K. J. Pedersen
“GET OFF, WUDEFORDE!” I shouted. “Get the fuck off of me, asshole!”
Matthias-Paulus Osric Wudeforde sat astride my chest. The smug fucker grinned like a cat. My whole body ached, my knees were scuffed and grass-stained, just like the palms of my hands and elbows, my nose was bleeding, and I knew the pain was visible on my face. “What’s wrong, Matti, my boy?” he said. “Is a friendly game of C-ball too much for you deal with?” Then he sat down hard on my abdomen and forced the air from my lungs.
I couldn’t very well fight back considering his knees had my arms pinned to the ground and his hands were on my shoulders. I tried though and he responded by leaning his full weight into me. I shouted, or tried to manage a shout, at least. “Goddamn it! Get off! Get off!”
“Does it hurt?”
“What do you think?” I cried out. “That’s my collarbone, asshole!” I felt tears well in my eyes.
The smug, wicked look on his face broadened. He pressed my shoulders harder. The pain in my collar bone and across the top of my chest was unbelievable. “You should stick to A-ball like all the other boys. C-ball is for men,” he said. “Or better yet, bookworm, stick to the library.”
“Get off or I’ll kick your ass so hard — ”
“You’re not in much of a position to do anything.” He pressed one fist right into the middle of my chest, removed the other hand from my shoulder, and then with that fist jabbed me between the ribs with his knuckles. “How does this feel, cock?” He ran his knuckles up and down my ribs quickly, viciously. It hurt and I winced. “You’ll kick my ass? Ha! I’m stronger than you are.”
“Bullshit! I outweigh you by twenty pounds and I’m two inches taller than you are, Matthias-Paulus. Now get off of me or I’ll make you sorry.”
He laughed at me. I hated being mocked. He knew it too and laid the mockery on thick. “Sure, Matti, my boy, whatever.”
Matthias-Paulus was right though: He was stronger. Sometimes I would get the better of him when we wrestled in the gymnasium, but that usually wasn’t the case. Two out of three times, he’d have me pinned to the mat in less than five minutes. Matthias-Paulus was a natural athlete, like my brother, and also like my brother, he’d never gone through that awkward, gawky “teenage boy” stage. I was myself finally passing out of it, but the telltale signs — the long limbs and slender torso — remained.
The two of us had never been close friends, but I’d known him for years. We used to play together when we were kids sometimes. We played computer and virtual reality games, went dirt biking or swimming together. That was about it. We still did things together, every now and then, though it had been a long time since we had last. Jakobus too had been our friend. He thought our friendship was weird because Matthias-Paulus and I acted more like rivals than buddies.
“Get off,” I said once more to him.
He shook his head. “No,” he said in a plain, matter-of-fact way, “this is fine.”
I lost my temper and the next thing I knew Matthias-Paulus was on the ground and I was on top of him. I had my knee in the middle of his chest. His eyes were wide with surprise and pain. And I just ground my knee into his chest.
“You like that, Matty-Paulus?” I demanded. “Huh? How do you like it?”
“You two, cut it out!” That was Tórsten Ceorlson, Matthias-Paulus’s best friend. “Get the ball back in motion! You’re breaking the rules!”
I ignored Tórsten; I was angry. My nose was still bloody, and I felt the viscous stream on my top lip. For one brief moment, the idea of beating the shit out of Matthias-Paulus crossed my mind. I don’t know what came over me, but I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to humiliate him.
“Okay, okay, Matti, you’ve proven your point,” Matthias-Paulus said. “Now get off.”
I adjusted my position a little, so my knee was on his abdomen, just under the sternum. I leaned forward, into him.
“God Almighty!” he screamed. “Get off! That fucking hurts!”
“Now you know how it feels.”
I stood up and walked away. Matthias-Paulus picked himself up slowly, rubbed the center of his chest, sternum, and upper abdomen with the heel of his hand. He winced. He had hurt me, so I hurt him. Tit for tat.
“You’re breaking the rules, guys,” Tórsten said. “The ball must always be in motion.”
“Til skidt medt du!” I swore at him in Scandian without even thinking about it. At home, my mother, brother, sisters and I spoke dansk more frequently than Englisc. It was merely habit. “This is just gymnasium, Tór. Who the fuck cares if we’re breaking the rules or not?”
“That boy-fucker has such a filthy mouth, doesn’t he?” Matthias-Paulus said to Tórsten with a grin. They nodded in complete agreement with each other.
Boy-fucker was a common, crude substitute for homosexual, and it was tossed around all the time. It didn’t matter if you were homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, all the boys called each other that in the gymnasium, in the locker rooms, on the street. I used the term too, but since I’d discovered Johannes was that way, I’d found also the term grated on my ears.
“Can we continue the game now?” Tórsten said finally.
Matthias-Paulus was a demigod; he was above it all. I may have gotten the better of him for one brief moment, but he looked as smug as ever, as if nothing ever happened. He put his arm around Tórsten’s shoulders. “Pick up the ball, Mattæus, and let’s finished this,” he said.
I brushed the grass and grains of dirt from my raw and bloody knees and elbows.
Matthias-Paulus rolled his eyes at me. “Does it hurt, laddy?”
“Fuck yeah, it does!” I spat.
His lips curled. “Hurry up.”
There were times I hated Matthias-Paulus!
Jakobus van der Hoff and his fourteen-year-old brother Christof were at the other end of the field. Jakobus grinned at me and shook his head. He shouted, “Come on, time’s almost up. Let’s finish the game.”
Christof ran toward me like an eager puppy. Since school started in September, he’d become my shadow. I could not turn around without stepping on him. He was suffering from a serious case of hero-worship. And Jakobus, I knew, didn’t approve of his open adoration. He probably thought I was going to corrupt his little brother and introduce him to older girls, wine, and hashish.
Well, truthfully, the idea of getting Christof stoned had its appeal. After all, Johannes and I were only fourteen when an older neighbor boy, Mikael Lundmark, introduced us to herb. It was like an initiation rite, I guess.
I picked up the ball and tucked it under one arm.
“You kicked his ass,” Christof told me, and loudly enough for Matthias-Paulus hear.
Matthias-Paulus and Tórsten both laughed.
Christof grabbed my wrist and looked at my palm intently. He touched the scuffed skin gently, like a tender, curious child might. “Does it hurt?”
“How many times do I have to be asked? Yes, obviously,” I said and yanked my hand away from him.
Matthias-Paulus snarled: “Pull Chrissy from your tit and let’s finish the game, Matti.”
Christof blushed, but I couldn’t help but smile at Matthias-Paulus’s comment. He had a sense of humor, the asshole.
The two teams of twelve each bunched together again in two opposing knots. Then I placed the oblong hide-covered ball between us and stepped back. Jakobus and Christof were on my team. Matthias-Paulus and Tórsten were on the opposing team.
“Now!” one of the boys shouted.
It was a mad dash to grab the ball. Matthias-Paulus scooped it up, ran, but one of the boys on my team knocked it from his hands. Then, suddenly, Jakobus had the ball. He dodged past Tórsten. Matthias-Paulus lunged at him, and he tossed the ball to me.
I caught it, ran back a few feet toward our goal line to give myself room to maneuver, and then ran forward. I brushed past two boys on the other team, dodged Tórsten, and then found myself cornered. I passed it off to Christof. He nearly dropped it.
“Run!” Jakobus yelled. “Christof, run, brother! Run!”
Christof pulled the wobbly ball close to his chest to steady the catch and ran. Four big sixteen- and seventeen-year-old guys from the other team came down on him. He was just this little 5' 6" fourteen-year-old. He looked like he was going to wet himself. Right before they were upon him, he tossed the ball back to me.
They were on me like heat-seeking missiles. I ran with the ball and....
I hit someone hard, knocked him over, and tripped over him. My jaw ached. It felt broken. I heard someone yell, “Oh, shit!” My mouth was covered with blood and I swiped at it a few times. No, my jaw wasn’t broken. It just hurt. I turned around and saw who I’d knocked to the ground. The game stopped and everyone huddled around the boy.
Ælfric Cynricson, a skinny seventeen-year-old, was on his side in the grass writhing in pain. There was blood streaming from a cut above his right eye, right above the eyebrow, down the side of his face and into his long, mousy-colored, wispy-fine hair. Now I understood why my jaw hurt so — I’d struck him in the forehead with my chin. Then I saw the way his arm was twisted underneath him....
Oh, Jesucristus! Oh, God, oh, God! I kept saying in my mind over and again. I got down on my knees beside Ælfric in a hurry. Please don’t be broken, please! I reached out and touched his arm.
“Ælfy? Ælfy, is it broken?”
He was crying now and the tears mixed with the blood. His face was slick with both. The look of pain in his eyes horrified me. Oh God, I’ve broken his arm. A lump formed in my throat and tears stung in my eyes. No, please; you’ll be okay.
I touched his arm again. He winced, but then moved his arm.
“Mattæus, is Ælfric’s arm broken?” I heard someone ask.
More boldly, I touched his arm again. He didn’t wince this time. “Is it broken, Ælfy?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “My head. It hurts. It hurts so much.”
“The clumsy boy-fucker ran in front of you,” Matthias-Paulus said to me. “It’s his own fault.”
I turned on him, angry with his derisive tone, and the lack of concern for Ælfric’s well-being. “Shut up.”
The gymnasium instructor pushed through the throng of boys which had gathered about us. “That’s it. This game is over.” He knelt down beside me and gave Ælfric a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Ælfric? Can you stand?”
“Jakobus, Tórsten, help Ælfric to the medical room.” He looked at me, then at Matthias-Paulus, and the others. “The rest of you, go back to locker room. Your behavior on the field today was un-fucking-believable! Do I make myself clear? And you, Matthias-Paulus: You’re on the team. If I ever see you play like that during a game, a real game, you’re as good as gone.” Then he gave me a contemptuous look. “Mattæus, I don’t care if he stepped into your path or not. Watch where you’re going next time.”
* * *
Jakobus returned to the locker room from the nurse’s office a few minutes after the rest of us filed in from the playing fields. Watching him, I felt suddenly a pang of sorrow that our friendship was strained by our differences, that we had a falling out. We had taken two different courses and adhered to two different world-views. He belonged to the Young Christian Republic Foundation, a conservative political club which met after school twice a month; I was libertarian — an anarcho-syndicalist to be specific. He was a theist; I was an atheist. He was a supernaturalist; I was an humanist. And yet, he was my friend; I had loved him as a brother for as long as I could remember.
He was handsome, I suppose, and was always smiling. His expression was as cheerful as Lukas’s despite the fact that when it came to discussions of religion, Jakobus became downright grave. The happy expressions of joy and love of life suited him much better than somber assertions of Christian doctrine, and the austere currents of thought common to the “Sons of the Apostles and Prophets” sect within Northern Orthodox branch of the church. I had not welcomed this change in him. But as long as he was smiling, I was happy. He had bright blue eyes and honey-colored hair (darker than my brother’s), which he wore medium-length and swept forward upon his forehead (a very popular ‘shaggy’-style, especially with jocks). His hair was a tangle of curls, almost unmanageable, but strangely enough, it suited him. He wasn’t smiling at the moment though, but shrouded in gloom.
“Is Ælfric going to be okay?” I asked, concerned by the look on Jakobus’s face.
“Yeah,” he said, “but you messed him up good. The nurse is sending him up the street to the health clinic. Possible concussion. He has already a black eye. And every inch of that kid is going to be black and blue.” Then he reached out and touched my jaw. I recoiled in agony. “You look pretty beaten up yourself.”
“Yeah, Jaapi,” I said and wiped the drying blood from my lips and chin. “I should clean up.”
“Any teeth knocked loose?”
I shook my head.
“That’s good, at least.”
What a rotten day this is turning out to be, I thought.
I felt bad for Ælfric, and for more than just knocking him senseless.
Matthias-Paulus could rightly accuse me of being a bookworm, insult and kid me for it, question my athletic ability, or whatever, but because my family was squarely middle-class and well established, it meant little. It was not so much a personal attack; it was scarcely more than a ribbing. With Ælfric though such comments — and they were all too frequent — really were insults. For not only did he have the misfortune of being skinny and awkward, bookish, and shy, but he was also lower middle-class.
Shane was correct the night before when he said my father was bureaucrat. And Máire was equally correct when she insisted a bank vice president was not a petty bureaucrat. But that was precisely what Ælfric’s father was: A petty bureaucrat. I think he was an insurance salesman, or a claims adjuster, or something along those lines. Who knew; who cared? He was one of the millions of lower middle-class paper-pushers who managed the titanic money-economy of the AFR while at the same time barely managed himself to cling to what has been called ‘a respectable station in life.’ And even though his class of lower-end professionals was better off than eighty percent of the public generally, they were at the very bottom of the social caste system among those who were enfranchised. (Only twenty percent of the public met the property and/or income requirements necessary to vote.) And because there were so very few sons and daughters of working-class parents in the academies, it was the lower middle-class kids who usually found themselves at the bottom of the heap.
I may have felt bad for Shane, for his situation, but at least he was defiant in the face of adversity. I had a great deal of respect for him, even if he was rash. Ælfric was timid; I pitied him and was ashamed for it. Pity is a weak emotion, and a poor motivator, but I’d always felt a need to stand up for the bullied. In this, as in so many other things, I was like my mother, and her father.
I pulled off my football jersey carefully and sat down on the bench between the banks of lockers. Then I took off my shoes, socks, and shorts. Jakobus changed clothes. Christof undressed too and then sat down next to me so close his thigh brushed against mine. I tried to move away from him.
“Yes, Christoffel, what do you want?” I replied rather too harshly. I used his real nickname and not the nickname Matthias-Paulus had given him, Chrissy, which was more frequently used by girls than by boys (except in Hibernia, where any attempt to emasculate the diminutive would land you in some very serious shit).
He didn’t say anything.
“Move over; give me some room,” I said. “Hell, you’re practically sitting in my lap.”
One of the other boys on the aisle said, “I think that’s the idea.”
“Shut up, Ealdred,” Jakobus said. “Keep your mind out of the gutter.”
Christof blushed but didn’t say anything. He looked at my scuffed knees and elbows as best he could without actually touching me and moving my limbs to get a better look.
Christof had medium-length blond hair, like his brother, only his hair was lighter, the color of wheat fields, and very straight. Unlike Jakobus, he seldom smiled, but had a very mild expression. Not dull — anything but dull — just mild. There was a look of intelligence in his eyes that reminded me of my mother, which in turn, reminded me of myself. He was a pleasantly handsome, gentle boy, and so painfully shy it was embarrassing to watch him interact with others socially. Still, he had his friends, to whom he was fiercely loyal, and he played A-ball like nobody’s business. He was better than I was, and I knew he’d make the team come spring.
“What is it with you, Christof?” I asked. His attention unnerved and embarrassed me, but I played along, not wanting to hurt his feelings.
Jakobus gave me a disapproving look.
“Nothing, Matti,” he said finally. “I’m just hoping you’re not hurt too bad.”
I rolled my eyes. Ealdred chuckled. Another boy down the row a few feet snickered, and muttered, “Oh, that’s so cute. It’s puppy-love.”
With that, Jakobus slammed his fist into the metal lockers with a loud crash. “Christof, leave Mattæus be!”
* * *
I padded into the bathroom adjoining the locker room. It was a long, rectangular room with half a dozen urinals, two toilet stalls, and eight sinks with mirrors. There was a full length mirror on the far wall and next to it was a first aid kit. I went to wash up in front of a mirror and sink. The room seemed private, and a lot less noisy than the locker room. The image to greet me in the mirror was pained. My face was covered in dark, blackened and rusty-colored blood, now crusty, dry. My jaw was swollen and beginning to bruise. I pulled free the rawhide cord that kept my hair bound in a topknot and let it fall to my shoulders. I washed my face, watched blood-red tendrils swirl in the basin, then down the drain. To forget the pain, I closed my eyes. The water on my face felt so good, and I took a long, grateful drink of the ice-cold water from the tap.
I felt someone swat my rear and I jerked upright immediately. It was Matthias-Paulus. Like me, he was naked excepting white briefs. He left his hand on my right buttock.
“You like playing ass-grab with the boys, don’t you?” I said and pushed his hand away from my bottom.
He shrugged. “When there aren’t any good-looking girls around, yeah.”
Matthias-Paulus was so casual about it one might think he was joking. I knew he was bisexual though. He didn’t so much brag about it, but there were hints, innuendoes of his encounters, and such. He played both C-ball and A-ball, and just about every guy on the teams knew. Of course, he wasn’t the only bisexual jock around either. I knew Andreas Bjórnsson-Edithson, his friend Wolfwig Engelhardtsón, and Tórsten were too. And there were others.
“Well, around me, keep your hands to yourself.”
He grinned again, that smug, cat-like grin. “Yeah, Matti. Whatever.”
I shook my head. What was the point in arguing with him? He did things his own way.
“I wonder what your girlfriend Ama would think if she knew you play both sides of the field so to say.”
Again, he just shrugged. “Why would it bother her? She does too.”
That was news to me. Ama Winricsdohtor was Lindi’s best friend. For one brief moment I wondered if she and Lindi.... No. Not Lindi. Definitely not.
He giggled — he actually giggled. “Ah, the pleasures of Sapphic love. I wish Ama would let me watch.”
“Enough gossip,” I said. “What do you want?”
“I came in here to apologize, Mattæus,” he said. “You were right to call me an asshole. I was acting like an idiot on the playing field this afternoon. I’m sorry I tackled you like that. And I’m sorry I didn’t get off when you told me to.”
I shrugged his apology off. “Whatever.”
I watched him for a moment. There was no sign of deceit in his eyes nor at the corners of his mouth. There was no smirk. “Okay, Matthias-Paulus,” I said finally. “Apology accepted.”
He nodded, but didn’t say anything, and stood there looking at me, studying me for a moment. I felt self-conscious being undressed with him and alone. I looked him over too. We had sized each other up before, when wrestling, and in trying to devise a strategy to beat the other.
The two of us were rivals in many ways though he outclassed me in athletics on every level. I knew it and usually would admit it without shame. It was a matter of fact. He was faster and stronger, and he was determined to prove it again and again, in and out the gymnasium. One might say he wanted to ‘rub my nose in it.’ He played A-ball and C-ball. He wrestled. He could fence, ride a horse, swim and dive, and run well. He had the body of an Olympian god. Johannes, Lukas, and Matthias-Paulus were champions. Nevertheless, he was jealous of me. There were times his animosity was naked, raw, and very bitter. Our rivalry had nothing to do with athletics, and little to do with social status either, as he too was middle-class (his father was a small capitalist, the sole owner of a chain of electronics stores in North and Suth Lancascir). No. In truth it wouldn’t even be proper to call it rivalry. He resented my creativity, intelligence, and ability even though I was a poor student. When we were younger, we’d argue, and then, unable to outmaneuver me verbally, he’d resort to calling me names. Bookworm, of course, was his favorite. Well, that and boy-fucker.
When we were fourteen, he was horrible. He’d insult me, fight with me, physically and verbally, play pranks on me in front of his other friends. He pulled down my knee-breeches in the lunch hall once exposing my underwear to a hundred or more of our classmates, boys and girls. I was humiliated. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, he’d want to make up. It was a cycle which replayed itself as we got older too, and I knew that’s what was happening now.
Of course, when we were fourteen, he could get away with it. I was scrawny and couldn’t fight back effectively. Johannes was already 6' 2" and 170 pounds. It was our first year in the senior academy and he already played on the varsity C-ball and A-ball teams. He spent his time with the older boys, seventeen-year-olds in their last year at Sceofeld Academy, jocks, including Matthias-Paulus’s older brother, Philippus-Brandt. Everyone called Johan my ‘big brother,’ even though he was only twenty-two minutes older than I was. But I never let it get me down. I knew I would reach at least the 6' 2" mark, despite the fact our father was only 5' 9½". I took after mum’s side of the family. I looked like they did. They were my folk. Mum was relatively tall for a woman (as tall as my father), and her father, Kristianus Tórvaldsson was 6' 2", while her brother Peder was 6' 3". Yeah, I knew I was going to shoot up tall like they were; I was a late bloomer, that’s all.
“Hop up on the edge of the sink, Matti,” he said and went for the first aid kit on the far wall.
“No need,” I said.
He came back to where I was and pulled out alcohol, bandages, and a washcloth. “Just do it. Stop being so argumentative.”
“Argumentative? Me? You’re argumentative; you’re always looking for a fight.”
“No way, that’s you.”
“Uh-uh.” He shook his head. “You.”
We both laughed.
“C’mon,” he said. “Hop up there.”
I nodded finally and did what he asked. All the while I watched him as he wet the washcloth and poured alcohol on the bandages. He wore an intent, serious expression. Then he washed the grass-stains and blood from my elbows.
We were face to face. Matthias-Paulus was very good-looking; handsome, solid, athletic. He had a ruddy complexion. In fact, he was sunburned, proof that he spent most of his free time outdoors playing sports. He wore his hair medium-length and swept forward too. It was pale, yellow-blond, and mostly straight. He had ice-blue eyes. I could see why he had such as easy time with the girls, and why he was shameless about his bisexuality. He was attractive to both sexes and confident.
“This is going to sting,” he said and wiped my elbows, one after the other, with the alcohol-soaked bandages.
“I told you so.”
I clenched my jaw tight against the stinging. He went on then and washed my palms and applied alcohol.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked him.
“Because I caused it to happen in the first place.”
He moved on and attended to my knees.
Out of nowhere and without any apparent reason, he said, “Christof has a crush on you.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly, not wanting to admit it to even myself. “You noticed too, huh?”
“It’s the way he hangs around; the way he looks at you. He is so eager to gain your approval.”
“It happens,” I said finally.
He nodded. “Boys that age are always looking for approval from the older boys and young men. Like Justus Thurstanson. He’s a few months younger than Christof; he just turned fourteen. He’s always hanging around. I can’t move without bumping into him.” He laughed. “I was the same way. I had a crush on my big brother’s friend. Remember Mikael Lundmark?”
I nodded and grinned knowingly.
“What?” he asked.
“So did I. Mikael was sexy. It’s a stage boys go through,” I said. “We grow out of it.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them.
“You might have,” he said. “But bisexuality is more common than you’d care to admit.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
“Your brother and Lukas haven’t seemed to grow out of it either.”
I felt myself blush.
Thankfully, Matthias-Paulus let it drop, and changed the subject. “Are you and Lindi fucking yet?”
“Oh,” he replied. “You’re physical with each other though, yeah?”
I nodded, then added, “But I’m not ready for a sexual relationship yet. And neither is she.”
“Jesucristus, Mattæus, don’t get so defensive,” he said. “All I meant was: Really, me too. Ama and I aren’t having sex yet either. And for the same reason. I’m not ready; she’s not ready. It’s not so uncommon. People develop sexually at different rates. Tórsten lost his virginity at fifteen. Others don’t have sex until they’re in their twenties. It’s no big deal.”
I was surprised by his frankness and his philosophical approach to sex. From the way he bragged, I would have expected more of the same, and not such a thoughtful statement. I was also surprised by the tenderness he showed as he cleaned my wounds. It was intimate, it was embarrassing, but it felt so good to just sit, relax, and let him wash my knees and bandage the cuts.
“All finished,” he said.
I hopped down from the edge of the sink.
“I know we’re not exactly best friends, and it has been a long time since we did anything together,” he said. “But what say we get together tonight, see a movie ... smoke some herb. You know, whatever.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Yeah, right on.”
* * *
After classes had ended for the day, I went to the Administration Building to get everything I needed from my locker. Wulfric Peterson and Shane mac Cormac were there waiting for me. I was surprised to see them as their lockers were in the Science Building.
Wulfric said, “It’s about time you showed up.” He stood casually against the bank of lockers, arms crossed over this slender chest.
“You have a ride home this afternoon, Matti?” Shane asked. “With Jakobus?”
“Only if I see him in the parking lot,” I replied.
When I introduced Wulfric and Shane to one another the year before at Lindi’s Christmas party, I’d hoped the introduction would inject new vitality into my increasingly distanced friendship with Shane. In the wake of his loss, I had no idea what else to do. I had wrongly assumed the three of us would bond, but instead Wulfric and Shane had, and I found myself outside. There had been nothing intentionally exclusionary about the fact — it simply happened.
Nevertheless, it left me feeling hurt, and defeated....
“How about if you take the bus home with the two of us this afternoon,” Shane said. “I mean, you left your clothes at my place. And I want my clothes back too.” He tugged at my sleeve — his sleeve.
The tone of his voice, the mischievous grin, the playful tug at my sleeve — it was clear Shane really did want our friendship to pick up where it had let off.
I kidded, in kind, “I’ve still got your underwear too. You want them back as well?”
Wulfric stared at us, one eyebrow up. His interest was piqued and he moved away from the lockers and towards the two of us. The pensive — sometimes sullen — expression he wore was immediately transformed into one of satyric curiosity. “Since when did you two become friends with benefits?” he joked.
The implication of homoerotic activity between teenage boys, between friends especially, was extremely juvenile, never lacking, though usually meaningless.
I laughed. “Shut up.”
“Fuck off, Wulfy, you jealous bitch. I’m still all yours.” Shane grabbed at him; tried to catch him in a headlock. Failing that, he grabbed a fistful of Wulfric’s long, dark brown hair, and jabbed him between the ribs playfully.
With a catlike twist one way, and then the other, Wulfric tried to wrest himself away from Shane. Once free, he slugged him. “Very funny, fuck-off.”
“C’mon, let’s go,” I said and placed myself between Shane and Wulfric, who were now exchanging blows.
My father was known to say that Wulfric Peterson and his family were of “old Liberian stock,” as if it lent their family dignity. All that really meant was his family had been among the earliest Nova Anglian settlers (farmers at that) on the Pacific coast. His family settled at Sceofeld in the early 1850s even before there was a ‘Republic of Liberia.’ Their homestead was yet a part of Cantabria Nova — Iberia Nova’s northernmost province — when their ‘Liberian’ countrymen, all of them from Nova Anglia, declared their independence from the so-called ‘Despotate of the Mexicæ,’ and brought a new state into existence by means of the rifle and saber. The result was a brief, disastrous war between Iberia Nova and Nova Anglia for the latter’s official recognition and approval of the violent dismemberment of the former, and finally, one-hundred-two years later, to the merger of Nova Anglia and Liberia (among others) into the Anglian Federative Republic.
My father had no respect to speak of for Wulfric, and even less so for his ‘dissolute’ father, but he did respect Wulfric’s grandfather, the Family itself, and its deep roots. They were Liberians, real Liberians. (Never mind that Wulfric himself had been born at Alwarstoc, Scroppascir, Nova Anglia....)
Perhaps, strangely enough, there was something venerable about this fact. I felt a tie myself to Wulfric, albeit vague, because the lot where my home stood had been a field which his ancestors once tilled.
Wulfric and I were neighbors and that neighborliness had been the basis of our friendship. I was a year older than he was, and when we were younger that seemed a mighty gap, but as we’d entered our teenage years the age difference mattered less and less.
The three of us crossed the parking lot and walked toward the bus stop.
I tapped the face of my wristwatch. “Call Johannes,” I said. My watch chirped for a moment as it connected with Johannes’s personal number.
“Hey, this is Johannes,” the answer came.
“Johan, I’m going to catch the bus home. So don’t worry, I’m not going to steal the car from you like I did the other day.”
“Make sure you don’t,” he said. “Aren’t you going to catch a ride with Jaapi or Lindi?”
“No. I’m with Shane. We’re going back to his apartment.”
“Matti, listen,” Johannes said, “I’ve got to run. C-ball practice is going to start in a few minutes.”
“Farvel,” I said.
“Ja, hej-hej, broder,” he answered, then disconnected.
We stood at the bus stop with a few of our classmates until the bus arrived a few minutes later and let us board. Shane, Wulfric and I managed to find seats by the rear door. We chatted for a moment, and then, as so often it did, our conversation turned to politics.
Shane had always been a politically-minded fellow. That may have been one of the reasons we both got along so well. We agreed, by and large, on political matters, even if he was a Red Republican, like his father. Well, at least he was a left-wing Red Republican, which made him essentially an anarchist, and therefore very much opposed to the party’s authoritarian, statist right-wing.
Wulfric could carry an intelligent conversation on just about any subject. His political views weren’t openly anarchistic like Shane’s and like mine. Wulfric was more a liberal social democrat, I’d say, with syndicalist sympathies.
World affairs — the internal affairs of the Terran Republic — at the moment were ... unbalanced. Shane thought they were downright dangerous and was eager to make Wulfric and I aware of the fact.
“Haven’t you heard the bellicose language pouring from Niew Dunham, Hannover, and particularly from Shanghai and Moskva?” Shane insisted. The cities he named were, respectively, the capitals of the AFR; Alemannian Republic; Sinæ Republic and Federated Asian States; and the Republic of the Rus (that is, Ruthenia).
“Angry words, so what?”
“Twenty-five years ago was it just ‘angry words,’ Matti, when politicians in Niew Dunham and Shanghai threatened embargo if the Indians didn’t revoke the protectionist measures they’d enacted?”
The Constitution of the Terran Republic contained a Free Trade mandate, thus disallowing national policies of protectionism on the part of its constituent states. The AFR and Sinæ felt it necessary to enforce the constitution in whatever way they deemed appropriate. The result was calamitous.
“The Senate and Federal Court of the Republic will avert any crisis this time around,” I assured him. “A lot was learned during and in the aftermath of the Anglo-Indian War.”
“In which my father was forced to fight.”
“Yes, Shane, I know,” I said.
The war and Cormac’s conscription had radicalized his world-view. Shane had inherited his father’s red republicanism, his internationalism, and his hatred of states and their wars.
“If you saw your friends die the way he did — ” he went on.
“I’m not arguing with you, Shane; I understand where you’re coming from. But this is not the Anglo-Indian War any longer. Conditions have changed. The world has changed,” I said. “The Republic has adapted.”
Wulfric told Shane earnestly: “The border crisis between the Rus and Sinæ will pass. Everything east of the Lena River in the Iakutian Province has belonged to the Sinæ since the 1980s; the Rus will just have to accept it.”
Shane pressed on regardless. “In 2035, the Republic was established immediately following the atomic attack at O-a-u, Liberian Polynesia, the destruction of the Onoruru shipyards and harbor, and the loss of twenty-thousand lives. Because the Anglo-Sinitic War escalated to the use of that single atomic torpedo in the harbor, the specter of atomic warfare was conjured again from its 20th Century grave. The war between the AFR and Sinæ was ended by treaty ten days later, and the Republic — a worldwide, federal state — was established thereafter, first and foremost, to prevent further wars, and to control fission and fusion weapons. Right?”
Wulfric and I nodded together.
“So, this is my point: The formation of the Terran Republic did not prevent three of its constituents — the AFR, Sinæ, and India — from waging war only seventeen years later, did it? Did not the Terran Federal Court declare the war illegal and a direct violation of the Constitution? Did the Senate not pass numerous treaty resolutions in an attempt to end the war?”
“Yes — ”
“But the war raged for seven years regardless and reduced the Indian Republic to ruins. Fifteen million were killed, mostly Indians, particularly along the Indus, in Sind, and in the Punjab. Even today India’s infrastructure is such a ruin that it remains a direct protectorate of the Terran Republic.”
“Like I said: A lot was learned as a result of that war, Shane. That’s why the federal court system was thoroughly reformed in the early 2060s. That is why arbitration between national republics is, and always has been, the Republic’s first priority.”
“But here we are twenty years later with the nations of Europa, Terra Nova, and Asia drawing up the battle lines again — ”
“Battle lines are not being drawn up,” Wulfric said. “Not even between the Rus and Sinæ.”
“World State or not, saber-rattling is the stuff of international politics. Always has been,” I said. “Most of that warmongering garbage is coming from anti-Republican forces such as the National Patriots’s Party and the Christian Nationalists. There are only seventeen members affiliated with either party occupying seats with the Senate of the Terran Republic. That’s seventeen out of six-hundred-fifty seats, Shane.” I stopped for a moment. “Wait, hold on, Shane, that’s our stop coming up.” I pulled the cord to let the driver know to stop at the next sign.
The three of us got off the bus together and walked around the corner to catch #74 southbound.
“Why has the government of the AFR laid the hulls for two new missile cruisers at the Niew Lifrapol shipyards since July then?” Shane asked as we waited. “The warships weren’t in the federal budget passed in March, were they? In late April, the dispute along the Lena flared between the Sinæ and Rus. Then in May’s special session, both Conservatives and Liberals voted for new military appropriations and higher taxes.” He tapped his palm with his index finger. It was his habit when he argued or tried to make a point. “Your mum wrote an article for Freedom & Fellowship about the AFR’s increased military spending since the Iakutian dispute erupted anew, and since the Alemannian, Scandian, Francian and Ruthenian republics defied the Constitution and threatened to levy tariffs on steel, autos, and heavy machinery in June. April, May, June, July — the events are all sequential.”
“Don’t misrepresent my mum’s work,” I said. “The point of her article was that because the only tax revenue the State collects is from sales taxes — a very regressive form of taxation — that the State should not squander it on additional military hardware, particularly when the Republic was established to put an end to military conflicts. Any increases in the sales tax, she believes — and I agree wholeheartedly — should be applied to investment in public infrastructure such as roads, railroads, sewers — waterworks generally — and finally put into programs designed to reduce the high rate of unemployment.”
“But she also cited specifically the 20th Century axiom: War is good for the health of the economy.”
“Military spending can stimulate industry,” I said. “That’s what she wrote. It can because it momentarily forces supply to meet demand. But it doesn’t necessarily help in the long run because that demand is a governmental artifice and unrelated to the actual material needs of the people.”
“The AFR and Sinæ Republic are closely bound through trade and effective condominium of Pacifica. And the Rus and the republics of Europa are closely bound as well because of their common interests as members of the Eurasian Federation.” He paused. “Where Sinæ goes, the AFR will follow. Where Ruthenia goes, Alemannia, Scandia, Francia — all of Europa — will follow.”
I bit my lip and nodded. “I understand what your saying. And I don’t like where you are headed with it.”
“Neither do I.”
“But you’re still wrong, Shane. The Terran Republic is the State. It isn’t weak and ineffectual like the old International Council was. Whatever differences there are between the AFR, Alemannia, Sinæ, and the Rus, the Republic will resolve.”
* * *
To be continued....