Lewis Eklund Butler
It was never a good idea to take the shortcut across Fairview Cemetery; at night it was just stupid. Still, Johnny Wallace had been goaded into it on a dare by two older boys, Bill Stinson and his little brother Greg. Greg was only a year older than Johnny, but Bill was practically in High School. They’d kept after him for almost two hours before Johnny finally agreed to cut the diagonal from the gate at the corner of 7th and Maple to the low spot in the wall near the corner of 10th and Ashe. It was nearly a mile, and the most direct path went right by the pyramid.
The pyramid sat on the crest of one of several hills in Fairview. It stood about twelve feet high, had a heavy metal door set in one of its sides, and two small iron sphinxes flanked the door. Johnny couldn’t stand to walk past the pyramid though, and so detoured around the base of the hill, keeping to the middle of the dry dirt road that wound around the hill. If Johnny stayed on the road he would walk right by the door to the mausoleum, and that would be worse than the pyramid. Johnny turned short of the tall white building and cut directly across lot BB7, one of the oldest sections of the graveyard. Here there where no bronze plaques set in the ground for the convenience of the lawnmower, but rather tall monuments to death. Several of the graves had benches. Some had full-sized angels. Still others where plain white obelisks with no adornment at all beyond the chiseled names: Gray, Ashe, Stinson, Olivant, Knight, Caver, Drake. Every one an old family. Every one with a street name in this small town.
The Drake crypt was a miniature Parthenon with a wrought-iron gate. The old key lock had rusted away years before and now the gate was secured with a large padlock and a length of chain. As Johnny passed it, he heard the unmistakable sound of the chain rattling.
Johnny was almost in the exact center of the cemetery, and the sound seemed to echo off the markers that towered over his head. He looked over at the Drake crypt, his eyes wide with fear, pupils dilated until his iris was little more than a thin river of brown around a gaping void of blackness. The chain was loose, and as Johnny watched it sway back with a heavy clang against the black iron of the gate, he saw too that the gate was opening. Moving slowly and noisily toward him.
Johnny turned and ran. A part of him was telling him he was imagining things. That there was a rational explanation if he’d just stop and think about it. That rational and sensible and grown-up part of Johnny was very small. The rest of Johnny’s young mind was gripped in the inexorable bands of panic. Johnny ran. He ran until he felt his chest was going to explode. He could hear the rapid pulsing of his heart pounding in his ears, sounding like footsteps matching him beat for beat, gaining on him. He felt the rush of cool night wind and he new he was running faster than he’d ever run before. He was up on the balls of his feet, his body leaning forward, trying desperately to get to safety.
The thin quarter of the moon was fast being obscured by clouds. The cemetery was plunging into near total darkness. Johnny felt, more than saw, the shadows deepening—stretching out toward him, little tendrils of blackness.
And when the blow came the world went fiery red and a screaming bolt of pain tore through Johnny from behind. Johnny never saw what killed him, but his last conscious thought was of a heavy weight pressing him down into the soft wet grass of Fairview Cemetery.
Amy Rand was twelve years old and the tallest kid in sixth grade. She’d been the tallest all year. She was also the best athlete, second best speller, and spit-wad champion of the entire school. Of course, there were only 67 kids in the school and only 9 of those were in sixth grade. And only two girls. Despite the limited selection, Amy had two very close friends, both of whom she’d known almost since before she was born. Alex, fourteen days younger, lived just around the corner and had grown up with Amy, especially after Amy’s father died on that business trip in California. James, fourteen and-a-half months older, lived over near the old mill, but James’ mother used to watch Amy during the day when Amy’s mother still worked as a dispatcher for the Sheriff’s Office over in Springdale, the county seat. James was the closest thing to a brother Amy had, or ever would have. They used to joke that they must be secret twins, because each had an identical dimple. Amy on her right cheek, James on his left. They were stunningly deep dimples, and mirror images of each other.
Amy’s hair was straw-blond in the summer and a sort of dirty blond-brown in the winter. She was tall, but not lanky or gangly. Though only twelve she already had an athlete’s body. The body of a runner. Her legs were not scrawny, but well muscled by miles of bicycling. Amy was just big. And strong. She was the only kid her age who could power a baseball over the left field fence. She couldn’t do it often, but she could do it.
Between Alex and James, Amy never had want for other friends. Oh, certainly there were other children who were “friends.” The type who get invited to the birthday parties and whose birthday parties she went to, but nothing like Alex and James. Sometimes it seemed that Amy could go days without talking to anyone else.
It was (Amy decided much later) on the second Monday in May that everything started. Looking back on her journal—never a diary—Amy could easily divide her life up in her mind between everything that happened before that day, and everything after. It started normally enough. Amy was up half-an-hour late and raced out the back door, her lunch in one hand and a backpack strap in the other.
“Amy! Breakfast!” Her mother’s shout could be heard for miles, but Amy pretended not to hear and ran down the steps of the kitchen door, hearing the slap-bang of the screen behind her. She raced across the field behind the house—Amy was always running wherever she went. The bus would stop at her driveway if she waited there, but most of the kids in the area had created a sort of unofficial bus stop at the foot of the O’Reilly’s drive. If you had to wait for the bus it was better to wait with people.
As Amy vaulted the tumbled stone wall that had once divided her family’s land from the O’Reilly’s she started to skip. The grass was already thick and heavy, dragging at her ankles like wet green fingers. Amy was not the type of girl, she often said to herself, to skip. But she liked to, so she did it when no one could see her.
When she arrived at the bus stop the only others there were Sheila and Nancy Calbott, one a sophomore and the other a Senior. There were two schools, and conveniently, they were next to each other so everyone—from kindergarten to high school—rode the same buses.
Within a minute or two, James arrived at the stop. When Alex arrived a few minutes later, Amy and James were already deep in conversation about their summer plans.
Alex was everything Amy wasn’t. Amy was tall; Alex short. Amy’s hair, though blond-ish, was straight as an arrow while Alex’s was blond year-around and curly. Amy wore her hair long, nearly to the middle of her back; Alex’s was barely to her shoulders. Amy was an athlete; Alex was—not. Amy loved Math and English; Alex hated them. Amy hated History and Biology; Alex loved them. Amy played baseball; Alex watched baseball. Alex was a social animal with a large circle of friends; Amy liked the intimacy of having two very close friends. Amy wore jeans and button up shirts almost religiously; Alex wore a dress to school Monday through Thursday, only wearing jeans on Fridays and weekends. About the only thing they shared was a deep love for each other and the fact they were the only girls in their grade and had been since Juliet Morris had disappeared back in second grade. Oh, and they did share one other thing, they were both madly in love with James. They were twelve, they had to be madly in love with someone.
Azra and Gabe arrived with their little sister Adriel almost with Alex. Azra was in eighth grade, and shared most of his classes with James, who was in seventh. Gabe was Azra’s brother, and was graduating with Nancy Calbott in a month. Gabe had just turned eighteen in April.
Bill Stinson and his brother, Greg were the last to arrive, showing up just before the bus pulled up. This was not a standard city school bus; this was one of those miniature school buses that in cities are referred to with disdain as ‘short buses’. It had eight rows of seats in it. Gabe and Azra sat in the back seat, behind the driver. It was where they always sat. The seat in front of them and the one beside them were always empty. Azra and Gabe were in The Gang, and while no one seemed to be quite sure what that meant, or at least no one Amy knew, one thing everyone did know was that The Gang sat alone on the bus. The only exception was that on occasion James would be asked to sit in the seat in front of Azra and Gabe, but that was a recent development and something James was not willing to talk about.
This had been gnawing at Amy for several years, and as she got on the bus that morning, she made a decision. “Alex, come on!” she whispered, and ran to the back of the bus, sitting down in Gabe’s usual seat. She looked up and saw a look of utter shock and amazement on Alex’s pretty, round face. Alex shook her head slowly and sat down two seats in front of her.
Azra and Gabe didn’t even pause. Gabe sat down next to Amy and Azra sat in the seat in front of her, his back against the bus wall and his feet stretched out on the seat in front of him. They rode all the way to school this way, and no one said a word. Actually, the whole bus was unusually quiet that morning.
Amy knew she’d done something wrong, but she couldn’t understand why it was wrong. Her rational mind was rebelling against her instinct. She decided to make the best of it, and play along.
When they got to school though, something happened. Everybody else got off the bus. Everyone. Even the driver got off. Amy was sitting in the back of the bus, empty but for the senior next to her and his kid brother in front of her. Azra was smiling, Gabe wouldn’t look at her.
Amy started to get a queasy feeling. Not exactly fear, she’d known Azra seemingly forever. Their house was only a mile away, and their family had been in the town as long as anyone. She certainly wasn’t scared of him. But there was something in that smile. Something Amy didn’t like.
She glanced around. She could see Alex and James about 50 feet away, watching. Azra was obviously waiting for her to say something, but Amy was not giving in that easily. She matched Azra’s smile as best she could and returned his stare. The smile faltered for a second, and Amy felt she’d won some small victory when Azra started to talk. He had a sort of sing-song cadence to his speech that made him sound like a character in a Broadway musical of “Guys and Dolls”.
“Little chickee trying to cause trouble for us? What’s chickee’s problem?”
Amy had a sudden flash of Gollum from The Hobbit and couldn’t help smiling, even laughing a little. This made Azra obviously angry.
“Look here little girl, don’t fuck with me. Don’t fuck with any of us. Someday you might need one of us, and if you piss me off, no one’s going to be there. You want to end up hanging out in the remedial classes with the Stinsons? I don’t think you want that to happen. Billy Stinson might take a liking to you, and that wouldn’t be too good, eh?”
Amy was confused. Azra didn’t sound like Gollum anymore, nor like a two-bit gangster. He sounded serious. Serious enough that Amy caught no hint of bragging. He was making a threat he was confident he could carry out.
But Amy’s mouth ran away from her before she could stop it, “I’m not a little girl, I’m as big as you are.” This was true (almost), but Amy regretted it the instant she said it. Something interesting happened though. Yes, she saw a flash of anger in Azra’s eyes, but just as quickly it was gone. He laughed. Amy wasn’t expecting that. “Yes, I suppose you are.” Then the laughter stopped and he continued in a low voice, almost a whisper. “You aren’t a bad kid, little girl, not a bad kid at all. Just keep your nose clean and stay out of our business and we don’t have a problem. Understand?”
There was strength in Azra’s voice. Strength and surety. Amy made sure her mouth was firmly closed and nodded her head vigorously. Azra cocked his head at Gabe and Gabe slid over into the other back seat. Amy got up and left the bus.
James just looked at her and shook his head. “You sure know how to cause trouble.” She though she spotted the shadow of a smile there.
Alex didn’t say anything, but as they walked in to the little school building she couldn’t help asking what happened. Amy looked at James and thought she saw a shifting in his eyes, saying “No.”
“Nothing, actually. They just asked me not to do it again.”
Alex knew Amy was lying; Amy knew Alex knew she was lying, but they both feigned ignorance and went to class. Sometimes a friendship means not having to tell the truth when your friend knows you’re not telling the truth.
Recess was the one time of day that Alex and Amy almost always spent apart. Alex like to play on the swings, or play tetherball, hang from the rings, or even occasionally play jacks with the younger girls. Amy played baseball. On rain days she played basketball and pretended it was baseball.
With a school as small as this one, the teams for baseball were set in stone years before. There was no choosing up sides. Bill Stinson was the captain of one team (Amy always thought of them as The Bad Guys) and Gabe was the captain of the other team (The Good Guys). Amy batted fifth, a noticeable promotion from were she started the year batting ninth, second to last. Amy, fearless, played catcher. The Bad Guys had nine players, eight boys. The good guys had ten players, six boys. Bill and Billy pitched. Greg Stinson caught for The Bad Guys. Unlike the westerns Amy watched some Sunday mornings, The Bad Guys almost always won. Amy didn’t care though, these recess games were just practice for summer. Gabe was an excellent athlete, but frankly, everyone else on the Good Guys was pretty pathetic. Even James.
The Friday after Amy’s stunt on the bus, something else happened that Amy thought, at the time, was a turning point.
There was something about that day’s game, Bill Stinson was in rare form, zinging the ball past several player’s heads. Amy noticed some of The Bad Guys glancing at each other, and at Greg. Greg felt their stares and shrugged a shoulder. Something was going on, but Alex didn't know what. It was odd that no one was looking at Bill.
In the second inning Amy had to dive onto the plate to avoid being hit. This was not softball, this was baseball. A fast pitch to the head could—maybe—kill you. And it was just recess, so there were no batting helmets. There was quite a bit of grumbling from several players, not all of them Good Guys. James got hit in the hip in the third and a fight almost started then. It wasn’t until late in the third when James came up again (it was a good day for The Good Guys at bat) that the trouble really started.
James was low in his stance, his batting helmet low over his eyes. He was crouched down more than usual and Bill was finding the strike zone hard to hit. James was at three balls and no strikes when a perfect fat pitch came in. James unloaded on it and drove a line drive right into Oscar Waits, playing shortstop. Oscar crumpled to the ground without a sound, a large red mark on his forehead. Everyone stood there in shock for a second, then someone started running to the school. A whole group of kids took off, some to find Mr. O’Reilly , some to get the nurse, and some just to get away. James was still standing at home plate, the bat limp in his hand. Bill Stinson still stood on the mound—actually, more like a pit—and everyone else was gone. Amy, who was next up, was standing by the backstop.
“You did that on purpose!” Bill Stinsons voice was enraged.
James didn’t notice. “Come on Bill, like I could aim a shot like that? That’s just silly.”
Bill had spent the time James’s was talking walking to home plate, stopping an inch or two in front of James, towering over him. “You fucking nigger! You did that on purpose!” The last was a shout, delivered with a vicious left hook that threw James to the ground. The bat, left suddenly alone, balanced on its rounded end for a second, then clanged over onto home plate. Bill towered over James, waiting for him to get up. James had his hands over his face.
Amy, not thinking, ran out to James, pushing Bill back. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you asshole! Any moron would know that wasn’t intentional.” Amy rarely cursed, but her anger was running away without her.
“Get out of here you cunt!” Bill said with a sneer. Amy was looking up almost a foot to see Bill’s eyes. Without thinking, she drove her left knee into Bill’s groin, doubling him over in pain and shock. She swung up with both fists, catching him full in the face. Her left hand crushed his mouth, her right powered into his left cheek. Bill Stinson reared up, and Amy was sure she was dead. But then a wonderful thing happened, Bill Stinson kept rearing, toppling over backwards with a thud. His hands still clutched his groin, and after he hit the ground he rolled onto his right side and drew his legs up in a fetal position.
And Amy ran. Ran before anyone saw her. Ran before Mr. O’Reilly could get back. Ran. She found herself in the bathroom minutes later, the rush there completely forgotten. Her hands were both bloody, and she turned on the faucet to wash the blood and stop the bleeding. There was a deep cut on her left hand. The blood on her right hand wasn’t hers, though, no cuts. She decided her ring must have cut Bill when she hit him.
Then the adrenals cut off the faucet and Amy almost passed out. She dashed to a toilet and threw up. She spent the rest of recess and most of the next period sitting on the cool tile floor next to the toilet. The school was in chaos, and she wasn’t missed. An ambulance had come and taken Oscar to the hospital in Springdale.
For Alex the oddness that was Sixth Grade began the day that Amy beat-up Billy Stinson, the third Friday in May; the end of the school year was looming in front of her like some wonderful magic gate, leaning into a idyllic summer pasture. But then Amy beat-up Bill and everything in her life changed. Before that her life had been—for lack of a better word—normal. At least as normal as she thought anyone’s life could be. She lived in a small town surrounded by farms. Her parents owned 100 acres they used to breed horses. She raised rabbits and pigs. They were not pets; they were food. And while she loved them and named them, she was a farm girl and didn’t cry just because ol’ Snorter was now a ham, some smoked bacon, and a jar of pigs feet. Or at least no one saw her.
Bill Stinson was a thug. Worse than that, he was a red-neck thug. He drank cheap beer seemingly by the gallon, drove a dilapidated pickup truck, and wore a lot of plaid. In sort, he was a walking, chew-spitting, shit-kicker wearing, drawling stereotype. If he’d lived a couple hundred miles south, he would have had Confederate flag stickers on his rear window and a gun rack. Alex hated Bill, and had done for most of her life.
Alex was worried. Bill was not a kid anymore, and he was not above doing some serious harm to someone, maybe worse. Amy didn’t show up for class after lunch. James was there with a bandage covering his left cheek. That side of his face was puffy, but so far James’s dark skin was hiding any signs of bruising. Alex wondered why James’s hadn’t been let out, but then she realised that he’d be going home to an empty house.
Amy sat on James’s left, and couldn’t help looking at the bandage on his face over and over. She tried to talk to James, but he was withdrawn and answered her questions with mumbles. Alex gave up when Amy finally came into class. Mr. Martin looked at her when she walked in, then looked away. He went on talking about—actually, Alex had no idea what he was talking about—as he pointedly did not look at her. Amy took her seat on James’s right side. The three of them shared a single long table that was pushed up against the back of Mr. Martin’s desk. This was not a punishment, it was just that the classroom was small and the back of it was given over to aquariums and terrariums, so everyone was pushed to the front. Despite the fact that Mr. Martin’s seat was less then 6 feet from Amy’s, he managed not to notice she’d missed most of this period.
A few minutes into their next, and last, period, but still in Mr Martin’s class, James was summoned to the Principal’s office. He did not return. When school let out, Amy and Alex stood by the bus looking for him. Gabe and Azra walked toward them.
“James is OK,” Azra began, “His mother picked him up and took him home.” He smiled the smile of a doctor trying to reassure his patient that the cancer wasn’t terminal: a reptile’s smile; a liar’s smile. After a momentary pause, he went on, “Come on, we need to talk.” He got on the bus, but Gabe stood beside them, waiting. Alex looked at Amy, who shrugged and got on the bus. Amy followed, and Gabe came last. Alex couldn’t help the feeling they were being escorted.
Azra was in his usual seat, Gabe indicated that they should sit in the seat in front of Azra. Alex’s mind went back to Monday and she stopped short. She watched as Amy, after a moment’s hesitation, sat down in front of Azra. Gabe was standing right behind her, but he waited like he had all the time in the world. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t prod her. He didn’t point out the seat to her in case she’d missed it. In short, he didn’t do any of the things most people would have done. He simply waited for the inevitable acceptance.
Alex went and sat next to Amy. Amy was relaxed. Or rather Amy was working very, very hard to appear relaxed. Alex was not relaxed. She sat forward, perched on the the edge of the bus seat, her books clenched to her chest.
Nothing happened for a long time. No one spoke, and the bus filled up with the usual group, plus three of what Amy and Alex called “The Stinsons” in the same way that someone might refer to “The James Gang”. None of these where actually Stinsons, but they were in that group. This was not their normal bus.
The bus left the school. Azra pulled Alex back by the shoulders, “Just fly casual, ‘k?” She sat back finally, and Azra patted her shoulders in a way that was oddly comforting.
The bus pulled out, and Azra leaned forward and put his head between Amy and Alex. “Now listen up, girls. You’re both getting off at Amy’s stop, and I mean her regular stop, not the Olson’s. Alex, you’re going to stay for dinner, and then your parents are going to pick you up. You are not to walk home alone under any circumstances. If something happens, call me and Gabe will drive you home.
“Now don’t argue,” he put his hand on Alex’s shoulder to stop her objections, “we don’t want you to get hurt.”
Alex was scared. “But I didn’t do anything!” she whispered.
“No,” Azra said, “But Bill might just decide that a good way to get back at Amy is to hurt you.”
Both girls gasped.
“Now I’m not saying that’s going to happen. It’s not. But just to be absolutely sure, you two are going to do exactly what I tell you. Now, here’s my phone number, if your parents can’t pick you up, call. Gabe will drive you home. By tomorrow morning you won’t have anything to worry about, OK? We’ll take care of it.”
“Like you took care of James?” Amy said in a low voice. Alex gaped at her, but Azra just laughed.
“Bill lost his cool with James and thought he could get away with one. He was mad enough to forget. He won’t forget again. He won’t come anywhere near either one of you—ever.” Azra chuckled to himself, “I hope neither of you had your heart set on marrying the goon, cuz it ain’t going to happen!”
Alex smiled and Amy actually managed a laugh.
Gabe slid over next to Azra, “Any reason why you couldn’t stay with Alex, Amy?”
“Azra said…” Amy started.
“It might be better if you stayed with Alex though. Think your mom’s will let you sleep over?” Gabe said.
“Sure, I guess. My mom’s pretty easy, and she knows Mrs. Ryan. We can come up with something.”
“What do you think, Azra?” Gabe said.
“That sounds good.” Gabe slid back to the other seat. “That might work out better, especially if you two can swing the sleep over.”
The bus pulled up to the Olson’s mailbox and a large group spilled out, including Azra, Gabe, Alex, Amy, the three boys from the Stinson Gang, and various other kids.
None of the Stinson gang were stupid enough to say anything when Alex and Amy walked off with Gabe and Azra, but they watched until all four of them turned up the Ryan’s driveway. Azra and Gabe walked the girls to the door, made sure they got in, and then went home.
A brief phone call later and the evening was set. Mrs. Rand and Mrs. Ryan were under the impression their girls had some studying to do together, and permission was granted for a sleep over as long as the girls were in bed by nine. They were in bed by eight-thirty, lying on their backs in Alex’s double bed and looking at the ceiling.
“Didya notice,” Alex started, “how Gabe acted? He came over, made a suggestion, waited to see if Azra liked it, and then left.”
“So?” Amy shrugged, rustling her pillow.
“And then Azra said, ‘Here’s my phone number.’ and ‘Gabe will drive you home.’”Amy sat up and looked at Alex, “Say, that’s right!”
“Isn’t that weird? I mean, Gabe’s four years older, you wouldn’t think he’d act like Azra was the boss.”
Alex lay back down, put her hands behind her head, and starred, unfocussed, at the ceiling.
“And Azra was so calm about everything, like he’d done this a thousand times. It was weird.”
“Yeah, it was weird. Not as weird as sitting with The Gang, but weird.”
They lay quietly for a while. There was a gentle knock on the door and Mrs. Ryan poked her head in. “Are you two asleep yet?”
“Not yet, Mom.”
“There’s a phone call for you. A boy. I told him I thought you were asleep, but he asked me to check. He was very polite and apologized for calling after eight, but that it was important.”
“Who is it?” Amy asked.
“I think it’s that Angel boy with the funny name, Gabriel’s younger brother.”
Both girls vaulted out of bed, nearly tripping over each other in the rush to the phone.
“Hello? Azra?” Alex held the phone away from her ear so Amy could hear too.
“Hey chickies, don’t worry, but we didn’t get a chance to converse with Mr. Stinson this evening. Gabe and I will pick you up in the morning, Gabe’s driving us to school. Got to run, but don’t worry!” He emphasized his last two words and hung up.
The girls looked at each other as Alex hung up the phone.
“Aren’t you two a little young to be talking to boys, much less ninth-grade boys?” Mrs. Ryan looked at her daughter and Amy disapprovingly.
“Oh Mom!” Alex said, blushing despite herself, “He’s only in eighth-grade.”
“It’s nothing Mrs. Ryan, Azra just wanted us to do something for the Ditch Day.”
Mrs. Ryan grimaced, the idea of an organized ditch day the last Friday of class had never appealed to her, even when she was in High School, but it was a long standing tradition, so what could she say. “Well, you two get to bed now, it’s nine o’clock.”
The two girls climbed back into the bed and resumed staring up at the ceiling.
“That was fast thinking, Amy.”
“What?” Amy said.
“That ditch-day thing you told my mom. I couldn’t think of anything to say. How did you come up with that so fast?”
Amy looked at her friend, “It just popped into my head. I haven’t even been thinking about ditch-day. I mean, it’s for the high school anyway.”
They lay quietly for a few minutes with only the plastic bluebird night light to keep them company.
In the morning, Azra and Gabe, as promised, were waiting in Gabe’s car to take the girls to school. The winter had been very heavy, and in order to make up some lost days the school week was extended in May to include Saturdays. Adding weeks onto the end of the year was more normal, but that had never worked in this largely rural community where many kids where expected to help work the farms during the summer. The school day was uneventful, except for a sign someone taped above the hot tables in the cafeteria that said in large red letters, “GLASS JAW BILL.” As promised, the Stinson Gang left the girls alone, and the last few days of school proceeded without incident. Alex and Amy seemed to have been allowed some sort of privilege though, they sat in the second to last seat now, right in front of Azra and James.
James’s pivot point was several months earlier, not at the end of the school year in May, but back in February. James was conflicted. He was not just one of the only black kids in school, he was the only black kid in school. Mostly, this had not been that much of a problem. Sure, there were some kids who avoided him, but, he reflected, that was true of everyone, wasn’t it? The same people that avoided him avoided Alex and Amy too, so it wasn’t the color of his skin, just who he was. The teachers didn’t seem to care one way or the other. James was a bright kid, and he kept pace with Alex, who was generally the best student in the school. Most of the time he didn’t feel like his race was an issue. Most of the time.
He’d been friends with Amy forever, they practically grown up as brother and sister, in fact. Mrs. Rand’s job as a dispatcher often forced her to work late into the evening. And Alex, well, James could only smile, thinking of their first meeting.
It was the first day of kindergarten (it was James’s second year in the class) and all the kids had been brought to school by their parents (or by someone) for that first day. Alex and Amy were sitting together when James arrived. Alex saw him and walked up to him.
“You’re James, aren’t you?” She demanded.
“Why are you brown like that?”
There was a stunned silence from the adults. Everyone froze. James shrugged. “I dunno. This is the color I always am.”
Alex considered this for a minute while she looked at him and he looked at her. Hair in pigtails, blond like straw. A white dress with pink ribbons. White stockings and saddle shoes. James still remembers. “OK, you sit with us, right?”
“OK,” James said. He’d sat between Amy and Alex in most of his classes ever since.
But James’s mind was always drawn back to February when Gabe made his offer. Actually, come to think of it, it wasn’t so much an offer as it was an appointment: an Assignment. The idea that James was allowed to refuse was not even considered.
The process had been slow, as James knew it would be. The final ceremony wasn’t until the end of May. In the meantime he’d been told a lot of things that he had to remember. Not just remember, but memorize. Nothing was ever written down.
After the fight with Bill, (though could you really call a sucker punch a fight?) things got awkward for James and the girls. There was so much he wanted to say, but couldn’t. Sometimes, the way Alex looked at him, he was sure she knew.
James was quiet for a few days, and he had a little strip of tape on his cheek for over a week, but he did manage to thank Amy. It was difficult for James, he was not a good secret keeper, and he didn’t like to keep anything from his best friends. Talking to Alex and Amy was getting harder everyday. He was starting to regret agreeing to Gabe’s offer, although it was Azra’s offer now.
On the last Thursday, the day before the ditch day, Azra told James where the Ditch Day was going to be. James had been half-hoping, half-expecting this. What he was not expecting was what followed, “Oh, yeah,” Azra paused as if he was remembering something, why don’t you invite the girls?”
James was surprised. Ditch Day usually only included the High School students and some very few younger boys, like him and Azra. He wasn’t sure any sixth-graders had ever been included, and was almost positive no sixth-grade girls had been.
Dover Ditch-Day had a long tradition, and like most long traditions, this one had settled into a certain set of semi-official rules. It was understood that the last day of school was optional for the children in ninth through twelfth grades. It was also understood that it was not a free-for all, but an organized activity. Once, about 20 years back, three high-schoolers were killed on ditch-day playing chicken with a train down at Miller’s Crossing. Ever since then, ditch-day had become a sort of ritual. The location was not announced until “Last Thursday” and usually late in the day. Occasionally a few younger children got in on the party.
This year, ditch-day was going to be at Wavy Wonder, a water park about a two hour drive on the other side of Middleburry. Most students would be getting there on the school bus. A few would be driving. Alex and Amy were going to go with James who was riding with Richard, one of the escorts. Gabe’s car was already full.
The Escorts were a group of young men (almost always men) who volunteered their time for the ditch-day. Usually they were only a few years out of high school. Richard had graduated last year and was enrolled in a Police Training School. He was hoping to get a job as Sheriff’s Deputy for Platt County.
Wavy Wonder was in its first full week of operation for the summer and since it was a school day, the place was practically abandoned. The 93 kids and escorts made up nearly half of the days attendance. It was a huge success. James and Amy and Alex spent most of the day together, except for a period about an hour long when James, along with about half the other boys, disappeared. When he got back, the girls prodded him with questions, especially Amy, but he just shook his head and smiled, “You ask too many questions, Amy.”
“You got that right!” laughed Alex, grabbing up Amy and James’s hands, “Now shut up and let’s ride the Flume!”
“Oh no, not again.” Amy protested in mock horror. The Flume had become Alex’s favorite ride, basically because it gave a good opportunity to splash a lot of water on people and the three of them could ride it together.
When they got off the ride, every square inch of their bodies dripping water, they came out of the exit and ran right into Bill and several of his friends. Alex was in the middle, holding James’s hand in her right and Amy’s in her left. Bill towered over her. Alex took a step back and pulled on Amy and James. Bill was not supposed to be there.
“Go away Bill.” Alex said. Amy could feel Alex’s hand trembling,
Bill never said a word, just looked at the three of them and seemed to glower. There was still a scratch from Amy’s ring, but the two stitches were out. Amy saw it and smiled, pleased with herself. Bill noticed, but turned towards James, “You may have friends to protect you now, but they’re not always going to be around. It’s a long summer.”
James looked at Bill, tilted his head to the right, an said, “That’s where you’re wrong, Billy, my friends will always be around, and you know it.” He put a stress on the word ‘friends’ that he knew Bill would understand. He called him Billy just because he knew he could get away with it.
Amy, however, missed the subtleties of the situation. She was mad. No, she was enraged, “Hey you oaf! He’s not the one that improved your face with that cut. If you’d like one to match, I can switch my ring to my right hand this time!” Amy showed her left fist, the small ring gleamed in the sun.
James got a sinking feeling in his stomach, then he felt his stomach doing rolls. What was she doing? Didn’t she realise Bill was dangerous?
Bill’s face turned a most fierce shade of purple. Amy laughed. “I bet you didn’t tell your goons that it was a girl that laid you out like a well-stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving morning, huh?”
Alex and James started laughing too, at first a little nervously. Bill spun on his heel and stomped away. After a second look at Amy, the goons followed.
“Oh Amy!” James gasped between laughing, “I could kiss you! The look on Bill’s face, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
“Did you see?” Alex choked out, “Did you see his hands shaking? Ooo boy! You sure pissed him off! Amy, you’re terrible!” Alex did kiss her, first on one cheek, then the other.
“Oh come on you guys,” Amy said, “let’s go on the River Ride or something!”
It had been a funny scene, but James was worried. He had to make sure Azra knew about this.
On the first day of vacation Amy got her hair cut. She had it very short around her neck and ears in a hairstyle that was at least ten years too old for her, but she’d insisted that her long braid was childish and got in her way. Mrs. Rand still mourned for Amy’s long hair, but she had to admit, the short hair suited Amy’s smudged face. Amy, with a tomboy’s concern for fashion, liked it because her batting helmet fit better.
With the start of summer vacation Alex and Amy and James, and occasionally Azra, spent most of their days together. Alex was in love. James was uncomfortable.
Summer time consisted of baseball, mostly, and a lot of bike riding. Mr. Caver, the father of Amy and Alex’s teacher, was the coach of the team. He’d been a bit of a star in high school and college and had even played for two years in the minor leagues. He was a funny old man who loved kids and loved stories. He also liked to win, so the team worked hard. James and Amy both played, as well as Barry Simons and Mark Anderson. Bill Stinson was good enough to be on the team, but Mr. Caver had kicked him off last year for getting in a fight with Mark.
There was an uneasy truce between Barry Simons, the only “Stinson” on the team, and the boys in The Gang. Barry wasn’t actually a bad kid, he just had bad taste in friends. He’d latched on to Bill back in second grade and never seemed to get over it.
Now this team was not an official Little League team, what it really was, was a Junior Varsity team that allowed anyone over 12. Mr. Caver coached the high school team, and this was his minor league. Having been a minor leaguer himself, there was a certain fondness in his heart for this team. Rather than expecting them to always succeed, he encouraged them to play their best. He did stress fundamental skills, and always had an eye for future prospects for the High School team. And he did like to win.
Once, last summer, Bill’s father (and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in that family) got in a shouting match with Mr. Caver about whether or not the team was playing to win or not. Mr. Caver summed it up, “Mr. Stinson, if you are interested in seeing an enjoyable game, feel free to stay. If you want to see a team driven to win, I advise you to stick with the High School team.” Mr. Caver had a .724 winning record with the high school team in 21 years, including three State Championships and a 34 game winning streak.
The first three games of the season went very well, with the Spelunkers winning all three games by wide margins, despite the fact that most of the opponents were considerably older. Alex did quite well, hitting a home run and batting 4 for 12 as the starting right fielder. Her defensive skills were still a little weak, but she worked hard, including an extra hour each practice with Mr. Caver and two other kids.
It was the fourth game that changed Amy’s summer, although the events the last twelve days of school certainly had a bearing.
The game was against a YMCA youth league team named The Mustangs. Their team emblem was not a horse, but a car.
Bill was on the team. No one knew Bill was playing since Mr. Caver kicked him off the team, but there he was playing catcher.
Amy’s first at bat was a disaster, she was so nervous she swung wild at the first three pitches, even though one was clearly over her head. When she came back to the dugout, dragging her bat, Mr. Caver sat her down on the bench and asked her what was wrong.
Amy, in a rush, explained the whole story as well as she could. Mr. Caver smiled at her account of the “fight.” He sat down next to her, put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Buck up kid. You did something everyone who’s ever known Bill Stinson has wanted to do. A lot of people owe you for it, even if they don’t know it. Besides, you got away with it! You should be proud. Now next time you go up to bat, I expect you to hold your head up and play smart. Bill’s got nothing on you.”
Amy had expected to be benched for the rest of the game. But the next time she came up she dug in, played smart, and drew a walk on 7 pitches; two fouls, a called strike, and four balls. The next batter up popped out to left field, but Amy tagged up and reached second. One out.
The next batter was Mark, and he belted a ground ball between the first and second basemen. Amy got her signal and rounded third at a dead sprint. She was fast, and the third base coach knew it. The throw home beat her, by half a step, but she charged Bill, sprung over him, knocking the ball out of his glove with her right knee as she went over the top, and scrapping her left arm across home plate. The umpire saw the ball on the ground and spread his arms out, “Safe!”
Amy dusted herself off and limped into the dugout. Every inch of her body hurt. She’d scrapped her arm badly, her thigh was sore, she’d landed on her right arm, and her elbow was tingling. But she was smiling. Mr. Caver was smiling too.
She warmed the bench the rest of the game, but she was happy. Her one run was the margin of victory, and she’d shamed Bill once again; this time in front of a crowd.
It was the next day that Azra told her she’d been nominated for membership in The Gang. He explained that James would act as her sponsor and explain to her what she needed to do.
“Did James nominate me?” Amy asked.
“No,” Azra said, and walked off.
It was a long month for Amy, studying and memorizing and going over everything James told her, over and over again until she had it all, forwards and backwards: Dates, names, places, events; the whole history of the town and of the Gang. Finally, it was time for the ceremony. Two days after, Amy wrote about it in her journal. She named her journal “Rudolph.”
I did it! I told you I was going to do it and I did. And I wasn’t even scared when Azra gave me the knife. Well, maybe a little. And Rudy, everyone was there! I mean everyone! Even the older kids, like Azra’s brother Gabe, and Richard (and he’s nineteen!). It was so exciting. James told me it was the biggest ceremony ever for The Gang. I guess everyone wanted to see if The Girl would go through with it! Well, I showed them, I didn’t even cry. No, really Rudy, not a single tear. Later on they teazed me about it, and James said that Aaron told him that even Azra cried when he went through the initiation.
Let me try and remember everything, that way it will be like you were there too, and I won’t have to explain things to you later on.
The first thing that happen was the roll call. James, who they call “sargent-of-arms” or something read off the names of each member, and they all had to say “Present” just like in school. And if someone wasn’t there, then someone had to say why (like when Timmy Smith had mumps and I had to tell Miss Caver). But everyone was there today (except for Mark Anderson). When they got to his name Azra called out, “Sir Mark has journeyed to his father’s castle and shall not return until Michaelmass” just like that! They could have just said he was in Chicago visiting his dad for the summer! But everything was real formal, like Church. But not like Church, like Church in the movies.
Then he read the names of all the kids who were there but weren’t members anymore, James said this was the Honor Call. It was all very mysteryus. After that Azra went over to the club table and took the sheet off and opened it up (‘member I told you the club table was a big box?) Anyways, he took out this long red cape and a big knife, like a hunting knife or something. James said it was a Booee knife, but I don’t know what that is. Then Azra put on the cape and said some stuff, mostly telling everyone that I was a new initiate (James taught me that word today) and what I’d done to be worthy (mostly stuff about aiding members and proving my bravery in pounding on Bill Stinson and then scoring that run). It was all very serious, and even Richard didn’t laugh or smile. I know it all sounds funny now, but it wasn’t funny at all then. James said it was a ritual, and that rituals only seem odd to people who don’t know what they mean. Then Azra got out this big metal cup with two handles on it and filled it with wine, at least I think it as wine, almost to the top. Then he closed the box, and set the cup and the knife on the table.
All the current members, except for Mark Anderson of course, gathered around really close. I mean really close. They packed in so tight that my knees were pushed against the box and I had to put my hand down to keep from being pushed ONTO the box. Azra held his right hand up, spread his fingers, and poked his middle finger with something he had hidden in his other hand. When he did this everyone held up their right hands and said “Brotherhood, Eternal,” real serious like. Then Azra squeezed his finger until a big drop of blood oozed out and plooped right into the cup. and vanished.
James, who was right behind me, whispered what I needed to do then, and even though I knew, it was a good thing he was there cuz I was pretty much frozen. Anyways, I held out my hands to Azra and he put the “booee” knife in my left hand.
I didn’t expect this. Everyone had told me that Azra would make the cut, but now James was telling me to hold my right hand straight up and to put the knife point against the skin just below my first finger. I did it. Rudy, I swear, I don’t know how I did it. And when the point of the knife pushed in, it was so sharp that a drop of blood appeared right away.
James put his left arm around my stomach and held me tightly. It hurt. Then he told me, “Down and away Amy, but keep your right hand steady, don’t cut too deep.”
And I did it. I still don’t know why I did it. Or how I did it. Looking back on it, it seems like a stupid thing to do. But at the time... I can’t explain it. It was like I didn’t have a choice. Or like it wasn’t me. But it was me. I think this is what James meant about rituals. It was like the ritual itself was alive, and more important than my hand.
The knife slid through my palm like butter, it was smooth and easy and I didn’t even feel it. And just for a second I thought I could see the grid of cells before the blood swelled up and started running. James shot forward with his right hand and grabbed my hand in his, forcing my hand closed and shoving it over the cup. The blood ran out over our fingers and into the cup. Quite a lot of blood. I felt a little woozy. Once the cup was full, Azra opened my hand, poured something on it (James said it was alcohol, but I didn’t feel it, so maybe it was water) and wrapped my hand tightly with a bandana. He smiled at me then and said, “Good cut.” The rest of The Gang repeated it after him, in a chanting sort of voice, “Good Cut!” as Azra picked up the cup and touched it to his lips. The cup was passed to everyone (well, all the active members), ending up with James last. He drank from it and handed me the cup. I looked down at it and saw it was still about half full, and the blood and the wine, if it was wine, hadn’t mixed very well, so most of the blood was globbed at the bottom. I looked around, and everyone’s lips had a little red spot in the middle.
I didn’t know what to do! Rudy, no one told me about this part! I didn’t know whether to just take a sip or if I had to drink it all! I looked at James, but he just smiled at me and nodded, so I took the cup in both hands and drank it all. It was warm, and sweet and salty all at the same time. It almost made me gag, it was so slimy, but I drank it all and I didn’t spill any.
I slammed the cup down on the box and held onto it for a minute. Those handles on it turned out to be useful! Then I wiped my mouth with the back of my right hand, where the bandanna was, and straightened up.
It was so quiet Rudy, I could hear the water from Sandy Creek. The older boys had all come forward and one of them (I think it was Billy Edison) put his hand under my chin and lifted my head back while Azra looked at the cup. Billy, or whoever it was, ran his hand along the collar of my shirt and over the shoulders and down the front, like he was looking for something. When he let go, everyone stood back from the table.
Azra whispered, but it was like a shout in that room, “The cup is empty.”
Everyone looked at me. This was the worst Rudy! I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. Everyone was so serious, even James looked shocked. I looked around for a comforting face, but there weren’t any. Finally, Azra’s brother Gabe came forward, took the red robe of his brother, and stood in front of me.
I don’t know if I’ve told you about Gabe, but he’s HUGE. I mean, he’s like at least twice as big as I am, and he’s even on the football team in high school. So I felt pretty small standing in front of him.
“Do you know what you’ve done little girl?”
NO! I wanted to shout! No one told me what to do, this isn’t fair, I didn’t know. I glared up at him, and I was mad. I was really mad, Rudy. I wanted to kick him, to make him tell me what I was supposed to do. “My name is Amy, not ‘little girl.’” Was all I managed to say though.
He looked suprized, and I heard a few people gasp. I didn’t care though! I’d done everything I’d been told to do, and it wasn’t my fault that they changed the rules. But Gabe laughed, “No, I don’t suppose you are a little girl anymore. From now on, your name will be Sir Amy, First Champion of the Cup.”
“But she’s a GIRL!” someone shouted.
“Silence!” Gabe roared. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Gabe shout before. It was like thunder in that room, or a roar, loud and deep and impossible to argue with. He looked around and then said “Let it be written that on the eighty-fifth day of Lord Azrael the first, Master of the Table of The Sacred Order of the Knights of the Cup, on this day was proclaimed the good Sir Amy: First Champion of the Cup!”
Rudy, I can’t begin to tell you what it felt like, but I know that I will never ever ever ever ever forget those words, or what it felt like to hear them. There were a few more gasps and some shocked faces, but no one said a word except Gabe.
“Let it also be written that on the first day of Sir Amy’s fourteenth year she will be titled, Lord Amy, Champion of the Cup and Master of the Table, unless just cause may be shown to prevent her ascension.”
Then he turned to me and said, “Congratulations Amy, you’ve done what no one else has ever done. Fitting you should be first in everything.” Then he turned to everyone else and said, “Three cheers for Sir Amy!” and everyone answered him, “Brotherhood! Eternal!” three times.
It was right about now that my hand started to hurt, but I didn’t care. Everyone was congratulating me and slapping me on the back and James explained it all to me. When The Gang (or the Sacred Order of the Knights of the Cup as it was actually called, but that name is a secret) was started by four twelve year old boys they wrote into the club rules exactly how the initiation ceremony was supposed to take place, including the lies. And in those rules it said that anyone who passed the initiation by drinking ALL the blood and not spilling any would be named into the “Champions of the Cup” but no one had ever done it. No one else, I mean. This also meant that when I turned 14 I would take over Azra’s position as Master of the Table, a title he was expecting to have held until his 18th birthday, like his brother before him.
I wonder if he's mad about that?
No one commented on the bandage Amy wore on her right hand for the better part of a week, except Amy’s mother. Mr. Caver merely raised his right eyebrow when he saw it, and of course Amy was starting to learn why.
Since her performance in the blood ritual, she’d been spending 4 hours a day with Azra or Gabe or Richard, and sometimes James, learning about The Gang. What she found out was that The Gang had been around for more than 100 years, and that just abut every important adult male in the town had been a member. The Sheriff, five of the seven city councilors, six members of the state House, one member of the State Senate, the current front-runner for Governor, and one of the US Senators for the state. Rather an impressive lineup, Amy thought. And all from a small rural county.
She also learned the reason for The Gang’s existence, but that wasn’t until much later.
Now that Amy knew about the SOKC, she started to notice little signs of The Gang’s presence in the town and surrounding areas. The seal on the two police cars said “Service Order Knowledge Courage” for example. There was a design in the frieze of the courthouse that Amy had never noticed before that contained the four letters all combined into a design. The order of the streets from Main were 2nd, 3rd, 4th, Stinson, Olivant, Knight, and Caver; the last names of the original four members of SOKC. Subtle clues abounded now that she was looking for them.
As she learned more about the history of the Sacred Order of the Knights of the Cup, she became more confused. The reason for the existence of The Gang, over the course of so many years, with hundreds, if not thousands, of members was not explained. The purpose of the club was “to protect the light from the darkness” which, really, meant nothing at all when she thought about it. She asked Azra about this, but he simply said, “It’s not time for that, not yet.” She talked to James, but he pointed out he’d only been initiated two months before she was, and didn’t know anything.
“Look, James, a club like this doesn’t go one for 100 years. Four kids do not just get together and start up a club that has their grand children and great-grandchildren as members.” Amy sat on her bed, legs folded under her and leaning back against a nest of pillows. James sat facing her. They’d been quizzing each other on the names of the Masters of the Table. Amy continued, “Not and keep it a secret, at least. There has to be a purpose.” She paused, “There has to be an enemy.”
“There’s the Stinsons?”
Amy was exasperated, “Not for the last 100 years there’s not! Besides, Bill’s great-great-grandfather was one of the founders! It has to be something real. Something... It has to be something...” Her voice trailed off. “Bigger,” She finally finished. Amy looked at James. “I think I’m beginning to think this was a bad decision.”
James leaned in, his mouth inches from her ear, “I know. I’m scared too. But I think we don’t have a choice anymore. We’re in, and we’re not getting out.”
Unnoticed, Alex was walking down the hallway toward Amy's room. The soft carpet absorbed the sound of her sneakers perfectly. She heard voices and stopped. She didn't mean to eavesdrop, exactly. But Amy and James had been acting… well, strange recently. And they’d been spending a lot of time together. There was a tightness in Alex's stomach as she paused. stood in the hallway out of sight, and listened.
James put his hand on Amy’s shoulder, and Amy put hers on his. They looked at each other.
“I wish—” Amy started.
“I’m glad—” James started.
They laughed a little, “You first,” James said.
“No, you first.”
“I’m glad you’re here and we’re doing this together. I was so scared, but now...” He pauses, squeezes Amy’s shoulder, “I think it’s all going to be OK. I’m not as scared as I was.”
Amy smiled at him, “I was going to say that I wish Alex knew. It’s getting impossible not explaining what I’m doing. I don’t want to lose her, she’s like my sister. She’s suspecting something. And I think she’s getting jealous of the time we’re spending without her.”
“We can’t tell her!”
“Of course we can’t. But we have to do something.”
Amy leaned back again, James shifted uncomfortably, swinging his legs off the bed and looking down at the floor. Something caught his eye and he looked up at Alex, standing in the doorway of Amy’s room. Hair gathered in a short pony tail. A white t-shirt with “Princess” on it in glittery script (obviously a gift from someone who didn’t know Alex very well as she did not like glittery clothes, James guessed her great-aunt Margaret). Denim shorts. White sneakers. Little socks that were barely visible in her shoes except for the fuzzy balls that hung at her heel. Fuzzy and pink, he noticed. She looked mad. In the same way that a Mississippi flood looks damp.
“How long have you been there?” James asked.
Amy quite literally jumped off the bed in surprise, “Alex!”
Alex walked in. Strode in would be more accurate. She stood at the foot of the bed, arms akimbo, and looked at Amy and James. “Well?” she demanded.
“Uh, How long have you been there?” James repeated.
Alex glared at James. “Long enough!”
James looked crestfallen. Amy looked like her heart was going about 200 beats a minute.
“It’s... complicated.” Amy began.
Had Amy, Alex, and James been just a little older—or perhaps had they grown up in a larger city, with a larger school, or in a slightly more modern age—Alex would have made assumptions about Amy and James. In fact, it showed a certain level of naivete on her part, based on what she'd heard, that this thought was not front and center in her mind, though it was in her mind, trying to claw its way forward. There would have been a fight, a lot of yelling, and it would have ended badly, probably with Alex’s friendship with James and Amy shattered beyond repair. In one of life's seemingly endless cruelties, this did not happen; it would have been much better for Alex if it had.
As it was, Alex yelled, “Complicated? Complicated! It is not God. Damned. Complicated,” She emphasized her curse, the hallmark of the infrequent curser. “It’s God. Damned. simple! You are keeping a secret from me. It’s not my birthday, so you’re not planning some party. And it’s been going on all summer!” Alex paused, some dim realization was worming its way to the surface of her brain, and if but Amy and James had been quiet, their secret would have been safe.
Amy’s shoulders sagged, surrendering to the truth. “It’s The Gang.” she said simply. She held her hands in front of her, fingers loose and palms up, then dropped them to her sides: the universal gesture of helplessness.
There was a silence that filled the room. A tangible silence. Something more than simply the absence of sound, but a presence unto itself that was not just quiet, but also absorbed any other sounds. Alex knew, in a flash of insight, that this was going to be one of those rare moments in her life that was crystalized in perfect memory into her brain. Every detail of this instant would be clear to her for the rest of her life.
That worm in Alex’s brain curled up and died, defeated. Alex sank into Amy’s desk chair. James stared at the floor between his feet. Amy stood, conflicted. Finally, she sat back down on her bed and looked at the floor also.
The silence stretched on for days. Minutes that felt like days. Alex's mind was running a mile a minute. She remembered the bus, Bill Stinson, the encounter at Ditch Day, her mind drifted back to the bus again, and then she saw it. It was so obvious, how had she missed it? She'd missed it because everyone knew— she stopped herself. Ok, No one knew anything, but everyone sure seemed to assume a lot of things in this town. For the first time in her life, Alex felt like an outsider. Like a city-girl who'd come to visit this odd little town with this huge elephant that sat in the town square and everyone ignored.
“You?” Alex finally managed.
Amy simply nodded.
Alex looked at James and at Amy, two sunken bookends holding up a column of air between their sloping shoulders. “But—”
“I know,” Amy replied.
More silence. Finally, “Wow.”
James nodded, “Yup.”
“Are you—” Alex looked at Amy.
“I’m the first. The only.”
Another pause, shorter this time. Alex ground through a few more thoughts. Ok, fine, Amy was in The Gang. The first and only girl. That was kind of neat, and it made a sort of sense. She thought back to Bill Stinson again, and she felt a swelling-up feeling in her chest. She didn't know at first what this feeling was that seemed to push up from her stomach with an odd sort of heat. Then she realized it was pride. Alex grinned, “Cool!”
Amy and James looked up at the sound of her smile. There was a pause, three heartbeats, while they looked at Alex sitting in Amy’s chair, grinning like she’d won a jackpot. Then they grinned too. Relief washed over them like spring rain. Amy realized what a onerous weight the secret had been. She felt free, and she laughed. James must have too, because he stretched his arms up high, and when they settled back his shoulders where square instead of bent.
There was a hug, and then a rush of questions. And of answers.
“You what!” Azra stood behind the table, his fists supporting his body as he leaned forward towards Amy and James, just to get his rage a few inches closer to them. No one else was present. They stood before him liked condemned criminals, awaiting the short trip to the gallows pole. There was nothing to say. They stood, and they awaited his verdict.
He stared at them in turn for quite a while, his knuckles white against the table, his face tight, and Amy had a sense that he was trying to talk, but couldn't make the muscles in his jaw work. Finally, he relaxed, the tension ebbing out of him surprisingly quickly. “What does she know?” Azra sagged into his chair. For a second he looked much older to Amy.
“Uh…” James started.
“Everything,” Amy said simply.
“Oh good, Everything.” Azra sighed, “Could you maybe expand on that a little bit and let me know what ‘everything’ is?”
“She knows that I’m in The Gang.” Amy started, “She knows the cut on my hand came from the Initiation. She knows that James is also in The Gang, and that a lot of people are or where.” She pauses to consider, “OK, she doesn't know quite everything. We didn't tell her about the Initiation, or the name of The Gang, or anything like that. But she also understands that what she does know is a secret, and I trust her to keep it. “
Amy thought, “She’s probably connected a lot of things that we haven’t told her. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some ways, she knew more than we did.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well,” Amy glanced at James, who looked like he was twitching for an exit. “It’s just that, for me at least, there are a lot of thing I don’t understand. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex understood some of those things.”
“Like what?” Azra looked concerned.
Again Amy hesitated, looking at James. He was standing ramrod straight, and did not look at her. “Well, the purpose for the Kni—Gang. The motivation. The—” She stopped again. “The enemy.”
Azra smiled, as if amused, “There’s an enemy? What makes you think there’s an enemy?”
“There must be.” Amy said quickly. “There’s no explanation for why a club like this, a secret club, a secret club that excludes adults has continued on so long. Hundreds of people know about this, right? Thousands, even. And yet it remains a secret. No one talks about it, not at all. The only explanation I can think of is that there is an enemy, but—” She stopped, uncertain. Azra looked very much like an adult, humoring a little girl's fantasy. She didn't like the feeling.
“Yes?” He dropped the smile for a second. A fraction of second. Just enough that Amy knew she was right, and that his humoring look was an act.
“See, it still doesn’t make sense. If there’s an enemy, then why exclude anyone 18 or older? It just doesn't make any sense. And it still doens’t explain why both The Knights and the enemy are still around after 100 years.”
“And you think maybe Alex knows more?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s connected up some things I haven’t thought of.”
Azra shook his head “I know you’re friends with Alex and you have been most of your life. I want you to put that aside for right now, if you can. I want you to tell me, honestly, about her. Her strengths, her weaknesses. You honest appraisal. James, you start.”
“Uh…” James looked perplexed. “Alex is smart. Smarter than I am. She’s a good student. She follows the rules. She’s nice to everyone, even people who don’t like her. As far as I can tell, she likes everyone. Well, except Bill Stinson, she really hates him. But—” James paused. Azra raised an eyebrow and James continued, “Even with Bill, I think she also feels a bit sorry for him. I mean, with Jimmy and his mom. Don’t get me wrong, if there’s anyone she hates, it’s Bill, but even so, I doubt she’d ever hurt him. If he was hurt, she’d probably help him, even.”
“That’s nice, and very gallant.” Azra smiled. “What about her faults?”
“Ah—well, she follows the rules, sometimes too closely. She’s not a risk taker.”
“James, those are still qualities. Got anything negative to say? Anything at all?”
James shook his head, but then added, “I don’t think she would have ever done to Bill what Amy did. But I don’t think that’s actually a negative.”
Amy glanced at James, a little confused, and a little bit more annoyed.
“Amy, you’re up.”
“James is right, she doesn’t have any bad traits. As for weaknesses, only what James said, she’s not a risk taker normally; and maybe she’s just a little too interested in her grades, but that’s probably just that I’m not.”
“Well, you are both good an loyal friends. that’s a credit to you both. I’ll tell you what I see when I look at Alex, OK? I see a flighty 12 year-old girl who cares more about her clothes and her hair than about much of anything else. I see a little girl,” he held up his hand to stop the protesting interruptions, “A little girl who is going to grow up in a couple-to-four years, join the cheerleading squad, marry some farmboy right after graduation, and squeeze out a couple of kids before she’ old enough to buy tequila. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Both James and Amy rise to Alex’s defense. Azra stops them. “Ok, one at a time. Amy?”
“Alex is stronger than that. She’s smarter than that, and she’s not going to—” Amy pauses. She considers her best friend, trying to be objective. For an instant she can see what Azra sees, or what he said he sees, more likely. She knows Alex as well as, if not better than, she knows herself, but she's only twelve. Six more years of school and adding on half their current age, a lot can change. “How much,” Amy wonders to herself.
“OK, I can’t say what she will do. I can’t even say what I will do. What I can say is that she is a loyal friend, a good person, and I trust her. And James trusts her. And if there is some point to all of this, then we will need her help.”
“Her help?” Azra asks. “What do you mean, ‘Her help’?”
Amy shifts uncomfortably under Azra’s gaze. She hadn’t really meant to say that last part out-loud. “Well, She’s probably the smartest person I know. But she’s also the best person I know. I trust her judgement more than I trust my own.”
Both Azra and James looked at her for a long time.
“Was it loyalty that kept her from sitting with you that day on the bus? Or was it her sense of goodness?” Azra’s expression is stern.
Amy starts to answer, then pauses. What was it that kept Alex from joining her. Was it simple fear? Her desire to stick to the rules? Timidity? None of those sounded very flattering. “I did say she was smarter than I was, didn’t I?”
Azra laughs, and even James manages a smile. “Actually, I think it was James who said that. Anyway, this is what we’re going to do” Azra leaned forward on his elbows and looked at them, the twinkle of conspiracy in his eyes.
When James and Amy left their meeting with Azra they were both in better spirits. I wasn’t until they were on their bikes and riding into the center of town that Amy stopped suddenly, standing hard on the coaster brake and leaving a black stripe of rubber on the dark grey of the asphalt. She pulled her bike to the gutter, and said, “Damn damn damn!” James pulled up beside her with a look of concern as she continued to repeat her curse. Finally Amy stopped and looked at James, “Didya notice he never answered us at all? He never explained anything about the why and never said anything about the enemy?”
James stopped short. Amy was right, they’d been so worried that they hadn’t noticed Azra had glossed right by their concerns. “Maybe… Maybe he doesn’t know either?”
“Oh, he knows.” Amy nodded her head, “He knows.”
Bill Stinson was not stupid. Sure, he'd flunked 5th grade the first time around, but there were extenuating circumstances, and everyone knew about them. No, he wasn't stupid. He wasn't smart either, at least not smart enough to have caught up that year, so he was 15 now and still in 8th grade. But 15 on a farm is practically an adult. He'd been driving for three years now, first the tractor and now the pickup. He even took it on the county roads sometimes, though that was illegal. Still, there were only two police cars, and it was easy enough to avoid those. He drank beer, but most kids his age did, and not just the bad kids.
A psychologist looking at Bill's life would have nominated him as the poster boy for the broken home awards. Bill's home wasn't broken, it was shattered. His brother, Jimmy, had disappeared one night, a week before Christmas. He was 16 at the time, and the police said he'd ran away. Everyone knew that was a lie, however. Jimmy might have ran, but he didn't run away. To be fair, Bill had always been a kid on a dark path: a bully, a casual thief, and an angry child. But after Jimmy, things got considerably darker. And after his mother— well, it would be clear to most anyone that things would end badly.
That summer was a bad summer for Bill. That little cunt had hurt him, and not just physically. There was a cold fire burning in Bill, and he knew he was going to have to do something about her, somehow. But she had protection, a lot of protection. When that sissy little Azra fag had told him to stay away from her he not only had his gigantor of a brother behind him, but six other guys, all older.
Bill knew that if he did anything to Amy he'd be in for it. It's not like thse guys needed proof or anything. If anything odd happened to her, he was going to pay the price. The only thing he could see was getting her back, then getting out.
Bill Stinson began to plot, and the cold fire inside was banked and fed and tended, and its cold somehow gave him warmth. He smiled as he made his plans.
What We're Going to Do
Amy and James met up with Alex early in the afternoon, a couple of days later. They met at Chompski's, a local burger place that everyone just called "Chomps" and had lunch, then wandered over to the park and found a quiet spot behind the library.
"So, how much trouble are you two in?" Alex started.
"Lots," Amy answered.
James coughed. "Uh, well here's the thing, this sort of thing has happened before. I mean, it actually seems to happen pretty often, so there's a... ah..." James trailed off.
"Procedure," Amy said.
"Right, a procedure." James was looking pretty uncomfortable. "See, it's like this, most the people in this town know about The Gang.
"The Secret Order of the Knight of the Cup." Alex interjected.
"Yeah. Wait, no, See, that's part of it, the name is secret, so you can't use it. You just have to call it The Gang. And the thing is, since most the people in town know about it, if you talk about it to someone, there's a pretty good chance The Sec— the Gang, they'll know."
"And?" Alex looked at James thoughtfully.
James shifted nervously and shot a pleading look at Amy.
Amy jumped in, "Look, it's really important that you not talk about this, to anyone at all, right? And if you do talk about it, chances are pretty good the person you're talking to about it will tell someone in the... in The Gang. So don't, right?"
"Of course I'm not going to tell anyone, I said I wouldn't. Don't you trust me?"
"Of course we trust you," Amy said, "that's why we told you. But not everyone knows you like we do, so they are worried you might let something slip to... well, to the wrong people."
"The 'wrong people'?" Alex asked. "Who are the wrong people?"
"We don't know," James said.
Alex looked at both of them for a long time. "OK, so let's say I do talk about this—which I'm not going to!" She jumped in before they could say anything, "But let's say I did, what would happen?"
"Ah, well," James said, "then The Gang would consider you untrustworthy."
Alex blinked. "That's it?"
"Alex," Amy looked at her friend levelly, "That's about the worst thing that can happen to someone in this town. Think about it. Oh, and we'd also be marked as untrustworthy."
Alex sat back and thought. It's a fairly small town, and this club had been around along time. It had to be more than just a club, and chances were good that if you were blackballed by this group... "Oh," she said quietly.
"It's not just this town," Amy started.
"No, I understand." Alex said. "I get it." She paused again, "Can I still talk to you two about it."
"Yes, but there will be a lot of things we can't tell you," James said."Why is Amy the only girl to be let in? I mean, really, it's nearly the 21st century. If Amy's in, why can't I be in? Not that I want to," she looked at both their faces, "I mean, it sounds—well, just weird."