Shades only took a few minutes to reach the Academy Building.
As he made his way, he wondered if the others felt as weird about wandering all alone out here as he did. Somehow things looked grey-er, more colorless than they should, even in such dim, cloudy weather. At first, he tried avoiding the Camcron Building altogether on his way back, but curiosity won out, and he made a closer pass at it.
And managed to spook himself out for his trouble. Though being near the building only caused a faint buzzing on his radio, it was enough to steer him away from it. As if he expected the place to swallow him whole or something now that he was all alone. Though the building hadn’t generated any serious interference, that was enough for him.
After all, he told himself, if there’s no one in there, then there’s nothing to be afraid of, right?
Still, he couldn’t shake the ominous feeling from those old dreams, wishing he could make the connection. It was bad enough that any time he stood near the place, he thought he could feel an incredible energy pulsing through the ground beneath it, a sleeping power he couldn’t quite describe. Just once since he came to this dimension, he wanted it to be just his imagination.
“I’ve reached the building,” Shades checked in, followed by Max and Justin. “I’m going to check the reception from inside.”
As he approached the stone steps, Shades noticed a little bronze plaque on the pedestal of each of the pair of lion statues perched on the base of the steps. The one to the left read: “Imagination is the mind’s eye.” On the right: “Knowledge is to the mind as light is to the eye.” Both quotations apparently attributed to one Abbot Adnan, whom Shades was increasingly certain was the founder of this island school.
“Refreshing choice of school mottoes,” he commented.
Shades stood for a moment, admiring the craftsmanship of both lions, wondering how much such ornamentation must have set them back. And the two stone sentinels stared unflinchingly back at him. As if posing some unasked feline question.
Then he went inside, switching on his headlamp, recalling how dim it was in here without the power on. Every footstep echoing all the more deeply in these cavernous halls now that he walked them alone. Remembering the main office, he crossed the hall and started hunting among the drawers and cabinets.
Beyond the door, surprisingly few of them were locked compared to schools where he came from, yet still yielded no more than a handful of keys. Most of which appeared to be of obscure use in various corners of the campus, a couple of which may have been of some use to them earlier. And definitely nothing that looked like it would fit the magnetically-coded keyhole he had seen on the Camcron Building’s door, the like of which he had only seen on a couple of his high school’s most high-security computer labs.
Realized that he had reflexively started sneaking and being overly quiet when his friends’ radio check-in made him jump in spite of himself.
If nothing else, though, it brought him much relief to know his radio still worked indoors here. Supplying him with the confidence to try the other thing he wanted to do while he was here. Shutting the office door behind him, he set out to find a classroom he saw earlier.
He stopped for a moment at the stairway, his eyes immediately drawn to the darkness at the bottom, then he turned and went upstairs to the third floor.
One of those anomalies that served to indicate just how quickly the place was shut down was the number of un-erased chalkboards he had seen along the way. At the time, it reminded him of something his sensei, Al Fairbanks, used to say, about pronouncing a term or name multiple times before he ever wrote it down: If you don’t spell [I]it for them, then they won’t know how to/] mispronounce it. Right now, though, there was one particular chalkboard that stuck in his memory because it was something the like of which he hadn’t seen since he was in grade school.
I will not play around on the front steps of the Adnan’s Building.
Over and over at least a couple dozen times across both boards. As he looked it over, he found himself wondering whatever happened to this most clichéd staple of public school discipline. To say nothing of what was so wrong about keeping the two big cats down there company for a little while.
All for just playing around…
…Dexter MacLean and his friend Darek stood in front of the chalkboards in their classroom at Somers South School. Unlike the rest of the Lakeside facility, the third grade classrooms were part of the same building as the gym, which also doubled as a cafeteria, with a door connecting between the two. Each of them using one of the big erasers to clean up one of the room’s two chalkboards.
While the two of them toiled and sneezed at chalk dust, they could hear their classmates just outside, enjoying their afternoon recess.
“I can’t believe Mrs Rowan’s making us do this,” Darek muttered, using one of the smaller erasers to clean off the big one.
Darek Chambers, like most of his peers at that age, was a bit taller than him, with light brown, almost blond, hair and brown eyes, a quick smile and typically easygoing nature. His claim to fame at school was that he liked to draw cool military stuff, and wanted to do comic books when he was older. The two of them first met last year, in the second grade, after the MacLean family had moved down from Alaska, and the teacher asked Darek to show the new transfer student around. Dex and Dare had been fast friends ever since.
“Commandos…” Dex half snorted, half laughed, sneezing at another snootful of chalk dust. “Who woulda thought the recess duty had more stealth than an enemy ninja?”
Of course, they had been told not to play on the old abandoned bleachers behind the gym, but that hadn’t stopped them from hanging out back there off-and-on these last few months without any hassles.
“Dex, I told you, Commies on your six, but no, you were still setting up the charges…”
For a moment, both of them glanced over at the teacher’s desk, pondering a certain locked drawer. Somewhere in there, beneath a pile of toy guns, action figures, and a growing chunk of Darek’s Lego collection, was their secret weapon. The charges, consisting of Darek’s dad’s discarded alarm clock— the old-fashioned dial type, complete with a pair of alarm bells on top— hooked up to several taped-together toilet paper tubes they had colored red to look like sticks of dynamite, with a broken TV remote for a “detonator” would look more silly than dangerous to any but the eyes of the children who cobbled it together, but to them, it was their newest makeshift toy for war games.
“I thought we were still playing,” Dex told him, “that you were gonna cover me until I could throw some grenades” (the so-far undetected, and thus un-confiscated, pine cones in his coat pocket) “or somethin’… You know, we need to make up a better verbal code.”
When he was older, Dexter MacLean would look back and realize that if they had brought the same gizmo with them to school ten years later, its discovery would have brought the bomb-squad with it, along with a huge legal mess that would have seemed as out-of-proportion as this did to two little boys back then.
“You know,” Dare remarked, remembering something his older cousin often said, “they’re just trying to make an example out of us. I mean, we weren’t even doing anything, were we?”
Though they both knew this could easily get worse if Mrs Rowan were to find out they had been back there more than once. Let alone that they, and others, would come back after school, or on weekends, and climb up on top of the dugouts in the long-neglected baseball field behind the gym, which those same bleachers faced. Just because they had done something without any of the grownups knowing about it. They would come to notice, as they got older, that authority figures had a tendency to get rather uptight about that sort of thing.
“No…” Dex thought aloud, “we just went someplace others didn’t.” An idea started to creep into his head. Something so subversive, it would take him years to realize its full potential, but the seeds were already sown. “Come on, there’s nothing dangerous about those bleachers, not compared to the gate-swing. Just… out of bounds…”
Near the middle of the playground at Somers South was this thing that looked like a yellow iron gate, but with no fence to go with. Every recess, and even after school, kids would pile on it— two on a side— and other kids would swing them around on it. Looking back on it, he would realize later that at least as many kids got hurt on that thing any given year as on all the other playground toys put together— strangely enough, no more than single digit per year— yet it wasn’t until he was in high school that anyone thought to take it down.
Then again, being made an example of was nothing new to either of them. Much like Dare, he wasn’t really a troublemaker. At least not in the traditional sense. Much like his friend, his mind was just never on the same wavelength as his peers.
In retrospect, he would often suspect that difference probably played a major role in drawing them— as well as most of his future friends— together to begin with. A kindred spirit of sorts.
And this often made a lot of his teachers a little nervous. Granted, all children are little characters, but the boy who would grow up to be Shades MacLean, along with the sort of people who tended to gravitate toward him, swung a wide orbit, just didn’t fit any of the stock roles. A few teachers were somewhat understanding, but until he first met Master Al in the fifth grade and started learning how to play to his own strengths with society, most regarded him as if he had a few screws loose.
Even then, unbeknownst to either of them, Mrs Rowan stood and quietly regarded them from beyond the doorway in the other classroom, listening to her two pupils continue to converse in a manner entirely too precocious for kids of either their age, or their grade point average…
“…Shades! Yo! Shades! Come in!” The escalating voice on the radio dragging him back from his homesick reverie. “Are you there? Shades?”
Both Max and Justin calling out to him.
“Yeah, I’m here,” Shades responded, startled at how loud his voice sounded against the silence. “Sorry, guys, I was just thinking, that’s all.”
“Don’t scare me like that,” Max told him, and Shades was pretty sure their fun experience aboard the Twylight was still fresh in his mind, too. “Justin’s also in position, so at least it looks like our radios work here.”
“There’s something I want to check out,” said Justin. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay,” Shades said quietly as his friends signed off, and the silence moved back in on him.
As he turned back to the chalkboard, remembering all the strange kinds of trouble he had gotten into when he was a kid, often without even trying. One of things he had noticed about the great mysteries of the adult world was that they really weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Didn’t seem so great, now that he had solved so many of them.
On impulse, he grabbed an eraser, wiping it in a straight line through all the not’s in each line. “I will play around…” Now that he had some time to ponder his latent powers, it shed some light on just how different he must have seemed to others.
His friends, as well.
Of course, he always wondered what became of Darek. At some point during the summer between the third and fourth grade, supposedly moved to Kalispell, but he never saw him again. As if he simply vanished off the face of the Earth. That year, he would meet Arthur LaRoch, and later Tom Robinson and Master Al…
He had once heard someone say that people can’t stand greatness in their midst. Discouraged in youth; considered dangerous in adults; looked down upon as pride in middle age; dismissed in old age; and maybe, just maybe, reconsidered after one was safely dead. No longer a threat to the self esteem of the living. Regardless of what individual forms their talents took, he realized now that he always thought of his friends as truly great, that they seemed to think of him likewise, and he had always sought to live up to their expectations. But given that society seemed to be governed more by envy than appreciation, he wondered how much potential simply went to waste in this system.
Here in the Sixth Dimension, he had seen glimpses of the challenges that awaited them in this world, the like of which he never would have imagined existed, and what he had faced so far served to show him both how far he had come and just how far he had yet to go. Wondered if they hadn’t won all their battles so far by luck more than skill, felt he must become stronger to have what it takes for the sake of his friends. Both old and new.
Something only time would tell, but he would take it and run with it as far as he could. Not sure he was exactly destined for greatness, but he would gladly settle for rising above mediocrity.
Changing his mind, he wiped the eraser across the entire board, feeling his skin crawl at the gritty feel of chalk dust on his hand, recalling how much he disliked the sensation. Still he pressed on, using the big eraser to form choppy lines. Forming a message for future generations should the school eventually reopen:
MY CONFORMITY EXPLAINS NOTHING. filled the chalkboard in ragged, ghostly lines.
Then he walked away, whistling innocently.