the gesture had felt right. He was sure they’d gotten the message. And they’d gotten his blood hot. He’d be clenching his fists, trying not to pound his desk for the rest of the day, just waiting until wrestling practice. He hoped stress wouldn’t make him explode before then.
In spite of the freshman wrestlers’ mop-up-and-wipe-down session over the weekend, the practice room still reeked of odors other than sweat and cheap cologne. It was a wonder that practicing three hours a day, six days a week, for almost every week since mid-October in the dim and humid padded box hadn’t made any of them permanently ill.
Nearing the end of Monday practice’s first hour, the wrestlers worked on routine setups, takedowns, and throws as Robert wondered whom he could trust to take notes for him in physics on Thursday and Friday. He’d be out both days, attending the regional wrestling tournament, and normally he’d count on the one and only object of his trust in the class: Leigh. But after their earlier confrontation, he’d experienced a gnawing sense of worry. Most of Robert’s physics classmates were diligent note-takers, but reluctant when it came to sharing. And even though the teacher was fond of Robert as a student, he was also hostile toward anyone who would prioritize athletics over academics. It was unlikely he’d pull Robert aside and tell him what he was going to miss in class while he was seventy miles away, “fooling around in some other school’s gymnasium.”
As he executed a single-leg takedown on his partner, Robert had both a good idea and instant regret: Take Leigh out on a surprise date this week. A belated Valentine’s Day gift and an apology. Romantic and brilliant, he thought, but equally impossible. Between practice and homework, there was just no time. And how exactly would he surprise her anyway? In a way that didn’t blow up in his face?
He’d skipped lunch to go buy a ten-dollar Valentine’s Day card, slipping it into her locker before the period was over. She was probably surprised to discover it, but not pleasantly. After seventh period, Robert found its shreds at the bottom of his locker.
“All right, now counters!” Coach Myers made an extra effort to be heard over the heavy metal music blaring out of the nearby CD player. “Work on your counters to takedowns now…Let’s go!”
Robert shot in for a double-leg takedown on his partner, Rusty, who sprawled, deliberately falling forward while kicking his legs back, almost collapsing on Robert’s neck while applying pressure on the back of Robert’s head and shoulders with his hands and hips.
Robert grunted, “Shit! What’re you doing?” as Rusty spun around and got behind him.
“Counters now, Rob,” Rusty said. “Pay some attention and stop doggin’ it.”
Those thinking Rusty’s red hair was his most prominent trait quickly changed their minds when hearing him speak. He sounded like someone with permanent laryngitis who was always shouting to make up for it.
Robert shook his head and grumbled as he got up and positioned himself in his standard wrestling stance. Rusty quickly shot in for a double-leg takedown. Robert forgot to counter and forgot to move until the force of Rusty’s shoulders caused him to stumble backward while falling forward. Rusty didn’t wait for Robert to remember his role, but simply dumped him on the mat—hard.
“Damn, man!” Rusty said, springing back up to his feet. “What’s the matter with you? Get into this!”
“You two stop screwin’ around and do some goddamn work!” Coach Myers screamed at them from the far corner of the room.
“C’mon,” Rusty said as they got back into position. “You haven’t even worked up enough of a sweat to wash that ash off’a your legs. Hell, you’re rustier’n I am!”
“Then let’s forget the rust and see how much red I can beat out of you.” Robert grabbed Rusty’s right arm and shot in quickly for what was to be a fireman’s carry takedown, but—as Rusty prepared to counter—it transitioned into a duck under, with Robert ending up behind him, keeping a firm grip on Rusty’s left wrist and elbow.
Robert used the element of surprise to obtain momentary control; he planned to pick Rusty up and throw him down to the mat. But he hesitated. This gave Rusty plenty of time to break free of Robert’s grip and go in for a low single-leg takedown on him.
“Nice try, Robbie,” Rusty said as Robert fell to the mat, “but no dude’s ever goin’ to get me from behind.”
Rusty scrambled to his feet. Robert tried to spring up just as quickly, but a sharp, fleeting pain in his groin stopped him. Rusty offered his hand in half-mocking, half-sincere aid. Robert took it without thinking, and without thanks.
Rusty snorted as they got into their stances. Here we go, Robert thought. A snort from Rusty was always a prelude to some comment intended to provoke a bullish reaction from someone.
“Y’know what I never got about black people?” he said as they circled each other.
“Everything?” Robert snatched at and caught hold of one of Rusty’s wrists.
“No, their hands.” Rusty twisted his wrist loose from Robert’s grip. “How it’s all like white people on the palm side and all dark on the other side.” He grabbed Robert’s left wrist. “What in hell’s that all about, huh?”
“It’s to confuse and confound idiotic shits like you.” Robert freed his wrist and circled quickly to the right then the left, trying to get a side view of Rusty for a good attack.
“Yeah, y’know, it’s really like what they say.” Rusty kicked his leg back and kept it free as Robert attempted an ankle pick. “You’re just tryin’ to make yourselves white, secretly, a spot at a time, rubbin’ your hands and feet together.”
Robert knew this ploy. Rusty would always begin and charge on with racial taunts when he felt Robert wasn’t working hard enough. It was only intended to fire him up—nothing more, he was sure. The two of them had known each other since fourth grade, back when Rusty still went by his birth name, Russell. And even though, like many of their teammates, Rusty openly and proudly referred to himself as a “redneck,” Robert had always judged him as being absent of any real racist feelings, noting that one of Rusty’s personal deities was Jimi Hendrix. But Robert was also no stranger to naiveté.
He’d no problem keeping up with Rusty’s trash talk. He was skilled enough to give better than he got. When it came to skills on the mat, though, he and Rusty were much more evenly matched—except when Robert was distracted.
“You’re right.” Robert snatched hold of Rusty’s left wrist. “It’s all part of our grand plan to go undercover, and seduce your women under the bedcovers with us.”
“Our sisters and daughters, huh?” Rusty twisted free and grabbed Robert’s right wrist.
“Yeah, well, not your skanky sister,” Robert said. “But your slutty mother on the other hand…”
Rusty swung his free hand—curled partway into a fist—at Robert’s head, to either punch him in the jaw or set up a headlock throw. Not taking any chances, Robert ducked under Rusty’s arm while getting his own wrist free in order to reclasp Rusty’s, getting him into a body lock. Not pausing for a breath this time, Robert lifted him up and threw him down to the mat in one flowing motion. With Rusty lying on his stomach and Robert lying on his back, he let go of Rusty’s wrist as he applied more and more pressure. He wanted to pin Rusty to his back.
But as Robert hesitated, deciding on which pinning combination to use, Rusty shifted his leg and brought his knee closer to his chest. Within seconds, he’d gotten his body into a prostrating, base position. Applying the full weight of his body to Rusty’s back, Robert frantically tried to regain wrist control, now realizing he never should’ve relinquished it—a freshman’s mistake.
“Take your laps!” Coach Myers shouted as the two assistant coaches at the opposite ends of the room blew their whistles.
Most wrestlers scrambled to their feet, ripping off their headgear and flinging it into the nearest corners as they dashed for the door, heading for the school’s main gymnasium to take three laps around the perimeter. Robert wasn’t among them. He was usually among the first five in the sprinting pack, but having been thrown off Rusty’s back and nearly onto his own at the first word of Coach Myers’s command, he was one of the last out of the door.
He began among the heavyweight-class stragglers comprising the back part of the group, which stretched into two then three separate groups as the faster and fastest runners hit their stride. He barely managed to catch up with the middle group, making himself the object of Coach Myers’s jeers each time he passed him standing on one of the lower bleachers.
“Goddamnit, Goldner! Stop being a pussy and get your ass up there where you belong!”
He tried, but just as it seemed as if he might actually make it into the first group, Robert saw everyone in front of him walking toward the exit. He’d already completed all three laps. He slowed to a stop as Coach Myers shouted.
“Make it quick! Get your damn drinks and get back in the damn room, ready to wrestle!”
Winded—though not enough to stifle chatter and grumbling—the wrestlers ambled down the hallway and into the auxiliary gymnasium for a few quick sips at the water fountains and a short bathroom break, one of two they were allowed during practice.
On the gym’s floor, the girls’ basketball team sat in a semicircle around their coach, who was calmly lecturing them on what they needed to do to continue their winning streak to the state championships. While waiting his turn in line at one of the fountains, Robert wondered why the girls weren’t practicing in the empty main gymnasium. The boys’ basketball team had it unofficially reserved for after-school practices during the entire winter sports season but the boys were nowhere to be seen. Why not take advantage of their absence? Had the girls just been trained too well to know their “place”?
At least they’re allowed to practice out in the open, Robert thought, even if it’s off to the side.
The cramped, stuffy wrestling room was in an area of the building students jokingly referred to as “the basement.” Even though the area was actually on the school’s main floor, it just happened to be in the same area as the special ed and shop classes.
He looked at the girls in the semicircle. It was about an equal mix of blacks and whites. He tried to imagine himself among them, wondering how different his path would’ve been if he—the mistake—had been born a girl. Would he have bothered with a sport at all? And would he have chosen basketball, or would the stereotype—that orange watermelon—have scared him off?
As he was, nothing had scared him off from the expectation of wrestlers to submit themselves totally to the great cult of wrestling, forging trinities of mind-body-spirit. They were expected to become visibly bruised during every practice, make their opponents weep in pain or humiliation after every match, and rouse the audience to scream at the top of their lungs at every meet. All the while, they were to say nothing, just wear a stolid mask as the coaches urged them on to a sweaty and grimy—if not bloody—victory on the mat. Afterward, they were to condition and think about nothing but the next match, even if it was half a year away. “Never go to your back,” Coach Myers often screamed. “Learn to sleep on your stomach!”
The head coach of the girls’ basketball team encouraged his players to focus their minds on life’s greater pleasures during the off-season: art, music, literature, nature’s unified beauty. Contrary to making them soft, this method probably strengthened the mind and spirit far better than any gym could. During the season, the team’s main objective was to be artful and beautiful, to work like nature’s clock, always succeeding. And they did so in an almost supernatural fashion. But like nature and great art in modern society, they were ignored by the masses. Robert knew they were truly a rare crew. At rival schools, average-looking girls with top-level athletic skills comprised the girls’ basketball teams. At Robert’s school, the girls looked more suited for the cheerleading squad, yet they were impelled by who-knows-what to perfect their initially average playing skills. It wasn’t long before the young women regularly displayed supernal skills on the court, looking wonderful to most observers while doing it, and winning game after game—far more than expected or, some whispered, fair.
If Robert had been born a girl, he was sure he’d be fundamentally the same. Even if lucky enough to land on the girls’ basketball team, despite the different surroundings and conditioning, it wouldn’t be enough to fix him.
He reentered the wrestling room. As always, he had to blink several times while his eyes adjusted to the poor lighting. Still blinking, he retrieved his headgear and spotted Colin. Davin hated the guy and made no secret about it, but Robert always argued with him that blacks on the wrestling team had to stick together, look out for one another. For what purpose he wasn’t exactly sure, but it just felt like the right thing to do in this environment.
He sat next to Colin to stretch.
“Hey,” Colin said, as he lay back in slight arching position, stretching his stomach muscles, “you wanna go with me first?” Colin’s eyes gazed toward the ceiling, but Robert knew he was speaking to him.
“Go where?” he mumbled as he stretched his groin.
“No ‘where,’ dumb-ass.” Colin turned to face him. “We’re doing matches next. Those of us wrestling this weekend. I heard coach talking earlier.”
“You know he’s going to be the one to pair us up, you shit.” Robert refocused his stretch to his shoulder blades. “Why’re you even asking me? You know how it goes: lowest weight class on up. And we’ll have to wrestle the scrubs before facing each other.”
“Not this time,” Colin said. “Coach is pissed Davin’s not here today. So he’s going to take it out on those of us who are here. The guys who’re wrestling this weekend are all wrestling each other. Full matches, our choice of partners. Then we wrestle the scrubs on J.V. And then we wrestle each other again, coach’s choice. Then full-court gym-sprints, I think. No slow-go. It’s all nonstop for us, win or lose.”
“Bullshit.” Robert stood to stretch his calves. “Nobody can wrestle straight for that long, with that many different partners.”
“Oh yeah?” Colin said. “You make it sound like an orgy.”
“All right!” Coach Myers entered the room. “Everyone wrestlin’ this weekend, pair up and choose a circle. Now, damn it! Get your asses up and move! We’re going full matches, and none of you better let yourselves get put on your back! Everyone else, stand up at the walls.”
Coach Myers blew his whistle. The freshmen, junior varsity wrestlers, and varsity-level losers of last Saturday’s district tournament cleared off of the mats and took their positions at the mat-padded walls. Colin ran to the center of one of the circles painted on the floor mats near the room’s center. Robert walked to the same circle, studying Colin’s face, wondering what he knew. Had Davin said something?
Coach Myers turned off the CD player by smacking it on its side as he passed by, walking toward Colin and Robert. The assistant coaches stepped into position to referee the other two pairings.
“Ready?” Coach Myers grunted with the whistle between his lips. Colin and Robert hurriedly shook hands and resumed their wrestling stances. “Wrestle!” All three coaches blew their whistles.
Colin immediately shot in for a double-leg takedown. Alert and ready, Robert sprawled, putting his hands on Colin’s head and shoulder. Without taking a breath, he spun around to get behind while grabbing Colin’s left wrist, pulling it toward his waist, and applying pressure on Colin from behind with his hips. Colin tried to stand up and reverse, but Robert, holding his left wrist firmly, grabbed Colin’s right elbow with his free hand and exerted one quick burst of pressure forward, forcing Colin to lie flat on his stomach.
That was the easy part. Robert then tried a variety of pinning combinations, but Colin countered each one, eventually getting back on his feet.
“Escape, that’s one,” Coach Myers grunted. “Points’re even now, you two.”
Colin fussed with Robert’s head, planting his hand on the top and trying to push or pull it, shove or drag it to one side in order to get Robert to look away for just one second, just enough time for Colin to take another shot. Robert used his forearms to fend off Colin’s intrusions long enough for him to play the same type of head games. All the while, the two circled each other, attempting or faking setups, locking up briefly head to head, only to wrench free again while staying tunnel-focused on each other, sense of sound tuned to nothing but their own coach-referee’s whistle and comments.
“Goddamnit, quit stalling!” Coach Myers barked at them. “Somebody better take a goddamned shot, quick!”
Robert did and managed to take Colin down again, right before Coach Myers blew his whistle.
“That’s time for the first period,” he said.
Robert let go of Colin and they both stood up, quickly returning to the center of the circle. During the entire two minutes of the second period, both seemed possessed by the spirits of Olympian deities as they tussled. Robert was still ahead by two points when the period was over, but the score had increased from 4–2 to 10–8. It wasn’t until Coach Myers blew the whistle and they disengaged that Robert realized his sweat-soaked T-shirt was spotted with what appeared to be blood. He quickly checked himself for cuts. At an official wrestling meet, the match would have been paused on account of bleeding. In practice, one had to wrestle until the match was over.
In the thirty seconds he had before the start of the third period, Robert didn’t find any broken skin, but he did notice glittering red specks on the back of his hand—these in addition to the usual red welts on his biceps and forearms that always resulted from grappling on the mat. Colin had to be the source. Robert hadn’t noticed anything on him while walking to the water fountains earlier, so Rusty wasn’t suspect. In his cursory examination of Colin’s T-shirt and exposed skin, however, Robert couldn’t see any evidence of cuts or rubbed-off scabs. Colin’s sweat-drenched shirt was a uniform beige color from front to back, no red dots or blotches, and his arms and legs showed only old scars.
On his hands and knees, the standard base position for the losing wrestler, Colin waited for Robert to kneel and assume his position behind him. Robert stepped closer and slowly began to kneel, but he stopped and made a diamond-shaped hand signal to Coach Myers indicating he intended to let Colin go free to neutral standing position. The coach nodded at Robert and gruffly said, “He’s letting you go, Jenkins.” Colin maintained his position as Robert leaned over and, still making the diamond signal, placed his hands on the area between Colin’s shoulder blades. “Ready?” Coach Myers asked. Robert glanced at the specks on his hands before looking back at Colin’s legs and feet. The whistle blew.
Colin punched high and stepped out, attempting to stand, turn, and face Robert in one smooth motion. Robert attempted to stop him by reaching his left arm around Colin’s waist while his right arm reached for Colin’s right ankle, but the exertion triggered a yellow flash in Robert’s eyes, stunning him, stopping him before he could get a firm grasp on the ankle. The effect lingered, forcing Robert to blindly grope for his intended targets. His right hand hit the mat twice, quickly in succession. His left hand, hovering near Colin’s navel, made one wide reach for the right side of Colin’s ribs; instead, it found the lump of flesh between his legs.
“Damn!” Colin shouted as Coach Myers blew his whistle. “You fuckin’ cocksocket! Get off me!” Using little wrestling skill or technique, he did what he could to get away from Robert as he stood up.
No longer seeing a depthless mass of yellow—just black with random yellow splotches—Robert let himself be fended off as he released all holds, held his hands up near his head, and fell back on his rear.
“Goldner, what the hell are you doing?” Coach Myers shouted as the whistle fell from his mouth to dangle by its string.
“Shit, man…” Colin had moved way away from him. Robert could tell by the sound of his voice that he was probably pacing just outside the circle.
“Shut up, Jenkins!” Coach Myers said. “Walk it off! What the hell are you doing, Goldner? Grabbing nuts will cost you a match!”
A few of the reservists lining the walls laughed. Shawn, the biggest and most vocal of the freshman wrestlers, even whipped off a few antigay quips.
“You four think it’s a joke?” Coach Myers bellowed. “It’s funny? Go take five laps…Now! And you better be back here in five minutes, ready to wrestle. Go!”
Robert heard several footsteps move quickly toward the door as he stood up. By the time the door slammed shut behind the runners, he’d regained most of his vision.
“Sorry.” He hung his head and blinked at the few twinkling, swirling yellow dots that remained. “Sorry, man,” he said as he reentered the circle.
Colin mumbled to himself.
“My…I…” Robert stammered for an excuse to give before remembering the wrestling team’s uncompromising motto: no excuses. It was a convenient remembrance. He wasn’t able to produce anything acceptable anyway, motto or no motto. I went temporarily blind. I went temporarily insane. I went gay, temporarily. Any of those statements might as well be another.
“You’re giving up a point, Goldner,” Coach Myers grunted as he put the whistle between his lips. “It’s ten–nine. Get into position, you two.”
Colin reluctantly got back into the standard base position. Robert stared at his back, not sure he wanted to touch him, not sure he could trust his eyes or hands.
“Get into damn position, Goldner!” Coach yelled.
Blanking out all objections, Robert again made the diamond shape with his hands and placed them on Colin’s back. The whistle blew. Colin exploded up as before. Robert let him stand.
“Escape! That’s a point,” Coach Myers said. “You’re even.”
The two circled and physically taunted each other as they had during the first two periods. They made setups. They attempted and faked shots. They tied up briefly, headgear to headgear, before releasing. Neither one was able to gain any momentary opening.
Finally, Robert snatched both of Colin’s wrists. Before flinging them aside to shoot in for a takedown, he glanced at his hands. They were tingling. His glance became a stare as his fingers unclasped their grip, straightened, and wriggled in all directions. Robert felt nothing. His hands had gone numb. But he saw the fingers—long, thick, brown, sweaty, slimy—blindly twisting this way and that. Worms, testing out the environment into which they’d just emerged.
He gazed at the writhing digits until the index finger-worm on one hand and the middle finger-worm on the other straightened out, stretched their respective lengths by an inch, and suddenly recoiled, bent back so that the tips of their blind heads touched the back of his hands. Robert gasped and pulled his arms away as Colin took advantage, shot in for a takedown, and brought Robert down to the mat.
Colin began positioning himself to execute a pin when Coach Myers blew his whistle. “That’s time!”
Colin sprang up to his feet, hustling to get to the center of the circle. Robert remained dazed, flat on his stomach, staring at his hands, now balled into fists. He uncurled his fingers slowly. Nothing appeared strange now. The ten digits had bones and were jointed. Even the glittering red specks from earlier were gone, presumably wiped away during subsequent tussling with Colin. Nothing was there but sweat, skin, hair, and nails. Everything seemed normal.
He returned to the center of the circle and shook Colin’s hand firmly while looking him in his eyes.
“Good match,” Colin said. “Just watch your hands next time.”
Robert said nothing as they released and headed toward the door for a lap around the gym.
“Hurry it up!” Coach Myers yelled after them. “Come back ready to go again! New opponents!”
Robert wasn’t sure he’d be ready to go again so soon, new opponent or not. Seeing stars after getting thrown to the mat or coming up too fast was enough to deal with during a fast-paced match. How would he handle it if, during this weekend’s tournament, he suddenly saw a new universe and his hands again became subject to its strange laws of physics?