“Stop! Stop! Give me a chance to speak!”
His voice was nearly drowned out by the crowd.
“I’m as angry as you are!”
I wasn’t sure that was possible or likely. The mass of students who had gathered in the street between the dormitories and the classrooms were pretty upset.
This was a special kind of hurt, to take someone’s hopes and dreams, already tested a number of times over, stretched out over years, dash them to the rocks. That special sort of pain and loss demanded to be expressed, yet the very fact that it was being experienced by everyone here made it impossible to do so.
How could someone turn to a friend for support when that friend was in the exact same position? How did one shout to vent their anger when they went unheard with so many other shouting voices around them? How did they find release in tears when their tears were but drops in a bucket?
It was a situation that would have left countless students floundering and frustrated to begin with, and rather than feed into the anger, the crowd was feeding into that frustration. It was an important and interesting distinction.
I wondered what Mauer would think or do here.
The student council vice president was standing off to one side, while the treasurer took the ‘stage’ – a set of stairs by one of the dormitories. She was a very feminine and demure looking girl with straight black hair. The sidelong glance she gave me said a lot, however, about the thought processes going on in her head.
She knew this wasn’t working, but she wasn’t getting flustered.
“Listen!” the student council treasurer belted out the word, pushing his voice to its limit. But the body of students already had some who were shouting at that volume or close to it.
Not a proper unified body, but a collection of individuals. The school had made it so, pitting them against one another.
I beckoned the vice president.
I was around a corner, so only a small few students saw as she came to stand a short distance from me.
“You either have a great deal of trust in me,” I told her, “Or you still feel you can seize control of this situation.”
With the clamor, I doubted she heard everything I said. She seemed to infer my meaning well enough.
She had to lean in close to my ear to make herself heard, “About fifteen percent the first, eighty-five the second.”
I pulled out the letters, took a mostly blank paper and tore off enough that there was no writing on the paper that was left. I scribbled a note on it, folded it in three, and showed her before leaning in closer to tell her, “Take over. Tell them this to get their attention. Say what I told the treasurer to say. Then direct them.”
Speaking into her ear, I could see over her shoulder. The student council president was standing by the stairs, watching us very intently. He was a skinny guy, but with immaculate attention to his appearance. Anyone else might have looked a little stiff with their brown hair so neatly parted and their academy so crisp, face like stone, but he managed to look regal.
Recruiting the student council had been easy as pie. I’d headed over to the stretch of lawn by the water, told them things had started, and they had been mine.
Things were never all that easy, however. I’d talked to Ralph from the Greenhouse Gang, who had once been a part of the student council, and things left unsaid had left a loose thread of thought untied in my head, drifting this way and that, grazing against everything I saw and everyone I met, looking for a conclusion. Now I suspected I’d found it.
The groups of this particular Academy fell on a spectrum, and the student council was on the opposite end from the Rank. The rooftop girls were close to the Rank in disposition and attitude toward the school, yes, but when Gordon Two had said that the student council and the Greenhouse Gang didn’t mingle much, there was likely more to it.
There was a gulf, and this petite, beautiful young lady of good grooming was likely the culprit.
“When you go up,” I said, “Bring the student council president with you.”
“United front?” she asked.
“Something like that,” I said. “Take the paper. Hold it, but don’t show them and don’t say there’s proof because that’s going to be letter number three. But it’ll be something the crowd can fixate on. Don’t swear, don’t incite them too much, and try not to point fingers. They’re incited enough.”
She took the letter. “I don’t cuss.”
“You might be tempted to in an effort to win over the crowd. But it’ll be the whipcrack that sets the horse running, and you might get dragged down into that stampede.”
She gave me a nod, then walked off, still giving no evidence of the agitation that seemed to have struck everyone else. For anyone else it might have looked curious that she could be so calm. For her, it was part of her mystique. I watched carefully as she put her hand lightly on the student council president’s arm, and he was brought along as if she was a giant with an iron grip. His eyes, however, were on me.
The vice president of the student council was a breaker of hearts, it seemed. I could piece together where things stood. Ralph, the heavyset, glasses-wearing member of the Greenhouse Gang was number two in the student rankings and the student council president there was number one, while this young lady was number four or five, and yet they were subordinate to her when it came to their hearts and her ability to toy with them. Perhaps Ralph had escaped. Perhaps he’d put some distance between himself and her because he knew he hadn’t.
The crowd drew a little quieter as the pair joined the treasurer at the top of the stairs. They were joined by the secretary, boy’s rep and girl’s rep.
The vice president held up the paper I’d given her, pinching one corner of it so it stood up and out from her hand. She waited patiently.
The shouting boiled down.
“Thank you,” she said. She gave the paper a little shake. A few hundred eyes watched it move, curious. “The Academy knew what was happening and they prepared for it. They invited security from other Academies to come here because they knew we would be upset. Some of us have already seen a lot of unfamiliar faces wearing security uniforms and moving in large groups. There were going to be more a month from now.”
The crowd was hers. The scenario she was painting was clear in their minds. The fact that she knew meant she had answers they wanted. She could have told them the Academy planned to murder them all, and they might have believed her for a long moment.
She remained seemingly at ease as she laid out the facts. “In the meantime, they planned to deal with any students who they thought might cause any particular trouble, lock down the labs so we couldn’t access our experiments. They would have broken the news to us in a way that they could manage. I can tell you this because we knew. We put the letter up on the bulletin board, by way of a colleague.”
Murmurs and concern swept over the crowd.
Before it could take hold, before the crowd could direct that pent up frustration at the student council, the student council president took a half step forward, raising his hands. The murmuring died down.
“We heard whispers before the semester even started, we found out for certain only a month ago. We’ve been debating this for a long time and when we came to a decision, we decided to do it this way. So you could all know and you could make your decisions instead of the Academy making it for you.”
It was so nice to work with people who were good at what they did. Both student council president and vice president were people who had talked to crowds before. They’d been filled in before this, and they adapted to new information and necessities easily.
Not on Mauer’s level, obviously, but I really liked how the vice president had worked the mention of the experiments being locked away in the middle of that one statement, then moved away from it. I’d written it down to get her to drop that seed, but she had actually done it gracefully enough that she had to have known what it was I was intending.
“Our focus has always been you students,” the student council vice president said. She raised her voice where I imagined Mauer might have lowered it to sound more intimate. She clenched a fist and it seemed somewhat ineffectual. But there was honesty in her not being perfect. “I know that sounds sappy and lame, and a lot of you won’t believe me. We have spent hours and hours down on the knoll where we meet, debating what we can do for you. For a lot of you, we’re the only people who have rooted for you that aren’t your families, and we’ll be the only ones who root for you until you build a family for yourselves. We wanted this school to be a good school for all of us.”
I winced a bit at that last segment. Family wasn’t what we needed people to be focusing on when we were trying to get them to do the reckless thing and run away with Sylvester’s rebellion.
“With that in mind,” she said, speaking louder, “please take what I say with the deathly seriousness I mean it! Stay together! Be safe, but don’t take ‘safe’ to mean you have to be happy about this! Believe me, your student council certainly isn’t!”
And with that, the crowd started shouting again. More of a group than a series of individuals.
I saluted the student council and let them continue to reassure the students, drawing them together into a unit while shaping the frustration with the Academy and the nature of the danger. The Treasurer started speaking again, talking about what to do in case of gas, if things went that far.
Things would go that far.
There was more to do, but it had to wait. In the meantime, I moved through the outskirts of the crowd.
One fellow stood off to one side, arms folded, eyes on the ground, while he leaned against a wall. A matter of three or four feet separated him from the rest of the crowd, but from his body language, it might as well have been a mile.
He was a muscular guy with a many-times broken nose that had flattened out at the bridge. Those two things put together might have explained the distance and disconnection as people avoided the tough guy. But if it did, then those people weren’t really paying attention. The look on his face was painful to see.
He wasn’t seeing or hearing any of this.
The student council was breaking up, mingling at the front of the crowd instead of holding the stage. The throng had leadership. People were taking up a chant, and the student council let them.
Broken-nose pulled away from the wall as if he’d been stuck there with something tacky and he needed some force to do it. I had to jog to catch up to him, at which point I started walking alongside him. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even notice me right away. When he did, he looked almost animal, and it was a kicked animal at the end of its tether. One that was liable to bite.
“Want a job?” I asked him, raising my voice to be heard.
The bite didn’t happen. Confusion crossed his features.
I shrugged. “Making an offer.”
“Fuck you on about?” he asked. A few heads turned to glance our way, he was so loud.
“I’m giving you an option. I’m offering you work. Do you have anything left to lose by giving it a shot?”
“What the fuck do you know about me?”
“I’m good at reading people!” I said, taking the foul language in stride. I did my best to look disarming.
“Not thinking about that right now,” he said. “Got family to go back to.”
I saw that look again. He wasn’t staring blindly into empty space anymore, but the darkness was there.
“Fuck family,” I said. “Look after yourself first.”
“Fuck family?” he asked, bristling. “You don’t get to tell me that. I’ve got a sister I care about.”
“With your parents? Or is she alone? Because we could look after her too.”
“With my mom and da. They’re going to be ashamed of me for all this, even if it’sn’t my fault,” he said. Then he came to, and went on the offensive, “What the fuck are you on my case about?”
“Trying to help,” I said. “Fuck your mom and da. You look after you. Come on. Put off going home. Work for me, get some experience, you can leave at any time. Travel some, spend some time with people your age. Then when you feel like you can face down your da and your mom like a proper man, you go and you see your sister again.”
“Nah,” he said. He shook his head like there was something clinging to it that he wanted to get loose. “Nah, it’s not that simple.”
“It’s not!” I said. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the crowd. “How’s about you work for me for today only? Just until it’s time to sleep? Twenty crown dollars for a day’s work. You can use some of that for yourself, some for a present for your sister, and have lots left over. If you want more, you can stick around, keep working for me.”
He shook his head.
So much was happening, time was tight, and I couldn’t spend too much time on tasks like this…
Lillian would have wanted me to look after others.
I was patient. I waited, thumbs hooked into my pockets.
“Twenty,” I said. “You just have to put up with me for today.”
“Where’s someone your age come up with that much money?”
I reached into a pocket, and fished out my wallet. I picked out the money in dollars and half-dollar bills, and showed him. Then I split the twenty in half and pushed it into his pocket.
“Ten to start. Ten when you finish for the day.”
“That’s a lot more than twenty in your wallet there.”
I grinned again, content that I’d changed his mind. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Sylvester. You work until we finish tonight, then give me your answer tomorrow about whether you want to keep working for me, yeah?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Say it. So I know you heard!” I said, raising my voice again.
“I work until tonight. Tell you tomorrow,” he said.
I indicated Rudy should follow, and started through the crowd again.
I searched the crowd. The shape of things made for a kind of geographic correlation to mental states and approaches. The people nearer the front of the crowd were a very different type than the people at the back. Some people banded together in groups, others stood apart, and others moved through the crowd, and all of that said something about psychology.
I moved around the outer fringes. Among people who were invested enough to be here but disengaged. They came in a number of varieties. The witnesses who were here because something was happening, the skeptical, and those who came as part of a group and were seeing their friends go in a very different direction. There were others.
Among those others was a narrower selection. Those who’d come looking for an answer. They remained on the very periphery because they hadn’t found it. Rudy was one of them. I walked around the entire left flank of the crowd, the rear side, and almost the entire length of the right side before I saw another.
A girl was fighting with a friend. Her friend was frustrated with her, pulling at her arm while she was bent over as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.
With the crowd being what it was, Rudy and I were able to draw within arm’s reach of them without them paying any attention to us.
“You’re being so lame.”
“Just leave me alone. Go! You want to go so bad, go.”
“I’m trying to be a friend.”
“Just go! Please! I’m okay.”
“Look me in the eye. I want to see you’re okay..”
She looked up and moist but tearless eyes met her friend’s. They were far from okay.
“You’re sure?” her friend asked.
The reluctant girl gave a one-shoulder shrug that hitched a little, as if she was so tense that there was a kink in the works. “I’ll manage.”
“Really really sure?”
“Go. Lust after your boy. Be happy, be angry. Do whatever. I’ll manage. But I don’t feel like getting lost in a crowd.”
“I’ll find you after, okay?”
“Okay,” the reluctant girl said. She flashed a smile.
Her friend disappeared into the mob.
I gestured for Rudy to wait, and approached the reluctant girl, positioning myself to get her attention.
Her hands kept rubbing at a runny nose or grabbing at a strand of her long hair, oftentimes two hands at once. It took her a second to see me, and she flashed a polite smile my way when she did.
“You don’t have to smile for me,” I said, leaning in to speak into her ear and be heard.
She gave me a look, as if she’d misheard or misunderstood me.
I leaned in again. “It’s not right. It sucks.”
As I leaned away, both of her hands were already at her hair, pulling one lock into strands as if she was going to braid it, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t devote the attention to the task. She nodded and sniffed.
I leaned in once more, and as gently as I could, I asked, “Do you need a shoulder to cry on?”
She reacted as if I’d slapped her.
The tears followed soon after.
I didn’t want to offer my arms and spook her, so soon after tearing down the only layer of defense she’d had, even if it had been as fragile as wet paper. I looked over my shoulder, looking for her friend. I might have to send Rudy.
Then she lurched forward, one mini-step that crossed half the distance between us, before she bounced away, hesitant.
I put my arms out and wrapped her in a tight hug.
Odd, to offer such a thing. Odd, for someone to accept the offer. As the saying went, any port in a storm.
The storm was raging right now.
“S’alright,” I murmured.
Rudy stood off to one side, looking very puzzled. I gestured for him to wait. The crowd looked like it was moving, heading in the direction of the Academy’s main buildings. If something happened, that was fine. So long as the key elements remained in play. They could lynch Yates for all I cared. The Horse would probably avoid such a fate.
The rooftop girls and some delinquent groups would steer the destruction and keep things from getting too out of control, because they were the out-of-control element.
This was fine.
It took a couple of minutes for the girl to stop crying into my shoulder. She’d noticed the mob leaving.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” I said. “How do you feel?”
“My friend left.”
I nodded. “Everyone’s preoccupied. I wouldn’t blame her too much.”
“Except you,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Sylvester,” I said. “My buddy here is Ru…dy?”
“Rudy, yeah,” Rudy said.
The big, tough looking guy seemed to put her less at ease rather than more at ease.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’ll leave you alone. Thank you for the shoulder. I’m just going to go back to my dorm room and think.”
“The shoulder was freely offered, no need for thanks,” I told her. “Listen, I’m walking in the same direction the crowd is. How’s about I walk with you, and we go find your friend? We’ll reunite you two, I’ll give her a smack upside the head, and she can give you that shoulder to cry on for a longer-term basis.”
The crying girl gave me a wary look.
“I’ve got a complicated situation going on and I’m not looking to pester girls, and Rudy here is more concerned about his sister than about the ladies, honest.”
“The way you say that makes me sound like I’ve got dishonest intentions about my sister,” Rudy said.
“No idea what you mean,” I told him.
“Who are you?” the girl asked, giving me a more serious look.
“A bystander,” I said. “I heard you tell your friend you were alright, and it was a really, really bad lie, okay? I’m good at sussing out truth from lie, and that one was child’s play. I don’t think you should go back to your dorm room and be not-alright all on your lonesome there.”
She took that in, digested it, and then gave me a small nod.
“I’m Sylvester,” I reminded her.
“Helen,” she said.
“Oh, that’s going to confuse me,” I said. “I know a Helen. Do you have any nicknames?”
“Kind of? Friends at my last school called me Possum.”
“Possum?” I asked.
“It’s a long story, and we knew each other from prep. We were immature kids and there were lots of long stories, and this one stuck. I know it’s a bad nickname, but it was the first thing that came to mind.”
“See, now I want to get to know you, so I can hear that story,” I said. “It’s not bad at all as nicknames go. In my humble opinion, anyone worth knowing would agree on that.”
I could see something faint change in the region of her eyes as I said that.
“You couldn’t get it to catch on with your friends here, huh?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t say anything about that, though.”
“You didn’t need to,” I said.
“He’s good at reading people,” Rudy said.
“And the fact of the matter is,” I said, “Teenagers are dumb. Really really dumb. I and many scars I have and haven’t had removed can testify on that front. And some, even some who might well be very good friends, can be really, really dumb and fail to see what a great nickname Possum is. Right, Rudy? Back me up here.”
“It’s alright,” Rudy said.
“My friend aren’t that good. They’re sort of…”
“Boy crazy? Distractable? Oblivious?”
“Preoccupied, like you said before,” Possum volunteered. “I think that’s the generous way of saying it.”
“Listen, would your friend-” I paused pausing to interrupt myself, “One sec, would you walk with me, miss Possum?”
I offered my elbow. She took my arm, latching on with both arms, much as she’d clung to me to cry on my shoulder.
We walked, with Rudy trailing a step behind.
“If I outright told your friend you needed a proper hug and cry, would she be a friend?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Possum said. Then, quieter, shy, she added, “But I’d be embarrassed.”
“We’ll see about it either way,” I said.
With her clinging to me, I was able to set the pace, and I set a pace where we were able to catch up to the crowd. Already, there were a few signs of broken windows on buildings with lettering marking them as being Academy.
Broken windows were fine.
“How do you do that?” Rudy asked.
“Back when you said ‘you couldn’t get your friends to like the nickname’ or whatever,” Rudy said.
“What about it?”
“You did it with her. Found her in the crowd, knew exactly what to say.”
“I’m just paying attention,” I said. “That’s all.”
“You did it with me. You didn’t offer me a shoulder to cry on. But what you said, it’s like you read my mind.”
“Nah,” I said. “The way you hold yourself. Are your arms or hands up? Probably guarded. Hunched over or looking down? Then there’s the way your expression changes, both the major parts and how they go together, and the small-scale changes. A twitch here, a movement there, or tension in another place. It communicates a lot. Tone, word choice, context, and what your face is doing while you talk, there’s obviously a lot there.”
“I can’t tell if you’re an angel or a devil,” Rudy said.
“You don’t hear much talk like that nowadays,” Possum said.
“I grew up in a town so small we joke the Crown didn’t see us when it took over,” Rudy said. “Some churching, still.”
“That’s marvelous,” Possum said. “And so is being able to study all of those things.”
I smiled at her again.
It was a lie, though. Yes, those things factored in. Yes, they were something I’d seen in retrospect. But I really hadn’t had to look that hard. There had been something dark at play in their eyes. I imagined Death was there.
There wasn’t much talk of that particular horseman these days either. Jessie’s influence more than anything. Or Jamie’s. One of the books they’d been talking about at some point, though that one had had a different horseman as the focus.
There were more students walking in the opposite direction of us now.
“Greater concentration of students,” I said, indicating. “Can you hear it? A shift in the sound of the mob?”
“No,” Rudy said. Possum shook her head, agreeing with Rudy.
“Look at the way those students are moving. They keep looking back. They keep their hands up, but it’s fleeting. Reach up to tug at the uniform jacket, there. Hand on head there. Defensive, but not a steady defense. They’re not sure what to do with themselves,” I said.
“Why?” Rudy asked.
“Something’s happening. Thinking about context, that something is probably that the Academy is responding to the riot.”
“You say that, but we’re still walking in that direction,” Rudy said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Is that a problem?”
“Nah,” he said. “Just making sure.”
Possum clutched my arm tighter.
My suspicions were correct. The Academy was in play, and much as I’d observed outside of the library, there were more forces present than what Beattle should have been able to provide on its own. The crowd was maintaining its own momentum. It shed some of its people, yes, but others were joining in from elsewhere, trickling in from different places in this scattered Academy to vent their frustrations. Things would change when student and Academy both brought their experiments to the table.
The Academy would have the upper hand then. I’d need to turn the tables more decisively before then. I was suspicious the student rebellion wouldn’t be quashed entirely, but we’d lose far too many people this way.
“Come on,” I said. “We’ll find your friend, and then I’ve got work to do.”
“Work,” Rudy said.
“If you’re not keen on doing something like this in particular, it’s fine,” I told him. “Take the ten dollars. Buy your sister something nice, make that what you do tomorrow.”
“Nah,” he said.
“Nah,” I echoed him.
“I’m with you if you need me,” he said.
“Good answer,” I said.
And an answer I’m glad to have, I thought, as I disengaged from Possum and stepped up onto a short wall to get a better vantage point to see over the crowd.
The Academy security forces were in the process of dragging the student council into a carriage, while others held the students back.
“The student council went and got themselves captured,” I said, hopping down from the wall. “We’ll track ’em back to wherever they’re holding people. There’s someone else there I want to see to, while I’m at it. Two people, if I’m lucky. I went and recruited another person with the same name as an old friend of mine, and I left him behind. With some luck he’ll be found there.”
“You want to break into a jail?” Rudy asked.
“Is it an actual jail-jail?” I asked.
“I imagine so. Falls within the outer reaches of the Academy sprawl,” Rudy said.
I puffed out my cheeks for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll manage.”
I spotted one of the rooftop girls in the crowd and signaled her.
I’d told them to keep an eye out. They would have already touched base with a lot of the delinquents and questionable sorts the Rank hadn’t messed with.
The ball is rolling. It’s going to take far, far more than this to stop it, I thought.