If you drive out of Toronto, heading east, it will take you about two-and-a-half hours to reach the beautiful tree-lined campus of Macdonald Hall. Located just off Highway 48, the Hall has recently been named the top-ranked boarding school in Canada for the twenty-second year in a row.
(Across the road, Miss Scrimmage's Finishing School for Young Ladies has improved its place in the rankings. It is now listed at number two hundred and four. The young ladies are very pleased.)
It's a quiet night. Light streams from the dormitory windows onto the snow. Two weeks into December, and both schools have begun to feel the pull of gravity, the long steep slide into exams and Christmas and the New Year. The pervasive air of industry and focus could, at a glance, be mistaken for peace.
However, an observer might note that there is a sense of tension at Macdonald Hall. There is a disturbance in the balance. There is a change in the wind. There is--
--a pointy object flying through the airspace of Room 306.
"Cut it out, Bruno." Boots O'Neal does not look up from his algebra textbook. "You're going to scratch the wall."
"Bruno!" Boots slams his textbook shut.
"It doesn't help, anyways." The bed near the window creaks as Bruno Walton sits up, rolls off the edge of the bed, and begins pulling darts out of the dartboard. "Even when it's full of holes, I still know it's there."
Boots doesn't have to look. He knows what's on the dartboard. It's been there for a week: the glossy page ripped from the summer issue of McGuffin's, the four neat columns of text about a vacation spent in Mexico, the author's photograph, and, at the bottom of the page, the tidy little by-line.
“That turkey,” mutters Bruno darkly.
“You ever met him?”
“I don’t have to.” Bruno sets the darts on the windowsill and flops backwards on his bed. “He goes to York, therefore he’s a turkey. And now everyone’s read his gobbling noises and knows who he is.” His voice turns mocking. “Keith Bellwood is a student at York Academy.”
It is this, Boots knows, that infuriates Bruno the most. Not Bellwood’s smirking photo, or the trip to Mexico, or even the honor of being published in the magazine most likely to be found in any Canadian teenager’s mailbox.
No, the aspect of the situation that has most fuelled Bruno’s current obsession is the by-line. An article appearing in a national magazine has been credited to a scion of Macdonald Hall’s ancient enemy. The name of York Academy has been placed before the public eye, paraded, and the name of Macdonald Hall is--nowhere.
Strictly speaking, of course, this is not true. Apart from its academic pre-eminence, the Hall has produced distinguished college professors, professional athletes, successful businessmen, and, yes, more than one published author. Boots has pointed this out to his roommate repeatedly.
None of it has helped. This year, their final year at the Hall, has thus far been quiet on the rabble-rousing front. Boots' obnoxious younger brother has begun, disturbingly, to accumulate first-year minions (all of whom seem to be named Kevin) and Bruno hasn't so much as pounded a table. No Committees have been formed, no schemes have been perpetuated, Miss Scrimmage has not been obliged to chase them out of her school’s orchard even once--all because Bruno Walton’s positive genius for wreaking havoc has been conspicuous by its absence.
The teachers think it’s because this is their senior year. They tell each other that Walton and his friends are finally growing up, applying to colleges, settling down, trying to stay out of trouble.
Boots thinks, in a way, they’re probably right.
Six years at the Hall. The two of them, Bruno and Boots, have been roommates since the first day of their first year. Boots has literally lost count of how many times Bruno has gotten him into trouble, how often they’ve been called into the Headmaster’s office together. Always together. Separating Bruno from Boots has never worked out well for anyone involved.
They’ve gotten tangled, somehow, Bruno-and-Boots and Macdonald Hall and the way in which separating the two of them from each other is like separating the two of them from the Hall. Boots has had the oddest feeling, this final year, that the Hall--with all its history, all its notable graduates--is only real for as long as he and Bruno are there to anchor it. That, without the two of them, it will fade somehow, be less present.
And now they are graduating in the spring. Gravity, time, pulling them down the hill and not caring whether they can get their feet under them or roll helplessly and break bones along the way.
Boots understands Bruno’s drive to do something big this year, something final, something with his own fingerprints on it that will bring the name of Macdonald Hall into public view. Bruno wants everyone to see, to witness, to remember. He knows it’s not rational, but there you are.
As for Boots...since a certain meeting in the third week of this school year, Boots has given up trying to pretend he doesn't know what he wants.
“Boots. Boots.” Bruno waves a hand in front of his eyes. “Hello? Anyone home?”
Boots shakes his head. “Yeah. Sorry. Just thinking. What time is it?” He glances at his own watch to answer his question, knowing Bruno never wears one. “We should turn on the radio. They’ll be making the announcement soon.”
* * * * * * * *
June had brought the issue of McGuffin’s containing Keith York-Turkey Bellwood’s article, as well as a short and incoherently angry letter from somewhere in New England where Bruno was visiting his cousins. July had brought a longer letter, full of ideas for Big Things they could do to make Macdonald Hall famous. August had been suspiciously quiet.
September had brought Bruno back to Room 306 with a handful of scribbled notes, a book called Ten Tips For Top Writers!, and a weird black box.
“It’s a computer, sort of,” Bruno had explained, his words falling over each other. “My cousin Jon, when we were kids he built a word processor, and then he met this guy who said he could build computers. And by the time I got there they were already building a better one, so Jon said I could borrow this one. It's called the X35.”
Boots hadn’t understood, not then. “What’s it for, typing your university applications?”
“No, idiot, for this.” Bruno had shuffled the notes around and come up with a newspaper clipping.
“Youth literacy--blah blah--raise awareness of the need to read...et cetera, et cetera...McGuffin's Magazine and CKAN Radio,” Boots had read aloud, “are co-sponsoring a Best New Under-18...Novelist Contest? You want to write a book?”
“Already started.” Bruno had waved the scribbled notes. “Just think. ‘A novel by Bruno Walton.’ And inside the back cover it’ll say, Bruno Walton is a student...”
“...at Macdonald Hall,” Boots had finished with him. “Bruno, this says the deadline is December first. And you’re only going to be under eighteen until Remembrance Day.”
Bruno’s face had taken on the familiar determined look. “Then I’d better get to work.”
At least five of the Ten Tips For Top Writers had turned out to be variations on the theme of “write what you know”. Bruno’s first set of notes had been a story about a bunch of students at a military academy in outer space. This idea had lasted two days, at the end of which Bruno had yanked the last page out of the word processor, said some very bad words, and tossed it into the trash can.
After that, he had stopped telling Boots what the next attempt was about, or the next, or the next. The trash can had overflowed with crumpled words, and the clicking of the X35's keys had become part of the soundtrack of life in 306.
* * * * * * * *
During the third week of school, Boots had received a rare solo summons to the Headmaster's office. Bruno had been off somewhere with his latest batch of notes. It had felt distinctly weird to walk into the office without him.
"Sit down, O'Neal." Mr. Sturgeon had been looking at a stack of papers on his desk when Boots came in. Boots had taken one of the chairs and waited. He hadn't been able to think of anything that he'd done since they'd come back to school. He had been running quickly over the previous year in his mind--had there been anything they hadn't been caught for already? Had they left something behind?
The Headmaster had looked up from his desk. "I know that look, O'Neal. You can set your mind at rest. You're not here to explain yourself, not this time."
"Sir?" Boots had heard the Headmaster's emphasis. You're not here to explain yourself.
"You and Walton have shared a room since your first day here."
Boots' first thought had been: oh no, he knows. The Fish knows.
His second thought had been a quick rush of relief that, finally, someone knew. He hadn't been terribly worried about what would happen when someone found out--his parents and Edward had known, more or less, since his third year at the Hall, and no one else mattered. He'd worried much more about what would happen when he left the Hall, about what would be left, about what would be real.
i shut my eyes and all the world drops dead (i think i made you up inside my head)
No. No. If someone else knew, then it was real, it was witnessed. This was what drove Bruno, the source of his desperate need to elicit a response, the quest for something that didn't fall over when he kicked it and for something that was still there even when he wasn't looking at it.
Mr. Sturgeon had waited patiently, remaining silent until Boots had met his eyes. "As I said, you have lived with Walton for six years. You undoubtedly know him better than his own parents. That is why I have opted to consult you before telephoning them."
"What?" Boots had been startled into a squawk, and had collected himself. "I'm sorry. I mean--what, sir?"
Mr. Sturgeon had held up the papers he'd been looking at when Boots had arrived. Boots had seen that the stack was actually six smaller stacks of paper, each neatly squared off and held together with a binder clip. "These are incident reports, O'Neal. I complete one of these forms every time any form of punishment is assigned to a student." He had coughed. "The incidents involving Mr. Wizzle's...educational innovations...are not included.
"Specifically, these are the incident reports from Walton's file." Mr. Sturgeon had looked at Boots over the top of the stack. "I don't intend to allow you to examine them, but I'm sure you have a reasonable sense of the contents."
Boots had nodded ruefully. He had known Bruno's discipline history clearly enough--in point of fact, the same punishments had usually been meted out to him.
"This," Mr. Sturgeon had continued, holding up an empty clip, "is the sum total of the incident reports relating to Walton so far this year. I understand it has only been three weeks, but Walton's previous pattern of activity would have led me to anticipate some--" he had paused, "Some testing of boundaries by now. Is there anything you would like to tell me?"
Something must have shown on Boots' face, because the Headmaster's gaze had softened a little. "O'Neal, I wouldn't ask you to betray a confidence. But this pattern," he had gestured to the six stacks of paper and the clip waiting for Year 7 incident reports, "is cause for some concern. Has Walton--Bruno--mentioned anything to you? Something that happened over the summer, perhaps?"
"Oh. Oh, no, sir!" An entirely different sort of relief had washed over Boots. The Fish thought something bad had happened to Bruno--all those Public Service Announcements on TV, about changes in behavior that meant someone was depressed or getting high or--"No, nothing's wrong. Bruno's just busy." And he had explained about Ten Tips For Top Writers and the X35.
"I see," Mr. Sturgeon had said dryly. "Well, you may tell Walton that I look forward to reading the work of literature that is destined to put Macdonald Hall on the map."
Boots had reddened. "It's not like that. I mean, we--Bruno knows about Dr. Swift, and Professor Hargreaves, and all of the important people who've graduated from the Hall. It's just..." He'd looked at his Headmaster, the first person he'd met at the Hall, even before he'd met Bruno. "It's not putting the Hall on the map. It's putting something of himself on the Hall so he can always find his way back."
"Yes." Mr. Sturgeon had been turning the empty clip over in his fingers while Boots spoke. He had put it down, and looked steadily at Boots. "I am relying on you, O'Neal, to prevent him from wandering too far."
* * * * * * * *
It's been a strange semester. Bruno has gone to classes and practices and meals (not breakfast, of course) the same as usual. He's been quieter, but it's not as though he's avoiding Boots or any of their friends. The visits to Cathy and Diane's room at Scrimmage's have gone on as usual, although they are very careful with the drainpipe now. It held their weight easily when they were thirteen, but they're not thirteen any more and nothing goes on forever.
If you can get his attention, Bruno waxes enthusiastic about hockey or university applications or Jordie Jones' latest movie. That is, however, a sizable 'if'. Bruno's eyes are fixed these days on something none of the rest of them can see. Diane is worried. Cathy is speculative.
Boots is a realist.
He will lose Macdonald Hall, and he is already losing Bruno. Gravity, and time.
* * * * * * * *
October had brought a particularly nasty chest cold that ran through the Hall like a rumor. Boots had woken up with an ominous wet pinch in his lungs a few days before Halloween, had ignored it and gone to his classes anyways. They'd had a math exam. He'd sat in his chair and shivered and rubbed at his eyes, over and over again, trying to make the numbers stop moving just long enough for him to write something down.
At the end of the hour, Mr. Stratton had gently taken the paper away from him and told Bruno to take him back to 306. Bruno had steered him to Dormitory 3, peeled him out of his jacket and shoes, cool fingers on his wrists and ankles.
"Sit tight," Bruno had said. "I'm going to the infirmary and get something for your cough."
"I don't have a cough."
"You will." Cool fingers on Boots' forehead, once, and then he was gone.
The next thing Boots knew was waking up to find the room darkened, lit only by the faint green glow of the X35. He had been tucked into bed, under all his blankets, and some of Bruno's, wearing a pair of Bruno's pajama pants and no shirt.
"I couldn't find your clean laundry pile," Bruno had said quietly in the dark. "Nurse Hildegarde said, the fever, you'd be more comfortable dressed lightly and lots of blankets."
Boots had flipped on the bedside light, and that was how he'd found out how bad his headache was. He'd squeaked and smacked it until it turned off again.
"Here." There had been rustling noises, and then Bruno sitting on the edge of his bed in the dark. "You're supposed to drink this, and then lots of water." Bruno had taken his hand and wrapped his fingers around one of the tiny plastic infirmary cups.
Boots had swallowed the awful fake-cherry-tasting syrup and held out his hand for the water glass. He'd drunk the water too fast and choked. Painful harsh coughs, the wheezing panic of swallowing air, headache like blunt needles pressing behind his eyes, and then Bruno's hand rubbing gentle circles on his back.
When it had passed, he'd let himself crumple sideways into Bruno's shoulder. So careful, he'd been so careful all this year not to touch, but everything had hurt and he had just wanted to set down the weight of his secret for a few minutes. So heavy.
Bruno hadn't flinched, had cupped an awkward hand around the back of his neck and tipped him gently back onto his pillow. Boots had been grateful for the dark and not-grateful, wanted to see Bruno's face.
"You should've seen the infirmary." Bruno had pulled the blankets up around Boots' neck. Cool fingers on a bare shoulder, and Boots wished he could believe it was deliberate. "Besides the guys with colds, all of the first-years in Dormitory Two got food poisoning. I blame your brother and his Kevin collection."
"Me too." Boots had recognized the change of subject and let it wash over him like the aches in his bones. Had spent that day lying in the dark and listening to the crackling noises somewhere behind his ribs when he breathed, and that night more of the same. Had sat up when Bruno poked him, had drunk cherry syrup and water and apple juice--
--had lost some time in there, he'd thought maybe a whole day and another night, the dark and the never-quite-sleep blurring things for him. Coughed, drunk different medicine, coughed more--
--woken sometimes, the room dim, green glow, clicking of the keys--
--Bruno making him drink water, Bruno typing softly, Bruno hissing curses over his handwritten notes, Bruno hauling him to his feet and steering him into the bathroom and walking him back to bed and pulling up the blankets and cool fingers on his shoulders--
--Bruno Bruno Bruno--
--and then Boots had woken up on the third day to find that his lungs didn't crackle and his head didn't hurt and the X35 was turned off and Bruno was sprawled out on his own bed fast asleep. October was over.
* * * * * * * *
Bruno had mailed his contest entry to CKAN the week before his birthday.
He hadn't offered to let Boots read it, or even told him what it was about. Boots hadn't asked.
Bruno had never caught Boots' cold.
* * * * * * * *
"Here." Boots reaches up to the top of the bookshelf, where Bruno's ancient portable radio resides among a careful balance of pop cans and wire coat hangers. Neither of them has said anything about it, but Bruno changed the batteries yesterday and Boots has surreptitiously checked the reception earlier this afternoon. His hand is no more than halfway to the switch when all of the lights go out.
For a single mad moment, he thinks, I was right. I knew something would stop us before we could get to the end.
Of course, it doesn't last. Scott Parnacki in Room 304 starts banging on the wall almost immediately, as if it's their fault somehow. He's joined by yelling from the corridor, and echoed by shouts from the other dorms.
"Who turned off the lights?"
"Who turned on the dark?"
"I swear it wasn't me this time! I didn't even move!"
Bruno makes his way over to the wall they share with 304 and does some banging of his own. While he's busy with that, Boots trails his fingers along the bookshelf and follows the furniture until he gets to his desk. He's got a flashlight in here somewhere, one of those little ones that goes on a keychain so you can see the lock--where did it go?
"Bruno? Boots? You guys home?" Someone taps on the door.
"Hi, Larry. What's going on?"
"Power's out all over the building." Larry Wilson sticks his head in and blinks at the tiny light in Boots' fingers. "Oh, hey, can I borrow that? I'm on my way to the office and I've already run into so many corners my bruises have bruises."
"Sure. Hang on a second." Boots goes back to the bookshelf and flicks the On switch on Bruno's radio. "Okay, you can have it now. Why did the power go out?"
Larry shrugs. "The Fish got a memo from Ontario Hydro a couple of weeks ago saying there were going to be repairs to the grid. Maybe that's it. Or, you know, that guy in 104 plugged in his hair dryer again."
"Shut up!" Bruno is waving frantically at them. He turns up the volume on the radio.
"Well, excuse me," says Larry. "Didn't know you were so into...whatever this is. Thanks for the flashlight." He turns the rapidly fading light into the hallway and is gone.
Boots closes the door quietly. The howling guitar noises coming out of the radio fade, as he finds his desk chair by tripping over it, and are replaced by a block of commercials. The two of them listen in silence as a guy with an American accent sings about who do they call when their windshield's busted.
"Are you going to tell me what you wound up sending in?" asks Boots during an ad for snow tires.
"No." Bruno sounds tired. "Wait. Yes. If it doesn't...You can read it after."
If it doesn't win. Six years at the Hall, six years together, and in all that time Bruno has never sounded like he seriously thought one of his ideas wouldn't work. There comes a point, Boots supposes, where you've rolled far enough down the hill that all you can do is hope there aren't too many rocks at the bottom.
The commercials end. There's some faint giggling on the radio, and then, "Welcome back, alert listeners. I'm Bugs Potter, your CKAN music maestro--"
"--and I'm Adam Webb from McGuffin's Magazine--" adds another voice.
"--and this is the moment you've been waiting for. CKAN and our good friends at McGuffin's, the outstanding magazine that tells you everything you want to know about what's cool, what's completely uncool, great things to read, fantastic places to visit, absolutely the finest music coverage in this or any other province--"
Adam breaks in. "What Bugs is eventually getting at is that we received an enormous amount of support for Project McCKAN--"
"--which I said was a boring name--"
"--yes, thank you Bugs. Anyways, in addition to your letters and financial donations and all the books you donated to libraries in needy communities--thank you all so much--we also received hundreds of entries for our Best New Under-18 Novelist Contest."
"Can I do it now?" asks Bugs.
"Yes, all right. With the addition of a drum roll from my colleague, here are the contest results. First prize goes to..." There is a rattling noise in the on-air studio that actually does sound like a drum roll, drumsticks on a table and a crash on what might be a trash can. "Deep Waters Still Run, by Jennifer Salazar."
Boots lets a too-loud breath.
"Jennifer is a student at St. Mary's Academy in Toronto. Our second prize winner is...Eric McQuade, for The Expert And The Runaway. Eric is a student at Westmoreland Meadow Public School in Brampton."
"Give it up for the Flower City, listeners," adds Bugs. "Congratulations to Jennifer and Eric. Finally, we have an additional announcement.
"Several of the entries we received were listed as being co-authored by two or more students. The contest rules didn't allow for co-authorship, but we checked, and the rules didn't actually prohibit it either." Bugs sounds pleased. "Therefore, we and the good people at McGuffin's have agreed to award a special additional prize.
"The winner of the Project McCKAN prize for Best New Under-18 Collaborative Novel is Our World Is Crumbling Around Us, Or, A Young Man's Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, by Bruno Walton and M.P. O'Neal."
Boots opens his mouth, and then shuts it again.
"Bruno Walton and M.P. O'Neal," says Adam on the radio, "are students at Macdonald Hall, outside of Chutney."
Boots thinks, all at once, of a game they'd played in school when he was very small. You stand in a doorway and hold your arms down by your sides, and then you lift your arms and press against the inside of the door, as hard as you can, and you stay there until you feel like you can't hold your arms up any more.
And then you step out of the doorway, and your arms float up in the air, all by themselves. It's like once you're outside of the door, suddenly you can fly.
That's how he feels right now. Rolling down the hill and knowing there are broken bones coming, and suddenly nothing's holding you down and everything stops moving and the hill's still there but you're drifting away from it.
He reaches up and finds the radio in the dark. Click. Adam and Bugs are still arguing. Good luck, guys, but you're going to have to work this one out yourselves.
"You know," says Boots, "some people just carve their initials on trees."
Warm fingers on his shoulder, no question about whether it's an accident, warm hand on his chin, warm, warm, and then Bruno's mouth is on his and they are kissing and time might actually stop for a little while in there.
"How did you do it?" Boots drops his forehead to Bruno's shoulder. "You lied to them, Bruno. I didn't write a word of your book."
"When you were sick. You talked in your sleep. Nurse Hildegarde said it was okay, cough medicine does that to people. You didn't...I woke you up sometimes and you didn't know where you were." Bruno's arms tighten around him. "I told you you were at Macdonald Hall. You said a couple of times that it wasn't the end. I didn't understand you, but you said everything was falling and breaking and it still wasn't the end."
"I'm sorry." Boots turns his head, presses his face into Bruno's neck. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
Bruno shakes his head. "It was scary, kind of, but what you kept saying was that the Hall was still here even if everything else ended. And that's why I put your name down as an author, because I was out of things to write and then you gave me the idea."
"The idea for..."
"The book. It's like a student handbook." Bruno chuckles. "Except in the book there's been a zombie apocalypse, so it's a handbook at a school for guys to learn to be zombie hunters."
"Yeah." Bruno isn't laughing now. "Until the end of everything, and after."
* * * * * * * *
It's a quiet night. The windows of Macdonald Hall and Miss Scrimmage's are dark. In Dormitory 2, Elmer Drimsdale has taken advantage of the lack of ambient electrical light to observe the Geminid meteor showers.
If anyone in the area had an instrument, related to Elmer's telescope but capable of magnifying something a little less quantifiable than the movements of stars, they might have made some observations of their own.
There are things that are not heard, not felt the way that gravity is felt, not measured the way that time is measured, but no less real for all that.
We'll figure something out. We always do.
I love you.
Go to sleep.
And, glowing in all the stars across all the worlds,
MACDONALD HALL FOREVER