By the time the tardy bell rang for first period, Jacob Dwyer was sitting alone in the laundry room behind the school gym. Students weren’t allowed in the laundry room. It was reserved for faculty use and, on occasion, to wash and dry the jockstraps of the school’s prestigious football team, the Saint Vincent Kings. The door was always locked. There existed only two keys which were held one by the coach and the other by headmaster, but the lock itself cost twelve bucks at the hardware store. It stood no chance against a well-placed credit card.
Jacob was naked except for his pair of black combat-style boots which he tugged back on after undressing and didn’t bother to re-lace. Around his neck dangled a set of dog tags. He had his knees drawn up, an arm draped casually around them.
In his hand he held a silver lighter. He flicked the tinder only to blow out the flame once it lit. Lather, rinse, repeat. He was stuck on a cycle he couldn’t break. Light a fire to burn it out.
Nearby, the school’s dryer rattled and rocked, Jacob’s clothes tumbling inside. His eye throbbed, he suspected it looked like a swollen grape by now. He’d picked a fight with Gordon Elroy that morning, he couldn’t even remember what he’d said to upset the guy, but one sucker punch and five seconds later he woke to a black eye and jeering crowd. He didn’t care about their sneers and laughter as he fell back into violent ritual. The pain was nothing compared to the bruising around his ribs and chest or the tenderness in his wrist that was likely sprained. Those weren’t from the fight but he’d tell anyone who asked they were. It was easier than inventing excuses.
For a moment he’d thought about going to class in that state. A black eye, disheveled uniform, soaked to the bone. Jacob Dwyer. The sewer rat. No one would be surprised. Least of all his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Keegan.
“If you tried to be anything but useless, Mr. Dwyer, the world would not know what to do. It might end altogether,” Mrs. Keegan had once said as she forced him to stand at the front of class with a book on his head. He’d been ten at the time. Or eleven, he could never remember. He was being punished for helping release all the frogs from the science lab earlier that morning.
As a class, the fifth-grade students had raised the frogs, watching their transformation over the months from eggs to tadpoles to adults. Once the transformation was complete, Mr. Billings, their science teacher, announced they would kill and dissect the frogs later that week to finish out the lesson.
Jacob closed his eyes and he was back in that makeshift fort they’d assembled on Ryan’s living room floor, pillows sprawled across the ground, and every blanket in the house pinned up from the ceiling and draping over them like a tent. They’d strung up Christmas lights all over the walls, shutting out all the other lights to make it look like stars or fairies floating around them outside their tent. They were ten years old and this was their entire world. They laid in the tent and recounted that day’s frog announcement. Mr. Billings had explained they would put the frogs in jars, one for each pair of students, with a cotton-ball soaked in some kind of poison. They would screw the jar’s lid on tight and wait until the frog stopped moving.
Kevin took it the hardest, “Why don’t we just put tiny Stars of David around their necks while we’re at it?”
“I don’t get it,” Gary complained, “Isn’t the Star of David that necklace thing you wear all the time?”
The others didn’t really get it either, but they weren’t about to say that out loud. They hadn’t covered World War II in school yet, and, unlike Kevin, their parents didn’t force them on an annual pilgrimage to the Holocaust museum. What they did all get, however, was that it was wrong. They hatched those frogs, fed and cared for them. They’d named them and made up stories about them. No one else in the fifth-grade class could claim to love those frogs as much as the five boys eating pizza and popcorn in their blanket fort that night. Those frogs were their babies.
They spent the night shooting around ideas for what they could do about it. Things like: get their parents to complain, ditch school, or convince the other kids not to do it. It was Lenny that came up with the plan, though. Lenny always came up with the best plans. It was simple, sweet, and it guaranteed the frogs would be saved. They would break into the science lab, gather up the frogs, and transport them to freedom.
The plan didn’t go as smoothly. They misjudged when Mr. Billings would arrive. Jacob made the choice to sacrifice himself for the greater good. He was the fastest of the five, after all. He took a bucket of frogs out of the room, dumped them at Mr. Billings’s feet and took off running with Mr. Billings hot on his trail. It bought the other four enough time to finish gathering the frogs, recollect the ones Jacob used to distract their teacher, and unload them under the University Bridge.
Headmaster Ronin, Mrs. Keegan, Mr. Billings, and a few other teachers spent hours interrogating Jacob on where the frogs went and who was involved, but a Soldier never gives up anything. They called in his father, sent him home with a five-day suspension, and he took his licks knowing that he’d saved something that day. Whether it was the frogs or himself, he wasn’t sure.
The dryer stopped rattling and Jacob stood. He plucked his warm clothes out of the machine, dressing as he went. He didn’t even turn to look when the laundry room door clicked open and slammed shut. If it was a teacher, he was done there anyhow. If it was another student, neither he nor they were supposed to be there. If it was a madman, he hoped to die quickly.
Whoever it was, they didn’t feel chatty. Jacob pulled his shirt on over his shoulders. He left it unbuttoned, tossed his blazer and tie on top of the dryer. Outside, he could still hear rain pummeling down, hitting the roof and door. Water was dripping off his silent companion. Pit-pat-pit-pat to the floor. Their breath was shallow. Jacob pulled his socks on. He turned to lean back against the dryer, use it as leverage as he tugged on one boot then the other. He didn’t so much as glance at the figure standing by the door watching him.
Jacob reminded himself this wasn’t the first time he’d stood here like this.
How many times? How many times? He closed his eyes and reached up a hand to wrap around the dog tags dangling in front of his chest. He wondered if it gets any easier to breath the higher up the hill you climb. He could recall marching towards the top, his friends in front of him, as he lagged behind. Out of breath, out of time.
Out of time.
He opened his eyes and the figure was gone. He breathed out and bent to lace up his boots. He peeked out the laundry door as he buttoned up his shirt. No one in sight but the rain was coming down hard now. He pulled the door shut and locked it again for good measure.
On top of a chair by the door is where Jacob left the contents of his pockets in a less than neat pile while his clothes dried. He picked through the pile now. His cell phone, a mechanical pencil without any lead, some crumbled bits of paper that had been ruined by the rain – whatever was written on them long washed away, his half-empty packet of cigarettes, three sticks of gum, and five matches stashed in a small repurposed mint tin. He dug out the least damp cigarette from his pack and stuck it on his lip. It took several attempts with his favorite silver lighter to get the damn thing lit and it tasted slightly of mildew. He took a long drawl, savored the smoke a few seconds, and released it out in a slow, steady stream. He held it between two fingers as he went to sit back on top of the washer.
That morning he’d had a strange encounter and with nothing to do for however long it took the rain to dry up – or the rest of the day, perhaps, he had yet to decide which – he let himself think of it.
After his fight with Gordy, Jacob needed to clean up the blood. So when the bell rang, he went to the bathroom. Not the bathroom inside of the main hall, of course, he didn’t need everyone to gape at his blood streaked face. He went to the one by the auditorium next to the concessioner stand which was typically used by visitors during football games and theater productions. It was locked, of course, because no one was supposed to be in the auditorium on the first day of the semester back to school. They would open it up during team try-outs, practices, games, for the clubs that met in the auditorium, and for school dances. Getting through the lock on the laundry room took minimal skill, anyone at school could manage it. The bathroom lock in the auditorium, on the other hand, took a certain proficiency.
Jacob smirked around his cigarette and leaned back on the washer, dropped his head back to stare at the ceiling. Breaking into the school science lab to free the frogs at ten years old had been a similar feat. The faculty never could figure out how the boys had gotten into the locked classroom. They couldn’t have climbed through the windows, which were positioned nine feet up the wall and barely wide enough to get a leg through. There were whole books in the county library children’s section that could be checked out for learning how to do a litany of mischievous things such as tie sailors knots, set up tripwires, or cook up a stink bomb and children were wont to pick up strange interests. Picking locks stumped the faculty though but that was the only way the boys could have managed to get in.
The skill had been Lenny’s first. He’d learned it from an uncle or cousin, of which he had an endless array. He was forever telling stories or giving credit to new relatives the other boys had never heard of and would never hear tale of again.
Is this the same uncle from…?
Was this the cousin that…?
Lenny taught the other boys soon after he’d learned the skill, Gary had the hardest time picking it up and Ryan was reluctant (“Things are locked up for a reason”). But once they all had it down, they quickly put the skill to practice. They broke through any lock that stood in their way: desk drawers, pantry knobs, tool sheds, the diary Ryan’s older sister kept under her bed, storage closets, and eventually liquor cabinets. They thought themselves clever, like superheroes that could walk through walls. Their parents called them terrors and the school faculty deemed them grand larcenists in the making.
Getting into the auditorium bathroom took two paperclips and three minutes. Not Jacob’s best time but he had blood dropping in his eye and his wrist throbbed. Once he had the door open, Jacob slipped inside and cleaned himself up. It took several minutes and a growing pile of paper towels. He couldn’t pretend he looked any better after than before. He left the auditorium to find the courtyard empty and rain pouring down. He knew he needed to get to the main hall, bell had rung and he was late, but he lost himself along the way.
Jacob had never been fond of the rain. He had paused beneath one of the few intact flying buttresses around the old cathedral, his eyes closed as he let the cool droplets fall onto his face and slide down puddling at his feet. He could smell the ash in the air from the burnt timbers of the building near him even though it had been over a year now since the cathedral burned down. People used to say you could feel a power in the place, resonating in the alcoves and Roman Catholic imagery that had been carved and painted into every timber. Power still lingered there, Jacob had realized as he stood nearby in the rain, imagining that power rushing through him. He wondered if it hadn’t been the cathedral but the land itself which surged with that overwhelming power.
No one spoke of the power in land. They talked about power in people, buildings, statues, images, and money. Land had existed long before all of those things. If there was a power in a place, Jacob thought, it made sense that the power existed in the land.
“Simon Glass,” Jacob smirked, taking his cigarette off his lip and letting smoke billow to the ceiling above. An odd name for an odd boy. Too small for his clothes, too stark for his fate. The encounter had been a brief interlude between fight to bathroom. A single, insignificant moment.
It was what life was made up of: single, insignificant moments. Each strung together in a never-ending shimmer of lights. Some burned brighter than others, and there was no telling where one light began and the other ended.
“I wonder if this is another beginning,” Jacob said, tipping the ash off his cigarette, and sticking it back in his mouth for another satisfying drawl, “…or maybe we’re at the end?”