FORECAST is being serialized semiweekly across 42 websites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast. Also, FORECAST found a home at Flatmancrooked and will be released in hardcover in Spring, 2010. (Chapter 31 is at Picture Pack.)
I’d always had a soft spot for Handpepper. Though it had been difficult, at times, not to sympathize with his students (who’d always found him terribly boring, fatuous, and irrelevant) there was something unmistakably sincere in his form of oafish pedantry. It was clear that he cared about his students, and despite the fact that I don’t have children, I’d always kept myself abreast of the contemporary arguments proclaiming the decrepitude of our education system, and felt comforted by the observation that, if Handpepper lacked a certain grace in the classroom, he was at least unconditionally devoted to his students, and in this way, at least, ran counter to the seemingly unanimous editorializing, according to which one was hard pressed to find any good reason to attend school whatsoever.
I expect, too, that my small fondness was due in no small part to the fact that I’d never enjoyed such tender attention as a child. Too young to have any experience with school before The End, and yet too old, when the chance arose, to have sought enrollment in one of the facilities erected after people had normalized the social impact of living without power. The schools then were much like what I imagine they must have been like in pioneering days: without consistent or unified curricula, staffed often by undereducated or ill-equipped faculty; the whole process lit by the dim but inarguably stubborn bulb of basic necessity. Those parents who’d held it together through those first, harrowing years, and held out some hope for the future, eventually sent their children off each morning to what they knew was an institution of questionable authority and credential, but which was, nevertheless, undeniably there, was something, and more, was a labor of love.
Handpepper may very well have had his faults (out of politeness, I will avoid discussion of his more irregular habits – those ways in which he conducts himself behind closed doors need not worry us here, I think), but, at least in the days before Zara dropped out, he was there each day, standing before his class, springing back up with a smile to greet students who treated him with entitlement, disrespect, and disinterest. I think it’s fair to say that Handpepper’s dedication—like that of all teachers in those days—was admirable.
And truly, whose heart doesn’t go out to the hapless?
At the point when I was blessed with the fortune of meeting the only teacher I’ve ever had, when he brought me—a barely post-pubescent punk—under his wing and helped me escape northward from the increasingly crisis-ridden streets of Los Angeles, I willingly admit to more than a little haplessness myself. And while I this it’s a bit unfair to make any direct comparison between Handpepper and the Professor, it’s true that they share a certain dogged desire to help those around them. And if this desire would, in Handpepper’s case, sometimes manifest awkwardly or backfire altogether, it would be equally unfair to blame it on him entirely. But the Professor’s projects had always, by comparison, turned out quite the opposite, and so the very idea of blame was never, in my mind, evoked when thinking about him. I wouldn’t say that my feelings for him were blind, per se, but I admit to being both generally defensive and probably a bit myopic when it came to scouting out what may or may not have been faults, inconsistencies, and errors of judgment over the years, say, or in respect to certain ongoing issues of temperament and behavior.
I’m getting a little scrambled, I think, but it was with these concerns and perhaps much of the muddle that I was at the time in question watching Helen, Blain, and Rocket make their way through the old, iron gate and into a place which I felt certain held some degree of danger in store, and waiting, waiting, waiting for the Professor to return with what I hoped dearly would be information useful in somehow creating a winning strategy for Helen against what seemed were quickly mounting odds. It had been over an hour, and, time obviously being of the essence, I couldn’t help but grow a little frustrated. Just what was taking so long? In my experience, the Professor had access to whatever information he needed, whenever he needed it. Surely, though obscured by some dark mechanism, the information both about the warrant and, of course, the masks, couldn’t elude him for too long. Finally, the discovery that Asseem’s face, of all faces, had been used in the creation of the masks, meant that Helen’s destination was somehow intimately connected to the very thing that was haunting her. I found it almost too overwhelming to consider, frankly, and until the Professor returned, the time I did not spend persuading myself against going with my gut, going in, and forcefully removing Helen from the situation, was spent simply absorbing as much information about the proceedings as possible. Helen had her mask on, which meant that I would have to pay particularly close attention to what she saw, how she reacted, and what might be going on inside her head.
Once inside the park, Blain closed the fence behind them, and made sure it did not look like it had been tampered with.
“It may look neglected,” he said, “but no doubt someone keeps an eye on it.”
Helen nodded, looking around.
“Sure, but with any luck they’ll pretend they didn’t notice, and go get high on the buzz.”
Blain chuckled. “Wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. “And if it was getting high they wanted to do, this would certainly be the place to do it.”
“So you said. A lot of REMO addicts around here, are there?”
They were walking, not slowly, but cautiously. Blain was out in front a couple steps, and seemed to be at his ready. Helen, apart from trying to avoid stepping on Rocket, who was slinking around her legs, visibly shaking, was caught up in examining the dilapidated ticket booth, and the enormous billboard spelling out the rules, regulations, and basic elements of the release each visitor had to sign.
“It seems like such a relic,” she said. “It’s hard to believe it’s only been out of commission for…”
“About two years,” Blain confirmed. “Yep. I think it has something to do with the dampness of the air down here. Things rust, fall apart, rot.”
“It’s like a grave.”
Blain turned around, raised an eyebrow.
“Well that’s cheery,” he said.
“You don’t think it’s spooky down here?”
“No offense, lady, but I’m a criminal.” Blain was struggling to keep it light. “I’ll probably run into someone I know.”
It was Helen’s turn to chuckle. “Right,” she said. “Well, criminal or not, I’m lucky as hell I ran into to you two.”
Blain remained silent, walked, nodded.
Despite the elaborate metal carcasses that punctuated her walk with eerie reminders of the fact that Helen was, in fact, out of her element, she couldn’t help but be reminded of her pre-Brightening days tromping through the overgrown ghost-town that Seattle would become each night, or of braving the I-5 corridor that had split the city in two and provided a safe place for unsafe things. Zara had of course made these places, these paradoxically limitless liminal spaces, her playground, and because it was an exception to the control now maintained over disruption and decay in most parts of Seattle, it gave her a small, but significant sense of nostalgia, of enjoyment, and ultimately, she realized, of relief. They passed by a dilapidated wall about 3 stories high on which was written, in a Flinstones font, “Watch for Falling Rocks!” Sure enough, there were boulders of various sizes strewn about at the base of the wall. There weren’t made of actual stone, but they weren’t soft, either. Helen tried to imagine what type of lesson this “ride” sought to teach, and began to feel even better. What an absurd park, she thought, and smiled to herself. She vaguely wished she’d been able to visit before the place closed its doors, but being here now, imagining what it must have been like, felt a little like walking through a house the morning after an enormous Saturday night party she didn’t attend: the experience was sweet, an empathic festive tug coupled by the sensation of feeling startlingly clear-headed. It was a fantastic party, certainly, but what a relief not to be battling a headache, and being loath to run the errands that had been put off until Sunday.
Helen gave into the sudden urge to bend down and give her frightened four-legged companion a hug that she hoped would set him at ease.
Not wanting expose the poor dog’s weakness, she whispered in his ear. “Rocket, buddy, don’t worry. I have a good feeling about this place.”
Rocket frowned, and eyed her suspiciously.
“Hmm…” he said.
“Well, do what you want,” she said, standing back up. “But I’m here with you.”
Blain looked back.
“Nothing,” Helen said. “Just talking to Rocket.”
Blain’s expression lifted a bit, losing the serious lines that marked his vigilance, and he picked up a stick.
“Does he like to fetch?”
“You know, it’s funny, but I have no idea.” She looked down at the dog. “Rocket? Do you like fetch?”
Rocket’s tail began to wag a little, but he remained at her side.
In response to Rocket’s tail, Blain wagged the stick a little, trying to build the animal’s enthusiasm. “I should have brought someone for him to play with,” he said. “Wanna fetch, boy? Wanna fetch?” Blain began to jump back and forth, and dodge. He knew what he was doing, and it started to work: Rocket’s tail was now in full wag, and he’d left Helen’s side a bit. He looked back over his shoulder at Helen, who nodded, encouraging him.
“Go on, Rocket. That’s right. See? Let’s have a little fun!”
The dog turned back to Blain and his body followed the man’s, darting this way and that, crouching down and then taking small leaps forward, until Blain finally tossed the stick back in the way they’d come, where there was more open area, where Rocket would be familiar with the terrain. Helen noticed this last bit in particular, and as Rocket shot off after the projectile, considered the fact that Blain had obviously paid attention to the dog’s hesitancy, and was going out of his way to create an atmosphere of comfort and trust.
As if reading her mind, Blain stepped closer to Helen and, as Rocket was off scouting for the little stick, said, “No dog owner’s gonna be comfortable until their dog is.”
“Thanks, Blain, but really, I’m…”
“Plus there’s I love dogs.”
“Right, well, I think it’s great.” She paused. “And I know this isn’t the most controlled environment, but neither was the environment I grew up in.”
“You and me both, babe.”
Rocket came bounding back, and dropped the slimy stick at Blain’s feet.
“Alright boy, one more and then we’ve gotta get this show on the road.”
Rocket zigged and zagged, shot off again, this time to the side.
Helen scanned the park. Its large swath of underground terrain was cluttered with various shapes, both natural and unnatural, but it seemed basically broad and flat. She didn’t see any high fences or obstructive rides.
“So we just walk straight across?” she asked.
“Well, across, yes,” Blain said. He followed her gaze. “But first we need to go down.” He leaned close and pointed out ahead at what looked like the top few buckets of a dismantled Ferris Wheel, the arch climbing up out of the ground and diving back down into it.
“See that arch?”
“That’s what I was talking about back by the gate!”
“That’s the top of a Ferris Wheel.”
“That’s what I thought it was! That’s why I thought maybe all the rides might have been taken apart like that one.”
Rocket came bounding back, dropped the stick again, and sat, staring up at them, tongue wagging out of his mouth.
“You don’t get it,” Blain said. “That’s the top the ride, yeah, but nothing’s been dismantled.”
Her eyes widened. It dawned on Helen that there was much more to this park than she’d understood, and she left Rocket with Blain to jog up to a low brick wall a hundred yards ahead. She passed food stalls and game booths and realized that the few rides here on this level must be introductory, intermediate, for the weak of heart or non-committal. The real rides were below. As she drew closer the depression in the earth became more obvious, and when she reached the edge her suspicion was confirmed. The vast park revealed itself in all its enormity, a giant crater cradling all the rides Blain had spoken of, and a few more he hadn’t. The Cyclone Chamber butted up against The Quaker, which in turn stood dangerously close to Lighting Strikes! The Drought House was just a little farther off, cropping up, of course, right next to, simply, Plague. She scanned the big, deep hole, and saw that most, if not all, natural disasters were accounted for, along with some she wouldn’t have thought of, having, she expected, something to do with the extremely unstable and unpredictable nature of current weather systems. “The Vacuum” seemed a little far-fetched, for instance, but then Helen wasn’t sure if this indicated a disaster involving the absence of air, or winds that suck instead of blow.
Helen estimated that she was the equivalent ten stories above the bottom of the massive pit. She was close enough to make out a fair amount of detail, and read the big signs out front of the rides and other structures of the complex, but also far enough away that shadows and blind spots prevailed, ultimately, over her ability to truly master the vision. Movement in the corners of her eyes sent them springing back and forth within the maze of edu-musement, but she was unable to actually spot the source of movement, or convince herself entirely that there was any source at all. It was both enthralling and vaguely hypnotic. Helen swayed, gently, until Rocket rubbed against her leg, and she looked back to see Blain not far behind.
“Oh dear,” the dog said. “Let me guess. We’re going down there.”
Helen had to admit that it only added to the mysteriousness of the direction their adventure had taken, but she was optimistic. “Well, it’s a little strange, I admit. But Blain’s taking care of us, isn’t he? He wouldn’t lead us into danger.”
Rocket considered this.
“I suppose so,” he said. “Plus, he throws a mean stick.”
Blain caught up with them then, and joined them in taking in the view.
“It’s something, ain’t it.”
The sky moved above them, or what passed for sky passed for movement, and they stood beneath its blinking birds and surveyed the strange, shadowy board game before them before Blain said with a smile, “Shall we descend?”
And they did.
Chapter 33 is at Unpacking My Library.