Chapter reveal: The Hidden Chalice of the Cloud People, by Leif and Jason Grundstrom-Whitney

Ebook - JPG format-Title: The Hidden Chalice of the Cloud People

Authors: Leif and Jason Grundstrom-Whitney

Purchase on Amazon

The Hidden Chalice of the Cloud People is a young adult fantasy comedy novel written by a father and son writing duo for an intelligent general audience. It is the first book in an upcoming tetralogy. It is a darkly humorous, fast-paced, action-packed celebratory unification of the world’s rich cultural lore through the lens of an inventive fantasy concept that stands both as an occasionally subversive satire that satirizes the YA genre and an anachronistic experiment on the fusion of storyline narratives (differing stylistically and compositionally).

When Tommy Dana is abducted into a fantastical realm called Lethia, where the worthy stories of humanity are granted a physical reality, the social media-averse thirteen year old must plunge through a multi-varied meta-fictional adventure in order to save his, and the entire human world’s, imagination from falling into the thieving clutches of the witty supernatural villain Facinorous.

Chapter One

The world around Tommy Dana seemed deadened to all but a fixation on screens. He could never understand the allure of the newfangled technological wonders that pervaded and dominated the fascinations of his contemporaries. He was always left feeling numb when he explored the technology of modernity; so much to see but so little to create with his own imagination. In his mind cell phones, smart phones, iphones, ipads, tablets and other such devices facilitating, perpetuating and organizing the social media obsession had fostered a generational dependency on distraction. He felt at odds with this nearly omnipotent digital trend, was he the only one?

As he trudged through the hallways of his dreary middle school towards his locker he encountered a maze of his peers occupied by screens rather than each other. They stood texting each other side by side in erratic groupings without a conversational word or physical clue of acknowledgment shared between them. Their faces looked ghoulish painted with the blue glaze coming off of their devices and the lights that beamed off the freshly polished linoleum floors that were an effort to bring luster to the circa 1950’s school building. They appeared to Tommy as denizens of an age to whom the art of personal communication, with its various torments and delights, had lost its appeal. And his fellow students were not the only ones ensnared by the social media trend. Though rules had been established about limiting the epoch-conquering contraptions; he even spotted his teachers texting in the hallway before the morning bell. Objections to the violation of the said rules had long staled on the tongues of authority figures who had resigned themselves to the overpowering tide of the times. The hypocrisy of the situation both amused and pained Tommy as he cautiously navigated through the ranks of his transfixed teachers and peers.

As he arrived at his locker, he suppressed an impish impulse to stir a reaction from the surrounding indisposed by storming down the hallway gesticulating wildly and shouting inanities. He realized that such outlandish behavior would probably only land him on Youtube. Instead, he found his English book on his first try reaching into his locker’s outrageously stuffed depths, slammed the door shut before the contents dumped onto the floor and headed to the last door on the left Mrs. Little’s room. He started his day with homeroom in her class followed by English. It was the loneliest short walk his young life had to offer.

Tommy tried to make his way into the room but Tim Reynolds and Robert Peterson were jostling each other about at the doorway. Both being overly competitive wrestlers, they were trying to be the first in; an entrance contested with muscling and grappling. Their pointless scuffle blocked any clear and risk-free passage. Thankfully a grim authority figure soon detected the horseplay.

“It never ceases to amaze me the pugnacity of youth! Take your seats gentlemen! Wrestling the Titans is in the curriculum for next semester,” bellowed Mrs. Little from her desk, her short squat countenance defying any rejoinder as she glared up at the young pugilists. The good-hearted ferocity of the skirmish abated at her command and the entangled combatants separated.

‘Thank goodness,’ Tommy thought. He despised this kind of roughhousing. Inevitably he would get a punch to the arm or a shove that would hurt for the entire morning by these two ruffians. He timorously squeezed past the quarrelsome pair and found his chair.

“Hey, what’s eating you broseph,” asked Carlos; one of Tommy’s few friends within the school who was sitting at a neighboring desk. “Not now” Tommy said, rubbing his temples. He had felt tired and drained of late though sleeping through the night. An increasing sense of isolation was weighing on his heart. He closed his eyes and continued to rub his temples, as Mrs. Little went from the brief homeroom and transitioned to English, not being one to waste time.

“Wow. Touchy Touchy,” whispered Carlos in the light and sarcastic tone to which Tommy was accustomed. Carlos comically pretended to zip his lips shut and then turned his attention to Mrs. Little’s lesson.

In the past Carlos had usually found ways to elevate Tommy’s periodically sour mood with his goofy sense of humor, and the outlandish yet conventional manner in which he approached jocularity, but these were different days. Days of woeful change and unsettling alteration! Since the beginning of the school year and the start of his thirteenth year of existence, Tommy had felt as if he had been pulling farther and farther away from his friends and peers. An inner conflict had arisen within him. The problem was simply not a matter of social standing as Tommy had always been tainted by a tangle of tiresome cliched labels like outcast, dreamer, misfit, and loner. The problem was that he prized the freedom of the individualistic imagination, and the liberty of personal artistic expression, above all else, so the more the obsession with social media, internet videos, and the like deepened around him, the more distant he felt, the more he wanted to oppose it. He believed that it left less time for creative pursuits and hindered the emergence of original voice because those using it were too preoccupied with other people’s voices rather than their own.

His own creative voice had taken shape around a powerful idea that had come to define the core of his imagination. This idea had been introduced by his Grandfather six years ago upon the tragic death of Tommy’s father in an automobile accident. The idea was of a fantastical realm called Lethia created by a mysterious being known as the Lore Weaver, an avatar of constructive creativity, whose purpose is to serve as a nexus of stability for the collection of humanity’s stories deemed worthy of it by six mystical beings of judgment known as the Cloud People. Any worthy story, and there were countless, made a part of the reality of Lethia by the Cloud People, connected by invisible threads to a tangible and gigantic web seemingly floating in mid air at Lethia’s center, Tommy could enter and influence if he wished by making his selection known to the Lore Weaver. Depending on the day and how it affected him, Tommy could join his favorite heroes in their quests, aid ardent antagonists in their villainy, or choose any role within the context of a story that could be extended well beyond the story’s finish. He could weave himself into the very fabric of his favorite stories and the concept of Lethia made this possible and gave it weight. It afforded his abundant imagination a place where it felt like it belonged and could thrive through experimentation.

Within himself Tommy knew that if he kept his imagination sharp and active (perhaps overly so) he could create a story worthy of a permanent place in Lethia. He took solace that by doing so he would preserve the memory of his father, and like the stories of Lethia it would never fade.

Tommy readjusted his position in his chair to deflect the lulling power of Mrs. Little’s drone.                      There was a steady cadence to her voice. After yet another very active dream state last night, he felt tired, worn. He tried to pay attention as she talked but his head was too heavy to stay aloft. It was almost as if a string was attached to the smooth oak desk and it was reeling his head slowly toward its surface. His head bobbed suddenly.

“Wake up, Thomas P Diddle,” whispered Carlos as he gave a gentle shove to his friend’s back when was sure that Mrs. Little had turned toward the board. “You don’t want to nod your way into detention on the day I’m bringing Izzy and Larry over to your pad.”

Tommy lifted his head again, but his eyes wouldn’t stay open. He hadn’t forgotten that today was the day Carlos had miraculously arranged for two of his most wildly popular friends, far outside Tommy’s social strata and with whom he rarely even spoke, to come over to Tommy’s apartment for a gaming experience. As exciting as this was, it could not help to keep him awake. Soon he was asleep with his head upright. His awareness gave way and his head sank down to the desk. The last thing he heard before plunging into a daydream was the slow measured voice of Mrs. Little as if hearing a muffled sound across a mist enshrouded bay by the ocean. The logic of mundane existence lapsed in its continuity and he tumbled into a position in his fantasy world where it felt as if he had gone through weeks of experience there.

He stood on a familiar cliff looking down on Lethia. It was different today. For weeks he had practiced. At first there was just awareness that they were there, part of his body. Weeks went by before he started to feel into them. Gradually muscle by muscle, they became familiar, until one day, he unfolded the angel-like wings given to him by the Lore Weaver and felt the sensation of the Tiger Lily orange sunshine of Lethia warm them. Then like a young child learning to walk, he had experimented with flight. He remembered the trial and error attempts that had contributed to his eventual mastery of his new wings. He laughed at the bruises and the bumps and the minor frustrations that had happened along the way.

That series of neophyte fumbling with flight was lost in the past. He was confident today and in full control of his aerial abilities. His muscles felt sleek, strong, yet relaxed. Was he ready for this though? He had conquered every mission the Lore Weaver had given him in his adventures in Lethia, and there had been a diverse multitude, but this was to be his first one utilizing the wings. It was one thing to master flight and quite another to be entrusted by the Lore Weaver with a dangerous task specializing in their use. What if he was unable to defeat his target?

He was interrupted in his thoughts by the blasting of a horn. The horn was penetrating, measured and rhythmic, like a bell buoy in the mist.

He gazed down at the Lore Weaver who was on a wavy plain far below partially obscured by the shade of a gigantic Yew tree. She waved to him with her free hand, the other stretched upon her great web. Though she was too distant to discern detail, Tommy remembered the otherworldly components of her appearance that otherwise would have made her appear like a sprightly older woman with an elaborately luminous shawl. He remembered her eerie eyes that were pupil-less orbed mirrors which reflected everything from the outside world but revealed nothing from within. He remembered the immaculate porcelain sheen of her skin that made her seem doll-like.

Tommy took a deep breath and opened his wings. The reddish black wings had the sharp angularity of a sparrow hawk’s. They tapered along his back into a fin of feathers that divided down both his legs, stretching to his heels. Any second now the Lore Weaver would play one of her fingers against the particular thread of her web containing Tommy’s mission and a portal to that story would be opened. There were a seemingly infinite number of invisible threads holding the visible web in place, a brilliant jewel in each node of the web. He looked up towards Lethia’s tiger-lily orange sun. It sometimes appeared far too close and at other times seemed to shy a little too far away. It ambulated about the wide corridors of the leaping sky like something possessed of a sly sentience. Its rays nevertheless struck his outstretched wings, and he absorbed them like the notes from a thrillingly melodic song.

The sprawling beauty of lush plains grabbed his attention below. Under his gaze he saw an expanse of canyons appear, magically replacing the rolling green. Intent observation had the tendency to alter Lethia’s welcoming landscape. A stretch of canyons would change into a verdant jungle as quickly and as easily and as fluidly as someone changes costumes. Lethia transformed its geography almost as if it was a living entity adapting to the whims of Tommy’s Fancy. The features and elements of the changes were both realistic in scope and fantastical in design.

Shimmering in the not too distant sky Tommy could see the Cloud Palace. It was a floating architectural masterpiece built of the silky vapors that taper and shift along the horizon. He turned his attention to it and was immediately enthralled by its beauty. Within the Cloud Palace, the Cloud People, who lived there, were no doubt coming to a consensus on what new story should be granted a reality in Lethia. Tommy hoped that it would be a sprawling epic that he could later explore and lose himself in.

Almost as if hearing a noise from a distant dream, the horn sounded again. It tugged obnoxiously at his conscience. It pulled him temporarily from his enjoyment of Lethia.

The distraction did not last however as a flash of light tickled Tommy’s lower peripheral vision moments later. ‘The Lore Weaver’s signal’, his mind cried! It was what he had been waiting for. Without another thought, he tucked in his wings and plunged off the cliff. He hurtled streamline through the incessant vertical wind that his plummeting created. What an exhilarating sensation this was! (Well, now that fear of a mortal impact was removed by the safety his avian appendages afforded.)

True to the Lore Weaver’s signal, a story portal sprang forth over the approaching ground; it emerged from a single thread of her enormous web. The Lore Weaver’s touch had brought the story portal out.  Dawn was treading on a quaint Chinese village surrounded by wooded hills within the bubble-like dome. My target would no doubt be stirring from its nightly mischief, thought Tommy, slowly extending his wings out as he drew closer to the story portal. Air resistance accumulated under his expanding feathers. He maneuvered his back in an impressive arch as if he were about to make a record-breaking dive. The story portal loomed in parallel to his slowing fall. In one fluid motion Tommy snapped his wings to their full span, caught the resulting brief parachute-like buffer which pushed the trajectory of his arched back, and swooped with terrific speed through the story portal.

All traces of Lethia’s protean splendor evanesced. No exit existed to be spotted. This was the self-contained world of a fable, a dense and humid realm Tommy had submerged himself within. But, he would not drown in the flood of sights and sensations. He had a mission to accomplish. Soaring like some avenging comic-book superhero, he neither slowed nor veered from his course which wended towards the quiet village.

A solitary figure cloaked in gray waited motionlessly next to the first building on the main street. This must be the contact the Lore Weaver briefed me on, thought Tommy as he soared unceasingly. He or she was supposed to equip him on the fly with a weapon forged by the sweat, tears and other more usable elements of the village. A weapon powerful enough to capture or destroy the odious creature he sought. Concealing gray flew back revealing an elderly woman holding an ornately woven rope. The cresting pink of the dawn had not yet poured down upon her or the street. She tossed the purplish rope up into the air as high as she could.

Tommy snatched the rope out of the sky and acknowledged the elderly woman’s smile with a nod as he passed. The painfully simplistic nature of the unthrifty weapon perplexed him. He questioned its combat utility. How could he effectively vanquish his fiendish target with a rope? The villagers could not be serious. This had to be a joke. He had expected something along the lines of a hardy net. How could a garish rope possibly…

A blood-curdling shriek pierced his ears! He focused his penetrative eyes on the looming buildings, scanning for the noise’s source. He spotted his target, the Baku, a hideous devourer of dreams, at the end of the village clambering up a building from a window where it had recently fed. This winged spirit monster had been terrorizing the village people for some time now, gobbling up their beneficial dreams and leaving them only nightmares.

Tommy swooped unnoticed within one hundred yards. The Baku scaled to the top of the building and looked lazily about the wooded area surrounding the village. It adorned the hearing world with an unwelcome gift: another, less potent, shriek. Tommy was astonished by the Baku’s severe ugliness. He’d never seen anything like it before. Imagine a silver fox head with glowing deep blue eyes, resting on an equally silver rat’s body whose scaly hind legs were that of a vulture’s. Now top that off with bat wings with the usually short thumbs ending in half-length pythons and whose overall size rivaled a professional football player and you have a general idea of the visual unpleasantness of the creature he was about to face.

That gruesome thing could spy me at any moment, Tommy feared. He coiled a segment of rope around his hands, creating a taut line betwixt them. Perhaps if he entangled the Baku’s neck with the rope, he could then tie the remaining length around its legs thereby incapacitating and capturing it.

Suddenly, a perceptive shiver rocketed through the Baku’s furry frame and it swung its head around towards him. A vicious snarl escaped its long jaws. Eyeing him mere yards away, the dream swallower immediately attempted bounding into flight. Hideous wings flapped with urgent vigor. Vulture talons gouged chunks off the roof-work.

But there was no time for escape. Tommy collided into the monster’s back, missing the desired neck due to its quick change in elevation. The Baku yelped in angered surprise. Momentum sprawled the entangled pair across the roof. Tommy had little time to react let alone mount a roping offense. A python’s jaws snapped inches in front of his face. He recoiled hastily, gathering the rope into his arms. The Baku violently bucked him off while bellowing what sounded like a grizzly bear’s roar. Tommy sailed over the edge of the roof onto the awning of a neighboring building. The awning buckled under his weight but did not tear.

Not to be defeated by a failed first attempt, Tommy righted himself instantly and searched the roof for his prey. The Baku had just taken flight, fleeing in the direction of the woods. Reddish-black wings carved up a buoying wind and then tore at the still air. Determination steeled a young brow. Tommy gave chase wielding the purplish rope now as a spinning whip. The gaping space between them slipped swiftly away. His aerodynamic appendages and streamlined shape made him an opponent not to be trifled with.

Cumbersome size and uneconomical wings left the Baku distinctly lacking in the speed department. It growled in frustration upon viewing its relentless assailant closing in. The dawn-soaked trees passing underneath stood like watchful spectators without rustle. Tommy pulled within range. Time to see if this secret weapon could sting, he thought. Unleashing the rope from its spin, he lashed the trailing rat tail. The Baku screamed in agony as if it had been slashed by a flaming saber. The rat tail appeared untouched and unmolested by damage however. Tommy smiled to himself. The unexpected success of the crude device pleased. He lashed again the tail and another time across the vulture feet. The Baku screamed and veered drastically away. Tommy pursued, striking where the pain the dream swallower felt best altered its trajectory.

Following this course of action, he herded the hollering Baku back towards the village. As the edge of the village loomed, Tommy ceased his whipping. He burst upwards in a hasty ascent fifty feet, swinging the rope up into his arms and away from the unsuspecting monster. He lunged through the sky to the lofty apex of his flight and then, gathering his might, swooped downwards towards the target. The rope twirled and spun in his hands as he prepared to utilize it once more as a whip. This strike would be the mother of knock-out blows, he inwardly gloated. Harassed no longer by pain, the Baku turned around to spy for its assailant. It glared at, when it found, a rapidly descending teenager. It unleashed a furious roar that seemed to hunger for havoc. Tommy devoured the distance between them and swung the purplish rope in a forceful lash at the Baku’s fox head. The monstrous beast evaded the blow at the last second.

As downward impetus carried Tommy onward, the jaws of a python bit down on his forearm. He yelled inarticulately in anguish. Instinctively his wings tucked in so not as to suffer the pointed wrath of any other eager jaws. The Baku’s wing dragged downward under his descending weight. The pair joined by a vice-like python grip experienced a loss in elevation until the Baku, flapping wildly on one side, managed to pull the teen up. The dream gobbler strained the weighted wing to its zenith, unintentionally rolling him onto its back. To ease the pain somehow, he quickly tied a knot around the base of the python’s body. The serpent relinquished its grip, hissing piteously. The Baku thrashed frantically in response. Tommy clutched and held onto the rope for dear life. He noticed the second python irately snapping at him in rhythm with the motion of the other wing. Its sticky fangs reached out for his flesh. Steadying himself, he thrust an available line of rope forward. The python’s fangs, aiming for his face, broke upon the rope instead. Into tiny white pieces they shattered. The python then retracted its head and rattled in toothless torment. Tommy took advantage of the situation and swiftly tied the remaining length of rope around the python’s base. Properly tightened the weapon pulled the two leathery wings into a stable and nearly unmoving formation.

The secret weapon was now perfectly taut as if its length was created for such a bizarre occasion. The dream nibbler halted. The tightness of the binding length greatly restricted its movement. Unable to break the rope and unable to fly, it plummeted. Tommy stood on its back, hands only leaving the ornate rope when impact threatened, and rode the fall like some reckless winged cowboy. Through the sky they plunged. After a short span of dizzying seconds the Baku crashed onto the village’s main street with a sickening thud. Its form crumpled grossly, spilling bile and bodily fluids across the ground, and then remained completely still. It appeared to be as insensate as a door nail.

Tommy alighted, wings fanning, beside it moments later in the midst of an awakened mass of villagers. They had poured and piled into the street from their various dwellings. Cheers erupted and a rousing celebration commenced. They crowded the teenager with their exultant jollity and the truculent clamor of their appreciation. Some people danced, some sang, some played instruments. All expressed gratitude to Tommy. He had never received so much positive attention in his life. The elderly woman who had supplied him with the secret weapon presented him now with a valuable-looking necklace. He accepted her gift with a hug. Applause shook and rattled the buildings themselves. The revelry was interrupted by the blasting of the horn again. The sound penetrated to Tommy’s core. He looked around and saw that no one else seemed to notice it. The Baku was still motionless. The horn-like noise seemed to be coming from outside the village.

Tommy left the village in search of the ceaseless and unsettling sound, the rising blaze of a Baku barbeque streaming into the morning air behind him. He wondered how anyone could actually devour a spirit monster. That’s one way to get your filched dreams back, he thought. He reached the outskirts of the small pocket of civilization and discovered what he was seeking in the fields there. The glimmer of a small portal hung above the grass before him and the mighty sound was blaring from within its depths. Perhaps the Lore Weaver was summoning him back to Lethia. Obnoxious way to go about it, he thought. He approached the gleaming disc expecting to see the Lore Weaver’s smiling aspect within. The flabby and frowning visage of his English teacher Mrs. Little greeted him instead.

“Tommy!” Mrs. Little bellowed as she slammed a paper on his desk, her huge pendulous arms swaying as if alive by themselves.

Tommy lifted his drowsy head up from the wooden surface, out of the daydream, and dried the drool that had congealed in the corner of his mouth. A wave of mocking laughter and ridicule washed over his ears. He looked around. Every single member of the class was watching him and they delighted in his awkward confusion. Embarrassed at the derisive attention, he attempted to eschew making eye contact with them. He looked up trying to focus instead on Mrs. Little’s wide brightly colored countenance.

“We’d like to start the quiz now if that’s alright with you,” she growled in a harsh tone. Ill-concealed laughter broke out again like a rash across the class room before Mrs. Little silenced it with a stern look. “Enough giggling, you rabblement of jackals; begin the quiz!”

Barking this she then lumbered beyond his station. She was seemingly unaware of the irony of her name as she squeezed her large girth past the oak desks, slamming down Friday quiz papers and disrupting everything on the students’ desktops.

Tommy buried his face in his English quiz. To sink below the earth into the nether regions of shadow and rock (a place without mirth) he sorely yearned.

“We should really strap a bell to your head or something,” Carlos joked in a whispered tone. “Hardey har har,” he replied without a hint of jocundity as he tackled the test.

Moments of embarrassment or humiliation like this, that were occurring with an alarming frequency of late, brought to light the disconcerting other part of his inner conflict. Though he would scarcely admit it to anyone, he felt an increasing desire to conform to the youthful social media based trends he so avidly disliked. He wanted, at least in part, to meet the approval of his peers and stand successfully as one of them while cleansing himself of his social awkwardness in the process. This desire had materialized seemingly overnight with the rest of the conflict and had proven quite immune to deflation by any rationalization. The passion he put in opposition to the desire resulted in simply giving the desire more power over him. It also had the effect of further solidifying his dislike for a world enslaved by screens as he felt the desire to conform to it was being forced onto him. This was very odd for him as he had never cared what people thought of him in the past let alone worried over conforming to their expectations and fitting in with the conventions sculpted by their small prejudices and the faddish zeitgeist.

Hours of the day and chunks of time were lost to this obsession with the inner conflict. Tommy found that today it only lasted until he was walking the halls to the cafeteria for lunch period. Carlos bounded up to him and patted him on the back along the way. His ludic exuberance stupefied with its enviable boundlessness.

“Are you almost ready for your close up, fraulein Tomothy?” Carlos questioned with a manic enthusiasm and trotted away to the cafeteria before an answer could be formed.

Tommy chuckled at the absurd sight of his friend mimicking the movements of a horse as he sped ahead. He was glad to see Carlos excited at the prospect of finally mixing two groups of friends. Hopefully the mixture of different, and possibly clashing, personalities would not prove volatile he thought as he entered the cafeteria and joined the line of students waiting to be underwhelmed by the school’s cuisine.

Lunchtime always made him uncomfortable as his twitchy timidity, his penchant for contemplative silence, as well as his frail frame, were all incompatible to some extent and degree with the swift-speaking frivolity, vapid posturing and the careless thirst for cruel derision of the popular kids. In middle school there was a clear pecking order to the seating arrangements. The apex of the middle school hierarchy, who were always seated at a single table in the back of the room, glistened like living Grecian statues with glamour and desirability that never seemed to trickle down to the less fortunate tables where Tommy found himself entrenched. In fact his peers conformed so wordlessly to these untutored patterns of seating and social ranking that he wondered whether or not there was some agreement made long ago around a prehistoric fire about what personality type could sit closest to the warmth and the food and who must jest or scrounge for scraps in the outer dark.

He did have a saving grace though. Carlos was popular through his friendship with the ever-popular Larry and Issy and as such had access to the loftiest table in the school. Every now and then he offered Tommy an invitation to this table which he awkwardly refused. There was no malice or rudeness in his heart when he turned them down, only a stubborn timorousness and dread of embarrassment.

Today, though, would be a different story as Tommy planned to join them; hoping not to offend Larry and Issy as they would be guests to his apartment later on. As he coasted through the crowd with his lunch tray, he saw Carlos beckoning him over. He cautiously inched his way over and sat down beside his friend who was amidst a very select group with Larry and Issy seated facing them on the opposite side of the table. After exchanging meek greetings and waiting for the unsettling eye contact to cease, Tommy tucked into his lunch. As he had hoped, or if not for anxiety would have expected, the focal point of the group’s conversation didn’t center on him. His opinion wasn’t sought after and his inclusion at the table was largely ignored save for a stray glance here and there. Carlos, whom he couldn’t even coerce to shut up at times, appeared to have forgotten about him completely. Tommy was fine with this as it lowered substantially the probability he might embarrass himself. He also knew that Carlos had a tendency to transform into a slightly different person, one far less attentive and congenial, around this particular crew of people.

“So, Tommy,” began Issy suddenly in a somewhat lowered voice, “Carlos here tells us that you have the hots for Mandy Meeks.”

He subtly gestured to the end of the table where Mandy Meeks and some of the school’s most beautiful girls were located. Like a refulgent pharos amidst a sea of blandness she shined. Tommy turned away from her vibrant light and addressed his future guest. He had always thought of Issy as the loquacious sycophant to Larry’s pinnacle of middle school masculinity. He was never to be seen away from Larry’s side and never to be heard disagreeing with him.

“Umm… who doesn’t?” answered Tommy after having oriented himself to the focus of the localized group which had up until now treated him like some translucent phantasm.

A small grin slid across Larry’s face. “Good answer; who indeed?” he asked rhetorically.

“I don’t,” joshed Carlos. “She is far too scrawny to be considered attractive. Now Mrs. Little, my friends, that is a woman.”

“And a half,” laughed Issy.

“Plus the Victoria Secret’s model she had for breakfast,” Carlos added, “Waif-full certainly. But oh my goodness those arms gentlemen those beauteous arms. I thought myself unflappable in my cynicism towards love until I laid eyes on them. Now they have flapped away with my heart.”

The group lost itself in the unkind avenue of adolescent humor presented by Carlos. They untied a bundle of minutes with the hurling of jests. Relieved, Tommy thought that he was off the hook and that the conversation from there would change to a subject that didn’t involve him. This assumption proved incorrect as Larry and Issy returned their razor sharp attention to him after the waggish banter had ceased.

“I’m glad you fancy Mandy, Tommy, because I have it on good authority that she harbors an attraction for you as well,” said Issy.

“Really?” asked Tommy incredulously. He had difficulty believing that Mandy Meeks even knew that he existed.

“She told me so herself last week,” said Larry without a hint of jocosity in his gruff voice. “She said that she was waiting for you to make the next move. She has a thing for awkward and scrawny guys apparently.”

“You lucky scoundrel,” exhorted Carlos.

Blissful warmth and a murmur of jubilation surged through Tommy’s spirit at the same time a fierce anxiety spread in the pit of his stomach. Could he be so lucky as to share a synchronicity of affections with Mandy? He hadn’t any reason to doubt Larry’s words as he had a reputation of wasting few of them. Beneath the surface of Larry’s unwieldy confidence and unimpeachable swagger there roiled, along with a surly irascibility, a brutal honesty that seemed to prevent people from thinking him a liar. Tommy looked over at Mandy who was deep in conversation with her friends.  Maybe my life is destined for a dramatic turn for the better, he thought.

“You should go ask her out on a date,” recommended Issy. “Boldly tiptoe your way into her romantic pleasure.”

Tommy laughed nervously at the suggestion. He assumed that it was a joke until he noted, much to his anxious chagrin, the lack of humor in the surrounding faces.

“R-right now?” he asked.

“Yes, right now. Go for it,” replied Issy.

“In front of all these people?” Tommy queried anxiously.

“There are few things more romantic for these girls than bravery,” said Larry, “and you don’t think Mandy would realize how brave you were to publicly ask her out?”

“I-I don’t know,” sputtered Tommy. He had no desire to invite Mandy, even if she did like him, out on a date in front of her friends and the rest of the table. That special occasion would be better suited to him as a one-on-one interaction. O if only the fates would dictate such a miracle!

“Come on man,” insisted Issy, “We are trying to help you here. Rip off that training bra and dive into manhood. If you attempt to ease into it you might not get there. She is right there waiting for you. Go woo her.”

“Can’t I do it later?” Mr. Dana asked genuinely concerned that the peer pressure would not abate until he had acquiesced. His unsteady gaze alternated betwixt Mandy and Larry and Issy.

“No. I’ll do it for you right now,” said Issy and then he shouted, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the inimitable Tommy Dana has something to say-”

“Alright alright alright,” the humiliated teen interrupted. It was crystal clear that they wouldn’t stop until he had done what they had asked. To escape any potential disaster stirred up by the callous assistance of those who had taken a sudden aggressive interest in his dating life, he conceded defeat on the issue and acquiesced to the demand. He swallowed hard and stood up. He found his feet, which were wobbly under the emotional strain. ‘So this is it,’ he thought, ‘Death by social interaction. I never thought my life would end this way.’

He inched his way to the other side of the table where the hive of feminine coolness was situated. Like a taciturn mendicant he shambled almost reverently. His fluttering psyche was a portrait of unbridled adolescent insecurity. Mandy and Jenny were engaged in an animated conversation. He positioned himself awkwardly behind Jenny, in full view of the paragon of adolescent pulchritude whose affection his heart coveted. The young women noticed his presence one by one in gradual succession. The majority of them fidgeted under his gaze and became uncomfortable. Candy, always hopeful of jumping up the pecking order with her social superiors, blurted out, “What do you want?”

Tommy’s face became florid; he looked down sheepishly at his feet. “I was wondering if I could talk to you, Mandy.” He felt his stomach turn in a wide loop.

“Go ahead, Tommy,” said Mandy.

She looked at the top of his head. Part of Mandy’s allure for the hormonal mob of middle school boys was that not only was she extraordinarily pretty, but she also seemed to be more down to earth and accessible compared to the other aspiring queen bees lavished by personality trait and genetic happenstance with rarified social status. She seemed to actually acknowledge the majority of her peers as fellow bearers of the tremulous scintilla of humanity.

Tommy looked up, “I was wondering if…”

Just then the unspeakable happened. An awful incident that plumbed the vast depths of teenage terror! As he articulated the word if, a piece of Tater Tot that had been lodged in his front teeth flew out, over Jenny’s head, and fell squarely on the tip of Mandy’s nose. Like a glob of glue the speck of chewed food adhered to the skin upon impact. O how inenarrable the horror of this unfortunate accident!

“Disgusting!” screamed Jenny. She quickly tried to wipe the sticky wad that had once been a tot from Mandy’s nose.

“Get out of here, loser!” the other girls chorused.

The rest of the table erupted in a fit of derisive laughter and ridicule. Mandy took Jenny’s napkin and gently wiped the spot where the masticated tot had stuck to her nose. She looked to the vacant location where Tommy had stood moments before the tragic occurrence. He wasn’t there anymore. He had vanished from sight. If there had been any dust languishing about in the airways of the cafeteria a streamlined cloud of it would have been impressed in the wake of his hasty exodus.

To flee the riled spirit of persecution Tommy made it to the bathroom and closed himself in a stall. He locked the door and put his feet up against it. His hands cupped his burning facial features. His heart fluttered like a hummingbird in a hurricane and he doubted there was a single spot of his skin unaffected by blushing. He felt as if he’d been struck in the stomach by a wrecking ball. Whatever shot he had at fostering any semblance of a relationship with Mandy Meeks was surely gone. He doubted he would ever have the courage to speak with her again. Even an errant peep here or there would be a stretch!

The insulting names conjured by the group, including Carlos, and hurled at him as he’d made haste for the bathroom, such as Tater Talker, Sputter Spud and Flossless Flounder, hung in his mind as a painful exclamation point to the humiliating event. Would the parochial infamy of that catastrophe of an interaction echo unto eternity? When, he wondered, would he ever live down that embarrassment?

This dreadful feeling gave way to anger throughout the rest of the day as he was met with constant verbal harassment and little remorse by the people involved in the incident. Were these the kind of people he was inviting into the hospitality of his apartment? And where was the support Carlos was supposed to give to him as a friend? By the end of the school day, when Tommy had boarded the bus and taken his usual seat next to Carlos, who was occupied with his smart phone, all the attention the likewise occupied Larry and Issy could afford him was a pair of smug smirks and a couple chuckles designed to deride. What proceeded was one of the most irritating bus rides of Tommy’s short life. There was no discussion of what video games they would play or anything concerning the time to unfold at his apartment, only texting punctuated by fits of laughter, almost guttural utterances and the occasional attempt of Carlos to draw his in to what was happening on his small screen. Coupled with the anger he was experiencing towards them after the incident and the paranoid suspicion that the source of their mirth was at his expense, and Tommy was left brooding and unhappy. He only found a semblance of solace by staring out at the snow-draped landscape of Bangor, Maine as it flew past.

It was not until the twentieth minute of their fast-paced online sci-fi shooter experience that he fell out of his funk. Of course the gaming had only started after he had been instructed, in a tone more suited for a butler than a host, what game to select and set up while Larry spent five minutes texting his girlfriend Shelly. Despite this adding to the aggravation of what came before, Tommy was able to finally step outside the preoccupations of his mind and engage in the pixilated fury of the present moment.

Though he owned the requisite next generation gaming console, he was not an avid, nor even frequent, gamer and veered far from exceptionality in his playing abilities. It was a fact that was clearly demonstrated amidst the breath-taking wizardry performed by his three guests. This did not, however, deprive him of having a good time. He enjoyed getting lost in the teamwork of the multi-player combat scenarios whose sole objective was to humble the opposing team of players with defeat. It was nice feeling he had a slight part to play in their success. Assisting Larry and Issy and Carlos on the path to victory was surely better than being singled out by them as an erstwhile and unspectacular enemy.

A virtual frenzy of space age conflict quickly devoured the next fifteen minutes, and the unlikely quartet found that they were in what appeared to be their first losing match up of the afternoon. With a mere ninety seconds left to play before the match ended they faced the surely insurmountable task of needing nine kills to win.

“Alright Larry, show them what time it is,” said Issy.

Larry, ever the alpha male in situations both real and digital, took it upon himself to dig them out of their hole and went on a spree of destruction perhaps unparalleled in the annals of competitive gaming history. During the carnage single-handedly unleashed by Larry, Tommy had stumbled upon a confrontation with an opposing player who had hounded and bested him throughout the match. He tried to flee and hide, not wanting to aid the other team with a failure to win a one-on-one fight, but at every turn the opposing player proved that he would not be denied. He cornered and forced Tommy into one last act of desperation. Tommy stopped running, turned around to face his assailant, and without having enough time to properly aim let fly a fool’s chance of a final attack. The gamble paid off gloriously! The persistent foe was vanquished at last with a lucky shot and he could scarcely believe his eyes at the result of his little victory.

“Yes!” he shouted a little too loudly. “Did you guys just see that? That was the best shot I’ve ever made!”

“Congrats bro,” said Carlos, and he bumped fists with his friend.

“What, do you want a cookie?” said Issy. His sardonic response and Larry’s absence of any deflated Tommy’s excitement. He wasn’t expecting a parade but a little congratulation would have been appreciated.

The match ticked down to the final ten seconds, and both teams were deadlocked with a tie. The next kill would determine which team would savor the sweet yet ephemeral taste of online multi-player victory. A glory that lasted for at least a handful of minutes!

“Come on man, one more kill,” Issy implored his unstoppable cohort.

Larry sealed the win in impressive fashion with one second remaining on the clock. His three real world teammates unanimously let out a cheer for him and the thrilling conclusion to the nail-biting, nerve-frying match.

“Damn right! Larry you magnificent assassin, you!” cried Issy, patting him on the back.

“That’s how it’s done, boys,” said Larry confidently, sitting back against the sofa after having taken them back to the multi-player menu so that no new match started automatically.

“The Noob and you: A Winner’s Guide to Utter Pwnage, By Larry Sanderson,” joked Carlos.

This half-baked husk of a derivative jest scattered a snigger throughout the posturing ranks of the couch and armchair warriors. Amidst the muted merriment Tommy offered his fist to each one of them in a ritualistic gesture of male camaraderie and said “Good game guys.” Carlos bumped his fist again, Larry, who had taken out his phone and was texting, ignored it completely, and Issy mocked his gesture by weakly tapping his fist with his knuckles while holding his wrist in an effeminate manner.

“You are sure you’ve played this before, right?” asked a smirking Issy, one eyebrow arched.

“Yeah, dozens of times,” replied Tommy, offended at being so outwardly mocked.

“Tommy takes the thankless job of bait so that we may pick off the opposing team when they are inevitably drawn to the weakness of his play,” Carlos chimed in good heartedly.

“Ah, that most rare and unorthodox of strategies,” responded Issy.

He and Carlos then promptly turned their attention to their phones and soon Tommy felt as if he were alone in the room. Time crawled agonizingly past. Patterns of noise produced by fingers probing miniature touch screen keyboards became like an oppressive drone. The anger Tommy thought he had lost resumed with a passion making it seem like the minor pleasure he had experienced from gaming was just a lacuna in the theme of the day’s mood. There was something profoundly vexatious and rude about this situation to him. Being ignored in the comfort of his own living room by means of the technology he disliked was beyond what he considered bearable.

He tried the polite method of gathering their attention first: fidgeting about in his chair, getting up and pacing the room, walking to the window, and even loudly clunking to the bathroom. None of these actions worked to the desired effect even with the noisome flourishes he added. Finally, after an inordinate length of time had been wasted, he nudged Carlos’ shoulder. His friend looked at him and seeing his unhappiness said: “You can always solo a match while you wait.”

“What’s the matter Tommy, don’t own a phone?” queried Issy. “I thought everyone had one nowadays. The U.N. made it a universal human right for God’s sake.”

“I have no use for one. They’re too distracting,” replied Tommy, his distaste audible.

“Trust me, someone like you, has much use of one,” Issy shot back.

“What do you mean?” asked Tommy.

“He means that for someone of your social skill set,” began Larry quite unexpectedly with his gaze still fixed on the small screen before him, “any kind of interaction with other people, even digital, can prove beneficial. It may help prevent embarrassments like you experienced today.”

“Sputter spud,” laughed Issy after a moment of stunned silence on Tommy’s part. The insult had heat enough to ignite the pyre of Larry’s humor and he shared an insult of his own.

“Flossless Flounder,” he said, cracking up.

Infuriated by the cruel audacity of these two guests, Tommy looked to Carlos to see if he had anything to say in his defense. He quickly discovered that he would get no such support from his supposed friend as he saw Carlos enjoying the words Larry and Issy were utilizing. Carlos was apparently too much of a coward to defend his friend. This was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. Tommy had reached a breaking point and could no longer contain his ire. How dare they so openly try to analyze and subsequently mock what they perceived to be the flaws of his personality! He used his game controller to remotely switch off the gaming console. He then picked up the TV remote and turned off the television. Carlos and Issy immediately chorused their disapproval. Larry’s mood shifted drastically, and he sat forward in his seat and glared at him. His demeanor housed a quiet fury. He was not going to let any defiant behavior by an inferior male specimen slide.

“Is there a problem here?” he asked menacingly.

“Why, are you going to write me an angry text about it?” replied Tommy, returning Larry’s intimidating stare.

“I’d watch what you say,” cautioned Issy.

“Slow down Tommy,” advised Carlos.

He ignored their sensible advice. In all honesty, he had barely even heard it. His tempestuous thoughts had become too overclouded with indignation. “By the way” he began, incensed, as he attempted to narrow to the most clear and cutting form the torrent of strong words bubbling to surface of his mind, “I’d rather be a neck bearded hermit without a friend in the world than a cretin who needs constant distraction in order to hide from the fact that he doesn’t have an original thought in his head.”

His demeaning words battered the escalating tension of the confrontational interaction to an aggressive breaking point. Larry pounced at him like a peckish panther. With swift and violent fluidity, he grabbed Tommy by the shirt and shoulder, ripped him off the chair on which he was sitting, and threw him across the room. He landed roughly on his back on the floor next to the television. For a handful of tense seconds he remained sprawled; his mind reeling over the sudden burst of physical abuse. He sat up just in time to see Larry collecting his controller from the gaming console.

“Stay down,” threatened Larry, pointing a rigid finger at him.

Still a little shell shocked by this bold act of aggression, Tommy obeyed the barked command and did what he was told. Without another word Larry collected his things and made a hasty egress from the apartment. His home was within walking distance and he was undoubtedly heading there.

“You’re lucky,” Issy told Tommy as he followed the ungrateful barbarian’s course of action.

Before he likewise left the apartment, intent on catching up to his friend in all likelihood, Issy made Carlos aware of his thorough disappointment. “Good call Carlos. Good call.”

“Hey, wait up,” Carlos called after Issy as the door was shutting. It was clear he no longer wanted to remain in a place that had so freshly demonstrated the lousiness of his judgment. He grabbed his coat and book bag, raced to the door, then suddenly stopped and turned to face his fallen friend. He is surely coming to his senses, thought Tommy. He couldn’t simply abandon him after he had been both physically and verbally bullied by Carlos’ other friends; certainly not without, at very least, an apology.

“Really?” was all Carlos could to say to him and with a shrug and a shake of the head he was gone.

Tommy was left in silence; ruminating on the misfortunes of the day. He languished in a familiar dismal state of mind. He didn’t know what to do with himself so he simply sat still right on the exact spot where he’d been tossed. The only good thing about the entire situation, he eventually thought, was that his mother, who was still at work, and his older sister Melinda, who was at cheerleading practice, had not been involved in it. He could avoid their concern completely by fabricating an excuse as to why the guests were no longer there when they got home. His thoughts drifted from there to his Grandfather’s monthly visit that was scheduled for later that day. Normally the prospect of conversing with his Grandfather, with whom he shared a close relationship, delighted him. However, under the gloom cast by the afternoon’s circumstances, the only place the thought of his grandparent took him now was back to the short confrontation with Larry and the incidents and the inner conflict that had lead up to it.

It was at this precise moment that the family’s tortoise shell cat named Precious, spying a golden opportunity for a belly rub after hours alone, waddled up to him and collapsed in a purring heap at his side. To the feline kingdom the troubles of men are not above parody.

 

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