ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
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BOOK 1, CHAPTER 4: TARGET ACQUIRED
“Erik Hawthorne? … Erik Hawthorne?”
Ned Jackson, the teacher of the homeroom class Chris and Marilyn were in, looked up from the list of students’ names during rollcall. He was not surprised by the lack of response when calling out Erik Hawthorne’s name, who had a history of taking sick days frequently.
A middle-aged black man with thick-rimmed glasses, Mr. Jackson had been teaching social studies and geography at Lyonbole from day one, and had been a substitute teacher around Chicago before then.
“He’s not here again,” a boy called out from the back of the room.
“Missing another day already,” Mr. Jackson said as he marked the “absent” checkbox next to Erik Hawthorne’s name.
“Doesn’t he have a bad immune system?” someone asked aloud.
“I heard that,” someone else said. “He’s always sick.”
“Maybe he has AIDS?” a third said, barely audible throughout the entire classroom. “Like, full-blown AIDS.”
“Okay, that’s enough.” Mr. Jackson cleared his throat. “Erik does not have AIDS.”
“What about HIV? Or are they the same?”
As soon as the gossiping had ceased, rollcall continued. Chris turned around and looked at the desk where Erik usually sat, feeling there was nothing he could do to help an ailing classmate.
During the homeroom’s free session, Marilyn walked up to Chris’s desk. He was looking over some notes for biology, trying to memorize the dozens of terms from the week’s assignments, and didn’t notice Marilyn at first. When the scent of warm cinnamon graced his nose, he suddenly perked up and saw Marilyn’s pretty smile aimed at him.
“Hey,” he said, unable to keep himself from smiling.
“What’s that you’re looking at?” she asked curiously.
“Oh, just some biology terms,” he replied. “That class has a lot of terms to memorize.”
“Do you need any help with it? Would flashcards help at all?” She played with the keychain hanging from her belt loop, a figurine of Cold Fjord’s mascot, which was indescribable, but cute … apparently.
“I think I’ve got most of it.” Chris smiled. “What about you? Need a study buddy?”
“Hmm, not really,” she said, “but if I do, I’ll let you know.”
“How about that magazine contest?” Chris asked. “Did you submit your entry yet?”
“Not yet,” she replied. “I think I’ll do that tonight.”
“I wish you luck,” Chris told her.
Marilyn beamed happily.
“Thanks! But I need to think of a name for it. It’s a requirement.”
Chris thought about it for a moment.
“How about ‘Eden’s Lance’?” he said.
“Ooh, I like it,” she replied, her eyes lighting up. “But how can you name it when you don’t know which one I’ll pick?”
“I dunno,” Chris said with a shrug. “Just throwing it out there.”
Chris stared at his phone during lunch, not really listening to any of the conversations around him. Garret had brought a thermos of Italian sausage gravy from home and was pouring it over some French fries purchased in the cafeteria. He called it “poo teen” and insisted it was his favorite thing to eat, but Chris was too preoccupied with his phone to pay attention to the exotic Canadian meal.
“It’s not ‘poo teen’,” Garret said as he pointed his fork at Drake. “Poutine is a delicacy where I’m from. It conjures memories from my youth!”
“But,” Drake said disbelievingly, “it’s just gravy over fries.”
“This is only a basic rendition,” Garret insisted. “You can add an array of ingredients to make it dynamite! Cheese! Eggs! Bacon! Onions! Peppers! You’d be blown away.”
“Uh, maybe. When you say ‘bacon’, you realize that Canadian bacon isn’t actually bacon, right?”
“Chris!” Garret said, ignoring Drake’s bacon comment. “Stop screwing with your phone and give me some poutine insight!”
Caught off guard by the sudden attention, Chris looked up.
“Tell Drake that I’m not making this poutine thing up. Gravy on fries with cheese and eggs and bacon,” he looked at Drake, who shrugged again, “isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The fries are the ultimate evolutionary rendition of spuds, featuring a crispy outer shell of golden starches extracted from within by the hot oil they’re cooked in.” He held up a single French fry, lightly steaming, for all to behold. “And yet, that flavor-packed, texturally superior outer shell is not impregnable against the savory creaminess of the sausage gravy, and that momentary breakdown of the fries’ exterior is where the nirvana de la cuisine resides, awaiting every bite … at least before they get really soggy and cold. Tell me, Chris, doesn’t that invigorate your palate?”
“Can’t knock it ‘til you try it,” Chris said humbly.
Garret seemed a little disappointed by that indirect answer.
“You wanna try some?” he asked, pushing the gravy-covered fries toward Chris, who was looking at his phone again. “Hey! What’s so important on your phone?”
“Yeah,” Drake said, “you’ve been playing with your phone the whole time.”
“Oh, sorry.” Chris put his phone in his pocket. “Yeah, I’ll try some poo teen.”
The truth was the Excalibur A.I. app had finished downloading and was installed, but Chris couldn’t get it to work. Every time he tried opening the app, a message would appear:
<ERROR: Application is missing necessary data for user interface. Despite admin privileges, access cannot be granted at this time.>
The message itself seemed to make some sense, although it was hard to determine exactly what it was specifying. After repeatedly trying to figure it out, Chris decided to give up in the meantime. He would have to talk to Leon Kampton, Lavi, about it. Taking a bite of Garret’s poutine, the shocking deliciousness temporarily took his mind off of everything that had been weighing on him, as the crispy fortifications of the golden-shelled French fries harmonized with the creamy Italian sausage gravy’s herbal spiciness and meaty disposition.
“Hey, this is good, Garret.”
Garret was very satisfied.
Robbie was already sitting at his desk for history class when Chris walked into the room. Ms. Vaughn was wearing a less revealing outfit that day, so the danger level was comfortably low. After Chris took his seat, Robbie immediately greeted him warmly.
“Wassup, man?” Robbie said with a courteous smile.
“Nothing really,” Chris replied. “How are you, man?”
“Not bad. Did you check out that app?”
Chris had been expecting the question, but answering it still felt awkward.
“I ran into a problem,” Chris told him, almost sighing. “It gives me an error message whenever I try to open it.”
Robbie looked skeptical.
“Error message, huh?” he said. “Like, what’s it say?”
Chris attempted to open the app again, and when presented with the same message, he handed the phone to Robbie to look at. With a puzzled look, Robbie rubbed his chin.
“That’s weird,” he said, handing the phone back to Chris. “Are you sure it’s not a virus or malware?” Robbie asked.
“I don’t think so,” Chris replied. “Malware, as in malicious software, right? I haven’t noticed anything else unusual about my phone.”
“You gotta look out for hackers,” Robbie said. “They’ve been on the rise. Rumors say that we have some right here in Lyonbole. Students.”
“Yeah, I’ll be careful.”
Basketball practice was grueling that day. Robbie plopped down on a bench in the gymnasium, catching his breath while dripping with sweat. He clutched his bottle of sports drink and took a couple gulps of the refreshing, strawberry-kiwi fluid.
Tinashe Bronson, a black girl with amazing, naturally poofy hair walked over to him and giggled.
“You look worn out,” she said playfully.
“Because I am worn out,” Robbie replied, grinning.
“You really pushed yourself out there this time,” Tinashe said. “Don’t overdo it, now.”
“It’s all good,” Robbie told her, getting to his feet. “It was fun. I like it. The point is to push yourself a little more all the time.”
“Yeah, that’s good.” Tinashe looked at her phone’s clock. “I need to get going. I told my cousin I’d watch her dog, but I’m running late.”
“You didn’t have to stay,” Robbie said. He grabbed his towel and dried off his face.
“I know, but I wanted to,” she replied. After watching Robbie towel himself off, she said, “You should take a shower now, or you’ll stink.”
“Always telling me what to do.”
“I gotta, or you’ll be in trouble.”
The basketball coach, Calvin Van Dregg, was calling all the teammates over. Robbie took another quick gulp of his sports drink.
“Alright, Tinashe, I gotta go before Coach gets pissed.”
“Yup. See ya tomorrow.”
Robbie waved at her as he jogged over to the coach. For a few seconds, Tinashe stood and watched, really wishing that she didn’t need to babysit her cousin’s dog and instead could stay until Robbie was finished, then left the gymnasium.
After listening to Coach Van Dregg’s end-of-practice pep talk, it was time to hit the showers. As usual, washing the hot sweat away was like putting on a fresh, new skin for the rest of the day. Robbie got dressed, packed up his gym bag which he used for all of his school supplies, and headed home. Like a large number of the students at Lyonbole, he lived within walking distance and preferred to walk. When he entered the hallway from the gym, someone approached and stopped him.
“What is it, Mr. Kampton?” Robbie asked the vice principal.
“Don’t look so intimidated!” Mr. Kampton said with a bright smile.
“Uh, I’m more confused than intimidated,” Robbie said straightforwardly. “Is there something you need from me, sir?”
Mr. Kampton continued to smile, but now it held behind it something more serious.
“Yes, actually. Can you follow me to my office? Oh, you’re not in trouble with the school or anything like that. I just have to speak with you.”
“I have time,” Robbie replied.
Lyonbole Public High School was like a different world when it was devoid of the bustling, chatting students. If it wasn’t for Mr. Kampton’s amusing anecdotes the entire time, the walk to the main office from the gymnasium would have been a lonely, quiet one. The large hallways, polished floor, sculpted walls, and high ceilings had an affinity for making a person feel small and isolated. Coupled by one’s own echoing footsteps, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the school’s size, despite its aesthetic appeal and luxurious amenities. As the sun took its westward stance in the sky, the direction of the shadows was strange to witness, as most people occupied the school while the sunlight came from the eastern sunrise and overhead at noon.
“… and that is why we don’t offer spicy mayonnaise in our cafeteria any longer.” Mr. Kampton was finishing his odd story as the two of them entered his office. “Take a seat, Robert. Make yourself comfy.”
Robbie placed his gym bag on the floor, sat in the chair in front of Mr. Kampton’s desk, and took a look around. It was the first time he had ever been in that particular room, and it was as organized as he had imagined. On the top of a filing cabinet in the corner was an abacus, and Robbie stared at it, contemplating how they worked and why the vice principal had one. Was it for decoration?
Mr. Kampton took his seat behind his desk.
“You’re probably wondering why you’re here,” Mr. Kampton said. “I wanted to ask you about another student here.”
“Another student?” Robbie prepared himself. There were a lot of students at Lyonbole to remember.
“I believe you’re acquainted with Erik Hawthorne, is that correct?”
“Erik, yeah,” Robbie replied. “He’s an old buddy of mine, though we don’t really hang out or anything these days much.”
“He was absent today. Not a surprise, I assume.”
“Well,” Robbie said, rubbing the back of his head, “he gets sick a lot. Anyone who knows Erik knows he’s always taking sick days.” Suddenly, a wave of concern came over him. “Wait, is something wrong? He’s never been seriously sick before, but is he now?”
Mr. Kampton paused for a moment. The look on his face meant he was searching for the right words. After a brief silence, he smiled again, but his eyes didn’t reflect that smile in the slightest.
“Erik Hawthorne will probably be fine,” he said finally.
“‘Probably’ be fine?”
“There’s somebody I want you to talk to about Erik.”
“Someone you want me to talk to?” Robbie didn’t fully understand. “Like his doctor or parents?”
Mr. Kampton looked directly at Robbie, and although there was still a trace smile on his face, he was now dead serious.
“Talk to Christopher Findale.”
That was unexpected. Robbie realized he had been tensing his body in anticipation, and hearing Mr. Kampton’s answer made him loosen his posture. The boy leaned back in his chair.
“Chris Findale? That white kid with the mean eyes who said you downloaded an app for?”
“That’s the one.”
“But,” Robbie had to think for a moment, “but why? What’s his involvement?”
“That’s what I want you to talk about,” the vice principal said.
Mr. Kampton stood up as Robbie stewed in jumbled thoughts.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Robbie said quietly.
“Fret not, my boy. You’ll come to understand in due time.”
There was an awkward silence as Mr. Kampton appeared to study the student’s confusion.
“Is that all?” Robbie asked, looking up at Mr. Kampton.
“Eh, there’s one more thing,” he replied, holding out his index finger. “Keep this one a secret, ‘kay?”
At that moment, two large, feathery, white wings suddenly unfolded behind the vice principal, touching the walls on either side of the office. A soft glow radiated from him in a way that seemed to cast light on everything from all directions. Clasping his hands together with a big smile, tilting his head to the side, the angel added, “Just call me Lavi!”
Robbie was out of the school building in record time, and he wasn’t even on the track team.
The clouds were beginning to roll in from the west, but the air was still warm and the breeze was pleasant. Not wanting to go home quite yet, Chris walked around Revere Park, lost in thought about the looming uncertainty. In the back of his mind, he was always ready for some kind of encounter with the unknown entities Lavi spoke of, but his biggest concern was the safety of the general public.
There were kids playing baseball in the park, elderly couples resting on benches, young couples taking selfies, some college students playing tennis, and plenty of people enjoying leisurely strolls with their dogs. If there was some sort of attack from a monster or cretin, how would Chris identify it before it being too late? He didn’t know how to use Gunnhildr, nor any of his “powers” for that matter, but that didn’t stop him from feeling a sense of responsibility and civil duty.
I’m here to do what I can, he thought, watching a kid run around the baseball diamond after hitting a grounder. I just don’t know … what it is that I’m supposed to do.
Out of breath and heart pounding from running and terror, Robbie stopped and rested his hands on his knees, dropping his gym bag on the ground haphazardly. Sweat dripped from his head and onto the sidewalk while he panted, the effects of his after-practice shower now erased. The image of his vice principal with huge angel wings was burned into his mind, and he only hoped he was going to wake up from whatever insane dream he was in. He had no idea why he had ran all the way to Revere Park of all places, but he blamed his primitive fight-or-flight mechanism for making him choose a random direction to flee in.
Robbie had almost caught his breath when he looked up, and that was when he was stricken with another unbelievable sight: Chris Findale was in front of him, sitting on a park bench. Just after Lavi had said to talk to Chris regarding Erik Hawthorne, there he was, in the very place where Robbie had ended up for seemingly no reason.
Robbie approached Chris, who hadn’t noticed him right away. Chris had a distant look in his eyes and quickly came back to reality upon noticing his approaching classmate.
“Robbie?” he said, perking up. “What brings you here?”
“Well, funny you’d ask that,” Robbie replied with a forced chuckle, wiping the remaining sweat from his forehead.
“Is everything all right?” Chris asked. “You look tired.”
Robbie swallowed, gearing up for what he was about to say.
“I need to talk to you,” he said, trying to be as assertive as possible without seeming desperate.
The two of them took a walk around the small park, keeping their voices down and minding the ears of anyone who might wander too close.
“This is gonna sound crazy,” Robbie said skeptically, “but bear with me, if you will.”
Robbie stopped walking and grabbed Chris’s shoulders with both hands.
“Our vice principal … is an angel!”
Chris looked at Robbie for a second with a blank stare before cracking a humble smile.
“I know that.”
“No, no, no, I don’t mean as in a nice guy. He’s a real angel with wings and glowing lights and … stuff ….”
“Yeah, I know.”
Robbie blinked, not sure if he was feeling disbelief, relief, or some ambiguous combination of the two, if not feeling something else entirely different. He let go of Chris’s shoulders.
“Yeah, I just found out yesterday. His real name is Lavi.”
“So … that means that this is for real, then?” Robbie laughed spontaneously. “I … I don’t know how to take this.”
“It’s quite shocking, huh?” Chris said, smiling.
“You’re pretty casual about it, Chris.”
Chris looked at the ground, then at the sky.
“With all honesty,” he replied quietly, “I kind of saw something like this coming, like, my whole life. It’s hard to explain, but when Lavi revealed himself to me, it was like a veil had been lifted and I realized I had been waiting for it since I can remember.”
Robbie took a few steps back, looking grimly around at the park. The sky had become mostly cloudy, casting a grayness upon everything. They started walking again, slower this time.
“There’s another thing,” Robbie said.
“What do you know about Erik Hawthorne?”
Chris thought about it for a second.
“The guy in my class who’s always sick?” he asked.
Robbie nodded and asked, “Do you know him?”
“Yeah, he’s in my homeroom.”
“Do you know anything about him that sticks out?”
“Uh, well ….”
“Anything at all.”
They stopped walking again. Chris looked off into the distance, not fixating his gaze on anything specific. There was the pinging sound of a baseball colliding with a bat as a kid nailed a homerun. An uproar of cheering accompanied the sunlight as it poked through a break in the clouds, raining its warmth and highlighting the area where Chris and Robbie stood, putting them in the spotlight for an audience that wasn’t paying attention.
“Nothing … really.”
Robbie’s eye twitched.
Chris gave him a goofy grin.
“He’s in my grade and in my homeroom. Other than the fact that he’s always calling off, I don’t know the guy.”
Robbie hunched over and sighed.
“Lavi told me to ask you about him,” he said, annoyed, “but you ain’t got any info on him.”
“I ain’t mad at you,” Robbie said. “In fact, I’m Erik’s friend and probably know more about him than most other students, but … I haven’t been in touch with him for a while.”
A couple was walking past. The man coughed, sounding as if he had some lung congestion. His girlfriend looked at him concernedly as she rubbed his back.
“Your cough is getting worse,” she said, the worry in her tone being clear.
“I should take it easy tonight,” the boyfriend replied.
“Have you been taking vitamin C?”
“Of course.” He smirked. “I made sure to put extra limes in my gin and tonic last night.”
“Oh, you’re funny.”
Robbie watched on as the couple continued their walk.
“Is it just me,” he said, “or is there a bug going around, or something?”
“Why?” Chris asked. “Do a lot of people seem sick?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Robbie said, shrugging. “Thinking about Erik, you know?”
Chris patted Robbie on the shoulder.
“I’m sure it’ll be all right, man,” Chris told him. “I just have a feeling things will work out in the end.”
“Yeah,” Robbie replied, looking toward the baseball diamond as another kid struck out.
A young adolescent boy was on the roof of a building, peering through an old pair of binoculars, spying on the two teenage boys having a conversation in Revere Park. He was wearing an oversized, custom-made, dark gray hooded sweater that hung down to his knees, decorated with elaborate black and white patterns and swirls, light green hood strings with twenty-four-karat gold aglets, and light green cuffs at the end of sleeves barely longer than his arms; the hood was over his head. A chintzy necklace dangled from his neck, bearing a plastic pendant in the shape of a mysterious letter or symbol.
“Are you sure those two are the ones?” he asked his companion, still looking through the binoculars.
The other person on the roof was a young adult woman with a seemingly tan complexion and light brown eyes, wearing a nun’s habit … Sister Farrah Elaina. She nodded in response to the young boy’s question.
“Yes, Al,” she replied firmly. “My prayers have confirmed that they are indeed who we are looking for.”
“Heh, target acquired.” Al chuckled as he continued to watch Chris and Robbie. “That clairvoyance of yours is something else. No wonder old man Buck Dood decided to keep you so close. He ain’t bad for a priest.”
Dismissing Al’s rudeness, Sister Farrah looked down at the two teenage boys.
“We must act quickly,” she said. “I sense approaching danger.”
Al lowered the binoculars and clicked his tongue. His green eyes glinted in the last of the sunlight before the clouds closed entirely.
“The shadows are already onto us? Shit.” He turned to look at Sister Farrah. “Let’s get this done before it’s too late.”
“Let’s go.” She picked up her cubit measuring rod carved from an ancient meteorite, feeling the despicable energy necessary to carry out her tasks.
“Just remember,” he said bluntly to the nun, “we’re doing this on my terms. That’s an order from my superiors, meaning you need to oblige.”
Sister Farrah smiled. Her expression was warm and empathetic.
“That’s fine,” she replied softly. “I plan to act of my own volition, as well, so long as it doesn’t violate our agreed terms.”
The two hurried off the roof, jumping over the side of the building and nimbly descending using nearby pipes and window air conditioning units as platforms, concealing themselves using Al’s invisibility magic.