By Chaher Alzaman
A flying punch pushed through the cold air. It missed, but the fight carried on. Now there were more cheering and rowdiness in the crowd. The fight heated up, and the crowd engulfed more crowd. More punches were thrown, and the crowd asked for more. Outrageously, one of the spectators seemed to be moving forward; he appeared to be intending to stop the fight. His steps were shaky and indeterminate. His name was Mark. He moved forward, and all eyes converged on him. He paused and seemed confounded by his own action. He was merely testing the boundaries of his bravery. He quickly retraced his steps and tried to escape the stares of the people around him. The temperature was below freezing; the fight lasted longer than usual, and the crowd waited for the knockout hit. The Gallviant landed a severe blow to the Rallviant knocking him off balance. More strokes followed and blood spurted. The go-for-the-kill punch was the crowd’s favorite, and it came violent and unmistakable. This time, the noise arriving from the Gallviant crowd soared. On another day, the result might be reversed, and the Rallviants would have been the ones rejoicing. One thing for sure, tomorrow will bring another fight. For today, the curtains came down, and the crowd dispersed. Like the others, Mark walked away casually as nothing had happened: just another regular day in the irregular lives of high school kids. Mark was a Gallviant attending Knowledge High, one of the worst (if not the worst) high schools in the Northside. Gallviants were a prominent immigrant group living in the Northside, which was the part of FortReal where many dreamed but few achieved. FortReal was a city sitting on an abundance of earth’s wealth and embodying human last frontier against the cold. Mayor Robertson once said that the advancement of technology had finally conquered the cold. FortReal was settled first by a lonely fellow who wanted to challenge the elements but died buried in snow. Discovery of oil and other minerals drove more pioneers to the town. And with many trials: FortReal was established north of a major river. The city slowly absorbed settlers and grew into a decent sized town when a major tornado ripped through the town bringing everything to waste except a lonely gray wall. The town was rebuilt gradually and later developed into a metropolitan that encompassed lands on both banks of a river while keeping the gray wall intact as a standing monument for perseverance and triumph.
Right after the second period, Mark hurried to the outside. He had planned to skip the third period so that he can meet Jack. As he headed to the main entrance doors, he was approached by a kid who he had never seen before. He spoke with a very polite manner that was quite foreign to Knowledge High. ‘Would you know where the knowledge class is?’ the kid asked.
‘Knowledge class, I never heard of it!’ Mark responded. ‘The only advice I can give you is to go and see the school administration,’ Mark added.
‘Yeah I will; Thanks a lot.’ The kid received Mark’s answer in a hurry, as if he didn’t care for it, and headed away while Mark continued walking towards the outside. Mark sought the mall, situated right across from the school with only a road separating the two. The mall encompassed small shops and a food court that students frequented.
‘Hi, there,’ Jack declared from a distance. Mark quickened his pace and seated himself on the table Jack was sitting at.
‘So how is it going?’ Mark produced.
‘Those damn conspiracy theorists!’
‘What did they do this time?’ Mark asked.
‘They ejected me from the Gallviants’ book club. They couldn’t take my solid arguments. I really embarrassed one of them.’ Jack gave a sinister smile. ‘They are garbage,’ he then continued.
‘Well sometimes: They have a point. Like how this mall is built next to the school to keep kids away from schooling: They’re right, that’s a conspiracy.’ Mark articulated.
‘That’s nonsense. So what’s new in your world,’ Jack said with his strong voice showcasing his masculinity.
‘I must write a school essay on Quarts.’
‘Yeah, the high school popularity scale,’ Jack commented.
‘No, it’s more than this. It’s like the spirit of high school.’
‘But you told me that your cousin has so many Quarts mainly because he’s popular.’
‘Yeah, my cousin is a people’s magnet. But that’s the only reason. He is tough too.’
‘I see: you must be physically tough.’
‘That’s not all. Definitely the physical strength guarantees good Quarts’ standings, but other things compensate. Popularity can compensate. Money does too. Servitude to the Bigtimers can certainly also help. Unique talents can help also.’
‘But physical strength is the primer,’ Jack interrupted.
‘Correct,’ Mark enunciated. He then sighed. ‘Man, those Quarts are so hard to get but so easy to loose. You have to do something big to get them – like getting up there and friending the Bigtimers – like giving a lot of service to the Bigtimers. By saying service, I mean a lot of service – like fighting their fights – like landing massive punches so you’re the talk of the school – like kissing up to them all the time – like following their stupid instructions. But you can loose them in an instance. If you get caught reading books, your Quarts drop. If an embarrassing event encounters you, they get devastated. If you say something thoughtful then they get thrashed. You can loose them by just being seen next to a Low-quarts’
‘Let me get this straight: The Quarts are like a currency for buying power and influence in high school. Man if I were still in high school. I wouldn’t pay any attention to them,’ Jack said and shook his head.
‘So how is your work at the factory,’ Mark asked.
‘Dead-end job. That’s all. I used to get fired a lot for the stupidest reasons. Now they’re stuck with me because of the labor shortage. They got a lot of work orders,’ Jack said and then laughed out loud.
‘Well, I wouldn’t mind working in a factory one day. I meet factory workers all the time on the bus. They are very passionate when they talk. They’re not phony. I kind of like that.’ Jack disregarded Mark’s comments and straightened up his sitting posture. He then moved his massive right arm revealing a colored plastic bag.
‘What’s in the bag,’ Mark questioned.
‘Some books that I feel would benefit you greatly. Two of them, I wrote.’
‘Man, I thought we agreed that you won’t bring books to school,’ Mark whispered.
‘Come on man. Relax, it’s not a big deal.’
‘It’s a big deal. If I get seen with these books, my Quarts will get devastated. And not any books. These are non-school books; they’re like ticking bombs,’ Mark produced in a low tone.
Jack handed the bag to Mark. Mark in a hurry grabbed his school bag and quickly emptied the books from the plastic bag into his school bag all at once.
‘So one of the books is about FortReal,’ Jack said and then produced a pause with his right hand pointing forward. ‘To some, FortReal is the land of the victors, the land of opportunity, and the land of justice and prosperity. To others, it’s the land of misery and violence, the land of social injustice, and the land of the privileged. But from far away, FortReal is a jewel sparkling rays of hope and promising out-of-the-ordinary possibilities.’ Jack stopped his narration as he noted Mark’s lack of attention. ‘Enough of this- It is ok to be seen with books. I am not giving you drugs for God’s sake. What’s this world coming to?’ Jack broadcasted. Mark became more worried. Jack was having a fit, and could uncontrollably burst and become even louder. He had already emitted few sentences with the word ‘books’ lurking and dancing around them.
‘To eradicate the seed of knowledge is a horrendous thing; it is completely unforgivable,’ Jack continued to say.
‘So what’s the other book about,’ Mark said.
‘It’s about ideas and how they shape us. To live and die for an idea – that is so great – so transforming – so incredible. Ideas bring meaning to our lives.’
‘This sounds interesting.’ Mark said with bulging eyes.
‘But the FortReal book is also interesting. Idefy the theorists in it. You know how they say that the reason for only two free-toll bridges between the Northside and the Southside is to restrict movement of people.’
‘Yeah, I heard of that argument.’ Mark slouched.
‘Well there is a third tolled-bridge for those who can afford it – Southside’s businessmen and professionals. So it’s not a restriction to everyone: It’s restrictions to the poor immigrants that live in the Northside.’ Jack stopped. ‘Mark, are you with me?’ Jack investigated.
Mark continued to be occupied with the books and scanned the premises around him to make certain that no one was watching. Were the books visible from the plastic bag Jack carried, he thought? Maybe the bag wasn’t opaque enough, he then thought. Out of a sudden, he stood all at once and told Jack he had a class to catch. He didn’t look back at Jack as all his cognitive functions were completely occupied with the planning of the best route to take back to his locker. His brain started processing alternatives: most pupils don’t walk on the designated pedestrian crossing to cross the road but rather cross directly from the mall entrance to the school entrance, so he must take the pedestrian cross route. Then the Mission Impossible theme song swung into play in the background of the many brain processes that were also running. He walked towards the pedestrian crosswalk and started thinking about the remaining part of the route. People would definitely question why he was carrying his school bag; it’s not early morning, and it’s nowhere near the end of the school day, his brain processed. He must be more discrete, he resolved. He would circle the school and then enter through the back doors of the school and then take the hallway adjacent to the school library as it wouldn’t be frequented by students, he thought and then executed. But what worried him was the small hallway that led from the library to his locker; he thought he would sprint quickly through it and he certainly did.
At the mall, students sought food, leisure, and more importantly Quarts. The food court was located exactly on the lower level of the mall and directly close to the mall’s entrance. Common to FortReal, the food court harbored fast food eateries. Its seating arrangement was ordinary except for the big circular tables that rested in the middle of it. Ordinary square and slightly rectangular tables were arranged in rows and only interrupted in the middle by few big circular tables. There were three of them standing like victors – absolute eye-catchers. They were known to everyone as the ‘Bigtime tables’ and were reserved for the Bigtimers and their invites. The three tables were divided among the three prominent immigrant groups: the Gallviants, the Rallviants, and the Salldiants. The Locals, on the other hand, didn’t have a reserved table but managed to integrate themselves on one of the tables depending on the alliances of the day.
Mark sat on the prestigious table as Maximo was conversing with Carbon when out of a sudden he directed his gaze at Mark but addressed Momento. ‘I heard your cousin is hanging with a Rallviant.’ Momento was a bit thrown off by the question.
‘Is this true?’ Momento said – addressing Mark. Mark knew too well what Maximo was hinting at, and it was true.
‘We play video games together. We’re just video games buddies; that is all,’ Mark pleaded.
‘video games buddies!’ Maximo laughed out loud. Carbon and Drung exploded into laughter also. ‘Well find yourself another video games buddy,’ Maximo said with a sneer. ‘Get a load of this. video games buddy, he says,’ Maximo said in a mockery tone.
‘Oh Yeah,’ Carbon added.
‘Cousin, get rid of this video games buddy. Just cut it out. You should know better than to befriend a Rallviant,’ Momento said.
‘What’s wrong with you? We are at war with the Rallviants, and they are looking for any opportunity to stick-it to us. You know the Rallviants are on the look for any Gallviant to jump and you’re going around making friends with them,’ Maximo said with an air of assurance. ‘You know one of our boys got jumped yesterday by a Rallviant,’ Maximo enunciated to assure the significance of Mark’s treason.
‘Couldn’t you just get yourself a Gallviant video games buddy,’ Drung said with a sarcastic tune.
‘He lives right in my building,’ Mark replied.
‘Well get yourself a Gallviant video games buddy who lives in your building,’ Drung said in frustration.
‘You think everyone owns a video games console,’ Mark argued.
This was when Maximo exploded. He hated debates. ‘Shut up,’ he roared. Everyone paused and Mark froze. Mark was the only one on the table that debated and argued. At times he thought it was clever and at times he thought it was merely stupid. This time was the case of the latter.
‘Listen, cousin! The friendship with this Rallviant guy is for sure over,’ Momento said as to try to close the subject and calm Maximo down.
‘I’m telling you; they jumped one of us.’ Maximo reiterated to stress more significance.
‘How dare them jump one of our boys,’ Momento commented.
‘We will show them,’ Maximo thought out loud.
‘Cool,’ Carbon added.
‘I heard those damn Rallviants are stacking up some weapons,’ Drung said.
‘Damn them. We will show them,’ Maximo spat out.
‘Oh yeah,’ Carbon followed.
‘You better stop this friendship,’ Maximo returned to the original subject.
‘Yes, I will,’ Mark said. Mark usually, after few arguments, conceded to the Bigtimers’ directives but never really changed course; that is how he typically dealt with them, he appeased their demands verbally but ignored them internally. He ignored them until doing so would threaten his quarts’ standings. On this day, the directive had the backing of the heavyweight – Maximo himself – the guardian of the Quarts, which meant Mark’s friend just became an Ex-video games buddy. Mark swallowed Maximo’s comments and stood up to head out of the mall when Little Mickey appeared from near. He dispersed a delightful smile and greeted everyone on the table. ‘Hi, Mark. Hi everyone’, he said with a smile full of youth. Mark returned the greeting, and even the Bigtimers did too. Little Mickey’s delightful character was too sweet for even the Bigtimers to disregard.
‘Are you heading back to classes,’ Mark asked Little Mickey.
‘Yes, I am,’ Little Mickey answered as he was interrupted by Maximo.
‘Little Mickey, you know we are at war. I want to you to pay attention and let me know what those Rallviants are cooking for us.’ He then addressed everyone on the table, ‘Boys the big fight is coming. And boy are the Rallviants going to be surprised.’
‘Yes, they will,’ Little Mickey announced with his eyes growing wider. Little Mickey became completely conquered by Maximo’s words. Maximo’s words even if trivial were gold to Little Mickey.
‘Let’s get going,’ Mark said addressing Little Mickey. Little Mickey moved, only after he dispensed his goodbye and respect to Maximo.
‘Your T-shirt!’ Mark said as Little Mickey was zipping up his jacket.
‘What about it.’
‘Everything is Relative,’ Mark said reading out the writing sewed onto the T-shirt.
‘Yeah, the Janitor made it. He makes it himself and sells it for next to nothing.’
‘But do you know what it means,’ Mark questioned.
‘Who cares? The Janitor says a load of weird stuff.’ And with a quick pause Little Mickey switched subjects and said, ‘Man, I can’t believe it. Maximo spoke to me. He looked at me when he was talking about the big fight.’
‘It’s more like a war,’ Mark argued as they continued walking.
The war was most certainly real. It had consumed so much fuel in the last little while and was ready to explode. High schools all around the Northside have become the scene of daily incidents of attacks on individuals and groups. Especially at Knowledge High, the number of racial attacks soared making the overall atmosphere hostile. Any simple gesture translated into a slander or an insult and in turn sparked a fight. Everyone was on-watch, and everyone anticipated just about anything. High school was no place for systematic investigation and planning. One cannot use reasoning to deduce the likelihood of events. Everything is so fluid and turbulent. Action trails feelings very closely; there is no chance for cooling-off. Outside of high school, action sometimes is delayed and sometimes is even not carried out. In high school, the window of opportunity between motive and action is so small that it’s quite impossible to stop or pre-empt action. There was a fight to be had in every corner and hallway of Knowledge High; you just didn’t know which. It didn’t matter which side you were on, and it didn’t matter if you were the instigator or not. What mattered is that you happen to be in the wrong place and at the wrong time: Something you can’t do much about.
Mark sped to class passing through one of the school’s less frequented narrow hallways when he encountered the foreign student again who reiterated the same question to him. ‘Do you know where the knowledge class is?’ Mark said, ‘No’ as he gained speed again and sprinted around the corner into the main school hallway. The hallway was empty when Mark detected a sound coming from behind. Suddenly, he felt a hand knocking on his back, as to seek his attention, and as he turned around, he met a flying punch and another within just a few seconds. He kept standing after the first two punches but decided to tactically fall-down and protect himself from more punches. Suddenly, a sound of footsteps coming from a distance became apparent. The assailers ran away quickly while Mark remained on the ground.
The footsteps were those of the principal. He was notorious for his tireless patrols through the hallways to catch tardy student and class skippers. He spotted Mark on the ground and approached him. ‘What happened to you?’ the principal asked. As Mark lifted his head, the principal noted that he was hit. ‘What happened,’ he reiterated.
‘Just a small thing,’ Mark said and then stood up while the principal continued to interrogate him in an effort to extract more details.
He then said in frustration, ‘What the hell happened,’ as the janitor joined them.
‘What happened to your eye,’ the janitor also iterated. Mark realized that those minor punches had left a scar, which terrified him more than the whole affair altogether.
‘How many times I told you to pick up your mail. Your mailbox is full again,’ the principal said addressing the Janitor with fury.
‘I will, boss. Catch you guys later,’ the janitor replied with a beaming smile and a thumbs-up for the injured Mark.
‘What kind of school is this? Janitor gets more mail than the principal,’ the principal exclaimed in a tone that mixed mockery with discontent. ‘So aren’t you going to tell me what happened,’ the principal questioned Mark again.
‘It’s just a minor thing,’ Mark reaffirmed.
‘Get the hell out of my face. Go and see the nurse’, the principal said while gently pushing Mark away.
Mark hurried to the washroom to gauge how swollen his eye was. The punches didn’t leave a big mark but left a small mark nevertheless – a little bit of swelling. A little bit of irritation on his skin, but a load of irritation and stress on his mind rendering him perplexed. What if Maximo would know, he thought. He would raise hell and would have a barrage of questions ready to fire at Mark; mind you the many tasks, he would charge him with. Mark needed to be as discrete as possible, which meant leaving the premise quickly and avoid contact with any anybody. Everyone at Knowledge High was a walking–talking-informant of Maximo. Besides, news traveled quickly in Knowledge High, especially when it involved useful information for Maximo.
Then out of a sudden, an idea flashed: Maybe some ice would calm down the swelling. He marched to the nurse only to find that she was away; however, she assigned her duties to a volunteer student by the name of Jennifer. Mark recognized her from the bus – she rode the same bus to school as him. He didn’t have to explain to her what happened but rather pointed to his eye. She quickly observed his swollen eye and shouted, ‘You males and your stupid fights. Would you ever learn to stop? I guess, males will always be males,’ she said. ‘What do you get out of fighting anyways?’ she continued.
‘I didn’t start the fight,’ Mark stated in an attempt to redirect the attention to his swollen eye.
‘That is what they all say; I didn’t start the fight; it is not my fault. When will you ever stop,’ she said while tilting her head. Mark was quite surprised by how critical she was about fighting. In high school, no one cared about anything let alone stating an opinion about fighting – something that would render negative Quarts.
‘You know your eye isn’t swollen that bad,’ she said as she massaged the swollen area with a bag of ice. All that Mark captured of her phrase was the word, ‘swollen.’ He shivered instantly as the thought of Maximo, came back. She pressed the bag of ice harder on his eye ceasing the thoughts of Maximo and bringing new thoughts in. He felt that there was something lovely about her. He didn’t know what it was; it seemed buried deep inside of her. ‘What do you guys gain from fighting. Every day somebody comes here all beaten-up and for what? I don’t know why you males do this!’ She said picking up on the subject again. Mark didn’t understand why she used such terms as ‘you males,’ but saw no reason to investigate; instead, he was much more occupied with studying her – she seemed to hide more than the eye can meet. He tried not to be noticeable, but she noticed. He had seen her many times before on the bus, but she never merited his interest or curiosity then. ‘Keep pressing this bag of ice firmly on your eye,’ she said as a breeze of silence settled, and a connection followed between them.
She had done everything needed to be done, and logically he should’ve headed to the door, but he remained. He explored her calm and spotted a reserved but lethal beauty which wasn’t very evident at first sight. Her beauty didn’t strike the eye but hid with occasional revelations to those who are mindful to sense them. Suddenly, the nurse returned. Quickly, the breeze of silence expired, and the anxiety about his swollen eye returned.
‘Is he ok?’ The nurse said addressing Jennifer.
‘It’s just swollen a bit,’ Jennifer responded.
‘Would it be gone by tomorrow,’ Mark said with purpose.
The nurse observed his eye more closely and said, ‘Yeah it shouldn’t be noticeable by tomorrow.’ He smiled: What she just said made his day.
‘Thank you very much,’ he said as he stood up to leave.
‘Keep out of trouble,’ Jennifer said with a smile that timidly revealed a sign of approval.
Mark hurried out as not to be spotted by anyone but then remembered the janitor. The janitor has a big mouth and surely he will tell and surely, surely, Maximo would know. He must go and see the janitor. Processes in his brain exploded in calculating all possible routes and filtering out routes that would not be frequented by students at this time. At each corner on the way, he peaked his head out and scanned the scene and only marched when the way was clear.
He arrived at the janitor’s room. The door was halfway open. He marched right in. ‘Hello there,’ the Janitor said. Mark closed the door behind him. ‘Man, please don’t tell anyone about what happened,’ Mark pleaded.
The Janitor gave a look of disagreement. ‘I’m a spontaneous guy. I say whatever is on my mind. I don’t want to be watching myself over what to say and what not to say. This sort of thing constrains me. I don’t like it,’ the Janitor said.
‘If you tell anyone, Maximo would know.’
‘So what,’ the janitor interrupted.
Mark exploded. ‘It’s just a small punch. I didn’t even feel it. I went down on the ground just to protect myself. The principal came in time, and that was the end of it. It’s just a minor thing. Maximo is going to blow it out of proportion. He’s probably going to shower me with questions. Then probably he is going to ask me to do tons of stupid things,’ Mark said with a voice stressing the gravity of the situation.
‘But still, you are asking me to do something so unnatural to me.’
‘Please man. Think of it as a favor.’ The Janitor exhaled air slowly but loudly.
‘I tell you what if you buy a T-shirt from me; then I can do you the favor.’
‘Ok,’ Mark rushed to say.
‘But I choose which T-shirt.’
‘Fine,’ Mark affirmed. The janitor opened his desk’s drawer and searched through the neatly filed T-shirts.
‘I choose this one,’ he said as he handed it to Mark.
‘Face your problems. Otherwise, the universe will keep bringing them up,’ Mark read out. ‘Man you want me to feel guilty about what I’m doing.’
‘I have another one about guilt.’
‘No, that’s fine. This one will do,’ Mark intercepted.
‘That would be a dollar.’
‘Man, that’s so cheap. How you make money out of this.’
‘Don’t worry about me. I’m going to make a lot of money out of this,’ the janitor said with a casual smile. ‘Well good luck,’ Mark said as he handed the janitor the money and instantly walked out.
He quickly hurried out of the school but was caught in the hallway by Little Mickey who didn’t at first notice Mark’s swollen eye but Mark’s preoccupation with hiding his eye spilled out the beans. ‘Mark what happened,’ he investigated.
‘Hush, don’t tell anyone,’ Mark calmly said.
‘Did you get jumped,’ Little Mickey asked.
‘Yes I did, but I don’t want anyone to know.’
‘Why not? You should let Maximo know. He will get them back’, Little Mickey said.
‘I don’t want anyone to know.’
‘You should let Maximo know.’
‘Maximo is just an idiot. You think too much of him. Are you one of his soldiers now’, Mark said violently.
‘Maximo cares for all of us. He cares for our pride. Our pride,’ Little Mickey repeated with an air of maturity.
‘I cannot speak to you for too long, but do not and I mean do not tell anyone,’ Mark said as he placed both his hands against Little Mickey’s forearms and held him firmly and stared into his eyes. His firm hold seemed to assert the age difference, something he would rather not assert.
He then walked at a quick pace. He understood that the longer he stood with Little Mickey, the greater the possibility of someone seeing him. He ran and took delicate care to use non-frequented hallways. He relied less on his brain this time. When he reached the outside, he decided to take a different route to the bus terminal. He usually walked on the sidewalk and continued directly towards the bus stop; this time, he exited the school from the back doors, walked past the tennis court and then crossed the football field to converge on the other side of the bus terminal. At the bus terminal, he exerted more effort to conceal his swollen eye and sat on one of the benches. The bus terminal was empty as no student left home at this time; but nevertheless, Mark took his precautions. Time was ticking excruciatingly slow, but his was delighted that no one showed up until a girl came from a distance. Mark quickly abandoned the bench and hid behind one of the few trees that were at the peripherals of the bus terminal.
The universe seemed to be doing all sort of weird things to him on this day: That girl was Jennifer. He went back to the bench and sat casually. Surprisingly, he became quite anxious and hardly at ease. It felt quite awkward for him to go and speak to her. He remained sitting on the bench while she looked time and time again at her watch. He thought, once she rode the bus it would become easier for him to approach her. The bus arrived.
She walked towards the bus. Right away, He stood up, walked, and then quickened his pace to be within a close distance of her. Regardless of the sense of awkwardness that possessed him, he wanted her to notice him behind her. She climbed to ride the bus, and he was right behind her. She stalled a little as she wasn’t able to locate her bus pass. He knew that it was only a matter of time till she would realize that he was behind her. She didn’t look back and continued walking towards the seats. But as soon as she took a seat, their eyes met. ‘It is you again,’ she said.
‘Yeah it is me.’
‘Is your eye doing better now?’
‘Well, I can’t see my eye, but you can see it. So you tell me: Is it better?’ he said as he was standing opposite of her but still not seated.
‘Yeah, I guess it is better,’ she said while showing disregard to his statement. There was something special about her, Mark thought again. She possessed an enormous amount of power, he thought.
‘Can I sit,’ he asked.
‘Sure,’ she replied.
‘So you took the early bus today,’ he questioned.
‘I have a cooking class. And a cooking class could use one less woman. Let the men attend?’ She chuckled. ‘So you don’t seem like the fighting type,’ she said as she was making more space for him. Her strength of character seemed to have dwindled down this time.
‘You are right. I don’t like fighting,’ he said to affirm her understanding.
‘You know I’ve seen you sitting on the Bigtime table before. But you don’t seem to be a Bigtimer at all.’
‘Well, the Bigtimers are my support. I mean they help me out. They offer me protection. You know how important protection is – around here.’ As he repeated the word ‘protection’ she couldn’t help but observe his swollen eye.
‘Well, the Bigtimers are scumbags with no real use to anybody.’
‘Wow, you’re so open about your opinions. Aren’t you worried to lose Quarts?’
‘I don’t care for Quarts or anything else – males invent.’ She paused for a moment and then said, ‘have you ever gone on the second floor of the mall.’ Mark affirmed in agreement. ‘How many of the stores are for men and how many are for women.’
‘I don’t know, but I suppose there are more stores for women.’
‘Many more actually; there’s so much pressure on women to dress nice, to look good, and to not be themselves. See…’ she said as she paused.
‘My name is Mark’ he said.
‘Mine is Jennifer. See Mark the Quarts are enforcers of men dominance. That’s why I don’t care for the Quarts, and that’s how it is!’ Mark was thrown off by how quickly she went from ‘hi’ to deep subjects that he was hardly versed in. He was interested, but not quite interested, in subjects like these. He was ready to listen more, but she fell into silence. The images of FortReal’s monuments, factories, and buildings seeping through the window seemed to deviate her away from further elaboration.
Nature was quite absent from the panorama of images with exception of trees that were old and stubborn to be taken down. Few patches of greenery seemed to be swallowed by buildings and factories. It was early autumn, and the leaves were starting to carpet the sidewalks. The volume of leaves was less than usual this time of the year as it was an unusually mild for this time of the year. As they continued to observe the outside, one monument stood out remarkably as always. It was the famous FortReal Grey Wall. It was the remnant of an old building that withstood the major tornado. The tornado ravaged the city and it only spared this wall. ‘What you think of the wall,’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. Brave, I guess,’ he uttered.
‘It’s neatly standing there. So different than anything else but still standing there so casually,’ she commented. ‘But you are right, it is brave,’ she concluded. She looked at him with a peaceful gesture while he looked at her with delight. Their eyes met and settled for a brief moment. This bus ride was a promising beginning for the both of them.
The bus continued to roll forward gulping up all the non-uniformities in the road. The constant agitation of the bus was a nuance to the calm between them. Mark was alarmed suddenly by the milk factory which was one stop after his. ‘I missed my stop. I have to take the next one,’ he said. He knew he would see her again and she knew that as well. He stood up all at once and with ease said, ‘catch you later.’ He hurried towards the door where he descended and walked towards his apartment building. The walk to home was delightful with the surrounding becoming more vibrant than usual. The weather was nice, but even if it weren’t, the walk would’ve been just as pleasant, he thought. Many thoughts had usually crowded his head during his daily walks – thoughts about his mother – about their financial being – about the Bigtimers – about the Quarts – about other living discomforts in the Northside. But all these thoughts stopped crowding his brain this time or actually made space for more positive thoughts. It was the case until he reached the bottom of his building where Mr. Wilson greeted him with the most insincere of greetings. Mr. Wilson was the owner of the building and was a Local. Like most Local proprietors, he spent his days cursing the moment he decided to own property in the Northside. Mr. Wilson also sat on the Northside Development Committee where he made his opinions heard about the backwardness of Northsiders and the hopelessness of any development in the Northside. He sat on that committee for the sake of diffusing its purpose. Post to the insincere greeting, Mr. Wilson looked at Mark and said mockingly, ‘well, well, it’s Mark, Margaret’s biggest hope. Why don’t you stop going school and start working? Maybe then you can help your mom pay the rent. You guys have been behind on payments for three months now. I am sick of dealing with you people.’ Mark found no response but the usual one, ‘you will get your money soon sir,’ and sped away. He quickly climbed the stairs with a thrust and a relief of getting away from Mr. Wilson.
He entered his flat and went straight to the kitchen and spoke to his mom without any greeting. ‘Mother, how come you didn’t pay the rent. Mr. Wilson just gave me a fit over it.’
‘You don’t worry about it, Mark. Just worry about your school sweetie.’
‘How can I not worry when Mr. Wilson is asking for his money,’ he exclaimed.
‘I said: don’t worry about it, Mark. Worry about crossing the bridge,’ she said as she wore an angry look on her face. Mark took a deep breath in and thought to himself, ‘I just don’t want to ruin this day.’ He headed to his room and ended the discourse inconclusively as had always been the case to all their conversations.
While Momento and Mark were sitting at the Bigtime table, Maximo approached them with an air of rage. He addressed Mark with a controlled but promising anger, ‘what’s up with the eye?’ He, spoke with deliberateness that deemed Mark’s answer, whatever it was, not important, and repeated, ‘what’s up with the eye?’
Mark stood up and produced few words, ‘Nothing, just a clumsy fall on the stairs; something very minor.’ Maximo ignored Mark’s answer and tried again ‘I said what’s up with the eye?’
‘Just a stupid fall; that’s all.’
Maximo contracted his lips and maintained his eyes focused on Mark’s eyes driving fear into them. ‘Is that all you got to say,’ Maximo said.
‘Just a clumsy fall.’
Maximo drew air in and with a calmer tone said, ‘one last time, what happened.’ Maximo loved prolonging the torment he inflicted on people, and this was no exception. He was enjoying every moment of it as it quenched his sadistic inclinations.
Mark didn’t respond. Maximo advanced his head, like a cobra on the verge of releasing venom, and screamed out, ‘Maldeev told me that his boys jumped you yesterday. He was rubbing it in.’ Momento, at that point, stood up and positioned himself between the two.
‘It wasn’t a big deal; nothing to get worried about,’ Mark said in awe. Maximo maintained his focused stare directly at Mark pushing more terror. Momento tried to diffuse the situation by padding the shoulder of Maximo, but Maximo remained tense.
‘Do you like getting beat up,’ Maximo said, over pronouncing the B’s and T’s while irritatingly rubbing his palms against each other. Then, he reiterated at a louder tone, ‘Do you like getting beat up. Do you enjoy getting beat up!’
Maximo mastered the art of building up to terror and awe, and this was no exception. ‘Do you like getting beaten up? Are you a wimp?’ Maximo continued to build the pressure on Mark. Mark was quite exhausted and didn’t utter a word. ‘Listen, I don’t want a wimp sitting on this table,’ he exclaimed while softly biting his lower lip. Mark still didn’t speak at all, but Maximo’s new escalation rendered him thinking about the Quarts. The situation had spiraled out of control, and the Quarts have become at stake.
‘No. No. No. No. No wimp is going to be sitting here; no way,’ Maximo roared. He then looked at Mark with bulging eyes and said, ‘you go to the Rallviant table, and you beat one of them up like they did to you or I don’t want to see your face on this table ever again.’ Maximo’s threats were merited. The Bigtime table was at stake: the tree, which supplied him with ripe Quarts all-year-long was up in flames. This was one of those moments in Mark’s life where he didn’t think or contemplate. The Quarts were in full control of him; they guided him and freed him from thinking. He stood up and launched himself towards the Rallviant’s table. Maximo signaled to Drung to go and fetch him. Drung, with a quick pace, followed Mark and got hold of him in time and brought him back to the Gallviant table. Maximo did not think Mark had it in him. Even Mark didn’t think he had it in him either, but the Quarts propelled what would have seemed impossible otherwise. The Bigtime table was Mark’s only cash crop; it was his food basket. Without the table, he would have been stripped from his Quarts and left for the Knowledge High stray dogs to have a round or two at him.
‘Mark, let’s attend chemistry class today,’ Momento said addressing Mark. He rarely attended chemistry class, but it was a pretext as to close the curtains on this piece of drama. Maximo looked at Mark quickly and said with vigor, ‘I’m watching you, Mark. You better not slip again.’ ‘Let’s get going; let’s go,’ Mark responded to Momento. Both of them stood up and escaped the thick air surrounding the Bigtime table. They walked without one of them uttering a word. A kid passed by them and yelled, ‘Momento, the mac man. What is up.’ ‘It’s happening,’ Momento said while producing a joyful smile.
‘Thank God, it’s over with,’ Mark said with relief.
Momento went on the attack. ‘What’s wrong with you – cousin. You knew this would piss Maximo off. Are you crazy?’ Momento stopped as he noted someone he knew sitting with a group of people. ‘Just a minute cousin.’ Mark stopped and looked from a distance. The table that Momento approached went from quiet and dull to fully animated and bubbly. Momento’s loud laughter orchestrated the others to do the same. Within few minutes, they seemed inseparable from him. He then waved bye to them and rejoined Mark.
‘Where was I? Oh yeah. Bro, the other day, Drung heard from somebody that you’re going around calling Maximo names. You called him an idiot. Man, that’s suicidal. Why would you do that,’ Momento addressed Mark. He then continued talking but at a lower tone, ‘I hate Maximo too. But what can you do: It is what it is. Bro, you are the only one who argues back at Maximo. People would love to be in your position,’ he then sighed. ‘Maximo is not such a bad guy. He helps me out a lot and helps others.
‘But you bring him so much connections,’ Mark rebounded.
‘Enough of this Mark. Please try to avoid these situations. You gain nothing from them,’ he said now with a flushed face.
‘No buts. This is deadly. Maximo will crush you. You can’t stay on this course. Coz, remember when we were kids.’
‘We used to wrestle but you managed to beat me sometimes even though I’m stronger than you. You beat me because you are so stubborn – you never give up. Don’t be that person with Maximo,’ Momento said while shaking his fist.
Mark nodded his head in agreement; he sincerely did not ever want to be in a confrontation of this scale with Maximo.
In chemistry class, it was common to segment class time into lecturing and experimental work. The lecturing part, for some students who cared, meant copying the information from the blackboard. For others, it was a sleeping session. The practical work segment brought noise and harassment to Low-quarts. Naturally, harassment was served to Spider who was a Low-quarts. He was quite smart. Some would say he was the brightest in Knowledge High and had a peculiarity that was deadly. He was slightly overweight with long over reaching arms and legs. His arms and legs were thin and completely non-proportional to the trunk of his body and hence the nickname – Spider stuck. However, most of the harassment came his way because of his exceptional intelligence. He couldn’t but answer teacher’s questions quickly and profoundly. Simply, Spider was just too intelligent to hide his intelligence. He once synthesized why Low-quarts’ boys end up with no girlfriends. In an essay, he wrote: “so why are there no girls for the Low-quarts’ boys? Theoretically, there should be as many Low-quarts’ girls as boys. Same quarts’ rules apply to both sexes but why there aren’t enough Low-quarts girls for their counterparts. Indeed, there are as many Low-quarts girls as there are boys, but the malfunction occurs at the higher level of the quarts’ scale. The Bigtimers on average have more than one girlfriend, and that shifts the supply curve and leaves boys in the middle of the quarts’ scale competing for Low-quarts girls leaving Low-quarts boys with no girls.”
Spider understood well that negative quarts kept tallying up even if you are at down-bottom. However, he couldn’t but express himself freely, and that was his sin. Spider’s continuing episodes of thoughtful thinking brought him more harassment, more negative quarts, and further dug himself in the hole. The chemistry teacher only exacerbated the situation by assigning Spider the role of Teacher Assistant; this assignment brought him into continuous contact with the pupils where he was harassed periodically. Mark stayed away from harassing Spider as long as it didn’t affect his quarts. Instances when Spider really slipped and done clumsy acts or made intelligent comments, the class as a whole mocked him and laughter ignited: Mark could not afford to be, out of sync, out of the crowd, and risk losing quarts so he joined the carnage.
This time, the mockery was more intense, given the presence of Momento who can sanction quarts on the go: The presence of a Bigtimer rendered everyone active and ready for quart picking. Especially, the rising quarts who were always ready to show off their feathers given a chance presented itself. One of the rising quarts, or the Risers as they were known, Mario, snatched Spider’s school bag and started throwing the objects inside of it, one after another, while the chemistry teacher shouted, from his comfortable desk, ‘stop that,’ and resumed the work of marking papers. Then, Spider’s portable chess board, hidden well into one of the inside pockets of the bag, got thrown. The chess pieces dispersed in the air and landed in countless of locations. Some of them seeped between the wall and the back of closets that housed chemistry sets; some fell into the washing sink; one fell back inside his bag; one fell inside a funnel, and some fell on the ground. Spider ran out of the class while the students laughed fiercely mocking his hurried run (when you are a Low-quarts, even the most basic of gestures can bring about mockery). Momento looked at Mark and said, ‘see this why I don’t like attending classes.’ All of a sudden, the intercom sounded calling for Mark to go and see the school counselor. All the kids were surprised. They all thought Mario would be called as he was the chief instigator. Mark didn’t question: such things were quarts’ catchers. He left class and headed to Ryan’s office.
In the office, Mark entered to find Spider sitting on one of the chairs in front of Ryan’s desk. ‘Where’s Ryan,’ Mark asked.
‘The janitor came bye and asked to speak to him privately. He should be back soon,’ Spider replied.
‘Man, what happened was horrible. They’re jerks.’
‘Man I don’t mind the Bigtimers so much. You can easily avoid them but the Risers – they’re a nightmare – they’re everywhere. They are always looking to snatch Quarts. They’re so horrible.’
‘You don’t. You are a Quasi – that’s like the next best thing to being a Bigtimer.’
‘But my situation is always iffy. If it weren’t for my cousin, I would’ve never dreamed of that.’
Ryan returned to the office. ‘Spider, you can get back to class. I’ll see what I can do.’ As soon as Spider left, the first words that came out of Ryan’s mouth, ‘I trust in you Mark that you can do something to help Abby.’ Mark shrugged his shoulders.
‘I mean Spider. For God sake, I can’t even use his real name,’ he said in frustration. ‘Spider is having suicidal thoughts; he needs help. You must help him,’ Ryan pleaded. ‘I asked you before, but this time, I’m urging you. He is starting to rationalize the irrational,’ Ryan concluded. Mark knew well the trade-off to be had: one between the Quarts and doing the right thing. What should he do: help and defy the magnificent power of the Quarts? Or do nothing and be prepared for a long guilt trip sponsored by Ryan. He should do the right thing: help Spider – do what even the good old Gallviant traditions say. But then, the Quarts just won’t forgive. Ryan left him with a tough task.
Ryan, who was a volunteer working as a counselor at Knowledge High, took an oath long ago to help high school students; an oath, which he religiously enforced. He fathered so many high school kids through the toughest periods of their lives. He experienced calamities of great magnitude but remained faithful to helping kids. Ryan was probably one of the few Gallviants that lived in the Northside by choice. He held many well-paid jobs in the Southside but decided, by choice, to live in the Northside, and worked as a volunteer at Knowledge High. Whenever he ran short money, he headed to the Southside and worked small jobs to earn some money. He had a peculiar gift of being able to make money quickly. Time and time again, he would disappear for few months and then come back with money. Money was important to him because it allowed him to volunteer at Knowledge High, which was his real raison d’etre.
The fall continued to delay the cold in an obvious way. It was mid fall but seemed like late summer. Bus rides to and from school were lightened with the presence of Jennifer. One time, looking out of the window, she commented on a hair salon that was on the main road. ‘I can’t stand hair salons,’ she said. ‘Women have to look good, so men are happy even if it means they have to dye their hair – twist their hair – or even fry their hair.’ On another day, she commented on a department store with pink dresses showcasing in the display. ‘I hate the color pink,’ she said. ‘Honestly, who said pink is a feminine color. Who makes these rules? If I had my way, I would get rid of the color, pink altogether. Just get rid of it’. Mark was quite indifferent about her stands. There were the times where he can parallel them to those he read about in Jack’s books but they never really merited great interest in him.
While the bus rides continued to warrant pleasant times for Mark, Mr. Wilson continued to shower Mark with insults as soon as he was to enter his building. Mark became quite aware of his mother lax attitude towards paying the rent. Slipping on rent payments was no longer a mishap but an epidemic. Margret had a more important priority: The priority of beautifying her flat at the expense of rent. Mr. Wilson’s building was old and hardly maintained, however, Margret begged to differ. She worked in a boutique part time and did other assorted jobs to survive. However, she wanted the interior of her flat to tell a different story. She put her time, money and effort to improve the interior look of the apartment and give it a posher feel. She repeatedly instructed Mark to keep things in good shape and purchased chic items and placed them intelligently in the apartment.
The more pressure Mark put on her to take rent payments more seriously, the more she seemed to grow immune to the problem. What mattered more to her was to maintain the image of being rich. Her parents were part of, the merchants and land/property owners’ class, the elites, in the old country. However, post-colonization reversed most of their fortunes as the elites got stripped away from their ownerships through nationalization – so a new elite can form. But as far as Margaret was concerned, the degradation of her family’s social status was elusive. She forfeited the rent payments for upscale home accessories. One time, things really got heated between her and Mark. He entered the flat and was shocked to see a brand new sofa in the living room. ‘You’ve bought a sofa. You could’ve paid the rent with that money,’ he exclaimed. ‘Don’t worry about it, Mark. Worry about crossing the bridge’.
‘You go and buy a sofa so we can pretend we’re rich while the owner is waiting for his money,’ he yelled out. Nothing hurt Margret more profoundly than a statement of such. She articulated with a sequence of words that started in a fury and ended in calm,
‘Mark, we are rich. Your grand pa was the richest of the rich. It is only a matter of time, and you will graduate, cross the bridge, and go to university. We will be with the people we are meant to be with.’
‘Ok forget it, mom. Just forget it,’ he said as he clasped his head between his hands. She managed to get hold of his hand after few failed attempts.
‘Mark, I have a lot of hope in you. You must concentrate on school. Be careful of not slacking off. We can’t afford it, Mark. We just can’t. You know I am reading more and more about the university across the river, right in the Southside; oh how gorgeous it is. I hear from our neighbor that university graduates make big money’. She took a pause and then looked at Mark with intensity, ‘Mark, try harder. Do it for mom. Cross the bridge. If not for me, do it for your daddy. Oh, how proud he would’ve been to see you graduating from university and living in the Southside.’ She paused as the mention of his father, always brought brief periods of silence.
‘Are you still friends with that Little Mickey,’ she picked a different subject that merited just as much controversy as the previous. Mark didn’t respond. She despised his friendship with Little Mickey. It wasn’t only the age gap between the two that did it for her, but it had more to do with Little Mickey’s family. Little Mickey’s family was awfully poor and what concerned Margaret more deeply was his family’s casual contentment with poverty. Little Mickey’s family knew very well where they fit in the Northside class structure. They were near the bottom. Alternatively, Margret saw herself indispensable to the upper class whether in reference to the standard of the Northside, the Southside or the old country. The mere thought of being remotely judged to be at the bottom of the structure, even if temporarily, made her loose her mind. Margaret couldn’t apprehend or come to terms with the submissive attitude Little Mickey’s family had about poverty. They accepted it and that stroke her as a denial of logic and a reversal of sanity.
‘You need to look after yourself,’ she exclaimed with a lot of heaviness in her facial expression to express the gravity of her statement. ‘You shouldn’t be wasting time with Little Mickey. Concentrate on your studying. That is the only thing that should matter to you.’ Mark silently listened as he knew by experience that responding would only prolong the monolog. To his fortune she then paused and looked away; he quietly headed towards the door and was claimed by a state of virtual festivity (a state he always attained when he successfully escaped his mother’s monologs).
He neatly pulled the door behind him while hearing the first words of a new sentence: ‘are you going to see…’ He went down the stairs to Little Mickey’s apartment where his few shy knocks were cut short by Little Mickey’s hastiness. ‘Hey, Mark. I haven’t seen you at school today,’ Little Mickey said as he moved away from his apartment leading Mark to do the same. ‘Were you sitting at the Bigtime table?’ he asked while walking. ‘Yes’, Mark responded. It was no secret to Mark that Little Mickey envied Mark’s accessibility to the table and wished to have the same privilege. Little Mickey was two years younger than Mark. He was shorter and smaller than kids his age while Mark was taller and bulkier than kids his age, which made their age difference much more pronounced.
Both of them made it to the bottom of the building and exited the building by the back door. It was a bit of a hangout for the two of them. ‘You know a major fight is going to happen soon. All the kids from neighboring school are going to come. I am sure you heard that on the table,’ Little Mickey enunciated. Mark carelessly nodded. ‘Maximo said it would be decisive. I would love to participate. Man imagine all the Quarts I would get,’ Little Mickey broadcasted. All of a sudden, Brute dashed by the two of them and jerked Mark’s hand. ‘Run, run,’ he said extravagantly with an over-pronounced joy. Both Mark and Little Mickey ran.
‘What are you running from?’ Mark demanded as he was keeping pace with Brute.
‘Just run, runnnnnn…,’ Brute broadcasted.
‘What a chase. What a chase,’ Brute exclaimed with an unbounded excitement. He sped faster. Mark sped while Little Mickey inched behind them. ‘What are we running from,’ Mark asserted while grasping for air. ‘Man, just run, don’t think. What an awesome chase.’
‘What chase?’ Mark said with a broken tone bolstered by his quickened breathing. Brute didn’t respond and decelerated.
‘Slow down, let’s make it more interesting,’ Brute announced with a joyful and playful aura. Mark looked back to see how far back Little Mickey were. This was when he spotted a massive of a man running towards them. Little Mickey must have also seen him as his pace suddenly quickened.
‘Bro, what the hell did you do,’ Mark spat out. Brute decelerated even further. ‘Don’t slow down,’ Mark screamed out.
‘Chill man. Slow down. Let’s make it more interesting,’ Brute declared with an adventurous spirit. Mark looked back, avoiding the man’s field of vision to locate where Little Mickey was. He was inches behind. Mark swung his arm back to capture Little Mickey’s hand. He pulled him with all his might.
‘Why is the man following you? What have you done,’ Mark said with a broken tone accompanied by hastened breathing.
‘I broke his car window,’ Brute carelessly said.
‘Oh my God, we’re dead meat,’ Mark over pronounced. Mark sped and got ahead of Brute. Brute decelerated again but this time grabbed Mark’s jacket to slow him down forcefully.
‘What a chase,’ Brute reiterated. Mark’s body became entangled by two forces: one force exerted a strong pull to keep Little Mickey aboard on the right side, and a counter force, exerted by Brute, pulled him from the left and almost torqued his body. It was a miracle that the three of them were moving and not subduing to the actual forces acting on them, including gravity. Mark looked back to see how far the man was from them. The man was near and very animated. His massive face spat out anger, and his expressions resembled a man on the verge of revenge. Adding fuel to the fire, he was carrying a crowbar. Mark’s knees shivered – the image of the man’s steaming face combined with the lethal weapon in his hand just couldn’t be phased out of his brain. Fear erupted in his every organ. Mark’s run-for-your-life state found more support with an additional dose of adrenaline. The sheer sum of anger accumulating in the man’s face projected itself again and again as he was helplessly running while resisting the forces acting upon him. He looked back at the man and saw the tremors of death clear and present.
‘What a chase. What a great chase,’ Brute reiterated. Unlike the two tormented souls to the right of him, he was quite unmoved by the mortal danger awaiting them. Mark gathered every bit of power remaining in him and accelerated pulling Little Mickey and countering Brute’s pull on him. His knees were utterly exhausted; his legs were totally out of fuel; he was merely running on his parasympathetic system. Regardless of this, he collected all his strength and pushed ahead. This is when Brute suddenly let go of Mark, and instantly Mark summed with Little Mickey launched ahead resembling a shuttle upon take-off. They spectacularly paced ahead of Brute covering so much distance in so little time. They ran for their lives. They didn’t look back. In any case, the image of the man lingered in their heads. They kept running ahead even though they no longer heard the footsteps of Brute.
Mark spotted an adjacent alley to the left. He took a sharp left while pulling Little Mickey. Mark collapsed on the ground taking Little Mickey with him. They looked to the right Hoping Brute wouldn’t spot them. It took a little while. But when Brute appeared, he didn’t spot the alley or did the man trailing him closely. Mark and Little Mickey exhaled for relief. ‘I thought I was going to die,’ Mark said while catching his breath. ‘Me too,’ Little Mickey agreed.