AGE OF MONSTERS
By Robert P. Kruger
Special Thanks to My First Readers: my mother, A.N. McDermott; my wife, Karen; James O’Rourke; Keith Ballinger; Nancy Jane Moore; Therese Pieczynski; Michael G. Ryan; Dr. Rob Furey; Bryan Costanich; Jonathan Tweet; Rob Heinsoo; Tony Daniel; and the STEW group members Nisi Shawl, Michael Ehart, Kristin King, Sabrina Chase, Elizabeth Coleman, Victoria Garcia, Yang-Yang Wang, and Doreen Mitchum.
Chapter 1: Tess
May 5, 1980
The new girl was boyish, stick thin, and half a head taller than Steve, though that could be said of a lot of girls in eighth grade. Her face was lean and angular, and her pale skin glowed against thick black hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her emerald eyes, within their mascara, seemed to window an untamed, greener world. She held herself close and glowered at almost everyone, an expression lent emphasis by the high arches of her eyebrows and her long lashes. “Fey” was a word Steve had come across in his roleplaying-game books, and that’s the way he thought of her: a sullen faery, stripped of magic and forced to live with tedious humans.
That first day, when the principal interrupted class to usher her in, she’d picked a seat at the very back corner and tried to ignore the inquisitive looks. She had on a denim vest over a striped sweater. Her jeans were worn, and a single small ankh earring dangled behind her right jaw. She made a point of examining her black-painted nails. The teacher glanced up from her lecture notes on the Pythagorean Theorem, and frowned at her, but failed to catch her eye. Mrs. Isobel had a reputation for being thin-skinned, and a couple of parents had transferred their kids from her class. “Miss?”
Still examining her fingers, the girl replied, “Tess.”
“Maybe you’d like to pay attention?”
In the front row, Cynthia Pike, a studious, chubby girl in pigtails, looked up alarmed. To this point, she’d been distracted by something in her lap.
Tess said, “I’m paying attention.” Steve would never forget how her eyes came up slowly and locked the teacher’s. Her confidence and anger made his heart trip with anxiety and admiration. He glimpsed Cynthia palm one of those new Rubik’s Cube puzzle games behind her and into the pocket of her sweater jacket hanging on her chair.
The teacher’s gaze held Tess’s a moment, wavered, and then fell. Color rose in Mrs. Isobel’s cheeks. The class went quiet. Behind Cynthia, Dave Setter and a couple other guys winced and then exchanged grins. A gawky, freckle-faced kid with brown hair, Dave had been with Steve since grade school and they’d once been friends, until Dave had tried to derail Steve’s growing interest in a fantasy roleplaying game called Castles & Catacombs, calling it “Satanic.” Now the only good friends Steve had went to other schools.
Mrs. Isobel went back to the lesson. “So the hypotenuse of a right triangle . . .” she turned to a triangle chalked on the blackboard behind her, “is equal to the square of the other two sides added together.”
“Uhhh-unhhh.” Tess’s lips were barely parted, and she made the sound low in her throat.
“Maybe you’d like to teach the lesson?”
“No.” The eyes again, cold and steady, as she lowered her nails. “But the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of side A plus the square of side B.”
Mrs. Isobel pursed her lips and turned to the blackboard again and studied it for nearly half a minute. Tess rolled her eyes.
“As I was saying before the rude interruption,” the teacher went on at last, “the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.”
Steve’s indignation ratcheted up with each tick of the wall clock. His chance to defend Tess had almost fled. “But that’s not what you said,” he muttered, just audible to the whole class. Mrs. Isobel ignored him. He glanced back at Tess, and saw a moment of blank surprise wipe her features and her eyes scan the room. She caught him watching her and then looked down, but the edge of her mouth crooked up. The grin faded. She went back to her nails for a second, then shifted in her chair to look out the window.
In his almost two years at Pioneer Junior High he’d gotten picked on a lot. He didn’t know what alienated most kids; he was self-conscious about being small but it was more than that. When he met a new kid, he or she would seem engaged and curious for a while, but then Steve would say something nerdy or even just daydream a little, and he’d get that look; the kid’s eyes would glaze, the face go slack. A few months ago, a popular, athletic girl, Emma Wilson, had said to him bluntly, “You know, you’re kind of good-looking, but you’re weird.” Steve had fine white-blond hair, good skin on a broad face, and amber eyes. He didn’t know if he was handsome, but he knew he didn’t look bad. “How?” he asked, and Emma said, “You stare at your shoes a lot.” Ever since, whenever he found himself dropping his gaze, he caught himself.
The teacher had continued the lesson, and he hadn’t caught any of it and couldn’t concentrate. She was obviously stewing. As she talked, her glances at Tess became sly but no less frequent. At last she made another attack.
“Tess, if you’re not going to pay attention.”
Still focused out the window, Tess replied, “I’m paying attention, Mrs. Isobel.”
She took her time answering. The class was silent and tense. “That tree,” she said at last. Everyone laughed. Steve smiled to himself.
“If you’re going to be a smart-aleck, you can—”
“The tree,” Tess said, facing the teacher, “is a good example.” She got out of her chair, marched around the front desk to the blackboard, and plucked up some chalk. “Do you have a scientific calculator?”
The teacher folded her arms. Tess waited.
“Yes, actually, and it’s my own.” Mrs. Isobel opened a drawer in the desk, took out the calculator, and thrust it over. “And these are very expensive.”
Without comment, Tess turned it on and set it in the chalk tray, then drew a tall vertical line and decorated it with downward slashes for fir-tree branches. “The tree is side B of your right triangle. The windows in the class are about eight feet wide, so you can tell the tree’s distance from that wing of the school. . . .” Steve admired her authoritative pose. The light gleamed on the fall of her black hair. Her jeans were tight.
He struggled to understand her. She was saying, “ . . .higher than seventy degrees at this latitude in summer. It’s about nine now, halfway to noon, since the sun comes up at six, so that means that the sun is at about thirty-five degrees. Since the sun’s not quite at the top of the tree from here and it’s really not quite summer, I’ll say, um, thirty.” Tess drew the hypotenuse of her triangle and a semicircle over the angle point where it met the lower leg, then chalked “30” and a degree symbol. She regarded the board doubtfully.
Impatient, Mrs. Isobel cut in. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove.”
Tess’s brow furrowed.
“It’s trigonometry,” said Steve, a little loudly. He wanted to yell to let her finish, but he’d probably made things worse already.
“I can never decide which one to use,” Tess said. “Tangent, I guess.” She wrote out B/88= Tan 30 degrees below her drawing, then picked up the calculator and punched in some numbers. “So the tree is about fifty and three-fourths feet tall.”
“Very impressive,” said Mrs. Isobel in a dry tone, “but I’m not teaching that.”
“Oh, sorry.” Tess pecked some more numbers into the calculator, then wrote a string of them on the board, ending with c2 = 10,322. She studied her work. “That’s a little more than a hundred feet in a straight line from here to the top of the tree.”
Steve thought she must be some kind of human calculator, but then looked at the final number. It was close to ten thousand, and a hundred times a hundred is ten thousand. Not so tough. But what was “tangent” again? He stared at his desk, propping his forehead on the heel of his hand. His dad, an engineer, had tried to explain it to him once. He emerged from his thoughts to notice a changed mood in the class. The teacher was blank-faced and humiliated. For the first time, Tess looked almost vulnerable. She dropped her eyes, and lowered her shoulders, remorseful and apologetic.
No, Steve thought, it’s all right.
Mrs. Isobel stomped over to the chalkboard. Tess shuffled away from her as Mrs. Isobel plucked up an eraser, and Steve shouted, “No, please!” causing her to suspend the eraser an ominous second before commencing to smear away the drawing and figures with short, irritated strokes. Tess stood by uncertain. “Take your seat!” said Mrs. Isobel, without looking up.
Tess stalked back, fists clenched. She had just sat down, head lowered, when Mrs. Isobel finished erasing the board, and rounded on Steve.
“Charles, don’t dare try to order me.”
“Sorry, I just wanted to look at it, but please, Mrs. Isobel . . . it’s ‘Steve.’ ”
He glanced over and saw Tess now watching him through a veil of mussed hair.
Steve was not technically “Steve” at all. He was Charles Roger O’Reilly. But since first grade, he’d asked people to call him Steve at school. His dad always called him Chuck. But when he was younger, it made him think of a woodchuck, at a time when he was sensitive about his new permanent teeth. Early in the school year, Mrs. Isobel asked why he was “Charles” on the class roster, but she hadn’t made an issue of it, until now.
“Charles, if it were just a nickname, that would be one thing, but you’ve changed your name. I’ve looked into it. If your parents want it changed, they can file court papers.”
“You’ve looked into it?”
“It’s frankly been bothering me, not knowing what I’m supposed to do when a student insists on using a false name.”
“Steve,” Tess said to him.
Steve looked back to see her staring at him. Her jaw was set, challenging him not to back down.
He faced the teacher, and made a nervous laugh. “It’s not a big deal, Mrs. Isobel. I like to be called Steve.”
The teacher’s nostrils flared. Shocked silence descended over the class. Clearly, the teacher was working up her resolve. Just as the teacher opened her mouth, Tess said loudly and slowly, “Leave. Steve. Alone.”
Mrs. Isobel glanced between them. “You and ‘Steve’ can go see the principal. You’ve wasted enough of our time.”
Out in the hall, he offered Tess a handshake. She made a lopsided grimace to communicate how dorky he was, but she shook his hand anyway.
“You really are a genius, aren’t you?” Steve said.
“Yeah, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Do you know your IQ?” he asked.
“One sixty-five. What’s yours?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Did you want to get kicked out of class?” she asked.
“Then maybe your IQ’s not all that high.” They strolled without talking and turned into the main hall. Steve had no comeback. He thought she meant to blow him off, but after a while, she added, “I wanted to get kicked out of class. What a stupid bitch! She can’t teach anything.”
They had the hall to themselves, and their footsteps echoed in counterpoint to each other’s. He had to struggle to keep up. Steve wanted to agree with her but felt ambivalent. He didn’t like Mrs. Isobel, but Tess’s contempt seemed too strong.
“So where did you come from?” he asked. “I mean, before this school.”
“Down in Salem. I get moved around a lot.”
“Is it your dad’s job?”
“I don’t have a dad. My mom doesn’t work. She’s sick. My life isn’t like other kids’.”
“Because you’re a genius?”
“Because my life sucks.”
They reached the main office window. The secretary asked why they were out of class.
Tess said, “Mrs. Isobel sent us down to find her brain. She thinks she left it in Alex’s office.”
“Hmm, I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that. Have a seat.”
Alex? Steve marveled at her guts using the principal’s first name, but she didn’t say it ironically. It was as if she actually knew him.
They entered beside the window, and the receptionist led them to chairs outside a closed inner-office door that read “Alex Harrison, School Principal.”
The secretary knocked and then peeked her head in at a gruff acknowledgement. “A couple of students have been sent down,” she said.
Steve imagined what his parents would say at dinner. He felt queasy. He didn’t think they’d be upset after they learned the facts, but he dreaded having to tell them anyway, to see their quick alarm. They didn’t like him upsetting the routine. Fortunately the school year was almost over and he could hole up in the basement with his friends, though it was a shame to go out like this with Mrs. Isobel—even if she was a bad teacher.
The principal, a lean man with a young face belied by thick silver hair, emerged from his office, glanced at Steve, and then sighed as he stared down at Tess. “Come on in,” he said. “Bring an extra chair.”
Once they were settled and he’d taken his seat behind his desk, Mr. Harrison leaned forward and faced them each in turn. “So why are we here?”
Tess was suddenly worked up, and her words came in a rush. “It’s bullshit. Mrs. Isobel was screwing up the lesson, so I went and did some trig on the board. She got pissed and started to erase my diagram and Steve asked her not to, and so she baited him by calling him ‘Charles.’ I told her to lay off, so she sent us out.”
Steve opened his mouth but didn’t have anything to add. He was too shocked at her familiarity with the principal, even to the point of swearing. It was as if he’d dropped into some secret club of smart kids and principals.
“I’m guessing you were being surly and then started showing off.”
She folded her arms and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, pretty much. Anyway, it was all my fault, so let him go.”
“So is that how it went, Steve?”
Tess frowned at the principal and jerked her thumb toward the door as if asking him to get rid of Steve.
Mr. Harrison returned the frown. “No,” he said, “you say you got him in trouble, but I want to hear it from him.”
Steve said, “Tess might have been surly, but it was like the teacher came down to her level.” Tess snorted at this. “I mean, like she was just a kid getting into an argument with another kid.”
“Insecure,” said Tess.
“Please . . .” said the principal.
“When she erased the board, Mrs. Isobel called me Charles, and she knows I hate that. I told her it was Steve, but she said she wouldn’t call me Steve unless I got my name legally changed. And Tess said to leave me alone.”
“So were you really sticking up for him or just trying to annoy the teacher?”
“Which was it?”
“She admitted she studied up on laws for getting his name changed. She’s threatened by kids! She’s that insecure!”
Steve thought about this a moment and realized she was exactly right — that the teacher had been gunning for him. Where did Tess come from? She spoke like an adult. And the principal treated her as an equal.
“Okay, I’ll have a talk with Mrs. Isobel.” Mr. Harrison glanced at the clock. “You can wait outside until the bell. You have Mr. Ziegler for history now?”
Tess nodded. Why did the principal keep track of her classes? “I’ve got music,” Steve said.
Mr. Harrison ignored him. “You can come back when it’s time for English, Tess, and do some reading. I think you and Mrs. Isobel have had enough of each other today.”
Tess got up, and Steve started to follow. “Wait, will you, Steve?”
When Tess had left and closed the door behind her, Mr. Harrison said, “Tess has had a rough time. I know you’re a good, smart kid. She could use a friend like you.” This comment surprised Steve and gratified him. “Try to keep calm with Mrs. Isobel. You’ve got just a couple weeks left. I’ll see to it she doesn’t call you Charles anymore. You can go.”
Outside, Steve took a chair next to Tess. She cut her eyes toward him. “So what did he want?”
“He said to keep it cool with Mrs. Isobel and he’ll tell her not to call me Charles.”
“He’s not a bad guy, I guess,” she said.
“He acted like he knows you.”
Tess rolled her eyes. “Duh, he’s only my dad.”
“Your dad? I thought you said you don’t have one.”
“Well . . .” She got sheepish. “Not my real dad. He’s my foster father.”
At the end of the school day, Steve found Tess loading books into her hall locker, oblivious to everyone around. She had the door open, and he experienced a shock of mingled delight and fascination to see it plastered with gruesome images of the undead.
A full-page magazine ad for the Stephen King Salem’s Lot mini-series formed the centerpiece, with the bald, pointy-eared vampire in silhouette, caped arms upraised in batlike menace, seeming to loom over an inset Victorian house with the full moon shining to one side. Around the vampire were cut-out glossy stills — from the new cinema horror magazine Fangoria, he thought — capturing milk-eyed zombies with gore-spattered chins and a hideous and lifelike werewolf transformation from some movie he didn’t know about. As he stared, a tide of students flowed around him.
Tess’s chin came up, and she slowly turned, eyes straining fearfully to look behind. “Jeez, you creep. You scared the hell out of me.” Her tone was light.
“Sorry. I just noticed your locker.”
“You think I should have some flowers or kitty cats or something?” He held her sudden, exaggerated stare. She dropped her eyes and smirked. “Actually, when Salem’s Lot came out last year, it scared the crap out of me, especially this guy, the main vampire. I mean, the kid floating at the window was creepy and everything, but he’s just so cold and evil, like that old Nosferatu movie. You know? That black-and-white one, where the jagged shadow slides up the wall? Brrr.”
“Yeah, I know that one,” Steve said. A month ago, Mr. Spock from Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, had narrated a TV documentary about Dracula and they showed that very clip.
Tess leaned in, embarrassed. “For a month, I held my pee every night. I was afraid I’d meet him on the way to the bathroom.” She dithered, stepped away, and regarded the locker. “Anyway, I put the Salem’s Lot guy in first, but he needed company—so I made a collage.”
“I like monsters too.” He was impressed by her all over again. She was more honest with herself than any kid he’d ever met. He had an idea that she acted spooky not so much to freak people out but to express herself.
“Yeah?” she said, “I don’t know if I like them really, but it makes the other kids nervous, and that’s kinda neat.” Suddenly his idea about her seemed hollow. “The zombies and werewolf are just for show, but the vampire got under my skin. I’ve thought about him so much, though, he’s almost my buddy.” She snorted. “I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And she slammed her locker and stalked away. Had he made a good impression? She seemed to like monsters, or vampires, anyway. He’d thought about introducing vampires into his roleplaying game.
An idea occurred to him, a crazy idea that made him excited and nervous, but he summoned a bold resolve. He’d get Tess into his campaign and show her just how smart he could be, to win her admiration.