Jay lay on the library hill and checked his Frogger watch. Five minutes until class started. He was flipped to the page where he kept his scattered lyrics to that final song, running over them again and again, working them into order.
Colin sat inches away, and Jay was aware—as he always was—how strange the two of them must look. Colin was gargantuan; the biggest kid at Cascadia. He had a round face that looked vaguely Samoan. A mop of curly black hair fell down over his forehead, partially covering his dark eyes. A light moustache smeared across his upper lip. He was half Filipino, and half something else Jay couldn’t remember.
Compared to Colin, Jay was whitish and smallish. He was no whiter than most of the kids at Cascadia, but he was considerably smaller. Between freshmen and sophomore years, when other kids hit growth spurts and suddenly sprouted up Jay lingered, perhaps even dwindled. He’d watched a recent home video of his family, and was horrified by how short and slight he really was. He walked like a bird, and had to remind himself to slow down, or else his quick, darting movements made him look like a quail.
“...finally, Totoro shows up at the bus stop with a big leaf that protects him from the rain…” Surprisingly, Colin had been talking uninterrupted for several minutes.
Most of the time, Colin was the quiet one. When he did speak, it was in deep, rumbling breaths that shook the earth. He paused every few minutes for a bout of soft, high-pitched laughter at one of his own jokes. Currently, he was regaling Jay with the plot of My Neighbor Totoro, describing the plot in agonizing detail. Jay hadn’t seen the movie, but he’d hear Colin describe it enough that he felt as if he had. Jay busied himself in his Frogger watch, ignoring Colin’s meticulous description.
Colin looked at the ground as he absentmindedly milled the grass with his his two meaty paws. His tree trunk legs were impossibly crossed into the lotus positioned so that he looked like Buddha under the bo tree.
From his spot on the hill, Jay watched Stevie Hinman cut a path through the morning crowd. She moved with unvarying efficiency, and Jay imagined her computer brain optimizing her route. Stevie was small, with a pixie’s face. She wore coveralls with a grey or light brown shirt that only varied depending on the season. Plastered on her face was a smile. It grew bigger or smaller but was always there, defiant and bothersome. She was universally regarded as Dunam’s smartest student, a title that mattered to no one except Jay, who wished it was his.
Stevie spotted them, and took a ninety degree turn. Her smile widened.
“Hi! What are you guys up to?”
“Basking in all things mediocre.” Stevie’s smile flickered in confusion, and Jay sighed. “Colin’s into the third act of Totoro.” Jay patted the ground. “Pull up a grass patch.”
Colin held up a corrective figure. “Um, I’m barely to the middle.”
Stevie smiled harder. “Cool! I love that movie. Did you know Miyazki got his degree in economics?”
Jay dulled his gaze and slackened his jaw. “That’s fascinating. I’m fascinated.”
One by one, their classmates slunk onto the sunny hill, in plain, bitter sight. Marlene Juarez saw them on the hill and waved. Olas crept out from the shadows of the library and silently took his place on the grass. Though no one glanced in their direction, all these nerds gathered in public put Jay on edge.
They were an odd bunch. Marlene Juarez, was soft, studious, boy-crazy, the poster child for all the Latino mothers in Dunam. Olas Petrosky was thin, cold, and silent. He spoke rarely and never betrayed an accent, but it was rumored his family had only a generation or two ago immigrated to Dunam. Mike Love was dour, doughy, and resentful of any comparison with his namesake, the Beach Boy’s frontman. He erupted in obscenities when teased, pawing the ground like a bull, and made such good sport of it that he was never left alone. Shayna Bains was tall and pit-stained, with dyed pink hair and an overbite. She commanded Dunam’s drama club with long fingers and a booming voice, and could be heard shouting “enter stage right” all the way from the C-Court commons. Audrey Epstein was a Mormon angel, beautiful, blond, without so much as a flaw. To abstain from vice, she didn’t speak, and blushed painfully whenever spoken to. She hung round the fringes of the group and was a source of pride, for she was widely regarded as the most beautiful (though frustratingly unavailable) girl in school. Bill Twatchy had a neurological disorder and drove an electric wheelchair. He was ruthlessly self-deprecating, and insisted that he’d made it into their class not because of his smarts, but because of his uncanny resemblance to Stephen Hawking.
So the day began much as it did every day, with Jay simmering in annoyance, and the other Tutorial kids struggling to act normal. The PA system crackled.
“All students report to the gym.”
Jay leapt up from the hill and wiped the grass from his pants. Colin unfolded his legs and the rest of their classmates followed behind them in in a row.
Assemblies were parties. Outside of prom, it was the only time the whole school was all together. Now they pushed, tussled, and snickered. John Warner called Kevin Durante a banana slug. The comment was gleefully cruel and spot on, and Jay marvelled at its genius.
There were terrible prom posters everywhere, all made by Derek Deckford, a prim sophomore who worked full time in the front office. Matt Warner, a bald, simian-looking senior ripped a poster off the wall, right as Derek walked by. Derek turned his nose haughtily away, pretending not to notice, and Gretchen Graves and Shelby Kline to burst into laughter.
Rod Kennedy pointed out into the C-Court parking lot. Colin and Jay leaned out of line.
“What is it?”
“Check it,” Rod whispered.
Two patrol cars, the total of Dunam’s law enforcement, sat in the C-Court parking lot. School assemblies were not uncommon, but normally they were announced. An impromptu assembly, plus two sheriff cars, meant something ominous was happening. Whispers began to bubble through the crowd.
The students poured into the gymnasium and filled out the bleachers. The teachers sat in the front row of the bleachers and made no attempt to quiet the student body. Jay watched them closely. Their faces were somber.
Finally, their patience was rewarded, as Elmer Jenkins walked in. Elmer was Dunam’s sheriff. He was a husky man of medium chest, obscene belly, and two stick legs. His face was long and pockmarked and one eye twitched involuntarily. According to Jay’s dad, Elmer was harmless, the dispenser of tickets and the keeper of kids, but not a real cop because Dunam wasn’t a real city.
Elmer’s walk across the gym was accentuated with coughs of “Fat Ass,” and a few boos, before he took center stage behind, cleared his throat, and turned his tweaking eye to the crowd.
“Todd Hammond didn’t come home after school last night.”
The gymnasium grew quiet.
“He was seen walking home by some fellow students here, who I’ve already spoken to. Two elementary schoolers thought they saw Todd, or someone who looked like him, head down into Jewett Creek. We’ve seen some evidence that suggests maybe he was hiking down there, but don’t have much more to go on.”
Jay felt a chill. Colin shifted uncomfortably, muttering, “holy smokes.”
“I’m not here to cause a stir, but we do need your help. If anyone has additional information, see me after the assembly. I don’t need to tell you this, but his parents are very concerned. Until we know where he is, use the buddy system when you guys are out hiking or partying or whatever. I’ll let your Principal take it from here.”
Principal Oatman was not known for compassion, or much emotion of any sort. He was older; thinning hair on top, the pale, sickly flesh of an alcoholic. He now took the podium and gave obvious words about safety. Jay was trying to remember Todd. He’d known Todd on sight, but not much more than that. Jay remembered him as dark-skinned and quiet. He thought he’d seen Todd in drama class. He stole a look at Shayna and—as he might have predicted—she was crying big, dramatic tears of fear. Jay felt his own shiver of apprehension. If it had been him who disappeared, would anyone miss him?
Then the assembly was over. Elmer and Principal Oatman walked off together, leaving the kids of Cascadia quiet and a little uncomfortable. There was something about Todd’s absence the adults weren’t mentioning, and everyone felt it. He wasn’t the first kid in their high school class to go missing. Freshmen year, Sandy Hammish had wandered away from a woods party and gotten lost, and it took most of the town twenty four hours to find her. Then, when Jay was a sophomore, senior Derek Jackson died while driving drunk. Both incidents had been sad and a little scary, but neither handled quite like this.
Jay turned to Colin and mouthed “what the fuck?” as the students pouring out the gym. It felt as if everyone were thinking the same thing. The rough-housing from before was gone, and it was now so silent the squeak of sneakers echoed off the waxed floors.
They made it outside with thirty minutes before next period.
“Man, I used to play down in Jewett creek. Where do you think he was going? Up to the falls?” He had an idea. “You wanna go check it out after school? Crack the case.”
Colin shook his head in great solemnity. “I want to teach you Ko-jitzu.”
Ko-jitsu was the martial arts program Colin was developing, a blend of Iaido, Jiu Jitsu, and Jedi training. Jay had spotted a few books in Colin’s room, and then he’d walked in on him editing a compilation of lightsaber battles on two VCRs. Once, before they became friends, Jay had seen Colin on the C-Court lawn, making sweeping gestures in the air as he practiced his kata in the morning before school.
Colin poked at Jay’s heart. “Your best weapon is right here.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Jay yawned.
“I only take one Padawan at a time. Olaus is interested too, you know.”
The thought of Jay doing Colin’s strange, slow dances made him shiver. He changed the subject. “Let’s go buy those pies.”
The school had a single, ancient vending machine. Recently, the machine had quietly shifted its hostess offerings to a limited supply of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pies. The custard was perfect; almost as good as the pies from the Dunam bakery. Jay was partial to custard. Others were too: the Turtle pies sold quickly.
Colin’s sighed. “I didn’t bring a wallet.”
“Really?” Colin whispered.
“Fresh from the sewer to you, my friend.”
Colin rubbed his hands in tacit agreement. They passed through the glass doors of A-Court and immediately bumped into John Barstow. John stared at them with a blank expression. John was tall, the only student in school who matched Colin in height. There was a meanness in John’s lankiness; his pants sagged, held by a tightly-cinched belt. His arms splayed out at his sides, capable of cracking up at a moment’s notice into fight stance. Jay mumbled an apology and John watched them go. They rarely ventured into A-Court, and made their few forays to the vending machine during bathroom breaks or in the early morning hours. But here now, in the middle of the day with class out, they were reminded of their expedition’s danger.
They turned the corner, and ran into the full cacophony of A-Court. This was the heart of the school. It buzzed with energy and kids, and you couldn’t take a step without bumping into someone. The noise was deafening. This late in the year, Mr. Oatman permitted—or at least didn’t condemn—boom boxes, and now several played competing songs.
A group of nearby students looked up at them. John Sneider, short with wide-set eyes, whispered something to John Warner, and both snickered. The Johns were wary of Colin; his huge size made him a liability, and Jay knew Colin was his only defense in this harsh environment. The assembly and its news about Todd added a strange energy to the air. Jay turned away from John Warner and whispered to Colin:
“How many Johns there, anyway? Twelve?”
“How does Coach Strauss keep track?”
“There should be a limit to how many Johns Dunam can have.”
“Yeah. Fish & Wildlife should issue hunting tags to thin them out.”
It was a fresh twist on an old joke, and they snickered. The unusual amount of Johns in Dunam was oft discussed by the C-Court kids. There were no Johns in C-Court. And unless your name began with the letter “J,” you wouldn’t even be considered for the Cascadia baseball team. It you didn’t make the baseball team, you didn’t stand a chance in A-Court, or of taking the prettiest girls to prom, or eventually buying one the houses on the bluff.
It wasn’t that Dunam parents suffered for creativity: it was very intentional that Dunam mom’s named their sons John (and also Jon). It was Dunam equivalent of a private school, or any other early life advantage. Somehow, Jay had missed the boat. He’d almost been a John—his mom told him—but his parents had their own rebellious streak, and turned at the minute of his birth, ditching the “ohn” but keeping the “J.” He would never admit it, but sometimes he wished he had been a John.
Deep in A-Court now, Jay and Colin quieted their jokes. The Johns shrugged off most criticism but there was one thing they were sensitive of: the baseball team. It was another of the town’s most bizarre quirks, the team never played an actual game. A secret right out in the open, that nobody ever talked about. The baseball team only ever scrimmaged against itself, and nobody thought it weird, or at least said so out loud. The baseball fanatics—which was most of the town—shrugged away the idiosyncrasy. Either the year was a “warm up” season, or the was waiting for a full lineup before challenging the other teams.
Despite the fact they never played, the local fans of the Dunam Vandals were legion. Even their practice filled the bleachers. And the scrimmages were like the World Series, with big signs and even sometimes fireworks. The Jons on the team were treated as heroes, getting their backs clapped wherever they went in town, getting free meals, and buying beer with only a wink and nod.
Every so often, someone like Jay or Colin would quietly remark on the absurdity of a team that only played itself. But such comments were dangerous. Overheard by the wrong person, you were certain to be beaten up. If you wanted trouble with a John, all you had to do was bring up their win / loss record. But nobody wanted to rile them up. Not their fans, not their detractors in C-Court, and certainly not Jay and Colin.
The vending machine was in a corner, its glass was cracked and scratched so you could hardly see inside it, and its metallic sides were filled with countless names, phone numbers and lewd expressions. Jay and Colin reached it without incident, gladly turning their back on the murmuring voices behind them. Five Turtle pies remained, and Jay fished twelve quarters out of his pocket, when a hand grabbed his shoulder. He spun around, and found himself facing John Barstow, John Sneider, Jon Hotchkiss, John Becker, John Dorsey, John Warner, and Jeremy McKracken. It was Jeremy’s hand that gripped Jay’s shoulder.
Jeremy played first base. Jay had never attended a skirmish, but everyone knew Jeremy was the team’s star. He wasn’t as big as some of the Johns, but he didn’t need to be. He had the money. His dad, Todd, owned the lumber mill, the only real source of employment in town. Thus, Todd owned the town. Someday, the lumber mill would go to Jeremy, and Jeremy acted accordingly. The McKrakens owned the biggest house on the bluff, and rarely came into town.
Jeremy had sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. He’d only gotten braces removed last year and that, combined with a hardening of the face, made him look increasingly like his father. He drove a red Mazda Miata that he kept in immaculate condition. It was by the nicest car in town, and the envy of every other student. He sneered down at Jay.
“Look at this. Jay Banksman in A-Court. Someone goes missing, and the scum of the earth think they can just do whatever they please.”
Jay’s face flushed with anger.
“Don’t you guys have some posturing to do?”
Jay reached down and grabbed his pies. Jeremy placed a flat palm against the vending machine glass.
“Catering your boyfriend’s memorial?”
“Yes. Todd was my boyfriend and we’re eating these pies in his honor. Can we go?”
Todd plucked the pies from Jay’s hands, and tossed them to the Johns.
Colin looked away. He was considered himself a pacifist, which Jay had learned meant he was too shy to fight back, unless backed into a corner. Jeremy had him.
“Enjoy your sodium phosphate,” Jay muttered, and he and Colin hurried out the A-Court front doors. It meant they’d have to walk all the way round the building to get to Tutorial. But it was too dangerous to stay in A-Court any longer.
He heard the Johns laughing as Jeremy mocked him further.