One false move and the snow warriors would kill him. Robert couldn’t escape this feeling. He couldn’t escape them.
He’d broken free from the cheerleader tug-of-war between Suzi and Debbie, and fled from the entire teenaged party crowd at Brian’s house, clomping fifty feet or more through the snow, heading—he thought—to his Mustang. But space and time in his mind blinked, and he somehow ended up in the middle of a maze of seemingly undead snow creatures.
The revelry in the house behind him rattled windows almost to the point of shattering them, and all the noise fed his vision of a frozen-over personal hell: him lost amid dozens of swaying snowmen and snowwomen, the latter outnumbering the former. Most of them were a few inches taller than his six feet, but all of them were armed.
Part of him knew these were simply snow-and-wood sculptures, not alive at all. Their stick arms rubber-banded with other sticks so each seemed to hold a wooden sword, or a spear, or a gun. He really had nothing to fear. And yet, as he maneuvered between them, another part of him swore these things could do him serious harm if he wasn’t careful. The broken beer-bottle fragments acting as nipples on the snowwomen nurtured this belief.
He couldn’t reason with them, nor could he wrestle them down. The only useful skill left was his skill with geometry, but he couldn’t think straight for more than a minute at a time. He tried to keep an arm’s length distance from each one; half-arm’s length was the best he could do. Try as he might to watch their trembling tree-limb arms, he couldn’t help but gaze into the cat’s-eye marbles acting as their eyes as he passed each one. Nor could he help but consider the absurdity of their form: their robust snow bodies, white like bone, and their skeletal wood arms, brown like his skin. Half alive, half dead.
Through sheer dumb luck, Robert emerged from the thicket of snow warriors after what seemed like an hour. But he was still unsure of his sanity. On the white and uneven ground in front of him, he saw the snow warriors’ elongated shadows shifting in rhythmic movements to the pulsing music coming from the house behind him. An orgy, he thought as he watched the shadows, his among theirs. A violent one. Not so long ago, it wasn’t just shadows on the ground.
He shook his head and turned around. That fucking party. The riotous noise shook not just the house’s windows, but its entire structure, including the back porch lights, accounting for the shadows that really moved and the snowfolk that just seemed to. That was rational. He needed a good dose of rationality to chase away his more fantastical ideas. But just how the hell had he ended up among the snowfolk in the first place? Had he stepped into a wormhole? Or had he been so lost in his own thoughts that he’d wandered around blindly?
He chuckled. Thank fortune no one on the wrestling team saw him wandering around like an idiot. They might figure he wasn’t fit to represent them at the tournament next week. The team knew he didn’t drink or do drugs, so they’d no doubt take his behavior as a sign of him going nuts. It was fine to go crazy on the mat, within the rules, but off of it, the wrestlers had another reputation to uphold.
Robert chuckled again at his temporary bout of goofiness, and then he saw it: PARADISE LUST. Partially obscured by the shadows of low-hanging, snow-stressed branches, the sign gave a title to the art exhibit from which he’d just escaped. It looked like someone else was upholding their reputation.
In all the years he lived in Wallace, Virginia, Robert had never experienced the record snowfall as seen during the last week of January. He figured the moment it was safe to come outside, Brian’s prurient little brothers had taken advantage and constructed the latest in their unending series of disturbing masterpieces. Graffiti artists, garbage sculptors, and overpass banner hangers—those two thirteen-year-old snarks had talents and visions well beyond their years. Presently, Robert just had a headache. The evening had started out fun, but as it progressed and more and more girls had come up to him—whispering in his ear, grabbing his biceps and other muscles, promising favors he definitely didn’t need or want—it had devolved into confusion.
Brian always threw the best house parties. And the worst. He and Robert went all the way back to third grade. It was an extremely rare feat to keep such a friend through the purgatory of middle school and into the junior year of high school, especially when they went to different schools, so Robert had felt obligated to attend the Valentine’s Eve party. But he wasn’t obligated to accept everything that fell into his lap, blew on his neck, or tugged at his wrist; he was never doing that again. He’d tried to bail, but somewhere between the house and the car, he was plucked and placed in the exhibit. Now free, he tried again, trying to reorient himself in Brian’s unreasonably large backyard. Having upper-middle-class friends could be such a pain in the ass.
He plodded through the snow like a man playing human checkers against himself. They must’ve been smoking some serious weed back in the house, and he was undoubtedly experiencing a considerable contact high. That was another probable reason for him ending up in the middle of the exhibit, and a very good reason to leave the party early—if after midnight could be considered early.
While stumbling, Robert looked up at the full moon, bright and slightly blemished. He saw something phenomenal encircling it, something at first glance so unbelievable yet so beautiful and amazing, it made his eyes glaze over. The spell broke, though, when he heard something moaning behind him.
He stopped walking, shocked that something else alive was out in this weather and a little afraid of what it might be. He turned around slowly. After a little more moaning, he located its source. Just beyond the reach of the house’s lights and hidden from moonlight by branches, a figure lay curled up in the snow.
Certainly not a victim of the mock battle of snow warriors, the person may’ve been wounded in some other fight, possibly a victim of a beating who’d tried to make it to safety but failed. Or maybe it was a drunk who’d ambled aimlessly through the woods and collapsed when entering the clearing. As he neared, Robert concluded it was most likely a con man, waiting to perpetrate a sick trick—robbery, violence, rape—upon any passerby naive enough to approach too closely and give the Samaritan passkey: Are you okay? If that was the case, he was ready to handle himself.
As he came within a few paces, however, he sighed and unclenched his fists. He wasn’t the only brown-skinned wrestler who’d lost his way in the snow. Robert snickered before speaking.
“Uh, Davin, my man…that isn’t how you make a snow angel.”
It was, however, a sure way for the sixteen-year-old to get sick. Davin tipped the scales at just over one hundred pounds when wet, and here he was in only his boxer shorts, socks, and a ripped T-shirt, lying on his side with his knees almost touching his forehead, his arms crossed and pressed close to his body, both hands clutching his chest. He wasn’t shivering. He wasn’t even moving. But he was conscious. Robert’s joke drew a groan in response.
He stared at the clenched eyes and the grimace on his friend’s face, his relief and good humor plunging into concern. He then looked around for missing clothes and saw a sweater, stretched all out of shape and hanging from a tree branch several feet away. The dress shirt Davin had been wearing under it had been ripped off and was lying on the ground near something that glinted—a belt buckle—which had somehow become separated from the belt. He saw no sign of Davin’s belt, pants, or shoes.
He knelt down to put his hand on Davin’s shoulder. “What happened, man?”
“Can you speak?”
A grunt this time.
Robert didn’t smell any trace of alcohol, so he ruled out the possibility Davin had gotten drunk and engaged in some kind of party-animal dare. He noticed scratch marks on his arms and legs, and someone had obviously tried to rip his T-shirt off. But if this was the result of a fight, it had been a strange one. Excluding his own, the only other relatively fresh footprints nearby indicated one person who’d come from the direction of the house and stumbled near the edge of the woods before collapsing and rolling into the heap that was Davin.
A breeze nipped at Robert’s face. Act now and ask questions later.
Robert picked him up and carried him around the side of the pulsing house toward his car; he couldn’t help but notice that his friend felt lighter than he should have. Robert weighed 159 pounds and benched 260. Still, Davin should’ve felt closer to a sack of sand than a sack of Styrofoam in his arms. Yet another question for the list. He considered a hospital, but Davin’s home was closer. Hell, it might not be that serious anyway.
After carefully laying him in the backseat of his Mustang and spreading a blanket over him, Robert paused to look up at the sky before getting into the driver’s seat. It was still there. A set of seven concentric circles, each a unique color, encircling the full moon. Was he the only one who saw them? Were others outside, looking up on this early Valentine’s morn, taking it as some kind of portent? Fuck it. Right now he had to see to the safety of his friend.
Robert sped off toward Davin’s house, praying his parents wouldn’t assault him with questions for which he had no answers.
Even though Robert didn’t drink at the party, lack of sleep after the stress of dealing with Davin’s mom did no favors for his head. After just three hours of rest, he woke up with a very faint but distinct buzzing sound lodged somewhere in his cranium, initiated by his alarm clock but not silenced even after he unplugged and tossed the damn thing. Now pushing through one of his school’s side entrances, the morning buzzing bloomed into a pounding headache. Out of bed and into bedlam.
Howard Phillips High School’s social landscape wasn’t much different from central Virginia’s other public high schools. There were jocks and mean girls, preppies and rednecks, geeks and motorheads. All run-of-the-mill for a twenty-first-century American public school with a student population just over one thousand.
But there were also the eccentrics, those who may’ve been unique to schools in the mid-Atlantic region, or maybe even just unique to Howard Phillips. Like the five brawny Jewish guys who could’ve dominated the football team if they’d had any interest in sports. They shaved their heads bald every morning and covered their pates with red, white, and black yarmulkes. The skullcaps’ designs resembled targets, and they were nothing less than dares to the sneering rednecks and the feverish evangelicals who couldn’t resist doing a double take every time they passed. Robert was friendly with a couple of them and was pretty sure none of them were particularly religious, but the five felt they were in enemy territory and refused to bow or keep to the corners. He admired the hell out of them for that.
Jewish skinheads aside, there were other kinds of skins: those guys and gals who wore as little clothing as they could get away with. Autumn, winter, spring—it didn’t matter. The stripteasers weren’t shy, but neither were the teasing onlookers who thought each of them should spend at least one day a week in the gym.
And then there was the slumber party: those kids (mostly stoners) who came to school dressed in whatever they’d fallen asleep in, usually either sweat suits or flannel pajamas. Robert was waiting for one of them to show up in nothing but boxer shorts and a robe; he’d once made a bet with Davin on whether they’d get away with it.
When the United States Heartland Security Agency was created a few years ago, in that chaotic period following the President’s murder, odd effects rippled through all levels of society. At the lowest levels, some public schools saw some of the nuttiest results. Robert guessed the confused adults running the government wanted to keep the wheel spinnin’ by instilling the same confusion about rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts, in those who were on the cusp of adulthood. Guns had been outlawed for the general populace, but it was still mandatory for public schools to have metal detectors. Cigarettes and marijuana were legal (the hard age limit being eighteen, while the shake-the-head-but-look-the-other-way limit was sixteen), but possession on school grounds meant an immediate five-day suspension. Students were generally allowed a little more freedom of expression when it came to fashion, but there was still a dress code. Shoes, boots, or sandals were mandatory. Hats and nonreligious head coverings were banned. No individual could show off more than two tattoos at a time. And a display of racist language on one’s skin or clothes was a definite no-no—though Robert had noticed no one ever seemed to get in trouble for homophobic slurs.
He’d dressed in his usual way this Monday: sweatshirt, sans names or logos, and blue jeans, sans holes, patches, rips, or decorative chains. Unusual when compared to the fifty other African-American students’ styles. Just a few days away from seventeen, he was long past the age where he gave a damn about fitting in.
He weaved through the in-crowds and out-crowds, avoiding eye contact with them all. Not a one of them intimidated him in the least, but his jack-hammering headache kept his thoughts out of focus, his body a little off balance. It was only when he was a few steps away from his locker that he realized he was being followed by that unique clique of one: Leigh, the only girl in school who wore a striped or polka-dotted bow in her hair every single day. She’d apparently been yipping at his heels as he walked—for how long, who knew. She and her words only came into focus when he stopped in front of his locker and faced her standing in front of hers, two doors down.
“How in the hell could you go to a party without me?” she said, shaking her finger in his face. “Without even asking me?” Her fingernails were painted black, with a cherry-red dot in the middle. A black bow with dark red polka dots tied up her hair on the left side.
In personality, Leigh had come a long way from the freckled and four-eyed dishwater blonde who’d caught his eye during a junior high field trip to the zoo; tall for her age, and appropriately clumsy, she’d almost fallen into the wild dogs’ pit while the rest of the class was several feet away, listening to a lecture about zoo safety. He didn’t flinch to rescue her. He just saw and laughed, never speaking to her until their freshman year when she confronted him about the incident, her bluish-gray eyes staring deep into his brown ones. Why did you just laugh and not try to help? The confrontation coming a year after the fact was a shock, as was the confession of her long-held secret crush. At the time, he was hurting from a personal tragedy, and her attention—her affection—was like a potent medicine: effective, but dangerous. The danger was in him being black, her being white, and them living so near the capital of the undead Confederacy. Virginia was changing, but racist ghosts still roamed.
Now the glasses were gone, the freckles were less prominent, and, at six feet, the girl had mastered her body’s movements. But this was still Wallace, Virginia. And the girl still owned her share of goofiness. She insisted on going to the extreme in color-coordinating her outfits, and taking it further on special occasions. Like today. Neither her voice nor her black-and-cherry Valentine’s Day getup was doing any favors for Robert’s head.
“We’re supposed to be girlfriend and boy—”
“Shhh!” Robert raised his hands, as if his shushing alone would be ineffective.
“We are supposed to be dating,” Leigh said even louder, as Robert winced, “but no gift, no surprises—except the fact that you can’t even take me to a Valentine’s Eve party!”
It took a moment for him to digest just what she was going on about. Then he fell into guilt-defense mode. After a few stuttering attempts, he managed to spit out: “What Valentine’s Eve party?” He then grimaced as something jabbed, sharply, from inside his skull at his right temple.
“Don’t lie. Don’t even start. Florence said she saw you there.”
Robert snorted. “Florence seeing things…as usual. Everything but the glowing, growing nose on her makeup-caked face.” Even as he was saying it, he noticed but couldn’t prevent the weird poetic phrasing.
“Shut up and answer me,” Leigh said. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going?”
“I wasn’t going…I mean, I didn’t mean to go. And I didn’t stay. I was only there briefly. Davin’s sick. I spent much of the night with him and his parents.” Now he rambled, involuntarily, but at least closer to his usual manner of speaking.
“Bull! Florence said—”
“Screw Florence! That girl is seventeen years old and still doesn’t even know the entire alphabet! You can’t trust her to construct a complete proper sentence, let alone trust her to say anything close to the truth.” From incoherent fragments to an unfiltered rant—he wondered if that was progress.
For a moment, Leigh seemed ready to defend her friend, but the shifting expression on her face showed she thought better of it.
“If you don’t believe me,” Robert said, “ask Davin’s parents.”
Robert smirked. “Because you know I’m telling the truth.”
“No,” Leigh said. “Because I’d look like an idiot calling two adults I don’t even know to ask about you.”
“Well, then, you just have to trust me.”
“I’d definitely be an idiot if I did that.”
Robert rolled his eyes then frowned as the hall began to empty at the first-period warning bell. “We’re going to be late for class. We’ll get in trouble.”
“Be late. You go anywhere before we’re finished and you’ll be in trouble with me.”
At the beginning of the school year, Robert thought it fortunate their lockers were so close in proximity. He thought much differently now.
“Tell me straight,” Leigh said. “Honestly and clearly. Why didn’t you take me, of all people, to the party? What, was your dad there?” While they both intended to attend law school after finishing college, only Leigh already acted like a prosecuting attorney, cross-examining without mercy some hapless witness for the defense. “What can possibly be a good excuse for not taking your girlfriend to a Valentine’s party?”
“’Cause that ain’t the point of Valentine’s Eve parties, cooch!”
Robert turned at the sound of the voice, though he didn’t want to. It was an irresistible urge, like looking at a car wreck. Herman was a one-man wreck. A do-rag wearing, grinning, six-foot-three example of everything a young black kid shouldn’t be. The obnoxious fool was wearing the even more obnoxious jacket that had the phrase “Gutta Step” prominently displayed on the back. He’d apparently been watching Robert and Leigh spat from nearby and decided to get closer to the action, undoubtedly to make things worse. At least he was alone, for once; his fellow Gutta-Step boys were nowhere in sight.
“Valentine’s Eve parties aren’t for couples,” Herman said. “They’re like bachelor parties set in a whorehouse. You go to get away from your hitch, and hook up with a bunch of hos. Once it’s over, you come out, repledge your heart to your ball-n-chain, and pretend it never happened. That’s the real, shorty!”
Leigh looked at Robert with eyes that wanted to shoot bullets. “So that’s how it was!”
He wasn’t sure why she was directing all her anger at him, rather than the guy who’d used at least four sexist terms in less than two minutes.
“That’s how it wasn’t,” he said. “Brian’s party was nothing like that…while I was there.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Herman muttered.
“Shut up, germ,” Robert said. “You weren’t even there.”
“But you were!” A stamp of her foot further punctuated Leigh’s words.
“But I—” The first-period final bell interrupted Robert’s words and exacerbated his headache. He covered his ears with his hands.
“Fine,” Leigh said. “Shut me out now, but we’re not finished.” She grabbed his locker’s door and slammed it. He hadn’t even had a chance to get his books out.
Leigh hurried away toward class as Robert fumbled with the combination lock. His first period was health, which, fortunately, the head wrestling coach taught. The coach wouldn’t give one of his star wrestlers extra work or even a hard time for showing up late—at least, not during school hours. Robert knew he’d probably have to run a few extra laps around the gym after practice that evening, but he never minded extra exercise.
Herman leaned against Leigh’s locker, smirking as Robert tried his best to ignore him. He opened his locker to grab his book and folder, glancing down the hall in time to see Leigh turning a corner and disappearing from sight—most of her anyway.
At the corner where she’d turned, the colors of her ebony-and-red outfit hovered in space, forming a vague outline of her body. The edges of the image blurred into the background scenery of steel lockers and painted bricks; still, Robert could clearly make out the shoes, the pants, the belt, the top, and even the buttons on the top, not to mention that stupid polka-dotted bow. Without an actual body to fill out the image, it appeared two-dimensional and, for a moment, the image simply shimmered, like glitter covering the surface of a wall of water, flowing but going nowhere. In a blink, however, the image developed another dimension, appearing as if it truly did have a body. Its “legs” and “arms” swung as the image “walked” toward the intersection of the two halls and moved a few paces toward Robert before stopping.
He refused to blink as the “clothes” peeled off, dropping into a heap at the “feet” of what remained standing: a skeleton, comprised of “bones” that were shafts of pulsating orange and indigo lights. The thing stood rooted as its left “arm”—pulsating faster than the other shafts—rose into a gesture that looked as if it were offering something to him.
His eyes dried as he stared at this bright appendage. He considered whether he should blink or, lest he miss something, keep holding off for just a few seconds more.
“I see you’re still listening to that gay shit.”
The words jerked his attention to Herman, who was focused on the picture taped to the inside of Robert’s locker door: cover art for an old Psi-Kyll Soul CD. He sneered at Herman and looked down the hall again. There was no trace of the image.
“Homo. No wonder you can’t get anything better than that pale scarecrow.”
“Go suck yourself, you—” Robert stopped himself. He didn’t have time to engage in a verbal battle with someone as witless as Herman. He grabbed the books and folders for his second- and third-period classes and, not caring for his headache, slammed the door, holding a faint hope Herman would stick out his hand and get his fingers caught. No such luck.
Robert turned to jog to class, but a green light flashed in his eyes. He stumbled, dropping a book as Herman chuckled.
“Valentine’s Day is a real bitch for you, isn’t it?” he said. “Just like your girlfriend.”
Robert grabbed his book and hurried away, wondering when would be a convenient time to stop by the nurse’s office for some aspirin—not that she was legally permitted to dispense anything, even over-the-counter stuff, but she sometimes hooked certain students up, those who knew how to ask nicely. He did his best to ignore Herman trotting behind him and making goofy sounds, but when he opened the classroom’s door and Herman ducked out of sight, shouting, “Happy V.D.! Ho ho ho!” Robert wished he’d just decked the guy back by his locker.
Mr. Myers stopped midlecture as everyone turned to see Robert standing in the doorway, his face contorted with embarrassment and rage. Herman was now halfway down the hall, laughing behind Robert’s back while most of the class laughed in front of him. The teacher looked pissed.
Robert closed the door and trudged to his seat, calculating the number of times he’d be forced to circle the gym.