by Sherwood Smith
One: Frederic and Deirdre
Who can say when or where an adventure really begins? From my point of view, this one began when some visitors arrived in Mearsies Heili right ahead of one of the nastiest villains ever to stink up—er splat—ah, disgrace our pantheon of villains. If you can disgrace a pantheon of villains. For that matter, would that be a pantheon?
Never mind, CJ. Just write down what happened, and stop blabbing about yourself until you splat into the mess.
Right. So here goes.
The Place: the world called Earth, the continent North America, a country called United States of America, a city named Chicago.
The time: Late spring, 1966.
The tinny sound of transistor radios playing The Beatles deedled through the warm air, past the mixed aromas of cooking oil, blooming roses, diesel exhaust, and cigarettes. Deirdre Weiss automatically held her breath as she got off the bus—last, as always—and the bus promptly trundled away in a roar of rusty engine noise, leaving in its stinky blue wake a lot of high schoolers talking loud enough to be heard over the music blaring on their transistors, and lighting up their cigarettes. Deirdre sucked in another quick breath to avoid the air soup and drifted to the front of a dry-cleaning store, pretending a great interest in a poster offering to mercerize gentlemen’s hats.
Though the teenagers hogged the sidewalk they stayed in clumps. She’d discovered as long as you didn’t get in their way they ignored younger kids. She lagged behind until they turned at the corner toward the high school, then hurried straight on toward the junior high.
She had a reason to get to school early.
Her reason, a boy named Frederic Holmes, was just then sitting down on what he privately called one of the prison benches, in a location between the cafeteria and the gym. Not many kids here this early, and he hoped none of them would come this way.
He pulled from his pocket a battered copy of Fellowship of the Ring. It was beginning to fall apart—pages were already loose, so he opened it carefully. A replacement would be ninety-five cents. That was a lot when you didn’t have any money at all, and asking for some got you screamed at.
So he opened the book with care, sinking gratefully into the familiar story.
Gandalf had just arrived in the Shire when a shadow crossed the pages. Frederic scowled, bracing—
And was surprised by a plain girl face staring back. Surrounded by normal light-colored hair, not the huge ratted mass the popular girls wore. Her face was just a face, without the layers of eyeliner and shadowing around the eyes, and white lipstick outlining mouths constantly chewing gum.
He recognized the girl—she’d been in his classes in elementary school.
“Deirdre?” he said.
She said, “You still like magic stories?”
He looked around for the expected bullies to leap out, shrieking with laughter. So he just sat there, holding his dog-eared copy of Fellowship.
Deirdre grimaced. “I haven’t read that,” she admitted. “It made my mom cry.”
A third surprise. Mom? Crying? Maybe this was no bully-setup. “Your mom read Lord of the Rings?” He couldn’t imagine his own mother reading a book, much less one about elves and wizards and magic rings. “It just came out!”
“No, it’s been a library book for a long time, she says. It’s just come out as a paperback.” Deirdre nodded. “That’s kinda what I wanted to talk to you about—”
A shriek of laughter echoed from the hallways, followed by high-pitched, squealing girl voices. There were the bullies, all right: girl version.
“Suzi Martin,” Deirdre whispered.
They looked at one another in fear, knowing that any boy and girl caught talking to each other—except, of course for the popular kids—were in for being teased unmercifully for the next eternity. Or until a new victim crossed the bullies’ targets, whichever came first.
“Why are you here?” Deirdre said, indicating the gym. “I’ve been searching the whole school. I mean, you didn’t know that. Of course. But Suzi and her rat-tops are going to be here any second.”
Frederic jumped to his feet, grabbed his books. “Why? The caf won’t be open for hours.”
“You forgot the girls’ restroom next to the caf. That’s SMERSH HQ—”
Frederic grinned. So Deirdre also watched Man from U.N.C.L.E.? SMERSH was a secret organization of bad guys who, so far at least, pretty much always talked in fake Russian accents.
“—so nobody else dares use it. And it’s closest to the gym.” She sighed. “And it sounds like that’s where they’re going. Whew. We’ll go to the front of the caf.”
Frederic sighed. He could never figure out where the gangs would appear next. His old lair had been in front of the library, until Tom the Bomb and his pals discovered all the rejects hiding there. Now the rejects (Frederic among them) had to find new hiding places for those long, horrible stretches between classes, when the bullies prowled around looking for victims.
They slunk to the front of the cafeteria, with a lot of glances back. The clattering echo of t-strap shoes on the blacktop, the crack and pop of many jaws working gum, propelled them into a dash.
Frederic panted. “The gym?… What’s there… other than it’s a million miles… from the classrooms?”
Nobody was in front of the caf, which smelled like boiling hot dogs and creamed chip beef. They dodged around the corner a second before the herd clattered past, in the direction of the gym.
Deirdre said, “You didn’t know that Tom Maccles and his gang have the back of the gym as their new smoking hangout?”
Frederic shook his head. “I thought they got suspended for that. Behind wood shop.”
“Sure, and Mr. Campbell is busy patrolling behind the wood shop again, right now.” Deirdre sighed. “You have to keep track of these things, if you don’t want to caught. You follow them—think of Man from U.N.C.L.E., okay? Spy on ’em, find out where they are lurking, and avoid that place until they get into trouble and have to move. Second thing, you have to be boring. They don’t notice you as much if you’re boring.” She pointed her to skirt, which was a dull plaid, and her blouse, a sort of washed-out beige, more of a non-color than a color.
Frederic thought back to elementary school. Deirdre had been one of the most boring kids there. She’d been boring on purpose?
Yeah, but she could.
His face burned as he said sharply, “When you’re fat, you get noticed no matter what you do.”
Deirdre had been peering round the corner of the iron divider that kept the cafeteria lines more or less orderly. She turned around, and Frederic saw her gaze drop to his oversized shirt. Now his neck got hot. He realized that she hadn’t even looked at his body until now—unlike everyone else in the world—and he was mad at himself, wishing he could rip out his own tongue.
But she just said, “I used to love the stories you wrote, back in fourth grade. And you’re reading those Middle-Earth books. Does that mean you, you know, still like magic? Um, you know, as in, maybe, thinking, well…” She stopped, staring at the battered lunch tables as if counting the gum wads all over them. Then she sighed, and faced him. “Thinking magic could be real?”
Shrieking laughter echoed again.
Deirdre’s eyes rounded. “The boys must not be at the gym.” She peeked hastily around the corner. “She’s coming back! We’re too close to their restroom.”
“Pakkies on the prowl,” Frederic muttered.
Deirdre dashed across the front of the cafeteria. Inside, workers dressed in white uniforms could be seen moving about, preparing the day’s lunch. “The what?”
Frederic shrugged. “Pakkies. You know. Go around in a pack looking for people to pick on.”
Deirdre grimaced as they hurried up the stairs toward The Arts. The popular kids never went there. “Most of those girls weren’t so awful before Suzi came to the school. Debbie Watson used to trade Nancy Drews with me, and Judy-Ann Walters always used to draw those cute puppies. Antoinette Leroy was such a good singer. Remember?”
“Yeah. And they’re Judi and Debi and Toni now, and I didn’t see anyone put a knife at their throat to turn them into carbon copies of Suzi,” Frederic muttered.
“No, that happened last year,” Deirdre said, and sighed. “There’s something about turning thirteen. My mom says it’s part of puberty. Ick. I hope it waits years before it gets me.”
Frederic ducked his head down, his face about hot enough to cook pancakes. Nobody said words like ‘puberty’. He had a hazy idea you could get suspended, especially if you were a girl. Girls were supposed to be ladies, and ladies didn’t use words like that—at least around boys, anyway.
“Though maybe they wouldn’t have been so awful if Suzette, I mean Suzi hadn’t moved here—”
Frederic snorted. “The day the earth stood still.” Frederic hated remembering those days almost as much as he hated his life now.
Deirdre grinned, then looked back over her shoulder. “Nowhere in sight. Let’s not talk about her. Listen, can you—”
The bell rang.
Deirdre groaned. “Where do you go at recess?”
“Libe. I go there every break, long’s it’s open.”
None of the bully gangs went there unless forced. The librarian, Mrs. Draganza, ruled supreme there.
Deirdre laughed. “I’d love to see the Dragon Lady catch them cracking gum. They’d get ten years of detention apiece. Look, I’ll meet you there at recess, okay?”
Kids started pouring into the hall from both directions. He watched Deirdre vanish toward the homeroom for her end of the alphabet as his curiosity turned to wariness.
But he raced out of math as fast as he could at morning recess, and hustled toward the library—to find it full of kids. Tom Maccles was there, slouching in a seat with a teacher prowling back and forth between the tables.
The tables full of angry, silent kids—mostly boys—meant that detention had overflowed again. So the stacks were filled with girls whispering and giggling, the occasional crack of strictly forbidden gum causing the Dragon Lady to peer around, frowning. Somewhere Suzi had to be lurking with her gang, hoping to get Tom’s attention.
Frederic finally spotted Deirdre standing by the dictionaries. He headed toward the nearest stacks, which were mostly math books, and pretended to be looking for something, but he side-stepped slowly toward the dictionaries.
A quick glance. Tom Maccles sat up and threw a spit wad at Lee Bailey, who was as usual poring near-sightedly over the astronomy section in case something new had appeared.
The spit wad flew through the air a second before the teacher turned, missed Lee, and splatted against the books. The teacher turned his head but didn’t see it, and resumed his pacing.
Gary Knoll, Tom’s best friend, sniggered. “Geez, Tom, you blind? How could you miss Blubber Bailey?”
“Quiet! Knoll, extra detention,” the teacher snapped.
As soon as his back was turned, Gary and Tom snickered, and the girls peeking around the stacks giggled as Lee slunk away.
The teacher whipped his head toward the stacks.
The giggles stopped as if a giant hand had wiped the girls’ faces. The teacher, suspicious, snapped his head back and eyed Tom, who smirked as he pretended to read his English book.
Deirdre caught Frederic’s eye and flicked her glance toward the door.
She left first. Frederic, edging the far way round so as not to become a target, saw Tom’s mouth moving—another spit wad. Three, four, five steps… and he was safe. A sudden hiss of snickers back in the library meant the teacher had turned and Tom had found someone else to throw it at.
Frederic got outside and took a deep breath. Deirdre was walking slowly along the Spirit Week posters behind glass. When Frederic was a few feet away, Deirdre said, looking up at the posters, “Do you think other worlds exist?”
Frederic stared at her. “You’re setting me up.”
Deirdre flushed. “Do I look like one of them?” She walked away, her shoulders kind of jerky and angry.
“No—I’m sorry—” Frederic struggled to catch up, nearly dropping his books. “It’s just—that’s such a crazy question.”
“Oh, it’ll get crazier,” Deirdre began.
They were interrupted by a long, nasty coo, “Oooh, Didi, you got a boyfriend at last?”
They both whirled around. There was Suzi and her chief followers, jaws busily smacking, popping and cracking—how could they have missed that?
Because of the noise of the other students yelling, shoving, pushing in the corridor just behind the library corner, of course.
“Cantcha do better than Fatty Freddy?” Debi cooed, and all the gang shrieked out their chainsaw titters.
“Lots to make out with,” Suzi cawed, and again the chainsaw shrieks. “Groovy, Weird Deird.”
“Groooooo-vy,” the followers moooed.
Deirdre just stood, her face blank. Frederic’s face burned again, but before anything more could happen the bell rang.
“My hair!” Toni and Judi squealed at the same time.
Suzi and her gang scurried for the restroom, quickly tugging down their rolled skirts in case the girls’ vice principal was lurking in the vicinity with a chair and her ruler to do skirt-length checks. Just before they vanished round the corner Suzi pulled her rat-tailed brush from her purse, so they could do a fast two-minute back-combing on their towering hairdos before racing to class.
As soon as they were safely out of sight Deirdre said, “We can’t talk at school. Meet me at Woolworth’s after school? The book rack,” she added. “As quick as you can, because I only have until four.”
Frederic hesitated, remembered a day in sixth grade when quiet, boring Deirdre, who never talked in class, suddenly jumped up and socked Mike the Spike Bostwick, who’d been sticking his pencil into puny little Norman Gilles with his thick glasses and nose that never stopped running. Mike’d fallen clean off his chair, and afterward the whole school talked about how she’d beaten the Spike up.
Of course that hadn’t stopped Mike the Spike from picking on everyone—Frederic included—while Suzi and her growing gang laughed at his antics, but he’d noticed that for the rest of that year Spike did leave people pretty much alone: Norman, and Deirdre.
“I’ll be there,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 Sherwood Smith
by Sherwood Smith
$1.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-052-1