The selection is sparse, John Grund thought. Very sparse. Nothing at all in fact. They used to have, what the hell were they called, he said to himself, Something-Chew? He’d buy one, flavor – Strawberry, and then eat it during Geometry class. It tasted good. And it was only $1. Or $1.75 if he bought the KING size. Which he did. On Fridays. Made him feel like a king. He never was a king, though. He maybe could have been king.
Today I will be, he said to himself.
John Grund leaned in and looked around the empty candy booth. Still there was the box that Pixie Stix were stuffed in. Mix Pop Rocks and soda pop together and your stomach could blow; or, you could make a low-grade bomb with it, that’s what he overheard Mark say. Mark was one of those guys he would have liked to have been friends with. Mark knew things. He once used an Epilady to shave his face with. Didn’t grow a speck of hair for months. Months. Then, suddenly, he had a full beard, in August, when everyone came back. That device pulled hiding post-pubescent facial hairs right up and out. He had a full beard for August, when it was 100 degrees outside. High school senior Mark Tzakios with a full blonde beard. We could have been good friends, John Grund thought.
On the left, down a short flight of intact stairs, were the doors to the gymnasium. One door, splashed in dirt and graffiti, was still attached. The small window on it was shattered. The other door was nowhere. The bare rusted hinges for it were still attached to the door frame. Other than an odd, soft, green-tinted glow, the gymnasium was dark; but it was illuminated enough to see the wood court was still there. It was completely warped and covered in debris. John Grund turned and scoped the large cafeteria lounge area. The windows that ran along the outer wall were all broken-out and the unkempt and overgrown foliage from the courtyard crept in. Disjected about the room were a few chairs and dilapidated tables along with leaves and branches and the skeletal and rotted remains of some small dead animals. Birds, rabbits, and mice mostly. Predators roamed these grounds.
John Grund saw the spot on the far end of the lounge and pictured the old glowing and humming Coke and RC Cola machines that had stood there. They could be scammed for a free pop and $0.50 returned by using a laminated $1 bill with a string attached and the pull-out method. Scandal of sophomore year. Someone, John Grund couldn’t remember who, was found with a boot full of quarters in his locker. He admitted to it. He was expelled. Beyond was the long brick hallway – now filled with collapsed ceiling tiles and broken bricks – which ended in the south entrance atrium where kids would wait for Mom or Dad or somebody to pick them up after school. Could always count on three Filipinos, one or two computer lab techies, and one random there. Benches they’d sit on were long gone.
The cafeteria was desolate. Trash and muck strewn about. As with the lounge, a few tables and chairs were amongst the rubble. Other waste had either blown in or was brought in by trespassers. Had a fetid stink of mold in there. It’s not like it used to be, John Grund reflected. It used to have the aroma of the day’s food spiced with cologne, perfume, and scented girls body spray. Everyone would be talking and laughing and eating. Some would bounce from table to table, group to group, butterfly like. There were always a couple dudes who would go table to table bumming lunch money off the gullibles or the kids who wanted to boost their pecking order spot by helping a guy above. One dude must have been real hungry or desperate – or just wanted a laugh – because one day John Grund was asked for lunch money. John Grund didn’t even look up. Kept his head down and shook it “no”. Never stopped chewing his sandwich. Didn’t want to see the reaction, didn’t want to see the snickers. He was enough of a prop already.
Then there’s the spot in front of the fragmented and cracked windows. That’s where the girls danced on the impromptu dancefloor to Culture Club blasting from the Marshalls columned next to the DJ. The in-boys and in-girls were out on the floor dancing and bouncing and spinning around to Spirt Week lunch room music. One girl, Trisha, he remembered vividly, had too much makeup on. Looked like a clown. Pretty crazy looking too. Crazy easy, that’s what John Grund would hear the football and baseball guys say in the locker room while changing for PE. Plus she smoked. She’d sneak outside with the back-row-sitting-flannel-wearing stoners during lunch then would try to hide the smell with more perfume. Made the smell worse. Another girl he pictured like yesterday – Sarah. She’s dancing to Dr. Dre. Her hips sway and grind with the smooth beat and easy bass in slow, cool, sexy flow. She bounced and rapped with the D-O-Double-G. John Grund remembered watching all of them. And watching her with his head down and eyes peeping up while he sat at the end of the table and ate by himself. Sarah Hyde. Second best.
Salad and sandwich-bar lady Patricia always gave a friendly smile. I think she was the only one, must have been able to sense it, John Grund recalled. Couldn’t recall one name of the other workers, the ones behind the lunch counter glopping out the food. Only a few of the snaking silver queue rails still stood, dulled and decayed; the rest, ripped out. Hot lunch menu items on any given day: pancakes, eggs scrambled, Salisbury steak, potatoes how you want them, grease with sauce/cheese/crust, some kind of puff, and the screaming shits by the sixth period if you ate any of that. Sit in the back of the class, tighten ass muscles, sweat, and pass the gas as stealthily and silently as possible. That’s what all the guys and even girls who sat in the back would do. And laugh at and with each other. Miss Eberle would see and hear them laughing while she taught Geometry. She kept on teaching the postulates and theorems but everyone knew since she was young and cool that she was laughing right with them, just not on the outside. John Grund somedays smiled too. And on somedays laughed to himself.
10-11-01, no. 23-35-16, maybe, no. 5-21-9. Nope. Can’t remember my junior locker combo, John Grund said, a chuckle coming from him.
He stood in front of his old locker in the 300 Junior hallway. The metal locker door was attached – one of the few – and was shut and locked. Some gang-looking signs had been graffitied on the front but he couldn’t make out what the gist was. After gutting some dirt out with his fingernail, he spun the combo dial again, but it didn’t hit and the door never opened. Most other lockers in the hall were missing their door. The insides of the open lockers were empty except a few had random scraps and papers or chunks of wall and ceiling in them. The hallway was dank and smelled of wet decay. All classroom doors were open and the rooms were filled with more papers and more trash. A couple rooms had boxes, desks, and rusted file cabinets in them. All mucked up. Glass was strewn around those rooms from the busted-out windows. Graffiti was plastered over every wall. Room 303 had evidence of squatters taking up residence at one point: three stained and dingy mattresses, a wheel-less shopping cart, and a stuffed teddy bear – of all things. They left long ago. The blackboard still hung on the front wall of 303. It was smeared with dirt and covered in occult symbols. He stared for some time at a goat’s head etched in by a knife before leaving the room.
Walking down the remainder of the hallway, noises echoed through the halls, caroming off decrepit walls.
A loud bang. John Grund heard and felt it.
He stopped. The bang, followed by the deep, faint, and distant sound of a voice, unintelligible, coming from the east end – the 500 hundred hall, the spot, he thought – resonated through the corridors.
He’s here, John Grund whispered aloud.
John Grund strode over a large chunk of collapsed wall. As he made the turn from the 300 hallway into the 400 hallway, he held onto a piece of rebar protruding out and brushed against another piece. He wiped the rust off onto his jeans. Pieces of rotten and fusty dry wall were littered around the chunk along with glass shards that used to be part of the hallway double glass doors. The shards popped. He delighted stepping on them. John Grund paused in front of room 408. Sister Mary Jo taught Bio in that room. The large laboratory style table that she’d teach from – which was almost as high as her: she was short, even for an old nun lady – still stood, still intact, and still solid. A dingy, faded, half torn poster of the human anatomy hung on wall behind. Wires tentacled out from a gaping hole in the wall mere inches below the crotch where ceiling meets wall. That hole was where 408’s intercom speaker was once. The perforated metal intercom cover lay upside down on the floor. In the mornings and late afternoons, school announcements buzzed out. To conclude each announcement –most of which were dull administrative affairs and fund-raising reminders – the office secretary read out names of students having messages in the office. A teasing “oooh” was the response when one of the popular kids had their name called out, as if he or she was busted for something. John Grund had his name announced once in four years. No one made a sound. At least twice a month, a funny-guy called into the office and left a message for a student. The old, naïve, too trusting secretary, not realizing the impudence, read out that name in step with the others.
“The following students have messages in the office,” she’d start, “Danielle Baummer, Mike Joy, Pat Metesties, and Tom Tilly.” The clamor of unbridled laughter rang through the rooms and down the halls. Again, some days later: “The following students have messages in the office: Aaron Aileen, Elise LeBeoff, and Jack Meoff.” And again, hilarity throughout. Even most teachers, Miss Eberle especially, laughed too. Others shook their grim and serious faces, lamenting the fall of decency and decorum within these walls. John Grund, head down, laughed and smiled too. I wonder if Phil Mygroin ever picked his message up, John Grund thought. I could have come up with some good names, if things had been different. If things had been different, maybe I would have called in one of those.
Further on in the hall, on the right, was 404. Mr. Wildt, and sometimes Father Schaul, taught Zoology in 404. Walking past the door, John Grund saw that about a third of the outside wall of 404 had come down. Remnants rubbled the lab. A large bush had grown into the room. Its leaves and branches crept along the floor and up the back wall and onto the ceiling. Flooding rains and heavy snows that made their way in had warped and deteriorated the floor. Moss and fungi grew in abundance on the ground, transforming it to a jungle floor. As outside, inside. Through the missing wall, he could see the barren field that the school backed up to. Wheat fields, beyond that. John Grund stepped into the room. The large lab table which Mr. Wildt or Father Schaul taught from was still there. The drawers were all pulled out and tossed about. Someone must have been looking for anything and found nothing. All student lab desks, weathered down, were there too. Even with the fresh open air, the pickled stench of formaldehyde still tinged the room.
Large worms, frogs, small pigs, and small rodents were the stars of Zoology. Dead specimens of each were dissected by every student to be studied then tested on. Chiefly, had to spot and know the organs. At their lab desks, students gleefully and crudely cut whomever was in front of them on the open tray, morbidly poked around, and then waited for teacher to come over and ask, “So what’s that?” to what his pen pointed to. If the guy – ladies rarely took the class on account of “grossness” or general disinterest – could name the Bic-pointed-to parts, he passed. Once passed, the carcass was his as he pleased. Most pigs had, at least once, a pencil or pen shoved up the rectum and most all specimens were minstrelled about. John Grund took Zoology his senior year. He treated all the specimens well. He saw himself in them.
Laying amongst scree and flora on the floor, he found the crucifix that once hung on the front wall. Both of Jesus’ plaster arms were broken off at the shoulder. His hands from the wrist up were still attached to the horizontal piece of the cross. Nailed on well. John Grund regarded it for some time.
A loud knock and a “Hello?” And it was very close.
John Grund left 404 and walked through the corroded double door metal frame at that end of the hallway, crunching on glass, and entered the intersection of the 700-600-500 hallways.
He was about twenty feet down the 500 hallway and his back was to John Grund. He was average height, not much taller than what John Grund harshly remembered, but broader and thicker. Standing there, fidgeting, he was talking to himself and looking around the blighted hallway. Impatiently and curiously he moved around and looked down at his arm, checking the time on his watch, only to move around again. John Grund walked methodically and quietly towards him, his eyes never leaving the man. Within about fifteen feet of him, John Grund mashed a soft rock under his foot. The man jumped from the noise and turned around. John Grund spoke to him.
The man addressed as Berto looked back at the man who spoke to him, expecting to recognize someone he knew. His eyes narrowed, trying to focus, and he leaned trying to get a better look. John Grund stood in shadow.
“Who are you?” Berto spoke directly. “You the one that called me here? You said there’s an emergency? Who’s in trouble?” His deep voice reflected off concrete.
John Grund said nothing. He stepped closer to Berto. Berto stiffened up and stood taller. His face – John Grund saw him in light beaming in from 503 across – still had the roguish boy look, though lined and hardened by age and experience. John Grund walked even closer and shared the light. Berto still looked on him, still not recognizing John Grund.
“I said, who are you? What’s going on here?”
“You picked on me. Every day,” John Grund said, inching in. Shadows then light swept over him. “You made fun of me. Mocked me. Humiliated me in front of others. In front of friends I could have had if it wasn’t for you. If it wasn’t for you – I could have been somebody.”
Berto, abacked and uneased, scrutinized the man – now in the light, closely. Unending seconds passed. The face could not be placed. Then, a familiar melancholy in the man evoked recollection. “Holy shit. Grundie, is that you? What is this about?”
“Don’t call me that anymore. I could have been somebody – if it wasn’t for you.”
Berto snorted. “That what this is all about? You want to tell me off now? After all this time. I was just a dumb punk kid then. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just having fun, thought I was being cool. Ok. Is that what this is all about? You con me, have me come out here to this dump just to tell me I hurt your feelings?”
“You ruined me. Before I even began.”
A loud, distant bang.
John Grund flashed a faint grin and stepped closer to Berto. “It was here, right here. Remember this spot? I finally had enough. You were making fun of me with your friends, your friends – an asshole like you had friends – walking behind me and you were poking me, flicking my ear. And that’s when I had enough. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I dropped my books and swung around with a punch that had everything I had in it. And you dodged it. Leaned back like it was easy. I swung so hard I lost my balance and stumbled into that locker and knocked Kellie Swank over. Everyone in the hallway stopped and stared at me. Silence. I sprung up, came charging at you, and you punched me in the gut. Never thought anyone could hit that hard. I dropped to all fours and puked right there in the hallway, on the ground, next to Kellie Swank. With everyone looking at me. You picked me up, made me apologize to Kellie, tears coming down my face, then you threw me down in my puke. Everyone laughed. And laughed. They laughed at me for the rest of that day and every day for the next three years.”
“What do you want me to say? Sorry? If you think me being a cocky, dick kid ruined your life here, then I’m sorry.”
There were footsteps coming down the 400 hall.
“You ruined me then and ruined all that I could ever be. Now, I’m going to ruin you, Berto. Here.” John Grund pulled his shirt off, his eyes calm and placid and boring into Berto.
“What, are we going to fight? You want to fight me? Just because you look like you’ve been lifting some weights and you’re angry you think you’re going to beat me up? And beating me up now is going to make up for things and that’s going to make all this better?”
Their eyes locked onto each other. Deep heavy breaths. Berto readied himself, anticipating being pounced. This moment was not the moment for John Grund. Things were not yet set. He had to wait until she was here. The sound of footsteps neared. Vibrations coursed through the ground and walls.
The steps became nigh. Then stopped.
John Grund stood tall and straight. He could smell her. Berto eased, sensing tension in John Grund abruptly abating. He saw a shadowed shape in the intersection of the hallways.
“Now who the hell is this?” Berto asked.
The shape, slowly and with as unsteady gait, walked towards. John Grund stood still. Berto, curious as to why, could tell John Grund jittered. Shadow swept over and she walked into the shining light, shimmering her greyish blonde hair. She had a slight heaviness, a modest fashion, and her face – with glasses resting on her nose – shown age and wear beyond her likely years. The man with his back to her disquieted her. Intuition told her he was the one that called her, asking her to come to the abandoned high school to help out an old friend, an urgency. Seeing this shirtless man with turned back before her and another man, whom she sensed a familiarness, her heart palpitated faster, her breathing labored. She regretted coming in alone. She and the familiar one looked intently on each other, try to discern who each was looking at. She quickly placed the boyish face and slickly combed dark hair.
“Berto Guccione, is that you?”
On hearing that voice, John Grund’s heart fluttered and his sternum squeezed. To Berto Guccione, she did not look like she once did – the years and miles were not kind, he thought – but he still recognized the beautiful, bell toned voice.
“Faith, what the hell are you doing here?”
Faith Clearey. That was here name then. She was the girl. The girl every other girl was jealous of and the girl every guy hoped would just look at him. She had manga eyes and an anime body. John Grund fantasized about her. He watched her walk down the hall. He watched her in class. Her dazzling smile; her nymph-like laugh; her smooth pale skin; her long blonde-red wavy hair that swayed and bounced. He thought about how her skin and her soft curvy body must feel. He fancied what her large breasts like would feel like in his hands. He fantasized about her looking at him with the sultry coy cherubic look she gave other guys and even other girls. He loathed everyone she looked at and talked to for it not being him. He loathed himself even more for not being able to talk to her. He loathed the one responsible for this state. But it was not his fault. If things had been different. Today, he was going to right it all.
John Grund turned and gazed on her. His eyes danced and he smiled with giddiness and teenage-like infatuation. “I called her here too. I need her to see this. To see me.”
“What is going on here? Berto, are you in trouble? And who are you?” Faith’s voice quavered.
“John. John Grund. That’s the first words we’ve ever said to each other, in person that is. Hello Faith.” In the interplay between shadow and light, she looked as heavenly to him as she did in those years ago.
“John Grund. John Grund.” Names and faces ran through her mind. “I remember you.”
His heart quelled. And smiled again.
“Faith, turn around and run out. He’s fuckin’ nuts,” Berto shouted.
John Grund turned menacingly to Berto. His face and eyes rage flared.
“John, what’s happening? Who needs help?”
John Grund softened and turned back to her. To Faith, he looked damaged.
“I could have had you,” John Grund said to her. “I maybe could have been your boyfriend. I wanted you, just like I know everyone else did too. I could have had you. If it wasn’t for him.”
Faith stammered, rationalizing in the moment the scene. “John, this is fucked up…I…wasn’t to have, and…you always seemed like a nice quiet kid. But you weren’t my type.”
“I wasn’t because of him!” He pointed backwards. “But I could have been! Maybe if it wasn’t for him, I would have stood up straighter. I would’ve walked down the hallway with my head held up and people would have looked at me. Respected me. Envied me. I would have carried myself with pride. I would have been popular. Would have been cool. Could have been a king here. And then you, you Faith, would have noticed me and maybe liked me and wanted me too. “
All stilled. All hinged on Faith.
“I’m sorry, John. Even if, I don’t think I would have.”
John Grund felt total collapse.
“You,” Berto said sternly and with toughness, “you said you’re peace. You got an answer. Maybe not what you wanted – but it’s done. Can we forget this and get out of this shithole? It’s falling apart. Building’s condemned. Probably black mold and crap in here.”
John Grund’s head was down. Silent. Desolate. “No.” Despondence giving way to seething. John Grund stood erect, turning. He breathed deep and heavy, his chest and shoulders heaved. “No, I’m…we…are not done yet.”
Faith numbed. Suddenly terrified beyond any capacity. Thoughts fired empty through her mind. She could only stand and watch. And hope.
“Don’t call me that anymore.”
“I’ll give you one shot. If hitting me or kicking my ass will make up for your life of shit and how you think I ruined it, then fine. I’ll give you one shot. So you better make it count.”
John Grund stepped within inches of his nemesis. Eye to eye. Faith was behind them. Channeling years of torment, he clenched his right hand into a fist. The finger nails dug in, drawing blood from the palm. He sprung up a wild haymaker, striking Berto Guccione on his brow above his left eye. Berto’s head jabbed back. In reply, as if a pendulum, Berto bound forward, his fist slammed curtly and deep into John Grund’s abdomen. John Grund doubled over, gasped hard, the air blown out of him. Coughing, lungs seizing, he half stood up, welled up what he could and swung meekly. Berto effortlessly dodged the swipe and again fluently thrust his fist into the solar plexus of John Grund. John Grund doubled over again, even deeper. Blood and bile hacked up. Gossamer strands of blood and spittle dangled down from his lip, swaying back and forth. Faith was immotile. In the light, if either had seen her, they would have seen timorousness. Berto clutched the bent John Grund by the shoulders and shoved him back against a closed locker door. Metallic crashing unsettled the crumbling building. A nearby locker door fell off from its hinges and toppled onto the floor.
A defining clang.
Dust and debris particles stirred up and clogged the air. Faith, with an internal shriek, covered her mouth. John Grund slumped to the ground. A broken heap.
“Stay down, John. This is stupid. I am sorry for what I did. I am. It was a long time ago. You need to pull yourself together, find help, find a woman, move on.”
John Grund, beaten, head down, smeared discharges covered his mouth, rolled his eyes up over at Faith. Blanched and matted. In the light from 503, John Grund barely recognized her.
That’s not her anymore, he thought.
Berto pacified, his countenance suggesting he was imploring John Grund to stay down. Unable to relinquish, John Grund, head down, stood back up best he could – shaking, breathing laboriously, his body billowing – and sprung at Berto with all remaining indignation, enmity, and grievance. But Berto was quick. With sympathy, he slammed his closed right into John Grund’s face. Berto Guccione felt the resonance of face bones shattering though his fist and arm. John Grund’s head flailed back. Blood sprayed onto the lockers and walls. Then, as if in a death throw, in a final impetuous attempt at balance, John Grund came at his antagonist a last time. A rock of a fist battered hard into his face. John Grund ragdolled and collapsed, arms outstretched, in the middle of the hallway. He wheezed painfully and profusely. Blood bubbled from his mouth and his lips. Berto looked down on the smitten John Grund. He massaged the throbbing knuckles on his right hand, then wiped his face on his arm. The white shirt sleeve soaked up the blood. Whose it was, he wasn’t sure. Gazing at the broken visage, he tried to feel something. Nothing came.
“I’m sorry you had to see this and be part of this, Faith,” he said turning to her. She looked stricken in her gaze on the prone and beaten John Grund. “It wasn’t right. Come on, let’s go.”
Time passed. Her mind lulled.
“Are you just going to leave him here like this?”
Berto glanced back down on John Grund, covered in dark. “I don’t think he wants to leave.”
Faith said nothing. She looked with pity on John Grund.
“Can I give you a ride home or something?” Berto asked.
“No, thank you though,” she said, her eyes not moving from the fallen. “My husband is waiting out in the car. I told him I wouldn’t be long.”
“It was nice to see you again, Faith. I hope you and your family stay well.”
She broke from John Grund and met Berto’s eyes. And sparsely smiled. Berto Guccione walked off. John Grund listened to each echoing step away. With each, failure and affliction. The steps became fainter and fainter and then were gone.
Faith moved towards John Grund. Veiled in blood and bile, his chest retched. Coarse breathes huffed from his mouth, blood gurgling out. Faith heard him sobbing. He lay on the dirty, trashed ground of the 500 hallway, with arms outstretched, bleeding and sobbing.
“What did you think was going to happen? What was fighting him or saying to me what you said going to do?” Faith asked.
“If it makes you feel any better, I never laughed at you.”
John Grund cried harder. His tears mixed with blood and together ran down the sides of the battered face. Faith waited, wanting a reply, but heard only throbbing breaths and appalling sobs.
“Are you just going to lay there and die?”
“I died here a long time ago.” His voice choked.
Finished, Faith turned and began walking off, down the 400 hallway. Her steps echoed loudly through the old empty halls. They became further, fainter, and more distant. He cried harder, with the visceral pain of abject anguish and utter loss. Faith was gone. The only sounds in the desolate hallways of the old, condemned high school were the heavy pants and fractured cries of John Grund, who lay bloodied and broken on the filthy hard floor, emptily looking up through tears at the moldy and rotting ceiling.