beware of girls in empty classrooms…
How would you describe Franklin Stine? His teachers might say, “Devoted underachiever,” but then, they don’t even notice when Franklin is absent from class. “Too bland to pick out of a police line-up,” would be what his parents would say, if they were ever around long enough to say it. And Franklin’s friends would definitely describe him as “Vanilla paste mixed with white rice and a side of chalk.” Or they would have—if Franklin had any friends. But he didn’t. Because friends were a waste of time.
Long ago, back when Franklin was in first grade, he’d brought along a rock to show-and-tell.
He snailed his way to the front of the class, held up the stone and said, “This is a rock I picked up from outside the school. It was really easy to find, and there’s nothing special about it. Thank you.” Then he returned to his seat, leaving the rest of the class—with Barbies, iPhones, Legos and other real toys, scratching their heads.
No one understood why Franklin wanted to show his classmates a rock. His rock wasn’t different in any way; it wasn’t round or shiny or smooth. It was just a normal rock. When his teacher asked him why he’d brought a rock Franklin just shrugged. He didn’t really want to come up with an explanation. That was exactly the reason why he’d chosen a rock—because it required zero effort.
Years had passed, but nothing had changed. Franklin didn’t care about high school. Not even a little. Actually, he didn’t care about a lot of things: the popular kids, celebrities, updating his social media, watching kitten videos, or going on dates. He usually slept his way through most of his classes, and copied from the internet to ensure he’d bring home a comfortably average grade. He was the kid who’d never won anything—but he was also the kid who could skip class without a single person noticing.
So how had he wound up here? Why was he standing at the door to Mr. Oakridge’s class, ready to come clean, ready to beg him on his hands and knees to change his grade? What had Franklin done to deserve this?
The reason was simple. Today, somehow, ridiculously, impossibly, he’d received the first good grade of his life.
Today Franklin had gotten an A.
To most people, that would’ve been a good thing, but to Franklin it was a wide-awake nightmare.
Off in the distance, a janitor sauntered across the hall, the screech of his floor-waxer startling Franklin from his afternoon gloom. The janitor didn’t notice the boy at the other end of the hall, the one with the darkish hair, the not-heavy-but-more-than-slender build, and the unremarkable facial features. He passed by without noticing Franklin at all—and Franklin was used to that.
Franklin watched the janitor disappear around the corner, leaving the school deserted once more. Cold neon blared down from above, making the gray walls look somehow even more bland and casting sharp shadows from the edges of the lockers. Everything smelled like ammonia and stale lunch food. High school after-hours reminded Franklin of a TV mental hospital. That didn’t help the feeling of dread building inside him.
Franklin took a careful breath, pushed open the door and stepped inside, his fingers dragging the door handle behind him. He racked his brain for what he should say. What kind of story would warrant a nice, average C, but not an F and detention?
I’ll talk fast and make it as pathetic as I can, he thought. If all else fails, I’ll tell him that I googled most of it.
Which just happened to be the truth.
His thoughts stopped in mid-worry, interrupted by the fact that the classroom was dark and empty. Mr. Oakridge had gone home early today.
Franklin’s mouth hung open. He’d had a dozen excuses ready on the tip of his tongue, but now he was at a loss.
He stared off into vacant space. The quiet world around him seemed to echo his own sullen mood. Thirty long shadows stretched from empty chairs, broken only by a yellow glare that streamed in through the breaks in the swaying blinds. He was completely alone here—at least that’s what he thought.
“What am I gonna do now?” he muttered to himself.
The instant the words left his lips, he heard a drawer slam shut. Then a shuffling noise behind the teachers desk. Then he caught a blur of movement as a silhouette sprang in front of the blackboard.
Franklin jumped back into the hall—and almost out of his skin.
The silhouette turned out to be a girl. A girl who was crouched behind the desk, rummaging for something in one of the drawers. She stood quickly when Franklin noticed her, and stepped into the light. She looked like she was about Franklin’s age—probably a student—but he didn’t recognize her from class.
He also didn’t care. Of all the reasons he could think of for why a girl would be hiding out in an empty classroom, none of them were good.
He turned to leave. He tried not to look at the girl, pretending like he hadn’t seen her. Franklin used that trick a lot. He hated the awkwardness of meeting new people. Besides, he already had enough friends—online. Which he’d read somewhere was healthier than the old-fashioned kind.
“Wait!” the girl called. She closed the distance between them in an instant. Now she was standing right in front of Franklin—standing too close.
Franklin felt something clench in his stomach. He attributed this to his personal space being invaded. Franklin still wasn’t taller than most of the girls at his school, so he stood eye-to-eye with this new girl. Up close he noticed her small, pointed nose and chin, pink lips puckered in a frown and a devilish sparkle in her green eyes that gave her whole face the promise of mischief.
Franklin still hadn’t decided if he liked girls, but he got the distinct feeling that if he did, then she would be out of his league.
The girl poked him in the chest. “You saw me, didn’t you?” she accused.
“What? Uh, no. I didn’t see anything,” Franklin replied, reasoning that “yes” was never the right answer to that kind of question.
The girl narrowed her eyes, unconvinced. “Don’t you wanna know what I was doing in there?” she prompted.
“Absolutely not. Not at all,” Franklin supplied, his thoughts spilling out before he could stop himself.
She took a few sudden steps forward, forcing Franklin to stumble further backward. “Well it wasn’t what it looked like,” she supplied quickly. “I was just helping the teacher. He asked me to set a few things out for our class tomorrow… so I was just finishing up. I’m done now.” She shut the door behind her to emphasize her point.
“Okay,” Franklin muttered. He got the impression that she’d prepared that story in advance, and she’d have told him the same thing no matter what his response had been.
“I’m gonna… go now,” he tried, flashing her a smile that looked more like a grimace. “I’ve got—you know—stuff.” He took a wide step in the direction of the exit, but the girl cut him off like a goalie, forcing him back against the lockers.
She stuck out her hand for him to shake. There was just barely enough room—between his grey Morrissey shirt and her black halter top with the glossy Mr. Yuk on the front and a caption that read Hazardous To Your Health—for their hands to fit. “Kimberly,” she said brightly.
He hesitated, then took her hand. “Franklin,” he grumbled. “So, it was cool meeting—”
“Franklin? Really? That’s a terrible name. Who named you that?” she said disdainfully.
“Probably my parents,” he deadpanned. He couldn’t tell if she was serious.
Franklin shifted his weight from foot to foot, and looked around anxiously, trying to signal to her that he needed to leave. She was standing too close, and it was making him nervous.
If Kimberly got the hint, she didn’t take it. “So, Franky, what’s your story?” she asked with a sly smile. “Why are you sneaking into classrooms after-hours? That’s kind of suspicious, you know? Someone could get the wrong idea…”
You’re one to talk! Franklin thought. “I just wanted to speak to… I got a—bad grade on our last assignment, and I needed to talk about it. I need a new grade,” he said, leaving out the details.
“Oh. What’s the matter? Did Oakridge fail ya?” she teased.
Franklin ground his teeth. He hated explaining things. “Not so much. I got an A.”
Kimberly looked at him like she didn’t get the joke. “But, that’s good, right? Unless you’re used to getting an A+ and he gives you a lower grade because he resents you for throwing his curve and because he doesn’t know how to teach the rest of his precious class, and so he bones you out of spite,” she said hatefully.
Franklin stared into her fierce green eyes, his face tilting into a look of disbelief. Is she for real? he thought, but he was too scared to say it.
“Uh, it’s not like that,” he said hesitantly, “It’s this thing with my parents.”
Franklin’s parents were always vaguely supportive of him—when they weren’t watching TV or away at their jobs. To Franklin, they felt more like an aunt and uncle that would visit his house once in a while. They were usually warm and friendly, but never cared enough to listen to anything Franklin said beyond the first few sentences. They had no idea what was going on in his life.
And they treated their son’s school performance like a fact sheet. Nothing he could ever say to them was as important as the grades in his report card. That told them all they needed to know.
“In my parents’ world, they think I’m good at school—at my level,” he began. “They brag about me never failing a class, and a C+ is actually a good grade. I mean, last year it netted me a PSP.”
Franklin liked that system; it meant a big reward for very little effort.
He continued, “But a few years ago, I had a teacher mix up my grade with somebody else’s. For two weeks my mom and dad thought I got a B. It was a disaster. All of a sudden C wasn’t good enough, my parents thought I was failing my classes, and even after the school cleared everything up, my parents thought I was lying about it for months.”
“I get it,” Kimberly said, easily keeping up. Franklin’s little drama was the kind of thing that bored her. “So how’d you manage the A?” she quizzed.
“I have no idea,” Franklin fumed. “I didn’t try for it. I didn’t stay up late cramming. It just happened.”
“Okay, but what’s the big deal? Why were you pulling C’s in the first place? Why don’t you just get A’s?” she asked, confused.
Franklin scoffed. “Well, you know, that’s a lot of work. I usually just copy off the internet. Doesn’t everybody?” he said casually. He waved his hands in a gesture of indifference.
“No.” Kimberly snapped. She looked like she wanted to throw him through the wall. “Everybody doesn’t. Some of us…” she trailed away, distracted by Franklin’s hands. “What’s that on your wrist?” she asked.
Franklin looked down at his arm. There was a rust-colored smudge just below his wrist. It hadn’t been there before. “You mean that?” he asked, tapping the splotch. “It’s nothing. I had burritos for lunch. I think that’s just a crushed bea—hey!” he exclaimed.
With a sudden turn that sent her ponytail swatting at his face, Kimberly grabbed his wrist and held it up to the light. Her brow furrowed, her green eyes studied his mark intently.
“Doesn’t it look like an eagle to you?” she pressed.
“No. Not even a little,” Franklin grunted, trying to pull away. He thought that things had taken a definite turn for the weird. “It looks like something brushed the back of my hand when I was throwing my lunch away.”
Kimberly said nothing; she just continued to hold onto his wrist.
Franklin glared at the hair that was trying to suffocate him, and for the first time noticed that he was staring at something shiny and bright. Kimberly had dyed at least half of her hair a violent shade of electric purple. Purple bangs, purple strips in front of her ears, and a purple ponytail. Purple with blonde roots and black-dyed tips. Loud, electric purple. Kimberly’s head was like its very own color spectrum. A psychedelic litmus test, or an Easter egg run amok. It was the sort of hair that said, “I want to be different from everyone else,” without Kimberly having to utter a word.
It made Franklin uncomfortable. He didn’t know why.
The two of them finally finished inspecting each other, and Kimberly let go of Franklin’s arm. She nodded her head like she’d come to some sort of conclusion. Then she inched even closer to him.
What’s happening? Franklin wondered, suddenly tense. He felt a prickling sensation at the back of his neck.
“I know your secret,” she whispered in his ear. She took a dramatic step back and raised his hand up in front of his eyes so he could stare at his reddish spot. “That’s the symbol of Thoth—a powerful mark passed down through blood. There’s no mistaking it. It’s a sign,” she said, then smiled, all traces of her previous anger gone.
Franklin opened his mouth to say something; she spoke before he could get a word out. “So, what kind of magical powers do you have? Are you even human?” she enthused.
Franklin’s expression of boredom never left his face. “I’m telling you, it’s not—it’s not a sign,” he said calmly. He tried to brush off the bean paste with his thumb nail, but only succeeded at rubbing it in.
“Don’t worry, you can count on me to keep your secret,” she confided.
I’m missing the Real Housewives for this, Franklin thought, trying to remember if he’d set his DVR.
He stared at Kimberly, then at his hand, then back at her. She was just teasing him right? It didn’t look like anything. “Are you playing a game, or—LARPing or something?” he asked lazily. “I’m not really into that stuff. Not a big fan of wizards and magic and stuff.”
Actually, if there was one thing in the world that Franklin hated, that thing was magic. The whole idea just annoyed him. Franklin liked things that were real—and magic wasn’t.
She smiled knowingly. “Look. I get it. Normally you wouldn’t tell anyone. But I’m different. You can trust me,” she stated nonchalantly. “I’m in the business. And I’ve been searching for someone like you for a long time. You’re special.”
Franklin hated hearing that he was special. Every time his parents told him that he cringed.
“You’ve got some powers, right? You do some things that you can’t explain? It’s magic,” she said dramatically.
No I haven’t. No I don’t. And no—it’s not, Franklin thought dryly. He stared at Kimberly like she was a commercial he’d been tricked into watching, thinking it was the show.
This wasn’t Franklin’s first time dealing with a crazy person who believed in magic. Not so long ago, his grandfather had come to visit on Franklin’s thirteenth birthday. The old man had been drenched from the storm outside, but even without the lightning flashes and the waterworks, he still looked buckets full of crazy. His grandfather had told him that Franklin was now the “chosen one” from a long line of magic-users, who would defeat some sort of darkness.
Franklin had listened patiently to everything his grandfather had to say, then he left the room as quickly as possible, and alerted the authorities to the old man’s mental condition.
Now Grandpa lived in a “special” home.
“Uh… Kimberly?” Franklin began. “You know there’s no such thing, right? We’re kind of old for that stuff, you know?”
“You’re wrong,” she countered. “Why would you say something like that to me? Besides, you know that’s not true. You have proof!”
It’s not proof—it’s just a bit of discolored skin, he thought. Franklin considered saying it, but clearly that would lead to an argument, and he didn’t want to argue.
He could explain to her that magic wasn’t real—that it was all just tricks and make-believe—but that would take way too much effort. He just wanted out of this situation. Now. He didn’t have the energy to waste diffusing other people’s crazy. He’d been on the internet long enough to know that was a fulltime job.
“I’m gonna go now,” Franklin said, annoyed. “You found my mark, so you can level up—or whatever. I’m gonna go watch a British guy trash somebody’s restaurant.” He ducked under Kimberly’s arm and headed for the exit. He called over his shoulder, “It was really… nice,”—he meant weird—“meeting you, Kim.”
She didn’t follow, didn’t rush to catch him, didn’t even budge. She just called after him, “I guess it’s your funeral then.”
Franklin paused at the door, considering. Inside, he knew that wasn’t true. There was no possible way that walking away from Kimberly would be his funeral. After all, he hadn’t known her half an hour ago, and he’d been just fine. What she was trying now was like verbal click-bait. He was sixty seconds away from resuming his normal life, and she knew it.
So why had he stopped? His hand rested on the glass pane above the handle, ready to push it open. The heat from his hand made the glass fog. Now he was thirty seconds from freedom—so why should he turn around?
If Franklin had known then how much this girl with the confident eyes and the loud hair was going to take over his life, he never would’ve hesitated. He would’ve kept walking, and made a note to avoid people even more than he already did.
But Franklin had a fatal weakness for anything that was easy, and since asking, “Why?” took a minimum of effort—he did it.
“Because you’ve still got that grade problem. And that’s not gonna go away on its own,” she replied. “If I heard you right, your folks don’t pay out when you raise the bar on yourself.” Franklin suddenly regretted telling her. “So if you thought getting a B by mistake was bad, think of how much worse an A will be. You’ll be lucky if they even let you back in the house.”
Franklin took a deep breath. She’d said what he’d been too afraid to even think about. And the worst part was he knew she was right. He turned back and leaned against the glass.
A faint smile formed at the edge of Kimberly’s mouth. Too faint for Franklin to see, but it was there.
She had him.
“So what?” Franklin demanded. “I’ll think of something tomorrow. You can’t help me.”
“Don’t be so sure about that,” Kimberly teased, walking casually down the hall. A few final rays of burnt orange streamed in as she approached, catching her eyes and making them shine even brighter. “You and I both know that flunking the class isn’t going to work—it’ll only make things worse. So that leaves just one other option…”
“And that is?”
“I propose we make a deal,” she said mysteriously. Her skin glowed pale light from the shine outside, giving her an ominous aura. She almost looked otherworldly—except Franklin would never think that. He even refused to have magical thoughts.
“Are you going to tell me?” he asked, trying not to let her appearance intimidate him.
“I like to think I’m pretty smart,” she began. “So I’ll make sure you get straight A’s from now on. That’s your only choice—because you can’t go back to C’s and you can’t go through the rest of your school life on probation. And in exchange… well… I run this group. And I’m recruiting.”
This was worse than Franklin thought it would be. This girl was out recruiting for her church. “Oh, no. Forget it. Sorry, but I’m not really interested…” Franklin supplied, hoping that any generic refusal would free him from this situation.
Kimberly frowned.“Wait!” she exclaimed, as Franklin was clearly about to slip out the door. “You don’t even know what we’re about. You see, I lead a special group—”
“I’m not interested. No offense. You know, live and let live. So I don’t care if you’re a Mormon or a Scientologist, I just don’t want to—”
“—teach me magic,” Kimberly finished for him.
“What?” Franklin stammered, his attention captured once more. He pulled his head away from the cool glass of the door.
“I want you to share your magic with me. That’s what I’m recruiting for. Well, actually, there’s more to it than that, but you don’t want to stand here while I recite my whole manifesto, right?” Kimberly said grandly.
Franklin just shook his head. He had no idea what Kimberly meant.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not expecting anything over night. Could be that your powers aren’t teachable. Or maybe I don’t have the magic circuit or the spark or the Gift or whatever—I mean, Garrett tells me I do, but I still don’t know a lot about that.” She waved her hand dismissively. “That doesn’t matter, if I can’t learn it, then you’ll just donate your power and your time to help us.” She took a step closer, and held out her hand again. “What do you say?”
“You do my school work for me and I don’t have to lift a finger?” Franklin said, repeating the part of the deal that was important to him. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood her.
Kimberly nodded. “Yes,” she said.
Franklin turned it over in his head. Her deal sounded too good to be true. And while he wasn’t sure which game she wanted him to play, Franklin didn’t think it could possibly be as long and miserable as the homework he was assigned. He decided not to worry about it. “That sounds like a pretty good deal. Okay. I’ll b—”
Before he could finish, Kimberly seized his hand and shook it vigorously. “Then we have a deal!” she exclaimed, her voice reverberating through the empty halls. She jammed her other hand into a black studded-leather attaché that hung over her shoulder and fished out a business card. “Here. You’ll need this,” she said happily. “We meet Mondays and Fridays—and occasionally the weekend, but that’s more of an optional thing. I’ll introduce you to the others when you get there.”
“Others?” Franklin wondered aloud.
Kimberly didn’t wait another second. She pushed at the glass behind Franklin’s head, and the door swung open, sending him tumbling backwards onto the floor. Kimberly stepped over him and out onto the cement.
She started to walk away, then paused at the stairs and turned back to him. “By the way, don’t ever call me ‘Kim’ or ‘Kimmy.’ I hate that. I’m not joking.” Franklin had to tilt his head back from where he fell just to see her—upside down. “We usually make our plans right away—so don’t be late.” She smiled again and continued. “You won’t regret this. I promise. Well, see you soon Franky!”
Kimberly looked like she’d just convinced him to throw her an impromptu second birthday party—and bring all the gifts. She beamed as she headed down the steps, sending a little wave back his way as she disappeared around the corner.
Franklin climbed to his feet. He felt like all the wind had been knocked out of him—and he didn’t think it had anything to do with his fall.
This day had been one of the deeply weird ones. Franklin had to endure those every blue moon. He guessed that most people got little doses of strangeness and misfortune on a regular basis. Like an ice cream sundae, and occasionally someone adds sprinkles, or a cherry—or a flavor you don’t like. But for Franklin, life was more like years of straight vanilla ice cream. Then all of a sudden he’d get one day of pistachio—with broken glass.
Franklin didn’t know if he was lucky or not. He didn’t know if he should feel relieved that his grade crisis had been solved, or peeved that he’d just made some kind of deal with a devil. In the end, he decided not to worry too much about it. Worrying took a lot of effort, and Franklin just didn’t care.
how the world’s most boring boy took up world domination as a hobby…
Franklin woke the next morning to a deep pain in his stomach. It took him a minute to realize that what he was feeling the aftermath of yesterday’s frozen burrito—but it could just as easily have been dread.
Today was Friday, which usually meant some extra homework to ignore and the beginning of a marathon weekend. He’d binge watch something on Netflix, and maybe leave a few comments on one of his gaming forums.
Not so long ago, there was a kid who lived across the street from Franklin. Franklin had never learned his name. He’d never crossed the street to ask. But every weekend that kid would sit on his front lawn and smoke weed and act like an idiot. Franklin used to watch him from his window; he’d even made a game out of mocking him.
Franklin missed that kid. In a strange way, he’d almost felt like they were friends. Weekends weren’t the same without him.
Franklin stretched and climbed out of bed. Something felt wrong the minute his toes touched the carpet. Franklin wasn’t superstitious, but today the idea of sitting through classes made him feel nauseous—even more than he usual. He wanted to ask his parents about taking a sick day, but they’d left for work before he made it downstairs.
The queasy feeling clung to him throughout the day. Franklin couldn’t focus. He found himself paying even less attention than normal to his teachers. And during lunch he could’ve sworn he felt someone watching him out of the corner of his eye. When he turned his head, he thought he caught a glimpse of something bright and purple disappearing into the crowd.
At three twenty two he got a text from a number he didn’t recognize. It said:
meet @ Glanville’s Coffee at 1600 hours
DO NOT BE LATE
Franklin sighed at his phone. So yesterday had happened, he thought glumly. So much for trying to convince myself it was a dream.
The text also bothered him for another reason: Kimberly had his number—somehow. He never remembered giving her his number. That fact bothered him more than a little.
Franklin left school shortly after, taking the bus back home, changing, and grabbing his laptop while Mob Girlfriends played in the background. Twenty minutes later he waited at the bus stop at the end of his street.
His school gave all students a city-ride pass—they could ride the public bus and monorail for free. Though most of the time Franklin didn’t want to. The people who rode the bus in his city frightened him, and the plastic green seats were always streaked with—something. Franklin was happier not thinking about what that could be.
Glanville’s Coffee was part of a strip of little historic buildings in his town. Aged, covered in ivy and stained with mildew, they’d been declared landmarks by the city, and most of them were family businesses that had been around for a lot longer than Franklin. Franklin always thought they were interesting from a distance, but he preferred to stick with Starbucks.
He got off the bus and hit the streets at four, finding the coffee shop right at four o’ five.
I guess I’m on time, the usually-punctual Franklin thought. She’s not gonna sweat five minutes.
He walked beneath an arch bridge of moldering hard-covers and into the tiny coffee shop. He felt his vision tilt slightly, the warped floorboards giving him the sensation of stepping aboard a musty old barge.
Franklin scanned the crowd for the girl with the purple bangs. Unfortunately, this spot was popular with hipsters and scene girls. Almost every head was covered in an ironic hoodie, or dyed in an unnatural color.
“Franklin! You’re late,” a girlish voice belted above the softly murmuring chorus of customers. “We’ve been waiting for you. Come on!”
All heads turned to look at Franklin. He clenched his eyes shut and cringed, a small part of him dying inside. He hated being the center of attention.
Franklin had read somewhere that most people feared public speaking more than death—and Franklin got that. He’d much rather be struck dead on the spot than have any kind of attention focused on him, let alone give a speech to a room of strangers.
He opened his eyes a few seconds later, his face still twisted in a grimace, and made his way over to Kimberly’s table. She was sitting with three other kids their age. Franklin took the opportunity to check them out, walking slowly as he navigated around the crammed circular tables.
Besides Kimberly—who was wearing a smart, charcoal women’s blazer with a black blouse underneath—there were two guys and another girl sitting at her table.
The first guy wore a grey sleeveless hoodie, unzipped, over a white tee that featured some kind of Metal group. He was at least a head taller than Franklin, and looked athletic enough to play for any school team he liked, but Franklin got the impression that the guy was more of a guitar hero wannabe.
He looked Franklin up and down like he was a bad joke. His stubbly moustache lifted into a sneer. Then their eyes met—Franklin caught an instant flash of aggression, quickly disguised as amusement.
Franklin ignored the unspoken insult and turned his gaze to the next guy. This boy was also taller than Franklin, but much thinner as well. He wore a paper-thin, deep-vee lilac tee shirt underneath a too-large, black wool pea coat.
The kid looked like he was slowly dying of heat stroke, and trying to hide it beneath obvious layers of pale white makeup and perfectly groomed brown hair. He sucked-in his cheeks and set his crimson lips into a carefully arranged pout. And his intense glare—that never left Franklin’s face—was surrounded by copious amounts of eyeliner. He held his tea with long, delicate fingers, but never took a sip—never moved. It gave Franklin the impression that he was posing for a photo-shoot that wasn’t there.
If Franklin thought those two were unusual, it’s because he hadn’t seen the girl yet. She had light olive skin and dark curled hair that went down to her waist. She was heavier than the rest of them, though Franklin didn’t care about things like that. Weight was nothing to judge by. In fact, if she’d stopped there, she would’ve come out looking way more normal than the others. But it was her costume that made Franklin lose faith in humanity.
For some reason this girl was dressed as what Franklin could only guess was a Disney princess—who’d been attacked by zombies. She was covered in billowy layers of hand-sewn veils and lace that fell over a shapeless baby blue shirt and matching sweatpants. On her head she wore a small fez, adorned with tassels at the sides, and a hole in the top for her to push her hair through. And every part of her costume was either torn or stained. Whether that was intentional, or the result of heavy city wear, Franklin couldn’t tell.
She looked like she was ready for Comicon—in the worst way.
Franklin had prepared himself for something unusual on the way here. He hadn’t known what to expect, but he didn’t think it would be this.
He glanced again at the rest of the room, this time with longing. A dozen other tables surrounded them, filled with normal kids just trying to look trendy. Franklin had judged them for a bunch of posers a moment ago. Now, he would’ve given anything to sit with them—to sit anywhere but the table where Kimberly pulled out a chair for him next to her own, her hand patting the seat impatiently.
What am I doing? he thought as he inched over to the old stained-wood chair. He forced himself to fall into his seat, his stomach swelling with dread.
“Do you have any idea how late you are?” Kimberly demanded as soon as his butt had touched the chair. “Do you?”—seven minutes late, Franklin mentally noted, observing the wall clock above the baristas—“I told you to be on time. If anything, you should’ve been early. You’ve made a disappointing first impression here—and I vouched for you too,” she lamented.
She looked meaningfully at each of her friends and shook her head. “I want you to understand Franky, that when you’re late, you’re not just stealing my time—you’re stealing from the whole club. I’m gonna let you off with a warning—just this once—but next time I’ll have to write you up,” she finished, her voice echoing authority.
Write you up? Franklin thought incredulously. What the hell does that mean?
“Yeah, okay,” Franklin muttered. “Uh, sorry everybody.”
Kimberly nodded solemnly. “Well, now we’re back to where we were. Yes? Just like before and it’s all forgotten… right?”—she took a deep breath; her scowl transformed instantly into a wide grin—“Right! Everyone, I’d like you to meet the newest member of our club. His name is Franklin,” she proclaimed.
She stared at the others pointedly, and they forced themselves to clap.
She continued, “Franklin, this is Jann Al-Marid,”—she gestured to the girl dressed in the depressing veils—“but we just call her Jann. She’s a powerful genie, bound to her bottle, but who helps us out of her own free will because she believes in our cause.”
If Franklin had been drinking his coffee, he’d have done a spit-take. “What?” he exclaimed. He shot a worried look at the girl—who shrugged an ironic smile at him—then back at Kimberly.
Kimberly acted like she hadn’t heard him and continued, pointing at the jock in the hoodie, “This is Garrett the Destroyer—a powerful Arch-circle Mage from the flying continent of Nethexigo. He handles occult lore for our group and was my former tutor in the magical arts.”
Garrett looked like he was used to this introduction. He took a sip of his latté, but stopped mid-eye roll and shot Kimberly a confused look when she said “former tutor.”
“And this,” she waved in the direction of the pale fashion model, “is Xavion Nathander de la Rosa-cruz. He’s—”
“Prince!” Xavion interrupted. He sent a slightly poutier pout Kimberly’s way, then resumed posing for his invisible photographer.
“Prince,” Kimberly corrected, “and that’s what we all call him anyway. He’s from the Wallovian royal bloodline, and aides our cause with the riches of his kingdom. Two hundred years ago, he was turned into a vampire, and he fled to Seattle—until he came here.”
Franklin should’ve guessed vampire. He hadn’t seen the movies, but he’d seen all the mania. This Prince was trying so hard to look cool that he’d sprain something just sitting there, Franklin thought.
Kimberly shot to her feet, and pulled Franklin up next to her. He didn’t even have time to glare. “Everyone, this is Franklin. He has this mark on his hand—the one I saw in your book Garrett, remember? So I guess you could call him a Demi-god, because he has divine blood flowing through his veins,” she intoned loudly.
Franklin tried to sit again as soon as Kimberly started spouting his title to the whole coffee shop. “Franklin—what are you—stop it!” she snapped, fighting to keep him standing. Finally, she let him go, and Franklin collapsed back into his seat.
He scanned the room quickly, praying that nobody from his school had been paying attention to Kimberly. He knew that anti-bullying was a big deal right now, but he also knew you couldn’t stop people from judging, and behind virtual doors he’d be pulverized.
Kimberly looked perturbed. Franklin’s reaction to her grand introduction was definitely not the one she was expecting. Maybe it was a mistake not buying the confetti.
She watched him for a moment, doubt flickering across her face, then took her chair again, her charming smile back in place. “Everyone, welcome him,” she instructed the rest of the table. Prince and Jann offered a few more underwhelming claps and Garrett a bored, “S’up.”
Franklin seethed, his face burning, grinding his teeth because he was too frustrated to speak. He clenched his fists at his sides, nearly cracking the rickety old chair.
Did this girl have it out for him? She was doing her best to ruin what little reputation he had in front of a whole room of their stupidly trendy peers. Who knew how many of the kids sitting nearby went to their school?
Maybe Franklin had never developed a sense of humor, maybe most people could laugh this off, but Kimberly had mixed magic with mass-humiliation. That just happened to be Franklin’s worst nightmare. He felt like he’d shown up for class in his underwear—except they were magic underwear.
Added to that, Franklin was losing an entire Friday afternoon hanging with these weirdoes instead of getting to relax.
“You weren’t here when the barista came by,” Kimberly chattered on, oblivious to Franklin’s seething, “so I ordered you a caramel macchiato. I could tell from our talk yesterday that you were a caramel man.” She winked at him and slid a sweating, plastic cup his way.
Franklin ignored her, still checking to make sure no one he knew had heard Kimberly’s loud proclamation that he was a god. Maybe they’d think that was a good thing?
He took a shallow breath. “Look, I’m not demi-anything. What is this? D&D? I told you I’m not into RPGs, and I’m not playing your game. There are like a million guys out there who love this crap—so why the hell did you ask me? I hate magic!” he snapped. He leaned back in his seat and glared at his macchiato. He didn’t touch the drink. He was too afraid he’d crush it out of anger.
He looked up to see four very solemn faces, staring at Franklin like he’d just karaoked a Katy Perry song in Russian.
Kimberly took a sip of her coffee—double espresso shot, black—and studied his face. She set her mug and saucer down with a slight clink, and looked back at Franklin. “This isn’t Dungeons & Dragons—and it’s not a game. This is very real. I promise you,” she said sternly.
She’s a good actress, Franklin thought. He also knew that he shouldn’t have expected a real answer. Of course she’d say that. He’d heard somewhere that the kids who play these games aren’t supposed to break character. Ever.
He also felt like a jerk for flying off the handle at a bunch of LARPers who’d just asked him to play their game. What would he do next, start slashing basketballs because he couldn’t play? Punch a Glee club member in the throat?
He’d obviously misunderstood Kimberly’s invite yesterday. He’d been pretty wrapped up in his own problems. They’re just a lonely, desperate group of losers who need to trick people into playing their game because nobody wants to join, Franklin surmised, his anger simmering down into dull bitter grounds.
Still, I don’t know why they had to pick me, he thought ruefully.
“So, today’s first order of business…” Kimberly cleared her throat and looked pointedly at Jann. The Disney girl took out a tablet PC from her backpack and opened up a word processor.
“I take the minutes,” she explained, in a voice so lilting and sweet that Franklin wasn’t sure if she was using her real one.
Also, he didn’t care.
“…we have to pick a mascot for our organization,” Kimberly continued. “A symbolic animal has long been an emblem of pride for countries around the world, and we need—”
Franklin didn’t stay to hear the rest. He muttered, “Bathroom,” and sprung from his seat, almost knocking his chair onto its back.
He wove through the throngs of caffeinated hipsters, and found himself in a narrow hallway decorated with strange tiled murals. Mostly images of what looked like witches being burned at the stake. Franklin thought that was weird, but he didn’t waste time worrying about it. He figured it was par for the course today. He shook his head and made for the back exit.
He knew that he’d made a mistake coming here. A horrible mistake. There was no way he could go back to that table. The kids out there were the reason he didn’t have any friends. They were what he was afraid of. Every time that he tried to meet people, he wound up with another strange clique. A new group of crazy people pretending they were normal, with all new rules and labels.
They made Franklin feel even more alone than when he was alone.
He felt his heart sink. Franklin usually tried his best to fit in—not this time, but usually. But he knew that he just couldn’t pull it off. He knew he shouldn’t have come.
Maybe he didn’t fit in anywhere, he thought, with a warm prickle of self-pity.
Franklin glared at the paint peeling off of the door in front of him. He was about to shove against the round metal bar that held the it shut, but paused when he noticed the warning sign above. It read: “Emergency Exit Only: Opening The Door Will Trigger Alarm And Sprinklers.”
Franklin’s first thought was that they were lying: there was no way he’d set off the sprinklers. He leaned against the door, ready to push. He was so anxious for freedom that he almost called their bluff. He was so close…
But then he decided that if there were no sprinklers and no alarm, why had they bothered with the sign?
Which meant he was trapped.
Out the back or out the front. Both roads led to humiliation. So Franklin opted for the third, surprisingly less embarrassing option: he decided to hide inside the men’s restroom.
that time when America’s only six-star General wanted to create the KKK…
“drip… drip… drip…”
Franklin sat on the toilet, listening to a leaking faucet and the muffled dream pop piped to every corner of this café. Gaudy tungsten light flooded out from recesses above the mirror, and the smell of soap, mildew—and something much worse—assaulted Franklin’s senses.
Obviously, spending a Friday evening on a coffee shop toilet was not his first choice. But, since he’d somehow wound up here, he had to wonder just how long he was going to have to stay.
Oh, Mark was here, Franklin observed, reading the graffiti that had been keyed into the tissue dispenser.
Franklin pulled out his phone. He had zero bars—not that he had anyone in mind to call. But he still had a few shows and games to play to pass the time.
He briefly considered which was more pathetic: a night of video games on the porcelain throne, or the ten minutes of shame he’d have to endure to make it to the bus line.
Franklin pulled out his headphones, and tapped play on an episode of Wedding Cake Repo.
He couldn’t enjoy the show—the screen was too small. And laughing while he was in a public restroom just felt… wrong. His mind drifted to the emergency exit again.
Franklin rationalized that if everybody got soaked, that was the coffee shop’s fault for setting up such a stupid system. He tried hard to convince himself. He wished he could just rush out of the bathroom, throw open the door and take off into the night.
He sighed. Franklin knew deep down, he could never break the rules like that.
“Psst! Hey, Franky, what’s taking you so long?” a voice called from above him.
Franklin jumped in shock, almost falling off of the toilet seat and bruising his arm against the metal wall. He looked up to see Kimberly peeking down at him from over the top of the neighboring stall. She watched him with a look of amusement. “I know that when nature calls, you have to answer and all that, but you’re missing the whole meeting and—”
“What’re you doing in the men’s room?” he choked up at her.
She rolled her eyes up at her neatly-cut bangs. “It’s okay,” she said matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry about it. I’m allowed.”
“I’m allowed?” he mouthed the words back to himself, trying to understand. “What? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“That’s not important right now Franky. What’s important is you, finishing your business, so that we can get back to work,” Kimberly said, annoyance creeping into her voice.
“Okay, look,” Franklin began, his anger returning, “you tricked me into coming here. Got me to listen to your game. But like I told you: I’m not playing.” He glared up at her. “So you had your laugh. I’m sorry you can’t find people to play with you, but I’m going to go now… out the front door,” he added, like she’d heard what he’d been thinking.
Kimberly didn’t respond for a minute. Her face scrunched in a look of confusion, like something about him made no sense to her.
What was she thinking about? he wondered. Maybe she didn’t take rejection well. Franklin had a sudden vision of her blocking the door and setting the place on fire—with him inside. He didn’t know where that came from.
Suddenly, Kimberly’s look softened into pity. “I guess I did kinda trick you,”—she tilted her head to the side in a gesture of acknowledgement—“but I didn’t mean anything by it,” she said honestly. “I mean, I should’ve given you a full disclosure, it’s just that most people don’t stick around long after that. They dismiss us without even listening—and what we’re doing is so important!” She let an arm droop over the top of the stall and rested her chin on it. Her breath came out in a long sigh, and her eyes stared out into space.
Something about the look on Kimberly’s face deflated Franklin’s anger. He really wanted to stay angry—even though he didn’t know why. He tried to recapture the feeling, but it was no use. The moment had passed. Anger took a lot of effort, and Franklin was glad to let it go.
“Why is a game of Dungeons & Dragons important?” he asked finally, trying to understand.
Kimberly came back from her reverie. Her brow furrowed and she focused on Franklin. “It’s not a game of D&D… didn’t you read my card?” she demanded.
“Eh… not so much,” Franklin said sheepishly. “I think I left it…” He tried to remember where he’d put that thing after yesterday. He thought it might’ve been in his other pants—if he didn’t toss it at the time.
Kimberly didn’t wait for him to say anything else; slipping her hand quickly into her jacket pocket, she flicked another card down to him. Franklin barely caught it before it hit the floor.
Franklin read the card, more convinced than ever that this was a big joke—or she was really insane. Franklin looked up from the tiny white rectangle, watching Kimberly with a mixture of doubt and suspicion. “This is your business card?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, looking down proudly.
Franklin continued to stare at the card, pretending to care. All the while he was thinking about what he should say. Should he play it safe and just tell her that her card is nice? It wasn’t. It was weird. How many teenagers even had their own business cards? Franklin didn’t know any.
An inevitable dread crept over him. He knew that no matter what he said they’d end up talking about this card. It was a no-win scenario. Maybe if I don’t say anything, he thought, she’ll just go away.
“Isn’t it great?” she prompted, obviously mistaking Franklin’s silence for deep interest. “That’s tooth—the color. I’m very proud of the design. The text is Dorsian Rail. Plus, rub it! Rub it in your hand,”—she produced another card from her pocket—“feel the texture? It’s raised lettering!” She grasped the card between her thumb and forefinger and slid it apart. “Look, it also opens into a survival tool, because they were having a special when I ordered them. I thought it was a gimmick, but it’s actually pretty cool.”
“Oh, it’s super,” Franklin said blandly.
Kimberly missed his sarcasm. “You really think so?”
He took a deep breath. “Leaving aside the fact that you claim to be a six star general—”
“Yeah, that’s pretty high, isn’t it?” she interrupted. “I know you’re probably shocked because I’m so young—and thanks—but it’s also totally true. I’m the only one, as far as I know.”
Franklin stared at her blankly. “Of course you are. And the FQ? What does that stand for?” he asked.
She flashed a devastating grin. “Future Queen,” she enthused. “of the world—probably—but who knows? We might not stop there.” Misreading Franklin’s jaw drop, she added, “I know, it sounds a little pompous. That’s why I added the Future part.”
Franklin nodded slowly, but he didn’t understand a thing. “And you say this isn’t a game?” he repeated, not believing a word she said.
“And… what does that… mean?”
She raised an eyebrow. Franklin got the impression that she was starting to think he was a little slow. “What do you think it means? I’m going to rule the world. That’s what this club is. I find the best, brightest and most powerful beings in the world, and together we—you know—conquer it. In exchange for helping me, you get to be part of my cabinet when I ascend to the throne.” She considered for a moment. “I’ll make you Finance Minister—or Whipper of the Faithless.
“I’d wanted to name it Kimberly King’s Klub for consistency—but apparently there’s some crazy Halloween group in the south that took those letters already,” she vented.
“Yeah, I’d heard about that,” he said dully.
“Really?” she said, surprised. “Jerks. Now I can’t use it. So I went with KKKK: Kimberly King’s Konquest Klub. There’s one more K, so it’s totally different.”
Franklin just gazed into her shining green eyes, watching them flash brighter every time she said conquer and rule, too bored and annoyed to take any of this seriously. He’d met crazy before—usually while waiting for the bus—but this went way beyond. She leered over him like some kind of predatory bird, looking absolutely serious about every part. In fact, she looked—hungry. This was crazy on so many levels, Franklin didn’t even know which part to start with.
This girl from his school had a total disconnect with reality, he realized. She just told him about her very real plans for world domination—in the men’s restroom of a coffee shop. He didn’t even dream this weird.
“Kimberly,” Franklin began quietly, “are you insane?” He couldn’t stop himself; the words slipped out.
She reached over the wall with her other arm and chucked a roll of toilet paper at him.
“What!” Franklin panicked, trying and failing to dodge. “Don’t! Do you know where that’s been?” he exclaimed. And at the same time he couldn’t help but wonder, was she holding that the whole time, just waiting for an opportunity to throw it?
“I’m perfectly sane, and I have a one eighty seven IQ thank you very much,” she corrected.
“And you think that’s enough,” Franklin hissed, “to take over the world?”
She scoffed and tossed her hair. “Not even. I’ll also need a vast number of supporters and resources and power—hence my club,” she stated matter-of-factly.
Franklin couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. He wanted it to end. He didn’t know why he was invested in this. Why he even cared…
“Kimberly, assuming you’re not still pranking me,”—and not totally demented, he thought—“then you know that no one can conquer the world. Right?”
“I realize that it’s a complex political issue with—”
“It’s not a political anything! You can’t conquer the world. Nobody can. It’s not possible,” Franklin fumed, willing her to come back to reality.
“Why not?” she said, curious, like Franklin had said something crazy.
Franklin pinched his sinuses. “Because it’s not. Nobody’s ever done it,” he groaned into his hand. Explaining something this obvious caused him physical pain.
“Yet,” she answered.
“Really?” he said skeptically.
“Our whole lives they’ve told us that we can be whatever we want to be. That’s what makes this country so special—blah, blah, blah.” She frowned, delivering her speech with too much polish to be improvised, “They always use the example of an astronaut or the president. So what if I’d said, ‘I want to be the first female president of the United States,’? No one’s done that either. Doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You wouldn’t think that was so strange—wanting that. People would smile and praise my ambition and tell me to go into politics. Well, I don’t want to be president. I want a position with actual power.”
“You want to rule the world.” Franklin mumbled, shifting his weight on the seat. He wished he could die.
“Yes,” she said simply.
Franklin decided to try reaching her a different way. He’d heard somewhere that you can’t confront a fanatic’s delusions head-on—you have to use Psychology on them.
“Why would you want to do a thing like that? It seems like a lot of work. You know—a lot of responsibility,” he tried, gesturing with his hands.
“I want to fix it,” she answered quietly. Franklin felt the a chill run up the back of his neck.
He frowned and shrugged. “Isn’t it kind of—I don’t know—fine the way it is?”
Her face took on a sudden fire. “You’re joking right? I don’t know who’s running things right now, but I’d dare anyone to do a worse job than they are!” she hissed, every word filled with fury. “It’s a mess! Genocide and hate groups everywhere; governments taking away human rights. Corporations nuking the environment—”
“Uh, this just got super dark,” Franklin interjected.
She ignored him. “And even if we can save people from themselves—even if we right every injustice, save every single person—it’ll all still end in a Malthusian Catastrophe,” she concluded hopelessly.
Franklin shook his head, visibly shaken at her outburst. “I don’t know what that is,” he choked.
“It’s not important. My point is, the world needs somebody to fix things, somebody to run things the right way… and that somebody is me,” she finished, raising her chin defiantly.
“You know it’s not that simple right? The things you’re talking about, they’re big economic and social problems, affecting billions of people in countless cultures. I mean, those things have been around forever,” Franklin explained, his patience running low. “And you’re acting like it’s an episode of Pinky and the Brain.”
She blinked a few times, confused. “What? What’s that?” she asked.
“An old cartoon. Didn’t you watch that as a kid? With the big-headed mouse and his wonky-eyed sidekick?” he said, smiling fondly at the memories. “You know, there are some internet theories that say Pinky was the real genius, and Brain was just delusional.”
Kimberly’s look of disgust hit Franklin like a physical force. “Franklin, you’ve just lost the right to argue with me. Forever,” she added with disdain.
“Hey, all I’m saying is that—”
“Are you finished?” she prompted, pointing at the toilet.
Franklin shook his head, the weirdness of the situation coming back to him. “I wasn’t… using it, or… going. You know!” he explained through clenched teeth.
She clicked her tongue. “Walk and talk Franky. What are you waiting for? I don’t have all day.”
Franklin stared at her like she was off her meds. “Is this not, incredibly awkward for you? Or is it just me?” he said sarcastically.
“What?” she asked nonchalantly.
“Stop watching me! There are doors here for a reason. And locks. And—and personal space! It’s something you’re supposed to learn when you’re five. Wait for me outside!” he snapped, finally losing his cool. She’s like dealing with an alien, Franklin thought.
Kimberly rolled her eyes and dropped behind the partition. “Baby,” she muttered, and walked out of the restroom.
Franklin waited to hear the door shut. He heard the “snap!” and breathed a shaky sigh of relief. Franklin had never met someone that unstable.
That had been the single worst moment of his entire life. His closest runner-up came back in first grade, when he tripped one time as he carried his lunch tray to the garbage. This was so much worse, he thought. Kimberly was one hundred percent organic fresh-squeezed crazy.
He stumbled out of the stall, shaking his numb legs to get feeling back in them. He washed his hands for a full twenty seconds, and made for the door.
He walked out to the main area of the café, confronted by the irritated stares of Kimberly’s group. Franklin approached the table coolly. Not from any sense of confidence, but because he knew he was leaving in sixty seconds, and he’d never see these people again. He picked up his melted caramel macchiato and swigged a long drink—for support.
He loathed confrontation, but it had come down to this. He thought that the others at least deserved a warning before he left.
“I’ve got some bad news for you guys,” he said, loud enough for the table, but not for the rest of the café to hear. He pointed at Kimberly. “This girl, the one leading your game thing, she’s certifiable. Crazy. She thinks it’s real. Honest to God. She can’t tell reality from fiction in a big way, and I’d be careful even talking to her.”
Public speaking is worse than death, Franklin reminded himself, but this time it looked like he might get both. Four pairs of eyes darkened in unison, from every angle, sending him looks of the blackest hate.
“You’re a moron.”
“I don’t usually drink humans, but I’ll make an exception for you…”
“Master, shall I destroy him?”
Franklin furrowed his brow. That wasn’t exactly the response he’d expected. He glared at them—arch mage, vampire, and genie—in turn. Then a sudden horrible thought flashed into his mind: it wasn’t just Kimberly—they were all lunatics. Like six o’ clock news, internet top-story lunatics.
Dangerous lunatics—and they were all angry at him.
cold spaghetti, a baseball bat, and an offer he can’t refuse…
Franklin stood there, clutching his macchiato, speechless, as four heated glares sizzled into him…
<end of awesome preview…>