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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Teenage Grendel

The Wedgie Tree

Half-way through my seventh-grade year, my underwear betrayed me just like everything else. I blame it on my mom for buying the industrial-strength tighty-whiteys with three-inch elastic bands—when the eighth graders gave me the wedgie, my underwear barely even stretched. The band should have ripped when the three boys drug me across the playground, or when they hoisted me into the air.
But no way.
My indestructible undies didn't even rip when they hooked my waist-band over a knot five feet up the old oak tree. I just dangled there while they laughed at me while the extra-banded elastic choked off the circulation in my legs and butt-cheeks.
I could barely sit down for a week.
The gnarly oak grew from the bank of a ditch separating the middle school courtyard from a pasture. The boys hanged me on the pasture side, so I guess no one saw them do it. Least ways no teachers did, or none came to help. I tried to twist around and undo the snare, but the wood held the elastic tight. Sudden dizziness scrambled my thoughts and the ground wobbled beneath my dangling feet. I knew if I fell I'd slide all the way down over the rough bark and sharp knots—like using a whole tree for toilet-paper. I imagined the chaffing, bruises, and pieces of bark embedded in my butt-crack and stopped trying to reach the snag.
Let me down, Please! Please let me down.”
The big kids ran off laughing and I just hanged there and cried, The tears ran hot over my aching cheeks and I sobbed and sniveled like a three-year-old. I still can't smell cow manure or fresh-cut grass without being reminded of the pain.
I remember wondering why I'd been selected for Wedge of the Year. Now I realize a kid eating lunch alone makes an easy target.
I'd been eating my lunches outside for the past few weeks, instead of in the cafeteria. That way no one saw me at a table alone or with George, the only kid in school less popular than I was.
No one flung peas at me or opened their mouth at me to show me their chewed up food when I ate outside. And I didn't have to hear the noise of their bragging and gossip. Just me and the birds and the courtyard. Sure, some of the kids would usually come outside and hang out by the picnic tables before fifth period. But by then I'd usually be deep into a book, and barely even noticed them.
Until those eighth-graders showed up.
But as I swung from that knot by my tighty-whiteys with tears mingling with snot all over my face, I didn't contemplate the events leading up to my current situation. I flailed my legs and arms, boohooed, and wondered "Why me? Why is it always me?" over and over again.
After what must have been most of lunch break, Roger and Unmark found me. Of course they called Ryan and Austin over, and pretty soon the whole class had gathered in a semi-circle around the tree. I tried to stop crying but my sobs grew louder as they laughed and made their jokes.
"Look, it's some kind of fungus growing on the tree! And it's dripping green slime!"
"Maybe it's a bird, look at that beak!"
More laughter.
"Bugeraunchy got a tree up his butt!"
Oh, that one got a laughing ovation.
I thought they'd laugh forever.
Then Hilda stepped closer. She squinted and put her hands on her hips. Hilda filled the “mother hen” role for lots of girls in seventh. I liked her because she took up for the small kids, but she'd never defended me before. She dwarfed the other kids our age, with arms as big around as most peoples' thighs, and could beat all the boys in Mercy. Back in sixth grade, a kid named Mark accidentally hit her in the head with a stray spoonful of mashed potatoes meant for George. Hilda snatched Mark out of his chair and dumped him in the trashcan as easily as a normal person might dump their tray. Nobody messed with Hilda.
He's hurt, guys!” Hilda said. “We’ve got to help him down.”
I'm not touching his underwear!” Roger said.
Everybody laughed again.
Hilda stared right into my eyes. I was so embarrassed I closed them and rubbed with both hands. I could feel the tears dripping off my palms.
"Yeah ha ha real funny," Hilda said, turning back to them. “But we gotta tell somebody.”
She sighed, letting her hands fall from her hips. "I'm going to get Ms. Monday."
And with that she stomped off and out of my sight.
Don’t worry Bugeraunchy, Hilda’s gonna save you!” Roger said.
Most of them laughed again. But after that, the crowd broke off into groups. Roger and Unmark left last, squeezing in a few more "Bugeraunchies" and "Snot-Monsters" before running off.
Maybe they’d seen Hilda returning with Ms. Monday. I heard new footsteps between sniffles, and a ,moment later three new faces stared up from the base of the tree—Hilda, Ms. Monday, and my mom.
I should have expected as much. The Universe regularly conspired to make me look like a fool. My mother worked at the high school campus across the pasture. She visited my teachers at lunch a lot. Too much, in my opinion. Like every other day.
Oh my poor baby who did this to you?” she said.
I looked into my mom’s gray eyes and another bout of whimpers and spasms shook my frame.
"My dear! Unacceptable, completely unacceptable," Ms. Monday said.
Mom and Mrs. Monday gripped my belt and the hem of my undies and tried to lift. We struggled and grunted until the snag slipped free. The three of us fell together and tumbled in the grass,. my right knee slamming into a root.
Hilda let go a short cry and rushed to help Ms. Monday to her feet.
One knee ached, my whole butt-crack stung, and my other leg had fallen asleep. Fire inched through my lower body as my circulation returned.
Mamma stood and pulled me to my feet.
"Oh my poor baby!" Her hair had come undone and gray locks dangled in her face.
"Who did this to you, Gren?" Ms. Monday asked. "Was it somebody in our class?”
"Eighth-graders,” I stammered.“They—they were eighth-graders.”
Mrs. Monday let out a groan of disgust.
"Those older kids have been horrible this year. You turn your head one moment, or try to have one civil conversation," Ms. Monday said to mom over my head, "— and something like this happens. We need to get him to the nurse. Tell Mr. Helms.” The pitch of her voice rose with each word. “Whoever did this must be held accountable. I am sooo sorry, Mrs. Ivanov.”
"They will certainly be found and punished.,“ Mom said. “I will see to it myself. I'll speak to Mr. Helms immediately. Let's get my son to the nurse's station."
Mom clutched my arm. She meant to drag me across the playground like a puppy on a leash right in front of everybody. I pulled away.
"That hurts! It's bruised. I can walk myself."
Mother sighed. "I suppose so. Let's get you to the nurse's station."
I kept my head down all the way to the school building so I wouldn't see the kids stare at me, but I know they did. Some of them snickered when we passed. When we finally got to the double glass doors, Ms. Monday opened one for us and said, "Can you find your way from here, Ms. Ivanov?”
"We will be fine from here. Thank you, Mrs. Monday."
The middle building had been converted from an old orphanage, restored and renovated just before opening six years ago. The twisting boards which formed its outer walls revealed it's age through the dark brown paint. Only the glass doors seemed modern. We passed through them and stepped onto the sterile tile floor of the hallway.
My mother walked fast. Her heels clicked and her pants legs wished against each other as she moved. The bruises stung with each step, like having a sunburn on the insides of my butt-cheeks and somebody dragged a rope between them.
I won't say much about the nurse's office, except Nurse Margo must weigh 500 pounds and it's embarrassing when she makes you take your pants off right in front of your mom. She sprayed some super cold stuff on my butt and took a good long eye full.
It’s going to need a salve,” Nurse Margo said, untwisting the top of a white container.
But I put the salve on myself, thank you very much, and pulled up my pants as quick as I could.
Can I go now?”
You may.” Mrs. Margo opened her door and frowned. “Mr. Helms will be waiting.”
Thank you, Mrs. Margo.” Mom said. “Now should we put the salve on every morning?”
That will be fine.” Nurse Margo frowned after everything statement, no matter who she might be talking to.
Should we schedule a follow up with you, or his doctor?”
But I'd already started down the hall. I didn't hear whatever else they said. Mr. Helm's door stood just past the glass window at the school's front desk. I think that's the one time I ever felt relief to get to the principal's office. I raised my hand to knock but Mr. Helms opened the door before I could.
Hello, young Gren,” he said. “Come in and have a seat.”
I took one of the leather chairs in front of his desk. I had to sit slowly, and winced when the whelps on my butt and legs pressed against the leather. My mom took the chair beside me.
Thank you for seeing us, Mr. Helms,” Mom said. “My son has had an awful ordeal today. I would never have thought something so horrible could happen at this school. Eighth-graders, young men who should be setting an example for our younger students, attacked my boy right in the open. Are we raising young terrorists here?”
I'm extremely sorry to hear about this, Mrs. Ivanov. I assure you this is far from typical for our campus. But there are bad seeds from time to time. I promise you we will get to the bottom of this and discipline the perpetrators according to…”
My mother tried to interrupt, I would hope so. This is not something I would ex-”
Mr. Helms continued, cutting her off. His voice rose only slightly in volume, but became more stern.
Mrs. Ivanov? I assure you I will do all I can. But first I must hear what young Gren has to say. Can we let him to tell his story?”
Mother crossed her arms. “Yes. You should most certainly hear it. It's positively awful.”
Very well.” Mr. Helms turned to me, bending his head to make eye contact above his glasses. “Gren? Can you tell me what happened?”
So I told him everything about the eighth-graders who gave me the wedgie. He asked me for their names but I didn't know any of them. Instead I described the bullies as best I could. I didn't tell him about the kids from my own grade laughing at me. If I'd got someone my own age in trouble, I’d be worse off than I'd been before.
Mr. Helms pushed the eyeglasses up the slope of his nose and straightened.
I see.”
The springs creaked in his oaken chair as Mr. Helms turned to stare out the window, hands crossed over his potbelly. He took a long moment to think before speaking.
Well, Gren. from what you've told me I've got a pretty good idea who these boys are already. Of one of them, I'm nearly certain. A troubled boy with an estranged father. The eighth-graders picked on him last year, much in the same way he's picked on you. I'm afraid he's become the school bully.” The chair creaked again as Mr. Helms spun from the window to face us. “ It's a vicious cycle, Grendel, and the violence must be stopped.
Who... Who is he?”
Yes! Who is this ruffian, Mr. Helms?”
Now I can't be sure just yet about this young man. But he and a few others will be called into my office this afternoon. I'm not ready to divulge a name just yet.”
But Mr Helms!” Mom cried. My mother leaned forward and straightened, her bottom lip trempling like it always did when she became upset.
The principal silenced her with a raised hand.
Mrs. Ivanov, we will speak privately in just a moment. If this is the boy I’m thinking about he will be suspended and will not be allowed to graduate. If you wish to press charges, we will discuss it.'
Again he looked over his glasses to meet my eyes.
I understand you saw Nurse Margo. Does she think you'll be ready to attend school tomorrow?
I... I don't know. She said….”
She said if he's too sore tomorrow, to call the front desk in the morning. I hope you understand how much this inconveniences me, Mr. Helms. I, of course, have work tomorrow myself. My poor Grendel will likely be unable to walk in the morning, and I suppose I'll have to come by in the afternoon to get his assignments. No boy this young should have to stay at home all day, with no one to fend for him.”
Yes, yes Mrs. Ivanov,” Mr. Helms said. “I regret your inconvenience and I appreciate your understanding. Again I assure you we will get to the bottom of this and prevent it from happening again. Now, Gren... could you please wait outside on the bench for your mother. We will only be a moment.”
I nodded and left the room, glad to be through with the interrogation. The door clicked behind me and I carefully place myself on the bench beside it. My mother's voice came muffled through The brick and wood so I couldn't hear what else she said to Mr. Helms. When she paused, I assumed the principal answered her, but couldn’t hear his voice at all. Each time Mom resumed, her voice grew louder, but just as hard to understand.
Bad enough to be sitting on a hard bench with a sore butt after being embarrassed in front of my whole class. Bad enough to have my dignity ogled by the nurse in front of my mother. But now Willa, the prettiest girl in seventh grade, passed right by me on her way to the front desk. She smiled. I couldn't tell if she did it to be nice or make fun of me. Most of the time when the kids sat on this bench, they were waiting to be punished. So I didn't smile back. I just looked down at my knee and scratched, like I had an itch or something. It still stung, and Ms. Margo had put a big bandage on it.
It seemed like forever, but at last my mom came out of Mr. Helm’s office. She took my hand, ”You ready?” and pulled me to my feet too fast, like she'd forgotten the sores on my bottom. I pulled my hand away and followed.
Slow down, mom,” I mumbled as we walked through the double doors. “It hurts!”
She barely slowed down at all.
We reached mom’s old Prius and sped off down the country road running beside the cow pasture. I watched the wedgie tree pass and fade into the distance..

The Secret in the Basement

In the morning mom woke me with the sweet smell of maple bacon. I opened my eyes to find four thick slices of it sizzling on my breakfast tray, along with eggs, toasts, and a few slices of cantaloupe. She kissed me on the forehead and left for work before I’d finished. We'd already decided I wouldn't go to school that day, and I guess she’d called before I woke. I wolfed down the food and struggled out of bed. My butt felt sorer than the day before, like my skin might crack with every move.
For most of the morning I sat on my Star Wars bean bag and played PS5.. Mom only let me play an hour on weekdays when she was home, so it was nice to sit there without having to worry how much time I had left. The games I like best take a long time to play, whether it be building a character in Oracle of Lost Sagas or creating a whole world in Planetcraft.
I must have had my orc down in Mithril Dungeon crushing dwarves for over two hours before I started thinking about lunch. Mom had said she may or may not get a chance to come home and fix me something, so I knew I might have to make my dinner myself. I didn't want her to catch me on PS5, because she’d naturally assume I'd been playing all morning. So I turned the TV all the way down and started to listen out.
Our old house made lots of sounds--creaks and groans and shudders. Mom said colonists had built it over three-hundred years ago, and we were both sure some of their ghosts still lived in it. I usually wore my earbuds to bed so I didn't have to hear the creepy sounds. That's why I still had a night light and kept the door cracked.
It might seem a bit silly that I felt goosebumps in the daytime, since I’d slept inside the house every night for over six years...but I’d never really spent a whole day alone before.
Noon came and went but I never heard the door slam to signal mom's arrival. She’d probably gone to the school to talk to my teachers instead of coming home to fix something for me. I hoped none of the kids would see her. At least it meant I could eat whatever I wanted for lunch. My stomach gave a short rumble, but I decided to pull a few more mobs before heading down..
I felt safe in my room, but downstairs would be empty and dark. Mom would have locked all the doors, but what if she hadn't? Of course I had to eat something. So I parked my orc by a portal stone, grabbed my baseball bat, and peeked into the hall from my bedroom door.
No burglars or ghosts awaited in the hall. Still, each outcry from the old floorboards sent my heart pounding. My pulse quickened with my descent down the rickety oak stairs. I walked into the den, relieved to find myself alone.
I checked the front door. Of course my mother had remembered to lock it. I chuckled at myself for being afraid in my own home. The kitchen proved empty too. Feeling a bit more comfortable now, I leaned my baseball bat against the oven door and opened the cupboard.
I only really know how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but I can pour cereal, so I had both. I sat at the counter as I ate and stared through the window across the field. Squirrels gathered acorns in the grass and the wind blew through clouds of yellow leaves. I felt relieved not to be eating in the cafeteria today, or in the courtyard where I usually took my lunch. Best to enjoy the time alone, I thought, and not think about where I’d have to eat tomorrow.
The clock on the oven said 1:17. Since Mom hadn't made it home during her lunch break, I knew she wouldn't return until almost five. Maybe even later. With the rest of the day to myself, I started thinking of other possibilities besides video games. I didn't much feel like going outside and flying my drone, since my chapped legs and butt-cheeks made walking a bit difficult.
I thought about the basement, the one place in the house I'd never been. I knew exactly where mom kept the key. I'd seen her slip it in the drawer when she thought I wasn't looking. Mom's basement office exuded mystery. Some nights she went down there after supper and worked until after I'd gone to bed.
I asked her what she worked on down there once before.
Nothing you'd be interested in, son,” she’d said after a long sip of coffee . “The results of genetic testing, long reports on anomalous mutations, scientific papers filled with academic jargon.”
Can I see?”
She laughed and said, “No I'm afraid not, the laboratory just won't allow it. Ultra top-secret.” She squeezed my nose and smiled. “Only five people in the world have the clearance to see what's on my computer. If anyone of us so much as showed a single person what's on there, they’d take us straight to jail. Then who'd fix your dinner?”
Mom being a commercial biologist but working at a high school might seem strange if you don't know anything bout New Midway. Cain Industries, the local biotech corporation, pretty much owns the entire town. They donated a state-of-the-art lab to New Midway High, and employed my mother to run it and train the teachers. She also worked other projects for the company at school and at home. Some seniors became her assistants, and received scholarships or jobs at Cain.
Well can I just see what's down there? I've never even been in our basement. I won't read anything on your PC.”
No you may not. I have delicate material down there. Equipment worth more than my whole year’s salary No one goes down into that laboratory but me. Understood?”
But the locked front door and the food had reassured me of my safety and I'd always been curious about Mom’s secret room. I set my bowl and saucer in the sink and washed my hands. My eyes strayed to the drawer that held the key. I ripped a paper towel from the roll above my head. Drying my hands, my eyes returned to the drawer. Would she find out if I took a peek?
I shook my head and tossed the towel in the trash can and took a step toward the stairs. Then I stopped.
Just a quick look, then.
I opened the drawer slowly and quietly, as if someone might hear. The old skeleton key drew my eyes immediately. It lay nestled between a phone book and a cutlery tray filled with pens, pencils, and change. I took careful note of the key’s position before I picked it up, sure Mom would know if it faced the wrong direction or lay on the wrong side.
The door from the kitchen to the basement stairwell wasn't locked, but old and stuck. I had to pull with both hands to get it loose. The kitchen light only shown a short way down, and then the stairs sank into darkness. I saw no light switch anywhere. It would probably be at the bottom of the stairs. Why are light switches always at the other end of scary passageways? Every step creaked, and I ran my hands along both walls to steady myself. Hopefully my fingers would find a light switch.
Water dripped in the bowels of the house. Ghosts groaned beneath my feet. Phantoms flitted in the shadows below. Unseen eyes leered from every direction. Something scurried past my foot.
A string dangled from the ceiling a few feet in front of me. The light! I pulled, and with a click the dim illumination of a bare bulb filled the stairwell. Now I could see the black door at the bottom of the stairs. A few more steps and I’d reached it. I tried the knob--locked of course. The key fit perfectly and the mechanism inside clicked open with ease.
Did I really want to do this? What if I really did get Mom in trouble...and caused her to lose her job? Maybe these second thoughts were just excuses...fear of whatever might be on the other side of the door.
I waited a good long minute before I turned that knob. Slowly and carefully I opened the door, just enough to peek inside. Cream paneling covered the basement walls The floor featured the same white tile they used in all the classrooms and halls at school. A metal desk leaned against the far corner supporting a computer, a microscope and something like a 3D printer. I pushed the door a few more inches open for a better look at the bookshelf beside the desk.
There on the topmost shelf sat a massive skull, more like a human than an ape but truly neither. What could mom be doing with such a thing? She worked in biology. Our science teacher had a skeleton in her class. But this skull look weird...probably prehistoric. It gave me chills, and I imagined it might come alive and look at me.
Something slammed upstairs, sending a jolt of alarm up the back of my neck. I pulled the door shut and locked it, looking over my shoulder as I fumbled with the key. The door above had not slammed shut as I’d feared. But what else could have made the noise? Had mom come home early? My fingers shook as I retrieved the key. I tiptoed up the stairs as quickly as I could. Wincing at every moan from the ancient steps, I pulled the light-string as I passed. The darkness urged me faster.
Once in the kitchen, I slammed the door and fell against it.. With all my weight on the hard wood, as if I might be holding off all the frenzied demons of hell, I struggled to catch my rapid breath.
The house had fallen silent. But what had made the crash? I listened for Mom's footsteps in the hallway. Sometimes she stopped a moment to look through the mail. Only the normal creaks and moans of the old house broke the silence.
Then I saw it--the handle of my baseball bat sticking out from behind the counter where it lay on the kitchen floor.
Again I chuckled at myself for being so scared of nothing. I replaced the key in the drawer exactly like it had been, picked up the bat, and went upstairs to my room. I had just enough time to get another level for my orc in Lost Sagas before mom got home with my homework. Then the fun would end, and tomorrow I'd return to school and face the class.

Keep of Terrors

I expected to get teased in home room about the bullies or my mom. The kids had likely talked about the most epic wedgie of history all through school the day before. Maybe they'd even made up new nicknames more degrading than “Bugeraunchy.” My belly felt full of worms and snakes, twisting and writhing as I took my seat in home room. I stifled a wince as the plastic touched my still-sore butt. But no one said anything. When Rodger saw me, he smiled and whispered something to Unmark, who laughed and made a snorting sound, but that was it. The rest of the kids acted like they'd forgotten about my humiliation Or like they didn't even notice my seat wasn't empty again today.
Homeroom wasn't a regular classroom with a desk. Mrs. Frigg taught home economics, so we sat at long tables like the ones they have in the cafeteria.. She also had a row of sewing machines against the back wall, and a small kitchen behind a glass partition. During homeroom, the lights back there were always off.
After roll call we were allowed to talk quietly, but of course no one talked to me. At least no one shot rubber bands or spitballs at me like they sometimes did. I doodled in my loose-leaf and tried to ignore their voices.
The bell rang and we all got up to go to first period, but Mrs. Frigg called me to her desk.
Grendel, may I speak with you a moment?”
I turned and walked toward her slowly, hoping the other kids would be gone before she said what she needed. I didn’t know if I’d done something wrong, but likely as not her words would have embarrassment potential.
Yes ma'am.”
I want a quick word with you.” She smiled and paused, waiting for the last girl to shut the door.
I understand you had a problem at lunch the other day. I just wanted you to know I let some of the kids on my good side take their lunch in here. It's a bit quieter than the lunch room if you’re trying to do homework or draw, which I’ve seen you seem to prefer. A few of the boys play some kind of role playing game lately, if you're into that sort of thing. Anyway I just wanted to let you know it's open to you, as long as you behave, of course..”
I'd been interested in table top role-playing games for a while, but had never played one. Some of my favorite books had started out as role-playing games, or had table-top games of their own. I'd just never had anyone to play with. I figured it might be fun to at least watch a game..
They're all really nice kids,” Mrs. Frigg said. “Just so you know. Tom and Bert and Hilda are usually in here. The girls usually hang out in the back. Sometimes I even let them make brownies for everyone.”
She smiled and returned to whatever she’d been writing, a signal I should leave her to her work and get to my first class.
Thank you, Mrs. Frigg.”
I don't know why but I felt a sob in my words It made me happy to have a place other than the cafeteria or courtyard to spend my lunch break in. I guess somebody being nice to me for once got me a little choked up..
In history class, Mr. Heimdall explained the chapter we'd been assigned on “Difference between China and Japan after World War II.” He added nothing to what I’d read the night before except a dumb story about how he met his wife in Tokyo. My doodle from homeroom became the face of a man with long hair, bushy eyebrows and a shaggy beard. The bell finally rang and I headed for math.
After taking up our assignments, Mrs. Brocker spent class going over problems people experienced trouble with the night before. I'd had trouble with the second to last problem, but you can find the answers in the back of the textbook, so I'd already figured it out. My doodle grew a shoulder, arm and hand holding a leaf-shaped dagger.
In English class we learned about the foreshadowing in To Kill a Mockingbird, and why Boo’s rescue might have been a case of Deus ex machinae. Inga asked if Jim's broken arm could be symbolic of the character's break with innocence. She always tried to get brownie points by turning something she'd read online into a question.
Science was a long film of some professor talking about proteins and cell division with no animation or anything, just him talking. I tried to listen while I finished my drawing. The man with the dagger became a sort of barbarian with a ragged leather tunic and kilt. I kind of got his limbs out of proportion because there wasn't much light. To fix it, I left out the hand and instead drew the head of a dragon pulling him off one side of the page. Instead of finishing the feet, I drew tentacles wrapping around his ankles. It looked like a man suspended in space with monsters trying to rip him apart.
I could draw clothes, hands, tentacles and heads and faces. Putting them all together in proportion, not so much.
The lunch bell rang and I walked straight to the cafeteria as fast as I could, considering my sore behind.. I liked to be one of the first in line so I didn't have the whole student body as audience when I walk past the tables to the exit door.
Before I’d started eating alone, I’d had a friend named Ryan, and used to eat at a table with him and George in fifth and sixth. He used to bring cars to school, and we'd play-race them on the roots of the same old oak tree I later got wedgied from. Ryan had even come to my twelfth birthday party.
But at the beginning of seventh grade, Ryan betrayed me.
One day between first and second period I found out about the real Ryan. I reached into my locker for a book, and barely noticed the tug on my pants before I felt the chill of the A.C. on my bare legs.
Ryan, my only friend in the world, had pantsed me from behind. Tots out of nowhere. Roger and Austin gave him high fives, and everybody in the hall busted out laughing. Pretty much my whole class, plus some random kids besides. Even George, just three lockers down, couldn't help but chuckle.
That was the first day I died.
I didn't talk to anybody in class after that, except when I absolutely had to. I just drew whenever we had free time, and kept my head down. Even when they called me names like "Snot Monster" and "Bugeraunchy."
Roger made the second nickname up. Pretty creative, I guess.
Anyway, Ryan transferred about a week before I got the wedgie. I'd never even told him “Bye.”
The lunch-line began to move, and Luke crowded in behind me. Luke's glasses always had tape bandages on them where they'd broken. He constantly adjusted them with his hands or by scrunching his nose, like they bothered his skin something awful.
Can I have your Salisbury steak?” he asked.
No. It's Salisbury steak today?”
Yeah. Every second and fourth Friday. Can I have your mashed potatoes?”
Though skinny as a flagpole, Luke stayed hungry all the time and would eat pretty much anything.
No.” I Stepped up in line. The three hefty lunch ladies dipped food for the first few girls at the counter.
Move along, children,” the oldest cook said. “You can talk at the table. We've got a lot of mouths to feed.”
That's what she always said, over and over as the students filed by.
Can I have your green beans then?”
Luke scrunched his nose and adjusted his glasses so I could see the plea in his eyes.
I sighed. “Yes Luke you can have my green beans.”
The lunch ladies filled my plate and I took my ticket to the cashier. The cashier punched me “paid,” and I stepped aside to scrape my beans onto Luke's play.
Thanks,” he said, then hurried off to his regular table.
Walking normal through a school cafeteria while balancing a tray when your butt cheeks have been chaffed raw isn't easy. Luckily, only a few tables had filled by this time, and the kids paid no attention when I passed by with my “anal retentive” walk. I continued through the double doors and passed the bench where I usually sat. Across the courtyard the outside door to Mrs. Frigg's classroom stood, propped open by a chair. She left the door open in the morning time too, which was great because unless you had to go to your locker you could walk right into homeroom without having to go through the hall.
I hoped there weren't too many people inside. I wondered if they'd know I'd come to hide from the eighth graders and think I'm a coward.
The classroom smelled like bread or cookies. a few girls worked in the kitchen behind the glass. I passed Hilda, Becky and another girl sitting at the sewing machines. They talked quietly, probably gossiping, and ate chips and sandwiches from their Tupperware lunch boxes. I took a seat at the table in the front corner I used during homeroom. Only a few people sat there in the mornings, and I kind of hoped it would be the same at lunch. Sitting still stung a little, but I'd gotten more used to it over the the school-day.
Salisbury steak might be the most edible thing the lunchroom served, besides pizza and tacos. Of course, the gravy stood thicker than the potatoes. It dripped right through the teeth of my fork just the same. Luke had known better than to try for my slice of strawberry shortcake. He'd asked many times before.
A group of boys walked in through the hallway door-- Tom Trow, Dark Bert, and a skinny kid with red hair I’d never had a class with. They dropped their trays, lunchboxes, and book bags on the table beside mine and sat.
Tom pulled a book from his bag and thumbed through as he ate his food.
So what adventure are we doing today, man?” The boy I didn't know asked.
I don't know,” Tom said. “We were supposed to start Keep of Terrors, but Jason's not here today.”
Tom might be the smartest kid in seventh grade. He hung out with the “nerds,” but the popular kids liked him too. Or, at least they didn't make fun of him. Maybe because he never said anything stupid. Or because he was the biggest kid in class, next to Dark Bert. Tom carried around a healthy belly, and Bert had passed the obesity line. But nobody dared say so.
You didn't see him in homeroom?” Bert asked.
No. Must be sick or something.”
I’d had classes with Jason for three years but had never spoken to him once. He seldom said a word in class unless a teacher made him. I didn't even know he hung out with Tom and Bert.
Well, could we just go out and kill some orcs or something?” the other kid asked. “I'm only a thousand points from level eight.”
I don't know. That's kind of boring for me.” Tom looked up from the book and stroked his chin. ”Jason won’t care if we go ahead and play his ranger up to the dungeon. That's probably all we’ll have time for today, anyway. We could fill him in on Monday.”
Cool! Do you get to play his character or do we?”
Hmmm…:” Tom said. He looked up from his book and directly at me. “Maybe we can get Gren to play. Gren, have you ever played Dungeons & Dragons before?”
No, I…”
Have you ever played any role-playing game before?” Dark Bert asked.
Well, just online.”
Total noob!” the kid I didn't know said. He and Dark Bert laughed.
But Tom said, “You'll catch on. This is going to be an easy session.”
I don't know,” I said.. “I- I wouldn't want to get Jason’s character killed.”
Or get all his gold taken,” Bert added.
Oh don't worry about it,” Tom said. “I'll restore his life and wealth at the end if Gren does something totally dumb. You're going to need three heads to figure out how to get inside this dungeon.”
I don't know if I'm going to be much help. I mean... I really have no idea how to play.”
Up to you,” Tom said.
Remember, this was your idea,” Bert said to Tom.
Hope you know what you're doing,” said the third guy.
Yes, Eddie I know what I'm doing,” Tom said. “Hey, Gren do you know Eddie? He just transferred hear this year.”
Now I do.” I smiled. “Good to meet you.”
Yeah. You're going to like this game Try not to screw it up.”
So for the next forty-five minutes Tom became our dungeon master, and we traveled to a medieval town on the edge of a magical forest. Eddie played an elven wizard with a hell-hound for a pet. Dark Bert was a dwarven cleric with an insatiable lust for gold. I played Jason's character, a human ranger named Siegfried.
At a dingy tavern, we learned of an ancient treasure hidden deep in the wilderness and guarded by an immortal sorcerer. Bert paid an old storyteller to draw a map to the location, and we traveled by horse to a ruined castle in the shape of a half-buried giant's skull.
Tom rolled the dice and looked wide-eyed at Eddie.
Oh hell.” Eddie said, shaking his head and gripping the table with both hands. “Don't say that. Don't say that.”
Afraid so. Random Encounter. As you approach the ruined castle, you hear a screech from overhead, a thousand times louder than any bird you've ever heard. Sudden winds whip your hair and clothes, and a shadow dims the sunlight. You look up to see a three-headed chimera diving straight at you from the sky! Roll for initiative.”
I went first and nailed the monster's lion head with a magic arrow. My ranger plays hell with a bow and scored a critical hit on the first try. But we still had the other two heads to deal with. The dragon head hit us a couple times with fire-breath until Dark Bert chopped it off. Then Eddie blinded the lion head with a spell, and I hacked off its wings with my scimitar so Dark Bert could finish him. I got clawed a couple of times and almost lost all my life, but Dark Bert healed me once it was all over.
Next, we needed to get inside the ruined castle.
You approach the castle's crumbling entryway, a huge opening in the shape of a yawning mouth. The broken and missing bricks give it the look of rotting teeth. Below the arch stand two massive stone doors, etched in runes.”
No one could read the runes, and none of Eddie or Bert's spells worked to open the doors. I tried to pick the lock, even though my skill level kinda sucked as a ranger.
Might as well. Beats nothin',” Eddie said.
It didn't work, but we heard a dull thunk inside the castle. We eventually gave up and went searching for another way in. Eddie found a smaller postern door, but none of the spells worked on it either.
Hey, I've got an idea,” I said. I'd remembered something from an old detective movie I'd watched with my mom. “We need something thin and wide, like a place mat or menu.”
We used one of Eddie's magic scrolls. I unrolled it and slipped it under the door. When I tried to pick the lock. I failed just like the first time. Again we heard the “thunk” on the other side. I pulled the scroll from under the door and sure enough, there sat a rusty key!
This totally impressed the other guys.
Nice!” Eddie said, dragging out the word.
Yeah, that was a tough one. I told you he might be useful,” Tom said.
Even Bert said, “Pretty cool,” and gave me a half-smile and a nod.
I felt like the G.O.A.T! I couldn't help but smile, but inside I felt like beaming. Something about this game made it as fun as VR, even though there weren't any graphics or anything. I guess having people my age to play with helped a lot, but imagining all the scenes and creatures Tom described made it just as cool in a different way.
The lunch bell rang--time to walk to fifth period.
“Aww man! Eddie said. “We were just getting started.”
Well, I told you Jason wasn't going to miss anything too important. Didn't get his character killed, did we?”
Yeah. Your boy here didn't do too bad.” Eddie looked at me. “Good job man.”
He gave me a nudge on the shoulder and I couldn't help but giggle.
Tom and Bert shared fifth period with me so we walked together down the hallway.
We could use another player,” Tom said. “If you want to come up with a name we can roll you a character in homeroom next week.
Yeah, that’d be cool. What kind of character should I play?
You can play anything you want really.”
We need a thief,” Bert said.
Yeah a thief would be good, if you want to play one.”
I think a thief would be cool. Do I have to be a human?”
We stopped at the lockers to switch our books. Tom's stood just four down from mine.
Actually, I think halflings make the best thieves.”
A halfling?” I said, keying in my combination.
It's kind of like a hobbit. Hey do you have a PS5? You should download Dreamscape II. My GM created an entire world in it. It’s like an alternate reality.”.
Isn’t that one of those full contact games?” I thought it was, but I kind of hoped it wasn’t.
Yeah. You can really feel it when somebody hits you. But you can turn the settings up or down in the lower levels.”
It’s cool because it’s not just about how fast your hands move,” Bert said. “Strength matters.”
Full contact games use the entire spectrum of kinesthetic technology. Testers said they simulate pain pretty convincingly. Players had been known to freak out, and some people said there could be unforeseen long-term psychological effects. Mom didn’t like them at all.
I’ll send you the link to our guild site on Instagram,” Tom said.
All through fifth, I kept thinking about what a good time we’d had at lunch. Dark Bert hadn't said much, and Eddie seemed kind of hyper. But they were both almost as cool as Tom. I kept picturing the strange mountain we traveled to in the game, wondering what lethal traps and vicious monsters might lurk inside the foreboding keep..
I'd had it much better than I’d expected for my first day back from wedgie holiday. My bruised butt didn't ache so bad as it had before lunch. But as I drew the peak of the skull-shaped mountain in the next page of my loose-leaf, other questions entered my mind. Mom had told me “No full contact or 18+ games” way back at the beginning of sixth. Would she still think I'm too young for them now? Should I even ask her? I wasn’t sure if she’d even know if I didn't tell her.
And what if full contact did hurt really bad, and I cried like a little baby.... would Tom and Dark Bert laugh at me like all the others?