Francis Gives Gus The Finger
I've been sober three weeks now. I'm pretty sure I've hit my lowest low and I don't want to go there ever again. It helped me refocus my life. The event was I missed eleven out of eleven on the fractions quiz. You might get to the third or fourth degree in the Junior Order of the Free and Accepted Millwrights of Fowlerville with Cs and Ds, but you aren't gonna get to the thirty-third degree. The way you move up in this organization is by getting good grades, doing what you're told, getting your job done. Plus a little volunteer work when you hit middle school. Looks good on your college applications.
I'm not trying to excuse my drinking, but I got a lot of stuff going on. School, missions for the Millwrights, soccer, plus dealing with my crazy little brother Ray. He's two and a half. He can mostly dress himself and he's halfway potty-trained, but he still wets his pants and his bed. For a while he was talking okay and learning new words. Then he got stuck. Right now he thinks it's really funny to say only two words. He always says the two words together and always hollers them: "Never! More!" It's because our dad's favorite episode of The Simpsons is the Halloween one where Bart turns into a crow.
Now when my parents try to coax him to say other things, all he says is, "Never! More!"
So I gotta go around Soccer practice and hear the guys say, "Gus, how come your brother can't talk?" My brother the crow.
Anyways, the Millwrights is related to some of those other organizations you might have heard of, only you won't see little pentagram emblems on Millwrights' cars hinting at the secret society they're in. We keep quiet. That's why you haven't heard of us. It's like the Masons, only younger and hipper. A lot younger.
The goal of the Millwrights is to keep the world from going bad, which usually means preventing OTO from taking over the world. That stands for Ordo Templi Orientis. OTO started off as an occult group, practically a parlor game for Brits with too much time on their hands. Satanist Templar wannabes who didn't really know much about Satan or the Templars. Some of the splinter groups still do that kind of high-brow dabbling with "magick" and writing boring books about Egypt and demons and blah blah blah. But one of the splinter groups was really evil. You encourage members to live up to their fullest evil potentials and naturally you're going to end up with assassination becoming the main method of promotion within the organization. As members carried out nastier plots every year, killing their masters to assume positions of power, younger bosses had to recruit younger and younger apprentices to do the dirty work. Until finally the average age of OTO members bottomed out around 11.
The boss of the local chapter of OTO was nine, a year older than me. Lisa Reinhart. She had gone to the same recess schedule while I was in second grade. All her friends would hang around with her on the sidewalk during recess with their girly pink notebooks. They'd write lists with titles like "My Friends" and "Girls Who I Would Never Dress Like" and "People Who Should Just Give It Up" and "True Skanks". Lisa accused one of her friends of being a copycat by writing a whole list of the same names and the same title as Lisa had already written. That girl moved away all of a sudden and she never called any of her former friends. She had gotten onto Lisa's "iHATEyou" list. Millwrights searching the woods around school had turned up a shoe that had belonged to the missing girl, but never found a body.
What I was missing on June First was a rum and Coke. My assignment that day was to deliver a package from one place to another. The package was supposed to have a psychic jewel inside, but I'm just a mule, I don't get to mess with the artifacts. When Mrs. Haggerty's class left for Chorus, no one would notice me gone for an hour or so. I biked over to St. Luke's, which is a Catholic school on the edge of town. Luckily my school is on the edge of town too, so it's only about eight blocks away.
Getting into St. Luke's is no big deal. I've done it before. You just got to change into the uniform before you go in. White shirt and a St. Luke's tie, plus those clunky blue shorts. Then you got to act ashamed when they catch you walking through the halls in between classes. I found an unlocked door next to the gym. The chapel's close to that door so I got in without anybody seeing me.
The chapel is just a little classroom that smells like paste with a skinny stained glass window in the back wall. No bleeding martyrs in the stained glass window, just a guy in a robe with halo, quill pen and a book that he's about to write in. I'd have to be out of there by 10:30 for the sisters' mid-day mass. I don't think they hold student mass there, because they need the auditorium to fit all the classes in at once. They use the chapel more like a study hall or for time-outs, or for brown-nosers who want to be seen praying before or after school. Nothing in the place but a few rows of plastic chairs and a small bookcase packed with copies of the same hymn book. I got into the closet right away.
Inside the closet were more stacks of that same hymnal, plus some packages of textbooks all shrink-wrapped together. Probably never used because they taught evolution or something. Some jerk had put a stack of chairs in there, so I had to squeeze in next to them and hold my breath practically.
I started getting antsy and reached to press the light button on my watch when I heard a scraping sound from the back wall of the closet. I moved a shrink-wrapped stack of textbooks out of the way so I could see the hole where my contact Francis had removed a brick from the room on the other side of the wall. He said, "Gus?"
I said, "Yeah. Shhhhh. Where is it?"
Francis's little second-grader fingers pushed a tiny cube through the hole in the wall. I unwrapped the glossy page covering the velvety box. The sheet torn out of a math workbook had story problems filled in with answers that made no sense, unless you knew the code. But I knew which answer to look for. "The second train delivers its auspicious cargo to Fenway Park just in time for the 12th inning, where it's unloaded by Alan Trammel in the number 40 jersey." The rest of the handwritten answers made about as much sense as that, so if the message was intercepted, the enemy would have five fakes to mislead them.
"FEnway Park" stands for Fowlerville Elementary school. "Auspicious" meant the auditorium. The twelfth inning was military time, twelve hundred hours, Noon. Alan Trammel was a red herring to waste the time of any idiot trying to decode it. Number 40 jersey represents the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. So I had to deliver the box to the auditorium back at my school at noon, and my contact there would be Ronnie Crenshaw. Get it? -- "Ronnie."
I dug a fingernail under the rim of brass around the middle of the box and flipped it open. It was a legit jewelry box but the thing inside was a big hunk of purple plastic faceted like a crystal.
Could this thing be a psychic jewel? Sure. They could make anything look harmless. I've seen a kid outside a supermarket pull a plastic tube off the side of a gumball machine, jam it into his arm and donate blood into the thing. Actually I don't know if he made a deposit or withdrawal. After a minute, it shot a wad of bills out onto the floor, but he was too little a kid, or gave too much blood, because as he reached for the bills, he fell over and stayed there. I didn't stick around to see who was responsible for the machine or what they really wanted from the kid. Any six year old who can jam a needle in his own arm and find a vein is in too deep for me to get him out anyhow.
And then there's the story of an artifact disguised as a Stretch Armstrong doll. The kid guarding it couldn't believe it was really something important, so he cut it open to see what was inside. To me, that story is proof that nuclear energy is safe, because they made up the story about the Three Mile Island Accident to cover up for what really happened. It should have been called "The Bleeding Meteorite Inside Stretch Armstrong Accident." Also a reminder to me that no matter how cheap or plasticky this artifact looked, I didn't need to screw with it and find out how dangerous it might be.
I heard Francis humming or clearing his throat to get my attention. He's only second degree in the organization, so I could make him wait. I could make him stand in the middle of the playground and pee on the swing set for all the kids in school to watch if I wanted to. Membership has its privileges.
I stuffed the jewel case in the pocket of my uniform shorts and picked up the package of unused books. Why did they need me to wait until noon for the handoff? The organization always made arrangements to cover for absences like this, but I wished they could get it off my hands sooner.
Then I realized Francis wasn't clearing his throat. He was trying to sing through his nose without opening his mouth. Not sing, actually, but scream. The scream dipped to a hum, then sounded like blowing his nose, then a girl's voice said, "Gross!"
His hand came through the hole in the bricks again, fingers straining to pull at the wall, knuckles going white. Then his four fingers dropped into the closet with me, streaking blood down the wall. They bounced off the package of textbooks and scattered across an upside-down chair.
I pushed out of the closet, tossed a bible through the stained glass window and got the Hell out of there. I didn't look back until I was a block away on my bike, but already the girls were coming for me. Two big girls, at least fourth graders. I'd never seen them before, but their yellow ten speeds were notorious. It was the Bronson twins. They were skinny but tall, with matching patches of freckles on the apples of their cheeks. Their white shirts and navy blue skirts were exactly the same, but you can't blame them for dressing like twins when everyone at St. Luke's wears that uniform. Both blonde as Barbie dolls, both wearing pigtails, but the way to tell them apart was that Sonia scowled and showed her teeth almost constantly. Gina looked casual. Even with cords standing out on her neck as she pushed her bike to maximum speed, Gina kept her gameface, not like someone who had just watched her twin cut the fingers off a second grader, or perhaps done the cutting herself.
Don't take this as some kind of statement about churchy schools twisting kids into monsters. The Bronsons were twisted long before they switched to that school.
My bike was a gray, single speed BMX, an old Mongoose that my uncle had fixed up and handed down to me. I had to pedal like crazy to keep ahead of them.
If I could lose them somewhere near St. Luke's, maybe they would think I was actually enrolled there, and they wouldn't look for me around Fowlerville Elementary. There was no way I could outpace them on the road, so I cut through a chain link gateway between two houses. I slapped at the gate to shut it behind me, anything to buy a few seconds. If there were people in the yard to yell at us, they might slow down the twins. A stretch of sidewalk ran between the two houses. The backyard was all grass except for a big red sandbox in the shape of a turtle.
I heard a dog barking close by, and got scared that it was in this yard. Pretty soon I heard it clattering against the fence in some other yard. Looked like a boxer maybe, muscular with a pushed-in snout, a dull gray coat that made its bloodshot eyes stand out as especially bright and bloody.
No other gate in the fence circling this backyard. I slid sideways, my tires skidding to a stop against the back fence. If I could get over to the yard that butted up against this one, I could thumb my nose at that gargling gray beast and at the Bronson Twins while I got away. With a mighty grunt, I tossed my bike over the fence and dug my little Nikes into the chain link.
One of the twins plowed past the swinging gate in front and slammed her bike into the fence under me. I felt her hand clamp around my shoe just as her bike banged the fence. I jerked away and left her with an empty shoe, but she grabbed my other ankle. I couldn't balance up there, toppled over toward the other yard until my face mashed into the chain link. She was still holding my ankle above the fence.
Gina had circled around the block. She came at me from the yard I had almost escaped to, letting her bike drop without the kickstand. She told her sister, "Thank you," as the mean one pushed me into Gina's custody. Gina sounded polite but she still held my arm up behind my back and yanked on it until I stood on tippy-toes.
Sonia clawed over the fence and took my other arm. "What do we do with him?" She had managed to get over the fence with my shoe still in her hand.
They stood quiet for a minute while I pulled and squirmed and kicked. I don't feel ashamed; they outclassed me by a whole grade. Plus I've heard how girls get that early growth spurt before boys do.
The only one of us speaking was the dog, clattering against the chain link and pleading for any one of us to dare set a foot in his yard. He was only a few feet away from us now in the yard to the side of this one.
His argument was a compelling one, because Sonia threw my shoe over to the dog, then grabbed my ankles again. Gina secured my wrists. Just before throwing me to the dog, Gina said, "Hold up," dropped my wrists, and stuffed a folded piece of lined paper in the front pocket of my shorts.
The note read:
My Terrifying, Dry Warrior,
And so our journey ends,
I am so angry at you.
My love for you swings
about my midsection
like a pendulous, overripe fruit
of some kind.
Maybe a squash.
But there was a puncture on that
fruit or vegetable
moldy, rotten pus.
So you understand why I had to
the whole thing
Such is your fate
when you don't listen.
I told you:
with Lisa Reinhart.
LR + OTO
TLA stands for "True Love Always." When written on blackboards, it's usually followed by TIE to ensure that your declaration of love becomes "True If Erased."
That moment proved to me that the Bronsons were either stupid or they had no intention of killing me. Because why else would you give someone a note and murder them before they could read it?
Gina yanked my wrists again and the two of them stretched me out like housewives folding a sheet. On the count of three, I was flying over the side fence, looking down at a big pink grin set in gray cheeks, descending into the jaws of death.
* Don't miss Chapter Two: Kidding the Buddha!
(c) 2005 by Rob Northrup