You Get Better Every Year

 

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One : Jaime, Autumn XX52

You can really tell when people start to consider you something of a man when they don’t look you up and down with just their eyes. No, now you’ve begun to look like such a colossus that they feel their necks must crane just to take in the whole picture of you. I don’t think I’m even very tall, to be honest. Melchior Rayport from my philosophy class is nearly a head taller than me, with gangly, limp arms that seem to flail at his sides when he tromps down the hall. He’s much taller than me and I wouldn’t consider him a man, not yet. Maybe not even half of one.

            Nevertheless, Mr. Britz keeps saying, “Well, look at you, Mr. St. Copper, best start to watch your head on those doorways, eh?” Or something along those lines every time I walk into economics class. Mr. Britz is a stout man with quite a specimen of a gut on him—more melon than stomach, really—and when he says something he but no one else thinks is funny, he’ll draw his nose up in a wrinkle and squeal in what I think is meant to be a laugh but sounds more like swine led to slaughter. Of course, I’d never say this to him, nor to anyone. A boy could get away with murder as long as he kept his mouth shut, but talk out of turn? He might as well jump in The Hole himself and toss the aside the key to save Headmaster Columbi the trouble. No, sir, I may not be a man, but I know them. They radiate a certain power that us boys and women naturally defer to. Teachers like Mr. Britz only remind us this every other bleeding day.

             The Edison Evander Academy for Universal Education is nothing exciting, but it’s a necessary kind of boredom that’s meant to prepare the regions best and brightest boys, I know this. I know it, but it’s difficult to remember at times like when Mr. Picard snaps his ruler while he barks arithmetic or when I see Garrick’s empty desk at the beginning of every day. Or when my head rolls back in history class because of course, we know the history of the world, Mr. Crow, we’ve only studied it since we were all wishing our front teeth back. Really, how many papers can we read and revise on the “war that made men lose track of time” and the “miracle of the Edison brothers’ utopia” before we realize we have thoroughly exhausted it all? Would the catastrophe of the broken pipe at the local bath house be considered an event climactic enough to reach our archives if a scholar thought to write a lengthy enough essay on it?

            I used to tell Garrick all of these things, the things I thought in secret that I’d bite my tongue to keep them down. He’d always get a good laugh out of it and egg me on sometimes. He’d always clap me on the shoulder and tell me I have a good head on my shoulders. When he still went to school here—before Headmaster Columbi expelled him because his time in The Hole wasn’t “mending his character”—I’d crawl out the window of my dormitory room and we’d sit on the ledge that connected our two rooms. We used to fit a bit better before our legs shot out from our kneecaps one day and they started to dangle over Seamus McCoy’s window. He told on us the first time, the prat, but Garrick stuck a food packet on his chair the next day that exploded when Seamus sat on it and he stopped right quick. That’s another thing. Just like the teachers who hold a whole slew of rules over our heads, us boys have a set of secret rules, the first of which being you never sell another boy out. Even if you might not like them or they’re a right drag to everyone else, you never snitch. Us boys handle things amongst ourselves. When you bring man into the equation, you best expect hellfire from both sides. It took months for some of the boys to quit giving Seamus a hard time even after Garrick got him back. Served him right though, really. Every boy’s capable of being a snitch, so what’s left to say when one goes and does it?

            Anyways, now that Garrick’s gone, I have to keep everything to myself, which is hard because with him I really liked talking. The boys in class are all right and we get along fine, but it’s like I suddenly have nothing to say so I keep my mouth shut. I don’t know, I guess I never thought to be close with them because I always had Garrick. And I don’t know, the other boys aren’t as fun as Garrick either. Garrick was wild, even his hair refused to be tamed, no matter how much the teachers of Headmaster Columbi tried to get him to comb it down, it refused and Garrick would just shrug one shoulder. All the while he kept that secret smirk on his face, as if to say, “Maybe it’s me, maybe it isn’t? Who’s to know? You?”

            Man, I miss him.

            Like right now, Mr. Billings is droning on in his monotone phlegm-stuck voice on the significance of the scientific innovation of the Founders’ Elixir and Lio Taft who sits in front of me won’t quit scratching his head like skrrrrtch-skrrrtch-skrrrtch and if Garrick we here, I could bear it because I’d know that I could tell him about how much Lio Taft’s scratching bothers the devil out of me and how I can see the little white particles from his hardened hair gel lifting up from his scalp in tiny explosions. And Garrick would laugh and probably say something about how we should present Lio Taft’s scalp for our project on nuclear warfare to illustrate radiation clouds lifting up the soil from the earth. And I’d laugh and make fun of Mr. Billings’ phlegmy gut voice and maybe even do my best impression of it—which can be quite good at times. Then Garrick would probably spit from his nose if he were drinking something at that moment. He’d spit all over himself and splash a bit on me. I’d howl then, I’m sure. I’m sure. He’d push my shoulder to quit it and tell me I have a good head and even just knowing that that all was still possible would get me through to the next bell and then the next and then the next…But here I am, tracing circles on my parchment while Lio Taft makes snowfall all over my desk, knowing I’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone because Garrick’s gone and it’s better to keep my mouth shut.

 

 

Classes end promptly at three, never early and certainly never late seeing as the teachers are as eager as the rest of us to get out as soon as possibly. Mainly I think the reason is so they can get to The Salon as soon as possible since they missed the whole morning teaching. The Salon is a room in the capitol building, Founders Hall, where men meet to smoke cigars and guffaw over whatever it is mean discuss when they gather together. Boys and women aren’t permitted in The Salon as it’s for the most educated and only a select few of boys go to schools like the Edison Evander Academy.

I and most of the boys in my class will most likely rush ourselves to The Salon one day, be called “Mr. So-and-So” by another “Mr. Something-Or-Other” and smoke cigars until our lungs turn black.

            One day.

            But for now, we are just boys and after school, boys go home to the dormitory hall with the day’s assignments and readings weighing heavily in their satchels. Boys huddle their heads together as they hustle noisily down the sidewalk, ruffling each others’ hair while wide grins plastered themselves on their faces. Or boys walk leagues behind the pack, dreamily bobbing their heads to an inner dialogue only they know and will ever hear. I’m walking down the front steps to the front lawn and I see Melchior Rayport, Kyle Mansley and a handful of boys I don’t seen the faces of full on running out the school gate.

            I suppose I’m the latter kind of boy now, though I hate to admit it.

            There’s nothing glamorous or all that appealing about being alone. There’s a hollowness to it, like the people surrounding you before were always blocking the wind so it never blew through you quite so sharply, like something sharp driving itself into you. Surely boys who choose to be alone must go mad from the cold. The bitterness must eat away at them until all they have left are scattered grunts and surly quips that only they’re meant to laugh at.

            “Oi!” I hear someone bark behind me.

            Speak of the devil. Leaning against the doorway is Sly Bowater, the surliest, most rancid boy I’ve ever met. Sly has long legs that he stretches out leagues in front of him whenever he sits so the toes of his shoes can nearly tap on your heels. I have to turn my chin up to look him in the eye but not by much, but I honestly wish I didn’t have to. He combs his front hairs back severely so you can see his shiny black widows peak and I’m almost certain he doesn’t need gel for it to stick like that. It’s all grease.

            “St. Copper,” he scowls and I can see the left corner of his mouth fold into a wrinkle that’ll only grow deeper with time. He shoved his shoulder off of the doorframe and steps towards me. “D’you know where they’re heading off to?”

            I’m rolling my eyes as I turn my shoulder away from him. Sly always leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but even more so now that he keeps slinking his way around me without Garrick around.

            “Dunno,” I mumble on my hurried way down the steps. “Don’t care.”

            “Oh, come on now,” Sly insists, following behind me. I quicken my steps, but Sly has a wide stride and keeps pace. “Lighten up, St. Copper! It’s just a question!”

            “And what makes you think I know the answer, Sly?”

            We pass under the green arches of the school gate and two electronic beep-beeps sound accompanied with the flash of a red light from the sensor overhead.

            Sly grins and I can see the upside down moons of yellow grime on his teeth, right on his pink gums that show far too much when he smiles. I look away, my eyes trained on the squares of gray concrete we’re racing over.

            “Be-cause you hear everything, you quiet son of a—” He catches himself before his monitor buzzes him, but the grin on his face stays. “Surely, you were listening in on good ol’ Melchy and his boys sometime during recess, right?”

            And perhaps I might have and yes, it might just have happened that I possibly heard Melchior Rayport, who sat directly in front of me in literature class, murmuring to Cyprus Rettaroli as to whether or not their plans to sneak off to this afternoon’s game at the Bowl was still a go. (To which Rettaroli replied, “Obviously, wouldn’t miss it, idiot.”) And because they weren’t particularly good whisperers themselves, I might have also heard they knew to avoid the security cameras pointed at each exit of the dormitory hall by crawling out of Governess Pacholok’s window because it led directly into the alley that winded it’s way to the Bowl at the city’s central pavilion. And how did they expect to sneak in and out of the Governess’s quarters? Why, they tipped off Peter Mancha after arithmetic that morning to cause a stir up in the hall to lure the Governess away.

            Melchior Rayport is really not a very good whisperer.

            “Come on, Jameson,” Sly whined, taking hold of the crook of my arm and stopping us on the empty sidewalk. He pulled me to face him and I tried to give him my coldest look, knitted my eyebrows tightly. “Everyone knows you’ve got a pair of ears on you. You know everything, and I’ve got things I want to know. So why don’t you prove you’ve got as much of a mouth on you and tell me what I want to know before I cut you a new one?” He raised his dark eyebrows and little ridges folded up in lines on his forehead.

            Despite myself, I gulp down the growing lump in my throat.

            “Watch your heartrate, Sly,” I test him, “Only so many times a month you can claim your monitor’s on the fritz, don’t you think?”

            “Shut up,” Sly breathes into my face. His grip on my arm tightens and the familiar feelings sends a sharp twang up my torso and into my throat. I swallow it down again.

            The feeling in my chest keeps rising and it makes my face go hot. I feel fuzzy and with Sly staring at me down the bridge of his long, straight nose, my brain goes into a blank, quiet panic. There’s a buzzing in my throat and when I can’t swallow it down, it almost feels like I’m drowning.

            Garrick always said I was a better runner. Said he had enough fight for both of us.

            Man, I miss him. I miss him now and later and before. I think I missed him before he even left.

            “Well?” Sly breathes and by the slight upturn of the corner of his snake mouth, he knows he’s got me. “Where’d they go?”

           

            Garrick also said I have too much pride for my own good.

I scoff to the side, rolling my eyes slightly. “They’re probably long gone,” I say and keep my voice even, there’s no reason for him to know he’s shaken it out of me. “They’re probably halfway to the Bowl by now.”

            Sly’s eyebrows shoot up and he growls. “The Bowl!” He says through gritted teeth and tosses my arm from his grip. I stumble a step and catch myself, careful not to trip over the end of my coat. I gather myself as Sly fumes, stomping a bit and grabbing at his hair. He yells in exasperation and if the street weren’t empty, he’d surely turn heads, “Of course! Gah! What an idiot!”

            “Your monitor, Sly,” I say under my breath partly to have a jab at him and the other part so I’m not anywhere near him if he gets called in for misconduct.

            He yells again. “Of course, they’d sneak off there! It’s so obvious! Those little—” Sly catches himself on the swear, biting down on his knuckle.”

            “Sly, come on.” I have with my hands up now. There’s a good bit of distance between us. I didn’t even realize I’d started to back away from him, but I can’t help myself. I’ve seen Sly like this. Once when we he sat behind me in class, he started to go off on Mr. Rosenberg in economics class and in his roaring he grabbed hold of my hair and yanked me to the ground. Sly never apologized, claiming he “needed to prove his point.” I’m not sure even he remembers what that point was.

            “Sly,” I say louder, “Calm down! Hey!” I grab him by the shoulder and he coils up at my touch. His head whips around to look at me, flinging his greasy oil-slick hair to the side. Sly has wild eyes when he’s like this. He’s shaking under my hand. “Why is it obvious?” I try to ask him but his eyes are far away. “Hey!” I yell again, and his pupils dart to meet mine, “Hey now, why is it obvious, Sly?” He yanks his shoulder away and stumbles forward and breaks into a jaunty run of a drunkard.

            And for some reason, suddenly I’m bounding off too.

            “Sly!” I yell after him. Sly’s got a good stride on him, but mine’s not half bad either so I’m staying right on his heels all the way round the corner and beyond.

            He’s murmuring something about the Bowl and horrible, grubby Melchior Rayport and his backstabbing—Sly’s hand flies up to his mouth and he bites down on the knuckle of his first finger—lot of—Glory, he’s biting hard—and something about a promise. A promise. A promise.

            Melchior Rayport, you wicked son of a gun, what did you do to this boy?

            Sly trips over a crack in the concrete and I manage to catch him by the arm again. My heels grind to a stop suddenly and the impact of the stillness jolts through me. And Sly’s just got his eyes mad trained on down the sidewalk. The Governess will worry—or worse, she’ll be disappointed and drag us to our rooms like the boys we are and give us the scolding of a lifetime. I’ve only ever been scolded by her once after that time Seamus McCoy told on Garrick and me and it’s not a place I’d like to put myself in again. But as much as I want to run home and scan my brace monitor into the dormitory hall building and do my revising into the wee hours of the night just to prove to the Governess I’m a boy not worth scolding, here’s Sly with his mad eyes and wild murmurings of a boy we both know but don’t really and well—I can’t just leave him, can I?

            “Sly,” and this time when I say it, I imagine I’m talking down Garrick after one of his wild fits and I’m staring into his bright, bright eyes and willing them to turn to calm water with my words. “Listen, man, I just want to understand, all right? What’s going on at the Bowl today? There’s just a game today, right?”

            He shakes his head like a kid would, just throwing around the full weight of his skull around as a means of telling me no, no, no.

            “You’re wrong, Jameson,” he hisses in a low voice, “It’s not.”

            I shake my head back, I don’t understand.

            “Wh-what do you mean?” My words stumble out. “I heard them. They were sneaking off to see a game—”

            He sees it and the look on his face gives me pause. “It’s not just any game today, Jameson,” Sly growls. “It’s—”

            And I remember just before he says it because of course, of course that’s today. How could I forget? Garrick and I would have been running there from the gate if he’d been there today.

            “The Shove Off Game,” I breathe, “Holy—” I catch myself, my hand flies up to cover my mouth. There’s a rising in my chest and I can’t breathe, but the good kind of not breathing, like something’s taken my breath and replaced it with inexplicable giddiness and a bit of panic. Because of course, of course, you’d be excited if you’d bothered to remember that today was—

            “Glory, glory, glory,” I’m breathing out all my words without pauses inbetween. How could I be so stupid as to forget what Garrick’s been looking forward to for—oh, who knows how long? Months, probably by now! “I can’t believe I forgot! I-I-I must have—”

            I look up at Sly. For a moment I forgot he was there, to be perfectly honest, and he’s standing there with his knuckle between his teeth like a gangly idiot.

            “What are we doing?” I nearly shout at him. I hold my arms out like a manic boy, the kind we read about in literature who used to get lost in these things called “woods” and they’d forget their table manners and just scream when they didn’t get their way. “What are you standing there for?” I’m stepping past Sly now, my head propelling me forward. Running, Garrick always said I was a better runner. In mind and body. When my head’s racing there’s no stopping it. “We’ve got to get a move on, don’t we?”

            I’m many squares of pavement ahead now but I stop to look back at him. He’s still standing there with his mouth hanging slack in a look of mindless shock. My feet shift weight from side to side because they know we’re meant to be around the corner and bounding down the street right now, this very second.

            I raise my eyebrows at him.

            And one at a time, Sly’s features slowly contort into a dangerous look. It’s determined and slimy and ready for mischief and everything I dislike about this boy, but at this moment, he know he’s playing the part of my friend and I his. And right now all that matters is that we can keep in stride with one another.

            Our school shoes—leather patent with neat, braided laces of the same deep brown color—skid loudly on the concrete as we take off stumbling over pebbles and chasing the satisfaction of rebellion on the others’ heels.

 

 

The Shove Off is the biggest and best game of the year and there isn’t a soul in the whole region who’d miss it if they could help it and that’s because it’s not a normal game. The game isn’t exactly a race. Though the arena does look something of the track and field races we were required to read about in one of the ancient history classes last term. No, the arena has that same ovular shape to it except it’s concave with raised sides that make it more of a bowl—hence the name, “The Bowl”—and  rather than dirt or artificial turf, this track is a smooth, dark material that the competitors skate on.

            Oh right, there are two teams—both of five—and each player is on skates, which are like shoes but with smooth wheels on them that propel the players at frightening speeds.

            The aim is for one player—the “jammer,” they’re called—to push through the apposing team and get as many laps over them as they can without getting too bloodied. The rest of their mates make formations like warfare tanks to keep the enemy team’s jammer from breaking through them. To be quite honest, I don’t know too much else about how the game works besides that you’re meant to scream when you see a jammer breaking through, that can be quite exciting.

            Garrick always told me that if I didn’t know who to root for to just whoop and holler for whatever team I liked the colors of better. Or whatever team was winning, which was what he always did.

            Garrick always did a lot of yelling. At last year’s Shove Off game, he barked so much at the start of the game that he lost his voice before it was even through.

            I miss Garrick, like always, all the way to the garbage bin at the back of arena where Sly and I shed out overcoats and ties to seem more like men and less like boys—even though, the guards stationed at each door don’t bother to look very hard on Shove Off day. I miss him up and up to the first empty seats we manage to stake a claim on, way high up above the rink, which thank the almighty is empty. The game hasn’t started yet.

            My knees won’t quit bouncing and along with my hands folded in my lap, I’m sure I look more like a boy than I ever have. But it’s fine, every man turns into a boy themselves on the day of a Shove Off Game. My eyes scan around and it’s true. Despite the sharp suits of the men in the boxes stationed all along the lip of the arena circle or the grime that marks the faces of the men who hurried themselves here following their days in the factories, every pair of eyes is positively electric in anticipation.

            Except for Sly’s, it seems.

            I look at him out of the corner of my eye and I see him scanning the crowd, looking down the bridge of his nose wherever he turns his head.

            Melchior.

            I find him before Sly does. Melchior’s standing while the rest of the boys around him are sitting. He has his wide shoulders rolled back, I can tell even without his school jacket, and he’s laughing at something someone said. He’s always been a handsome boy, Melchior Rayport, there’s no denying. And too charming for his own good.

            “Hello and welcome,” an artificial announcer’s voice says, quieting the audience. Whenever they speak, I imagine the man typing into the interface the hammy dialogue and wince. It’s all in good fun though. The audience eats it up. It continues with, “Welcome to the twenty-fifth annual Shove Off Game. It is our pleasure to have you here, gentlemen!

            The audience applauds and even whoops a little in scattered, distant voices. And just that moment, there’s a metallic sound and the gates of the arena open up to the ten teams competing this year.

            See, the exciting part about the Shove Off Game is that it isn’t simply between just two league teams, but every team. Ten teams total, one for every region estate in the country. Region Prime—this one—our colors are red. Supposedly red is Mr. Edison and Mr. Evander’s favorite colors.

            “Please welcome our fabulous teams!” The voice continues in fake sounding giddiness, “This years’ competitors are sure to show us a good time, you can bet on that! Nothing but the best and most impressive for your enjoyment! Isn’t that right, girls?

            The games are the only place any of us boys really see girls—besides the little toddling girls who attend the primary school and the Governesses of the Academy, of course. See, girls never continue school past primary for some reason. Teachers say test scores. The Edison Evander Academy in particular has never accepted any less than the top scorers, according to Mr. Billings, who graduated himself from Edison Evander and likes to flaunt its merits whenever possible.

            The skaters roll onto the rink in their five player teams and the men roar in a collective voice that takes up every bit of space in the heavy air. Yellow, Orange, Blue, Purple, Black, White, Pink, Brown, Green, Red. That’s the order the teams roll in, in order of last to first in last year’s season. The men go wild now, pointing and shouting for their favorite players.

            I feel Sly tense next to me and I suppose that must mean he’s spotted Melchior Rayport.

            Though I’ve only given it much thought in passing, I suppose it must be a great honor for girls to be given the chance to skate for their region. Only girls skate. They’re lighter and less stumbling than men so I suppose that’s why. Otherwise, girls are never seen or heard of in the city. Garrick has a sister and he says she’s not allowed to set a foot outside until their parents can find  a husband to take her in.

            He never said why.

            “You,” Sly says under his breath.

            I’m not sure I ever asked.

Sly rises to his feet, his eyes on Melchior who’s sat down now, his head is turned to the boy next to him and they’re laughing. His arm is around the back of his chair.

You surely are in for a treat, gentlemen! High speed and higher risks are the aim for what looks to be a beautiful opening game! As returning champions for the third year in a row, Red lines up proudly at the start of the line up! Are you ready to goooo?”

The arena roars in response. Every man gets to his feet, their hands around their mouths in cones as they roar to the arena floor. I stand too, my eyes torn between Sly and the ring.

“Sly,” I say in a testing voice.

The skaters line up and the team I liked best last year, the ones in green uniforms, roll into their formation just behind the red team. I can see their line up hasn’t changed much. They lost a player last season in their last game against red and it cost them the win.

I remember. Their best jammer was in the clear when the red jammer tripped on the last turn. I really thought she was going to make it. Her face, blown up on the big screen too, she looked like she knew it too.

I’m grabbing Sly’s arm again and it’s hard with tension, shaking slightly from how tightly he’s clenching his fist.

            “Sly, it’s okay,” I don’t know what I’m saying, I don’t know what might not be okay, but I say it anyway. “Let’s just watch the game, okay?”

            But he’s staring right at Melchior Rayport.

            The announcer is listing each team one by one, the names of each player. I catch a few of them. They have odd names, even for girls, like Thrash. Peach. Baz. Wolf. All odd names.

            Melchior Rayport is paying the game no mind, his arm still around the other boys’ chair.

            Melchior Rayport turns his head to the boy who’s cheering wildly and looking at Melchior like he’s happy, so happy, so incredibly happy.

            I watch Sly gulp.

            “Let’s have a clean game, ladies,” the announcer earns a laugh for this.

            I see the girl’s face again at the last corner. The red jammer falls and for a moment, she thinks she’s won.

            And then the red jammer yanks at her ankle and she falls.

            She lands on her face and red bursts up from the smooth floor of the rink.

            The jammer shoves off, running right over the girl’s arm.

            I don’t see her.

            I just see Sly reeling his head back.

            I see Melchior Rayport pull the boy and kiss him. It’s a second and sweet and a nice moment, a nice moment I’m glad I get to see. Or I would normally.

            Because the veins on Sly’s neck shoot out on his smooth, oil-shined face and he yells. It’s not a cheer or even a yell of pain or anguish. It’s just a sound. A sound like broken glass and something both inherently human and other worldly. My hands are over my ears before I realize they are but they don’t do much good, I can still hear it. The cry. Like it’s coming from the inside of my skull.

            But I know it’s not in my head because the men around us quiet to it, like their own screams defer to the most powerful force and right now, it is Sly. I put my hand on Sly’s shoulder, leaning my head away from him because glory, can this boy scream.

            Melchior Rayport turns around, his small, sweet moment interrupted.

            He sees sly and his eyes go wide, shocked to see him probably.

            And guilty, oh does he look guilty.

            Sly is yelling, but now I realize he’s not just crying—because he is crying, I see now. There’s a thick glossy layer of tears over his eyes and when he blinks, they spill over, collecting again immediately. No, he’s blubbering words and I only barely catch them. They tumble out of him without spaces, one continuous curse, “Youlyingcheatingmoronyouliedtomeyoupromised! Youleftme! YouhorriblewretchedboyIgaveyoueverything! Howcouldyouhowcouldyou!”

            In the distance there’s a, “All right girls, take your places!

            “Sly, you’re causing a scene!” I try to yell over his crying. “Sly! Your monitor!”

            But to hell with the monitor, I suppose.

            Then Melchior stands, his eyes directly on Sly. I’ve never seen the boy’s kind eyes look so cold before.

            And then he grabs his jacket by the handful and stomps out. All he gives anyone is an apologetic shake of the head to the boy he kissed, who’s looking between Melchior and Sly helplessly, and when as he passed our seats, he raises his right hand to Sly, his middle finger raised defiantly.

            He doesn’t even look him in the eye.

            On the big screen, I can see the green team gliding into formation. There’s a girl with short hair that spikes out through the slats in her helmet and she lands a slap on her teammate’s strong thigh. The other girl grins and abliges.

            Then Sly makes a mistake. He doesn’t catch himself and he screams after Melchior Rayport, “Fuck off! Fuck you!”

            And he would have kept on screaming it his monitor didn’t go off.

            I’d only ever seen it happen once when Bennett Howells got into a mad toss up with Arran Walters in the yard over Walters snitching on Bennett for cheating on his history exam. Howells called Walters a “little bitch” and is monitor gave a loud series of sterile beeps that made both boys jump away from each other. There were five of them. Five beeps and then lightning shot from his wrist, craggly white-blue lines wove their way around his body for a flash that lasted a second.

            The spider web of lightning shoots out of Sly and I jump back, stumbling into the man beside me and scampering up onto the seats. There’s a collective gasp as Sly convulses in the shock. His eyes roll back in his head and he holds his arms out like a sacrifice, like a dead man.

            It’s so horrible I can’t look away.

And as quickly as it began, it stops—Sly, the screaming, the shocking, the slumping forward and onto the ground—and the absence of everything feels even more gaping.

The announcer is counting down the racers.

There’s a security guard stomping up the stairs to Sly and me, a heavy club under his arm.

Sly is kneeling on the ground. There are tendrils of smoke lifting up off of him and I swat them away, trying to get a hold of his arm to pick him up.

“Sly, come on,” I say under my breath. The man next to me is tsk-tsk-ing us and glory, I don’t care about the game anymore. This was stupid. Stupid, stupid choice. We need to leave now now now. I yank at his arm and he groans. His head hangs like a dead week.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the security guard says in a deep voice, just steps away from us.

Suddenly, I imagine the Governess. She’s standing over me with a ruler in the crook of her arm and over her large bosom. There’s a line in between her eyebrows and I know she’s cross with me.

“Mr. St. Copper, would you like to explain this to me?”

I can’t, Governess Pacholok, I really can’t.

And like always, there’s Garrick right there at the front of my head. Man, I miss him.

And I realize I’m running. I’m passing the security guard and jumping down the steps and running as fast as I can bear to take myself down the stands and toward the arena exit. “Hey!” There’s a shout behind me but I’m nearly gone now. My long legs skip over steps and I imagine a flash of the security guard’s stocky legs try and do the same thing.

Did he see my face? I hope he didn’t see my face.

My legs lift off the ground and I feel like I’m gliding.

“Go! Go! Go!” I hear somewhere and I think it’s Sly or maybe one of Melchior’s boys from my class until I realize it’s a voice I don’t believe I’d ever heard before. There’s something familiar in the voice, but—

And then I glance at the big screen of the arena and I see it’s trained on one particular skater. She’s dressed in green and she’s behind the rest of her pack so she must be the lead jammer.

            My feet stop suddenly as I realize she’s looking right at me.

            Her hands are around her mouth in a cone and she’s yelling, at me.

            “Go! Go!” She yells again at the same moment the security calls after me. Something startles in my chest, something like panic or electricity and my feet stumble into another run. I’m pumping my arms furiously as I run this time, pushing out each breath in time with each step.

            All the way to the doors I see the skater on the rink with her arm pumping in the air as I leave the arena. I see her mouth shouting at me as I gather up my overcoat and tie with shaking hands and a rising chest. Her voice is right behind me, knocking up against my ankles all the way to the dormitory hall.

            Governess Pacholok smiles and shakes her head as I pass her quarters to scan my monitor.

            “Boys,” she says to herself and returns to her knitting.

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Two: Skipper, Autumn XX57

 

Waking up in a bed—like a real bed, you know, with pillows and sheets and all the fixings—it’s still odd, even after so long. Crawling into it at the end of a long day and sinking into it has lost it’s shivering intimate embrace, but the sigh that leaves your mouth when you settle is always the same. And when my head hits the pillow, I still think about the hard floor against my forehead and feel like I’m floating. And the blankets, oh glory, the blankets aren’t anything I could get used to. The feeling of the smooth fabric on my skin as I hug the thing around my body, curling up because somehow blankets always feel both warm and cold no matter the time of year. Oh, blankets are what make it hard to sit up in the morning. And every morning, I blink my eyes open and a small part of me that remembers the damp stone floor pressing into my back and that part startles me into consciousness. And then I realize that this is what’s right now, not the floor, that’s long gone. Long long gone.

            But no, after so long, you eventually learn that even though something seems like it’s gone or it’s out of you sight doesn’t mean it’s not there. There’s always some bit of it hanging around. Sometimes my chest will vibrate wildly. My heart’s like a busted auto that sputters into overdrive at the trickiest times. The adrenaline will hit me and the adrenaline will turn to panic and the panic will turn into me crouching on the floor with my knees wrapped rightly against my chest. And even though it’s not all the time—not even most of the time—like everything, it comes in waves.

            I’ve actually been doing a lot better, really. It’s just that time of year again when it’s hard not to remember the games and—

            I remember talking to Peach about it the last time I saw her, nearly two years ago. Peach is older than me—not that much, mind you, just by two years—and the night before she turned eighteen, we went to her favorite spot for dinner. Ever since The Sisters overthrew the Edison Evander corporation four summers ago, the new regime’s called to require every kid denied schooling to go through accelerate programs to catch up on their reading and writing so that once they turn eighteen, they can enter into trade schools and join Celesta’s Progress movement.

            (“Young people are the future and the future’s coming in hot, Skipper,” Celesta said to me with a wink once. “We’ve got to get you lot out there.”)

            Peach—Irma’s her real name, Irma Ibsen, but to me, she’ll always be Peach—is as good as family to me. That’s kind of what happens when you’re put on a team together. From your very first game, you protect each other, look out for whoever’s on your right or left, and you never stop when you skate your weary bones off the rink. Everyone else, Captain, Baz, Navy, Wolf, yeah, they’re my family, but not the way that Peach is. She just took me in in a different way than the others. She looked out for me. At night when we wrapped our bleeding feet and patched our bruises from the day’s beatings, Peach would look at me with those eyes of her—two different colors, soft green on the right and brown on the left—and whisper everything that was true until I could sleep. When I was still a fledgling, plucked off the street and tossed into the rink, Peach took care of me.

And still does even now that no one lays a hand on us, now that we’re supposed to be safe. Like I said before, no matter how safe you are, you never know when the memories will catch up to you.

            Glory, I miss her. Her last night wasn’t as special as I think it should have been. If I’d have known it’d be over a year—and maybe even more, my goodness—until we’d see each other again, if I’d known how badly I’d be missing her for every day after, I would have made it special.

            But she wanted soup. So that’s what we did.

            “Isn’t it weird not training right now?” Peach asked that night, stirring her steaming bowl of creamy white soup in slow, dreamy circles.

            I shrugged one shoulder, looking down at the red soup I’d gotten. The long red beans sank beneath the cloudy depths whenever I brought my spoon up.

            “I’m just glad we don’t have to anymore,” I mumbled.

            “Well, obviously, yeah,” Peach said, a soft smile on her face like she thought me funny or something. Peach’s mouth always found that smile no matter what I said. “But that’s not what I said. I didn’t say I missed it, I said it’s weird. You know?”

            I shook my head. I didn’t know.

            “Well,” Peach started with her elbows on the table and I knew she’d get into it straight away. “It’s weird because I’m so used to it, you know? I can’t even remember the last time I spent the autumn season doing anything but falling on my face and being screamed at. It’s like my body expects there to be this excitement—and not the good kind, mind you, Kip, okay? I’m talking about the kind of excitement that drives you all kinds of mad. I feel like I’m meant to be preparing for something, but I’m not. I’m just not.”

            I cocked my head to the side, confused. “But you’re off to trade school in the morning, you haven’t been preparing for that?”

            Peach laughed. When she did, she threw her head back in the smallest way, her eyes closing and her mouth opening to show off the teeth The Sisters fixed with one of their many advancements. “Don’t sound so cross, Kip, come on now,” she said, putting her hand lightly on mine to tell me to loosen my grip on my spoon. I do and set the utensil down on the glass table. “I’ve prepared plenty. But you know what I mean, right? It’s not the same thing as preparing for the first game of a season. Not as physical, it’s all up here.” She tapped her right temple with her pointed finger.

            “I guess,” I said.

            “It was my whole life and now it’s not, Kip,” Peach said, “Ever since I was twelve, my head’s had nothing to do but rot while my legs did all the work. Now?” She laughed lightly. Peach always tried to make light of the games. She said it helped her move forward.

            Back then I didn’t like to think about skating, tried my best to place it out of my mind and pretend it never happened to me or anyone. That was stupid, it only made everything well up in me until I was fit to burst. Usually at someone. And whenever someone besides Peach or the others brought them up, I just—I don’t know, I just lost it.

            I remember nodding my head with my insides rising up, burning a hole in me.

            And Peach just tilted her head to the side and shook it. I didn’t really understand what that meant so I scrunched my eyebrows at her in response.

            “Calm down, Kip,” she laughed a bit again and I rolled my eyes.

            “I am calm,” I said in a stubborn voice.

            Peach rolled her eyes then. “Of course,” she said, but still shook her head to her soup as she lifted a spoonful to her face. I gave her a look and shoved a spoonful of my own soup into my mouth. The broth was spicy, specifically that kind of spice that spreads to every inch of your mouth when you scoop it up and I felt it leave a burning trail down my throat as I swallowed. It was wonderful, I remember.

“How’s school?” Peach asked with the side of her mouth.

I waved my hand a little as I scooped in another bit. “S’okay,” I managed to say, my own mouth full too.

“You’re fourteen now?”

“Fifteen.”

“Ah,” Peach said, “I knew that.”

“Uh-huh, sure.”

“All right now, give me a break,” Peach rolled her eyes, “You’ve always looked younger.”

“The kids at school get it wrong sometimes too,” I admitted, my face feeling hot and I felt it tug into an awkward smile. “They all look older than me.”

“Do the kids at your school still recognize you?”

There was a joking quality in her voice that warranted another look. Peach smiled when she saw it.

“Not as much,” I said with my face starting to burn. I later blamed it on the soup when Peach teased me about it as we left the mess hall. “Whenever we get new kids added to our class, they mostly just stare. The rest have gotten over it.”

“Are you getting top marks?”

Yes, mum,” I groaned.

“And you’re not causing trouble, right?” She asked seriously, skipping over the last remark.

It gives me pause. “I manage,” I said lamely.

Skipper.

“I’m trying, Peach, really!” I launched into a sputtering explanation before she could start scolding me. “It’s just those—” I groaned then, I couldn’t help myself, “You should hear the mouths on those boys! Those pompous Academy boys just can’t keep their wrotten—”

“Come on, Kip,” Peach sighed, “We’ve been over this—”

“I know, I know, but—”

No, you can’t keep thinking of those boys as little monsters, Kip,” Peach said, pointing her spoon like the school teachers hold rulers. “They’re adjusting just as much as you are, all right? Those boys spent their whole lives being brainwashed at those Academy schools, so even if half of what comes out of their mouths is just textbook nonsense from those times, you’ve gotta give them time—”

“Peach, it’s been two years!”

“And it’s gonna take a lot more to rewire those little heads of theirs, you better believe it, Kip,” Peach said with her eyebrows up in a serious look. Her multi-colored eyes flashed dangerously and I held my tongue then. “It takes time, especially when tyrants like Edison and Evander were so likeable. The Sisters are good people, we know that, but it’ll take time for some others, okay?”

Then she placed a hand over my own clenched one and my gripped immediately relaxed itself.

“Hey,” she said in a low voice, a sweet voice, “Come on, look at me.”

I didn’t at first. I kept my eyes on my soup because to look right at her felt like a surrender.

“Come on, Kip, look at me.”

I did and her small, soft smile spread a bit, tugging at her eyes. I remembered seeing those eyes in the damp darkness of the cellars we used to sleep in. Sometimes I would find my own eyes welling up and Peach’s face would just look like a fuzzy smear of chalk with one bright spot and one dark spot where her eyes were meant to be. Sometimes I would look up and see that hers were the ones spilling over.

And when she opened her mouth, out poured truth.

“Please, Kip, you need to be patient,” she nodded encouragingly.

And I nodded back, even though I didn’t like it, even though I didn’t understand.

“Not everyone is him, Kip,” Peach said in a low voice, “Not everyone is as good. It’s not fair to compare them, okay?”

I stopped nodding. “I don’t know, Peach, I don’t know,” was all I could think to say because like I said, I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand then why people could believe so strongly in evil. And even though I do now, two year later, I still don’t like it.

“I know,” she said solemnly, “But you will. Promise me you’ll try?”

And when I said, “I promise,” I meant it.

 

 

My friend Rigby gave his old bike last week so I’ve been riding it to school in the mornings instead of walking. I’m not very fond of school to be honest. I think it’s drab and sitting still for long spans of time is hard for me and some of the kids I attend it with—mostly the Academy boys—can be insufferable at the best of times. I like learning though, and it’s different—good different, like Peach said—from before, so I keep on with it. And it’s the only way to amount to anything anyway, so I can’t really quit even when I think I want to.

On the very first day of school, the teachers always show a pre-recorded speech from the Sisters. The Sisters are the rebel secret society who freed us from the Edison Evander regime in the late summer of XX53. They abolished the games and freed the girls who were kept as trophy prisoners—“race rats,” they called us—and basically re-did the whole system when the old one toppled over. I only ever got to know one of the Sisters, Celesta, Celesta Wynn, since we met before everything went down and the Sisters started to send all of the children to day schools. The speech is all about how it’s everyone’s job—men, women, children, people—to rebuild our society so we can help our fellow regions that are still under the control of the patriarchs influenced by the Misters Edison and Evander. It’s a good speech, but four years on and the message’s gone a bit stale.

In the beginning, everyone was on fire for the idea of change and reaping the benefits of the new world the Sisters promised we were creating.

But progress is a lot slower than what we signed up for, I suppose.

“Psst.”

And sometimes it feels even slower when I think about myself, sitting at a desk, scribbling notes about agriculture and soil optimization, when everyone else is off doing the real stuff.

“Noah. Psst.”

Peach is practicing medicine right now. Actually, no, she should be in the field by now, huh? It’s been a lot longer than I thought.

“Psst. Hey, Noah.”

Josie is off running supplies to cities on the periphery of the region that are under fire. Captain is in her last year at training camp, isn’t she? And then she’ll get her regiment assignment and be shipped off somewhere far far away. I wonder what Navy is up to. I haven’t heard from her in a while.

“Noah. Noah, are you listening?”

It’s not fair that I’m so much younger and stuck back here. I did just as much as everyone else in the rebellion, you’d think I’d at least get an accelerated track?

What do they call him now? Something with a “T,” right? The Tiger? The Titan?

Well, whatever.

If he were here, he’d agree with me, I’m sure of it.

“Noah!” A hand shoved me right between my shoulder blades and I even stand up a bit in alarm, pushing my desk chair against the tile floor with a loud scrape.

I must shout a bit because the voice goes, “Shhhhh!”

I groan and lower into my seat, not looking around to see who’s looking but everyone must be because the classroom is completely quiet.

“Don’t startle me like that, Rigby!” I hiss at the boy behind me, leaning over his desk.

“Sorry, I know, but I was calling you for ages and you weren’t responding!” Rigby says with his hands up in surrender but his eyebrows are raised in a way that says he still feels completely justified. “It’s been lunch for ten minutes now. I’m starving, Noah.”

My eyebrows come together, my mouth pouts. “You’re acting weird today,” I say, “You never call me ‘Noah,’ what gives?”

Rigby does a small sigh where he just breathes out his nose and his shoulders fall a bit. His hand goes up to his crazy curly hair. The big puff flattens under his hand but pops right back up when it drops. He has lovely hair, very shiny. But I’m not looking at Rigby’s hair right now, I’m looking at his face and his face is weird today. Even if he’s trying to hide it, he’s got something on his mind.

“Come on now, Rig,” I say and I even raise my chin a bit to look at him down the bridge of my nose, “Out with it.”

“I’ve just been thinkin’, that’s all,” he says with a shrug of one shoulder.

I lean over and pinch him on the arm.

“Ow! What’s that for?”

“You’re being weird!”

“I’m not!”

“You are, Rigby Bloom! Spit it out, come on, you’ve been thinking what?”

“All right, all right, just don’t pinch me again, you crazy,” Rigby says as he rubs his arm. “I’ve just been thinking about what you told me yesterday. About what you said in therapy.”

I don’t like talking about therapy. The Sisters suggested for all students who come from “circumstances of trauma” have the option of receiving individual counseling, but requires us to attend group therapy with Sister Orinthia, who specializes in sciences of the mind.

And yeah, it’s been helpful and with a few exceptions, it’s mainly just pals from the rink or from Josie’s gang of boys, which includes Rigby, but still, I don’t like to talk about it. And I admit I get a bit cross when Rigby brings it up.

I hold a finger to my mouth and shush him, glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone’s heard.

“Glory, Rigby, not here! What are you thinking?”

“I’m sorry—” I must give him a look because he finishes, “Kip. Don’t be cross, okay?”

“I’m not mad,” I say.

“Okay, don’t lie either,” he rolls his eyes and almost laughs, “Of course you’re mad.”

“What does group  have to do with anything, anyway?”

“Well,” Rigby says and then sighs again. He does this when he doesn’t know exactly how to put something when he think I’ll get mad. I won’t get mad, honest. “Remember when you said you always have a hard time this season? You said autumn was hard for you because—”

“I know what I said, Rigby.”

“Well, you’ll remember what you said next then.” He didn’t miss a beat, leaping right from where my words left off, “You said that—” His voice was already low but he drops it even lower, “That sometimes you still feel like you’re in the games. That it’s still your identity?”

I nod.

“You said you felt the same way.”

“I did. I do.”

“And so that’s why? And you’re…what? Do you not like that or something? Do you want to quit being my friend all of a sudden because I said I’m having a hard time of it?” I said all of it like a challenge, like a joke, but there was a seriousness that caught at my voice that surprised me.

“Oh of course not,” Rigby scoffed gave my arm a good shove, rocking me in my chair a bit. “But it got me thinking, right? Everyone still called you by your racer name, the one that everyone knew from before.”

“Yeah, the others go by theirs,” I shrug a shoulder.

“Right, but I got to thinking,” he says as he rests his chin on his hand, thinking, “Don’t you think that’s weird. I mean, you all have your own names, not just the ones the game masters gave you and even for the racers who were too far gone, their names were found in files locked up in city hall. It might be far off, but do you reckon that name’s acting like a—like a loose tie? A last reminder?”

“Huh,” is all I say. I lean back in my seat, my back hitting against my desk. I’d never thought of it like that before. I mean, I’d thought about my name. Tons. I wasn’t taken by the game masters until I was eleven so I always knew my name. Noah Pigeon. That was me. That is me, but I’d gotten so used to being called Skipper the name started to feel too foreign to me.

And Noah didn’t fight in the rebellion, earn her right to sit in this seat and be before by Sister Cornelia all afternoon. Noah didn’t do any of that. Skipper did all that.

“Huh,” I say again, “I really don’t know what to think, Rigby. You’ve got me at a loss for words.”

“That’s a first,” he says and finally pulls out his sack lunch from inside his desk. When he closes his desk and sees my face he smiles with one side of his mouth, “Sorry. S’true though.”

“No, thanks,” I say with a sigh, leaning my elbows on his desk. “Really. Thank you. Means a lot you’d think like that.”

“One of us has to,” he says, opening his sandwich and handing me half. The boy who lives next door to him in his dormitory hall—Matthew, I think his name is—is a great cook and always exchanges Rigby sack lunches for help in arithmetic. “I’m surprised you even said as much as you did last night. The look on Sister Orinthia’s face!” Rigby tosses his head back with his eyes wide, wide open and his mouth slack. He holds it like this for a good few seconds before it earns a laugh from both of us. “Priceless!”

“Yeah, well,” I laugh a bit, shaking my head. “I’m full of surprises, you know.”

“Oh, I know.”

I take a bite of the sandwich. It’s a tad sweeter than I anticipate, something in the sauce possibly, but it’s not unpleasant. Actually with the saltiness of the greens he’s put in it, it’s actually quite refreshing. I’ll have to send Matthew my regards. The boy is one hell of a cook.

“Oh,” Rigby says with his mouth full. “Did you hear about—” He raises his eyebrows

My nearly choke when my mind fills the gap and my eyes bulge and my head shakes wildly. It send my hair flying around my face and a few bits stick to my mouth as I spit out word, “No! What? Tell me! Tell me!”

Rigby smirks. It’s not fair. He’s so close with Trout who’s out in the field right now and Trout’s a known gossip. He basically called Rigby every other day so Rigby knows all the good stuff.

Rigby looks dramatically from right to left, as if anyone would be listening in on us. The Academy boys in the corner give us a quick glance but go back to their own discussion of waving hands and slapping shoulders. Rigby leans in with a hand covering the side of his mouth, “I heard there was another assassination attempt.”

I gasp. “No!

Yes!” Rigby allows himself to let out the shock, his mouth going wide open.

How?” I must know.

“Well,” Rigby says with his hands out, fingers spread apart, “Trout says our boy heard tell of it after scoping out a low-life at a bar out West—”

“He’s in the West now? I thought he was South?”

He shakes his head, “Not anymore. He got a lead on one of the last remaining Misters and chased it, but it was a trap.”

I roll my eyes, “Of course it was, stupid—”

“Bup, bup!” Rigby shakes his finger, “But he got word of it, got the hit info out of a snake of a man and get this, walked right into their trap. Totally fell for it, got him tied up and everything those thugs, even lets ‘em get in a few licks here and there, but what’s our boy doing? Getting the info he wants right under their noses! Trout says it was incredible, our boy’d ask all these questions all sneaky like here and there and then what does he do when he’s got all he needs?” Rigby pauses dramatically, his hands out again before he slams them on the table, “Bam! He worms out of the knots and ducks out, swinging at a couple of the scrappier guys on the way out! Our boy’s out before they can even blink.”

I laugh, “Incredible!”

“I know!” Rigby says. He rakes a hand through his hair, pulling his curls taught before springing them back up. “Glory, Trout told it even better. He had me on the edge of my seat over the phone. He said it even got bloody! Just listening I didn’t know if he was going to make it for a minute or two.”

I shake my head and give my own dramatic shrug.

“I’m honestly not surprised,” I say and I can’t keep the cheeky grin from tugging it’s way onto my face, “There’s no one alive that can outfox Jaime St. Copper.”

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Three: Jaime, Autumn XX52

Sly isn’t in the class the next day or the day after or the day after and then for so many days after, I have to stop looking for him because all I feel is guilty when I see his desk in the back corner of the classroom, empty. I’m sure I’m the only left looking anyway. His initial absence caused a lot of talk the first week. During recess one day, a few boys drew an outline of his head and arms sprawled across the desk, like the outline of a dead man left on the sidewalk. Mr. Picard made them clean it up when he walked in for arithmetic that morning and he was right mad. He slammed his books onto his desk with a sharp bang and told all of us to quit acting like the lot of boys we were and focus ourselves. So a boy can’t handle the heat and dropped off on us? What does that have to do with the rest of us, huh? Are we going to let someone else’s shortcomings dictate our own potential to succeed? No? Then let’s get to work, open your books to page one hundred and seventy-three.

            It was a right good speech, to be fair to Mr. Picard. He isn’t one to get worked up over—well, anything, really, but I think he’d really liked having Sly in his class. I remember hanging back after class at the end of last term and seeing Sly saunter up to Mr. Picard with an extended hand. I remember Mr. Picard looking down at Sly’s hand for a moment before breaking into a wide mustached smile and shaking his hand firmly, the way men do when they’ve come to a peace. Mr. Picard picked on Sly in classes, but not in the jeering way a lot of the other teacher’s did. Mr. Picard challenged Sly. He was smart boy, we all gave him that, but he was absolutely horrible. I’m sorry, but I really can’t say it any other way without it feeling like a lie. He always grazed the passing line by the skin of his teeth but still sneered like he thought he was better than the rest of us who actually completed our—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know.

That same day, like normal, I went to telling Garrick about seeing Sly and Mr. Picard and when I told him I thought it funny how out of place it was for Mr. Picard to like Sly of all his students. At this, Garrick scrunched up his nose and leaned back, shaking his head. When I asked him what was wrong, he said maybe he thought Mr. Picard was really rooting for Sly not because he just believed in him a whole lot but because he thought the trust would get him somewhere with the other teachers. Mr. Picard wasn’t a very prominent teacher with the Academy and maybe he wanted to impress Headmaster Columbi and Sly was his best ticket.

            I know I always find myself thinking about things that Garrick said like that, but ever since Mr. Picard’s outburst, my mind seems to always go to that one in particular.

            It still amazes me how his brain could think up things like that or that we see completely different things even when we’re looking at the same thing. Garrick’s idea—that Sly’s success as a student, and ultimately a man, served to a point as a personal satisfaction for Mr. Picard—rattles in my mind now. And to think of what Mr. Picard could have gained from Sly’s success? Was it to say he’d pulled Sly Bowater, one of the Academy’s worst and most troubled students, out of the murky depths and grew him into a respectable man society could gawk at? To know and let it be known that it was all his doing? To hold this success over the other teachers and get on the Headmaster’s good side? Or maybe he wanted a good story to puff his chest about as he burned through cigars at the Salon.

And so his dismissal of Sly that day, was it not genuine hurt but grief at the loss of a necessity? Because by failing, Sly proved him wrong? I think about his closed-lipped smile to the boy at the end of last term, a smile that said, “Job well done.” Could a man deceive so fully he begins to believe his own lie? Because when I recall that smile, all I can think is that he cared for that boy. There is nothing that tells me otherwise, but—

Glory, my head.

            I think myself into a mad headache whenever it comes to Sly. Him and his greasy hair and his yellow teeth and the way he’d stand like one of the gargoyles on the old cathedral building across from the dormitory hall. He was much like a gargoyle himself, tall and lean with shoulders that curled up when he felt he needed to stretch himself against a threat. Even when there wasn’t one, he was so touchy. Garrick disliked him and I wasn’t fond him—no, I might have even hated him. And his ridiculous revenge quest against Melchior Rayport for running off with another boy to the Bayreuth Bowl, going into a banshee shriek at the slightest peck. The way he absolutely lost it was mental, absolutely uncalled for and nearly got both of us gutted. No, sir, Sly Bowater’s no good.

So why is it that I feel a heavy pang hits my chest, like a fist shoving it’s way between my ribs and twisting and folding my insides one over the other when I think of him? I feel like my arms are covered in oil and when I lift them to swipe the grime I feel dripping from my face, all I feel is unclean. When I think about my own excitement, my hand grabbing at Sly’s arm and tugging him along to the Bayreuth Bowl that day, all I feel is a shout rising in my throat to stop, run back. And if I could only hear myself, I think I would.

Again, I don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.

I just sit and wonder if there’s anyone else who feels the same as me. At the moment I think this, I can’t help but turn my head just slightly to see Melchior Rayport at the desk behind and to the left of mine. I wonder what he must be thinking, feeling right about now.

Melchior doesn’t see my looking at him. He hasn’t looked up from a spot on his desk more than a handful of times and it’s normally when one of his mates gives him a firm back-hand on the arm. Without fail, it startles him.

He hasn’t gelled his hair back in a few days either. For the first time I’ve known him, this is the first time I think I’ve ever seen him disheveled. And it has been a long time, we’ve gone to the same schools since we were toddling on chubby child feet to music classes. feet to music classes.`

Since the day following the Shove Off Game at the Bowl, I anticipated him to approach me, maybe shove me up against the wall and whisper whatever horrible thing he’ll do if I ever opened my mouth again. All talk, I expected. Melchior’s always been a good lad, but we all know how it gets in these kinds of snags. No snitching. Not ever. And if you have a secret you don’t want another boy to breathe a word of, well, you can go mad trying to cover it up.

But nothing has really happened.

When he tromps past me in the halls, the knuckles of his hand grazing the hand of the boy next to him, we do the same dance. It’s a polite one and maybe even pleasant most days. And careful, almost like he’s afraid the slightest ounce of assertion will send my jaws jabbing. Although, I don’t understand why it would seeing how I would get in as much, if not more trouble if I were to confess to being accomplice to Sly’s appearance at the Bowl that day. Still, when he gives a polite nod of his chin and a hand in the air, I flash him a smile and a quick wave in return. Back and forth we go, two polite boys skirting around each other, all the while with secrets weighing heavily in our pockets.

At the end of the school day, almost three weeks after the day of the Shove Off game, a hand claps my shoulder and when I turn to look, it’s Melchior Rayport. Our eyes meet at the same level, which I don’t expect. I always thought he was taller.

“Afternoon, Jaime,” he says.

“Melchior, always a pleasure,” I say back with a smile I mostly force up with my cheeks and eyes. When I turn my shoulder to keep walking, Melchior falls into step next to me. I’m a bit pleased when I see that my natural stride is longer than his. His steps quicken to match mine, our steps creating an off-kilter rhythm that takes us right out of the gate.

Beep-beep the sensor says as we pass under it.

“How’ve you been, St. Copper?” Melchior says, his words come out in little buffs of smoke from the cold, autumn air. “Life treating you all right?”

I don’t say much, just circling my words around and around and around Melchior, who humors the mindless chatter. He’s good at it. He has a nice smile and a good heart, Melchior Rayport. He’s even a terrible liar, which makes me feel guilty for being so suspicious.

He’s shaking his head to something I said about our history class with Mr. Crow as we walk up the steps to the dormitory hall. There are two boys straggling about outside the door and we shoulder our way past them on our way in the door.

“Oh, I wouldn’t bother with that,” he says with a laugh, unraveling his scarf from around his neck. “You always get top marks anyway. A silly little quiz wouldn’t do much to topple that, I don’t think.”

He’s all flushed with patches of bright pink flaring up on the high points of his face. I feel a prickling sensation on my own face and know I must look something of the same.

I shrug. “Oh, but what else is there to do but revisions, eh?”

Melchior’s smile falters for just a second, not even, maybe half of a second. The smallest twitch makes his nose move and I try my best to appear as if I didn’t notice. I didn’t meant to bring up such a sore subject, but here we are.

“Well,” Melchior says after a pause, possibly trying to cover up his small stutter he extends a hand, “I’ll leave you to it then, all right?”

“All right,” I say and take his hand in mind. We shake once and after Melchior draws his hand away very quickly. He turns over his shoulder then, turning on the balls of his feet in a quick half-circle and walks away. His short stride quickens around the corner and he’s gone.

I must have struck a nerve, I thought.

And it wasn’t until I drew my hand up to open my door when I found a slip of paper in the palm of my right hand.

Moments later, after I’d stepped into my room and locked the door, I read it. It said:

Meet me outside Mr. Marvin’s pie shop. Hour past sunset. Alone.

And then at the very bottom in a scribble that took a good five minutes to decipher, it read in smudged ink:

I’m so sorry.

 

 

Mr. Andronica teaches ethics and philosophy classes at the Academy and I recall him describing this feeling that both I and Melchior are experiencing currently as a “boy’s true weakness,” or their “fatal flaw,” either of the two. It’s the feeling of regret toward our own actions. We’re meant to shed it, rid ourselves of it completely, before we can really join the order of men, because in order for a man to succeed, he must do as he does with full confidence and assurance. If every man abides by this one principle, then all men can live confidently knowing that whatever they possess is truly and rightfully theirs. Because if they did not deserve something, someone would surely take it, and without remorse. The weakness of shame is what sets them apart from boys and women. Even before women are women and they’re just little girls, they hold an inherent shame that can never be shed. Boys get it from women, who give birth to them and care for them until they’re of age to start school. And that’s what school is for, to turn men into boys.

            And again, even when it’s Mr. Andronica’s job to teach us this, it feels like every man is giving this one constant lesson.

It took a bit of looking, but eventually I noticed a stirring in the other boys. It looked like nothing at first, manifesting itself in harmless refusals to pick up dropped pencils in the middle of lecture, but the thing grew and all at once, the boys around me took on a new shape. Especially in ones like Sly Bowater, who’d only ever been at the very least polite if not tolerable, a shift in their brains changed  them in—I don’t even know how to describe it, really. They looked the same, growing boys with gangly limbs the rest of their bodies needed to catch up to, rough, sneering boys who stomped in their leather school shoes with clenched fists swinging. Yeah, they look like boys on the outside but it was as if a murky dark pit emerged in them, just below the skin’s surface so you couldn’t tell it was there until they opened their mouth and let you have a piece of it. It was as if all feeling had been rescinded and everything poured into the world just winded up getting sucked into their deep depths, never to be given back.

“It’s the nature of taking,” Mr. Andronica had said. “It is how we survive.”

Now, I look at the slip of paper in my hand, see the I’m so sorry and can’t help but think about what it’d be like to rid myself of it. If I could guarantee to never feel another sorry in my life, would I take it?

I think about it all the way to sunset and then an hour after, as I’m walking to Mr. Marvin’s pie shop, which is only just down the block. Before I left, I went to Governess Pacholock to see if she’d excuse me so my monitor didn’t shock me as I tried to leave the building after hours. Said I needed some fresh air and a crisp ale.

The Governess is the oldest woman I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Since I started school at the Edison Evander Academy, I’ve only ever lived in her care. Before her, I’d lived in the care of the few nuns and scullery maids who teach smaller children at the primary school converted from an old cathedral building, but I was far too young to remember their faces, much less their names. So Governess Pacholock has always been the closest thing to a mother. She always tells us how she thinks of all of the boys in her building as her sons. Especially towards boys like me who were given away as children, she treats us as if we were her own flesh and blood.

But I’d be a fool to think her love replaced her sense of duty, which is why I try to stay on her good side as much as possible.

“I can even pick you up an ale if you’d like,” I end my plea with my hands pressed together, like an old prayer position, “It’d only take a minute.”

The Governess just laughed in her special way with a slight bounce to her shoulders that dropped a lock of graying hair from her braided crown hairdo. She tucked the strand behind her ear and brought her hand to her chest.

“You’re too kind, Master Jaime,” she shook her head. “You go on, I’ll have the command in before you’re out the door.”

“Thank you, Governess.”

“Mhmm,” I heard as I left, “But be back promptly, all right, young man? No doddling, no matter how many ladies try to stop you for a kiss.”

I laugh at this, waving good-bye as I rounded the corner. On my way out, I extend the monitor band on my right hand and scan it on the door. The light on the sensor beeps and goes green.

In five minutes, I’m shuffling my feet outside of Mr. Marvin’s pie shop. All the lights are off in the shop, which makes sense seeing as it’s after closing, but I can see a glow in the window of his complex just above the shop. I try to stay just out of the yellow circle of the streetlight in case he happens to look out his window. Not that I think he would, his window faces directly across the street. Not much to look at unless Mr. Chasalow, the hardware shop owner directly across the street, happened to have the same idea.

I’m standing in the shadows, hugging my long overcoat closed over my chest and wondering if Mr. Chasalow and Mr. Marvin ever try and send secret messages across the way to one another through their windows, when a scuffle of a boot on pavement makes me whip around suddenly.

I sighed when I see the figure, clutching my hand to my chest in relief. “You frightened me,” I said, “You best watch it, coming out of the shadows like that.”

Melchior Rayport ducked his head shyly and gave a forced laugh, “Heh, sorry about that.”

“S’all right,” I say and cross my arms again.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked you here, huh?” Melchior’s hand goes up to his tufty hair, raking through it hurriedly as he talks. I’ve never seen a boy so nervous, it’s quite unexpected, especially from him.

“Little bit,” I say, holding up my pointer and thumb finger in front of my eye.

Melchior giggles a little, for real this time, shaking his head as he does.

“I’m glad one of us isn’t a wreck right now,” he says, smiling.

You’ve never snuck out before?” I ask skeptically. I think I try to raise a eyebrow, even though I have no idea how to so I’m sure my expression isn’t as good as I hope.

Oof,” Melchior exhales with a wave of his hand, “Tons of time, are you joking? But never after dark, it gives me the creeps, to be honest.” He’s much more relaxed now and his normal demeanor’s starting to resurface. His shoulders rolls back a bit and he looks taller than he has in weeks. “What about you, Jameson?”

And the way he says it reminds me why in all the time we’ve been in school together, I’ve never particularly wanted to be friends with Melchior Rayport. The boy gets carried away.

“Garrick used to like going out for walks at night,” I say. “There’s a place that serves ale after dark and we’d go there. Garrick’s father was a friend of his so he’d let us in for however long we liked.”

“Oh, Garrick, I’d nearly forgotten about him,” Melchior Rayport nods and I tryto keep from showing how that stings the center of my chest. “How is he?”

I shrug tensely and say through clenched teeth, “Dunno.”

“You mean you don’t see him?”

“No.”

“Huh,” Melchior crosses his arms, “You two always seemed close.”

“We were,” I force out, too loud for how quiet the street it. I draw myself back, though the buzz in my chest that hurts to acknowledge flutters around and it’s hard to quiet when it starts going. “Will you just get on with it? Why did you bring me here, Melchior? Is it about Sly, because—”

“I’m sorry,” he says and his hands are up. They stand out bright and pale in the half light, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up. Yes, I—I just want to talk, okay?”

“Then talk.”

The boy swallows loudly, maybe it’s his nerve or maybe his pride. Nevertheless, when he speaks he has to force his words out. “I—I just don’t know who else to talk to about—about what happened,” he says, “I mean, I feel awful, Jaime, absolutely awful. And I—I can’t stop thinking that—that if I hadn’t—if I’d done different then—”

“Is this all about Sly dropping out?” I cut in, raising a hand. “Look, I understand it’s hard when your friend leaves but—”

“Glory, we weren’t friends, Jaime,” Melchior waves his hands, palms up with his fingers curling into claws. “We were—we—well, I don’t know what we were, but we weren’t friends. And what happened to him, I—I knew he’d be upset but he just made me so furious with him and I wanted—well, I don’t know what I wanted.”

I think about Sly’s voice screaming in my head. Though I couldn’t decipher most of his wailing in the midst of everything happening, I remember him saying something about a—

Promise,” my mouth says when I think of it. “He said you promised something. That you broke it. He kept going on about it.”

Melchior bites his lip guiltily and then squeezes his eyes shut. His palm his head again and again and so hard, I have to step up and catch his arm.

“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, “I just—Glory, Jaime, it’s killing me.”

“Well, you brought me here to talk, so spit it out. Come on then.”

I sit Melchior down on the sidewalk. The pavement’s slightly wet and I can feel it sit into my trousers but that hardly matters now, so I sit across from Melchior Rayport with our long legs crossed like we’re back in primary school.

“What did you mean about Sly? When you said you’re not friends?” I ask first, “It seemed from him at least like you were close mates.”

And I swear Melchior blushes a bit at that.

“We were close,” he says, “But we weren’t friends, we—it’s complicated. We were friends at first and then suddenly we weren’t one day, it felt like a lot more than just being mates, you know? I always thought it was the same for you and—well, it doesn’t matter. I cared about him and he me. We just didn’t say we were friends ever. ”

And there’s Garrick in my mind again, always rushing back in the second I place him out of it. I suddenly see him running down the street, hissing a hush to me because I get giggly when I’ve had ale. The curls around his head bounce every which way as he turns back to look at me, a smile on his face that lights up the darkness. He reaches out a hand and I clap mine into it and we run—

I shake myself suddenly from the memory. “Sorry,” I say quickly, but Melchior doesn’t seem to hear me. I don’t think he even noticed I blanked out for a moment.

He has his hands folded in front of his face, he rests his mouth against it and looks at a spot on the sidewalk just to my left.

“We got into a fight the night before,” Melchior says, “He said it was over something stupid when he tried to make up the next day, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t stupid. He kept going on about how pointless everything was—and it’s not like he never talked like that, he always did—but then he said something like how ‘disgusting it was when people pretended when things were okay when they really weren’t’ and then he started yammering off on Kyle and some of the guys, saying how fake they were, you know? And I—I just got mad because everything he said, well, they’re things me and the other boys do so—so it felt like he was badmouthing me right to my face.” Melchior sighs then, his shoulder coming up and down like something heavy was resting on them. “And he tried to talk me down and say he didn’t mean it, but I only got more furious with him because he never takes anything back when he says it. He always says what he means. And that’s why I liked him, but this time, I just—”

This time when Melchior catches his breath, it draws into him in a choked stutter. That’s when I realize he’s crying, the glimmer of the streams on his face suddenly stuck out and I immediately lift myself onto my knees. My hand finds his shoulder and at my touch, the boy looks up. His bright eyes look glossy from tears and there’s a deep feeling stuck somewhere in his irises that’s too muddy for me to really see. Still, this is the most open Melchior Rayport’s eyes have looked in years. I try to give him a half-smile, but I think I just look lame.

“Garrick and I used to fight,” I say, “All the time, you know.”

“Oh yeah,” he says and takes the moment to swipe at his tears.

“Yeah,” I say, dropping my hand, “All the time. Not ever yelling, not really, but yeah, arguing. Garrick used to tell me that the times I’d pull the silent treatment on him, he’d go mad. Honestly, it drove me mad too, but in a different way. He wouldn’t quit trying to get me to talk to him and with both of us more stubborn than the other, it would take a lot for one of us to give.”

“How did you make up then?” The boy’s voice sounds all stuffy and scratchy from crying.

I shrug a shoulder, “We hated being apart more than we wanted to be right.”

My mind flashes to the last time Garrick and I were in a fight. We’d just found out he’d gotten himself expelled. I couldn’t even fully feel how angry I was, it just bubbled up and took over my whole being until all I felt was the buzzing that sent shakes up my arms. I was so angry with him that I could think straight. He stepped up to me after hours in the hole and his head hung low and when he stopped, he had the nerve to smile.

And before I knew it, my arm was swinging at him and my arm landed lamely on the spot where his neck met his shoulder. I couldn’t hurt him, but I was so mad I swung again and landed another small bump.

“We hated it so much, we’d have rather been wrong than hurt the other,” I say to Melchior.

“I wish Sly and me were like that,” he said, shaking his head.

I remember Garrick putting his hand on my shoulder and before he could say a word, my knees gave way and I fell into him. A wave hit me and as I felt the first bit of wetness hit my cheeks, my knees rocked and we fell to the floor.

Garrick swung his other arm around my shoulder and pushed my head into his shoulder and I just—well, I just sobbed. And so did he, I think.

“It wasn’t as good as it sounds, or as easy,” I say, scooting myself closer to Melchior. I put my hand on his shoulder and pat it a few times, hoping it’s comforting. “It hurt like nothing else, giving in like that.” And I don’t know whether I’m talking about being wrong or about Garrick leaving when I say, “But it’s necessary to let go sometimes, even when you hate it.”

“Sly couldn’t let go,” Melchior says, “I couldn’t either, I don’t think. That’s why I—that’s why I took Arran Walters to the game—” I remember the boy just next to Melchior at the game. Of course, it had been Arran. He used to sit just to the right of me in government class and he could never take his eyes of Melchior, who sat at the front of the class. Melchior kept going, “That was the promise, by the way. I told Sly weeks before the game, before our fight, that I’d take him. No hiding, right in front of my mates and I told him we wouldn’t keep it secret anymore. I promised and—”

“You had no way of knowing how he’d have reacted,” I say.

“No,” Melchior cuts me off, bobbing his head up and down, “No, I would have. I would if I’d thought a second of it before just—Glory, what an idiot thing to do! Scummy, disgusting, horrible—” His fists come up to his temples and little trails escape out the corners of his eyes and I catch his hands again.

“Hey!” My voice comes out like a shout, but I can’t help it if I want to be heard over Melchior’s guilty groaning. His eyes are shut tight in little wrinkle explosions that have become his eyes and I even bring my hand in and lightly slap his face to snap him out of it. “Hey! Hey! Stop that! You stop that right now, Melchior Rayport! Hey, are you listening to me? Stop it!”

Melchior groans in agony, the agony of knowing of feeling and not letting it drop into the dark pit inside him. The guilt of taking and taking and then stopping to see what comes out of it and realizing it’s only created nothing good. “Auuugh!” He says incoherently, “It’s just—It’s my fault, Jaime! It’s all my fault!”

“All right, go ahead and believe it’s your fault,” I take him by the shoulder and shake him, “Hey, look at me! Look at me, okay?” And he does with his red, puffy eyes and his dripping nose twitches the slightest bit.

            I hear Garrick’s voice instead of my own when I say the next thing, exactly what he said to me the day he left. After I’d blubbered to him how sorry I was for letting him down, that it was my fault he got caught. Garrick just looked at me with those steady eyes of his just as I’m trying to look at Melchior.

            And I say, “Go ahead and believe it’s your fault if you want, but it doesn’t change what’s happened, all right? So pick yourself up and walk a bit knowing you’ll be better for it the next time. You feel like you’ve made a mess of it? Try not to make one next time.”

            Melchior blinks at me and his eyes and nose run in the silence.

            When Garrick finished speaking that time, he pulled me into his shoulder again, brushed his fingers through my hair in that way he always did when we’d had a few ales and it was dark. Only then, it was afternoon and we were both hilariously sober for how incoherent we were.

            And he pressed his lips on my neck and we sighed together. Our chests rose and fell in time for a good long while.

            “I’m sorry, Jaime,” he said in a murky voice that made my breath catch.

            I couldn’t even say how sorry I was then, I just sobbed all over again.

            I haven’t cried a drop since then, but suddenly, looking at Melchior Rayport dribbling all over the sidewalk, I don’t know, maybe it’s just thinking of Garrick or maybe it’s what Mr. Andronica calls the “contagion of ill-minded.” Seeing the tears of another man or boy will draw out your own weaknesses, so he advises us to turn away from such things.

            But I can’t seem to now.

            “I never got to say sorry,” Melchior says, more to himself than me, “I never got to.”

            “D’you know where he is now?”

            He shakes his head. “No, his stuff was moved out for him by a few proctors and they wouldn’t say where they were going.”

            “Maybe that can be your next thing,” I sigh a bit and look out to the street. Everything past the nearest street light gets swallowed up by the darkness so all I can see are little circles of light outlining where the street and the sidewalk meet. “You can find him.”

            “Did you—”

“I did.”

And from the way I say it, I know he holds back his next question.

“Try it, Melchior, at the very least send a letter if you can find where to send it to,” I say, patting him on the shoulder once more before withdrawing my hand. “I don’t know everything, but I know you two hurt each other. And if that means something to you, you owe it to him—and yourself—give him your apology.”

I see this sit with the boy for a moment. After it’s passed, Melchior nods once.

“I feel so guilty, Jaime,” he says shaking his head to the sidewalk. He put his hands on his knees and they bob up and down, “I just hate how it makes me feel so—so—”

“Weak,” I finish.

“I’m sure you think so of me now,” he says tightly and he avoids my eyes. “The other boys would if I ever told them.”

“You’re wrong,” I say simply. He looks at me now, surprised. “I don’t think so. To think that would be to think of myself as weak, and—I don’t know—I just don’t think that’s what it is. I don’t think feeling is weakness, not really.” And when I say it, I know it’s true. Despite everything hammered into my skull or the essays upon essays written by the men of the highest caliber who swear on the stone of Founders Hall that the words they write are absolute truth. Despite that, I still feel different. “That’s what Garrick taught me when he was here. He never kept himself from feeling even if he thought it would make him seem weak. He just never thought like that. And—well, I don’t know, he made me change my mind one day and just know I’m better person for it.”

“Huh,” is all Melchior says for a moment so long I can start to hear the steady hum of the city until he speaks again. “Maybe you’ll make me one too, Jaime.”

And he smiles in that way that looks funny paired with his puffy, crying eyes, but nevertheless, I still feel a pull on my own face and I grin back.

I shrug a shoulder, “Who knows.”

Then we’re just sitting there looking at each other’s faces for a moment. It’s nice, I have to admit. It’s nice to talk to someone like this.

And then Melchior Rayport leans forward with his swollen, snot dripping face and presses his lips against mine.

It’s feels as if I’ve been shot, something rams it’s way in my chest like the streak of lightning Mr. Billings creates in his large, glass bell jar in science class. It’s like acid’s been poured down my throat and I jump up, sputtering it out even though I know it’s already flowing in my system, destined to be a part of the me until it decays me from the inside out. I’m on my feet and look down at Melchior Rayport, who has wide eyes and his slack jaw hanging down because even he’s surprised, and I identify the feeling welling up in me. It screams out of me, loud and clear. Parts disgusted and other parts disappointment but unmistakably, it’s there.

I swallow the lump in my throat and it tastes like red hot betrayal.

“Jaime—” He starts but I’m already turning away and running as far from him as possible.

            The image of him on his knees, puffy pink eyes and dribbling chin with the look of guilt so clearly on his poor, handsome face and his hand extending out to me as I turn away. The image sears itself in my mind even when I shut my eyes.

            And I keep my eyes shut, trying to create enough blackness to drown out his face, but it’s there. I don’t think about where I’m going, but I can feel a wind on my face so I must be going mighty fast. I bump and scrape my shoulder on rugged street corners, but manage to stumble back to my feet. Until one point, I ram into something at full force and feel the rush as the ground comes up to meet me and there’s a great, big crash that echoes loudly before dying down to a scattered clattering. Oh glory, I’m on my shoulder with my head on the pavement and I can feel my right leg heating up for some reason. There’s something cold and then warm and then cold again pressing there.

            I draw in a quick breath and open my eyes.

            It’s a mistake.

            There’s blood on my trousers and all over my hands. I can’t see exactly how much from in the dark and my trousers are dark as well so all I see is a shiny pool collecting under me.

            My head spins in slow circles as I push myself to my feet. I feel an inescapable sense of defeat as I look around at the trash scattered all over the sidewalk now. I glance down the alley I must have been running through, it’s a long, thin winding one that I don’t understand how I managed to squeeze myself through. I look at the trash can I fell over, which is hopelessly dented now. I pick up the lid and hold it in my hands. My murky reflection looks back at me with warped, tall eyes. Oh, it’ll cause so much trouble if a security camera caught sight of me. There’d be no way to know who I am, but they’d know my uniform and then the Headmaster Columbi will have a field day—

Suddenly, my head rolls itself into the right place and I remember my monitor. I remember I’m meant to be back by now. I remember my promise to the Governess.

            And then I feel stupid for reminding Sly so much about his. It is quite easy to forget it’s there when you feel as if you’ve been broken by a boy.

            I look at my monitor and see the small square of light glowing and fading yellow. It’s a warning. Not a very urgent one, but I’ll hear about it in the morning from a proctor and no doubt, I’ll need to explain myself.

            “Wonderful,” I manage to mutter under my breath.

            I hear a distant scattering of voices, and I assume it must be the late night security officers. I step into the shadows of the alley and away from the sidewalk’s edge. There are windows glowing orange now from the disturbance, so someone must have made a call. Family men and women are light sleepers, I’ve heard you’ve got to be when you have children. I figure I can slink back to the dormitory hall before the officers get here so long as I don’t run.

            I take a step forward when the picture of Melchior’s face flashes itself to the front of my mind again. The sharp feeling lodges itself in my gut once more and I have to stop and lean forward because the rush is too much.

            My hand finds my lips and I suddenly feel like crying all over again.

            I’m shaking my head when I hear a man’s gruff voice go. “Oi! Over here!”

            “Shit,” a small voice whispers, followed by another clatter.

            I nearly jump out of my skin. My teeth catch my tongue and I clap my hand over my mouth to keep from shouting and giving myself away. There’s another bark from the security officers—there are maybe two of them, maybe three, I can’t really tell. My other hand is out defensively—though probably not the least bit imposing or threatening—and I’m turning wildly until I see him. Just at the edge of the shadows, there’s a little boy trying to reach up to the ladder for the fire escape. It’s only just too high for him if he were to jump.

            “Oi! You!” I hiss in a loud whisper that makes the boy jump too. He whips his head around to see me, but I can’t see his face. He’s got a scarf tied around his nose and mouth with a big pair of round, green tinted goggles and an old pilot’s hat to cover their hair. “Yes, you!”

            The boy’s body goes through a stutter of movements, like he can’t decide whether to stand or run. He decides stand and his feet spread apart in a ready charging stance.

            I shake my head. “Need a hand?” I say and point my finger to the ladder.

            He looks at it and back at me, pausing.

            “Is anyone there?” Another man’s voice barks out and I can see the beam of light trailing just around the corner of the alley. “Show yourselves!”

            “Any day now?” I prompt the little boy. “There’s not much time.”

            Then without a word, the boy nods and I scamper over with my hands interlocked together. His little, dirty boot steps into my hands and I push him up with less difficulty than I anticipate. Almost silently, the boy worms his way onto the grate of the fire escape. Once he’s up, he turns and looks down at me.

            “Okay, now lower it down!” I whisper fiercely at him. “Hurry! They’re nearly here!”

            The boy just looks at me with his big bug eyes.

            He brings up his little hand and holds up two fingers, his pointer and middle, before ducking away and disappearing into the inky blackness.

            And I’m left there alone.

            At first I don’t know how to feel.

            And then I do, and it’s betrayal all over again, but a different kind. This one is hot and blind and sends something in my blood boiling.

            “Hey!” I hiss up at the boy. I can hear him lightly climbing to the top of the building. “Get back here, you little insect! You—”

            “Over here!” I hear just at the lip of the alleyway.

            A second before I can get caught in the beam of the security light, I duck behind a large metal dumpster and press myself against the cold metal. The smell makes my eyes water, but I hold myself there as still as I can manage. I burrow myself into the corner it makes with the wall and hope against hope they don’t find me.

            And in my mind, I’m cursing the small boy that left me.

“I swear I heard something.” I hear the hum of the security drone hovering overhead the two security officers. The breath I’m holding stutters in my chest, trying to fight it’s way out of me. I feel the sudden warmth of the light as it passes just above me.

“Well, shut your trap and keep looking, Mr. Edwards,” the second man says and there follows the thunk of a club hitting against something hollow.

Then a second later, I feel the vibration of the force against my head as the officer strikes the dumpster. My teeth rattle for a moment and my body doesn’t quit shaking after.

“Nothing here, Mr. Powell,” Mr. Edwards says, “Musta run off, you think?”

“This way,” Mr. Powell scoffs and something tells me he doesn’t particularly like being told what to do by Mr. Edwards.

I wait for the humming of the security drone to fade before I jump to my feet.

And this time, my feet don’t run their way home. No, they find themselves jumping up to the ladder and stepping onto the grating of the fire escape. And they’re climbing to the very top because that’s where I know the little boy’s gone and for some reason, my blood’s still running hot.

“Hey!” I’m hissing in the dark as I pull myself onto the roof, “Hey! Where are you, you little—”

Shh!” I hear somewhere to my left side.

I whip around quickly, but I don’t see him. It’s so dark, I can barely see my hand in front of me.

“Where are—”

Shh!” I hear again, this time from the right, “Shut up, idiot! Leave me alone!

“Look, I helped you and you just left me gawking there,” I whisper, stepping carefully in circles. After everything that’s happened tonight, this week, every since Garrick left school and disappeared for forever, I’ve kept it all down, every last syllable of how tired I am and now twice, I’ve put myself on the line and—

I hear Melchior saying my name weakly as I run away from him.

At the same time, I hear the last time Garrick said it. When he brought his face close to mine and whispered it into my mouth.

And it’s ruined now. I can’t hear it without Melchior’s voice right there, playing right over Garrick’s and—

“Come out!” My voice comes out hoarsely, but I can’t help it. “You’ve got—”

On my right, I hear the lightest scuffle and hone in on it. There he is, his outline standing out darker against the graying darkness. The little bug-eyed boy. He’s got his foot over the edge of the ledge like he’s about to jump down onto something. When he sees me looking at him, he tries to get his other leg over the ledge but I’m already on him in two strides.

I grab him by the front of his shirt.

“What’s your problem?” The boy squeals in a high, scratchy voice with his thin arms trying to swat me away.

“What’s your problem?” I question him in a low voice that crackles like a boot dragged across pavement. “I helped you and you left me to get caught!”

“Well, you didn’t, did you?” The boy snaps back. “So clearly you’re a big boy who can take care of himself, all right? Wonderful for you! Now let me go, creep!” In a quick motion, they reel their shoulder back and swing it in a swipe that lands right on my cheek, their nails scraping into my skin.

I yelp and tighten my grip on them. “Why you little—”

But I don’t finish because a sudden warmth catches me followed by the searing whiteness of the search light hitting my eyes at full brightness. I’m blinded and I stagger backwards, taking my hands away to rub my face. All I see are dancing dots of color when I close my eyes.

“Surrender yourself now!” A voice barks from behind me.

“Help! I’m—” I hear with a small yelp.

I open my eyes just in time to see the silhouette of the boy falling backwards against the whiteness of the security drone’s beam. The green plastic of their goggles catches the light right before their head disappears over the edge.

I yell something and before I know it, I’m sprawled over the side of the building. The air’s been knocked out of my chest and I feel my feet lifting off the ground slowly. I try to push myself to the ground, but I can’t pull myself up because my hands are wrapped around the ankle of the little boy who’s hanging upside down over the side of the building.

He’s yelling to himself, saying, “Oh glory, oh glory, oh glory, I’m going to die, I’m going to die” over and over.

“Quit squirming,” I manage to force out. My arms feel like they’re hanging onto my body by a single ligament, like a rope slowly splitting under stress. Beads of sweat surface from my skin and drip down.

My mind is racing now, running down blocks upon blocks farther ahead of me.

What are we going to do now?

Because we are a we now. Oh glory, what have I gotten myself into.

“No where to run now, boy,” the man I think is Mr. Powell says. They’re approaching slowly upon us. “You and your little stow away have no where else to go.”

Stow away?

“It was a good chase, I’ll give you that,” he goes on and even laughs a bit, “Gave us quite the exercise. We all know you need it, Mr. Edwards.”

Mr. Edwards laughs in a way that I imagine makes his belly jiggle up and down.

“S’true, Mr. Powell,” he laughs, “S’true.”

I look down at the boy in my hands, dangling helplessly with his arms hanging slack above his head.

            “Now, here’s what’s gonna happen, boy,” Mr. Powell says. I hear his heavy foot falls just behind me, three steps away at the most. He has a very unpleasant voice, Mr. Powell. It’s nasally and there’s a shaking quality to it that makes his cruel tone even more apparent. “We’re going to help you pull up your little runaway here, see? You’re gonna let her up and we’ll take care of her from there, sound good?

            I think I must hear Mr. Powell wrong. I look down at the boy in my hands and think I must be hearing him wrong.

            “Careful though,” he says right in my ear. If I could have, I think I would have shuddered away from him. I can hear every time his tongue meets the roof of his mouth as he hisses, “She’s a biter, she is.”

            I look down at the boy who’s tuned into our conversation.

            She’d shaking her head fiercely and for a second, the light hits her goggles just right and the green goes clear enough for me to see her eyes.

            They’re wet with tears.

            My mouth opens like I have something to say, but I can’t find the words before two pairs of hands clamp down over my arms and the impact of the touch sends painful ripples up my already shaking arms. I think I cry out as Mr. Powell and Mr. Edwards take hold of the boy—no, the girl’s ankles and pull her onto the rooftop, not careful to keep her head from bumping against the stone as they drop her. I drop onto my rump and fall onto my back. My arms are still shaking and won’t bear my weight.

            “You’ve been quite naughty tonight, haven’t ya?” Mr. Powell says, taking his long index finger and waving it in front of the girl’s masked face. She looks tiny between the two of the men, who I can see now are both looming as the cathedral building. Though, after a moment’s more look, I can see that Mr. Powell is a more gaunt variety of man where Mr. Edwards is more rounded and broad-shouldered. “Games Master Blight might just have to have a word with you in the morning.”

            Games Master? My mind thinks the words, but can’t connect what they mean with the roar of my own breathing fogging up my head.

            “Wait, wait, no, please, I—” The girl says and I’m almost surprised to hear her voice sound so small. And so shaken.

            My arms are quivering and I can’t even lift them to hug around my chest.

            “No, no, no need to worry, Miss,” Mr. Edwards says in his slow, bumbling voice, “We’ll escort you back right quick.”

            “And with the utmost safety,” Mr. Powell finishes before turning to me. “Run along home, boy. And return promptly so as your Governess doesn’t worry herself into a stupor. Consider your good work tonight in apprehending our good miss enough to earn you a pass.” And he sneers down at me, his head appearing small from the steep angle in which he gazes down. But I still see his left eye wink. “This time,” he finishes and steps over me.

            And for a moment, I can’t do anything but lie there as the girl’s muffled protests fade with the man’s heavy foot falls.

            My good work tonight, I repeat in my head, I’m stuck on it and the words play over the picture of Mr. Powell looking down the bridge of his crooked nose at me as he says it.

            Right next to him, I see Sly doing the same thing as we walk through the gate of the Academy with the beep-beep of the sensor just above us. There he is and then suddenly he’s screaming and I’m running and leaving him behind because the security officer is on my heels along with the words of the skater in the green uniform yelling, Go! Go! Go! Her face is blown up huge on the monitors of the arena and now in my mind. I can see her face and this time I process every feature of it.

            Her eyes were two different colors, I’d never noticed. Funny I hadn’t, because I don’t think I’d seen anything like it before.

            And she’s yelling as I run away and leave Sly behind.

            I leave him behind.

            “Help! Help me, please! No, let me go!” A voice that I now know is a girl’s is screaming distantly.

            She left me behind.

            I think about my good work tonight and think about returning to the dormitory hall now, bloodied as I walk past Governess Pacholock’s room to scan my monitor. Battered as I walk past Garrick’s old room and then Melchior Rayport’s on the way to my own and—

            There’s a gasp suddenly and when I blink, I feel a weight in my hands. It’s a piece of metal bar that been--that I’ve just used to—

            I drop it and it clatters to the ground, clanking loudly on the stone by my feet, just barely missing the heads of two men—both tall, one gaunt and the other broad-shouldered—who are laying unconscious on the ground. They each have a splattering of red staining the backs of their heads. Their hats have been abandoned on the ground, right next to their clubs.

            “I can’t believe—holy shit, you just—” The girl sputters out. She’s just at the edge of the rooftop, clinging onto the ledge for dear life. “You—”

            Panic shoots up in me and I hold my breath, exhaling incoherent mutterings. I’m on my knees in a second and with shaking hands I grab Mr. Edwards by the shoulders and tug his heavy mass of a head up as much as I can. I try and remember something Mr. Billings taught us last term, which feels far too long for my mind to remember at the moment. It was something about how to check if someone was still—I gulp something hard and pointed down my throat—alive or if you’ve just stunned them. I’m hoping fiercely it’s the latter.

            I take my two fingers and shove them against his neck. I’m meant to feel a thumping of a pulse, I know that, but for the life of me, I can’t remember the trick Mr. Billings gave us to find it.

            “Are you mad?” The little girl hisses now and I feel her tugging on my arm, “We’ve got to get out of here! Don’t make me leave you again! Hey”

            “Gimme a minute,” I mutter under my breath. I can’t find it, I can’t find it and I can’t stop my hands from shaking.

            Just as I think my heart is about to explode from the fear of killing a man, Mr. Edwards lets out a loud groan. It’s so sudden, I jump.

            “Right! Okay!” I straighten up suddenly, “Let’s go, let’s go!” I’m already grabbing the little girl by the hand and tugging her down the fire escape.

            “Quit it!” She hisses, trying to pry her hand away but my hand is bigger and I hold fast onto it.

            When our feet hit the ground of the dark alley, we take off running. Somehow her little legs keep pace with my wide strides and all I can hear is the roaring of my own heart and the huffing and puffing of our breathing as we careen down the alleyway.

            Just as we turn a corner, I hear the voice of Mr. Powell echoing behind us with the hum of the security drone just over it.

            “We know your face, boy! We’ll get you! We’ll find you!”

              And then Mr. Edward’s voice yells back. “And don’t you worry, Miss Skipper. We’ll find you! You can count on it!”

            Our shoes scrape against the pavement and don’t stop for a very, very long time.

 

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