School had been an ancillary part of Steve’s world since Tess joined the group; and so, not until Monday did it hit home that the last week had arrived. The teachers led casual discussions or took their classes outside for organized races and dodge-ball games, and didn’t assign homework. Mrs. Isobel held a talk on the importance of habitual reading. At the start of class, she said that she would let them tell stories about their favorite books, but her long preamble about her favorite professors and the time she’d spent in group poetry readings consumed most of the period. Steve thought he might raise his hand to mention Robert E. Howard, the author of Conan the Barbarian, but thought worse of it when Cynthia Pike, an annoying girl who seemed to think she was the best-read person in class, droned on about her new literary discovery, where kids were abused by their grandmother and locked in an attic. “It deals with family issues,” she said. Mrs. Isobel nodded absently. Cynthia, noticing that she was losing the teacher’s attention, began to speak faster, “But it’s really exciting. The kids start to grow up and enter puberty, but they don’t know about the birds and the bees, right? So since the older brother and sister have never seen other kids, they start to get these feelings they don’t understand, and then they get it on. . . .”
The teacher’s gaze, which had wandered to the sunny window, went alert and wide and then snapped down on Cynthia. Mrs. Isobel swallowed hard.
“Okay, Cynthia, thank you,” she said with a nervous quaver, “but I think that’s a little inappropriate, don’t you?”
Crestfallen, Cynthia slumped in her chair as a heavy quiet was broken by general laughter. Mrs. Isobel went red, and tried to recover the situation with a rambling story about the beat poets and how a guy named Ginsberg had really shaken up the coffee-house scene. “I think shocking art tells us a lot about ourselves and our society, but it’s really only appropriate to a mature person. When you’re young, it’s important to understand the mainstream of your culture, and to read solid, morally grounded work; otherwise, you have nothing to measure your later, more adventurous experiences against. That’s what I’ve noticed in my own educational and professional journey. Anyway,” she finished with an expression of relief as the bell rang, “thank you all for your wonderful stories!”
In history class, Mr. Masui read from James Michener’s Centennial, using the word “freakin’ ” quite regularly in the eighteenth-century dialogue. Steve was pretty sure that wasn’t the word that was printed in the book.
* * *
At lunch, he met Tess in line and they got a table together. “So,” he said, as they settled into their chairs, “you’re smoking now?”
Unperturbed, Tess began eating her hamburger casserole. “You saw me with Mary? Nah, I just do it socially once in a while, no big deal. A lot of cool people smoke, and it makes it easier to hang out. But my mom got hooked on cigarettes when I was young, and she had a miserable time getting off them. She was spending about five hundred bucks a year, which was mostly why she had to quit.”
“I’ve heard it’s easy to get hooked,” Steve said.
“Well, duh. I don’t even smoke a whole one, and I only inhale half the breaths.”
“What’s the point then?”
“What are you, my chaperone or something?”
“Sorry, forget it.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you’re right, but Mary’s in college. I want to get along with her. She’s on her own, going to parties, drinking, taking all these cool classes. She knows people in local bands, and she plays guitar with Jack. They had a gig at this bar near Powell’s a week ago. And she was at a party with Rindy and Marv Ross.” Steve searched his memory; apparently it showed. “You know, that new band, Quarterflash.”
“ ‘Harden My Heart,’ yeah, okay. Do you like that song?”
Tess shrugged. “You know what I mean, though. She’s into the arts scene and everything. If she doesn’t like a class, she cuts it. Like, there was this one guy teaching literary theory, and he was real crappy. He said something pompous like, ‘Every categorical statement is political.’ ”
“What does that mean?”
Tess shrugged again. “Anyway, he was real liberal, which she is too, but he was so obviously a poser, and she said, ‘Yeah, political, including that one,’ and he went off on her and said, ‘There are real problems in the world needing to be solved,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, and you aren’t solving any of them. Pick up a shovel and join the Peace Corps, you wannabe.’ And she dropped the class and two other students followed her.”
“She said that? Wow. Did she get in trouble?”
“For what? This was college, not grade school. She’s the one paying to be there.”
“I never thought of it that way. I always think of school as something you’ve got to do whether you want to or not.”
“Well, that’s something my mom drilled into me: even in free public school, you have to look out for yourself. Of course,” she said in a lower tone, picking at her food, “she also said not to be rude or provoke bad teachers, but some of them, like Mrs. Isobel, just have to be faced, you know.”
“Yeah, you should have gotten a load of her this morning.” Steve explained what happened.
“I’m gonna tell Alex that,” said Tess. “First, no one wanted to hear her dumb stories, then she didn’t set good rules for the class, and then she humiliated Cynthia. I mean, Cynthia’s a cow, of course, but it’s the principle. And what’s the crap about ‘moral’ art?”
“To be fair, she wasn’t trying to be a jerk.”
“No, it comes naturally. Anyway, it’s not like Alex would do anything until next year, but he should know this stuff. He’s going to have to unplug her eventually.”
“You think so?”
She nodded. “He’s building a file on her. Don’t tell anyone. I snooped in his office last week and found his notes and a reprimand that he had her sign.”
“But. . . . Don’t. Tell. Anyone. I would definitely get in trouble. He would get in trouble for not keeping a better eye on me. It’d be a mess.”
“Okay, sure.” Released from her gaze, Steve watched her eat. The lines of her face were so clean, and when she chewed, she did it tightly so that there was hardly any movement in her jaw. Everything she did was precise and excellent.
“I’ve been thinking,” Tess said. “About what you did with Karsk and Megaera’s mother superior. She betrayed me, right? Is this one of your attempts to reform me through Megaera?”
“You didn’t like that, huh?”
“I don’t know. It’s okay. If it’s a plot development, fine. Just don’t get didactic on me, right? Remember ‘didactic’?”
“Maybe you’ll take Karsk back someday and use him and Bugclaw to wipe out your convent. Does that sound good?” Steve frowned.
As if she’d known he’d been admiring the way she ate, Tess chomped open-mouthed with affected laziness, making herself almost but not quite unappealing. She waved her fork at him, a couple macaroni noodles and a chunk of beef stuck on its end. “Now you’re talking,” she said.
They chatted about Tess’s summer. She wanted to spend time with her mom. Mr. Harrison was planning a long camping trip, and Tess wasn’t too keen on being dragged along with the family.
They kept talking right up to the bell. As they both got up, Tess pulled something out of her back pocket and slammed it down on the table. “Remember when I said I’d make you a tape? I wouldn’t play this for your folks. It’s a little raw. It’s good stuff, though.”
Steve picked up the cassette, and saw she’d written the names of several bands on it: Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Sex Pistols, The Ramones.
“Uh, okay, cool. Thanks.”
“And I’ve got a present for the group, too. Anyway, see you later.” And she sprinted out of the cafeteria. Steve watched her go, and then glanced back down at the cassette. The Sex Pistols? He quickly stuffed it in his pocket and left, not sure it wasn’t contraband.
* * *
That night, he waited till his parents went to bed before putting on headphones and slipping the tape into his deck. He’d wanted a boombox for Christmas, but they’d given him only a single-deck player with one speaker. The large stereo unit upstairs by the couch had its own headphones and better sound, but he couldn’t go up now without being heard.
The punk music had a good beat, if repetitive. He could picture Tess singing in a mirror, waving her black hair. One thing he hadn’t expected was the joy it took in being desperate and whiny and pissed off. It helped him understand Tess a little better, made her less intimidating. You could have your eyes open and be smart and still be honestly confused. He thought he was getting it. The Buzzcocks were like sped-up pop; The Sex Pistols, sneering and sarcastic, The Ramones made fun of 50’s and early 60’s music, like Buddy Holly and stuff. There were some bands that Tess just lumped together as “misc,” which included one with a woman singing a talky, angry, Jamaican-sounding version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with a fast thumping beat, and some guy doing a rocking “Louie, Louie,” enunciating so you could understand it. The lyrics were nasty. He wondered if those were the real words to the original. Probably not. Did the songs try to accuse pop music of being dishonest? He didn’t know what it was about, but he detected sly wisdom in it. Like C&C, it was meaningful but you couldn’t explain how so that people would get it if they didn’t have a feel for it. The world that society had created wasn’t quite right. And once you realized that, you could explore ways to make it better, at least for yourself.
He finished the whole tape and then put it in again, even though it had gotten late. By the second listening, he decided he liked it. A lot.
* * *
Tess seemed gratified by his enthusiasm, as if all the time she’d invested in him might not be a loss. She dedicated every lunch that week to the subject of cool bands, and he let her hold forth, not having much to add — his musical experience being limited to some of his dad’s jazz like Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, mainstream rock like Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Ozzy Osbourne, and the Irish ballads and harp music his mom collected.
On Friday, at a final gym assembly, gifts and dubious honors were bestowed by the teachers. Cynthia Pike got a dictionary and a subscription to Games magazine for representing the school in the annual district spelling bee, where she’d come in fifth. (Steve had actually won the school-wide test, back in March, but declined to go to district because he thought it was uncool. Cynthia had been thrilled. Now he regretted his decision.) August Smith, one of the few black kids at the middle school, got a baseball trophy for three home runs in one game, in addition to winning the math medal. Eric Noble and a girl named Randi Johnson got called up to the front where Mr. Masui had set a kids’-sized table with two chairs, a plastic cloth, wineglasses, and a bottle of what looked like champagne. Eric slouched and scowled; Randi held her hands next to her blushing face. A slightly plump strawberry-blond, Randi had an impressive figure that she advertised with a stretch T-shirt of thick black-and-white horizontal stripes.
In the bleachers, Steve leaned forward and nudged Dave Setter just below him. “What’s this?” he asked.
“You know, that thing they have going.”
“What thing?” Steve was completely at a loss.
“Haven’t you see them fight? He pulled her bra strap a couple times, and once she crotch-kicked him on the soccer field. They’re in love.”
Mr. Masui raised his voice for the benefit of the audience. “M’sieur,” he said, and swept a hand toward a chair. Looking puzzled and uncomfortable, Eric plopped into it, arms folded high over his chest. The chair was sized for a small kid, and Eric’s knees came up to the level of the tabletop. “Madame.” Mr. Masui motioned Randi to the opposite chair.
He presented the bottle for Eric’s inspection. Eric read loudly, “GAY-toh NEE-gro?”
“ ‘NAY-groh,’ ” said Mr. Masui with a frown. “ And ‘GAH-to.’ Gato Negro. Spanish.”
A few kids in the front row laughed. Eric blushed.
Mr. Masui spoke loudly as he poured out a foaming glass for each of them. “As has become well-known to the teachers, Eric and Randi have a somewhat rocky relationship, so I’ve been appointed Maitre D’ to preside at a truce. Here’s to a fresh start in high school!”
“You’re giving us wine?” Eric said.
Under his breath, but clearly audible, Mr. Masui said, “It’s 7-Up.” More laughter. Eric looked like a trapped animal. He started to rise. Mr. Masui pressed him gently into his seat. “Clink glasses and you can go.”
Randi picked up her glass and extended it toward him, her face pink. Eric shrugged and touched his glass to hers. He moved it toward his mouth, but stopped, nose wrinkled, then tipped the glass toward Mr. Masui. “There’s a dead fly in here.”
Randi placed her own untouched glass on the table and pushed it away from her. Mr. Masui hooked out the fly with a fingertip. “Sorry about that.”
Eric and Randi got up.
“Let’s give them a hand for being good sports!” said Mr. Masui.
There was some perfunctory clapping and even more jeers. Randi sprinted off. Eric slouched away to his own seat on the opposite side of the gym.
“Man, that was harsh,” Steve said.
“Yeah, I’m surprised they’d humiliate him like that,” said Dave. “I guess it’s revenge for all the crap Eric’s put the teachers through. They must know his parents won’t stick up for him.”
“What about Randi?”
“Yeah, good question. I guess after kicking him in front of everyone, she can’t complain too much. Didn’t you see it? They’re always making a scene outside at lunch.”
“I guess I’ve been staying in the cafeteria pretty late these past few weeks,” Steve said. His cast was itching, which reminded him of being tripped. He wasn’t mad at Eric anymore. He was beginning to feel grateful he didn’t have his life. If his only admirer got his attention by kicking him in the nuts, no wonder he was such a vicious turd.
* * *
Lunch followed the assembly. Tess said, “I’m looking forward to the game tonight, but I’ve got bad news. The camping trip’s happening sooner than I expected. We’re leaving Sunday for a whole three weeks.”
The weight of so much time away from her loomed up and then came down on him hard: “Unhh.”
“Yeah. And after that, I’m visiting Mom at her managed-care facility downtown. She’s not doing well, but I guess I can do some drawing and listen to music while she rests.”
He knew better than to ask how long she’d be with her mom.
A long gloomy silence prevailed. Finally, Steve thought of something to say: “You do illustrations? I thought so. Your character sheet is really good.”
She smiled, keeping her eyes down as she stirred her food. “Thanks.”
That night, she arrived early, ahead of the others, lugging a huge, oversized portfolio case on a strap over her shoulder. As she descended the stairs to the basement, the case kept getting hung up on each step behind her. Finally, halfway down, she hefted it up and carried it overhead.
“What’s in there?” Steve asked, as she laid the case against the gaming table. Today, she wore a loose green T-shirt and tight jeans and had her hair back in a ponytail. It was her most workmanlike ensemble yet.
“I’ll show you when Rei and Curt get here.” She slumped into her swivel chair, grabbed the table, and spun herself in a circle.
“I’ve got something for you,” said Steve. The day before, his dad took him shopping at the nearby Fred Meyer’s and he’d visited the music section.
“Yeah?” she stopped spinning. Outside the window, the swallows chirped and chased each other. He glanced at them; she didn’t.
He brought out the cassette, which he’d gift-wrapped in the Sunday comics, from behind his gamemaster’s screen and handed it over.
“Uh oh,” she said.
She ripped the paper off, and stared at the black-and-white photograph on the cover: a thin girl strode among hurricane debris. Wind blew her skirt aside to reveal one long thigh and a section of her panties. Behind her, giant waves crashed up from a seawall over a two-story building. “Rush?”
“It’s the new album. I thought it was pretty good. I liked your music; I thought you might try mine.”
She looked dubious. “This is your music, huh?”
“Some of it, maybe.”
“I haven’t heard much Rush. I’ll give it a shot. If I like it, I’ll let you know. If it sucks, I’ll let you know that too.”
“Here. I’ve already got a copy. Leave that unopened; if you don’t like it, you can take it back.” The cassette was already inside his tape deck; he went over and hit Play.
“You need a new box,” she said.
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
Tess sat patiently through the opening song. Her eyes narrowed as she followed the music and she rocked to the beat. “The drummer’s good.”
A minute later, Rei came bounding down the stairs. “Hey, Rush!” he yelled. “Cool!”
Tess made a wry smirk at Steve and shook her head. Rei dumped his player’s guide on the table and made for the refrigerator. The song ended just as he sat down with a load of Cokes under his arm.
“It’s not really my thing. The singer is trying to be all philosophical, which is the opposite of punk, practically.” Steve felt a little dejected. “But,” she said, “I’ll keep it, and listen to the rest. If nothing else, it’ll help me know where you’re coming from so I can educate you better.” She smiled.
“What?” Rei said, as if just realizing a conversation had been taking place. He slurped at his Coke, which started to bubble over. “Rush is awesome. Neil Peart is the best.”
“He’s not bad. He’s got a lot going on, that’s for sure,” she said.
“Not bad?” said Rei, outrage and confusion on his face. “He’s the best friggin’ drummer in the world.”
“I’d have to listen to more,” Tess said. “But I’d be surprised if he was even as good as Keith Moon.”
Rei made a dismissive backhand wave. “You know a good band?” he said. “Journey, that’s a good band.”
Tess rolled her eyes.
Curt showed up ten minutes later. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I had to bundle the newspapers for recycling.”
“Spare us your lame excuses,” said Rei.
As Curt took his seat, he had to move the portfolio to one side. “What’s this?”
“Yeah, what is that?” said Rei. “I noticed it when I came in.”
Tess grabbed the portfolio and got up with it, standing straight. “I made something for you guys.”
Rei leaned forward, eager. “Really?”
“Well,” she said, “I’ve been looking at the mascot for a few weeks now, and I always feel that he should have something to do with the adventure but he never seems to. So I drew a picture.” She frowned then, seemingly unsure. “I hope you like it.” She tapped her fingers on the side of the case and rocked on her heels as if waiting for a reply. When everyone remained silent, she abruptly planted the case and worked at the zipper, which got hung up just off the floor and again across the top. At last she undid all three edges and peeked inside, saw that she had the case backward, flipped it around, and shoved the cover back.
“Holy shit!” said Rei. Curt nodded approval.
Tess had depicted the group as their characters, though Rei and Curt were older and much more heroic. She’d taken fewer liberties with herself. The three companions were posing behind the corpse of a giant: the brawny dark-skinned Curt-as-Arslan on the left with his chin up, looking down his nose, his scimitar crossed over his chest. In the middle, Megaera was crouched with her boot on the giant’s neck, its half-lidded eyes rolled up in its head. She had Bugclaw over her knee, the bulb swinging up like the tip of a cat’s tail, the lion-claw spikes stretched out. Next to her lounged Dirk, one dagger held up at his side, the other balanced point down on the end of a finger, advertising his casual dexterity.
Behind the party loomed another, larger trio, this one of misty apparitions. In the center, biggest of all, was a sorcerer in a cloak with the hood up but face still revealed. Outstretched in his right hand, he had a gnarled wooden staff surmounted by a gem. The other hand he raised over the party as if in benediction or spell conjuring. Behind the wizard, on one side, a centipede-like monster faced forward, staring out of an array of gemlike eyes. It had a mantis’s foreclaws and a many-segmented abdomen with walking legs. And on the other leered the hag, eyes baggy and hungry. Her hair shot out like tree roots, her nose hung long, and fangs protruded upward from her lower lip in a vicious bulldog underbite.
The wizard, of course, was Steve, or close to him anyway. The jaw was longer and firmer, the eyebrows thicker; it was an older Steve, if he grew more handsome.
The illustration was painstakingly detailed, with very strong, inked lines in the foreground, shaded here and there in delicate stipple. The background was all in pencil except for some inked outlines highlighting Steve’s face and robes.
“You’re a pro!” said Rei.
Tess favored him with a twisted smile. “After hearing your taste in music, I’m not so sure I trust you,” she said. “But thanks!” she added hastily.
“Amazing work, Tess. Well done,” said Steve. “When did you have time for it?”
“Homework’s a joke, right? Anyway, I needed something to do. I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple weeks.”
“Looks like it’s time to retire the mascot,” said Curt. “By the way, I like the twenty-sider.”
Steve took another look at the picture and then realized that the gem at the top of his wizard’s staff was a twenty-sided die, with the numbers in Roman numerals, the “XX” for twenty facing forward. He studied it closer. “How did you get the lines to have a tiny gap in the middle?” he asked.
“I taped leads together from a mechanical pencil,” she said.
“Cool,” said Rei, who had come to look over Steve’s shoulder. “Maybe we could put the mascot on the wall by the refrigerator.”
“Sorry, Rei,” said Steve. “He’s been faithful, but it’s time for him to move on.” Steve removed the album cover, exposing a nail head. Tess had mounted her illustration on foamcore, with a plastic hanger on the back. After she’d put it up and adjusted it a little, they all gathered on the table’s far side to admire it.
After about ten seconds of respectful quiet, Steve said, “Thanks, Tess.”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Rei. “Dirk looks awesome. I like how you made him all lean and cut like that under the armor. What’s that design on it? Oh, yeah, you can kinda see the centipede demon—”
“Cax,” she corrected him.
“—and part of the hag through the armor, because of the chameleon magic, right?”
“The giant looks familiar,” said Curt.
“It’s sorta taken from this guy Andre the Giant. I used a picture from a pro-wrestling magazine for reference — that, and a big-game magazine where this woman bowhunter kneels over a bear.”
“Yeah, Andre. I’ve seen his picture before,” said Curt. “My cousin is a big pro-wrestling fan.” He added: “Moron.”
Steve took his seat, still admiring the picture. “Okay,” he said. “Megaera’s run away from the ophidiag, which is eating the giant, and she’s caught up to you. Alain and Lydia have gone off after Karsk.”
“And we’re all going after them,” said Curt.