Chapter 1: Hell Of A Way To Start The Day

Monday morning found me on my way to another long stretch at Kelso Amboy Memorial High School. I was at best half-awake-what self-respecting teenager wouldn't be?-but aware enough of my surroundings to notice a commotion down by the school announcement sign. A crowd of my fellow students had gathered around the sign and focused their attention at the base. This intense interest piqued my curiosity, so I altered my path to go and see what the kerfuffle was about.

As I walked, a distant voice called my name. "Jo!" I stuttered to a stop. My bell-bottom jeans began soaking up the morning dew as I searched for the source of the voice. "Joanna!" There it was: Agnes. My best friend was about a block distant, just within shouting range, waving to get my attention. I waved back, indicating I had noticed her, then returned my attention to the sign.

A steep-banked creek cut through our schoolyard, separating me from the sign. On the opposite bank, where the tree-covered lawn became a schoolyard proper, dozens of half-awake students were engaged in some kind of spirit event. There were cheerleaders dispersed through the crowd, waving pom-poms and leading the gathered students in the stomping of feet, jubilant yelling, and chanting of chants. Beneath the school sign, two older students capered about, doing just as much as the cheerleaders to whip the crowd into a frenzy.

These two were Cal and Hez, a pair of second-year seniors who didn't so much attend classes here at Kelso Amboy as live at the school. Visually, the two were complete opposites. Hez was short, fat, and hairy, while Cal was tall... fat, and hairy. Okay, they were identical, differentiated only by four inches plus or minus on the average height curve. This morning, they were dancing on the concrete base of the school sign, holding overlarge posterboards emblazoned with "The End Is Near!" in neon lettering. Cal waved back and forth, yipping and ululating, while Hez bounced up and down in front of the gathered students, leading the first few ranks in a chant of "Three more weeks! Three more weeks!" As the chant spread, I half-heartedly joined in.

Once the chant was self-sustaining, Hez leaped and grabbed onto one of the sign's support beams. "Yes, folks," he crowed, letting go with one hand to make sweeping gestures, "The end is near indeed! Three more weeks is all we have until the Great Amboy Jamboree! Those elect among you have already taken the steps to secure your place in the world to come! But those who tarry, and you, Teri, and those who have waited until darkness falls fear not! Tickets are still available, booths are still open, space remains for all who repent!"

The crowd cheered at this pronouncement.

"And who pay $49.95 for an exhibition booth, or $10.95 for general admission."

There was another cheer, more subdued this time.

Hez let go the beam and dropped back to the base as Cal abandoned his sign. Both fanned out sheaves of fliers to the gathered students.

Speculation raged on-and-off for the past three years, passed on to my class when we moved up from junior high: just what was up with these two? Though no one saw them in class, they were always the center of attention when it came to pimping out the school via shows like this. Hell, they performed the morning announcements. The going theory as to the source of their influence was that they were the illegitimate children of our assistant principal. While that provided an explanation for their carte blanche, it did fail to consider that Kelso Amboy was a memorial high school, not a feudal estate. Another theory was that Cal and Hez simply volunteered for any responsibilities they carried out. No one knew for certain, however, and the consensus was that their origins would remain a mystery...

"Jeez, you'd think they'd realize by now: no one wants to go to this stupid thing."

I flinched away from the horrible, squeaky voice shrieking in my ear; Agnes had managed to sneak up close, creeping cat-like on her creepy little feet.

"Hey, Aggie." I pitched my voice over the roar of the gathered crowd. "What's up with you this fine morning?"

She brushed a strand of dark hair away from of her glasses. "Fine morning indeed, when it starts out with the untempered screeching of a thousand capitalist stooges, making fools of themselves in an effort to partially fund a bankrupt school system. But think no more upon these fools, for I have matters of import to speak of with you."

I blinked, the beach ball of my mind spinning as I parsed her verbose declaration; it was far too early in the morning for her overly-complex verbiage. "Could I get that in plain English, please?"

She chuffed out her breath and rolled her eyes. "I want to talk to you about something; it's important."

Ah, so much clearer. I was about to acquiesce to her request for parlay when I heard a tremendous crash coming from behind me. "Oh, yeah? Do tell."

"Do you have any plans for this summer?" Agnes asked. She was positively vibrating with excited energy.

Before I could answer, there were screams of terror from the direction of the sign. I pivoted away from Anges, fighting for balance on the uneven embankment, and beheld the chaos that had consumed the crowd.

"If you do have plans," Agnes continued, "cancel them now. Because I got tickets to Bluker's Creek!"

I failed to react to what Agnes said. Perhaps it was the spectacle of Cal crowd surfing upon the cheerleader squad. Perhaps it was because Hez's pants had caught fire, and he now rolled about, trying to smother the flames.

"Jo?" Agnes prompted.

The cheerleaders beneath Cal bucked, tossing him into the air. He soared for a good ten feet before coming down atop Hez, smothering the fire. The crowd roared in approval.

"Hello, Earth to Joanna. You in there?"

"Huh?" I looked back up the slope at Agnes. She bounced on the balls of her feet, trembling hands clutched in front of her, eyes wide with ill-contained excitement behind her thick glasses. On the whole she was, dare I say it, giddy as a school girl.

"Bluker's Creek!" she repeated, her voice eking out through her vocal cords like a balloon losing the last bit of its filling gas. "This July, in Chicago! The biggest concert of the summer!"

Her enthusiasm kick-started an adrenaline reaction inside my own body. As I comprehended the content of her message, I may have screamed. Scratch that, I did scream, though I couldn't compete with the cacophony coming from the sign. Logically, Agnes' pronouncement should have elicited a negative reaction. Here it was, mid-April, and my best friend already had plans for the summer, plans that would eat up at least a week of our precious non-school time. Yet I couldn't help but be excited in the face of Agnes' excitement. Bluker's Creek was, for a fleeting instant, the band. According to my mother, every generation had the band, one group that managed to shoot to the top of the charts for a few months before disappearing forever. For my mother, the band was The Gud-tym Gyz, a generic, poppy boy-band with a hint of Reggae overtones. For my particular blip on the demographic spectrum of "teenage girl," the band was Bluker's Creek, a generic, poppy boy-band with a hint of Country overtones. And Agnes was fortunate enough to get tickets... In that moment, I hated Agnes.

"Oh, my God, Aggie, that's amazing! You're so lucky."

Against all basic biology, Agne's eyes managed to grow even wider, threatening to burst from their sockets. Fortunately, her glasses stood between them and me, so I would be safe from jetting juices. "No, Jo, tickets. Sss. Plural. My parents got enough for me to take a friend."

I clamped shut my mouth, lest I jinx what was surely to come, and live out my summer in abject loneliness.

"You're coming with me!"

The flames and chaos roiling behind me were thrust from my mind, forgotten along with the Gud-tym Gyz in the annals of popular memory. I lunged forward and grasped Agnes' hands, entwining her fingers in my own as we jumped and spun. My summer was set: Bluker's Creek, this July, in Chicago. I could die happy.

We made it three rotations before Agnes' engineer boots caught in an arched root, and both of us went tumbling down to the creek. End over end we fell before jarring to a stop at the bottom of the ravine, our feet jammed down into the ankle-deep water.

I checked over my body, taking stock that nothing warm and sticky leaked from my skin and that I was all in one piece. I was, though my jeans were coated in thin mud, and one sleeve of my turtleneck was ripped.

Next I checked over Agnes; her hair stuck up around her scratched face, clotted with mud and twigs. Her glasses were nowhere to be seen.

"Hell of a way to start the day," I said.

"Amen," answered a deeper voice from across the creek. Hez sat on the creek bed, the water up to his waist and his pants steaming. Behind him, Cal crouched just out of the water, stacking stones into a primitive dam along the creek's edge.

"We, uh," I began, my vision twitching as my fall-addled brain ran to catch up with my unmoving body. "We should probably get to class."

"Amen," answered Agnes, her voice unsteady.

Turning our back on the creek, we began our laborious climb back up the embankment, going slow to avoid the accidental crushing of Agnes' glasses.