by Brent A. Harris
(Note: This story does not tie in to the events of A Time of Need, despite similarities.)
The lime-green school bus squealed as it slowed along the circular drive reserved for field trips and tours. Rattling, the bus hissed to a halt on the cracked concrete. Gaius lurched in his near-empty seat. He’d saved the spot beside him for Christine.
She sat laughing with her friends from across the aisle two rows forward, fingers styling back her beach-blonde hair. Finally, she tired of the process and pulled it into a ponytail with a borrowed band some fifteen minutes into the trip. She did everything, as if it were programmed. From the continuous tapping of her left foot to the way she chewed her soft, pink bubblegum lip.
Gaius was sure she hadn’t noticed his empty seat or the nervousness that ticked away inside him during the hour-long drive through the black hills of Dakota. The stupid trip is going to make it impossible for me to ask her to prom. But today is the last day to buy tickets.
The double doors parted after some protest, letting in a rush of warm air that swamped the school bus’s air-conditioning. Gaius gave himself right-of-way in front of two other girls sitting across from him. One of them wore a shirt from a popular science fiction franchise, the other, a red and black flannel way too warm for this weather.
He glanced sidelong at them, wanting to apologize for his rudeness, but wanting to pass Christine by before she left the bus. He cut another group off by plowing full speed ahead but stopped just short of slamming into a smaller student, but not quick enough to avoid knocking out the lunch out of the kid’s arms. The greasy bag splattered to the floor.
“Sorry,” he said. He cringed at his clumsiness in front of Christine, hanging his head and staring at the floor of the bus as his cheeks burned. trying to hide the redness creeping through his cheeks. Gaius picked up the sack and handed it back. “I can get you something else from the snack shop if you’d like.”
“It’s just some cold hash browns from breakfast,” The shrimpy boy said, his voice cracking and shifting as he pushed a pair of wire-rimmed frames across the bridge of his nose. “I’m sure it’s fine. Thanks.”
It was his turn to say something, but nothing came out. Christine caught his eye and gave Gaius a pink smile. The universe around him turned to another wave of warm wind and drifted away from him.
Gaius wasn’t a jock, but he was far from the lowest rung on the ladder like the kid he’d almost knocked into. He was somewhere in between. He had a car—an older ’06 rusted sedan. But it ran, so that edged him higher on the list. What kept him solidly middling was not having a date to prom. He was sure of it. If I can get the most popular single girl to go with me…
He nodded to her, offered an awkward smile of his own, then promptly turned into the bar, face-first, at the front of the bus.
Christine laughed. A curt little staccato giggle. It made him smile again, forgetting his pained face. He nodded, mentally brushed off his ego, and descended the steps into the crowd of tourists outside. Stupid.
He stood facing the bus and the sun, waiting for Christine to come, solemn stone faces carved in the cliff somewhere to the right and behind him.
Out poured the two girls he’d shoved in front of, shaking their heads at him. Then came another cluster. The bus emptied, row by row, until finally, the lone black kid in his whole history class was allowed to exit from near the rear of the bus. There weren’t many black kids in the Dakotas. Most lived on Cotton Collectives farming pretty much anything but cotton, or they’d been forcibly deported off-continent.
The only ones who would still be on the bus should be the two Catties.
The two Catties arrived on the steps of the bus, a boy and a girl, with pale white skin that threatened to burn with the least amount of sun. They wore grey-blue uniforms versus the black slacks and skirts and white tops everyone else wore, but theirs were a size too small. Buttons threatened to shoot off the boy’s shirt even though he looked half-starved. The girl wore her hair in a bun with no make-up. Some girls had taken to wearing a black cloth habit to help hide their plain faces, but the trend was fading.
He normally wouldn’t have spent so much time looking at the pair of Catholic kids but thought he could just make out Christine behind them. That’s against the rules—leaving the bus last behind the Catties. Rebel. Maybe that’s why she’s popular, and I’m not. At least not yet.
As the pair stepped off, Christine took the boy by the pants and jerked his underwear high up his back. The elastic band ripped from the cotton garment as the wide-eyed boy yelped. He stumbled in surprise, but the girl reached out as if to grab him. Before she could, Christine had her by the back of the dress. She pulled back and with a snap, the girl’s bra strap smacked her with such force Gaius could hear it over the crowd.
People stopped to stare, and before a crowd of eyes, the two Catties tumbled out of the bus, off the last step, slamming into the cement, pretzeled and beaten. The crowd laughed, hooted and pointed.
Gaius thought to help them. His father had told him even if someone were black or gay, or even a Cattie, that it would be up to God to decide their fate. Not him. But his father was not here, and the tempting promise of a prom date was. Christine caught his eye again, and when he laughed and hollered insults too, she shot a crooked smile that had to be just for him. The louder he laughed, the longer and brighter her smile.
After the chaperone decided that it was time to move on, he corralled everyone down the path toward the monument, making sure everyone had their papers handy. The two Catties stood themselves up and dusted each other off as Christine shouldered between them to rejoin her friends, but not before brushing her hand across his shoulder as she squeezed by him in the thickening crowd. It could have been an unconscious move, like with her feet on the bus. But it might have meant more. He didn’t know.
Gaius grabbed his Province papers from a front pocket and held them out for the guard to scan. The guard was Sioux with an automatic rifle slung across his back. It made sense, as this was their land. Leave it up to idiots to build a monument to America’s past that isn’t even technically on American soil. Why the government didn’t just take the land, he didn’t know, Natives outnumbered everyone else in some parts of Dakota, and that made Gaius shift his shoulders with unease.
Ahead loomed, mountain-sized statues: four men of note from America’s past, carved waist-high in white stone in the Black Hills. The first two, of course, were Benedict Arnold and then later, the first true United Province President of America, Aaron Burr. But Benedict was always credited as being the foundation of the country, the cornerstone, as Gaius’ boring books always read. Gaius never remembered who the other two were and didn’t much care. He only recognized Benedict and Burr from their faces on his bills stuffed wrinkled in his wallet.
This whole trip is stupid. I have to ask Christine to prom, then wait for the bus to get back to school, and race to the student center for tickets before it closes. Simple, right? So then why did I wait so long?
The knots in his lurching stomach reminded him of the answer.
Before long, Gaius found himself in an air-conditioned hangar of a room, a museum of sorts, detailing the history of America, the local area, and the background on the monument. All boring. Instead, he found something more exciting and headed over to her.
Christine was with her friends again. As if she had been cloned, the two others both had the same blonde, pulled-back hair, aquamarine eyes (one of the girls differed in that hers were a rusty red-brown garnet), and those same pink lips. But neither one of the girls bit into their lower lip quite the same way she did. And neither of them were available, what with their hands pawing at their arm candy. As he approached, he realized he had nothing on his mind to say to her. Sweat beaded and rolled down the back of his neck. He wanted to turn away, but she stopped talking with her friends, waiting for him. Shit!
“That was funny, what you did to the Catties,” Gaius lied. It was the only thing he could say to break the still-awkwardness from his clumsy approach. I shouldn’t have just walked over. I should have played it smooth.
“Me and the girls had been planning it the whole ride,” she answered with a twist of her ponytail between her fingers. “Glad you liked it.”
“She’s been trying to get them kicked out of school,” one of the other girls said. “But their parents are stubborn. So, if we’re tough enough on them—”
“—They’ll leave on their own,” Garnet eyes finished with a smug smile. “We don’t need their kind in our school.”
Who do we need? He wanted to say. More clones like you? He tucked the thoughts away quietly, surprised at them himself.
Instead, he found himself sizing up the two other boys. They were built bigger than the lockers they shoved kids like him inside. Even in the heat, with their lacrosse jackets on, they were so cool they didn’t even break a sweat. Gaius’ own shirt was soaked around his neck and arms. The three girls stood, triplicate and tall. His shirt soaked some more.
“Hey, we’re taking the tour of the monument. Wanna come?” Christine asked.
Yes! This would give me the perfect opportunity to talk to her. The two Lockers sized him up and came back with disapproving faces. The two girls seemed entirely disinterested. But he recalled how loud they’d all laughed at the two Catties earlier.
A rejection in front of them if she said no caused him to shake his head. He didn’t want them laughing. “It’s a bit hot out there, I’ll pass for now. Catch you when you come back?”
She returned a puzzled look. Honestly, it was the first time he’d seen her do something which hadn’t seem pre-programmed. “Alright. I want to talk to you. Meet me outside by the buses before we leave, I’m supposed to be meeting someone there anyway.” With that, she finger-waved goodbye as the garnet-eyed girl caught the door and the group filed out, resuming their laughing and conversation from earlier.
Meet someone else? It must have been someone she considered taking to the dance. Gaius guessed who Christine might have meant but came up empty. His shoulders slumped and heart tumbled as he realized he didn’t rate near as highly as he thought. This trip sucks.
For a while, all Gaius could do was meander down the museum halls, hopelessly fixated on the words he exchanged earlier. Stupid!
He was so fixated on his awkwardness, it took him a long moment to recognize the girl with the science-fiction shirt from earlier frowning at him. It was his turn to return a puzzled look as he took several steps toward her. But as he did, her friend approached first, and the pair walked into one of several darkened screening rooms.
The look pulled him into the theater after her.
Inside, the room was a darkened box, with several rows of backless benches all pointing toward a small screen. A smattering of students sat restlessly, but no sign of the two girls. Footage from recent wars filled the screen alongside scenes from re-enacted ones from wars further back. The bassy monotone voice was already talking. Evidently, they’d all walked in during the middle of the film.
“Washington’s poor strategies and tactics put the patriot cause at risk,” the narrator boomed, “so it was the brave men of the Conway Cabal, a group of veteran generals and statesmen, who formed in support of removing Washington from command. While some of those conspirators most likely thought they would assume leadership, it was Benedict Arnold, fresh from beating the British at Saratoga, who took overall command.”
Gaius knew all this already, of course. It was hard to make it to high-school without hearing the stories thousands of times. What surprised him was not seeing the two girls. He scanned the seats once more. On screen, cannon burst, and the crappy speaker cracked and hissed, taking his attention away.
“In light of Washington’s actions and the restructuring of the American command, the French Catholics, who just two decades earlier committed violent atrocities against the American people, betrayed America once more by refusing their support against a common enemy.
“This forced Benedict to accept terms from the British that would eventually provide the foundation for American autonomy. One of his first acts under his tenure of military governor was to prohibit the practice of Catholicism and ban French and Catholic immigrants. While true Independence was won just a generation later under President Aaron Burr, Benedict had already built the country on the twin pillars of faith and freedom. We owe all of what we are today to the men engraved in the monument before you.”
Gaius had enough. He turned to leave the theater and spotted the girl pressed against the back wall – while another girl pressed against her, presumably the one she’d come in with. He quickly turned away, his skin prickly and face flushed, heart skipping. Pretty sure I wasn’t meant to see that.
He tried to immerse himself in the video ahead, but it droned on and on about the usual grievances against the Catholics, the Crusades, the genocides against the Jews. The butchery of the French/Indian war. Gaius knew all about the Catholic extremists. He got enough of that at school. But since he’d never been hurt in any café explosions, or caught up in any gun deals with IRA terrorists, all of it seemed to belong to another world to him.
The few Catties he knew kept to themselves and suffered the usual gamut of kids being asses—such as the prank on the pair from the bus. That’s all it was, right? A harmless prank?
He didn’t want to think about that either. He still had to talk to Christine. Carefully, he extricated himself from the theater, eyes glued to the floor. He found an open seat by a table in the chittering of conversations and the clopping of dress shoes on the tile of the museum and sat by himself in silence.
Soon, people streamed through the same doors, shielding their eyes against the streaming, sunlit windows. Most ambled away toward concessions or other theaters to escape back into shade and comfort. The two girls came out one after another, distance and time between them. They stood and talked for a bit. The girl in the flannel took out a wallet and walked away. The other spotted him and made for an open seat.
Embarrassed, Gaius half-covered his face, hoping she meant to pass him by. He couldn’t even remember her name. What was it?
Laura, his mind snapped. That was it. She’d sat next to him in several classes. They’d even talked on occasion, mostly about video games and movies and books she had read and only ever rarely about schoolwork. I’m an idiot.
She sat down across from him. He wasn’t thrilled about the conversation he knew was coming. What he’d seen. Or might not have seen. Darkness played tricks on the mind.
“You going to say anything?” Laura asked, hands twitching at her side. “What did you see?”
“I knew you were a good guy.”
He shrugged. Her hands seem to relax a little. He wouldn’t say anything. He couldn’t be sure what he saw. Really, it’s none of my damned business. “Is that why you frowned at me?”
“You know, before this morning, I thought you were kinda cool. Thought about asking you to prom.”
Gaius found himself with a second puzzled expression. Wasn’t she—
“No, no,” She put her hands up. “Not like that. Obviously I can’t go with… you know.” She rolled her eyes toward the concession area. “Maybe if this were Free-Canada or the UK. Not here. But I thought you might understand—cover for me. Not everyone is a piece of shit like Christine.” She dropped her eyes. “Then I saw how you acted toward those kids on the bus.”
Gaius wasn’t a stranger to fist-fights. He’d gotten his share of black eyes and bruises, and sore ribs. But her words hit him harder than any sucker-punch to the gut he’d ever felt. You’re a good guy. Except not.
“Those kids aren’t my problem. I didn’t make the rules.” Gaius found himself blurting out the words angrily. That hadn’t been what he meant to say. He was supposed to say sorry.
She nodded. “You’ve seen those stone faces out there, haven’t you?”
“Enough times to not bother anymore.”
“Sure,” she said, making to stand. She sighed, and settled back down, adjusting long brown hair away from her marble-white face and then smoothing over a black silken-skirt. “That monument is our past. We can’t change it. But let me ask you a question.”
“Ask me whatever is on your mind, Laura.” Her face seemed to light at the mention of her name. She leaned in closer and so did he.
“I suppose our past is set in stone. Does that mean our future is as well?”
Gaius didn’t know what to make of her question. The future would roll on, with or without them, regardless of who they were or what they might do. He was taught to believe in fate, and so he did. He had no way of putting that into words, however, so he sat in silence for a moment while he formed a response that wouldn’t just be a jumble of sounds.
Laura’s friend joined them at the table as he was about to speak. She came carrying a cardboard box full of fries, buried in cheese and chili. She sat them down, as cheese oozed over the edge. “Oops, I forgot the forks.”
Laura looked unfazed. “No worries. I’ll go grab ‘em. Gaius can keep you company.”
Gaius nodded and smiled politely, but remained silent, even as her face began to burn as beet-red as her flannel.
“I didn’t see anything earlier,” he finally forced himself to say.
When Laura returned, she held three white plastic forks. It was the third time Gaius was puzzled. He had the feeling it would not be the last.
“One fork for you,” Laura said, handing it over. “Join us. Plenty to share.”
Flannel urged him on. He felt bad because he had no idea what her name was. He didn’t really want to have to call her Flannel out loud. Instead, he answered the grumbling in his belly by diving a fork into the fray. “Who eats chili cheese fries with a fork?”
Flannel and Laura laughed. Long after puddles of cheese grew cold, the three kept in pleasant conversation, disrupted by raucous outbursts that earned looks of jealousy by other students trapped in the twisting propaganda machines. All too soon, an announcement came over the PA that their buses were departing, which stopped their conversation cold.
Laura placed a warm hand over his. “Thank you, Gaius. Usually when we’re alone and one of us laughs or smiles at the other, we get looks. Deep, disapproving stares. We feel exposed.” Flannel nodded in agreement. “Thank you for letting us be ourselves.”
The two stood to leave, one after the other, punctuated once more by distance and time. Gaius sat there longer still, pondering whether he’d enjoyed himself—if such a thing was possible. Shit! I’m supposed to meet Christine.
Gaius rose quickly and headed out. The sun was over the museum. He could look out toward the court and beyond to the buses without squinting. There, he saw a circle of familiar faces, students from his school, surrounding Christine and another kid, clad in grey-blue. Is that the guy she said she was supposed to meet? The Catholic boy? That didn’t make any sense.
He found Christine’s hands balled into fists. She stood with her legs wide and her balance low. Most women knew how to fight. Since the early days of the new nation, women were pushed to be smart and strong so they could be smart and strong for their sons. This wasn’t new. What made it unusual was that her right fist was already bloody.
When he saw the Catholic kid’s nose, broken and bleeding, he understood why.
“Good,” Christine called out. “You’re here!” She finger-waved at him again, as red drops ran down to stain glossy nails. She pointed at the kid. “He wanted to meet me before we got on the bus. I thought he was going to apologize for being in my way earlier. I guess not.”
“I think you’ve made your point, Christine.”
The kid covered his nose and staggered. But he got up again.
“Oh, that was only the first punch. I’d thought you’d come and join me.”
“It looks like you’re doing well without my help. Why don’t we get on the bus?”
The kid lurched forward, right-hand raised, but he was too slow, too obvious, and charging in to cover a lack of skill was defeat even before the blow. Christine could have dodged it. Instead, she sent a brutal front kick into the kid’s face, sending him sprawling against the concrete.
“Get in there, Gaius. I want to see how hard you can hit. Send him home unconscious.”
If he hit the kid, he could end this. Maybe soften his blow so the kid didn’t end up in the hospital. Gaius was sure this was all just a test. A stupid test, but if he passed, he could ask her to prom, in front of all his classmates. She’d say yes, and he’d be the coolest kid in class.
He scanned the crowd. Most eyes were on him. He didn’t see Laura or Flannel anywhere. It was just him. He ran a sweaty palm through his hair, mopping up what he could and keeping his armpits shut tight, least he betray any sign of fear.
Gaius stepped into the circle until he stood over the kid.
The circle hushed. Bus engines thrummed from the curb. Gaius stood there, judging the strength he’d need.
All of it.
He turned to face Christine, but he addressed the crowd instead. “Nothing to see here. Fight is over. Don’t we want to get home?” he asked.
There were disappointed groans and a few idiots chanting “fight!” but the better part of the crowd seemed unenthused and began to peel away. The kid’s sister ran up to him with a handful of tissues to help wipe the blood away and a paper cup of ice for the swelling. This is great. I’m the guy known for stepping in to break-up a fight peacefully. This will all work!
Christine landed a powerful punch to the right side of his jaw. He felt the sudden crunch of fist on bone, her soft hands hard and strong, his gums buckled and teeth rattled, and then he felt weightless for a moment as he tumbled backward with the surprise strike she’d unleashed. The faux euphoria he’d felt just a second ago flew out from him, like a balloon that is let go before the bottom was tied.
“Last chance. You going to prom with me?”
The crowd halted. Some laughed, but it was cut short by the question. His ego was bruised, but she still offered a way out. He had one more chance to do this right. Gaius sat upright, rubbing his jaw. Admit defeat. Go to prom. End it over the summer, if he could. Christine had quite the personality. That was his choice, his fate. His future was set in stone.
From the crowd, he saw the red and black rolled sleeves of a flannel. Next to her stood Laura. She smiled at him then did something he did not expect. She took Flannel’s hand and held it tight, if just for a second. He knew the message was for him, and he knew what it meant.
Gaius rose and ended it with one word. “No.”
The crowd burst into laughter. But it was not aimed at him. Christine stalked off, too angry for words. He nodded to Laura, then turned to the kid and his sister. “You both okay?”
They nodded and the three of them headed back to the bus. It was a small bit of defiance in front of the stone faces. Once they were back on board, he knew the two would have to sit in the back of the bus. Things would have to go back to the way they were. But he hoped every little bit of kindness here or there, like a raindrop or a snowflake on a granite mountain, would eventually carve a new path.
Gaius sat down in the seat, once again by himself, and massaged his bruise. Christine and her friends sat in their usual spots, stony-faced and silent.
Laura and Flannel sat in the seat across from him. He nodded, unsure of what to say.
“Prom sucks anyway,” Laura said.
“You don’t want to go?” Gaius asked, unsurprisingly puzzled.
“Yes. But there’s a new Anakin Cloudstrider book out that weekend.”
“I get to read it first,” Flannel demanded through a crooked smile.
Gaius chuckled. “How about we all go, grab some coffee, and you guys could both read it to me?”
“Sounds like a plan,” the pair said in perfect unison.
Gaius grinned as the lime-green school bus pulled away.
Brent A. Harris is an author of SF and has recently been nominated for a Sidewise Award in alternate history. If you’ve enjoyed this story, please share it on your favorite social media site and spread the word as he readies to release his novel A Time of Need, an alternate history novel of the Revolutionary War. A Time of Need is available late summer from Insomnia Publishing (and does not share a universe with the story presented here, despite similarities). You can contact Brent through his website at www.BrentAHarris.com.