The First Candle
Year 3701, Before Golden Age…
“No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood.” – Despair, Inc.
Every couple of years or so, I get the idea that I need to ride a horse. I don’t know why, I hate them. They’re big, smelly, stupid brutes, but I still feel like its something I need to go out and do.
I took riding lessons when I was younger. Unfortunately, any way you slice it, little boys just look silly on horses. Maybe it’s the helmet which just always manages to look girly, or the fact that nine times out of ten you’re the only little boy in the class, but for some odd reason, recreational horseback riding seems to be a predominantly female-dominated world.
At least when you’re nine.
I’ve been trail-riding once or twice since then. It’s not hard; I know all the ins and outs. I’m a hapless suburbanite, but I can actually handle a horse pretty well. It wouldn’t be too big of an imposition, mom and dad are always saying how we need to do things as a family. ‘Hey, how about we go horseback riding?’ Then we pile into the car next Saturday, it’s maybe fifteen, twenty minutes drive outside the town to one of those little ranches up in the hills. They all do canned trail rides, with steps to get up on the horses. We go out, follow a guide for an hour or so, then come back, pile back into the car, and drive home.
Everyone wins, we do something as a family, I remember I hate horses, and my desire to ride is satiated for another year or so.
Nathan Searlin snapped the spiral notebook shut and stood up as the school bell rang, gave a long sigh, and started for the office. He was a short boy, a good head smaller than anyone his age, stubby, and altogether uncoordinated. His hair was a kind of awkward dark brown, that couldn’t really seem to decide what it was; brown or black, and how it should lay against his head. Just like his limbs, which couldn’t seem to decide if they should be long and lanky or short and stalky.
But above his whole person, one thing had been decided from birth: his eyes. They were green; a definitive, piercing shade of green.
It was a new day, a new town, and a new school. Hopefully, it would be a chance for a new start. His parents had been furious with him when he’d been expelled, but it all worked out. His father wanted to get the family out of the city anyway.
Now, they had an actual house (instead of an apartment); and his father had a much more flexible job in a small town firm. It was an awkward transition, but somehow he managed to make more money doing less work. Nathan’s mother was happier too, she now got to teach art at a small learning center, instead of going around to schools like in the city. She liked only having to drive four minutes, staying in one place all day. They didn’t need the money, but she kept insisting “I need to work, Nathan; besides, you’re old enough that you don’t need me around all the time.”
The first day at Nathan’s new school had finally arrived, bright and early (too early in Nathan’s opinion). The circumstances surrounding his expulsion from the inner-city school were still shrouded in mystery; all that was really known was that in the end half the school was destroyed and Nathan was standing unscathed in the middle of it all. Thus, as is the way of an imperfect universe, he was blamed.
And so here he stood, in front of his a new school, reflecting on how many things had improved since destroying much of the old one. It hadn’t really been his fault; trouble just seemed to find him. And when it did, he reacted reflexively. It was just that his reflexes did things no one else’s could possibly, in their wildest dreams, do.
It was an odd change, being in a school that catered only to Junior High. His old school had been a fourteen-story building, with athletic courts on the roof, which ran from sixth to twelfth grade. One block over and to the right was the one that went from kindergarten to fifth. Nathan’s home since birth? An apartment building directly between the two.
But the new school was a flat, single story cluster of buildings spread out around grass.
It was a foreign substance, to be sure.
Nathan found the office buildings, clustered at one end of the campus, and with a long sigh, approached them.
He wished more than anything in the world, that at least one of his parents could have been there. It was awkward; they’d arranged the entire thing over the telephone, not once had either of the folk who sired him even driven past the campus.
Nathan entered to find a long counter dominating the room, and a few elderly secretaries behind it.
“I’m…. um… Nathan Searlin,” Nathan coughed. “Transfer student?”
“Yeah, sure, you-betcha,” the old woman smiled. “All right, let’s see… ahh yes, we’ve been expecting you. You have a seat over there and I’ll just dial up the principle.”
Nathan gulped and sat, then immediately yanked the notebook out of his bag.
Do you ever wonder about dragons? I do. Where did they come from? How did they show up in our mythologies? What strange contrivance led to the invention of these strange beasts, and where did they go?
Mom keeps telling me to stop asking, that they’re all made up, but I just have to wonder. Is it coincidence that everyone imagines them the same?
Unicorns, fairies, elves, dwarves, where do these things come from? Why do we know about them, if they don’t exist?
Sure, there’s tons of things we know about that don’t exist. Purple Spacemen, there, those didn’t exist five seconds ago. Other planets which support life, ships that can travel to them in the blink of an eye, magic portals that—oh wait, the portals do exist. Well not really, they exist in the same way that dragons exist.
Except… the Road does exist, I’ve seen it. It just…. Nobody knows how it works.
It’s sometimes frightening to imagine that just two hundred years ago, we didn’t even have electricity. That a hundred years before that, no one had even thought to write down our people’s history, and perhaps another hundred years before THAT, we were living in caves, hunting with stone-tipped spears, worshiping those twinkling lights in the night sky.
“Nathan, come back here now, why don’cha?”
Nathan snapped the notebook shut again and hastily marched back into the hallowed recesses of the school office, where no student doth tread uninvited.
“Well, Nathan, welcome to Setter Elementary School,” the kindly middle-aged principle began as Nathan entered his office.
“Hi, how are ya?” Nathan replied with a wave.
The principle smiled and pulled out an envelope.
“We received your transcript and your permanent record from your old school” he explained. “Your grades are fine, but I haven’t looked at the record.”
“Oooooooh, probably,” Nathan nodded. This was not a good start. The principle was most likely going to say something like “why don’t you tell me why you were kicked out?”; then, unsatisfied with Nathan’s explanation, he’d say “why don’t we read this letter together?” and that would be the end of that. Nathan would be branded either a nut case or a troublemaker, or both. In any case, this wouldn’t be the new start he’d hoped for.
To Nathan’s astonishment, the principle tore the envelope in hall, then put the pieces together and tore them again. He fumbled through a few more tears, and left a small pile on the desk.
“Here at Setter we want new students to have a clean slate. Stay out of trouble here, and whatever happened back there is in the past.”
Nathan stared at him in slack-jawed amazement.
“You mean it?”
“Yes,” the principle smiled kindly.
The bell rang.
“You had better go on to class, don’t want to miss your first day.”
Nathan didn’t say anything; he just got up and headed for the door.
Maybe, just maybe…
* * *
“Class, this is our new student… Nathan,” the teacher explained as Nathan stood sweating at the front.
She probably had a name, but how important was it, really?
This would be the sixth-such ritual of the day, of standing before the class and being made a spectacle of. Coming in late in the year sure did suck.
“Um… hi,” Nathan half whispered.
He really hated this part.
“Why don’t you say a little about yourself, Nathan?”
“Um… I used to live in the city, and I had to move here, so… ya,” he muttered.
The teacher rolled her eyes. “Okay, sit down.”
Nathan walked quickly to his seat, wishing desperately to become invisible, or for some sort of distraction. Anything to get the thirty pairs of eyes off him.
“All right everyone! Take out your workbooks, and let’s get started!”
Observation: school is a waste of time. Think about it: one teacher to thirty some-odd kidlings. That’s thirty some-odd learning styles to just one teaching style. Everything must be explained an average of five different ways, and each subject is given just fifty-eight minutes. This means, and I’m just guessing here, we only get eleven-point-six minutes of actual learning time in a given class period, which is barely enough to make sure everyone understands the homework assignment.
Which goes on to explain why there’s so gosh-darn much of that. Consider the math: six fifty-eight minute periods per day, plus six four-minute passing periods, thirty-five minutes for lunch, plus fifteen for nutrition, adds up to… wait a second, four hundred and twenty-two minutes? That can’t be right.
Anways, six periods a day, five of them academic, each teacher allowed to assign as much as one hour of homework per night. School alone takes seven hours (they’re manipulating two extra minutes in there somewhere, I swear it!) not counting the time spent going and coming, but seven hours plus as much as five more a night of homework means twelve hours a day.
Now times five days a week, that’s sixty hours spent on academics! Sixty hours! That’s twenty hours more than a full-time job! It’s not fair, I tells ya!
Of course, that gets us away from the subject matter at hand, which is how much of that sixty hours is wasted. Fifty eight minutes minus eleven-point-six is forty-six-point-four. Forty-six-point-four times five is two-hundred-thirty-two, divide by sixty and you get almost four hours out of seven completely wasted.
Now factor in the homework: ninety percent of it is just busy work. Look at science, teacher assigns us some problems out of the book, only we have to copy the problems word for word onto our paper? From the book, which the teacher has a copy of? Wuuuuh? It takes maybe fifteen minutes to write the answers, the other forty-five is just pointless scribe work.
Meanwhile, if we didn’t need to spend forty-six-point-four minutes re-explaining the concept four times in class, we could maybe do a little Q and A to prove that we understand it, thus saving us the time doing the homework, and the teacher the time grading it!
So basically, in a typical seven hundred and twenty minute school day, we only spend about three hundred and seven minutes each day actually working. That means four hundred and thirteen minutes a day, two thousand sixty five a week, seventy-six thousand four hundred and five a year, or one point seven total years out of twelve in my juvenile life—WASTED!
Kinda makes that afternoon I spent when I was six coloring my entire stomach blue with a ball-point pen seem strangely trivial.
Nathan glanced up from his desk and blinked. The class was empty, and the teacher was giving him a very puzzled look.
“Sorry,” Nathan apologized, and grabbed his book bag and hurried to the door.
“Nathan?” the teacher asked quizzically.
Nathan paused and winced. Never be singled out from the heard. Never!
“I notice you writing in your notebook a lot,” she commented. “Is it… do you keep a journal?”
Nathan drew a deep breath through his nose.
“No,” he stated simply.
“So, what are you writing?”
Why was it that every teacher seemed to appear to him as a flat, shapeless being? Try though he might, he couldn’t describe a single teacher he’d had in eight years of education.
“Just… things?” Nathan suggested. “Questions, mostly. I… I wonder about stuff.”
The teacher settled into one of the desks and rested her chin on her hand.
Shaking, sweating a bit, Nathan took up another desk and drew a deep breath.
“Why, mostly,” he admitted. “Why are we surrounded by ruins thousands of years old, but can’t recall a single event from more than three centuries ago? Why do we seem to know all kinds a stuff, that nobody ever discovered? And how come during twelve years of schooling, we waste one-point-seven? I guess…. I just have an over-active mind.”
The woman reached out and grabbed Nathan’s arm.
“It’s good to wonder, Nathan,” she said gently. “It’s good to want to know things.”
The words were touching, but the expression didn’t quite match them. It was clear from almost the first sentence that the 1-dimensional being responsible for teach the class(which Nathan was positive was really an actual human with real thoughts and emotions and dreams, probably), regretted engaging him and was really just trying to get the conversation to end now.
It seemed unfair not to oblige her.
* * *
Nathan walked through his front door and dropped his book bag next to the hall closet, then slowly trudged up the stairs. Halfway up, he realized he’d forgotten to close the front door, and waited with a sickening cringe to hear it slam shut and the lock click.
Finally, he reached his room, and threw himself down on the bed.
Most of his things were still in boxes, but he didn’t have the energy to unpack. Between sweating and trembling, he was sure he’d lost at least ten pounds over the course of the day.
And what should he fear, really?
But he knew the answer: he feared himself.
What had happened, the day he destroyed his last school? Simple, a bigger version of the door closing downstairs. It was the same thing, over and over and over again, in varying magnitudes.
With another long sigh, Nathan drew a novel off his night stand and opened it to his bookmark. His notebook, he noticed, had made its way mysteriously out of his book bag, up the stairs, and onto his desk.
Along with a pen.
Ignoring it, he began to read.
The notebook on the desk wasn’t the notebook he’d been writing in all day, if he wanted that one, he’d have to get it himself. This was the one that wanted him to write in it, the one he never wanted to open.
There was probably a name for the thing which had moved the book, closed the door, and destroyed half a fourteen-story building, miraculously without putting a scratch on the one immediately beside it. The name clicked and bit at the back of Nathan’s mind, daring him to give it form.
Today, as any other day, he refused.
* * *
Nathan sat down beside the locker room and took out his notebook and a pen, then put the book back and grabbed the right one. He knew why he kept this one, why in every spare moment he stopped and scribbled in it.
And wondered what might happen if he were ever stuck without it for to long.
Humiliation, someone must feel, is of vital importance to those growing up. Of course no one should escape adolescence without at least a dozen good, deep emotional scars. Because if we weren’t all horribly scared for life, we might actually feel the need to protect our children from it.
Generation begets generation, and cruelty begets cruelty, and it is thus with the forty generations since our people first emerged from the caves and said “Let’s build civilization” that we have devised the most ultimate form of cruelty: dodge ball.
It is a most horrifying and barbaric game, one so awful it is likely our ancestors had to invent civilization, merely to put such barbarism into perspective. Without civility, we would not know what barbarism was, and I’ll bet we were way happier when we didn’t.
The game begins with students being placed in a line, then other students allowed to choose the fasted and strongest from among them. A ritual which demonstrates, through the most derisive means, who is superior and who is inferior, according to the eyes of his fellow not-yet-man.
Once the sides have been set, one group forms a circle, while the other stands within it. Those on the outside, armed with inflated rubber ammunition, pelt those within, showing them no form of mercy, offering no quarter, and asking none in return, until none still stand within the center.
And then they switch sides.
Cruelty, of course, begets cruelty, and those who had so recently been the hunted, become hunters. The same rules apply: no quarter asked, none given.
The battle continues until the Master of Ceremonies, his highness, the ‘couch’ declares the game may end, and students are dismissed, to return to their gender-segregated changing rooms, where the strong continue the cycle of cruelty and the weak beg passively for forgiveness.
And so it shall be.