He closed his eyes at last, blocking out the glare of the sun. A fiery echo stared back at him from his eyelids, reminiscent of the fires of Dante’s underworld. He shivered, stepping over two freshmen and into the halls of Purgatory.
Walking down those halls was always intense: dodging the football players on their way to their lockers, sidestepping the geeks, slipping past the unnaturally thin cheerleaders. Or he had done that.
People gave him a wide berth now—-he hadn’t had to sift through the hourglass since sophomore year. That’s what came of wearing black, he reflected. Eventually everyone forgot the reason you wore it, then they labeled you, then you wore it for a different reason. So when he turned a corner and bumped headlong into a sophomore, he wasn’t surprised to see the younger student scuttle off in a panic of recognition. He’d long since grown used to the idea of being cursed with the incurable disease of social outcast syndrome.
Senior year was supposed to be the highlight of high school, the icing on the cake. Perhaps so, for the frosted lives of the beautiful, the popular, those working night and day to get ahead, because now the audience wasn’t merely one’s own class, the kingdom was the high school itself. Not to mention that freshmen were considered serfs, and thus a source for labor and finance. But for him, senior year was merely the final months of the storm before college. Once college came he could shuffle off the mortal coil, shed his stereotype like old, dry skin. He would be free to do as he pleased, answering to whom he chose, instead of the select few that ruled high school by default.
That was the trouble with high school, he mused. Those few only ruled because it was impossible to escape. Left to their own devices by preoccupied teachers, most of whose real goal was to keep their students indoors for the required eight hours, the students made up their own sick form of unspoken government, where those most admired or feared worked constantly to remain on top. This was a tiny community without distance or the mellowness that comes with age. This was the world sphere at its worst on a horribly tiny scale.
Kirsten Kurtz, for example, stayed afloat after some embarrassing photos of her slightly overweight childhood self had gotten loose. All it took was one other person for a floatation device. As long as attention could be shifted to one other person, the danger of being fed to the “commoners” would pass. So when Kirsten spotted a fellow sophomore wearing full black, with a dark, broken expression… well, there it was, wasn’t it? Labeled a freak after his month of mourning, as soon as he tried to wear his old, socially acceptable clothing, he was a wannabe, and further persecuted. He was tripped, shoved, bruised and bloody by the time he stumbled home each day. He should never have changed his clothes in the first place, perhaps, because in high school change was borderline sinful. But he hadn’t been able to bring himself to put on colorful clothing after they buried his mother. Kirsten had come to the funeral, of course—-it was her aunt, after all—-but she still didn’t lift her prohibition against him mentioning that he was her cousin in public, or more recently, against him talking to her at all. Resignedly, he went on wearing black. At least they didn’t try to fight him when he wore black. Not that he would be an easy target anymore—-he’d since been working out regularly. He’d filled out at last, grown taller, and he’d always been somewhat handsome under the haunted eyes. If it weren’t for his mother’s tragedy, he might have been one of them, one of those who sold their souls to the king and queen of high school in exchange for an apprenticeship in the art of “true” politics.
But if his mother had not finally given in to her illness, he might have chosen to apply to the state-school closer to home, or even a community college, so he could care for her. Now he carried a treasure more precious than gold in his pack—a letter with the most beautiful word lingering under the salutation: “Congratulations”, and a lovely shield at its head in purple and white and gold. Even lovelier was the phrase “100% of financial need will be met.” Despite his own orphaned status, the college he loved would never let him down. So life was not all bad…
It still hurt to be happy, even two years later. He felt a stripe of guilt tear down his stomach as he turned the corner onto the band hall corridor, pausing briefly to collect his sax from his band locker. Flicking the dial to his lock, he shrugged into the shoulder strap and left as the sounds of beginning students floated behind. The practice rooms were always crowded during this time of day, so he trudged in the direction of his usual “performance hall”—-the gym. Sitting on the edge of the bleachers, he stared absently into the glassy floor as his mangled reflection, unpacking his sax with numb fingers. Such a waste, he thought, as his licked his reed and finally began to relax in the feeling of silver on his finger pads. Why bother with a senior recital, now?
But like always, he began to play, letting his fingers take his mind away from the everyday misfortune. He poured his daily frustrations, his unhappiness, his excitement and fury into a set of scales, running through all twelve major keys, then into chromatics to banish the whispers, the sidelong looks and the laughter echoing down the halls outside. The brassy full voice of his sax reverberated through his veins, made the guilt and pain a little easier a burden. He lost himself in sharps and flats.
She came then, almost silently, padding into the gym in bare feet, carried by the beginnings of his first self-composed solo. He didn’t see her until she was sitting right next to him, and as he noticed her, he started very slightly, faltering once, an E natural instead of flat, and she winced with him. But then they both chuckled a little, and she whispered, “Can I listen?” He nodded, but quietly let his fingers fall away. “Hey, Tobias,” she said.
“Call me Toby,” he wanted to reply, but could not force those friendly words around the reed in his mouth. He sighed. “Hi, Kirsten,” he murmured bitterly, his voice creaking past his teeth. He hadn’t spoken in several days, and his voice, rusted with decay, had become something gravelly and old, broken and bleeding. Society had been set up in the most convenient way possible, to where one had not to utter a word if he didn’t want to, and since turning eighteen he’d been on his own. How tragic that he had to break his silence for such mundane words…
She tapped her feet on the bleachers, traveling the hard gym floor with her eyes, idling on the school mascot at its center. “I’m tired of this life,” she said, wrapping her arms around her knees, “I’m tired of living.”
Tobias nodded, hesitant, and picked up his sax again. After a short scale, “Everybody feels that way sometimes.”
“No, but really,” she breathed, turning to stare at him. “Who are you? Do I know you at all?”
Tobias stumbled at the candor of the subject change. “I don’t know.” Then a moment’s thought, and he decided, “Probably not. The things you told everyone about me weren’t true, anyway.”
“Mmm,” she murmured, turning back to her perusal of the gym. “I suppose I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Your prerogative,” he answered—-his usual response to such things. Who was he to tell others how to live their lives? Being a good person only meant something if you yourself became a good person. And so, rather than continue in that vein and risk deteriorating into childish squabbles, he trilled (momentary indecision) down into a ‘C’ (middle ground), and began again. “What are you doing here? And where are your shoes?”
She ignored him and crept closer. “Play me something,” she begged. “Play me something from the glory days.”
“The glory days?” he faltered, tapping out an unvoiced glissando.
“The days when every kiss was a Clark Gable kiss. The days when dresses were works of art and the pinnacle of social satisfaction was a waltz. Play me something old and beautiful.”
“Do I know you?” he gaped.
She laughed, and while he banished the accompanying image of playing in his backyard with her younger, more loving self, she stretched and lied down, smiling up at him in a knowing way. “See? I’m a secret marvel, too.”
He shrugged. “My senior recital is on the twelfth. Tell Aunt Kay, please?”
“We’ll be there, no sweat.”
Still that infuriatingly mysterious smile—and nothing made sense! Why now? Why decide to start caring about the people who only ever cared about you now? “Are you trying to placate your guilt? Are you trying to make yourself feel better? It’s fine, really, I’m okay. But I don’t need your pity, your superfluous drivel. Just go.”
She sat up, startled. “I’m just trying to make up for lost time, Tob’. That’s all.”
“Don’t bother,” he hissed, an anger he hadn’t acknowledged before seething up his trachea.
“People change, Tob’.”
“Well, I didn’t!” He turned abruptly to put away his sax. “I stayed the same! I still sent your birthday cards and Christmas presents. I still went to your choir concerts. I never gave up on you, even when you left me for dead! All for the sake of what, Kirsten? For the sake of having someone of self-inflated importance to lunch with on Tuesdays and Fridays. Tell me, do you get Monday, too, if you’re particularly nasty to the less fortunate?” He was inches from her face and getting closer, letting all of the pent up frustration and clandestine rage burst forth, but she had yet to back down. “What do you know of glory days? What do you know of Clark Gable and the waltz? You know only what your idols feed you. What do you know of Harrison Bergeron, of Bradbury, of saints or sinners? What do you know of the world and its true cruelties? What do you know?”
She waited for him to give up this battle of myriad misgivings, waited for him to be calm. “The Misjudged misjudges,” she chided.
He stared at her, saw the mask fall from her beautiful face, and realized in an instant that they were on level ground. She had betrayed him, and he had returned the nicety, rather than be above such pettiness. He looked down at his hands. “Touché. I’m sorry, Kirsten,” he said in a small voice.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “Can we begin again?”
Tobias ached to have things the way they were before. He longed for lunchtime with Kirsten and his old friends, for bright clothes and a light voice. He yearned for someone to trust. Above all he craved someone to talk to, someone who would never let his voice lie fallow for so long. But when he looked at Kirsten, he still saw a pretty face and perfect hair. He saw a person who would turn on him even more quickly a second time, if it meant a place in the hierarchy for her. So he turned away from her, and could feel her disappointment barraging his back, but he whispered, “I’d like that.”
She snaked her arms around him, holding him tight, and he lost his breath from the shock. “Play me something,” she said again, in that voice ringing with urgency and need. “Play me something beautiful.”