Matchstick Soldiers (1.4)

Fire Starter

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Chapter 4

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…?

No.

Was this the cousin that…?

No.

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?”

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Matchstick Soldiers (1.3)

Fire Starter

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Chapter 3

On the day that the mailer had arrived announcing Simon’s receipt of scholarship to Saint Vincent Academy, Simon had just finished unpacking his room in his mother’s new apartment. The mailer went to his old home, the house where his father lived, and his father called his mother right away. Simon came out of his room to find his mother on the phone with his father. She was leaned against the door frame, twisting a lock of her hair around her finger and holding the cordless phone to her ear with her shoulder. She was wearing gray sweatpants and an old flannel man’s shirt. It wasn’t the kind of thing Simon’s father would’ve ever worn.

Later, Simon’s mother drove him over to the house and he went inside to retrieve the mailer while she waited for him with the car running, radio blasting 80s pop music. He exchanged a few pleasantries with his father.

Doing fine.

Feeling better these days.

Starting with the psychiatrist in a week. Mom thinks it’ll be good.

…yeah, the funeral was nice.

Back at the apartment, Simon and his mom opened the mailer together. Everything inside was crimson and gold. The letter was printed on ivory paper with handwritten calligraphic print: We are pleased to inform you that

Simon couldn’t recall applying for the academy or any scholarship. He and his mother had never heard of Saint Vincent before that moment. They did a little bit of research. The campus was nearby, and along the way to work for Simon’s mother. She liked the idea of being able to drop him off — ‘like a Stepford Wife type mother’, she joked. Simon used to take the bus to his old school. He would wake up at five, throw on some clothes, and race to the bus stop. His was one of the first on the route so he had his pick of seating. He always went to the back, hiding his head in a book or pretending to be asleep. It always smelled of old fish and stale sweat on the bus.

“Besides,” his mother had said, taking his hand and smiling down at him, “Do you really want to go back to your old school?”

Simon had thought the phrase was funny at that moment. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around what it meant to ‘go back’ anymore. Every time he took a step forward in life it felt like everything around him shifted to a point where there was no turning around anymore. There was no where to go back to. The only option was to keep moving forward. He made the decision right then to transfer to Saint Vincent Academy. He and his mother went online to accept the scholarship, fill out the enrollment paperwork, and order him uniforms.

“They’re so expensive,” his mother had lamented, the scholarship money would only cover tuition, “I’ll order you a few shirts and the blazer in a bigger size, that way you can grow into them.”

That was five weeks before the first day of school. The same day to a year that the cathedral burned down.

In the night, after his enrollment was finished and his uniforms ordered, Simon dreamed of the school. He’d never been there, but he’d thumbed through all of the brochures and took the virtual tour on their website. His mother had promised they’d go to the campus and walk around before he started there, but he knew it wasn’t going to happen long before she stood over him at the dinner table apologizing for never taking him over there.

The dream school felt vivid, almost real, though. Simon had stood outside of the cathedral and he could see every detail right down to the fine cracks in the building’s brick and mortar. There was a blonde girl there dressed in the school uniform, crimson blazer with a gold patch of the school’s emblem on her left breast, white button down, crimson red tie, and black skirt paired with knee high socks and black Mary-Jane flats. Her hair fell around her face in greasy strings, and her brown eyes were surrounded by racoon black bags of sleep deprivation.

“Once upon a time,” she said, “There was a downtrodden priest that had given up. Until one night, drunk in a ditch, he had a vision of a school. He woke the next morning inspired to build, and build he did.”

The world had moved around them, and they stood inside of the cathedral. Simon could see the engraved wood panels, demons fighting angels. The ceiling was painted with images that swirled and changed before Simon’s eyes of battles being fought in distant lands and foreign places. The girl’s uniform was now singed, her hair charred away, her skin was covered in red and black burns and smudged with soot. She led the way past parishioner pews further into the cathedral towards the altar and Simon followed.

“He built until his fingers bled and his back broke. He built until his body was fevered with exhaustion and his hair had turned from black to white. He built until he died,” the girl walked to a corridor on the right side of the altar, “Whether he had been inspired by his lost God or a demon, he never knew.”

Down the corridor, to a door with a golden lock on it that felt to the floor with a rattling clank, and winding down stone steps, she led and Simon followed. They came to a stop in front of a red door. The girl took Simon’s face into both her hands, all of her flesh had now burned away, and what remained was charred, red angry tissue, exposed muscle and scorching bones. Her eyes locked on Simon’s, the reflection of a fire bouncing off their glistening white.

“You’ll need a match,” she said, “Take a match. Burn it at the altar.”

“Burn what at the altar?” Simon wondered.

The girl grinned, her cheeks dripped from her face to reveal sinew and blackening bone beneath, “Take a match…”

“What are you talking about? What match? To burn what?” Simon demanded.

“You have to burn it. Burn it to ash.” The girl’s left eye bubbled and popped out of her head.

They moved again. Down the corridor, to another door with a lock on it, and winding down stone steps, she led and Simon followed. They came to a stop in front of a red door. The girl took Simon’s face into both her hands, all of her flesh had now burned away, and what remained was charred, red angry tissue, exposed muscle and scorching bones. Her eyes locked on Simon’s, the reflection of a fire bouncing off their glistening white.

“Take a match and burn it. Whatever you do, Simon Glass, stay away from the red door.”

Simon woke from the dream drenched in sweat and parched. He hurried to the bathroom to shovel water into his mouth out of the sink faucet. When he raised his eyes to the mirror, the skin where the girl in his dream had held his face was bright red.

Matchstick Soldiers (1.2)

Fire Starter

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Chapter 2

In the front office, a woman with curly black hair and a large red sweater helped Simon as best she could while fielding phone calls and listening to a petite girl with a unicorn backpack beg to be sent home sick. The woman never stood from her computer chair, opting instead to roll around the office from her desk, to the printer, to the filing cabinet. To her credit, she ignored that Simon was sopping wet and a small puddle was growing beneath him on the floor.

“Gasse was it?”

“Um…no, Glass. Simon Glass,” Simon shuffled from one foot to the other. He stared in awe at a large portrait of a stately old man in red robes hanging over the entire office in a gold frame. The red-clad man wore an elaborate gothic cross and had a stern expression, dark black eyes that bore out of the painting. There was a heavy weight to the image.

“Can’t I just call my mom,” the girl complained.

“No, Sofie, you need to speak with the nurse first,” the woman said, kicking her chair back to her computer and clacking a few keys, “Simon, I don’t know what to tell you. You should’ve come here twenty minutes before the first bell rang. You might miss your entire first class now.”

“The brochure said to go to the cathedral, that’s where I went,” Simon said.

“Cathedral burned down, hon.”

“Last summer. I heard.”

“Then what were you doing there?” the phone rang and the woman picked it up, “Hello, Saint Vincent Academy, how may I direct your call.”

Simon slumped into one of the chairs set aside in the office for visitors and students waiting on help. The girl, Sophie, gave Simon a mean look. She was maybe one or two years younger than him and had her hair twisted into twin braids.

“Father Maloney,” she said. It caught him off guard. He blinked at her and she jutted her chin at the portrait, “That’s Father Maloney. He built Saint Vincent. With only his hands and a hammer. That’s what they tell us anyways. You’ll hear about him sooner or later. We all get spoon-fed the great epiphany story. You’re new, right?”

Simon glanced around the office as though expecting someone else to appear, someone that made more sense as the target of Sophie’s conversation starter. When he didn’t find anyone, he looked back to her and nodded. She smirked, folded her hands on the counter in front of her. The woman with black curls was now engrossed in her phone call and typing on her computer furiously.

“Yeah. You look new,” Sophie said, examining her nails. She walked around and took a seat on another chair near Simon, “But you’re old to be new. How’d you get into Saint Vincent? Your parents donate a new building or something?”

“No,” Simon wrinkled his brow, “My parents couldn’t afford something like that.”

“Oh. You’re scholarship,” Sophie looked giddy at the information, her eyes lit up and her thin lips creased into a façade of a smile, “That is fantastic. They’re going to eat you alive out there! The Elites love scholarship kids, especially vulnerable, frail looking ones like you. You’re like Bambi with those bright eyes and their the hunters, polishing their guns after just finishing off your sweet doe mommy.”

“Who are the Elites?” Simon wondered.

“The Elites…well, they’re…the Elites,” Sophie made a face, searching herself for a way to define this ominous group of people at the school, “Did they not have a social hierarchy at the backwater public school you crawled out of?”

The Elites were one of Saint Vincent’s social cliques, Simon realized, by the way Sophie was talking about them, they were the popular kids.

“School administrators usually give scholarship kids a fighting chance, start them out young. That way they find their place in the infrastructure, and form alliances with the others like them. Preschool, kindergarten, first grade has the highest level of recruitment. But my goodness gracious, you must be at least ten years old,” Sophie exclaimed.

“Thirteen,” Simon corrected. He fidgeted in his chair, his wet clothes squishing underneath him.

“Oh no,” Sophie’s eyes went wide and she looked like she might fly away right there, “You’re in the eighth grade. You’re in the same year with them.”

“Them…who?”

Sophie glanced around and lowered her voice to a whisper, “Varsity Kings. Which means you might not be totally screwed. Get on their good side early, and maybe you’ll survive the year. Otherwise…otherwise, you are well and truly fucked my friend.”

“Who are the Varsity Kings?” Simon asked and Sophie’s eyes went wide. They both earned a deeply concerned look from the woman with curly black hair.

“Shut up,” Sophie hissed, “Don’t say that out loud like you know them.”

“I don’t know them,” Simon frowned, “I have no clue what you’re talking about at all. I’m so confused. Are they Elite?”

“Well, they’re sure the fuck not Leeches,” Sophie muttered, folding her legs at the knee and crossing her arms over her chest.

“Wait…I thought the Elite were the popular kids,” Simon furrowed his brow and tried to make sense of what was going on. He wasn’t sure if the girl was crazy or having a go at him, though he was leaning heavily towards having a go at him.

“No. What? No! There’s the Elite and the Leeches. Elite come from money and paid their way into Saint Vincent. There’s one exception. If you’re a King, you’re not just automatically Elite, you’re also Royalty. You earn the school name and bring Saint Vincent’s spirit respect. Varsity King is the top though. It’s as high as you can get in Saint Vincent before moving to the upper-class side of campus. It means you’ve jumped off the top of the cathedral.”

“The one that burned down…?”

Sophie groaned in exasperation, “Listen. I’m trying to save your life today. Elite have a birth right to be here. Leeches were given scholarships, and not scholarships they earned and are going to do anything worthwhile at the school or beyond with, not like Royalty, no. Leeches were given public relations bullshit scholarships to keep the surrounding intercity community happy. Leeches have no money or right to be here. They’re here because they won the lottery,” Sophie explained, and with a drip of sarcasm muttered, “They’re the ‘lucky ones’.”

“You’re a Leech, too,” Simon realized in surprise, earning another look from the curly haired woman and a dark glare from Sophie, “I’m sorry, I mean…scholarship student.”

The woman with curly hair finished her phone call and hung up. Sophie immediately turned her attentions back to begging, “Miss Landry, please let me call my mom. I swear, I feel like I’m going to puke. Please don’t make me go back to class, I’ll throw up everywhere.”

“I said ‘no’, Sophie. I’ll write you a note for being late to class, but you need to go to your homeroom now. If you still feel ill when the nurse gets here, she’ll decide whether to send you home or not,” the woman with curly hair said and returned to Simon, “Okay, hon, let’s get you set up with a schedule and ready to start your first day at Saint Vincent Academy.”

Matchstick Soldiers (1.1)

Fire Starter

(Next Chapter >>)

Chapter 1

The first day of school at Saint Vincent academy started with a fight on campus. Simon Glass made it in time to catch the tail end of the fight. Two boys were rolling on the ground swinging their fists wildly at one another. One of the boys wore a varsity jacket, crimson red emblazoned with the gold K, for the Saint Vincent Kings, embroidered on its right breast pocket. The boy who wore it was stocky, perhaps a good one hundred and eighty pounds of pure muscle. He didn’t look like the type most would want to pick a fight with, however, from what Simon could gather, his opponent had done just that. The other boy was short and scrawny with shaggy brown hair and wide blue eyes. He held his own alright but largely because the varsity letterman seemed more intent on keeping the smaller boy at bay rather than finishing the fight altogether.

There came a point when the scrawnier boy seemed to lose interest, and all at once the anger and passion dissipated from him. He threw a few half-hearted last punches before the two boys fell apart and the crowd of onlookers, sensing the fight was over, began to depart in search of something more entertaining. The letterman joined a group of boys wearing the same crimson jackets over their school uniforms, and together they left laughing and muttering to one another. Eventually, all that remained was Simon and the boy who had started the fight.

The boy pulled from his left trouser pocket a smooshed, half-empty pack of cigarettes and a silver lighter. He tugged out a cigarette and stuck it on his lip, split and bloody from his fight. He knocked back the lighter lid, struck the flint, and lit his cigarette. He shoved the pack of cigarettes and lighter back into his pocket, took a long drawl from the cigarette, plucked it from his lip and blew the smoke out in a steady stream. He looked at Simon with his large blue eyes, the right one swollen and blossoming with a fresh bruise. Blood streamed down the left side of his face from some cut on his forehead hidden under his hair.

“Who the fuck are you?” the boy asked.

“Simon,” Simon answered with a startled stammer. He used his left index finger to push his thick, black rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose, and attempted to push his oversized uniform blazer sleeves up towards his wrists, “I’m new.”

“No shit,” the boy said, and took another drag of his cigarette. He seemed completely nonplussed about the lump on his head, his mussed hair, dirtied uniform, and the fact moments before he’d been in a heated brawl.

At the boy’s comment, Simon had to remind himself that the student body population was less than two hundred, and most Saint Vincent students started there in preschool. Small school, like a small town, everyone knew everyone else. Newcomers were few and far between and stood out in the otherwise well-worn crowd. Simon guessed the boy was about the same age as himself, eighth grade. He probably had all of his friends picked out, and his station in the school hierarchy carefully determined from nine years in the system.

“I’m supposed to go to the cathedral for new student orientation,” Simon said. The boy raised a brow and Simon tugged his bookbag around to his frontside, shuffling through its innards, “There was a brochure with instructions on what to do for my first day…”

“Right, it’s over here,” the boy said, stalking towards the west side of the school grounds. He cut across the lawn and through a row of hedges, ignoring the dirty looks he received from a group of girls sitting on the grass gossiping when he stomped through their get-together.

Simon scrambled to catch up, carefully picking around the students sitting on the lawn, and falling in step next to the boy. He gasped for breath, “Why were you fighting with that other kid?”

“Seemed a thing to do,” the boy said without missing a beat.

There was something oddly calming about him. It might’ve been his quiet nonchalance, or his devil-may-care attitude. Despite the unreasonable act of violence that he’d been a part of and couldn’t be bothered to explain, Simon felt at ease with the boy. As though they’d known one another for a long time. Yet there was a rage underneath the surface, an edge that kept Simon on high alert to the boy’s every move, from the way he walked with a defiant purpose, to the way his eyes scanned the horizon – not just the obstacles that may lie directly in their path but into the far-off distance as though searching for a greater beyond.

“What’s your name?” Simon asked.

“Don’t get ideas,” the boy said, flicking his half-smoked cigarette into some bushes along the way, “We’re not about to be friends.”

“Oh,” Simon faltered in his step a moment, and decided it made sense. He didn’t have a lot of friends at his old school either. ‘Geek’ or ‘nerd’ were titles that followed him around wherever he went and he hadn’t really expected it to be different here. He couldn’t help but feel a slight sting at the rejection though. They’d barely met and the boy had already made his decision. Simon had to wonder what it was about himself that was so instantly off-putting. After a moment, the boy seemed to regret his words. He glanced at Simon, maybe with some kind of guilt. His expression remained rather blank.

“It’s not you. It’s me. Trust me, you’re better off. I’m a bad reputation and you just got here,” the boy came to a stop on a cobbled pathway in front of a chain-link fence. The fence surrounded the remains of a burnt-out building. There was a sign on it that read: Danger – Keep Out. The boy nodded at the ashen pile of cinder wood, “That’s it.”

Simon felt like he’d been kicked in the gut, “That can’t be it. The brochure said…”

“Must be an old brochure,” the boy smirked, “Cathedral burned down last summer.”

“Now what?” Simon looked glumly at the cathedral. Overhead, gray clouds gathered and thunder rumbled in the distance.

“You should ask at the front office in the main hall,” the boy suggested.

“Where’s that at?” Simon wondered, turning to look at the maze of buildings around them.

“It was the first building up the walk, back the way we came,” the boy said, putting his hands in his pockets and scowling at a group of younger kids, maybe about ten years old, as they walked by. They were staring at him pointedly and whispering amongst themselves. Bad reputation, the boy had said on their walk over, and Simon couldn’t help note the way the kids hurried their step when they caught the boy’s look.

“Really? You could’ve mentioned that the cathedral burned down and I should try there first before we walked all the way over here,” Simon complained. Too annoyed to be mindful of who the boy might be and what his reputation was around school.

The boy shrugged and the bell for first class rang. He started to walk away.

“Well wait,” Simon called, “What am I supposed to do?”

But the boy was well on his way back towards the main cluster of school buildings. He wagged a hand over his head as a gesture of good-bye without so much as a glance back. Simon watched in vain as the boy disappeared in the crowd of students scurrying for their first period class. Simon looked at the ruined cathedral. In the hazy overcast, it brought to mind skeletal remains and as a flash of lightening lit the sky, Simon could swear he saw a pale face in the cathedral eaves watching him. A cold wind picked up, and the heavens cracked open, fat droplets splattering to the ground.