“I’d recommend against it,” Harp said between mouthfuls of potato salad. “That’s Annette Eliason.”

“Who?” said Harry.

“Annette Eliason.” Harp looked across the table. “Not ringing a bell?”

“Not really, no.”

“Needy Annie? Annette Eliastalker? The Clingy Queen of Bowling Green?”

Harry remained stonefaced.

Harp set aside his plate. “For crap’s sake, Harry. Annette’s only a sophomore and she already has a reputation for being the creepiest, clingiest, co-dependingest girl in a very competitive weight class!”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

John looked over at her. The bright, silvery moonlight lit up her face and hair from behind, like a kind of celestial backlight. She was as radiantly beautiful as he had ever seen her. “And there never can be.” he said ruefully. She only nodded, slowly.

“We’ve know each other for a while.” John said at length. “And it occurs to me that we’re not going to see each other much anymore. After tonight, there’s just two weeks of school left, and then summer jobs, and then college. This may well be the last time we can really talk. I’d like to end our friendship on a high note.”

She cocked her head. “What do you mean?” she said.

“Have you ever kissed before?” John asked.

She nodded.

“Well, I haven’t. So, will you do me a favor? For just a moment, pretend that you’ve never kissed anyone before. Pretend that we’re in love, and that we’ll never see each other again.” John gently put his hand on her shoulder, and drew her toward him. She didn’t resist, didn’t cry out. She simply closed her eyes and gave a little half smile

They kissed. Not a short, impersonal peck on the cheek. Not a vulgar, lingering wrestling match between tongues. Not even the passionate culmination of a wedding vow. Just the simple, pure essence of physical contact. They lingered there for what felt like an eternity, locked in a tight, personal embrace–the most perfect, innocent, and pure expression of love that the cosmos had ever seen.
Perhaps because it never really happened at all.

That was the evening John preferred to remember, the one he described to his children years later. He never really talked to that girl again, but he heard second-hand of her happy marriage. John knew that his cherished memory was a fantasy, but he clung to it nonetheless; an inner monument to mistakes made, painful lessons learned, and redemption.

A cigarette flared to life between her fingers. Technically smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere on school grounds, not even on the loading dock. Then again, the rock keeping the battered door to the teachers’ lounge open wasn’t technically kosher either, and it had been placed there by the principal.

Gene lit his own coffin nail after Weatherby proffered her lighter. “Not exactly being a role model for all the kids, are we?” he said.

“You know damn well they’d smoke whether we did or not. It’s all they have to tide them over before dope and meth, after all,” Weatherby sighed.

“I can see that the beginning of a new school year has you nice and uplifted,” Gene countered.

“Seeing the new wave of children come in…all so young, all so beautiful,” said Weatherby. She coughed. “And then looking at myself–never beautiful, no longer young–frankly, I can’t think of anything so depressing. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grumpy, Mr. Ulrich.”

Gene fiddled with his cigarette, unsure of how to respond. He’d been warned about Weatherby, but he also had to get along with her if he intended to continue smoking out back. “There’s always what you teach,” he said. “Advancing the state of knowledge ought to count for something.”

“You’re an art teacher, Mr. Ulrich,” said Weatherby. “You get to talk to the children about finding their inner voice, expressing themselves, following their dreams. I teach mathematics. I doubt even a Harvard statistician had youthful dreams of solving equations all day.”

“The kids still make mistakes, even in my class,” said Gene. He flicked his ashes into the football helmet-cum-ashtray provided by Hanretty in Phys Ed.

“When your children make mistakes, it’s cute. It may even be modern art. But when my children make mistakes, they’re just mistakes. I get to mark with red ink because no new school of mathematics was ever founded by someone who thought two plus two equals twenty-two.”

Marian Fisher, dressed in black and sporting a lace choker as always, had a booth at the seventeenth annual Mason County High School Fun Fair.

The cheerleaders were selling kisses, the marching band had a ring toss game, and the football team operated a dunk tank. Even the chess club had a booth, challenging all comers to last just five moves against “The King of Pawns.” Marian’s booth was different; she was associated with no club and had built the stand in her spare time. The sign simply read “Free Milk and Cookies,” with no conditions or prices.

Keith Nost, who knew Marian from weekly D&D games, was the first one to stop by.

“Would you like some lactateous secretions or miniature cakes baked just short of carbonization?” she asked in her usual monotone.

“What are you doing here?” Keith said. “What is all this?”

“I’m amazed you can keep a character sheet without being able to read. It’s a stand for free milk and cookies, and I just offered you some.”

“I know, but…putting yourself out here like this? You’re just gonna get made fun of. Publicly. Lord knows I would. I don’t wanna see that happen to you.”

“Why would anyone take the time to browbeat a humble cookie vendor?” Marian asked. “Don’t worry your bezitted little head about me, dear.”

“And since when can you cook? I’ve seen your fridge at home. Expired milk, eggs making like their forefathers and going south…”

Geraldine thrust out her hand. “Bring me The Marshmallow.”

An electric wave rippled through the assembled percussionists. The Marshmallow! It had the ring of a holy relic to it. Deerton High could barely afford toilet paper, let alone fine instruments for its marching and concert bands; whatever funds bubbled up tended to be allocated for new sports uniforms in the vague hope that they could lead the team to a position higher than 38th out of 40 in the division. The last band allocation, five years ago, has mostly gone toward renegotiating the terms of instrument rentals, but $100 had been earmarked for percussion, and out of that had come eight new drum heads and The Marshmallow.

Nejm removed The Marshmallow from its protective drawer and placed it reverently in Geraldine’s outstretched mitt. A genuine Ludwig-brand bass drum mallet, it had the appearance of a fresh ‘mallow on an abnormally thick spit, prime for roasting. The first thump of the drum resounded throughout the room, and impressed both factions of drummers into silence. The Classicists never ceased to be amazed at how much fuller and more mature The Marshmallow’s sound was compared to the usual instrument (an old mismatched timpani mallet with a head of duct tape and paper towels), while the Rockers–for whom a bass was something to be kicked until its head broke–imagined what decibels The Marshmallow could accomplish if affixed to a drum set.

Geraldine nodded curtly. The Marshmallow had its intended effect.

Excerpt from Noah Waverly’s entry in Who’s Who in American Graphic Arts (New York: Pequot Press, 2005):

Noah Waverly was born in Cascade, MI on January 13, 1953, to Emmett, a schoolteacher, and Rebecca, a homemaker. The Waverly family had lived in the Cascade area for more than three generations, and both Noah’s parents were graduates of nearby Osborn College. Noah grew up in Deerville, a short distance from Cascade, where his father taught mathematics.

Noah Weatherby hadn’t been seen since his comic strip ended, and I was determined to interview him for the capstone thesis of my journalism degree.

Professor Legrand hadn’t been enthusiastic about my idea. “What if you can’t find this man?” he’d said. “After all, he hasn’t had an interview in ten years.”

I’d flashed a confident grin and pushed the form he had to sign across the desk. “I’m just a student,” I said. “What could possibly be wrong with something only you and I are going to read? Besides, even if I get the run-around, I can still write about it.”

Of course, once Legrand was done with it and had assigned me my final grade, who’s to say the Times or the Post wouldn’t be interested? It would be quite a coup to start my professional career, and the fact that I loved Weatherby’s work would help make the writing sparkle.

Noah was a quiet student, and led a relatively undistinguished academic career, though he was active in drawing cartoons for the school newspaper and yearbook. He later attended Osborn College, studying education with an art minor—his parents recall that he wanted to be an art teacher—and drew editorial cartoons for the student-run Osborn Beacon and occasionally for the Cascade Herald.

I had fond memories of the bizarre world Weatherby had painted for me every Sunday—eye-poppingly colorful adventures and flights of fancy, as Keith and Harry jetted across the universe, confronted bizarre aliens, wrestled dinosaurs, and plotted world domination without ever leaving their shared yard. It had been something of a bad influence on me in my formative years—I tried to form my own neighborhood anti-girl club, and begged my parents to build me a treehouse despite the fact that we had nothing bigger than a lavender bush.

I snickered at the memory as I pulled into central Deerville and parked in front of the local whistle-stop café, thinking of the strip where Keith had gotten stuck in a square of wet concrete after trying to make an impression of the seat of his pants.

“You can’t treat people like that,” Jerry cried, leaning forward in his seat and filling the camera. “Doesn’t matter who they are. He crossed the line!”

“Uh, okay,” the interviewer said, sounding every bit of their 16 years. “Could we get back to the…”

“No,” Jerry said. “I’m going to finish what I had to say, and you’re going to sit there and tape it for your class.”

Whispers were heard as the interviewer conferred with his cameraman and note-taker. “Kay,” the interviewer whispered, miserably.

“You don’t treat people like that. You just don’t. So I got to talking to some of my friends about how to set things right. And soon they got to talking with even more people. Seems like he and his made a fair share of enemies acting the way they did…but I bet they never thought they’d see twenty of us coming to put them down for good.”

“So you’re working as a lifeguard over the summer, huh?” the girl said.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said, sucking in my gut and hoping that the loose t-shirt I wore gave the impression of muscles lurking beneath.

“That must be hard if you can’t swim.”

“Who said I can’t swim?” I said.

“You did,” the girl purred. “To Betsy, two tables down, just a minute ago.”

My face instantly was red as a beet.

“I, uh, er…that is…um…” I sputtered.

My brain was trying to come up with something witty and subtle to say that would quickly evaporate the incident into a cloud of soft laughter. All I came up with was a sort of stutter. Doubtless, I would wake up in the middle of the night a week from now with an absolutely perfect line, but it’d do me little good now.