Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The first day of the school year was always full of surprises. It didn't matter who you were or where you were from, whether you were a seedling kindergartner or a blooming high schooler, or an overripe graduate schooler: on campus that day, when you found who was in your class(es), you always ended up surprised, for better or worse.

Or both, as Richard Candler was soon to find out. He was a 14-year-old freshman at Crescenta Valley High School, the central learning facility for teenagers in La Crescenta, a small town near Los Angeles. Dressed in a blue tee and denim jeans, his otherwise appealing looks were impeded only by his incredibly messy brown hair. Rick always insisted on keeping his hair bedraggled because, as per his dictum, "an adventurous man needs adventurous hair."

This dictum stood in stark contrast to the beliefs of the girl holding his hand as they walked through the halls. Iris Greene was everything Rick wasn't, and that's exactly why they were together. She had uniquely colored hair that began as typical brunette at the top of her head and segued into an orangey golden-brown at the end. The same age as Rick, she was wearing a purple T-shirt and tan slacks, and like him was walking to what would be their fourth period this year, biology with Mr. Katten.

They stopped and looked at the room number on the side of the door. 2202: Mr. Katten.

"I guess this is it," Rick shrugged, turning the handle. He opened the door, and he and Iris walked in together, then stood in place briefly, looking for seats.

"There's two spots over there," Iris said, pointing to two adjacent seats by the classroom windows.

"Yeah," Rick said, "but why walk all the way over there when we can just sit here?" He placed his free hand on the back of one of a pair of seats sitting right there in front of them.

"The back of the room, Rick?" Iris asked, pulling her hand out of Rick's. She turned to look at him face-to-face and added, "You never want to sit in the back of the room!"

"New school, new things," Rick nodded. He swung himself into one of the seats and smiled, waiting for his girl to come sit down with him.

"Why not?" Iris said after a few seconds of thinking it over. The two of them then pressed their backs against the chairs and studied their classmates. About a third were people they already knew, another third were ones they probably already knew but for whatever reason couldn't quite locate in their memory banks, and the final third were totally new, at least to this couple. Iris returned her gaze to Rick and challenged, "Okay, seriously, why the back of the room?"

Rick kneeled in close to her and whispered in her ear, "So we can be alone."

Iris pushed him away from her playfully. "I don't think we need to worry about that, Rick."

He pushed her shoulder as she had just done to him. "Come on…you know people watch us."

"Spies?" Iris giggled. "You think people spy on us?"

"Well, yeah!" Rick said. After a swift grab of her shoulder and the kneeling in towards each other that followed, Rick brought out his hand and described the situation. "How many boys and girls have relationships as strong as ours at this age? Honestly? They're jealous, Iris. Every guy in this room wants a piece of action, and so does every girl. To have what we have makes us special, which through their eyes means we are gods." Quickly, he looked at her, their noses almost touching. "Well…a god and a goddess."

Iris grabbed his shirt collar and pulled, causing their noses to make contact. "You're joking," she said. "They don't idolize us. If they did, we'd know. You just have an overly high opinion of yourself."

"I'm obnoxious," Rick replied with a grin. "You know that."

The bell rang. They pulled away from each other's faces and looked to the front of the classroom, where their blond, bespectacled, fifty-something mustached teacher was picking up a book and a pencil, presumably to take attendance.

Then there was the shuffling of feet heard. A dark-haired man, somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties and dressed in a trench coat, stepped into the room with a rapid opening and closing of the door. He quickly glanced at everyone in the room, his eyes narrowed suspiciously, and he somersaulted over to Mr. Katten; finally, he jumped up and rested his arm on the teacher's shoulder.

"So, freshman," Katten began, neglecting to do anything about the man whose arm was on his shoulder. "Class of 2012."

"I'm a sophomore, actually," a boy in the center of the room offered.

"Then you're the exception," the teacher replied. He pulled out his pencil and began calling out names. "Josh Arbuckle?"

"Here," the boy from seconds before answered.

Katten went down the list while Rick and Iris whispered about the man in the trench coat.

"Who is that guy?" Iris said.

"How the hell should I know?" Rick replied.

"Why do you think he's in a trench coat?"

"How the hell should I know?"

"Richard Candler?" Katten shouted.

"Call me Rick or else!" Rick hollered back to him.

"It's not even cold!" Iris continued, commenting on the man's attire. "This is Southern California!"

"Maybe his job requires him to wear it."

"What kind of job would—"

Katten interrupted them again, calling: "Iris Greene?"

"Here," Iris responded. Returning to Rick, she said, "What kind of job would require him to wear a trench coat?"

"Maybe he works for a trench coat factory," Rick said, glancing at the character.

"Then what's he doing here?"

"How the hell should I now?"

Their conversation extended for another minute or so, without producing any real answers, before Katten called everyone in the class to his attention.

"Hello, I'm Mr. Katten, and I'm going to be your biology teacher this year."

Rick immediately raised his hand. "Are you required to tell us that by law, or are you just saying it?"

"I'm just saying it."

"Congratulations. You've officially become more boring to me."

"Now," Katten said, ignoring Rick, "I don't just teach biology. I also teach chemistry, in first, third, and sixth period. Who knows? You guys just might get me again in a couple years," he beamed at them.

"I'm crossing my fingers," Rick said, turning to Iris and showing her his crossed fingers, "hoping for the exact opposite."

"Some of you may have heard about a hobby of mine. You see, I'm an amateur inventor. Nothing has been real successful yet, but if you try and never give up…who knows? You just might get famous."

"Yawn," Rick said. "Losing interest over here!"

"This will be my in-class assistant for an indefinite period of time," Katten said, presenting the trench-coated man to his students. "His name is Max, and he'll be grading your papers, looking over your work in the class, and all that jazz."

"Allow me!" the man said. He claimed front and center and declared to the audience, "I am Maxwell Smart! I'm going to be Mr. Katten's assistant for an indefinite period of time! But please, call me Max!"

"You sound kind of cool," Rick said. "I wish you were our teacher."

"What do you do?" Iris asked.

"Well, I'm a greeting card salesman!"

The class fell silent.

"Hey!" Max argued, "Don't give me that! I love my work!"

"Why are you even here if you're an greeting card salesman?" Rick said. "Why are you even in a trench coat?"

"You're very talkative, young man," Katten said, straightening several piles of differently colored paper in his hands. "Do you know that you have to raise your hand if you wish to talk in my class?"

Rick raised his hand to speak.

"Yes?" the teacher grumbled.

"Try and stop me," Rick boasted, taking up a manly pose. The other students laughed, and Rick gave them a slight bow to announce that he had acknowledged them.

"My boy," Katten said, walking up to Rick and handing him a pile of green papers, which Rick noticed were a breakdown of the rules of the classroom. "Pass these out, and as you do that, read carefully."

"All right," Rick said. He rose up and began distributing the papers to everyone, column by column of desks. "But, you should probably know that just because I read something doesn't mean I'll take it in."

Katten let out a disgruntled sigh.

"Sorry, Mr. Katten," Iris said. "You'll have to get used to him."

"I'll try."

"He's always like this. He's a nice guy, he's just obnoxious."

"I'd like more of the first and less of the second."

"Nice guy Rick isn't as fun as obnoxious Rick," Rick said as he returned to his seat next to Iris. "Therefore you won't be seeing him as often."

"Teacher Mr. Katten isn't as fun as inventor Mr. Katten," their teacher said, this time handing a student at the front of a column a pile of blue papers, "but he's here anyway."

"Permission to speak?" Max said, raising his hand.

"You don't need it."

"Great! Listen, Rick, you shouldn't be so obnoxious. It's very annoying." He shuffled over to Rick and Iris, bending his head down between theirs, and resumed his address, stating, in a hushed tone, "but just between you and me—"

"And me," Iris said.

"…Yes, and you, I annoy people all the time."

"Right on," Rick nodded, patting Max on the shoulder.

"Thing is, I don't do it on purpose."

"But you still get the job done, right?" Rick asked.

"Oh, yeah. I'm the best in my field!"

"I don't see how it's difficult to be a greeting card salesman…" Iris began. She picked up her copy of the blue sheet that Katten had been passing out, and found that it outlined the class syllabus. Rick got his copy shortly thereafter.

Suddenly, a phone rang. The ring tone was noticeably "Secret Agent Man." Everyone looked around the room, trying to find the culprit, the violator of school rules, the one with his cell phone on during school hours.

Max whistled to himself and shuffled away from Rick and Iris towards the door. "That's mine," he said. "Excuse me." As rapidly as he had come in, he dashed out.

Max pressed himself against the wall, checked the hallway for any passerby, and lifted his foot to remove his size eleven-and-a-half telephone.

"Hello?" he said.

"Max, this is the Chief," a familiar old voice answered.


"Don't call me that. Now, things here in D.C. have been chaotic ever since word starting getting around of KAOS agents patrolling the Glendale area and spying on Bob Katten. You already know that, I'm just reiterating. You've been working in the Glendale area over the summer, keeping close watch over Katten, have you not?"

"Yes, I have!"

"We miss you, you know. What we don't know is what exactly KAOS is up to, or what Katten has to do with them. Have you got any news from this past week?"

"Believe it or not, yes! I do have news!"

"Well, what are you waiting for? Let it out! Let's hear it!"

"Katten's working on a device that'll change the future of mankind! For the better, Chief!"

"What kind of device, Max?"

"I don't know. Some kind of super-dooper plant growth formula, or something."

"Plant growth? Hmm. We'll look into it. In the meantime, you just keep watch over Katten. Get back to us as soon as you can when you get more news, understand?"

"Yes, sir, Chief!" he said, giving a two-finger salute. They hung up, and Max lifted his foot again to put his shoe phone back on.

"Hey," another familiar voice said. He jumped to the side and saw that kid Rick's girlfriend, Iris, waiting for him. "Mr. Katten needs you."

"He does?" Max said, still trying to apply his shoe. Darn thing was putting up a fuss! Then again, he was standing on one leg.

"What are you doing?"

"What's it look like?' Max said. "I'm putting my shoe back on."

"Why was it off?"

"…I had an itch on my foot."

"Oh. Did you answer that call all right?"

"Call? Oh, yes, the phone call. Yeah, I answered it. Don't worry, kid, I got it covered!" He laughed and followed her back into room 2202. "Yes, Mr. Katten?"