“Boys, it’s time to go!” Mr. Bell rattled his car keys at the math club which consisted of three kids huddled around the school’s only computer.
“Please Mr. Bell. Just five more minutes,” Finn pleaded. He was using Corel to draw a naked lady and the boobs were almost finished.
“Move it, mathletes! I have to lock up. Shut that thing down. It’ll still be there tomorrow.”
Raj sighed and shouldered his backpack. He was about to see his first naked lady. Life was unfair.
Ben nudged Finn who reluctantly shut the computer down.
The three took the long way through darkened hallways toward the back exit.
“I wish he wouldn’t call us ‘mathletes’. You may as well say ‘math-holes’.” Raj was president of the math club. He had started the club with high hopes which quickly withered when he realized that most middle schoolers were unwilling to signal interest in math, or more to the point, be seen in the company of its founding members.
The three friends pushed through the double doors at the back of the school and were greeted with a blast of Autumn sun, slanting through the trees, in rays that you could reach out and grab.
Ben closed his eyes so that the light swelled red inside his eyelids. He walked that way for a while enjoying the sun on his face and navigating by sound.
Raj and Finn bantered back and forth. Ben could feel the ground slanting upwards under his feet and he knew they were cresting a rise that would then turn into a long downwards slope of grass hemmed in by sidewalk far below.
When they reached the top of the rise, Finn and Raj fell silent. Disoriented, Ben opened his eyes. His friends were staring at figures below them, about halfway down the slope.
“Bastards.” Finn breathed. “Look what they’re doing to Dougie.”
Dougie was the high school custodian. He had cerebral palsy. His hands and feet seemed to move independently of each other without any form of central coordination. Emptying a trash can could take five to ten minutes of concerted effort during which Dougie would mutter to himself, and kids would stare. Cerebral palsy had attacked Dougie’s vocal apparatus and when Dougie was frustrated or agitated, he would emit a distinctive moaning sigh.
Dougie was moaning now, lying on his back with his arms and legs flailing like a cockroach’s. Over him stood a matched pair of hulking, pimpled brutes. Dewey and Mason. They were circling Dougie’s flailing arms and legs. Dewey darted in and pinned Dougie’s legs and turned him over exposing his backside.
Mason grabbed for Dougie’s underwear. If he managed to make a grip he would pull Dougie’s underwear up into a vicious wedgie. But Dougie managed to connect with a flailing arm and Mason recoiled, grabbing his nose.
Ben stared agape. Kids gave each other wedgies all the time, but never had he seen a kid give a grownup a wedgie. And a disabled one at that. It was a perversion of the natural order, like a scene from the scratchy copy of Caligula he had found in his dad’s dresser.
Finn was seething. Ben could feel his anger rolling off in waves. “Come on.” Finn dropped his backpack and charged down the hill.
Ben and Raj exchanged looks. Raj followed Finn, with Ben a step behind.
“Hey asshole. Leave him alone!” Finn’s voice was unrecognizably harsh and thick. It made the hairs stand up on Ben’s neck.
Mason dropped his hands from his nose and stared at the mathletes as they approached.
“Are you kidding me right now? Get the fuck outta here faggots. Now.” Mason glowered and puffed himself up. Mason and Dewey were hormonal aberrations, captain and co-captain of the wrestling team, with thick, columnar necks that erupted from brawny shoulders.
Finn refused to back down. His back was arched and his teeth were bared like a cobra cornered by a lion.
“If you faggots are still standing here in five seconds, all three of you are going to get wedgies,” Mason warned. “After I’m done with this retard.”
“He’s not retarded,” Raj piped up. “He has cerebral palsy. It’s not the same thing.”
Ben groaned inside.
Mason started to count. “Five, four, three…”
“Great idea, Finn.” Ben did a hee-haw dance from side to side while he tried to work his briefs out of his butt crack.
“Yeah, Finn, what the fuck.” Raj wasn’t bothering with the dance. His underwear had been unable to withstand Mason’s ministrations. The elastic band had detached from the fabric and now dangled around his waist like a raggedy hula hoop.
Only Finn had been spared. Dewey had twisted his arms behind his back and made him watch as Mason wedgied a howling Dougie and then the rest of the math club.
Afterwards Finn put Dougie’s head on his narrow shoulder and patted Dougie’s head until he stopped crying. The three friends walked Dougie to his house at the bottom of the hill and entrusted him to his mom who sighed at the grass in his hair and ribbons of underwear hanging from his pants and whisked him inside.
Now the mathletes huddled on the sidewalk outside of Dougie’s house licking their wounds. Finn absently rubbed the tops of his arms where the troglodytes had gripped him.
Ben shook his head sadly. Grownups were wrong about bullies. He knew this. Standing up to them didn’t make the bully seek out easier prey. It just put a bullseye on your back. “Well I guess I’ll be going to St. Agnes now. Because my life at this school is over.”
“Yeah man. We’re fucked. I am never going into the locker room again. Like ever.” Raj said.
Finn hung his head.
“Well, I guess I should go and get some new underwear. My mom is going to kill me when she sees this.” Raj twanged his underwear band.
“Me too,” said Ben. “I have homework and stuff.”
“Homework? It’s Friday night. What about the campaign?” Finn held out a fist
Raj was first. He gave Finn a bump. “Smell you later,” he said, and then pedaled away.
Ben hesitated. When he finally gave Finn knuckles, he avoided his eyes.
They met at Raj’s house for D & D. Ben dropped his bike on Raj’s front lawn. He had a brand new Kryptonite D-lock but he didn’t bother securing his bike. Raj lived in Country Club Hills.
The mathletes were in the middle of a complicated module called Queen of the Spiders, which Raj had snuck home under his jacket because of the racy picture of the evil queen Lloth wearing a body suit and twirling her hair.
In their last meeting the mathletes had encountered the drow, a race of subterranean creatures who were once elves until corrupted by the evil spider queen. The mathletes had defeated the drow and managed to kill the spider queen’s avatar, but that was just her corporeal body. Now they would adventure into the Abyss to kill her god-form.
But Finn was too distracted to play. Finn paced Raj’s basement shaking his dice between cupped hands. “I can’t take it anymore.”
Ben shifted uncomfortably in his seat. When he got home that afternoon he had extracted shards of Hanes wedged so deep in his butt crack they had almost become part of his body. “What’s eating you now?” he asked.
“Mason. And Dewey.” Finn brooded. He looked like Lex Luthor fantasizing about murdering Superman.
Raj groaned. “Dude. What do you think you’re going to do? While we’re down here playing D & D you know what Mason is doing? He’s lifting weights. And after he’s done lifting weights he’s going to bone Stacie Maslin. And when he’s done with that, he’s going to lift more weights.” Raj shrugged. What could you do?
Ben hung his head. It was true. “I don’t want to get involved with Mason or Dewey or any of those other idiots. Just let it go man.”
Finn shook his head. “You’re already involved dummy. Don’t you get it? Mason has your number now. And if you don’t want to end up eating lunch with Dougie you better help me deal with this situation.”
Ben groaned. As the lowest scrotum on the middle school totem pole, Dougie ate lunch by himself, in a dark corner of the cafeteria, penned in by garbage bins and racks of dirty trays. Every douchebag in the school used Dougie as target practice and he often left the cafeteria, spattered with pudding, or with banana in his hair.
Mason was the worst, of course. Once Ben had seen Mason stick a Capri Sun pouch out of the zipper of his pants and then arc a bright pink stream straight at Dougie, as though he were peeing on Dougie’s face. Dougie’s palsied hands were piteously unable to block the stream from his face, and he yawped forlornly. Nearby at the faculty table, the teachers picked at their salads, fastidiously avoiding each other’s eyes.
Ben had not stood up for Dougie then, and he still burned with shame every time he ran into him in the halls. But what could he do? Mason lifted weights. He was boning Stacie Maslin.
“Can’t we just play? It’s already 9:00…” Ben waved his hands at the maps and manuals spread out on the card table.
Finn stared at the card table, lost in thought. “You’re right. Forgettaboutit. Let’s just play.”
Ben was relieved. Things were back to normal.
At the end of the night Ben and Finn rode double to Ben’s house, and Ben lent Finn his bike for the long ride home.
When Monday came, Ben made sure to be on time for first bell so that he could enter the school surrounded by other kids. Finn still hadn’t returned his bike, so he rode the bus. It was better that way. On the nature shows it was always the stragglers, the old and sick, that got separated from the herd and devoured by hyenas. As long as he stuck with the herd he’d be safe. So he rode the bus and fastidiously avoided the gym and locker rooms and anyplace else that Mason and Dewey would be hanging out. By mid-week Ben hadn’t run into Mason and he was able to relax. The tension in his shoulders went away.
But things were weird with Finn. When Ben saw him in the hallways Finn seemed lost in thought. Once he called out to him and Finn didn’t even turn around.
At the end of the week, Ben stayed after school to finish a lab. He left the building through the side exits. As he turned a corner he saw Finn with Dougie on the deserted basketball courts.
Ben angled himself behind an electrical transformer and spied around the corner. Finn was feeding balls to Dougie who stood at the free throw line. Dougie missed every shot by a mile. Finn would race to retrieve the ball and then jog close enough to pass the ball back into Dougie’s quivering arms.
Some impulse made Ben back away from the courts, careful not to be seen. He walked the long way home, through steep and winding hills.
The next morning Ben arrived at school to find a crowd clustered around the rear entrance of the school, closest to the athletics wing. Kids stood agape as EMT’s wheeled a stretcher into an ambulance that had backed right up to the door. The stretcher bore a zipped-up bag the size and shape of a body. A second bag soon followed.
Ben felt a presence at his elbow. It was Raj, whose eyes were bugging out of his head. “Dude. Did you hear? It’s Mason and Dewey. They died in the wrestling room. They stayed after practice to drill and they never left. They were in there all night with the heat cranked. They got cooked alive.”
“For real. Shannon found them when she came in this morning to unlock the trainer’s room.” Raj tilted his head towards a distraught eighth grader who was weeping into her hands while a female patrol officer patted her on the back. “I guess they looked like baked hams. Shannon said they shit themselves too.”
“Did they get locked in or something?”
“Well that’s the weird part. They could have left at any time. The door to the wrestling room doesn’t have any locks.”
“Yeah. Weird, right? Best I can figure Mason and Dewey got heat exhaustion in there. Passed out or something.” Raj didn’t look convinced.
“Yeah. That’s probably what happened.” Ben shook his head.
After the ambulances drove off with the bodies, Ben and Raj made their way to homeroom. It was chaos. Two star athletes had been found cooked in the wrestling room. Police officers could be seen hurrying up and down the hallways. Teachers and administrators huddled in the corridors. Nothing productive could possibly be accomplished. Before first period Principal Stone came on the PA system and announced that classes would be canceled for the rest of the day, and that grief counselors would be available in the cafeteria.
Finn met them in the crowded hallway. “Crazy news huh?”
“No more wedgies, I guess.” Raj allowed himself a feeble grin.
“I guess not.” Finn had a wolfish look that made the hairs on Ben’s neck stand up. “By the way Ben, here’s your Kryptonite key. I rode your bike in. It’s locked to the racks outside.”
Ben accepted the key without a word. Blood rushed in his ears.
“Thanks for the loan,” Finn said. “You’re a life saver buddy.”
Ben and Finn sat on the curb outside of 7-11, eating hot dogs and drinking slurpees.
“You know what I can’t figure out?” Ben asked.
“What’s that?” Finn didn’t look up from his hot dog.
“Why didn’t those knuckleheads just leave when it got too hot?”
“Who knows? Mason wasn’t exactly a genius, remember.”
“Yeah. But I was just thinking. Maybe they couldn’t leave. Maybe they were locked in.”
Finn paused mid-bite, then resumed chewing, thoughtfully. “That doesn’t make sense Ben. That door doesn’t lock.”
“Uh huh. But there are handles on the outside. Somebody could have locked the handles together. With a chain. Or a bike lock. Something like that. Then just crank the heat up and take off.”
Finn put his hot dog on his lap and wiped his fingers on his shorts. “Interesting theory. But Shannon didn’t find a chain on the handles.”
“Yeah. But maybe, just maybe, somebody with a building key opened up the outside door and unlocked the door handles in the middle of the night. After Mason and Dewey were…cooked.”
“Now that’s crazy talk Ben. The only person with building keys is Dougie.”
“Yeah. It’s just a theory.” Ben tossed the last bite of hot dog into the sewer grate.
“Anyway, there’s no way Dougie could have unlocked that door,” said Finn. “His mom doesn’t let him out of her sight at night.”
Ben slurped the dregs of his cup. “Unless…unless somebody else was involved. The other person could maybe borrow Dougie’s keys for a bit, just long enough to slip in the building and unlock the door handles to the wrestling room. Then get Dougie his keys back before first bell.”
“Now who would do something like that?” Finn stared at Ben until he squirmed.
“Nobody I guess. I don’t know anybody crazy enough to do that.” Ben got up and shouldered his backpack. “Well I gotta get home. Do some studying.”
“Okay Ben.” Finn winked. “See you later buddy.”