7

      Dad looked surprised to say the least when he saw me coming down the stairs with a box in my hand marked “posters”. He was even more surprised when I told him that there were five more upstairs and they were labeled “models”, “books”, “videos” and “t shirts”. I thought it best to just get it started and that way there was no chance of him arguing me out of it. I explained that it wasn’t that I didn’t love the models we built together or that I suddenly forgot how much fun we had watching our old movies together. He and I would still do that, of course, but maybe with a new home (and a new school) I should make a fresh start. Shouldn’t I?

      He offered to help but I wanted to do this myself. I casually floated the idea to him that I might need some new clothes. Not much, but something other than baggy jeans and shirts with Star Wars or Jaws on them. I was never one for skirts so that was out but I bought a few magazines and saw some things that I thought would look decent on me. I wasn’t trying to change the world here, just update the version of me in it. Dad was patient enough to take me out to the “Lake” to get some new clothes. I think it was a bit of a drastic change for him as well.

      “I know it’s a new place and all and first impressions are important - ” he started

      “What?” I asked.

      “Well, I just don’t want you to forget who you are,” he said and took a long sip of his soda. We were sitting in the food court of the mall and had just finished lunch. The other seats at our table were filed with bags from Gadzooks, Merry Go Round and a place called The Inside Lane. Dad had been pretty cool about the whole thing, waiting outside while I shopped.

      “How would I forget who I am?”

      “Sometimes it happens,” he said. “Maybe you worry so much about what people think about you that you try to fit in and next thing you know - ”

      “Dad - ”

      “Like your room. I mean, everything had to go away?”

      “I look at it as starting fresh. I still love all that stuff but I think you’d agree that this is a new phase in my life, right?”

     He nodded.

      “Well,” I said and reached into the sky blue bag from Merry Go Round, “this will give me an opportunity to try out new...hats, in a way.” I placed a rich, eggplant-colored, beret on my head and angled it just right. “It doesn’t mean I’m a different person or anything. I just want to explore my options.” I smiled at him, trying to look like I was in a photo shoot.

     “I thought you hated purple,” he said, grinning.

     “I never said that,” I corrected him. “I said I never liked light purple. That’s barely a color in my book but this,” I said and pointed to my head. “This says something, you know?”

     “Agreed. You look great in it. Are we done?”

     “Yep, all done.” 

     So there I was, day one, but at least sporting a somewhat more socially acceptable pair of pinstripe jeans, (description)

     The school seemed enormous, even bigger than the day when dad took me for my meeting with the principal. Cars swarmed into the parking lot and a river of kids flowed up the front steps into Merrick Carson High School (named after a civil war general who was from the area). Horns blared as parents dropped off their kids at curbside. Some drove up in their own cars and waved to friends. Girls squealed and raced to each other, finishing in a hug. A few slinked their way in the front doors, obviously not wanting to be noticed or called out. Other kids clustered in groups near the entrance, talking and laughing and hiding their cigarettes.

     We had gotten their a bit early and dad was still giving me his pep talk when the bell rang. I gave him a kiss and got out quickly. I didn’t want to talk anymore and he was just making me more nervous. This was a high dive board and I had to just jump off, damnit.

     “I’ll pick you up after,” he called as I shouldered by bag and walked in.

Finding my home room was easy enough and I tried to not look too lost. There were about 25 kids in my class and my homeroom teacher’s name was Mr. Cooper. He had blonde curly hair, a small moustache and wore plastic framed glasses that slid down his nose a lot. He seemed nice enough.

     I hadn’t seen Lori, Tina or any of the crew from the theater yet but if Mrs. Barzcik was right and Lori was also a sophomore I knew we would eventually cross paths. There were two other sophomore classes and the only familiar face I saw was Penny as we moved from history 101 to Intro to Biology. She ended up in my Phys Ed class and it was nice to see that I wasn’t the only one who looked out of place. She looked completely stressed at not having her ever present notebook. Her hands grabbed at her sweat pants and she flicked her fingers nervously.

     I felt sort of bad that she didn’t seem to have any friends either but the part of my brain devoted to survival took over right away and I kept my distance, not wanting to be dragged down by association. I once, feebly, tried to show her a smile but there were too many bodies passing in between and I couldn’t see her eyes under the hood of her gray sweater. 

     Oh well, can’t say I didn’t try.

     Lunch was at 11:30 and by then I was feeling a bit more comfortable. No one had approached me yet but I think a few of the students might have recognized me from the Stella. The freshman, as a group, looked completely lost and huddled together like a flock of pigeons. I was sure that at least some of them already knew each other but there also must have been a very real knowledge that as freshmen they were at the bottom of the totem pole.

     Then I saw Lori. Shit.

     She hadn't spotted me yet which I found unbelievable since I was almost a half foot taller than anyone in my class. Tina and one of the boys from that night was with her, the one with the long blonde hair. She was wearing a green and black tartan skirt with a striped halter top and, dammit, she looked good in it.

       I was at a table out of their line of sight but I still wanted to cut my head off since it awkwardly rose above everyone else's.

       I made myself as small as I could and tried to concentrate on my lunch - dad made me my favorite, crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jelly on squishy white bread. As I tried to lose myself in the crunch of each bite I scanned the lunch room, which also doubled as the gym. They had those cafeteria tables that all schools have, the kind that are trying to look like wood and fold up. Do they think we believe they are really wood?

      The noise was deafening, with laughs and screeches melted into one continuous hum. It seemed everyone was showing off what they had bought for the first day: pencil thin ties, shirts so bright they burned your eyes, every brand of jeans on the planet: Jordache, Levi's, Vanderbilts, Sergio's. You get the idea.

       The tables fell into a bit of a pattern the more I looked: one seemed to be a meeting place for the kids (mostly boys) who were into sports. I guess they were the jocks. There was another with a bunch of girls who all shopped at the same places at the mall. They must all have gone to the same salon as well. Anyway, they looked alike: pastel-colored nails poking out of black, fingerless lace gloves, squared shoulders or bomber jackets and flowered jeans. I think they were having a competition with their hair and how high they could get it. Still, they seemed to be having fun which was more than I could say for myself.

      At a nearby table sitting by herself was Penny and I silently thanked her for being as awkward as me if not more. Her face hovered a few inches above her tray and she spooned tired-looking mashed potatoes into her mouth. The other hand was busy scribbling in her notebook and she looked oblivious to everything around. I realized then that I sort of envied her. At least she didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought.

     I poked my head up every now and then to see if Lori had noticed me yet. Thirty minutes never seemed so long but in that time I came to realize that I wouldn’t be able to duck her forever. I breathed a bit easier as she walked out with her friends with no indication that she knew I was even in the same room as her.

     Day one down. Only...eight months and twenty or so days left.

     Dad, of course, had tons of questions that night, asking me about making friends and my teachers. I told him it was great and that the teachers were nice. Not all lies but mostly untrue. I decided it was best to not worry him about the whole Lori thing and maybe it had already passed. I had only seen her a few times the rest of the day and she seemed more wrapped up in impressing her friends than bothering with me. Maybe that was a good sign.

     Nope. Nice try, Kenz.

     The next morning she zeroed in on me. In fact, I think she had probably noticed me that first day but was just playing it cool and waiting for the right moment. She glared across the cafeteria at me and pointed me out to everyone at her table. Tina and the twins looked over and smirked. Actually, Tina and the Twins would make a pretty cool band name and if they don’t kill me maybe I’ll suggest it to them. 

     It wasn’t until the following week that, instead of staring arrows at me, Lori decided to up her game. 

     The first was a photo taped to my locker. One of them had, I guess, managed to take a picture of me when I wasn't looking and drew a fly's head over mine. I guess they were paying more attention to the movie that night than I thought. 

     Other times it was a shove in the hallway, enough to knock the books from my arms. There were times when I swore she was a ninja because I never saw her coming. One time she simply poured her soda into my lunchbag when I stupidly left it on the table to get a napkin from the cafeteria line. Not very clever but then she made up for it the next day when I opened my locker and hundreds of raisinets poured out. 

     How the hell did she get into my locker?

     Didn’t matter. I got the message. High school would be a living hell for me.

The worst part was that it made the other kids in my class, some who had seemed pretty cool and could maybe become friends in another world, stay as far away from me as possible. No one wanted to be in the blast radius when Lori or Tina happened by. Can’t blame them.

     Fighting back wasn’t an option because I didn’t know anyone who would be there to back me up if I ever did get the courage up to push back. I still didn’t know anyone and going to the principal or telling my teacher would only get me further labeled. Dad could tell something was wrong but he couldn’t put his finger on it and most likely he chalked it up to me just being the new girl.

     Working at the Stella was helpful in two ways: it got my mind off my trouble at school more or less and when it didn’t, I could talk to Mrs. Barzcik about it which meant the world. I knew she wouldn’t tell dad. She listened, agreeing that going to the principal wasn’t an option.

     “Lousy situation, to be honest, honey,” she said.

     The day things changed for me was a Friday and I remember that because we had a pop quiz on history that day. The time that things changed for me was three o’clock and I remember that because I decided to take a short cut by going around the side of the building to avoid the river of kids in the halls that were either making out or wrestling with all their junk in their locker. They called it the 3:05 track team, meaning the race to get out and get home.

     The smell of fresh cut grass hit me as I made my way around toward parking lot A and then around the maintenance building. I was still getting my bearings on where everything was but at least I knew how to get to where I needed to be. My last class put me on the opposite side of the school where I needed to be to get to my locker and head home.

     It was just a short run to get to the west side of the school and I knew that an alley ran between the maintenance building and the gym. There was a door there that led straight to a staircase that would take me up to the second floor and my locker.

     Just before I fell I heard a giggle. I almost caught myself but my arms instinctively tried to catch my books and my feet couldn’t catch up. I skidded along the pavement painfully. My books clumped to the ground and I rolled onto my back, grabbing my knee. It felt warm and I knew I must have skinned it good.

     But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was seeing Lori and Tina looming over me. 

     “Hey movie queen!” Lori squealed as she stubbed out her cigarette on the wall. Tina took another puff of hers and then flicked it at me. It flew past my head. I quickly looked around to see if there was anyone else with them like the twins or that round faced kid. Oh, let me tell you this before I die: I found out the boy’s names. The twins were Michael and Sean Brice and the round faced kid (who for some reason didn’t seem to hang with them as much) was Jason. I think his last name was Kraft or something like that.

     It was just Lori and Tina and me and for that I was briefly thankful. Then I saw the look in Lori’s eyes and remembered where I was and that there was no one else around. No one else to see that I was about to get my ass kicked. Not that I knew anyone who would ride in to my defense. I needed a John Wayne right now.

     I quickly got up, ignoring the pain in my knee and took a few steps backward. The door leading in was right behind me so I ignored my books and broke for my only escape. I was able to haul it open and race inside before they knew what I was doing and I instinctively turned right and ran down the facilities staircase.

     They weren’t far behind and I had no idea where I was going, never having been in this part of the school before, but a bunch of corridors branched off in all sorts of directions. I picked one and ran.

     Some of the doors that whizzed past were labeled “HVAC” or “Electric Plant”. Pipes snaked along the ceiling and down other dimly lit halls. I almost slipped a couple times and didn’t want to think about what I might have stepped in. There were fluorescent lights down here but not near as many as, say, on the first, second or third floor and the ones down here flickered quite a bit. Of course my weird brain thought it would be a great place for a zombie movie.

     It didn’t take as long as I thought to lose them, though it made sense. Someone who takes as much care to look good as Lori isn’t going to want to stay down in this dungeon for long. I heard there voices echoing off the cinderblock walls. 

     “You better live down here forever, bitch, because if I see you on the surface again trying to act human, your ass is mine!”

     I hooked a left and then a right and then another right and then straight down a dim corridor and then a right and then…

     ...and then I had no idea where I was. 

     But that was okay. The voices were fading as I listened to my breathing. Lori called out and then Tina said something about it being too gross and creepy and they left. 

     Amateurs. Creepy? They should see some of the horrors I’ve witnessed: ants the size of buses, plants that talked and ate people and blobs from space that looked like strawberry jelly until you got close enough and they absorbed you.

     I waited a few more minutes, hoping that I wouldn’t run into a janitor or maintenance person here in the gloomy corridors because I probably would scream then. I’m brave in the movie but in real life...

     I tried to get my bearings and retrace my steps back. Left, right, right, straight, wait...I turned around. I could hear the drumming of the boiler like a heartbeat down here and I tried to make my way toward it. The smell of sawdust, old coffee and grease hung in the air like a shroud.

     I saw light ahead, coming through the tiny window of a steel door that led outside but it wasn’t the one I originally came through. Somewhere off to my right were faint voices. Ghosts? I took two steps back until I was where another corridor ran off the main one. The voices were a bit louder - talking and then laughing and were definitely coming from someone around my age. I slowly followed until I pinpointed the voices. All the doors down here had tiny square windows at eye level but this one had a sheet of black cloth covering it from the inside. A paper sign taped to the door read:

D & D Club

No admittance without credentials!

     I lifted the paper and read was beneath it.

 

A/V Room

 

     My curiosity was immediately peaked. I gently knocked and immediately the voices stopped, followed by hushes and then whispers. I tried again and waited. The black cloth parted slightly and I saw only black hair, glasses, eyes, a nose and lips.

     “What do you want?” the parts of the face asked me. I was tempted to say I was here to see the Great Oz but held it in. I guess The Wizard of Oz had left more of an impression than I thought. I liked it but not as much as mom did.

     “I’m lost,” I answered. Not entirely true but close enough.

     “Not our problem,” the face answered.

     “I’m aware of that but I’m kinda new here in school and I got turned around. I was being chased by these kids and - ”

     “Still not our problem.”

     I heard a couple voices, some hissing and then silence again.

     “Look, if you can just tell me how the hell to get out of here I won’t bother you anymore,” I said.

     “Are you alone?”

     “Did you see anyone with me?”

     The pale face looked around before door opened and I slid inside to find a three kids sitting around an old cafeteria table. I could tell just by looking at the books and maps and tiny figures that they were in the middle of playing Dungeons and Dragons. Shaara and I had only played it once or twice but it  wasn’t something we were really into.

     The boy who let me in was thin with pimples and dark eyes. I sort of recognized him from one of my classes. Geometry? The other kids sitting around the table looked at me as if I had just stepped out of a flying saucer. There was only one girl at the table and she smiled at me but then quickly put on the blank and slightly annoyed stare of her friends. She was pretty in a plain way (I guess like me, minus the blue hair), with light blue eyes and dressed in olive green overalls that couldn’t possibly do anything for her form if she had one. I could see dark red locks under her black knit cap. She didn’t look familiar but maybe I’d seen her in the cafeteria before?

     My eyes played over the two boys at the table with her. One had long strawberry blonde hair that was parted in the middle and fell to both shoulders. He was wearing a plaid shirt with a t shirt underneath that read “In Your Dreams”. He wore round wire framed glasses and had a band aid on his forehead. His teeth were big but he wasn’t showing them much since he was too busy quietly gawking at me. I’d seen him in the hallways.

     The other boy had a screen of straight brown hair that covered most of his eyes. I remembered seeing him sitting in the back of my History 102 class. He was wearing a denim jacket with dozens of sewn on patches. Most looked like they were military. The boy who let me in was sporting black framed plastic glasses and had matching suspenders over his short sleeved blue shirt. His black hair was combed back from his pimply forehead. 

     “It’s not that hard,” said the door holder. “Not like the mines of Moria or anything. Turn around and make two rights and then head straight. There’s a door there that says - ”

     My attention drifted to the walls of the room. One entire corner was nothing but shelves with sheets of clear plastic draped over them but I could see dark mysterious shapes behind. He kept talking but I moved past him, almost in a trance, toward the shelf. Are they... 

     “Hey, excuse me, you can’t just - ”

     “Wait, wait, she’s not a member!”

     “Look, we were given this space with the express understanding that we would be left alone,” door boy said as he followed me.

     I pulled aside the plastic curtain and saw a black movie camera. I couldn’t tell you how old it was but it was clear that it was in good condition. Next to it were two connected metal circular cases, looking something like the ears of Mickey Mouse. I was pretty sure that they held the film and went on top of the camera...I think mom once called them magazines. Further down the shelf were two video cameras. The shelf below held what I think was a video editing machine and some light meters. The top shelf had some empty reels, cans and an old silver projector. I noticed a tripod leaning in the corner, gathering dust. There was another door leading out the rear of the room.

     “You have cameras in here?” I asked, leaning closer and admiring how well taken care of they were. “Who’s are they?”

     “Hello, Mork from Ork, this used to be the A\V room. You know, A/V? Audio/Video,” the boy with the plaid shirt said. “The school owns them.”

     “I think it was called audio/visual,” the other boy at the table said and scratched his chin.

     “Same thing, basically.” he snipped and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

     My fingers caressed the camera. There was a texture to it. I had never really looked at one up close before, at least not an old one like this. They must be at least twenty years old or something. Hard to tell. I didn’t know much about cameras other than dad had what he called a Super 8 that he used when he and mom were dating. Dad would tape a sheet up on the living room wall and we used to watch the footage (that’s film talk) together but not since mom died.

     The room was twice as big as my bedroom. In the opposite corner was a tarp covering something tall and wide. As I moved to it I accidentally knocked into the table and a few of the playing pieces, figures holding swords and axes, toppled over.

     “Hey, watch it!”

     “Oh, God, sorry,” I said and quickly put the figures back on their feet.

Plaid shirt threw his hands up in despair. “Oh, great, now I’m in front of the beholder!”

     “Relax Geraldine,” the girl muttered and started moving the pieces back in place. “I remember where everyone was.”

     Under the tarp were lights on tall stands, three of them. I didn’t even know if they worked anymore but they were elegant, some wearing metal, circular half domes around them and other with dusty black metal shades that folded.

     “And these?” I asked to no one in particular. 

     The boy following me sat down. “Look, all of this belongs to the school. Clearly, no one has used these in forever so there’s your answer. You’re not supposed to be even touching theme, probably. Look, right now, Dory is working on getting to level 7 and I have to get home soon and when the Dungeon Master has to go home the game is over. So, do you mind?” He gestured toward the door.

     “Why are all you here? Were you part of the A/V Club?”

He looked at me like I asked if he could dance the mambo. “No. There hasn’t been an A/V club here in years. The teacher who used to run the A/V department ‘retired’, although I heard it was because he drank too much,” he said. “They still use the video stuff for graduations and dances and things like that but most of this older crap hasn’t seen daylight in a long time.”

     Crap? “So, why are you here?”

     “We asked the vice principal if we could have a place to play without being bothered. We can only use it after school on Friday. And down here-”

     “It’s more like a real dungeon!” said the one with all the patches on his jacket. He high fived the one with the long hair.

     I nodded. Well, I definitely didn’t want to go out the way I got here because Lori and Tina might be waiting for me, and maybe they had gotten the twins to join them as well. “Look, I ended up here because I was about to get my ass kicked and - ”

     “Let me guess, Lori Kleber,” said the boy who let me in. Well, sort of let me in.

     “And Tina Winter, right?” asked the girl with the cap.

     I nodded.

     “So you’re the one they’ve had it out for,” he said. “We heard about it around school but, well, we try to keep to ourselves away from that sort of stuff. When those assholes focus their attention on someone else it’s way better for us. So, thanks in a way.”

     “So glad to help,” I said, turning to the rest of the group. “Is there another way out of here other than the exit near the cafeteria?” I asked hopefully. “I have a feeling they’re gonna be waiting for me.”

     “You look like you could take them,” the girl said and I took it as a compliment and smiled. 

     “That might be true,” said the boy with the black frame glasses, “but far be it for us to leave you to the evil that is Lori and Tina. We’re about done here anyway, so if you wait until we pack up we’ll take you out by another way.” He motioned to the others. “The badass warrior over there is Dory. That’s Dave in the jacket and Keith is the one with the beautiful elf hair.”

     Keith held up his middle finger and smiled. "The girls love it."

     “I’m Matt, the leader of this tribe,” he said and held out his hand.

     “You’re our leader like I’m Madonna,” Dory laughed but Matt answered back that he was the dungeon master so that made him leader by default.

     I shook his hand. “I’m McKenzie but everyone calls me ‘Kenz’. So how many ways out of here are there?”

     “We’ve discovered six but I think there may be more. I feels like there are miles of weird tunnels and empty rooms down here, more than anyone up there knows about,” he said and then looked at me strangely. “Sorry, I just sounded like a dwarf there for a minute, didn’t I?”

     “Kind of,” I said, laughing. “I guess.”

     “We know there is an exit by the pool, there’s also another one that takes you out by the parking lot. There’s another by - ”

     “Matt,” Dave said, cutting him off. “You can’t give away all our secrets, dude.”

     “What, do you guys have some sort of blood oath here?” I joked but my smile went away when I saw how quiet and awkward it got. They never really answered.

     “Fine. We’ll take you out by the parking lot,” Matt decided.

They grabbed their bags but left the game set up on the table. Matt saw me looking at it curiously and smiled. “Oh, yeah, that’s the other great thing about having our own place - we can leave the game set up when we leave so we don’t have to worry about it. We just let the maintenance guy know and he locks it up for us.” 

     Dave handed him a handkerchief and motioned to me. “So she can’t tell anyone how she found us.”

     “You know Dave, you have to get out sometimes,” Dory said and grabbed it from him. 

     And the five of us made our way through the Mines of Moria…

...yeah, I read The Lord of the Rings.

     The basement ran the whole length of the building and aside from the pipes that cluttered the ceiling it wasn’t really that bad. It was a bit noisy because the water heaters were down here along with the ventilation system. We took a couple side tunnels and Matt would occasionally turn and shush us and we would freeze but I couldn’t hear anything. I think he was just being dramatic but I obeyed out of respect. These were my protectors, after all.

     Eventually we emerged through a door that was near the pool building and glorious sunlight streamed down on us. They cautiously escorted me to find my books (they were in the nearby trash can, of course) and I was turning to thank them when Matt interrupted.

     “Now, scatter!” he announced and the three boys took off in different directions, their backpacks bouncing as they ran. Keith and Dave disappeared into the nearby trees, quick as elves (I assumed that elves could do that). “Good luck!” I heard Matt shout as he vanished around the corner. Dory just shook her head slowly and walked away across the parking lot. With her back to me, she put a hand in the air and waved.

     And that fast, was alone again.

     My dwarf escort had left. Or were they elves?

     I was kind of hoping to see them again. Weirdos.

     I jogged home.