We cared deeply that people thought we didn’t care what people thought about us.
We all wore black T-shirts during Spirit Week’s “white T-shirt day.”
Of course we all had black T-shirts.
As members of Carmichael High School’s Sci-fi Club (pronounced “skiffee”), we printed our own black T-shirts each fall with the year on them as well as the funniest inside joke from the games the year before. We were proud of them but had to admit they didn’t hold a candle to what GSA had done a few years back. They’d bought a hundred that said “Carmichael’s Gay” on the front and “Straight Alliance” on the back and no administrator could object without admitting they thought “gay” was derogatory. It was one of the most successful fuck-yous we had seen until Principal C banned scooters and threatened to personally lock up every confiscated set of wheels in his office. In a rare alliance with the Japanese Club (with whom we feuded over faculty sponsors and lunch space on the library steps), the GSA, and Carmichael Thespians, we rode eighty scooters down freshman hall. Principal C, we heard, spent the rest of the day stacking and restacking them against his bookcase.
None of us had been to his office before. We were two-bit criminals, guilty of dress code violations (no chains, no trench coats), computer lab misuse (no Tumblr, no x-rated Legend of Korra fanfiction), and mostly minor trespassing since we were always hanging around the German trailer after school. Our faculty sponsor was only there once a week, but who was to say the other four days we couldn’t crowd onto the rotting wood steps, rolling dice on the back of a five-star binder?
That too may have been a violation, since gambling was also against the rules, but no one had gotten on us about it. Maybe the administration didn’t recognize the icosahedra as dice, maybe there were just bigger things to worry about than a handful of black-clad teens shouting “Roll for attack! Roll for damage!”
And even if we had gotten written up, no one would have cared. Our parents were not rich, always working. No one had to go home early to practice clarinet or soccer. Some of us were smart but we were all going to state colleges, and not the ones that won basketball championships. Some of us would go on to teach. Some of us would end up in the military. Some of us would keep coming back years later, wearing old Skiffee T-shirts that had faded to gray.
The days when alumni returned were always the best. Mina or Trig or Skate or Lala would show up and toss a bag of chips at us while we listened to their shit. They knew things now, about where to get weed that wasn’t mostly stems and seeds and what happened at Comic-Con and where you could go online to hire a hitman if you wanted to. If they’d asked, we’d have hired a hitman for them, especially Skate.
Skate was twenty-three and the coolest person we knew. He worked the overnight shift at the canning plant and when he woke up around two or three, he’d drive up behind the school and park in the teacher’s lot. We’d see him coming from across the grass and pause the game mid-turn, standing up to greet him like soldiers at attention.
Rezzie was our game master in those days. She was a senior with a quiet voice and superlong hair and wore skirts that went down to her ankles to hide the fact that she weighed twice as much as some of the freshmen. When Skate came bounding up, she always sighed dramatically and said, “You are so disruptive” but everyone knew she loved it. He made fun of everyone but her. Told MC he stunk (he did), told Fingers that his stubble looked like it had been glued on by a retarded baby (also true), but when he sat down with Rezzie he’d cup his hands lightly under her heavy earrings and say, “These are really beautiful” until Rezzie’s whole fat face blushed pink.
Skate knew every game and every system and carried his dice in a cinch bag that said Crown Royal. He’d sit down and drop the bag with a thunk, asking us who we were this time. Then he’d pause. It was like the second before the roller coaster drops and we all knew what that felt like since we all had dads that on payday said let’s go ride some goddamn roller coasters.
We were vampires, nymphs, half-dragons. Or we were elves, mages, paladins. One time Xudu brought in a game that was Wild West with steampunk magic and Mancandy played a gun-toting prostitute. MC had thick dark hair, winged eyeliner, and arm muscles that bulged out of his tight black Tees. Pansexual and flirty, he could have slept with any girl or gay guy in the group if he wanted to, but to our knowledge, he never actually had. That’s why the prostitute gag was so perfect: everyone MC turned his attention on actually fell a little in love. When we saw MC in the halls we’d shout, “Ma’am, how much?” and hurt our faces laughing. Everything was so funny because it was just between us, a collective inside joke that the rest of the assholes who went to our school, the ones who cared about stupid shit like prom and AP classes, would never understand.
There were fifteen dollar dues for new members that SS collected and kept for herself. That was okay because SS was goth hot but also scary, she had filed fingernails and wore tight black jeans that showed the smooth curves of her ass. No one knew what she spent the money on, but she made sure to collect it from all the noobs whenever they showed up.
Besides the tithe to SS, new members were lightly hazed in a variety of ways. They posted lookout while we were watching R-rated movies on Rezzie’s laptop, chose their characters last, and got cups of ice for Skate, who liked to chew on the crushed kind from 7-Eleven if and when he showed up. He would thank them and give them their nicknames because he was really good at thinking up funny ones.
Cassie’s nickname was initially Rose because she could do the ballet thing from Titanic. Back in eighth grade, she used to roll with this dance clique, pretty girls too skinny to be popular whose moms picked them up in SUVs each day to take them to practice. The summer before high school, Cassie’s parents divorced and there wasn’t money for lessons anymore. That’s why she came knocking on our door the first Monday in September holding a beat-up copy of Dune, thinking we were a sci-fi book club.
That was pretty damn funny. It was like she’d walked in naked. A lot of us wished she’d walked in naked, long limbed and graceful with dark features and a tight bun holding in her shiny brown hair. We recognized her from the morning announcements, where she presented a segment each day on visual and performing arts, and from lunch, where we usually saw her sitting alone. We figured she’d turn around ASAP once she realized we weren’t a bookclub; we were sitting around licking the centers out of Kroger-brand Oreos and talking about if we thought anyone’d fucked in space yet. But she just picked up a cookie with a slim hand and said, “cleanup would be a bitch.” Because of that, some of us wanted to name her “Cleanup” but she did the toes thing a few days later so Rose was born. But not for long.
Rose/Cassie came for a few weeks but didn’t play anything until after Thanksgiving. It was quieter then, some noobs always dropped us for Carmichael Thespians after they announced the Fall play, and it was colder so we all kind of huddled together on the steps the days the trailer wasn’t open.
By then, Wild West had run thin, even MC’s prostitute gag felt tired, so Rezzie killed everyone off in an afternoon and we sat around picking grass.
Rezzie said she had a few new worlds she’s been working on. One was a throwback D&D with pewter pieces and everything; another was totally freeform, everyone would be wolves and we’d prowl the frozen steppes looking for the treasure of our ancestors.
“That’s not very original,” Xudu said. A stoner with strict Jehovah’s Witness parents, he played a troublemaker in game and out.
“What?” Rezzie looked hurt.
“Frozen steps,” he said. “I feel like we’re always on frozen steps.” He grinned, thumping the wooden stair he was sitting on.
“What?” Rezzie still didn’t get it. “We’ve never done anything like this before. Wolves are totally original.”
“Frozen steps,” he said again, louder.
“Yeah,” she said. “I swear to god, it’s a new fucking game!”
Xudu grinned, pointing once again at the wooden stairs. “We’re literally sitting on frozen steps!”
“Oh steps,” Rezzie said, and we all busted out laughing. “Fuck you, Xudu.” But after a moment, she was laughing too and someone was writing it down in our notebook full of next year’s T-shirt ideas.
It was almost five by then, the activity buses were about to show up, when we saw Skate. He hadn’t been to club in weeks, something to do with his car, we’d guessed, or the weather. So it was beyond exciting when he ambled out from behind the main building, smirking.
Skate looked like he wasn’t born in this world. He walked slowly and kept his hands in his pockets. He didn’t blink a whole lot. And he had a jacket we’d kill for. Long and black with just a little bit of a whoosh when he walked, and in the buttonholes a line of silver figurines of stingrays—skates. Skate said when he was a noob, he chose his own nickname. None of us were around but we believed him. It’s because I’ll prick you with my stinger, he’d say and poke all the girls.
Skate sat down next to SS and we all exchanged looks. We knew they’d slept together before and SS said they weren’t anymore but this looked like pretty convincing evidence otherwise.
“What are you playing?” Skate said.
“We’re done with the old game,” Rezzie said. “I just gave them options for something new.”
“D&D or frozen steppes,” Cassie said. “Not steps.”
“Who’s this noob?” Skate turned.
“My real name’s Cassie,” said Cassie. “But we’ve decided my nickname’s Rose.”
“That’s a stupid nickname,” Skate said. “I like Cassie better.”
“Then what’s her nickname?” SS said.
Skate shrugged. “Just Cassie, I guess.”
SS frowned. “Everyone has a nickname.”
“And yours is just your initials.” Skate turned away. “Nice to meet you, Cassie. I’m Skate.”
She took off her gloves to shake his hand. “Are you going to play with us?” she said.
Skate grinned. “I’ve got a better idea.” He paused for a long moment. We could hear the activity buses pulling up but we didn’t care, we held our breath to see what Skate would say next. “I’m off work for a while. I could run a game.”
We looked at each other in disbelief.
“You want to run a game?” Rezzie said.
“If it’s okay with you,” Skate said. “I know you’re usually the GM.”
“Fuck yeah,” Fingers said. He was a noob too, a scrawny freshman with yellow teeth who shoplifted the cookies from Kroger each day before club started. His older brother had graduated the year before so he’d heard about Skate and knew what the rest of us knew: that we’d kill to be in a game with him.
“It’s just something I’ve been thinking about,” Skate said. “New system, zombie apocalypse.”
“Don’t you think zombies are a little played out?” Cassie said.
Skate turned to her. We held our breath.
But he just laughed. “Everyone gets two characters, you as a human and you as a zombie. There are certain quests you can do that keep up your resolve as a human. Fail, and you become undead.”
“What if we want to be undead?” Xudu said.
Skate grinned. “Then it looks like you’ll be making things harder for the humans.”
He told everyone he’d email SS the character sheets he wanted us to fill out and he’d be there the next day to start us off.
“This is insane,” Fingers kept saying. “Totally insane.”
Skate shrugged and put his arm around Cassie. “Someone’s gotta keep you noobs in line.”
We forgot to try to be cool. Even SS grinned. We slapped hands and pinched each others’ shoulders and smiled wide, grateful for once to live in this time period.
That night, we dropped everything to do those character sheets. We catalogued hair color, eye color, age, sex, build, alignment and used pencils to divide thirty points between speed, strength, healing, and charisma.
The weird thing about this game was it was set in this year. Our characters were humans and while we added a few years or inches or cup sizes, they looked like us. They felt like us too, and when we woke up the next morning, we could feel our skin stretch to accommodate the bulge of our new lives.
We all got to club on time that day, no fucking around. Skate was there already helping Cassie fill out her sheet. Cassie thought you could put however many points you wanted for each of your attributes, so she had more than thirty points distributed. We prepared for an epic smackdown but Skate just said don’t worry about it.
“She’s still got too many speed points,” Fingers said when they were done.
Skate flicked one of the pewter buttons on his coat. “Do you want to play this game or not?”
We all did. Skate told us where to sit. The year was 2017. The town was small. It was built on the edge of a coal mine and when the zombie virus struck, many of the villagers had retreated underground, leaving the undead to roam the empty streets.
Skate gave the dice first to Rezzie, who was sitting in between SS and Cassie, looking out of place on one of the bottom steps.
“My character is a twelve-year-old girl named Ambrosia,” Rezzie said. “Her parents died when she was little so she lives with her grandmother in a penthouse apartment downtown. She’s rich but she’s lonely. Her parents were killed by muggers—”
“Batman,” Xudu coughed.
“Come on,” Rezzie said. “Not every orphan is Batman.”
“Yeah, but the muggers thing—”
“Dude,” Skate said. “Just let her finish.”
“Anyway,” Rezzie said. “She’s read a lot of books on survival but hasn’t ever been outside without a chaperone. Until now. Grandmother got infected this morning so I leave the apartment with a backpack full of food and head towards the library to see if I can find out anything about what’s causing the virus.”
“Roll for speed,” Skate said. “Use the twelve. Ten or more and you make it there without running into anyone.”
Rezzie picked up the blue die and dropped it on the wood steps. Twelve.
“Shit,” Fingers said. “You’re fast as fuck.”
Rezzie grinned and pushed a sheaf of her long hair over her shoulder.
“That scene was going to be a lot longer but Rezzie charmed the goddamn dice.” Skate leaned back. “Next up.”
We usually went counterclockwise, which would have meant it was SS’s turn, but Skate was looking at Cassie.
“Me?” she said. “Okay. I’m Kit Parker. I was a professional dancer in LA but I had to move home to take care of my dying father.”
Xudu began humming the Batman theme.
“Look, he’s not dead yet,” Cassie said.
“I’m just sick of noobs playing orphans,” Xudu said. “It’s cliché.”
“He isn’t dead yet,” Cassie said again.
“Xudu,” said Skate. “Do you want to play or not? If so, shut up about clichés unless someone says they have a fucking butler named Alfred.” He turned back to Cassie. “So now you’re back home. What have you been doing since the outbreak?”
“Holed up inside,” Cassie said. “Dad’s in the hospital so I’m alone. But today my food ran out so I’m going outside to try to get some more.”
“Okay, headed to the store. Roll for speed.”
Cassie picked up the twenty-sided die.
“No, this one.” Rezzie handed her the twelve. We all looked at Skate, waiting for some quip about paying attention. But he just nodded.
Cassie rolled a two.
“Not so great,” Skate said. “As you step outside, out jumps Betsy, the town hooker, now turned zombie. She’s got flesh melting off her cheeks and her long pink nails are jagged. She starts coming towards you, slobbering all over her slutty dress.”
“I run away,” Cassie said.
“You already tried that,” Skate said. “Now you have to fight. Do you have any weapons?”
“No,” Cassie said. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, your fists are your weapons. Hit her.”
“How do I do that?”
SS sighed loudly.
“Roll this one for attack, then this one for damage.” He handed her two di. She dropped them both at once. “No, one at a time. See if you hit her first. Yeah, like that, okay perfect, you got her.”
We rolled our eyes. It was like watching our grandparents use a computer.
“Now roll for damage. Betsy’s tough but she was one of the first to get zombified so she’s kind of weak, hasn’t eaten much. Roll an eight and you’ve got her.”
“Twelve, just keep using the twelve.”
Cassie rolled a three. “Oh my god, am I dead?”
“No.” Skate quickly rolled again. “I’m Betsy, and it looks like I missed.”
“You’re a lovely prostitute, Betsy,” Cassie said and Skate laughed. “Okay, roll for attack—yes—roll for damage—woo! I got her!”
Skate grinned. “Great job. You punch her in the chest and one of her moldy boobs goes flying. She crumples to the ground and you run away. But run fast, cause that boob is still jiggling after you.”
“Oh god,” Cassie said. “Should I roll for attack again?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Skate said, tipping an imaginary hat. “May I introduce to you my dear friend Cassie, attacker of decapitated breasts?”
Even SS smiled.
“Come on Xudu,” Skate said. “Let’s see how much your character looks like Batman.”
Two weeks into the game, and we were still loving it. No one had ever seen such a consistently-attended club, meeting five days a week, two forty-five to five, not a single person begging off for homework or bitching about the cold. We were serious about our characters and didn’t fuck around like we usually did. It helped that Skate was a masterful storyteller, deadpan and sure of himself, giving us details about the creepy town that actually scared us when we remembered them late at night. We thought about the game all the time, in class, at home, on the bus, and each tried in our own way to stay in the world as much as possible. Rezzie wrote up backstories for each of the characters and brought a new one printed out each day; SS drew all of us together, anime style, arms linked in front of an apocalyptic landscape.
So far we’d met up in pairs or trios post-explosion; no one had been bitten yet except for MC, who had had an unfortunate run-in with a zombified administrator outside the high school (tip of the hat to Principal C). Rezzie was on her way to the medical center to try to find a cure; Fingers and Xudu were fighting over food and supplies with redneck humans near the coalmines, and Cassie and SS were hiding from a pack of zombies in the basement of a church.
“Catholic,” Skate said, looking up at the winter sky that now, even by four thirty, was beginning to grow dark. “And it’s not a finished basement, this one’s all dirt and broken busts of plaster saints.” This was a nice detail and we leaned in because for a moment, we could see ourselves there with them, looking up at the dust filtering through cracks in the ceiling.
“What are we supposed to do?” Cassie said. “I don’t want to fight them.”
“Why don’t you poke around a little?” Skate said. “There’s a pile of paper on one of the tables.”
“No, thanks,” Cassie said. “I’m going to hide in a corner.” Cassie had an annoying habit of treating the game like it was realer than it was. Of course if we were trapped in a basement by the undead, we’d keep hiding. But doing that in a game was incredibly boring.
“I’ll look through the papers,” SS said. “Did I find anything?”
“No,” Skate said. “But as Cassie backs into the corner, she finds a hole in the wall. Inside the hole is this note.” He pulled out a piece of white paper from his coat pocket and handed it to Cassie.
“What’s on it?” SS said.
“Dexamethazone … Furazolide … Lisinopril … They’re all chemicals.”
“No,” Skate said. “They’re all medicines.”
SS turned to look at Skate, mouth tight. “That was going to be in the stack of papers, wasn’t it?”
Skate shrugged. “It was in the wall.”
“But you told her to look in the stack of papers.”
“I didn’t tell her to do anything.”
SS stood up and leaned hard on the splintery handrail. “You’re helping her too much,” she said. “The rest of us are actually good at this and you’re giving us shit.”
Skate shrugged. “Don’t wanna play? Don’t.” He cleared his throat. “You look up, the ceiling above you begins to crumble.”
“That’s not fair,” SS said. “You can’t just kill me.”
“I can do whatever I want.” Skate stood up and looked down into SS’s black-rimmed eyes. The last rays of light made the skates on his jacket glow red. We froze. Skate brought up a half fist and we watched SS try not to flinch. No one breathed. Then Skate slowly pointed his index finger and poked it into her cheek.
“Boop!” he said. Then he leaned back and laughed with a large, open mouth. We relaxed. Skate sat down again. “Come on, Susan,” he said. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I was going to have the paper be in the stack. But Cassie’s new and I thought I’d help her out. You don’t need that kind of help.”
That broke a lot of the tension because no one called SS Susan, not even teachers, but Skate wasn’t making fun of her, it was all part of his charm. SS slowly lowered herself back down, face softening.
“Okay,” she said. “Come on, Cassie, let’s sneak out the back door. We should be able to find those drugs at the pharmacy downtown.”
“Roll for speed,” Skate said.
“I know,” Cassie said, and when she picked up the correct die, we cheered.
Then, with winter break two weeks away, we were suddenly pulled into plans for what promised to be the biggest nerd prank yet. It all started one Tuesday when Xudu told us Lee Adler told him he could get some people into the auditorium after hours.
Lee was in Tech Theater, a distant cousin to Skiffee whose members thought they were cool because they got invited to some of the parties thrown by the drama kids. They were a small gang, pale and quiet, but useful to know because most of them had keys to anywhere in the school.
“Lee has a plan,” Xudu said. “Wants to pull the first senior prank of the season. But there are too few of them. He needs manpower.”
“Womanpower,” Rezzie and SS said in unison.
“What does he need?” Fingers asked.
“We’re gonna have to come on Wednesday night and he’ll tell us. But personally, I think we’re going to flip the auditorium.”
Everyone gasped except for Rezzie, who said the word “gasp.” This wasn’t something we’d ever thought of, and we were jealous we didn’t come up with it. But we’d do anything to be a part of it. Except Cassie.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What will I tell my mom?”
“Sleepover,” SS said.
“Not on a school night.”
Just then, Skate came ambling up, hands deep in his pockets. “What are you assholes arguing about?”
“Cassie’s mommy won’t let her out to do the prank of the century,” SS said.
“And I can’t drive,” Cassie said.
Skate shrugged. “What time?”
“Eleven,” Xudu said. “But it’ll probably take all night.”
“I’ll drive you,” Skate said. “And take you home afterward.”
SS looked like she was ready to explode, she’d just re-dyed her hair and we could smell it, strong and bitter, and when she grabbed a hunk of it in her fist, we could see the glint of her shiny nails.
But then we all registered that Skate was in, he’d grace us with his presence for an entire night, and fuck it if we weren’t excited.
“I’ll drive anyone who needs it,” Skate said and that smoothed SS’s hackles.
“You don’t have work?” Rezzie asked.
Skate shrugged. “Sick day.”
And that’s how the auditorium flip became Project Sickday, and MC who wasn’t there that afternoon was so sad he missed its inception, Fingers found him crying in the stairwell weeks later.
Wednesday night we all met at the far end of the senior parking lot, wearing black but not as much as the tech theater kids. They wore black professionally, long black sleeves, black shoes, black socks, black phones in their pockets. Lee Adler, a nervous senior who had dark (black!) eyebrows and a nervous mouth, looked both ways even though the lot was entirely empty, and motioned us to follow him towards the school, a shadowy mass lit only by a pair of streetlights near the entrance.
Our breath misted in the air and it made us think of moonlit rituals and stealthy quests. We clapped hands over each others’ mouths to stifle giggles and that too felt good, warm breath on our freezing fingers, linked in a chain of skin touching skin.
The feeling died fast once we got inside. The work was slow. There were four hundred seats in the auditorium and the plan was to unscrew them, flip them around so they were facing away from the stage, then screw them back in again. Doing this required a wrench and a Phillips head, and there weren’t enough of those to go around. We split into pairs. Each pair could do one chair every couple of minutes, unless it was rusty or gummed up because someone had spilled shit on the base. We took turns with the wrenching, keeping an eye on the techies to make sure we weren’t being outpaced.
They’d set the house lights on low so we could see what we were doing but the farthest reaches of the room were still in shadow. The wrenching hurt our fingers and soon the clunking rhythm had slowed to a crawl. SS was the first to complain.
“Our wrench sucks.” She stood up and shook out her hands. “Someone switch with us.”
MC shook his head. “All of them suck,” he said, stretching his arms over his head. We all gagged.
“MC, you stink,” said Fingers.
“Fuck you, noob,” MC said.
“SS,” Rezzie said, “Come on.” She pushed herself up off the floor. Her long black skirt was covered in dust. “I’ll wrench, you screw.”
“That’s what she said,” said Cassie. Only Skate laughed. The two of them had made more progress than the rest of us. Skate was thin but he was also strong from his job at the factory, his arm muscles bulged as Cassie knelt before him, twisting off each washer in rhythm. Screw screw flip. Screw screw flip.
Rezzie was the first to jam her finger. Motherfucker, motherfucker, she hissed.
Xudu was second, kicked the chair so hard it felt backwards into Fingers. Jesus fucking, Fingers said.
“You’d think you’d be better at this,” Xudu said, “Because you steal shit all the time.”
Fingers lunged at Xudu and grabbed at his shirt but Lee Adler waved at us from a few rows over. “Guys,” Lee said. “Don’t fuck around.”
That was hard, because fucking around was our specialty, and we flipped a few more chairs but then Xudu went outside to smoke a joint and Rezzie sat down on the floor again and SS started playing with her sweaty hair. The row we were supposed to be working on looked like a freeze fame of falling dominoes. Lee walked over to us and crouched down in front of Rezzie.
“It’s four thirty,” he said. “Maintenance will be here in two hours. We should be halfway done by now.”
“Whatever,” SS said, hands still in Rezzie’s hair, “We were just taking a break.”
“I thought I could count on you guys,” Lee said. “I thought …”
We crossed our arms. We didn’t like being told what to do.
“Well,” Lee said. “Fuck it, then. If you aren’t going to help—”
“We are going to help.” Skate walked over to stand in front of Lee. “Everyone get the fuck up.” He held out his hands and pulled Rezzie to her feet. “Come on,” he said, thumping his hand against the back of a chair. “Let’s finish this bitch.”
We didn’t watch a lot of sports movie but this felt like the part when the music swells and the team starts chanting. We couldn’t chant out loud but the excitement flowed through us like a current.
“Let’s remember this night,” Skate said. “Let’s make it historic.”
We grinned, touching each other’s chapped hands for reassurance.
“Okay, then.” Lee clapped Skate on the arm.
“Get the fuck off me,” Skate said, and we burst into laughter.
We returned to work. Although our hands smarted, we continued down the row. Fuelled by Skate’s belief in us, we lifted and turned, keeping our eyes on the dark shapes of our work. The air smelled like sweat and oil and mild decay, the old dust we’d disrupted when we lifted each chair off the floor. The techies turned the house lights down even lower and we picked up speed.
“Try to be quiet,” Lee hissed. “It’s almost time for Maintenance to get here.”
The lifting of each chair began to take on a muffled rhythm and as long as we kept going, we couldn’t stop. To stop would be to acknowledge that we were done and we were not done.
There were six rows to go, then five and a half. The light coming in under the door turned from blue to gray and we could hear the techies breathing fast beside us. Lee’s phone alarm went off and we looked up, startled.
“Come on,” Rezzie said. “Come on, come on.” She grabbed a chair and wrenched it around with a clang.
“We’ve got to go,” Lee said but we all bent harder over the chair in front of us. Twenty seats left. Fifteen. Seven. Our arms shook and our hands slipped on everything we touched. Four. Three. Two. We stepped back and let Lee do the last one. When he stood up, we shook with excitement and exhaustion.
Lee’s alarm sounded again, more insistently this time. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.
We followed him out of the doors and into the parking lot, which was beginning to get light. Our forearms stung. Our hair stuck to our heads. We looked into each others’ eyes and it was like the ending of Serenity and the battle of Pelanor Fields and the part in Return of the Jedi where Luke throws down his lightsaber. No one could touch us.
Then something snapped. “Hey,” SS said, “Where’s Skate?”
We all looked. “He was with Cassie,” Xudu said. “They were doing the chairs by the front.” By the side door, the one that led into the darkened hallways of the school.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Lee said.
We said nothing. We hadn’t seen either of them in half an hour.
“Did they leave already?” MC asked.
But Skate’s car was still there. We were standing right in front of it.
SS let go of her wrench and it clattered on the asphalt. “Where the fuck is he?”
Lee peered back at the darkened building. “We need to leave now.”
“But Skate drove us,” Xudu said.
“I’ve got room in my Jeep,” Lee said. He motioned to another techie. “Everyone needs to start getting in their cars.”
The techies began hurrying down the parking lot but we stayed put, turning to look once more at the darkened building. The first rays of sun warmed the brick from black to red, and the windows were beginning to gleam. But inside, everything would still be dark as a cave.
“I’m serious,” Lee said. “Don’t get us all in trouble. Get in.” He opened the side door of the Jeep.
We did as we were told, climbing onto each others’ laps to fit. Fingers got in last, closing the door slowly behind him. None of us said anything. Lee started the car.
“Maybe we should go look for them,” Rezzie said. “Maybe they got lost.”
“Skate’s an adult,” Xudu said. “He can look out for himself.”
“But what about Cassie?” Fingers said.
“She’ll stick with Skate,” SS said. “She’s obsessed with him, it’s disgusting.”
This was the first time anyone had said anything about the two of them, although we all noticed how they kept touching when they handed each other the wrench. We breathed out slowly into the open air.
“I’m gonna head to IHOP,” Lee said.
We looked back at the building. The shadows in front did not move.
“He’ll take care of her,” Rezzie said. “Don’t worry.”
Lee began backing out of the spot. “Someone text them,” he said. “Tell them to meet us there.”
“Okay,” we said and some of us sent texts then immediately put our phones back in our sweaty pockets. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do but it didn’t feel wrong either, just rushed like when you’re getting to the end of a timed test and you just bubble in A, A, A, A. Some of it’s bound to be incorrect but it was just a guess so cut us some slack, okay? We rode off into the clear night and the wind in our hair felt silvery and delicious.
And then they were back. That afternoon. We were tired and so fucking sore but we met on the steps of the German trailer anyway. And there they were, sitting on the top step together, and Skate had his lips in her hair. Not kissing her, just running his lips along it, and her eyes were closed.
“Good job, team.” He stood up when we arrived.
“Where did you go?” SS said.
“I had to take Cass home,” he said. But he hadn’t taken his car, so we knew that wasn’t true. Cassie was smiling the short, neat smile she gave each morning on the second-period announcements, and we all relaxed a little because how could anything be wrong if she was smiling?
Then Skate said he brought dice so we kind of paused for a moment—we were all tired—but he gave them to Cassie and she rolled them gently on one of the rotting wood steps.
“You all look up to see a light in the sky,” he said. “It’s a storm, a big one, and everyone’s going to have to take shelter.”
“I walk to the nearest building,” Cassie said.
“What building?” Skate ran a hand along the sleeve of her coat.
Cassie pulled away. “Aren’t you supposed to know?”
“Just make something up,” SS said.
“I’m tired,” Cassie said. “I’d rather not play today.”
“Someone go get Cassie a Mountain Dew,” Skate said. “Cassie, you’re ruining this for everyone.” He looked at the rest of us in turn. “You guys aren’t tired, are you?”
“No,” everyone said, and “Tired of your bullshit, Cassie.” Fingers went and got her a Mountain Dew from the machine and when he came back, Skate said that it was Rezzie’s turn. Her character had taken shelter in the attic of an old house, where she was beginning to hear screams. We all gathered around as we watched her roll the dice, and when Rezzie had played her turn we finally looked up again. Cassie was gone, although we could see the dull pink of her backpack moving away from us through a foggy glass window of the main building.
“Ungrateful bitch,” Skate said, picking up the can of Mountain Dew and draining it in one go.
We laughed with him for a moment but none of us met his eyes.
Principal C had to hire a set of construction workers to redo all the chairs in the auditorium. He made an announcement a few days later that he was going to treat us like adults, he was going to be straight with us and say that hiring these guys cost him four hundred fifty dollars, which is coincidentally the same amount of money the school had budgeted for the refreshments and decorations at Winter Formal. We would still have a Winter Formal, but there would be no food or fake snow, just the empty cafeteria and some disco lights.
This is called taking responsibility for your actions, he said, but it just made us laugh. None of us had gone to Winter Formal in our entire lives. We almost wanted to go this year, to see the kids we hated twirling sadly on the empty linoleum.
“Would you go though?” Cassie asked one day as we waited for Skate to appear. “Would you guys go if someone asked you?” She had returned to club the next day and hadn’t said anything about leaving. No one had asked, either. It seemed like something we should forget about, so we did.
“Did Skate ask you?” SS said. She was pissed at Cassie, that was clear. The day before, she’d ripped open one of Cassie’s paper bag-covered books with a sharp nail. Just to see if I could do it, she said.
“No,” Cassie said. “But I like dancing.”
“Who are you, Taylor Swift?” Rezzie said. Her usually quiet voice was harsh. “And where’s Skate? He’s not usually this late.”
“He had to go into work to pick up some stuff,” Cassie said. “But he texted me this morning that he’d be here.”
That was it. SS snapped. She reached out across the steps and grabbed the collar of Cassie’s jacket. “Then why didn’t you fucking tell us?” she said. “You’re wasting everyone’s time.”
Cassie didn’t say anything.
“You’re such a slut!” SS said into her face. “You act so innocent but everyone knows you slept with him when we were doing the auditorium!”
Cassie tried to yank her jacket from SS’s grasp. “Get away from me!”
SS let go so she fell onto the frosty ground. Cassie didn’t get up. She just sat there, head bowed. “It wasn’t like that,” she said.
“What do you mean?” we said.
She looked at each one of us in turn. Even though we’d seen her every day for four months, we could suddenly see how much she’d changed since the beginning of the year. Her cheeks were fuller. Her nails were shorter. She pushed a tangled piece of hair back from her face. “You know what I mean.”
We all sat there in silence for a moment.
“What happened?” Fingers said.
Cassie shook her head.
“You’re a goddamn liar,” SS said.
“Cassie,” we all said. “Cassie?”
She stood up. “I’ll see you later,” she said, wiping her eyes. She began walking quickly towards the bus loop, pink backpack hitting hard against her hips with each step.
Just then Skate came around from behind the German trailer. “Where’s Cassie?”
“I don’t know,” some of us said.
“She left,” some of us said.
“Why?” The skates on his chest gleamed. We stared at every part of him, trying to remember what he had looked like in the dark, matching him in our mind with what an evil person looked like. Every other day we saw news stories where they didn’t print the name of the girl it happened to, just the lacrosse players or frat guys or rich dudes with popped collars. These were our enemies, and Skate looked nothing like them.
“Hey,” he said again, “Why did she leave?”
The ground was covered in dead grass which was covered in ice and that’s how we felt, stiff and frozen. We could not even raise our heads to look at him.
“I don’t know,” we said, one after another. “I don’t know why she left.”
We felt so cold it was like we were dead.
Then Skate shrugged. “If she’s not here today, she’s gonna miss a big thing in the game. Rezzie, you and Fingers are taking shelter in the high school’s chemistry lab. I want you two to roll first.”
We began to look at each other again. Our stomachs began to unclench. The wind stopped for a moment and we could feel our cheeks, and bend them a little to smile. Skate handed Fingers one of the twelve-sided dice and we leaned closer as Fingers dropped it on the board. It stopped at eleven.
“Perfect. As you make your way through the darkened room, your feet crunch on a broken vial. It glows green in the dark.”
“The cure?” Fingers said.
Skate grinned. “There’s still some residue on one of the shards. And there are zombies everywhere. Why don’t you find out?”
Fingers paused for a moment.
“What, are you guys scared?” Skate said.
We looked at him staring down at us from the top step and he smiled. His dark eyes shone down on us like a hawk’s.
“No,” Rezzie said. “I’m not scared.” She held out her hand and he put the dice in and then closed his hand around hers.
“Go on, then,” he said, and we did.
Cassie never went to another meeting. A few weeks later, she joined the JV crew team and over the next few months put on what looked like fifteen pounds of muscle. She walked the halls with her stocky friends and put red and white ribbons in her hair during game days, which were held at a lake across town that none of us had ever been to. She still did the morning announcements and every day we watched her stare out at us from the TV’s in our second period classes, telling us about things we did not want to be a part of: photography contests, school plays, band concerts. We always watched to see if she would wear this year’s Skiffee t-shirt, but she never did. That was probably a good thing. We wouldn’t have known what the shirt meant—an olive branch? A taunt?
The night of Project Sickday still felt unreal, like a new game where no one’s figured out their characters yet and you have to keep looking at the sheet in front of you to remember who you’re supposed to be.
Speaking of games, Skate stuck around for the rest of the school year to finish the one he was running, which ended in a six-hour battle that killed everyone on both sides. Rezzie was technically the last one standing, but only for a few seconds while she bled out. The humans called it a victory but that was kind of a stretch. It had been a fun time, though, and we knew it would be the only one of its kind, because as soon as it was over, Skate vanished too.
Sometime in the summer, he left the canning factory. SS says she thinks he works at the McDonald’s by the other high school but Xudu heard he moved to another state. That summer the German trailer got torn down and the classroom moved to a big white pod in the front parking lot, so in the fall we made peace with the Japanese club and started meeting on the steps in front of the library instead. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen him around in a while, he doesn’t know where to find us.
But that doesn’t stop us from having a good time. Rezzie graduated so Xudu is our main GM now and he’s doing a good job running a game set in a space station, and we’ve got a couple of noobs for SS to smack around, and when they forget to roll for attack, roll for damage we tell them stories about how that wouldn’t stand with Skate, who in each telling becomes smarter and funnier and more cutting. We’ve found that that’s the perfect way for Skate to exist, as a legend, and although none of us have discussed it, we can’t see any reason to ruin things by bringing up the truth.
Hannah Thurman is a Brooklyn-based female writer originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, whose short stories have been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Yalobusha Review, and others. and others. In 2016, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her short story “A Snowball’s Chance.” You can find her work at hannahthurman.wordpress.com. “I think now, more than ever, it’s important to vocally oppose when someone in your self-defined group does something that’s not okay; this piece is about the dangers of staying silent.”