You can't save everyone. - Magus Drost
Sometimes it's hard to know where a story begins. Mine, for instance. Birth? Seems like a lot of extra information. Some may argue conception, but is it really my history if even I don't know it? If you want to get really philosophical I suppose you could wax poetic about what it meant in a cosmic sense, my father's sperm racing to my mother's egg and the fireworks that must have resulted when I officially began to form – but no.
Philosophy can be kind of irrelevant.
Still, when does a story begin? How much is enough so that the listener or reader gets the point of the story – assuming it's not one of those stories that wander aimlessly and that you keep hoping has a point, a purpose, or at least a laugh or sex scene to make it memorable. I don't think I'm very funny, and if there is a sex scene in my life, I'm not sure I want to share it with everyone.
Okay, that's a lie – I'd probably tell everyone.
There are always unknowns and you don't know that you don't know until you do know...then it's too late.
So it may not be the beginning. But it is a beginning, or it is for now – unless I think of something else.
I've always heard that switching schools is a pain in the ass. I've read about it, seen movies where it was a theme and it makes sense that it would be. Everything is new and different – the buildings, the teachers, the students. Everyone knows everyone else, some of them have been going to school together for years, so there are established friend groups and cliques, and it doesn't stop there – new town or state, loss of old friends. This was that and then some.
Garfield High, sadly, wasn't named for the cartoon cat. I think schools would be more fun immediately if they were named for cartoon characters. Imagine going to the Spongebob Squarepants Academy of Arts and Sciences? The Scooby Doo Driving school? The Iron Man School of Welding? James Garfield, for whom the school was named, had died in office. I hope that's not a prerequisite for having a school named for you, sort of like how artists suddenly become famous and their art valuable after they die.
The building certainly didn't look like it was built in Garfield's time – it had a curved silver roof line with a dramatic wave on one end and large square windows that formed a wall by themselves. I was disappointed when it turned out to be a facade; I saw that as I drew closer. The whole architectural mess was placed over the brick front of what used to be the outside of the building. How useless.
I observed my new...classmates...as I navigated through the halls to my first class. They were loud as a group rather than as individuals. Where I'd gone previously there would have been boasting from individuals, but pupils here were largely too busy being wary of their classmates. I'd largely memorized the map of the school, so finding classes wasn't that difficult, but once in the room I hesitated – was there someplace in particular I was to sit?
I glanced over my shoulder at a slender boy about my height – five foot ten – who sighed and pushed past me. His skin was pale and his face was somewhat narrow – something I think would be called a 'hatchet face'. He flopped into a chair, seemingly at random, so I picked one away from him and sat. I observed people as they entered the class, many speaking to others – clearly meeting up with friends. Two girls, one with black hair and the other light brown with blond highlights, sat just behind me and were speaking in low tones, but I filtered ambient sounds away and listened.
“I swear, it's the most exciting thing. It was like some movie! Kevin had just gotten my bra off when I heard my front door close – so I'm thinking my mom is home early, right?” blond streaks said.
“Holy shit, really? What did you do?” her dark-haired companion replied.
“Well I pushed Kevin into the closet, you know? I pulled my shirt on just as my door opened – and it was Brad!”
“No way! Why?”
“He was acting a little crazy and saying how people down where he works were telling him I was hooking up behind his back.”
“Right? So I started yelling at him and telling him how he doesn't trust me and look, I'm in my own room and he's breaking into my house and for what? For some rumors? I started to slap his chest, and I ran him right out of there and told him he'd better go find me something nice to make up for not trusting me!”
“You didn't! Emma!”
“I totally did!”
“What did he get you?”
Ba'al's balls! I was trapped in a bad teenage movie.
The room filled, and the ambient noise rose to a level where I couldn't really hear individual voices anymore. I assumed it was mostly people catching up who hadn't seen each other for a while. An older man entered the room and sipped from a coffee cup with the words 'Student's Tears' on it before setting his things on the desktop.
“Okay! Pipe down!” he called out as he pulled a tablet from his case. Consulting it, he glanced around the room slowly, eyeing the class and grunting periodically. The bell rang, and he continued looking at the group of us one at a time with an expression that could be termed unimpressed.
“Huh,” he said, looking at one of the girls who'd been talking about cheating on her boyfriend. “I didn't expect to see you here, Alina.”
She looked uncertain. “Why? It's homeroom.”
“Right. In school. I figured the vice squad would still have you.”
She stared at him, and I looked on with curiosity.
He raised an eyebrow. “No? Guess that's just for me. But if I offended you in any way, make sure your parents complain, okay? I just love that.”
He looked down at his tablet and then back up. “Donovan, nice to see that rash cleared up. Sarah, your boyfriend was on Grindr again. Greg? You should stop meeting Sara's boyfriend behind her back. Jamal? If you're going to wear your pants that low, please put on clean underwear.”
Chuckles spread across the room as he went around making fun of the students. I thought he was kind of funny, but I wasn't sure why his remarks were tolerated by adults.
“And you – are you Frost?”
Looking at him with curiosity I replied, “I am.”
He looked at me with interest. “And would you like to lodge a complaint? Are your parents the type?”
“They aren't,” I said slowly. “But I promise to as soon as you're objectionable.”
His lips twitched under his unkempt white mustache. “Hm. Keep your mind open and your legs closed and you may go far, Mr. Frost.”
The class laughed and the bell rung. I don't even know this teacher's name – what could he teach besides dry criticisms? Still, he was interesting at the least. I made my way from class to class and tried to assess my environment – but I wasn't learning much. The teachers seemed to be competent, with the exception of homeroom, and most of the students didn't seem to care that I was in their classes now.
I'd seen many schools depicted with lockers, but this school had none. For the most part our work was to be completed on the tablets we'd been issued. It was all new to me, but one thing that I'd been told about and had discounted was how alone I felt. There were people all around me, and yet none of them were my people. I didn't have a friend or lover in the crowd, and it was then that I first truly understood the idea of loneliness.
The feeling hit a crescendo at lunch when I stepped with my tray into the crowded cafeteria among a sea of people who were sitting with others they knew. I spotted a table with just one person at it and I headed in that direction, assuming I'd be able to sit away from that person so as not to intrude and to also not be completely alone.
“Hey. Hey! Come sit here! New person!”
I paused and looked around, wondering if I were the only new person. A girl with long, dark blond hair waved to me, inviting me to her table and the flock of girls she was sitting with.
Well. Okay then.
I sat beside her and tried to smile and give the table a general nod.
“I'm Tess and that's Cara, she's Zumibia, that's Alan or Alison, and their pronouns are they/them. Oh! And that's Donna.”
I nodded and tried to smile. “Nick Frost.”
“What school did you go to?”
“Did you date?”
“Did you just move here?”
“Are those contacts?”
“There is a great place for frozen coffee a couple blocks from school; have you been?”
The questions were irritating, amusing and confusing all in one. I glanced around at each of my questioners.
“It was a private school, small, not one you've heard of. I did date. I did move recently and haven't explored the town much. No, this is my actual eye color.”
“I saw you in Halstead's class for homeroom,” Zumibia said. “What did you think? I mean, first impression of your first teacher?”
I chuckled. “I wondered what he taught, besides snark.”
The girls laughed.
Pushing her long red hair back behind her ear, Donna said, “He's burnt out. He has tenure, so they can't fire him, but he tries to get placed under some kind of suspension every year so he doesn't have to teach. He's supposed to retire soon. They should just arrange some kind of early retirement package for him – he doesn't want to be here.”
I shot her an amused yet confused expression. “Why does he hate teaching so much?”
Cara nodded at me with a wide-eyed expression. “Oh, you should ask him that. He'd love to tell you.”
“Seriously,” another chimed in among them all nodding their heads.
“So,” I said, “Have you all been going to school here for a while? Do you all date? Did you move recently? When was the last time you moved? Are any of you wearing contacts? If so, Cara, can you see at all with contacts and glasses at the same time?”
Giggles raced around the table. My intent had been to sort of point out how they sounded questioning me, but instead they merrily jumbled their voices together as they answered and allowed those answers to float off into new conversations. I thought about that difference between my former peers and this new group – information wasn't exactly freely offered, not right away. As a point of fact I could have used influence on them and gotten some good will and information. It was easy enough to do, although practice would make it easier. For now I needed to try and not use things like that to get by.
“I'm sorry if this is too personal,” Alan/Alison said, tone apologetic. “Your eyes are so pale – does it affect how you see?”
I smiled. “No, it doesn't affect my sight. Just a...family condition.”
A tall boy with obvious muscles, dark blond hair and brown eyes stopped by our table. “Tess. Dad wants you to pick up Georgie. I've got practice and Jay has to work.”
“Okay,” she replied. The boy glanced around the table quickly and left.
“He could have texted,” Donna said. “I think he just wanted to see Cara.”
“He's dating Emma Gregoire,” Cara said with a roll of her eyes.
“Brad swears he thinks she's cheating,” Tess replied. “She's such a bitch.”
I frowned in thought. There had to be more than one Emma, but there was only one I knew of. “Does Emma have brown hair with blond highlights?”
Tess looked at me. “Yeah. She said her mom got the highlights done for her, but we all think she tried it at home. Why?”
I debated for a moment if telling Tess what I'd overheard was the right thing for the situation. How Emma conducted herself in a relationship wasn't my business, and sticking my nose in could be messy. Telling Tess may curry me some favor, which might give me a building block toward a friendship. I didn't have any friends yet, but proving to myself I could earn them here seemed like a good start – even if earning was passing on gossip. You use the currency that's traded where you are.
“She had someone named Kevin hiding in her closet when Brad came to accuse her of cheating,” I told Tess.
Suddenly every eye at the table was focused on me. Questions flew faster than I could process them and I had second thoughts about how smart it had been to open my mouth. It was a kind of assault I wasn't used to. Physical things I could handle – things thrown, ice, fire, classmates – wouldn't break a sweat. A bunch of girls – or mostly girls? - yelling at me? Not so much.
I held up my hands and closed my eyes and took stock of my internal processes. I was equal parts surprised and not at finding my blood pressure and heart rate had elevated. Tapping into my reserves, I pushed both metrics back into their normal place. Once I was sure they wouldn't spike again immediately and that no other issues were occurring, I opened my eyes to the crowd of girls staring at me amid the noisy cafeteria.
“What was that?” Alan/Alison asked.
“Just a self-check,” I said, lowering my hands.
“A what?” asked Cara.
I paused, deciding that a self check may be something they can't or don't do. “Doesn't matter. The short version is I overheard a girl who looked like this Emma girl, telling another girl about how her boyfriend – named Brad – had come to her home unannounced and nearly caught her cheating with someone named Kevin.”
After a moment of silence, dryly Donna said, “Oh. Is that all?”
Feeling unsure due to her response I said, “Well, not all, no. She said Brad had bought her new earrings because of her being angry.”
“That...twunt!” Tess growled. She pulled her phone out and started tapping the screen forcefully. I had a sinking feeling that my gamble wasn't going to pay off. I tried to reexamine the situation for angles I missed. From my position it seemed like providing evidence that her brother's girlfriend had been cheating was a good idea. She didn't like the girl and she likely cared about her brother enough to not want him hurt, unless she was doing the hurting. Sibling logic.
If I tried looking at it from her perspective, wouldn't I want to know? If it were me, I would, even though I have no siblings. We rarely have large families, but we tend to cherish those and trust those in our community.
Well, that may be an issue. I wasn't of their community. In fact, I was no one they knew who just met them and dropped information that was upsetting. My Grandmother's words about choosing when to open my mouth came back to me, and I felt heat settle into my face. First day and I think I screwed things up.
A bell rang deep in the school and people started to stand and jostle toward the exits.
“Hey, what's your handle?” Tess asked, her phone in hand.
“Uh. I broke my phone,” I said uncertainly. In truth I wasn't very adept with the damn thing, except for the occasional search. The thing didn't really suit me, but it would just be odd not to have one. The last thing I needed was for someone to want me to use the damn thing.
“Oh. Well, when you get it back. I'll Snap you.”
She walked away easily, so I figured snapping had less to do with bones than with...whatever she'd meant. I dumped my garbage and stacked my tray before navigating the hallways to my next class – a study hall. Turns out Mr. Halstead and I were seeing each other again. I took a seat and closed my eyes again, once more doing a self check. I pushed down the need to find a bathroom for at least a few minutes; other than that I was in good shape.
The bell rang and Mr. Halstead began to go through his list for attendance and making comments to the class. Most of them seemed to find him amusing, though I assumed some would feign upset with a parent, then that parent would complain and Mr. Halstead would be suspended. I wondered why.
“All right. While I can't believe out of a hundred million sperm, you are the result, I hope some of you are going to follow the rules for as long as I'm running this classroom.” He strode at the front like a ship's captain walking the deck. “This is a study hall, so I expect you to have something to study. If you do not have work that needs doing, then I expect you to bring a book with which to keep yourself quietly occupied. Banned books are preferred.”
“What's a banned book?” a boy asked.
Mr. Halstead looked at the questioner and replied, “It's when mommies and daddies get upset that books may cause you to, you know, think. Can't have that, so it's better to not let you read.”
“Like...what books have been banned and why?” a girl asked. Mr. Halstead looked undeniably pleased. “Catcher in the Rye is probably one of the most challenged or banned books. It has 'bad' language, talks in disparaging ways about minorities, God, women and the disabled, contains premarital sex, alcohol use and prostitution. Sounds like a good time, huh?”
Laughter rippled through the room.
“That sounds nasty,” one girl said.
“It could be,” the teacher said agreeably. “The thing is context always matters. For example, a conversation could be had about prostitution and the perceived positives and negatives about it. It's important to do so because if we pick something – like prostitution – and just say 'No, we can't talk about that! Bad!' then we never learn to think, to challenge, and to grow outside our programming.” He paused. “Which I'm sure most people would prefer.”
I grinned. I liked this guy.
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“What? Here?” Mr. Halstead asked, sounding scandalized.
“Nooo,” the kid groaned. “C'mon.”
“May I go as well?” I asked.
Mr. Halstead looked at me and then back at the other guy. “We all know I'm as progressive as we get, boys, but letting you guys hook up is probably over the edge – even for me.”
Laughter raced around the room again.
“I'm, uh, new. I just don't know where the bathrooms are,” I said.
“Well, Mr. Frost,” Mr. Halstead said, looking at me with an amused expression. “I think you can do better than Mr. Flexen over there – no real future, you know?”
I glanced at the other kid – Flexen – and pulled the corner of my mouth up in amusement. “I'll keep that in mind. Anyone you would recommend, Mr. Halstead?”
“Do you think I run a brothel here?” he said indignantly. “Go find out like everyone else!”
Laughter echoed off the walls and I chuckled as I followed Flexen out the door. Flexen was about my height and was dressed out for exercise more than classes. He had red athletic shoes, shorts and a hooded sweatshirt.
“Ty,” he said, tipping two fingers toward me.
“Nick,” I replied.
“You handle Halstead like you've met him before.”
“No. Just find him amusing.”
“Yeah, he likes to roast people until he gets suspended.,” Ty said agreeably. He led me to the bathroom and then he moved to the window, cracked it open, and lit a cigarette.
“Nah,” I replied and set about relieving my bladder. After washing my hands I headed back to the classroom. Ty asked me to tell Halstead he was shitting, if he asked. As it happens Mr. Halstead didn't seem to notice I'd returned at all. I was curious to ask him why he wanted to leave teaching so badly, but considering how I'd cocked up the situation with Tess, I decided to let my curiosity linger.
At the end of the day I observed the students as they loudly left for home or wherever it was they were going. Some left in cars, others by bus, and still more walked. It wasn't anything notable, but then most of my experience of their world was from watching it on a screen. I went back inside the building and walked down a deserted hallway to a maintenance closet. I reached for the door handle, sent a jolt of will through my hand, unlocking the door, and stepped inside. With a deep breath I focused my will and the world around me shifted, a wind that shouldn't exist twirled my hair playfully, and then I heard the sound of birds and the rustle of wind through trees. Opening my eyes, I was now behind my home in a stand of fruit trees.
Teleportation is such a popular idea. 'Oh!' thinks the normal person, 'I'd never be late again! How convenient! It would save so much time!' I'm here to say that idea is complete bullshit, and the fact I just threw up – again – is just the exclamation point to that statement. Everyone is always so willing to sacrifice if it means it's more expedient. Convenient should be a swear word.
“Some of us never do get used to that, do we?” The tone was polite enough, but the teasing was evident. My grandmother was walking toward me with a basket of fresh berries from our fields, and she smiled at seeing me. “I see you survived a few hours among all the normals. Had your fill?”
“I hate teleportation. That's the worst part of my day.”
She sighed in response. “Don't dodge my question, Nicholas. You know how that makes me testy.”
I shrugged. “It was a little awkward. I was reminded of your lessons about how easily I could make social mistakes.” I sighed. “At times I felt like an elephant trying not to step on them and other times like a grasshopper swarmed by ants.”
“An apt description,” she said with approval. “They are the same as we are, just without the blessing. They have ambitions, dreams, desires...but individually they are usually safer than your former school.”
I grimaced. “I wasn't sure I'd graduate. There were some near misses.”
“I've never understood the term,” she said, shaking her head. “It's not a near miss. It's a near hit!”
I smiled at her. “These normals...it's a radically different way to live.”
“And yet?” she asked tiredly. “You plan to accept.”
I looked away from her. “If I'm to inherit....”
“It's not so straightforward as that. There are always other forces at play,” she said quietly.
“Forces beyond my control.”
“Sometimes. Yet rules are written by the victor.” She paused and looked at me with interest. “I wonder what kind of victory you'll create?”
I smiled back at her. “The idea I'd fail never enters your mind, does it?”
“Not my grandson,” she said with a secretive smile. “And lest you forget, I'm much older than you, and I know more than you'll ever forget.”
“Bold of you to assume how much I can forget.”
She shook her head and her smiled faded. “Nicholas...these tests aren't designed to be fair, you know.”
I tilted my head as I waited for her to continue. Magisterium tests weren't something she'd ever said much about.
She pursed her lips momentarily and then said, “You've grown up in two worlds – your school and at home. The Magisterium thinks putting hormonally imbalanced people full of angst and struggling to figure out who they are all together is a good idea. You've seen the idiocy of this – how many of your classmates died or were majorly injured?”
I shifted on my feet, this opinion being one I'd heard many times.
“Yet when you come home I’ve done my best to create an environment where you could learn about things besides trying to dominate everything you see.” She squinted. “Men are so often about that. Dominating.”
“I don't think I'm very focused on being dominant,” I said.
She nodded. “You've made your mistakes with your blessings, the same as anyone else. A test however...they are left ambiguous, partly to see how you will act in the world, partially to determine where you fit as part of the Magisterium.”
“Is...every magi family part of the Magisterium?”
She shook her head. “Mine wasn't, though that was partly because there wasn't any evidence of blessings in my family line. Old families have their own houses to advocate for them, or to be dominated by another house when votes or other things come up of use.”
“If I...succeed, I'd inherit from my parents.”
She nodded. “My stewardship would end, and you would become master of House Frost, yes.”
“And...if I didn't?”
Her eyes widened, her head tilted to one side, and her shoulders moved as if to shrug, but then she seemed to think better of it. “Presumably your uncle would gain the mantle and the power your parents left behind.”
I looked away from her. “The rules are stupid. Why wouldn't that power have rested with you?”
She straightened up. “If you don't want to do the test....”
I shook my head. “I don't know what would happen if the mantle fell to my uncle. Nothing good. I doubt I'd be rid of them.”
She sighed. “Yes. They resemble an infestation. So different from your father.”
I looked at my grandmother, a tower of strength if there ever was one. “Did my parents test?”
She nodded slowly. “Your father did. Your mother was forced to, but that's how your parents met.” She glanced at me. “I was surprised it took as long as it did for them to have you, considering how...how perfect for each other they were.”
Softly I said, “You still miss her.”
She inhaled loudly and said, “I miss them both. They should have raised you. They should be able to see who you are now, to have had those moments. You'd have been a different person, no doubt.”
I thought for a moment. “If I inherit the mantle for House Frost, then I'd have to play politics with the Magisterium and other magi?”
“If you were an independent magus you'd still play politics; the mantle gives you standing.” She waved her hand. “It's a bunch of invented nonsense anyway.”
Carefully I said, “I think I have to see where this path goes, Grandmother.”
“This is a bad idea. But if you're going to do it, then keep in your mind who you are. Never forget that.”
That evening I sat in what once was my father's study with my grandmother, my uncle, my least favorite cousin, and a council member from the Magisterium – the ruling body. My uncle was my father's brother, but from what I'd heard they'd never really got on. He'd never paid me much attention – I'd been raised by my maternal grandmother after my parents died when I was too young to know them. The circumstances of their death were vague, according to what I knew. I wondered on occasion what they may have been like, but on the whole I was a happy child and hadn't felt a great loss.
The council member – a Mr. Drost – addressed me. “Nicholas Frost, heir to House Frost. The task is to prove your worthiness to be amongst our ranks. I will note for the record that Magi must be able to survive not only among those like us, which your recent graduation has proven.”
Strongest bacteria in a petri dish, I thought sourly.
“The world is not comprised solely of our kind, and so the challenge is to survive among those not like us. You have shown great skill, and your test is to be one of survival – of all types. Should you fail, you will be disavowed by the council and the Magi community.”
“I understand,” I said quietly.
My cousin smiled his evil smile.
“As it happens your cousin will also be given his test this evening,” Magus Drost said, nodding toward Michael. “This will factor quite large in determining the fate of the mantle of House Frost.”
“You accept the challenge?”
I let out a slow breath. “I do.”
“Then it begins.”
I cocked my head. “Now?”
He looked at me grimly. “Now.”
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