High School fucking sucked. September of the Fish year wasn’t even over and Joe Smith had already had more than enough of it to write a steady load of god-awful rejection misery poetry for the next century. This was not what the television and the Cinema Industrial Complex had promised in the lush fantasies they painted.
It couldn’t be chalked up to simple life loser-ism, either. Eighth grade had been awesome, good friends, easy classes, girls developing and discovering that loose behavior is often rewarded in western society. The next four years looked to be overflowing with more of all that good, plus getting high on all sorts of drugs and pounding crotch. Instead of LSD-drenched stickers and girls gone wild he had entered a world of freshman kill days, hours of dreary homework each night and a total and complete failure to deploy the pocket rocket. Somehow all those dear old friends were always in different classes on the other side of the impossibly sprawling campus. In their place was an endless sea of faces riddled with skin problems and naked hostility toward grade nines.
There he was, on all fours picking up scattered government texts after having them unceremoniously “dumped” by an upperclassman. He was getting used to this routine, it had already happened at least a dozen times. Granted this was still better than another fresh fish who had lost three teeth to a toilet seat during a swirlie-gone-wrong, but that thought provided small comfort at best. Who knows what the next kill-day would bring, after all. He might end up left for dead in a locker or broom closet.
“Pick that shit up, boy. What the hell are you doing?” It was the grizzled voice of a man from the Greatest Generation, or at least the Less Great But Still Not Bad one that had fought communism and the fear of nuclear incineration with the awesome weapons of toughness, conformity and duck-and-cover. An Old Lion, in other words. The voice, coarsened from decades of smoking ultra-high tar selections, demanded respect. “Come on, get up! Show some spine!”
The owner of the voice was one of the school’s instructors in the physical culture, or at least that was the official cover story. It was just as possible, maybe even probable, that this member of the Old Guard was actually a deranged but basically good-hearted drifter who had infiltrated the school for inscrutable reasons. The incredible power of confidently acting like you belong somewhere is not to be underestimated. Just strut around like you own the place and very few people will call you out on it. This is especially true when the individual in question is all stoic ruggedness and decades old barely legible Marine corps tattoos
“Get up! Shit!” A wrinkled, spotted claw enveloped Smith’s soft upper arm and brought him back to full verticality with a single exertion of ancient sinews. “You gonna take that shit the rest of your life?” Sometimes silence is the only answer a person can manage. “Well? Cat got you?”
“Nah…no, sir.” Fluid filled gray eyes seemed to look into his soul. Even the relaxed grip of that claw easily restrained the tremendous natural impulse to turn and run. The bell rang. He was late. At this particular moment that could not have been more meaningless. The tomes of political correct thought were still littering the ground, completely forgotten. There was only this moment, this life-changing confrontation with something that was more an elemental than a fellow human being.
“Don’t lie to me you little fuck!” Despite being the only two still in the halls of learning it seemed impossible that no one heard this outburst from the old man of dubious actual authority. Maybe it was heard and simply ignored through fear. Smith was shaking as if in the clutches of an epileptic aura. It was a small blessing that his underwear remained unsoiled. “Yeah, you’re the type that never fights back.” The words came as a Camel cigarette flavored hiss. “That’s your generation, no fucking balls.”
“Please don’t kill me!” At the time the plea seemed perfectly sensible. This was going to make one wonderful funeral for his family: dead at fifteen, biggest accomplishment was figuring out how to masturbate, killed by a crazed veteran of foreign wars in a high school hallway. Freshman kill day wasn’t supposed to be literal, for fuck’s sake.
“If I was gonna kill you, you’d be dead already, just like all those yellow heathens I bagged for Uncle Sam.” The gravely whisper was now barely audible. “No, I’m going to change your life. Meet me in the school gym at 3:30.” For a moment the grip loosened and even the beginnings of a smile were evident on the age-devastated face of the veteran. “You can’t even imagine what I’m going to do for you.”
Just as quickly, the smile vanished and the grasp became tighter than ever. “If you aren’t there, I’ll hunt you down like one of those damn reds.” Determined madness blazed under the watery surface of his eyes. A few moments later he was gone, leaving the First Year dazed and disoriented.
Suffice it to say very little actual learning took place in that afternoon’s Pre-Algebra class. Somehow “zero the hero” seemed less important in the face of an imminent encounter with mortality at the hands of a real life Iron Man. One scenario after another flashed through a mind that was not yet fully formed. He imagined push-ups ‘til puke, followed by having an unloaded pistol pressed to his head and repeatedly fired without result until he’d been completely reduced to quivering jelly. Then the real pain would start. Maybe it would have been best if the old soldier had just dropped him in the hall. Quick and merciful, as opposed to the Geneva Conference outlawed prisoner of the high school war torture that was awaited.
Yeah, this was a long way from taking “roof hits” in between getting sucked off by sexually precocious and totally legal jailbait.
“Smith! What is the answer?” The mortality fantasies melted away. On the board was the number “7” with brackets around it. What kind of witchcraft was this?
“I don’t understand.” If his first month needed a motto, this one would have sufficed.
“Just provide the answer.” Oh, well. That’s what you wanted. Fuck.
“Twenty Nine?” The entire class was silent for two heartbeats and then erupted into studio-audience at a buddy sitcom style uproar. He barely even felt the sting. What was looking like a fool compared to actual, imminent, physical dissolution? It doesn’t even rate.
The final bell rang and he performed the dead man’s walk down to the school’s weight room. He’d only been there once before, during an orientation. That brief visit was enough to dissuade any return. Everything in there seemed to be rusted or falling apart from neglect. This was the lair of monsters, not any normal, right thinking Fish Year. But there he was. The man from the old guard was waiting. It was time to die.
Twenty minutes later he was squatting for the first time in his life. It hurt, it felt ridiculous and the fear of being murdered hadn’t entirely dissipated. In spite of these things he felt drawn into this new world. Muscles were filling with blood, violence chemicals were being released into the gray mush and a connection was forming to a forgotten past, a past when man was nothing but another animal. No, more than that and not even a little bit less. The smartest, toughest, baddest animal on the planet. The vilest beast with the mind of genius. On to the dead lifts. The weights hit the cracked, wet concrete floor with a satisfying crash. He let loose a primal howl. The rugged golden ager gave his silent approval, arms folded over his chest, an unlit cigar hanging from cracked lips.
There was no turning back after that initial rush. For months he met with his new mentor after school. The lifts steadily increased as fall turned to winter. He was slowly transforming, deep within a cocoon of iron and brick. The slow process of evolution, ape-creature to master man, happened in secret over that long cold winter. The mystery of nature, the change that is unseen but completely undeniable. When he emerged from the crucible in the spring he had become a man. There was a freshman kill-day that corresponded with April fools. An upper classman tried to dump his books and earned a fist to the face that knocked him out cold. As he was being taken away to begin his suspension he saw the wrinkled face for what would prove to be the final time. It was glowing with pride.
He might have died, he might have simply left content in the knowledge that his job was done. Smith never did find out, but so much of what the remnant of a past age taught was now internalized, from diet and exercise tips to how to be a man. The actual physical presence of this strange benefactor had begun redundant. The young man continued to train and soon found himself becoming the king of the school. The respect was earned, and with it the hot, hot birth canals that are inevitably offered up to the alpha male. He wished it would never end, that he could stay in this world forever.
Then it did and he was forced out into the adult world. This time, however, there was no one to guide him.
Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.