With 115 seventh-grade kids split between the five class periods that made up an average day at Deerton Middle School, a project based on the 116 elements then known to exist (according to the out-of-date table that had come with the chemistry classroom). But there was reason to suspect that old Mr. Lancaster had influenced the element assignment process among wags.

Exhibit A was Boyd Carruthers, who had been assigned no. 82, lead. Anyone who had witnessed Boyd in class or in the cafeteria had no doubt that in all things he was heavy, malleable, and slow. And flighty little Tina Hedstrom in third period being slapped with no. 2, helium, seemed entirely too pat–to say nothing of bony Theresa DiSanto, on the wrong end of a growth spurt, earning no. 20, calcium.

But the plan (if there was a plan) had its more esoteric aspects as well. Caleb Schmidt was granted no. 43, technetium. There didn’t seem to be any connection b’tween that unstable and roguish element and the normally quiet and staid Caleb, until one took into account his recent behavior. Socializing, speaking up in class, trying out for the track team, even unsuccessfully courting Emily Dinklage for snowcoming…like Technetium he was arriving late to the game but making a splash. Quiet, meek, average students like Cara Joyce, who sat in the back and never spoke or made waves or did anything other than make steady unyielding eye contact, tended to get slapped with transuranic elements in Lancaster’s plan (if it was a plan). Cara got Unununium, an element no one without a degree in particle physics could say much about and one that nobody but perhaps the head of IUPAC could pronounce correctly.

Lancaster thus got Cara Joyce up for a brief presenation with a word that would take as long to spit out as anything she’d be saying afterwards.

I think it’s just a natural law that children of a certain age have to fall in love with one of their teachers. It tends to be right in the spring awakening period of junior high, too; any younger and teacher is still just a substitute mommy, and any older and there are plenty of fellow students to write mushy mental love notes to.

For most males of the heterosexual persuasion who passed through Thomas Q. Dobbs Junior High, that teacher-crush role was completely spoken for thanks to Miss Lori Finivedi. Now, years removed, when I look back on her photo in the yearbook, she doesn’t seem all that interesting–pretty, certainly, but without any of the supermodel characteristics that fledgling hormones or a desk-seated perspective can bring. Her lectures were scattershot, with none of the prim organization that Mr. La France or Mrs. Knusson brought–nevertheless, every male was as enraptured as our female classmates were bored.

This led, of course, to fierce competition among boys in that class to impress Miss Lori Finivedi. and no competition was more fierce or more closely contested than the annual United States Diorama Map competition.

“Anime is just too weird for me, man,” Caleb said. “It’s like seeing regular Saturday morning cartoons ground up and regurgitated by someone’s really twisted subconscious.”

“How d’you ever expect to be taken seriously as a geek with that attitude?” Sean replied. “Here, we’ll get you started on something easy and non-threatening.” He began rummaging through the stack of pastel-colored keepcases.

“No, really, let’s just watch something-”

“Here, how about Dimensional Galactic Rogue Outlaw Roku?” said Sean, blindly waving the case. “It’s about a schoolgirl who’s last in a long line of Galaxy Warriors and has to fight off the Tentacleoids while going through Ariabachi High. Also she reverts to a jellylike omnigel when she’s angry or stressed.”

Caleb bit his lip. “Uh…no.”

“Okay, okay, we can try Bio Sword Arc Unlimited. It’s based on the legend of Joan of Arc, except in modern-day Kunioshi Prefecture. Junior high student Jan’nu Daruku is touched by the kami Hachiman and granted the power to shape her limbs into weapons to fight an invasion of mutant deep-sea squid roused by nuclear testing.”

“I’m sensing a pattern here,” Caleb sighed. “No.”

“What pattern? Those are totally different shows!” Sean snorted incredulously. “Fine, we’ll go super-basic: Initial Ghost Priestess Salvation. Yuki Tanaka learns that she’s the reincarnation of Kamakura period empress Fujiwara, and the only one who can save her classmates from the return of the subterranean cephalopodal elder race that cause the collapse of the shogunate.”

People called them the Smokers, and Keith had heard a variety of explanations for this.

Certainly they were no slouch when it came to ganging up on others to steal anything up to and including lunch money–quite capable of “smoking” someone in a pitched battle.

And there was no doubt that cigarettes were their stock and trade, sold or bartered to others, inhaled furtively when adults were looking and openly when they weren’t.

But the real reason–Keith suspected–could be seen when they drove up. And smelled. And heard.

The Smokers tooled around in a beat-up Detroit aircraft carrier from the 70’s, driven by the only one of them old enough for a learner’s permit; as it pulled up to the curb, it belched forth an oily and odoriferous cloud the likes of which was seldom encountered outside of wartime.

“Hey Anders!” one of them called. “Ain’t it a little late to be going to school?” Nevermind that Deerton High was in the opposite direction; the remark elicted raspy chuckles from the rattletrap’s interior.

That spring, Danny finally outgrew his old bike, the one he’d learned to ride on. It had fit, just barely, during the fall, but now his legs banged awkwardly against the handlebars, leaving angry red stripes across Danny’s knees.

Dad said that, thanks to little Sandy’s new dentalwork, any new bike would have to wait until Christmas.

“I can’t just walk everywhere all summer!”

“You’ll appreciate your new bike a lot more once you have it,” Dad said. “And that means you’ll take better care of it. I’ll show you how to give it a nice tune-up; it’ll be fun.”

Danny stormed up to his room and threw himself on the bed. It wasn’t fair. Why did parents always have to be like this? It wasn’t his fault he’d outgrown the old bike. They probably just didn’t want to pay.

“The city garage sale is coming up,” Mom said the next morning. “I bet you can find a nice used bike, and your father’d help you fix it up.”

Four hours’ worth of poking around dusty piles of junk later, Danny was about ready to go home, dejected and bikeless, when he saw sunlight glinting off spokes in the corner.

The old Flyer was definitely a garage-sale special—it was sturdy, ran well, and had cost only ten dollars. The fact that the bike had looping handlebars, a banana seat, and a definitively made-in-1973 paint scheme mattered less than the fact that it moved.

Dad, who was an amateur mechanic and doted on his old Schwinn, had helped give the old girl a tune-up. He’d even let Danny reattach the bike’s chain after cleaning it; thanks to carefully watching his father, Danny had been able to do it on his first try.

The real piece-de-resistance, though, was the sleek battery-powered light Danny picked up at Wal-Mart—he’d been so excited by the purchase that the Flyer’s unveiling and maiden ride happened at night. Danny had torn through the city streets like a man possessed, reveling in the speed, the wind.

Of course, the play was all just an excuse for playing with the props and costumes. Parents, sitting in the audience, seem to think that their kids sit quietly with their hands in their laps until it’s their cue.

Clearly, they don’t remember what it’s like to be a sixth-grader.

While we kids with bit parts were waiting around, whether it was rehearsal or opening night, we’d break open the backstage stash and engage in a little impromptu roleplaying. The girls liked to giggle and try on various hideous dresses left over from period pieces or long-ago contemporary productions, while the boys were all about the prop guns.

Our school had the great fortune to have put on a lavish version of Guys and Dolls circa 1985, which meant gangster costumes and prop guns galore. Enough fedoras, zoot suits, Tommy guns, and pistols to go around (except for Jimmy, who had to make due with the crossbow from “Wild Geese: The Musical”). Things broke down very much along class lines, with the most popular kids (and therefore the ones with the best roles) doling out goodies as they saw fit.

Many people pick up a pen because they hear the inscrutable call of the muse; they have a story that must be told, one which will haunt them until purged in the telling.

Mikey Kingston was not one of those people.

When he picked up his pencil in third period algebra or during lunch, it wasn’t because of some deep need to tell a story or write the Great American something or other. It wasn’t to write tales of high adventure of the sort alien to Howard J. Crittenden Junior High; it wasn’t to present as an offering to any of the Jennies, Katies, or Jessicas.


Mikey Kingston wrote for revenge.

Not in the mean-spirited way, of course–he wasn’t making a hit list, which he was at pains to explain whenever the topic of literary revenge came up in the post-Columbine era.

Rather, Mikey had realized that, in real life, the savage Magma Men from Interion didn’t carry douches away to melt down for tallow in their Horrorariums deep below the great hollow rind of Mother Earth. In his fiction, sometimes that well-deserved fate was meted out.

At least that’s how it began, anyway.

No one is perfect; that’s an established fact. My idea of perfection in a person would be the right combination of personality and looks. A beautiful person with a single-digit IQ is like a Ming vase, pretty to look at but disturbingly empty. An ugly person with a winning personality isn’t bad, but it’s hard to appreciate someone who shatters mirrors and turns mortals to stone.

I’ve often noticed that people who have the power to attract a retinue will usually surround themselves with one of either type. Maria, for example, was regularly accompanied by Annabelle Schmidt and Betsy Purdue. Annabelle set the curve in chemistry class but had terrible teeth and more moles than a country garden; Betsy had near movie-star good looks, but thought General Motors was named after a war hero.

Through skillful manipulation, Maria used them both in different ways to make herself seem smarter and more attractive; I was about to get a more personal demonstration than I would have liked.