There are four empty seats in the last two rows. The air like copper on my tongue.
“Buildup,” I mutter, “everything built up,” and the fritzy-haired girl in front with earphones nods, nods, nods to agree.
The first and third gaps are red herrings – one next to a nerd too late to land the front bench, the other between Acne Factory #2 and a jock halfway through his Disgruntled Goth phase. I don’t need his black highlights to tell me he’s a dud. We’ll be lucky to catch a word from him today.
That leaves the Lovebirds and the Feuding Rowdies.
I usually play it safe and stick to couples – they tend to be less rational than knuckledusters – but today I am feeling adventurous.
The Rowdies it is.
Their floppy backhands gradually increase in intensity, and then – just as they are coming to blows – I make my move.
“How many roads must a man walk down?” I whisper to the one on the left.
Both stop to stare at me. “Wha-”
I shake my head, raise one eyebrow at earphone chick, resume rummaging through my backpack.
They’re still staring. A tiny drop of sweat rolls down my collar.
Then lefty leans forward and pokes fritz in the back.
I find my graph paper and smooth it out on the table. We are currently playing a five-by-eight field; or rather, a five-by-four-by-two.
That means four tries.
I wait until the other brawler stops glancing back at me before poking him in the ribs and going “the north remembers.”
He gets what I am saying – his eyes light up – but Acne Factory #1 just stood up and turned to the person behind her: “the roughest, meanest what in town?”
The teacher glares and removes both pieces from the board.
I put two crosses on my graph before turning to the Lovebirds in the adjacent column:
“The waves, the waves were soldiers moving,” I drawl from the corner of my mouth, boy disbelieving or maybe just hard of hearing, and then for the slacker behind Acne Factory #2, “are you a little Lebowski urban achiever?” for once not needing to gesture or
“Who’s talking at the back?” the teacher barks, and my fist bunches over the pencil – we cannot stop yet, it is too early, I am hardly ready
“Not December,” groans Acne Factory #1’s partner, the teacher halted in her tracks by sheer incongruity, and just like that we have confluence.
I scrawl an extra layer of rows and columns around my grid, turn to the girl in the oversized hoodie dozing beside me, “got a moment to talk about torpor cycles in adult locusts?” her shrug a swimsuit calendar worth of easy on the eyes, and to the fresh row of faces suddenly behind us, “I oughta practice what I preach.”
The teacher knows something’s up but already the entire is class muttering, messages travelling back and forth, the walls around us receding, semi-transparent, gone.
The P.A. system dings. “Yo momma’s a saucy purple Belieber!”
The janitor I just addressed turns to the bus driver beside him, mind no doubt putting its spin on what he thinks he’s heard.
“The brave, the brave get bolder groovin’,” a man on a baby grand purrs from where the blackboard stood before launching into a lush and complex rendition of Paul Desmond’s Take Five as performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
The music is confluence, over and again, and I am marking rows and columns and inroads almost as fast as his crazy fingers fly over the keys.
I am also a little afraid.
Both piano and player are unprecedented boosts, my previous high score a laughable relic.
We’re on uncharted ground now.
The Lovebirds stop canoodling to stare at armed men in antique diving suits sitting in a column fifty-seven deep behind them.
A man addressing the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources suggests George Michael is losing focus.
The PA system dings again, a voice with a heavy Slavic accent: “You oughta ask us how to teech.”
The teacher catches me smirking. She strides towards me.
“Well, it was good while it lasted,” I tell the girl in the oversized hoodie.
“We’re just getting started,” she grins, chipped violet fingernails on my graph sliding it a neat 180 degrees, and then suddenly a bus crashes into the side of the building.
“She moves something deep inside of me,” I call from the front of the room.
The teacher decides to screw this and go find her emergency hipflask.
A fight breaks out aboard the International Space Station.
A warning klaxon sounds.
Both girl and I forgot the Golden Rule: no touching another player’s graph.
“Poor baby,” she says, “still stuck on first world problems. What good is all that leveling if you can’t move beyond?”
“I don’t understand,” I say, the wind picking up, our outlines blurry.
In reply she merely takes my pencil
(her touch electric)
and skewers the graph right through the middle.
“Remember me,” she says, holding the graph to the melting roof, my scribbled outlines visible through the charred paper, “remember this: don’t pass go.”
Then with sound and light leveling the playing field she sticks the page blank-side-up onto the tabletop.
There are four empty seats in the last two rows, the air like a dead dust mite’s dick in my mouth.
A girl with an oversized hoodie periodically jerks awake in the back, but that is all.
Everybody else is motionless and silent.
“Built up,” I say, “enough with the buildup,” and pick a seat at random.