I couldn’t think. Couldn’t understand the marks on the whiteboard. Couldn’t understand the sounds the teacher was making. And then I lost even that awareness. The strange black marks had no meaning for me. The one making those rhythmic sounds provoked only fear.
I was in a strange place. And I was alone.
I held silent, all movement stilled. The enemy was about me and I could see no place to run. I must be still. No sound, no movement. Until I had a chance to escape, or a reason to fight.
One of the strangers came near, holding out a hand. I tensed, but though the creature was of the enemy, he smelled . . . safe. Not afraid. Calm. Caring. He could be trusted.
So I let my eyes slide toward the stranger and let my muscles relax in signal. The stranger touched me. I followed him. And prayed the stranger would show me the way of escape.
He led me through a strange, frightening place, full of the smells of the enemy. I held myself in tightly, and focused on him, blocking out the strangeness all around me. And then we were in the open, on a patch of grass, and he stopped, and waited.
The sun was bright. I blinked.
The world restructured.
The sounds the stranger made had meaning. I could almost grasp that meaning.
The world changed.
Dave said cheerfully, “Thanks for getting us out of English. I was so bored I was thinking of playing sick myself.”
I opened my mouth. I couldn’t find the words. I felt like a fish gulping air, then the words were there and I managed to ask, “What happened?” My voice sounded strange to my ears.
There was a puzzled watchfulness deep in Dave’s guileless brown eyes, but he responded casually. “What do you remember?”
I said nothing for a moment. Then, “I don’t remember anything,” I told him, meeting his gaze squarely. If Dave saw the lie he gave no sign.
“Guess you blacked out for a while. I told Willie I was taking you to sickbay. You want to lie down for a bit?”
I shook my head. “I feel fine now.” It was true, if you discounted the queasy feeling in my guts. I could remember what had happened perfectly. How strange the familiar classroom had seemed. How I had felt surrounded by enemies. How alone I had felt.
But I trusted Dave. The thought reassured. At least my friends and family were probably safe. Why do I think I’m dangerous? I feel like a time bomb.
The bell rang, scattering my thoughts. I gritted my teeth and waited impatiently for it to stop. When it did, the silence lasted about ten seconds. It was lunchtime. Doors banged, books slammed into lockers, feet ran down hard polished floors, voices rose higher and higher.
Closing my eyes, I tried to shut out the noise. Against the darkness of my eyelids I saw a cool green forest in the hush of dawn. Shadows slipped without sound between the trees. I felt the warmth of their presence about me. The sense of shared purpose.
A voice beside me shattered the dream, if it was a dream.
“Hey, Mike, what happened to you?”
Opening my eyes reluctantly, I saw a girl standing beside me. Did I know her?
“That was really weird, back there in the classroom.”
“Weird? How do you mean?”
She shrugged. “Weird. You looked like you were in another world.”
I stared at her, caught by the truth of her words. Yeah. It’s like I’m living in two worlds. A wide grin split my face like a watermelon.
“You are weird. You on something?” Her eyes were wide and she took a step backwards.
“Just thought of something.” I tried, and failed, to subdue my watermelon grin.
“Yeah, right.” She glanced from me to Dave, and shook her head. “The Bobbsey twins! Never would’ve thought it!” Still shaking her head, she walked away.
Dave grinned. “Don’t think she believed you.” His grin faded. Voice dropping to a whisper, he asked, “You’re not, are you?”
I couldn’t believe it. I stared at him. My heart missed a beat, then thumped loudly, out of rhythm. My chest was tight. And his worry and panic reached through my own panic and I took a deep breath and forced myself calm, and started to walk toward our home block. Dave fell into place beside me.
I kept my eyes on the grass moving under my feet. Said under my breath, “Looked pretty strange?”
“Uh-huh.” He paused. “You know, I had the strangest idea you didn’t know who I was.” Voice very casual.
I glanced sideways at him. Then I turned around and started walking backwards, watching Dave’s face. “Very tactful, brother. No, I didn’t know who you were, and yeah, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there. In fact, I was pretty shaky on who I was.” I grinned, feeling again that moment of rightness, of truth. Dave looked at me quizzically.
“Seem pretty chipper about it.”
I stopped walking, the brief elation fading. “Shit, Dave, I’ve been going loopy with this crazy stuff.” I ran my fingers through my hair and shivered. “Only, it helps to have some sort of handle on it, y’know? And when she said that, about being in another world, it was like, you know, zing! That’s how I’ve been feeling—like I’m living in two different worlds.” I turned around and started walking again. Saw Dave’s sidelong glance out of the corner of my eye. Probably wondering what sort of nutcase he’s dealing with here. “Do you think someone could put something into me without me knowing?” The panic moving in me again, like a fish beneath the surface.
Dave said nothing for a moment, then, very softly, he said, “You’d know, Mike. By how you felt.”
“Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? I’m feeling really weird. And I have these . . . hallucinations—” I stopped. This wasn’t the time or place to talk about those. I went through the open door to our home block and kept moving fast, to my locker.
We threw our books in, and grabbed our lunches, and then, instead of going the usual way, through the main doors at the end of the corridor and across the crowded court, I ducked out the side door and turned left, into the shadowy gap between the buildings. Dave followed me without comment. I wondered if he realized how close I was to freaking out.
Rounding the corner, I saw a tight group closeted in the narrow space between the lab blocks. Seeing the faint glow of a cigarette passing among them, I realized that I’d been smelling the sickly sweet odor since I’d opened the door.
One of the figures moved toward us and the other three fell in behind. Despite the dimness, I could see them clearly. Marshall and his faithful followers.
“What have we got here?” Marshall’s voice was menacing.
I glanced sideways at Dave, but I didn’t need to see him to know what he wanted us to do. We backed away until we were clear, then turned and ran. As soon as we reached the courtyard we slowed to a casual saunter, ignoring Marshall as he closed in behind.
“Just one word and you’re dead meat.” He veered off as soon as he’d delivered his warning. We kept moving. I was kind of sorry Dave had been with me. I was so wired, and something in me hated to run away like that. But I wasn’t going to drag Dave into anything violent.
I don’t know where that thought came from. Since when was I violent? I laughed out loud then, feeling my bare hands tearing through flesh, hot sticky blood spraying my face. God, I was going loopy. It was a dream, for chrissake.
Dave looked at me, his face very still. With an effort I straightened my face as we caught up with the girls. “Hi, Linny.”
She smiled at me. I loved the way she looked at me, with her warm brown eyes so deeply serious, as if everything I said and thought was important. I had to fight not to reach out and gather up her long fine hair.
“Hello-o!” Sue called softly. She and Dave exchanged smirks. A wave of irrational anger swept over me. I breathed out slowly.
“Hi, Sue. Keeping out of trouble?” My voice was flat.
“I should ask you that!” Her voice was heavy with meaning. Her short brown curls bounced as she nodded vigorously toward Marshall’s disappearing figure.
“He’s a jerk.” Seeing Linny’s worry, I added, “We stay out of his way, eh Dave?”
“Yeah, sure.” Automatically we started moving toward the field, to our usual tree. “Like your sweatshirt, Sue. Very . . . sweet.” Dave emphasized the last word, looking at her with a wide, innocent stare.
“At least the colors don’t make people dizzy,” she returned smartly.
“This?” Dave asked with mock amazement, pulling at his track pants. He pirouetted as if on a catwalk. “But blue and red is so . . . energetic.” He batted his eyelids.
I watched their byplay with a feeling of detachment, my footsteps dragging slower and slower. I wanted to . . . I didn’t know what I wanted to do, that was part of the trouble. I threw myself down on the grass beside the others and stretched out, clasping my hands behind my head. So damn tired.
Sue remarked, “Didn’t see you at the game on Saturday.” I felt myself stiffen. Linny glanced at me, then looked away quickly. Dave gazed across the field as if suddenly deep in thought. Through half-closed eyes, I saw Sue pick up on the studied lack of response. She frowned. “Did I say something I shouldn’t? What’s the big deal?”
“I’ve dropped out of the team.”
Sue’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth to say something and then stopped, caught by Linny’s warning look. Linny shook her head very slightly.
Sue was visibly bewildered. She looked across at Dave, who was still gazing across the field as if absorbed in the antics of a few kids kicking a ball around, then back at me. I closed my eyes.
The shadows pressed in on me. The voices murmured, just beyond hearing.
* * *
Dave said cheerfully, “Want to hear something funny?”
“No!” the two girls chorused.
Sue added, “What happened to your solemn vow?”
“Doesn’t count! Made under duress.”
“Rubbish! We didn’t actually drop you head-first into the compost heap.” Sue paused, her grin widening. “Thought I saw a rat running out of it the other day. Probably a whole family in there. Maybe a tribe!”
“If you don’t want to hear my joke, you only have to say. I should go where people appreciate me.”
“Yeah, where’s that?” Sue taunted, overriding Linny’s soft, “Oh Dave, you know we don’t mean it.”
Sue responded with exasperation, “For Heaven’s sake, Lin, you should be used to Dave by now. It’s just a joke!”
I lost it. Sitting up, I yelled, “Leave Linny alone!” I couldn’t believe the sound of my voice. And I didn’t want to think what my face looked like.
The girls were staring at me in complete astonishment. Dave’s face had gone blank in a way that tightened the knots in my gut. I knew that look.
Then his face relaxed into its usual good humor and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a bread roll wrapped in cling wrap. “Great combination, peanut butter and corned beef.” He grinned at the girls.
“You reckon?” Sue started to take out her own lunch. She looked at the pot of yogurt. “She knows I don’t like vanilla and hazelnut. Why does she do this to me?”
“Should make your own.” He took a large bite of his roll.
“Why should I, long as I’ve got a Mom that does it for me?” She paused in her struggle with the tinfoil top of the yogurt and glanced at him, making a grimace of apology. He shook his head slightly, his expression unchanged.
“I think it’s amazing that you cook corned beef,” Linny said softly.
He shrugged. “Corned beef’s easy. Just throw it in a pot and boil the hell out of it.” He took another bite, chewed and swallowed. “The secret’s in what you put in the water. I put in onions, and carrots if I’ve got them, and the secret ingredient. Oh, and cloves. Lots of cloves.”
“What’s the secret ingredient?” Linny asked curiously.
He grinned at her. “Golden syrup.”
They were all being so damned tactful. Burbling on about making corned beef, for chrissake. I felt like a wire stretched too far, one slight tap and I’d vibrate like a cello string. Or snap.
Sue glanced at Linny and said, apropos of nothing, “You know that guy who just started this week? Rumor has it he’s already been chucked out of two schools.”
Sue shrugged. “The word is drugs, but it always is. Everyone always thinks drugs.”
There was a heavy silence. No one was looking at me. They were very obviously not looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. The girls too?
Linny said, “Well, I hope he doesn’t bring any here.”
Sue snorted. “What difference does it make? There’s plenty around if you want it.”
“Well, I don’t.” Linny spoke firmly.
I couldn’t believe it. Dave and Linny had known me all my life, damn near. I jumped to my feet. “Neither do I!” I walked away, fighting the urge to run. Behind me I heard Linny start to rise, heard Dave say, “Don’t.”
I walked faster, trying to outdistance my thoughts. Feeling on the verge of spinning out of control. When I came to the edge of the field, I just stood there, rocking back and forth on my heels, not knowing what to do.
Oh God. I leaned against a tree and shut my eyes. I’m not thinking. Just breathing. In . . . and out . . . in . . . and out . . . in . . . and out.
My breathing gradually slowed and deepened. The calm spread out, relaxing the tension in my body, slowing my heart. I swiveled in place and slid my back down the trunk to squat at the base of the tree, eyes fixed on nothing, my thoughts focused with determination on breathing calmly and deeply.
* * *
The bell signaling the end of lunch came long before I could force myself to move. By the time I did, the school was quiet. As I approached the doors to the block where my locker was, Dave came out. I raised my eyebrows. “Running late?”
He grinned and indicated the folder in his hand. “Had to come back for that, didn’t I?” He about-faced and started to walk back inside with me.
“Taking a bit of a risk, weren’t you?”
“Oh, Tyler doesn’t mind. We’re buddies.”
I snorted. “Last week he said you had two left hands.” I opened my locker and started to sort out what I needed. “You reckon Rudolf has forgotten the assignment was due today?”
“Nope. He’s going to do you. That’s twice.”
“That’s life.” I shrugged. Who gives a crap?
“Life’s a bitch.” Dave repeated our usual answer to anything from forgotten homework to life-or-death crises. We walked back along the corridor and Dave pushed open the outside door. He bowed grandly. “After you.”
We crossed to the lab block in silence. I felt Dave’s eyes on me, but when I glanced sideways, Dave was watching the ground with heavy concentration. I frowned, wondering if I was being paranoid, wondering why I felt so uneasy. There was no one I trusted more than Dave. I know his secrets.
My blood chilled. I realized why I felt so wary. He can’t know mine! But the thought remained, frozen within me.
He’ll know our secret.