A/N: Thanks to everybody: Faith's Melody, Gecko Osco, Rakal (w00t for you!), Asilla, Sakura Scout (wherever you are), Nox, and all you little people who fled after my immature little rant back in chapter... Five, I think? Whatever. Anyway, here thar be the end! Joy to the WORLD! For those of you who were curious, in the future I'll be continuing Mars and also posting a new little horror-thing, title undetermined, that should be lots and lots of fun. It has barefooted scrambles through dark spooky forests, a lake-monster-ghost-thing, original characters who are clean out of their minds, and one positively adorable character who secretly wants to kill you. Keep an eye out for it.
Once again, thanks to all for their readership and encouragement; I seriously could not have done it without thee. Here be the final bit of my first completed pseudo-novel.
Sing to Life
Five kids sat eating their lunches on a small stack of bleachers fronting the empty sidelines of a football field. The clear sky held a bright, warm sun, and the wind's breeze kept the air at just the right temperature. The kids munched in considerable good-humor, a mood that seemed school wide today. It was a perfect fall afternoon, so it puzzled Arthur's companions when he suggested a suicide mission—or at the least a prelude to an atomic wedgie.
"I'm just saying he might be really helpful for the kinds of stuff we do." Arthur spoke earnestly, his bright blue eyes reflecting the autumn weather.
Tyler slurped his juice, making an unholy racket in the process. "He'd also just as soon break all our arms as look at us. I vote no."
"Ha! That's only half of what he'll do, from what I hear." Billy leaned closer, his amber eyes gleaming. "I hear Alex carries a knife in his back pocket. Switchblade, with one o' them fancy handles. Carved with a nice severed head on it."
Arthur shook his head and shoved him away. His group of five shouted as Billy nearly lost his balance on the top bleacher. He recovered, shooting a scowl at Arthur. "Hey! Watch it."
"Accident." Arthur tossed him a minicookie from his lunch bag in compensation. "You guys are just chicken. That stuff is just rumors, and you all know it."
"Maybe, but everybody believes these rumors." Billy harrumphed. "I don't think it's a good idea."
"He's a senior. We're freshmen. Stick to building rockets with us nerds." Tyler clapped Arthur's knee. "You'll live longer."
"I talked to a junior the other day, says he's known Alex on and off since middle school, and he said that he used to be a decent guy." Arthur gazed out at the hilly brush at the opposite end of the field. "Last he'd heard, Alex had gotten pretty deep into quantum mechanics."
"Quantum mechanics is reserved for European atheists and Americans with bad hair. And your hair is too good for it, Arthur." Tyler ripped a bite out of his sandwich, opening and closing the matter in one decisive bite. "My dad says that stuff is garbage anyway."
Arthur smiled politely as the crumbs dribbled down Tyler's chin. "Maybe your dad the plumber would like a debate with my dad the calculus teacher?"
"Your dad the junior college calculus teacher. My dad had a friend who went to your junior college and he said that his friend said that junior college would give a better education if it were taught by plumbers."
Sighing, Billy stood up and stretched his arms, addressing the two silent Floyd twins. "Welp, it's Battle of the Dads again. I'm going for another chocolate milk."
The Floyds chuckled. "Bring me back potato chips," said one of them. They were Jerry and Butch, but nobody could ever tell which of the identical twins was which. They had suffered many a mutual swirly before Arthur picked them up, and neither of them said much, but as the best blue-print readers and the most acute observers they were seconds-in-command. They watched to see what the first-in-command would do about this.
Arthur waved Billy back. "Alright, sit down. We'll stop."
Billy cast him a tolerant warning look and collapsed back on his former seat. "Are you guys going to the junior varsity game on Friday?"
Arthur frowned. "Wait a minute. Let's get back to Alex."
"Let's get one thing straight," Tyler cut in. "I'm not the one who's talking to him." He wiped his mustard-framed mouth with the long sleeve of his turtleneck. "Just to, y'know, be clear on that."
Billy rested his elbows on the bench behind him. "Ya might as well get used to it. Art's going to make us go anyway."
"I'm just saying that maybe we could ask him to a launch, or something. That other rocket will be ready in a week, max. Besides," Arthur added. "Even if all that junk you say is true, it would be more difficult for him to take five of us." He balled up his lunch bag, shot for the garbage can below, and missed. He stood up to go after it. "Come on."
Tyler looked over the rims of his glasses. "Whoa. You mean, right now, go talk to him?"
"Unless you'd like to meet him after school in an empty hallway, sure. Now."
Tyler looked over at the two quiet ones, the Floyd brothers. They sat hunched in their vests and tennis shoes, discreetly pretending to have heard nothing. "You going?"
"Yeah RIGHT! We're staying here."
"Chickens!" Arthur called. He'd already started walking back to the school. "Bawk, bawk bawk bawk bawk baaaaaawwwwk…"
Billy grabbed Tyler. "Upsey-daisy, chiggen little. Let's go keep Art from getting stuck in the chest with a switchblade." Tyler made it difficult, coming to his feet reluctantly, but Billy had fifty pounds on him and lugged him up anyway. When Tyler began expressing serious doubts as to whether he was all the way done with his lunch, Billy snatched off his glasses and hurried down the bleacher stairs. Tyler jumped after him, and the two of them raced to catch up with Arthur.
"Oh man," groaned Tyler. "This is such a bad idea."
Arthur suggested checking the third floor hallway, then the library. Usually Alex went between one and the other during lunchtime. Hallway for eating, library for reading or studying. The third floor was always the emptiest of the hallways since the most popular classrooms for eating and socializing were in other wings. As for the library, nobody bothered to investigate what or why he read. Rumor had it he was being kicked out of school his grades were so bad. Alex puzzled Arthur to no end, moreso because, other than Arthur, he was probably the only other kid in school who'd even heard of the Schrodinger equation.
Lunch wasn't half over yet, so they tried the hallway first. Walking along the elevated concrete path and listening to his friends' metaphorical teeth chattering, Arthur realized they must look like a troop of soldiers going into battle. He stopped them outside the open hall doors, out of sight of those within. "Come on, guys. Loosen up. It'll only make it harder if you're all obviously terrified of him."
"You're NUTS!" hissed Tyler. Some kids eating against the iron rail against the walkway looked up at the noise. "I'm going back to the Floyds. They had the right idea, staying on the bleachers."
Arthur motioned for him to quiet down. "Look, he's just a guy, right? Just remember that those stupid rumors aren't true."
"And don't forget you've got me with you," Billy put in. Billy had a blonde crew-cut and stood as tall as the juniors. He had a good reputation, but the student body generally agreed that he was not one to pick a fight with. Of course, a fight with Billy might mean a bloody nose and a nasty shiner for the cheek. A fight with Alex and you risked a hospitalization, and everybody knew it. Billy had just reminded them of it.
"Maybe it wouldn't hurt to plan this a little better," Arthur admitted. "Try it tomorrow, or something."
Tyler nodded emphatically. "I totally, completely agree. We should run this by the Floyds. And, y'know… We can always decide not to do it at all."
"I like way you think." Billy tried his best to sound logical. "Safety first, buckle up, no running with scissors and etcetera etcetera."
Arthur stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Oh, I see how this is going. Next time tomorrow at lunch you guys'll have a club or a practice or something, right?"
"I do have Salsa Club tomorrow, now that you mention it." Tyler squirmed under Arthur's skeptical grin. Billy stifled a laugh. "I don't know what Billy's so happy about. He was going to do the same thing."
"Shut up," Tyler snapped.
Arthur groaned. "If we don't do this now then we'll never do this at all. Come on let's go talk to him." Arthur grabbed them both by the sleeve and dragged them inside…
…Where Alex had been listening just inside the hallway. Arthur and company suffered minor cardiac arrests.
Alex was difficult to ignore for two reasons. The first was that he was so conspicuously alone all the time, in every class. No talking or goofing around or any fraternizing at all. The second was that he was built with enough muscle to pretty much crush anybody who said anything he didn't like. Not quarterback material, but a sturdy physique and the nastiest scowl anybody had ever seen could easily give people the impression that they were staring at their executioner.
That was the look he gave the unfortunate trio before him. Alex leaned against a bank of lockers, on foot bent back against them, arms crossed. "You guys weren't talking about me, were you?"
"NO! No no no, we were talking about old um, old mister, uh…"
Tyler fumbled and Billy grabbed the ball. "Grady! We were talking about Grady. He has a nasty way with kids in his classes. Very, uh, very—oh!" Billy shut up at a jab from Arthur's elbow.
"Good." Alex stalked off, out the doors.
"Ho-ly CRAP!" heaved Tyler. "Did you guys see the look on him?"
Billy stretched his hands behind his head, letting out a bug-eyed puff of a sigh. "Crud. I thought he was going to kill us."
"He had a book under his arm."
"What?" Tyler flicked Arthur's arm. "Snap out of it. What are you muttering about now?"
"He had a couple books under his arm. I think I've read one."
Billy looked away in disgust. "Alright, tell us what it was. Murder for Dummies?" Arthur didn't answer, but he did get a look they both knew well enough to fear. "Stay put. Don't do anything stupid."
Arthur shook his head. "You guys stay put. I'm going after him." With that, Arthur struggled free of his backpack and jogged out the doors. His friends told him not to be such a dimwit, but Arthur only took a deep breath and told them to wait. He'd be back. He hoped he'd be back. But since he was surrounded by roughly a thousand other students, Arthur knew his chances were good. He didn't feel that they were good, but he knew it, and that was enough.
He jogged out of the hallway and glanced over the concrete rail. Alex was in the second floor courtyard below, headed to the stairs for the first floor library. "Wait!" Alex looked up at him, but Arthur didn't wait for a reaction. He leapt down the stairs and met him, acutely aware that Alex was at least half a foot taller than he was.
Arthur tried a strained smile. "Hi."
"Hi." Alex didn't scowl. He looked curious, wary, and annoyed, but he wasn't scowling. "Who're you?"
"Oh, right." Arthur told himself to loosen up. "I'm Arthur. Arthur McKinley. You probably don't know me since I'm just a freshman..."
A mocking smile appeared. "I can tell."
"I know. Everybody can tell a freshman, but how many people can tell Dirac notation?" Arthur asked, pointing to the book. He tried not to notice that most of the kids in the courtyard had begun to speak much more quietly.
Alex took out a thin paperback, flashing its cover at Arthur. "You've read this?" A teacher would have used the same tone in accusing a student of plagiarism.
Arthur was relieved to find that he hadn't been mistaken about the book. If he remembered it correctly, it introduced Dirac notation, bras and kets and how they could be used to find quantum mechanical probabilities. "Parts of it, yeah. It's pretty good for something written by one of the scientists themselves."
"This is the second time I've read it. I agree."
An awkward moment passed. Alex stood quietly, mildly amused. After a nervous glance at his shoes, Arthur spoke up again. "I thought you might want to launch a few rockets with us. Me and the guys…" He looked up. Sure enough, Billy and Tyler were looking down from the walkway. "You can see 'em up there." Alex flashed a spookily toothy smile and waved. Billy and Tyler quickly looked at something else.
"Yeah, um, anyway, me and those guys build rockets. We thought you might want to come and watch."
Alex sighed testily. "There used to be a science club here at school. I was the president. Everybody wanted to do something interesting, like build a trebuchet or manufacture gunpowder, but we couldn't because the lazy slobs didn't want to do any research. All we could do was build idiotic model rockets. The highlight was when one of the morons launched a hamster named 'Num Nuts' into the storage compartment of a three-stager." Arthur tried his best to keep a straight face. Alex also seemed to think it was funny, but in a much more cynical kind of way. "So, is that what you guys do?"
"We actually don't have a hamster." Arthur could just hear his friends giggling on the landing above. They probably thought it was a super idea. He didn't think it sounded too bad either, though he wasn't about to say so. "But we're not morons, or at least, I'm not. If morons bother you, you might want to steer clear of Tyler."
"I heard that!"
Alex squinted up at the two, then glanced back to Arthur. "When's the launch?"
Arthur grinned. "This Saturday, noon on the football field." He waited, his breath unconsciously slowed and hopeful as Alex weighed the matter.
Arthur seemed okay to Alex, like he might have more than one working neuron in his skull cavity, and it wasn't exactly like Alex had any plans on the weekends. That the kid admired him was more than obvious, and Alex couldn't say he was opposed to that either. Still, if he hadn't found anybody worth his time in six years, it seemed unlikely that this kid would be any different.
As Alex deliberated, something weird happened that nobody else seemed to notice. Something shifted all around him, like reality had just changed slides. His vision shook like something cosmic had just bounced out of shape, settling just as quickly back into place. Odd things had been starting to happen to him lately, but never like that. Usually it was just a creepy sensation he got around certain shadows-that-weren't-quite shadows, odd darknesses lurking in corners and under desks. It supported an ever growing body of evidence which suggested that 'he needed to get out more.' Mirages were one thing, but delusions were quite another. Alex had long since accepted the option of psychosis, but he figured any attempt to reverse it, even a hopeless one, was worth a shot.
"I'll be there." He adjusted his books and gave a parting nod to the fools on the landing above, neither of whom returned it. Alex disappeared into the library as Billy and Tyler scurried down to meet Arthur.
"Man oh man, did you see that!" Billy shook his head. "That was classic."
"Now we've got a violent nutjob coming to an event that involves the five of us, assuming the Floyds are dumb enough to still want in, plus gunpowder." Tyler clucked his tongue. "This should be interesting."
"I think it'll be fun," Arthur said brightly. "He's obviously a really clever guy."
"Yeah, with a really shiny switchblade."
"Shut up Tyler, or at least keep your voice down."
Tyler huffed. "You just like it because he likes that European quantum crap just like you do. You guys'll get all palsy, what with your matching names and your stupid physics, then it'll be the dumpster for us two."
Arthur shrugged. "At least we'll still have the Floyds."
Billy punched his shoulder and Tyler put in some heavy whining as the three of them started back towards the bleachers where their map-readers waited. The sky shone brightly and the warm air brushed at their shirts. And on a perfect fall day, the universe was rebooted with only one small change in an obscure little high school called New Grounds.