Fort Ashby, West Virginia
January 7th 2000
It was black outside as the snow began to fall again. He closed the door behind him and walked across the brick patio, then the gravel driveway to his beloved '87 Chevy S-10. The gravel crunched as he glanced up to see the snow shimmering as it fell in front of the buzzing outdoor floodlight. His eyes rested briefly on the detached snow plow. He entered the truck and started it, beginning a well-rehearsed routine; releasing the emergency brake, engaging the clutch, shifting into reverse while swiftly turning the wheel. He turned around with a practiced efficiency and darted down the hill and out onto the dark country road.
The trees formed a canopy around him as he sped over the familiar bumps and turns. The gathering snow streaked through the headlights like stars. The rear tires strained to hold traction on the loose rocks and scattered patches of ice.
Emerging from the dense forest, he stopped at the intersection and looked at the church to his left. Looking at the empty parking lot filled him with a sense of melancholy, but he didn't know why. He turned left and drove past the front of the church and searched near the dimly lit sign for the familiar trees where he played as a boy. He wished he could go back.
He approached the center of town and the only stoplight for miles. The Evans Dairy Dip, where all three of his sisters and most of the other young women in town had spent countless summers making and serving pints of ice cream, stood vacant to his left, closed for the winter. He remembered the buzzing of the fluorescent lights and the crisp snap of the electric bug zapper while he ate hot fudge sundaes without a care in the world.
He turned to the right and continued by the new fire hall, the bookstore where the kind and helpful old lady lived upstairs, the library where Mrs. Allie read Bread and Jam for Frances, the baseball field still covered from the last snow. And though he didn't know it yet, in the distance, hidden behind the trees where he couldn't see, were the overgrown remains of a dirt race track. Years later he would learn that his father spent his youth repairing the wrecks from these races at the auto shop, only to watch them go out and wreck again.
Onward as the snow continued to fall, he drove by the empty shell of the house where his grandparents used to live, but not anymore. Atop the hill to his right in the dark beyond his sight, his aunt and uncle lived like kings able to watch the whole town beneath them. He envied them as he rounded the deadly Siples's Curve and barreled past the Catholic church and made his way out of the town.
A few minutes later as he neared his destination, he passed his cousin's garage, closed again due to failure to make rent. And before his final turn he saw the sandwich shop on his left where he worked unsuccessfully for just a week, and which was due to be closed for good in less than a year. To the right and up the steep hill. The football field, the bleachers, and the new fieldhouse were all blanketed in darkness and snow. Ahead he could see the lights of the school and of the other cars that had already come.
A few minutes before 6:00 he walked through the open doors and smelled the mixture of sweat and yeast.
The idiotic new "artwork" was still on the rear wall of the cafeteria. It used to have a stylized rendering of a falcon, but now it was a confusing checkerboard of yellow, green, white, and brown squares. The rumor was that if you stood back far enough that it looked like something. The rumor was incorrect.
Dozens of people were already here. Most were sitting and talking; some were scurrying back and forth to the kitchen, covered in flour. He sat down at his usual table next to Dave.
"Hey, Matt." Dave said as he fell into the old routine, pulled out a pack of cards and started to deal.
Matt looked at the three cards in his hand and immediately said, "Knock knock, Dave."
Dave threw his cards down in disgust, "Seriously? Why do you always knock so early? I've got what... six?"
"What do you expect, dude? You dealt me king, ace suited? It's not going to get much better than that. You owe me what, like four dollars and 50 cents now? Where's everyone else anyway?" Matt looked around for the rest of their group.
Dave picked up the cards and started shuffling. "I think Ben's coming later, Cheryl and Crazy Carl are still out of town. I'm not going to stay long. Gonna make my ten and get out of here."
"You only sold ten?"
Dave put the cards back in the box as they noticed Mrs. Winchell wheeling out carts with enormous tubs of dough on them, "Why? How many did you sell?"
"Five," Matt said blankly.
"Well I guess we'll have to teach some freshmen how to play if we want to afford this trip."
They listened vaguely as Mrs. Winchell went through the same instructions as every year. Roll, flatten, five pieces of pepperoni, fold, five more pieces of pepperoni, fold again, five more pieces of pepperoni, tuck, pinch, and then into the oven.
"And make sure," she was still talking... "that they end up looking like something you would want to buy yourselves."
"This," she held up a large bulging roundish lump "is not acceptable."
Matt had finished making exactly one pepperoni roll when Keri walked through the door. He jumped up from the table and walked over to her. "I'm bored," he said, "let's go for a walk."
"Whatever. You can't have been here for more than ten minutes." she laughed gently as she brushed the snow off of her short blonde hair. "Besides, I have like a hundred pepperoni rolls to make."
"You have all night for that. Look, it's snowing, it'll be... romantic."
She hit him playfully, "I'm going to tell my boyfriend you won't stop harassing me." Her brown eyes sparkled behind her cute designer glasses.
"That doesn't count!" Matt exclaimed in mock unbelief. "He doesn't even go to our school."
"Hmm... maybe I'll just call up Miss Katie or Kelly or whatever her name is and tell her your thoughts on what counts and what doesn't"
Matt was stung a bit and took a second to respond. "Yeah... that's not really a thing anymore."
Keri took a second to digest this then responded kindly with, "I'm really sorry, I didn't know that. Hey let me get some of these things done and we'll talk later, ok?"
He let her go. He looked around the cafeteria and still saw no sign of Ben; Dave was working hard and trying to finish quickly. Matt walked outside. The snow was still falling gently.
He walked around the building to the right, walking in the snow rather than the icy sidewalk. There was a crust of ice on the snow and it looked like frosted glass reflecting the distant light from the parking lot.
Just around the corner he saw Jen Wheeler standing arms crossed in front of her staring at the distant trees. She was wearing a heavy green coat and a white scarf. Her long brown hair flowed out from under her dark woolen cap. Her eyes were damp and they glistened in the light, but Matt couldn't see what color they were, he'd never paid that much attention to her. There was only that one time when they had danced together briefly at Cheryl's 16th birthday party. He walked around and then stood next to her leaning up against the brick wall of the school.
"Hey," she said with a slight catch in her voice as though she hadn't been prepared to talk to anyone just yet.
"Hey yourself," he replied. He paused for a bit thinking about what to say, or if he should say anything at all. "Want to go for a drive?"
She hesitated, thought for a moment, then nodded and they walked back to the parking lot, without a sound except for the crunch of the snow. Matt opened the passenger door for her then went to his side and started the truck.
The stars streaked by the windshield again as they drove to the other side of the hill to the Middle School. The parking lot here was empty, recently plowed, but covered in ice with a thin dusting of snow on top. Starting at the edge of the parking lot, Matt started the truck in low gear then cut the wheel sharply to the left and accelerated. The rear of the truck shot forward as they spun around in a neat circle. Jen smiled and tightened her grip on the handle above her door
Feeling more confident Matt drove faster across the ice, accelerating, then braking and turning. The truck skidded wildly, its rear tires kicking up the snow while Jen laughed with abandon as they were thrown back and forth.
Reaching the end of the lot, he wheeled the truck around and floored the gas trying to pick up as much speed as possible before starting a spin. Just after he started to steer, when the truck was nearly sideways, the rear tire struck a patch of dry pavement. The spin stopped immediately and the whole truck lurched to an abrupt halt. Matt groaned as his seat belt bit into his stomach.
"Ooff," cried Jen, but she was still laughing hysterically.
"Maybe we'd better call it there,' said Matt smiling. He drove them back to the High School. They sat there for a moment, watching the snow fall silently in the dark.
"Thanks for that," she said as she got out of the truck and walked back to the school. He waited a few minutes and then followed.
Three pepperoni rolls later Matt stopped and looked around at all the other students diligently rolling, folding, tucking and pinching. Dave had left nearly an hour ago. Ben still hadn't come. Matt stood up and walked down the dim hallway towards the band room. Only the emergency exit signs were lit, casting a dull red glow on the checkered floor.
He found the band room door unlocked. Bob and Kevin were sitting on the floor in front of the huge TV with the familiar faces of Cartman, Kyle, Kenny and Stan on the screen.
"Hey, Matt. What's up?" Bob asked as Matt walked in.
"Skipping work, what are you guys up to?" Matt went to the blackboard, picked up the chalk and started writing on the blackboard.
"We're just waiting on Brandy. We rode with her, but I wouldn't have bothered if I'd known how many freaking pepperoni rolls she sold. We'll be here all night."
Matt had finished writing "Join the Union, fight the oppressors" on the board and he sat down next to Bob.
"So you're the one that's been writing all that union crap on the board?" Kevin asked. "I don't get it."
"There's nothing to get," Matt said. "Unless you want to join the union?"
"You're not actually serious?" Kevin asked. "I mean... what does that even mean to have a union for a high school band?"
Matt thought for a second while watching the TV. "Actually," he said, "that gives me a better idea. Did you guys see the episode a couple of weeks ago?"
He went back to the blackboard and erased the union message and wrote in its place:
Phase 1: Join the Union
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit
Matt finished watching the episode then left the room and wandered the dark halls until he eventually found himself back in the cafeteria. It was nearing ten o'clock and the crowd was thinning out. A few splintered groups were sitting and talking, waiting for their rides or just waiting. Matt finished making his last pepperoni roll and sent it back to the kitchen, and then he waited as well.
Once the last pepperoni rolls were assembled, Matt helped clean the tables and push them back into storage. He found himself sitting on the floor in a circle talking with six other lingerers. He stopped for a moment to take it all in, the sounds of the clean-up crew rattling pans in the nearby kitchen, the mixed smells of dish soap and fresh-baked bread, the hard tile floor still dusted with flour. All this faded into the background as he looked over the group.
Jessica Finchley looked out at the rest of them. She was wearing her boyfriend's dark blue letterman jacket with the falcon emblem emblazoned on it. "It's been so nice talking to you all. I love it when weird random groups come together like this. I always really appreciated how our school doesn't have any problems with those nasty cliques like in all the movies.
Tim Jones was intrigued by this. "You don't think our school has any cliques?" The sides of Tim's head were shaved and his left ear was pierced. He used to always wear a trench coat, but he'd stopped after what happened last April.
"I never noticed any." Jessica replied.
"That's because you're in one." Amber Corbin piped up.
"Really?" Jessica seemed genuinely surprised.
"Aren't we all?" asked Tim. "I mean you said it yourself, this is a weird random group. We all have our normal people, I mean even if we all have some stuff in common like how we're all in the band, this isn't a group that would come together normally."
Matt was half listening. He was watching the girl sitting opposite him in the circle, her dark hair and eyes, her olive complexion... he was watching her watch the others as they spoke. Her eyes darted back and forth anticipating who was going to speak next. He watched her analyze the others.
Matt tuned back in as John Miller was talking. "So what purpose do you think God had in putting us together tonight?"
"I don't know," answered Amber. "I just know that He works through seemingly random things like this. I mean that's what God's providence is. He orchestrates these little events, like the snowfall, or the number of pepperoni rolls that you sold, and He uses those things along with human actions to accomplish His purpose."
"So do you think someday we can look back at this night and say, 'OHHH, so that's what this was all about' ?" John asked.
Matt saw the girl opposite him smile knowingly. He asked her, "What do you think?"
She spoke deliberately and confidently, "I think we're in the future now. And there in that future we're looking back to this night. We all go our separate ways after tonight and it will never be like this again. We'll never have this group speaking about these mysteries just like this ever again. And it haunts us forever. I think we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand the meaning of what happens here tonight."
There was silence for a moment around the circle. Jessica spoke up first, "I'd still like to be friends with all of you."
Brandon Walton, who had mostly just been listening, got up first, "Thanks guys, it's been fun. I'll see you Monday."
Amber was next to leave, and Jessica followed with a wave to the remaining group. John and Tim left next as Matt was left alone with this girl who saw the future, this prophetess, this oracle. The prescient girl remained behind as Matt walked back to the parking lot and to his beloved '87 Chevy S-10. The parking lot was nearly empty has he drove off into the gently falling snow.