Authors: Robert Cormier
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #General
ay Bannister started to build the guillotine the day Jerry Renault returned to Monument.
There was no connection between the two events. In fact, Ray Bannister didn't even know Jerry Renault existed. The truth of the matter is that Ray began to construct the guillotine out of sheer boredom. More than boredom: loneliness, restlessness. He was a newcomer to Monument and to Trinity High. He hated both—well, maybe hate was too strong a word, but he had found Monument to be a dull and ugly mill town of drab tenement houses and grim factories, with no class at all, a terrible contrast to Caleb, the resort village on Cape Cod where he'd grown up with beach sand between his toes and salt spray stinging his cheeks. Trinity was a suffocatingly small school, filled with guys who were suspicious of strangers or, at the very least, unfriendly. The Headmaster and the teachers were brothers, those strange people who wore stiff white collars but weren't quite priests and yet weren't quite like ordinary men. Ray's father insisted that brothers made the ideal teachers, dedicated and loyal to education. They have nothing to distract them, his father said. They don't have to worry about earning a big salary—the Order takes care of all their needs—and they don't have wives or children to support, except maybe a girl friend or two in these crazy, liberal times. That last remark was supposed to pass for wit: Ray Bannister's father was renowned for his wit at cocktail parties, but Ray, frankly, didn't find him amusing at all. Particularly since he'd accepted the company promotion that meant a transfer from the Cape to this rotten city in the middle of New England.
Ray had always been a loner, even on the Gape, where he had spent long hours roaming the beaches and dunes or sailing his beloved skiff in the warm waters south of Caleb. In a fit of disgust and disillusionment, he'd practically given his boat away, sold it for a quarter of its worth to Joe Scerra, his best friend in Caleb. Ray had built the boat himself, lovingly, knew every section and area of its surface just as he knew the tone and texture of his own body.
Monument looked as if sailing weather didn't exist Snow melted on the Cape as soon as it kissed the land; Ray was dismayed to find Monument covered with the dirty rags of old snow when he arrived in February. The landscape of city streets was bleak and forbidding, like a movie set from one of those old late-night films about the Depression. Lonely, unable to make friends at Trinity and not really trying very hard, Ray pursued his interest in magic. His rather, who had been an amateur magician years ago, had given him a magic kit for Christmas as a kind of bribe to compensate for the transfer to Monument. At first Ray had only gone through the motions of showing interest. But, bored and restless, he began to fool around with the kit and found, to his surprise, that the tricks were not merely kid stuff but sophisticated and challenging, almost professional. He discovered the Stripper Deck and the Cups and Balls and the Silk Scarves and soon found himself adept at sleight of hand. With no one to entertain, he performed before the mirror in his bedroom.
As winter changed into spring or, rather, as the grayness of February and March yielded to the soft yellow of April, Ray grew bored with the simple finger tricks. He rummaged around the cellar, remembering that his father had all kinds of paraphernalia left over from his days as an entertainer at club and organization parties when Ray himself was just a kid. His father had carefully packed the stuff away when they had moved to Monument. During his search, Ray came across an old cardboard box that contained complicated tricks and effects he couldn't do anything with because there were no directions. Then he discovered an old leather-bound book, copyright 1922, that provided instructions for hundreds of magic effects. The book included plans and illustrations for various stage illusions, like levitation and disappearances. Ray was disappointed to learn the secrets of the illusions, how mechanical they were. He thought: There's no magic, really, anywhere in the world. It was like finding out there was no Santa Claus.
The plans for the guillotine attracted his immediate attention, however. The secret was so simple and yet so effective. He imagined himself on the stage in the Trinity auditorium, performing for the student body—"May I have a volunteer from the audience?"—and hearing the guys gasp with astonishment as the blade fell, seeming to penetrate the volunteer's neck Ray's hands itched to build the guillotine, just as they had itched to build his skiff. He'd always been clever with his hands. In fact, his father had said that he bated the idea of squandering money on Ray's college education when he'd probably do better as a carpenter—and a carpenter didn't need a college degree.
At any rate, lonely, indifferent to both Monument and Trinity, tired of the perennial gray clouds that haunted the early days of spring, wistful for those bikini girls who would be emerging on Caleb's beaches any day now, Ray Bannister assembled his tools and the lumber required to build the guillotine. He bought the blade at a magic store in Worcester. And, as he told Obie later: Honest, he'd never heard of Jerry Renault or Archie Costello or any of the others.
bie was in love. Wildly, improbably, and wonderfully in love. The kind of thing he thought happened only in the movies.
Can't eat, can't sleep
Daydream in class
Can't concentrate an your studies
The hell with doing homework
love. Her name was Laurie Gundarson and she was beautiful. Obie's legs dissolved at the sight of her, and he felt as though he would sink into the earth and disappear. He had never known such happiness or such sweet torture. He lived his days and nights in a rosy haze and went around with a stunned and radiant expression on his face. Which disgusted Archie Costello, of course.
Like at this moment when the Vigils had gathered to put the finishing touches on the new assignment. The other members, plus the three sophomores, awaited in tense and silent anticipation, a little nervous about what was going to happen. Archie always kept them on edge, springing his small surprises now and then to keep them alert and on their toes. But Obie sat there with that stupid expression on his face. That's why Archie turned to Bunting, the sophomore.
"Okay, Bunting," Archie said, "bring us up to date."
The selection of Bunting to present the report didn't immediately register on Obie. Obie wasn't actually here in the stupid storage room near the gym where the Vigils held their meetings. He was off somewhere with Laurie Gundarson. They were driving on the freeway toward Mount Wachusum. They were climbing the mountain on a sparkling spring day. He assisted her over the rough terrain, allowing his hands to roam across the marvelous geography of her body. He couldn't get enough of touching her, caressing her, although she kept that kind of stuff down to a minimum. Only on special occasions would she allow those intimate caresses for which Obie lived, to which he had dedicated his every waking moment.
"Are you with us, Obie?" Archie asked, his voice cool as always, never allowing an emotion to show, making it seem as if he was doing you a favor by using your name.
"I'm here, Archie," Obie said, reluctant to leave the warmth and softness of Laurie's flesh.
"Go on, Bunting," Archie said.
At that moment Obie saw the notebook in Bunting's hands. Startled, he checked his jacket pocket to make certain that his current notebook was safe and intact. Obie's notebooks were legend on the Trinity campus. Not only did they contain the assignments Archie dreamed up, but they had information about every student at Trinity, stuff that didn't show up in the school's official records. Observing Bunting now with his own notebook, Obie felt some surprise, but he wasn't as disturbed as he might have been if this had occurred before he'd met Laurie Gundarson. Laurie made all the difference: let Bunting have his notebook.
Bunting stood there with the cheerful insolence that was the hallmark of being a sophomore. Obie hated sophomores; most seniors did. Sophomores had lost the timidity of freshmen and hadn't attained the casualness of the juniors or the coolness of the seniors. Sophomores were feeling the first stirrings of arrogance, and believed that the school—and the world—existed for them alone. They barged into places nobody in his right mind would go. One example: Bunting now throwing a glance of triumph and superiority at Obie, smirking maliciously. Obie summoned a small smile to his own lips, a smile that was supposed to communicate to Bunting that he didn't give a damn who gave the report. But despite the sweetness of Laurie's presence in his life, he felt a flicker of jealousy. Not jealousy, exactly. Who could be jealous of a sophomore, for crying out loud? Hate, maybe. But not really for Bunting. A renewal of his hatred for Archie. Or was it hatred, after all? He wasn't sure. He was never sure of anything about Archie. Nobody was.
"Plans are proceeding according to schedule," Bunting sang out "Every guy has been contacted, either directly or indirectly. A lot of guys don't know what it's all about. Nobody gave us any shit, though."
"Bunting, Bunting," Archie said, chiding, like a father scolding an errant son.
"What's the matter?" Bunting asked, puzzled.
"What language?" Not only puzzled but uneasy now.
"That word you used."
"What word?" Voice going up half an octave.
Archie didn't reply, regarding Bunting with utter contempt.
?" Bunting asked, incredulous.
Archie nodded. "You broke the rule, Bunting. You used profane language. A no-no. Taboo."
Obie shook his head in reluctant admiration. That Archie. Leave it to him. There was, of course, no rule about language. That's what was intriguing about Archie—you never knew what was coming next Obie relaxed now, prepared to enjoy the game, whatever it was, that Archie was playing with Bunting. And he also alerted himself to be on his guard, knowing that he would inevitably become a part of it.
"You mean there's a rule against swearing?" Bunting asked, his confidence rapidly deteriorating.
"That's right, Bunting. The rule—no profane language, no more swearing at Vigil meetings. No taking the name of the Lord in vain." Archie and that mocking voice. Archie shaking his head in simulated disappointment with Bunting. "Hey, Obie, how long has the rule been in effect?"
"Six days," Obie responded automatically.
"See, Bunting? You're ambitious. You want to scale the heights of the Vigils. But you missed out on a new rule."
The other two sophomores—a skinny kid with bulging eyes named Harley and a brooding, sullen kid with an acne-ravaged face called Cornacchio—sat immobilized. They had never seen Archie in action before, and they obviously felt threatened. The Vigil veterans watched the proceedings with amusement, having instantly recognized along with Obie another Archie improvisation.
"Tell Bunting why we adopted the new rule, Carter."
Carter hated this sort of thing. As president of the Vigils, he usually didn't participate in the games but enforced the rules, wielding the gavel, slamming it down on the wooden crate that served as a desk to provide exclamation points to Archie's commands. Carter didn't approve of Archie's psychological games. He liked stuff you could see, something you could hit. The tragedy of Carter's senior year was the ban on boxing imposed by Brother Leon. Carter had been captain of both the boxing team and the football squad. With the boxing team disbanded and the football season a distant memory, he was now captain of exactly nothing. His simple claim to distinction these days was his presidency of the Vigils. And as president he had to respond to Archie, play his games, shadowbox with words.
"We instituted the rule because of the need to clean up the atmosphere," Carter said, the words issuing easily and glibly. The fact that he was a boxer didn't mean he was stupid. "It's impossible to clean up the crap and junk that gets tossed out of cars. But at least we can keep the air pure of profanity."
Archie smiled at him, pleased, and Carter hated himself for responding so quickly to one of Archie's gimmicks.
"And the penalty for anyone who swears, Obie?"
"Whoever breaks the rule," Obie said, mind racing as he pondered all the possibilities, "has to stand naked for one hour at the bus stop downtown at Monument Square." He squirmed, knew instantly by Archie's dour expression that it was a rotten punishment.
"That's right," Archie said, looking at Obie with disgust. "A mild-enough punishment, Bunting, you must admit. That's because we're saving the real good stuff for the second offense. It'll be a nice surprise for whoever swears a second time."
Bunting nodded, abashed, confused, wondering what had happened, how he had become so quickly a victim instead of a perpetrator, realizing, simultaneously, Archie's power and unpredictability. A small part of his brain had also registered the antagonism developing between Archie and Obie, and he tucked it away for future reference.
"Okay," Archie said. "We'll excuse your error this time, Bunting. Next time, though, you get the penalty." His eyes swept the gathering. "That goes for everybody else. No more swearing at Vigil meetings." Again to Bunting: "Go on with your report, please."
Bunting plunged ahead without waiting for any more instructions. But he chose his words carefully.
"Like I said, it looks as if there'll be no trouble. Almost everybody has been alerted. Some of the guys are organizing parties and stuff. A bunch are going to the beaches, Hampton, some to the Cape. Other guys are hitching to Boston. We gave them the word: If you stay in town, stay out of sight. We don't give a sh—We don't care what you do. Just don't come to school, and lay low. . . ." Bunting couldn't resist glancing at his notebook, knowing this would get a rise out of Obie. "We expect some stragglers, but we're about ninety percent organized."
"I don't want stragglers," Archie said. Deadly, in command, the Archie who ruled the school. "I want one hundred percent."
Bunting nodded. And so did everyone else.
This latest assignment wasn't really an assignment but one of Archie's entertainments, something to break up the boredom that always settles over a school in that no-man's-land of time between spring and summer vacations, when the days seem endless and pointless, when even the teachers are caught in the lethargy and boredom of the stagnant hours. The seniors had lost interest in school and now had their sights set on the coming year; most had already been accepted at colleges. The juniors meanwhile were caught in an in-between stage, almost finished with the junior year and not officially seniors. Even the freshmen were straining a bit, tired of their role as lowly underclassmen, eager to confront the new batch of freshmen arriving in the fall. The school was not really as placid or lethargic as it seemed; there was an undercurrent of restlessness.
Sensing all of this, knowing that only the sophomores were content (but sophomores were a breed apart), Archie had responded with a perfect solution: a day off from school. But not a day arranged through subtle blackmail of Brother Leon. No, this day would have an Archie Costello sting. Every student at Trinity—and there were almost four hundred of them—would simply stay away from class on a certain designated day. They would vanish. No one would be able to find them. When the brothers, began frantically to call the various homes—absenteeism was always checked with a telephone call to the student's home—they would learn that Jimmy or Joey or Kevin or whoever had gone off to school as usual. Thus, the scheme would have a double impact: on the school, and on the homes of the students. And then Archie had gone one step further. He had learned, in advance, the date of the Bishop's visit to Trinity. The traditional annual visit always began before classes with a high mass and holy communion in the school auditorium, which was converted into a chapel for the occasion. This year, the auditorium would be without students.
Carter had been horrified at the thought of humiliating the Bishop, an act that could have serious repercussions. But he had said nothing. Like everyone else, he had learned not to oppose Archie's schemes. Play along and go along. He felt helpless, wishing he had the courage to make a protest. He had courage enough on the football field and in the boxing ring. But that was different. He felt alone these days, an exile in this school he loved. Everybody thought he was only bone and muscle. Didn't see that a jock could be sensitive. And his sensitivities told him that the Bishop's visit would spell disaster. He didn't want to be a part of that disaster, not at this point, so near to graduation when he'd be rid of Archie Costello once and for all time.
"I've got a suggestion," Bunting said.
Obie looked at the sophomore with new respect, the way he was bouncing back after the earlier attack by Archie and risking another with a suggestion. Ordinarily, only Archie made suggestions. And they weren't suggestions, they were orders, more or less.
"Let's hear it," Archie said "But watch the language, right?" Almost primly, lips pursed.
"What I figure is this," he said, gathering confidence. "Why not have everybody stay out of school except one kid? I mean, if everybody's absent, there's no . . ." He was at a loss for a word.
Archie grabbed one out of the air. "No contrast." Then another: "No emphasis." He regarded Bunting with admiration, or what passed for admiration coming from Archie because he still maintained his coolness, the distance he managed to keep between himself and everyone else. "Beautiful, Bunting. I can see it now. The Bishop and Brother Leon and all the faculty up there on the stage, near the altar. And one kid sitting in the audience, right in the middle of the place, surrounded by all those empty seats, not another kid in sight."
"We have to pick the right kid," Bunting went on, really rolling now. "He'll be part of the plot, with orders to act normal, like he's not alone in the audience. As if everything is happening as usual."
Archie lifted his hands, palms downward, almost as if he were about to bless the congregation, but the Vigils had come to know that the gesture meant he wanted instant silence. Suddenly the gathering seemed to be holding its collective breath, a stillness pervading the room. Obie marveled at Archie's ability to take command of all situations, the way he was able now to take the spotlight away from Bunting effortlessly and bring all eyes in the place to himself. Archie's eyes were mere slits: he was thinking, concentrating. Or pretending to be thinking and concentrating. Obie bad seen him perform this stunt a thousand times. Or was it a stunt?