“You crossed the line.”
“Bullfrog, I did!”
Tell squatted down to get a better look at the sandy footprint,
the mounded edge of which was, sure enough, on the right side of the court. The storm had passed, leaving the yard drenched. The red-tiled rooftops were slick with cold rain and gleamed beneath the steel-grey sky. Thunder rumbled in the distance but not one of the boys paid attention. All eyes were on William Teller who stood up and wiped his hands.
For the past several weeks, the team on the right side of the court had been winning at dodge ball. This was the first time Tell’s team had a fighting chance. Beyond the yard beneath the covered passageway that connected the east and west side of school, the proctor silently stood watching them, his dark eyes steadied on the game. Tell stuck out his right hand.
“Bullfrog,” James shouted again. “How’s that fair when you have the ref on your team?”
“Shut your trap, Alexander,” Jules volleyed, calling him by his first name. “You’re winning eight to zero on his calls. I’d say that’s pretty fair, ain’t it? Anyway, it’s Tell we’re talking about, you doofus. He calls them square.”
It was true. Much to the chagrin of his team, Tell arbitrated every game because no one trusted anyone else to do it. James slammed the ball down on the court, muttering to Gurley who had managed to remain in the game by hanging back and waiting while the latter pelted every last one of Tell’s teammates. That is, except for Ernie who now stood apprehensively looking around. His nose was bleeding—not from injury but from anxiety—and he wiped it, unaware of the blood smeared across his face. Pushing his dirty blonde hair back from his forehead, Tell smoothed over the footprint with the bottom of his brown oxford shoe as Jules put his arm over Ernie’s shoulder. He pulled him down and drew a rectangle in the wet sand, dividing it in half with his thumb.
“The only reason they’re winning is because of James, alright?
He’s always the last one standing. He’s big but he’s not as fast as you.”
“What do you mean? I’m not that fast.”
“Ain’t what I said. I said you’re faster, and that’s all that counts. Look,” Jules pointed to the rectangle in the sand, his arm still hooked around Ernie’s neck. “Gurley ain’t gonna move so it’s us against James. You got it? Run as fast as you can to get that ball and I’ll do the same for the other. You strike first and if you miss, I’ll go for the blow. We’ll finish Gurley after we’re done with James. Deal?”
Ernie nodded his head vigorously. They jumped up and broke apart when James raised his hand and called timeout.
“We demand a new referee.”
Jules threw up his hands and groaned.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“But I called that play fair,” Tell protested. He looked at Jules who spun around, rolling his eyes then back at James. “Your footprint was on our side of the court.”
“It’s alright,” Jules stepped forward. “I’ll ref. You play this round.”
He clapped Tell on the back and took his place on the sideline. Tell shot a bitter look at James.
“But it’s not fair. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Look,” Jules lowered his voice, “as your only friend just take my advice. James has been making your life miserable ever since he got here. Just do what he says.”
“Why should we?” asked Tell.
“Remember what he did last week?” Jules retorted.
Tell shrugged. “Yeah.”
“And the week before that?”
“And what about the first week he arrived? You remember that?”
Crossing his arms across his chest, Tell waited for Jules to get to the point. “So?”
“Unless you want him to put an entire pepper packet down your nose or freeze your underwear and socks again, I suggest you just do what he says.”
Tell looked warily at the bloody-faced Ernie and sighed. He preferred refereeing to playing but Jules was right. James had been making his life miserable the past few weeks. Plus, as his only friend, Tell didn’t want to give Jules a reason to dislike him, either.
Tell shook his head and made his way onto the court as James and Gurley took their places. Bending forward, he put hishands on his knees as the other boys on his team cheered Ernie on encouragingly. To be overlooked for the worst player on the team was a bad sign. He glanced across the court at James who pawed the sand, a nasty grin plastered across his face.
Taking his place, Jules put two fingers to his mouth. Looking at each team, he nodded then whistled the signal but James had already made his start.
Tell sprinted as hard as he could toward the chalk line, watching out of the corner of his eye as Ernie did the same. Bending down to grab the ball, he felt his face explode and seconds later a cheer erupted from the other side of the court. His ears throbbing, he rolled over in the sand and pushed himself to his feet, wiping the sand from his eyes to see James being lifted into the air by his team, pumping his arms and whooping. Someone tugged on his arm and he turned to see a red-faced Jules.
“He kicked you in the face—that’s a rematch!”
Tell shrugged him off and looked over his shoulder to see Ernie sitting on the ground, his arms hanging over his knees. Heshook his head.
“You kicked me in the face,” Tell mumbled, tasting blood in his mouth.
James pushed away his teammates and glared at Tell.
“Your face got in the way of my foot.”
“It’s a foul,” cut in Jules. “That’s an automatic rematch.” James crossed the court, his lanky form towering gawkily over them.
“You’re dumber than you look. Even if I kicked you, we were gonna win anyway. You lost zero to nine. That’s zilch, nothing. Kind of like what you are—nothing. Only an idiot would let their team lose if he was the ref.”
Tell’s face contorted in resentment.
“Only a cheater would kick someone in the face just to win.” James laughed and returned to his team. Tell balled his fists,
his ears still throbbing when a bell chimed and the boys broke into small groups, rushing toward the proctor who waited at the west entrance. Tell grabbed his navy pea coat from the sideline and sat down, his back turned to the proctor who watched him carefully. A nun appeared at the proctor’s side as he waved the boys past two by two into the school. Following his gaze, she sighed.
“You’re not going to find what you’re looking for, sir.” “When was the last time he took his medication?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.
“About 9 o’clock this morning, at breakfast.” “See to it that he gets what he needs.”
“Yes sir.” She looked at him uncertainly. “Do you mean any- thing particular, sir?”
“No.” He smiled and turned towards her. “Just keep an eye on him.”
“Forgive me if I’m speaking out of line, sir, but William Teller’s not a violent child.”
“That’s not what his file says.”
“His file, might I remind you sir, is based on family history. He’s been with us for five years and has never hurt a fly.”
“Perhaps he hasn’t been provoked enough.”
“What I’m saying, sir, is I’ve always trusted your judgment. But you might consider whether or not this is overstepping the line...”
The proctor’s smile dampened and he turned to the nun. “‘The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obs- tacles to our acting.’ Marcus Aurelius. Go ahead and fetch him. He’ll be late for kitchen duty.”
That evening when the boys had finished their cleaning duties and were sent to night lecture, Jules caught up with Tell.
“So tomorrow’s gonna be a pretty big match, I guess.”
“I guess,” murmured Tell as they took their seats on the cold stone floor. Night lectures lasted sixty minutes, followed by acold shower then a rationed dessert before bed. Unlike Ernie who had only been there a few days, Tell had long grown used to the scratchy flannel pajamas and the straw mattress with a thin, threadbare blanket. Most of the boys exhausted from their day’s chores usually fell asleep without bothering to unfold the blanket. After five years at Theffects, however, it was the damp coldness in the dormitory that still kept Tell awake late into the night. Sister Lorraine had given him a pair of wool socks that she had knit herself last winter, when gifts were sent by each boy’s family to celebrate the new year. Except Tell hadn’t received anything from his father. Or any year before that.
The proctor entered the room, his white robe sweeping the floor.
“Let us be thankful,” he began, spreading his hands then fol- ding them before him. “A friend of mine once told me there is no other species in which the propensity to barter exists except for mankind.”
Tell listened attentively as he did each night, his jaw clenched, his eyes trailing the proctor as he walked back and forth.
“If a pigeon does not share its crumbs, it’s because they are unable to recognize their own suffering in another. It is kindness and compassion that make men great.”
Tell slumped forward. He had heard this lesson before. Bored, his attention shifted to the fire blazing before him. Though he didn’t mind hearing the same lecture, he wished it had been at least in a logical order. The night before the proctor had lectured them about choices and consequence. Now, he was talking about compassion. Re-crossing his legs, he let his chin fall into his hand when he saw a shadow flutter before the fire.
“Just as men who are born meager can become great,” the proctor continued, “so can tragedy befall great men and turn them meager.”
Turning his head, Tell squinted. The shadow was in fact a moth, dodging and darting around the fireplace. Lifting his head, he sat up and watched as it dove toward the fire only to pull back and circle around again. He sighed and watched as it repeated the same frenzied pattern when he saw it suddenly plunge into the flames and disappear.
“It is therefore not by greed that man thrives, but by his acts of goodwill towards others that has caused our species to evolve. Now let us turn to page one hundred and thirteen in our books.” When lecture ended an hour later, the boys trudged out of the room. Once in the corridor, they raced each other to the was- hroom, waiting in turn to stand below the cold-water faucet and wash away the dirt and grime from the day. Their only solace was the following nightly ritual: a cup of hot tea, accompanied by a small cake in the mess hall. As they left the room, however, the proctor reached out and held James back by the shoulder. “Alexander, may I have a word?”
James bowed his head and turned around. The proctor waited until the others left. Only Sister Lorraine remained, preparing the tea and cake at the back of the room along with variousmedications.
“This must not be easy for you.”
James lifted his head and looked the proctor in the eye. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve only been with us at Theffects for a few weeks. I know it takes some getting used to. The important thing is that you understand why you’re here.”
The proctor was a lean man, but his face exuded warmth that was homely and inviting, accentuated now by the flickering firelight.
“Do you think it was kind, what you did to William Teller in the courtyard today?”
“What?” snapped James, cross at having been accused of any wrongdoing. “You told me to try to get a rise out of him, to push him to his limit.”
“Yes, but I did not ask you to kick him in the face.”
The proctor lowered himself so that he was eye-level with the boy.
“You’re one of the eldest at Theffects, Alexander. So I trust you to lead by example. For the other boys. Is violence an effective means to power?”
“Is it a just means?”
“There is no such thing as justice.”
“Good. Is violence moral?”
“And why is that?”
“Violence is not a virtue. Patience, courage, humility, reason
and resourcefulness are,” he recited, trying to remember what they had learned by heart.
“Good. I want you to use the last of these virtues to attain the objective I’ve given you. To incite your opponent to violence, not to use violence yourself. Am I clear?”
“Very well. Go on and wash up.”
James nodded and turned to leave. Sister Lorraine trailed out of the room after him and he glanced over his shoulder. Catching sight of the medication tray in her hands, his eyes lingered on it. Turning into the lavatory, he paused and waited for her to pass him then peered around the corner, watching as she set down the tray and went to light the candles in the mess hall. He was interrupted by Gurley who came running down the hallway and punched him in the shoulder.
“Great game today, wasn’t it?”
As he skipped past him, James reached out and grabbed his arm.
“Hey, the proctor said he needed help with something and asked me to fetch one of the nuns. Can you go ask Sister Lorraine for me? Else I’m not gonna get a shower tonight.”
Following him to the entrance of the mess hall, he watched from the shadow of the corridor as Gurley ran up to the nun. His eyes darted toward the medication. Pills of various colors were neatly laid out on a tray of shallow holes, the names of different boys carved beneath each one. Above William Teller’s name was a red and white pill. Reaching out, he looked up to see Sister Lorraine staring down at him.
“What are you doing?”
“Uh, nothing Sister Lorraine.”
“‘His mischief will return upon his own head, and his violence
will descend upon his own pate.’ Psalm 7:16. Go on and shower or else you’ll be drinking cold tea tonight.”
Doing as she asked, he left the entryway, passing the other boys as they made their way from the lavatory down the hallway. Entering the empty shower, he undressed and turned on the faucet, the proctor’s words ringing in his head. Incite your opponent to violence, do not use violence yourself.
“What a bunch of baloney,” he gargled, spitting out water then turning off the faucet.
Ten minutes later, his hair still wet, he returned to the hall and noticed the tray of medication still sitting on the entryway table. Spotting Tell, he slid onto the bench across from him, shoving Ernie aside.
The cake in Tell’s mouth turned to ash at the sight of James. Scowling at him, he looked up as a nun passed behind him and distributed his pill.
“You forgot Ernie.”
The nun stopped and turned around.
“You always hand out the pills in alphabetical order,”
Tell explained. “Eldridge, Fontaine then Gurley. You skipped Eldridge.”
“As long as you get your medication,” sighed the nun, “it’s all the same.”
“But the proctor says order matters. 'Order on order, order on order.'”
“And the only order you need pay any mind to is the one I give you. Take your pill.”
An involuntary shudder ran up Tell’s spine as she handed Ernie his medication. It got under his skin when the nuns didn’t abide by the lessons the proctor taught them. The boys had been drilled to follow orders, to line up alphabetically, to follow the same routine on a daily basis as they had been doing for years. A complete disregard for the rules—rules they themselves were supposed to enforce—bothered him to no end.
When her back was turned, James jumped up and swiped the pill out of his hand. Tell jumped to his feet.
“Give it back!”
Both Jules and Ernie who were sitting on either side of James grabbed a hold of his arms and tried to wrench it from his grip. James pushed them off and popped the pill into his mouth. Then stealing Ernie’s mug, he spit the pill inside it and pretended to take a drink. Tell launched himself over the table but Gurley held him back.
“It’s not worth it,” Gurley whispered in his ear.
Scowling, Tell pushed his hand off his shoulder as James smacked his lips and slid the mug back to Ernie. Eager to drink what little warmth was left, Ernie clutched his mug and slurped the rest of his tea as James reached across the table and took Tell’s half-eaten cake.
“Mind if we share? Or are you a pigeon?”
Fuming, Tell slumped to the bench and watched as James devoured his cake when Ernie’s head suddenly bobbed. Gurley frowned
“You alright, Ernie? You don’t look so good.” “I don’t feel so well,” Ernie said, clutching his sides. Falling over the bench, he dragged himself out of the hall as James howled with laughter.
Once in the dormitory, Tell stood in front of his bed and looked around. His wool socks, which were normally folded ontop of his blanket, were gone. Climbing onto the thin mattress, he pulled the blanket over him, not caring to take off his shoes. They were part of his uniform and the only pair he owned.
Tomorrow there would be a rematch, he would make sure of it. James wouldn’t get away with winning the next game, even if that meant he had to play again himself. His eyelids grew heavy and he dozed off dreaming of ducking dodge balls when he awoke hours later from a nightmare, drenched in sweat. In his dream, he saw his mother whom he had never met. She was holding the hand of a child that wasn’t him.
It was still dark in the dormitory; the glow of dawn had not yet arrived. Turning onto his other side, he felt something tugging at his feet and looked down at his shoes. Someone had tied the shoelaces together while he was sleeping. He lifted his head without moving and looked around. No one stirred. On the far side of the hall, he could hear Ernie snoring.
Laying his head down, a cold draft of wind swept over him and he looked up at the unlatched window clattering quietly against the stone wall above him. Cold autumn air rushed in and he creased his brow. There was no way to reach the window without using some sort of ladder yet someone somehow had opened it. He heard a clicking sound and turned his head. On the far end of the dormitory he could make out someone or something moving. Lifting his head, he squinted. A figure stood—or was it sitting?—hunched over James’s bed.
“... the beds are out of order. Q, R, S... T, U, V... what a mess...” His heart beat hard against his chest. Tell sat up, straining to
see through the darkness.
“...order on order, order on order...”
His heart rose up into his throat and he became deaf with fear.
Clutching the blanket he called out.
“Jules, if this is a joke—”
“A joke? I like jokes. Especially when arranged in alphabetical order...”
“Jules, seriously. What are you doing? This isn’t funny.” “Yes, quite frustrating, to be out of sorts... everything out of
order... quite frustrating. Quite aggravating!”
What looked like large, oily black wings spread over a sleeping
James and Tell gasped, paralyzed with terror. The creature jumped up and clasped its scaly black claws onto the bed railing.
Pulling up the thin blanket to his nose, Tell stared up at it, trying to make sense of what was happening. It was only a night- mare. It had to be.
“Shall I make him disappear? Yes, I shall I think. Then there will be nobody to torment or mock you. No one to mock you to your face.”
A lit candle followed by the pattering of footsteps entered the dorm but Tell had already flung away his blanket and was standing over James’s empty bed when the nun and school proctor found him.