Breakfast the next day is a tense affair. I’m not sure why, but everyone keeps looking over and glaring at us.
“It would seem,” Destro says, sitting down next to us, “that everyone is most upset that you all were the first to think of helping out the girls with their luggage.”
“‘Butt-kissers’ was the term I heard used,” Dolphin says, peeling his orange.
“For the love of …” I bury my head in my hands. “We were just helping out!”
“That’s what showing off for girls will get you.” Ball Buster looks darkly smug.
“It seems the impression is—” Destro’s impression is cut off by a loud whine as the loudspeakers above kick into action.
“Attention campers,”Wolfe’s voice says. “As you’ve noticed, the situation at camp has changed drastically. I appreciate…” –I think I hear sarcasm there, but it might just be me—“…how flexible you’ve been during this transition.”
Muttered comments around the cafeteria. Guess I’m not the only one that heard sarcasm.
“Circumstances require us to play host to a group of other campers from another location,” she says. “New campers, welcome.”
Ball Buster seems amused by something.
“I will speak to you at a later point regarding camp rules that the others are already familiar with.” Wolfe’s voice turns sharp. “First, though, I have a wide prohibition that I’d like to make clear. As of now, there is to be no molestation of the new campers in any regard. They are to be left free and not imposed upon with unwanted offers.”
Much louder muttering. A number of guys throw dark looks at our table.
“Most important of all,” Wolfe says. “There are to be no sexual relations within the camp.”
The muttering turns to shouting. A few guys throw food at the speakers on the ceiling.
“The altered situation in the camp does not change the rules.”If Wolfe is aware of the shouts, it doesn’t show in her voice. “Intercourse is absolutely forbidden. I’m not talking about if you are caught. Don’t think that you’re too clever to keep it in your pants. If there are any pregnancies in the camp, any allegations whatsoever, any DNA tests that I don’t like … I will literally have whoever is responsible castrated.”
The cafeteria falls deadly silent. Rage is simmering in the air. I look at the girls’ side of the cafeteria. The whole assembly is a sea of wide eyes and frozen expressions. Some are blushing. Everyone is staring at our table. I doubt a single person thinks Wolfe is joking.
“We don’t have time to play ‘He said, she said,’” Wolfe announces in the furious silence. “This isn’t school. We do not visit with your parents, we do not discuss terms to avoid litigation. These are the rules, and we will enforce them. You’re here with us at the end of the world. There’s no-one else to fight your battles for you. That’s it.”
The loudspeaker clicks off. There’s a long moment of silence.
It probably isn’t the whole cafeteria that turns to look at us, but it sure feels like it.
“Crap,” Sue hisses.
On the way to class, someone shoves me on the stairs, and I fall down. Sociology class features a “discussion” on the patriarchy that gets very … pointed at times. Throughout History class, little paper balls hit the back of my neck. Ms. Scribe sends four kids to the Detention office before she gives up trying to maintain order. Anatomy is just a lot of whispering and giggling, but in Science, my lab partner jabs a sharp pencil into my arm. The whole class laughs when I jump up and yelp.
I meet the guys at lunch. “This is going to be bad,” I say.
“I agree, but I don’t get it.” Mouse frowns. “Weird thing to get pissed off about if you ask me.”
“So you’re not pissed off,” Ball Buster looks at him. “Bullshit.”
Mouse shrugs. “A couple days ago I was living off the imam’s scraps and sleeping under an overpass. You don’t get a lot of sex in that situation. Maybe it’s an American thing. Do Americans really fornicate all the time in high school?”
“Fornicate?” Dolphin laughs.
“The fuck?” says Ball Buster.
I look at Mouse. “What makes you think that?”
“I told you, the bazaar was always playing sitcoms. Plus, the imam was always going on about how immoral the Americans were. He said the average American high schooler would go through five partners in a year. Is it true?”
Dolphin snorts, and none of us can keep a straight face.
“No,” I say.
“Oh.” Mouse turns to Ball Buster. “So how much sexual intercourse were you having?”
Ball Buster rolls his eyes. “It’s the principle of the thing,”
“So none, then,” Mouse says. “Look, don’t turn fleas into camels.”
Ball Buster’s eyes go back and forth as he breaks this down. “You’re saying don’t make a mountain out of a molehill?”
Mouse’s face scrunches up. “What’s a molehill?”
“He means,” Dolphin says, “Don’t make a cheese out of it.”
There’s a beat of silence.
“Look, the point is,” Mouse says, “they’ll get over it. All we need to do is lay low.”
“Can’t do that until after class,” says Ball Buster. “We’ll just have to tough it out. But what about after?”
“I say we go to the weights room,” Sue suggests.
“Yeah, of course you do, meathead.” Ball Buster punches his arm. “What do you even have to worry about? Look at these guns.” He grabs Sue’s bicep. “Like all your brain moved down here.”
“How about the library? There’s never anyone at the library,” says Dolphin.
“That’s both depressing and a good idea,” I say.
Dolphin grins. “I can show you those books with interesting images—”
I give him a light slap on the skull. “Shut it, Mr. Pervert. Let’s just focus on getting through the day.”
I see the attack coming, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it. My only option is to shield my head with my arms as Big Bear’s massive fists pummel me. When I try to slip under the barrage, his elbow comes down and strikes, hard, on the side of my head. I fall to the mat, head ringing.
“Enough, Bear!” Coach pushes the massive upperclassman off of me. “Ten laps, and sit the next round out! Square, go to the bench. The rest of you, switch partners.”
I limp over to the bench. Coach is there in a few minutes with an icepack. “You should be fine in a bit. You guys heal fast. Jackhammer last week, and Big Bear this week. You make a lot of friends.”
I don’t say anything, but I feel her watching me.
“This is about moving the girls in?” she asks.
My ears are still ringing. “Are …” I say, massaging my temples, “there any rules about fights in the camp? I can’t remember Wolfe mentioning them.”
“Cool it, Square,” says Coach with a glare. “Maybe not specifically, but the principle of keeping the camp safe is there. She’ll come down on you if you jump Bear, so think about what you really want here.”
That phrase always bugged me, mostly because I never understood it. “And what if what I want is to punch Bear? Or to move the girls in?”
“Well … don’t do that,” she says.
“Right,” I say, slumping back. “Look, have they said anything to you about the girls? Like … guidelines for how to treat them or something?”
“They’re campers. Like you guys. Just treat them like the rest of your friends, and you’ll be fine.”
I think of lunch, of Ball Buster punching Sue, of me slapping Dolphin. “Meathead.” “Mr. Pervert.”
“…right,” I say.
After PE, Dolphin and I make a beeline out the door. We meet Ball Buster and Mouse. Sue comes running up out of the darkness on our way to the library.
“Some asshole must’ve been eavesdropping,” he says, his gasping breath condensing in the cold air. “That big skinhead shit is waiting outside the library with his crew.”
Mouse sighs. “So where now?”
“What about the rec center?” I say.
The rec center’s a square, two-story building with a sloping roof. It’s got a variety of multipurpose rooms, but the only one anyone seems to use is the arcade in the center. The arcade’s vaguely designed like a nightclub—or at least what I think a nightclub must be like. One single, high-roofed room, with a balcony overlooking the main floor. Arcade machines are clustered in rows on the lower floor. Even though it’s full of people, the place doesn’t feel crowded.
An odd place to lay low, but guys and girls alike are all laser-focused on the blinking screens and ringing sounds. I think there’s barely more than a head or two that turns in our direction, and the glare they send is more irritated than malevolent. So far so good. They’d be unlikely to jump us in front of the clear surveillance cameras anyways.
We head for the balcony, which is practically always deserted. Scattered around the space are some tables with chess sets on them, one air hockey table, and one foosball table—all straight out of some 1970s museum. The pool table in front of us has skid marks showing up on the green felt. Stained and ripped couches line the walls, with openings left for the few doors. Someone’s carved a square cross into the wood paneling.
Sue eyes the pool table. He claps his hand and rubs them together. “Oooh, homie, we are gonna have some fun here. Uncle Sue gonna whip your lily-white asses.”
“Hang on. I’ll see if I can find the cues.” Ball Buster starts to root around. “Hey Sue, I’ve always meant to ask, what’s ‘homies’? ‘Homosexuals?’”
“Huh? Nah, man. It means homeboys. Y’know, like friends? Gang?”
“Wonder why auto-translate doesn’t work on that,” I say. That cross on the wall looks like the ring I dug out of the snow.
Sue freezes as he sees something over our shoulders. “Shit,” he says.
I turn, half-expecting to see Jackhammer or Grim Goatee. Instead, I see a parade of red shirts. Unusually curvy red polo shirts. There’s about twenty girls, laughing and talking as they exit one of the doors on the balcony.
“Do they have classes in here?” Ball Buster asks, bending over the pool table as he sets up the balls.
“Or some sort of club,” I suggest.
They need to get past us to get to the stairs, and that’s when a redhead (obvious dye job) perks up. “Oh hey, Mouse!” she says, running over. A brunette with a skunk stripe follows close behind. “You done the sociology project yet?”
“Not yet.” Mouse isn’t even smiling. He just looks like nothing interesting is happening. “Just hanging out right now.” He nods at the group. “Is this a club or something?”
“Film Club,” says Skunk Stripe. “Not the sort of thing we’d usually be into but … there’s not a whole lot to actually see here.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a boring camp,” Dye Job says. “I mean, I realize that wasn’t the point, but I feel like they could’ve made an effort.” She looks back. “Hey, Jasmine!” I can’t tell if that’s a nickname or the girl’s actual name. “It’s Mouse!”
An Asian girl with long dark hair waves. “Hello, Mouse,” she says, already walking down the stairs.
“Hey Jaz.” Mouse nods. He turns back to the girls. “I should get back to the game …”
“Right. Catch you later, Mouse!” says Jasmine. “Hey, come to Film Club sometime!” The two girls wave as they walk off.
“Maybe.” Mouse waves to them. “Good luck with the reading.”
Once the girls are down the stairs, Dolphin explodes at Mouse. “What the hell, man?”
“What?” Mouse looks at him “They’re in my Sociology class. Oh, except for Jaz. She’s in remedial writing with me. The teacher in Sociology is big on small group work.”
“We all have classes, dickhead. We’ve all done group work,” Ball Buster says. “I’ll bet even Square here has talked to girls in his other classes. None of us have girls randomly stopping to say hello.”
“And?” says Mouse.
“How do you have them eating out of your hand like that?” Dolphin says. “I mean, holy … they’ve only been here for two days!”
Mouse looks at the guy like he’s crazy. “Who’s eating what out of whose hand? They’re friends. From class. Who stopped to say ‘Hi.’ So now we’ve said ‘Hi.’ That’s literally the beginning and end of what just happened.”
“Dude, when a guy says ‘Hi’ to a girl, it’s never just Hi,” Dolphin says.
I grin. “Apparently, we should be going to you, not Ball Buster, for advice on girls.”
“Not cool, man,” Ball Buster says. But he’s grinning too.
The door bangs open again, and we immediately shut up and busy ourselves around the pool table. About five or six girls exit, speaking to each other. One is very blonde.
“She really ought to learn how to button her shirts,” Ball Buster mutters, gathering the balls in the middle of the pool table.
“Dude.” I look at him.
“What? It’s a relevant observation. Disproves the padding theory.”
Valerie looks up from her conversation with the other girl and walks towards us.
“Damnit, you moron,” I mutter to Ball Buster. I smile as Valerie comes up to the pool table.
“Hey, Square,” she says. She looks around at the others. “And the Four Musketeers.”
“Four Inseparables,” says Dolphin, flashing his best smile. “There were hundreds of musketeers; they were the king’s light cavalry. The ‘Three Musketeers’ were actually the ‘Three Inseparables.’”
She looks at him. “What?”
“I just know the name from the 1920s movie,” Val says. “Great sword fighting scenes. Kind of ridiculous female characters, fainting all over the place. But shows how powerless women were in the 1600s.”
Dolphin looks disappointed. “There are loads of movies, yeah. Especially in France. They’re sort of national icons.”
“I’ll have to take a look,” she says. “I wanted to ask: you guys didn’t get in trouble for helping us out, did you?”
“Not at—” says Dolphin.
“Kinda did, yeah,” Ball Buster says. “Got taken in and yelled at for ‘helping people without their consent’ and shit.”
“You wanna show how sorry you are, you can tell it to Wolfe,” Ball Buster says. “Maybe tell her we weren’t wandering around forcing girls to let us help.”
“I did,” she says. “Me and Faith went right away to tell them. The secretary said they’d make a note of it.”
We trade glances. “Figures,” Ball Buster says.
“That sucks. Sorry to hear that.” She looks down and sees the cue ball I’m playing with. “You guys play pool?” She leans down a bit further to reach for it, and I really hope she doesn’t hear the way my breath catches when she does that. Her fingers brush mine as she picks up the ball.
“Learning,” says Ball Buster, looking at me. “Haven’t done a lot of it before. Not much else to do here, though.”
“I hear that,” says Valerie, rolling the ball in her hand a little. “Mind if I learn with you guys?”
Ball Buster shrugs and tosses her a cue. Literally tosses. Just throws it through the air, and she catches it and whips it around.
“How about you and Square play the first round?” Ball Buster asks. I look down and realize too late I’m holding the other cue. Ball Buster grins at me before turning to Val. “Hey, what’s the story with you girls, by the way? Why’d they put you in the camp?”
Valerie smiles. “To teach you pool, I imagine.”
She whirls the pool cue around her arm, and it’s immediately apparent to the entire room that we’ve been had.
She beats me handily. Then she beats Dolphin, fresh off his victory over Ball Buster. Sue and Mouse play a round, then she beats Sue. At times, one or another of us leaves for the games downstairs. I try that laser sword VR game, and Ball Buster turns out to be a master on the pinball machines. But most of us stick around the pool table, cheering the boys on. She accuses us of letting her win, and we joke back that yeah, that’s totally what we’re doing.
Eventually an attendant comes over to tell us that the arcade is closing.
“Well, thanks for the lesson, guys,” she says with a smirk. “Guess I’ll see you around. Check out the Film Club if you’re interested.”
We gather up our things as she leaves.
Ball Buster watches as she disappears down the stairs. “Watch yourself around that girl, Square,” he says, picking up the pool cues.
“What: me, specifically?”
“She was lasered in on you, man,” Ball Buster says, pointing at me with the cues. “I don’t think she even asked for our names.”
“Whatever.” I grab the cues. “She knows me from History. That’s all.”
“He’s right about her going after you,” Dolphin says. “She was bending aaaallll over that table when you were playing her, man.”
“Is there another way to play pool? I didn’t even notice,” I lie, pushing the cues behind the couch. That’s gotta be a bad place for them. Isn’t there supposed to be a stand or something?
“She’s a very fish-fleshed woman, isn’t she?” Mouse says.
We all look at him.
He looks back. “Curvy? Is that more translatable?”
“Fish-fleshed?” Ball Buster shakes his head. “You got the weirdest sayings, man. Tell you what, though,” he says. “I bet that’s why the girls are here. They’re a honey trap. Wolfe dangles a bunch of sexy girls in front of us right before saying ‘Don’t have sex.’”
I shake my head as I toss on my coat. “I can’t even with you right now, man.”
We step outside into the cold and the dark. Standing in the spotlight a few paces down the path are Jackhammer and his homies. Sue had said there were four of them, but it’s six.
“Oi, Square!” Jackhammer calls.
“When I say run, we run,” Mouse mutters. “Okay?”
Ball Buster, Sue, and Dolphin throw him a look and step up behind me. Mouse curses quietly, “Stupid Americans,” and then he joins up alongside Dolphin.
“You a right topper, you know that?” Jackhammer says, walking up. It’s easy to appreciate how big he actually is that way. “You and your mates. Bloody St. Georges, the lot of you.” He stops within a few feet of me. “Should’ve stomped your head right in when we scuffled, before all them guards showed up.”
“No guards here now,” Ball Buster says. “You wanna try for a rematch?”
Jackhammer smiles. It’s not a nice smile. He uses all of his teeth; it looks like an ape grimacing right before it attacks. Behind him, Sidewinder lifts his hand and points at the lamppost, high above. Out of nowhere, the light flickers and goes off. Instant darkness.
There’s a moment where we process that. Sidewinder’s got a unique ability. None of the watchtowers can see us.
“This here’s just about me and Square,” Jackhammer says. “The rest of you morons can clear out of this shite.”
“Hey man,” Ball Buster says. “If Square’s in shit, we’re all in shit.”
I’m not sure if that line works, really, but it puts a fire in me. “Tell you what,” I say. “Let’s you and me go, Jackhammer.”
It’s weird. As I step forward, I don’t feel the least bit of anger. Or fear. Just the others at my back, and my body pumping with excitement. “What say you stop getting the goon squad”—not clever, but it’s the only thing I can think of—“to do your work for you?”
“Bugger you. I bloody beat you up on my lonesome before. I can do it again.” Jackhammer grabs a fistful of my shirt. My hand moves up by itself to grab onto his.
Light explodes across the scene.
Sergeant Red Spruce steps off the snowmobile, a few feet off the path in the snow. The blinding beam from the snowmobile’s spotlight shines on all of us, painting the scene in stark white. Red Spruce’s goggles gleam in the night as she steps over the frozen snow.
“What’s going on?” she asks. “You guys heading home?”
Slowly, I feel everybody relax. Jackhammer’s arm loses tension—though he keeps his hand fisted in my shirt.
“No problems here, officer,” Dolphin says.
“We’re just playing,” Mouse says in a cheery voice. “Nothing major.” He’s looking at the ground, so I can’t see his eyes, but I look at his tensed-up hand and see the air shimmering around it, and suddenly realize why I feel so calm. “We’re headed back.”
“You should.” It’s impossible to read the sergeant’s expression, with those goggles. “It’s late. Be lights out in a bit. Everybody should be in their cabins by then.”
“Understood, officer,” Icepick says.
“What about you, kiddo?” Red Spruce shines her flashlight more directly at Jackhammer. “You ready to shut this down? Call it a night?”
Jackhammer gives the officer a long, cold look. The light makes it hard to see behind the snowmobile. But Red Spruce might have a whole truck of guards behind her. There could be guys posted on top of the arcade. Or the watchtowers. And I doubt they’d be super careful with their bullets.
“No problem, officer,” Jackhammer says. He reaches forward and pats me on the back. “We’re all mates here. See?”
He leans in for the hug, and as he does, he whispers, “The War Memorial. Sunday. All of you.” As he leans back, his eyes travel down to his fist.
As I’m looking at his hand, I see it shift. Suddenly, it’s not his flesh-and-bone hand I’m looking at. It’s dull, heavy, grey. With a flat texture. It’s so finely detailed yet so bizarre that I don’t understand what it is until he gives me a light push away from him.
“Yeah,” he says, letting go. “Okay. Night, gents.”
But he’s looking straight at me, grinning, and I’m looking straight at him, stunned, because I know what his hand was. For that second, I saw it.
Stone. He turned his hand to stone.
“So, two of them have their special abilities already,” says Dolphin. “Not good.”
“So do we,” I say.
“Right. Vibrations and a calming atmosphere. That’s helpful.”
Ball Buster’s leaning against the back wall, frowning. “How’d he know where to find us, anyway?”
“The shit does that matter?” asks Sue, picking his teeth. “Anyone know where the shit this memorial be at?”
“The history museum, I’d guess,” I say. “Unless there’s something else. Doc Schaefer would know.”
“Oh my word. Are you guys seriously thinking about going?” says Mouse.
“Yeah,” Ball Buster says. “‘Cause we’re not cowards.”
“Yeah?” I’m surprised by how angry Mouse looks. “Among the five of us, who do you think’s actually been in a real fight before? Any of you Americans? Trust-fund Frenchie here?”
“Hey,” says Sue. “Don’t lump me in with Bally and Square here. Kids like to pick on the black kid all the time.”
“‘Pick on,’ you say,” says Mouse. “What: you mean punch out? Kick a little? Pull out some handfuls of hair? Is that what you’re thinking of? Or do you mean they throw you to the ground, grab your head, bash it against the rocks? Do you mean shoving thumbs into eye sockets, smashing a kid’s throat with a piece of brick?”
Mouse spits in disgust. “You guys are big on fighting because you’ve never actually been in one before,” he says. “We were outnumbered. We still are. That means you run and don’t look back.”
“It’s not going to be like that that …” Dolphin says.
“You have no idea what it’s going to be like, and neither does Jackhammer. None of us has any idea how strong we are. We don’t know how hard we can really punch when we really try, or how bad that’s going to hurt someone if we do. It’s like … a six-year old with a machine gun.” He stares at me. “We cannot go.”
“Yeah? And what happens next time?” Ball Buster asks.
“Make sure there isn’t a next time. Lay low. Avoid them.”
“That’s a great idea when you’ve got a city to run in, but this is a camp. An island.” Ball Buster steps toward Mouse. “So you’re the streetfighting expert. Good to know if we’re ever in a real scrape. I’m the expert of being the fat kid at a school full of bullies.”
“And I’m the expert of having a pansy-ass name,” Sue says. “Running away from shitheads just gives them a reason to kick you when they catch up.”
“We couldn’t even avoid these guys for one night,” Ball Buster points out. “And we can’t leave the island. So we have to go.”
The sequel to The Nephilim Protocol, The Hospitaller Oath is out on Kindle for 2.99 and Paperback for 12.99!