“Do I have a choice?” Ansgar asked the old woman.
“Everyone has a choice,” she said, closing her eyes.
Ansgar looked over his shoulder toward the jagged mouth of the cave and the purpling sky beyond. It would be dark soon. Freja and the children would be expecting him. He turned to face the white-haired, withered creature sitting across from him on the dirt floor. “But what is the right thing to do?” he asked.
“I cannot answer that,” she said, leaning forward to once again consider the configuration of small, polished bones tossed on the sheepskin before her. “I can only tell you that if you choose to stay,” she stretched out a gnarled fist to indicate one of the bones, “you will live a long life.”
“Yes.” Her trembling hand continued to hover above the bones as she spoke. “You will know the cycle of many moons, reap the bounty of many harvests, witness many births and mourn many deaths. You will hold in your arms the child of the child of the child you hold now. And one evening, far from this night, you will climb into your wedding bed, kiss your wife gently on the lips, close your eyes, and never open them again.”
“And,” said Ansgar, “if I choose to go?”
“Matthew Van Der Boot! I’m talking to you.”
You jolt upright in your desk, the paperback you’ve been reading sandwiched between your chest and the algebra book you’ve been using to conceal it. “Oh, uh, Sorry.”
“Well?” Mrs. Meyers is standing at the front of the class, arms crossed, a confusion of algebraic equations covering the chalkboard behind her. “What was your answer for problem number seven?”
She stares at you, unblinking, for a long moment, and then exhales loudly, the look on her face deflating from disappointment to exhaustion. “Please put whatever that is away, Van Der Boot, and pay attention.”
“Yes, ma’am,” you manage and someone behind you makes a slow, hissing sound like a bike tire losing air. You feel your face grow hot. As soon as she turns you lower the paperback onto your lap, folding over the corner of the page as you go.
For the next ten minutes you dutifully copy every number, letter, and symbol from the board into your notebook without understanding any of it. When the bell rings you shove everything into your backpack and make for the exit, except the girl who sits in the desk next to yours is standing in the doorway smiling back in your direction.
“So,” you hear her say, “what are you reading?”
At first it seems she’s actually talking to you and you foolishly allow your eyes to hesitate a heartbeat too long on hers before you abruptly avert your gaze, covering your embarrassment with an awkward smile as you continue to the door. This is not a girl you speak to, no, you steal secret glances at her, yes, mostly her feet. She has a habit of slipping them out of her sandals and curling her toes over the back rail of the desk in front of her.
“Well?” she says as you move past her, and you feel the blood rush to your cheeks. It’s confusing when people do this, and rude. Are you so invisible they feel they can just speak through you?
But, no. She’s fallen into step with you, matching your pace as you walk, her shoulder brushes against your arm. “Is that good or bad?” she asks.
You risk a glance in her direction. She’s looking back, waiting for your answer. “Uh, good,” you manage to say as your eyes stumble away from hers.
“I figured it must be. What’s it about?”
“Oh, it’s a…” You’re no longer invisible; worse, everyone walking toward you seems to be openly staring in your direction. “It’s fiction.”
“Uh-huh,” she says, “and?”
“It’s a, about this guy who um, goes back in, well not exactly back in time, but to this other place, or world.” It’s like your tongue is sticking to the back of your teeth. “Where it’s like medieval, you know, swords and arrows, but with magic.” You want to turn and run, but she’s still walking next to you, still looking over at you.
“Oh, like King Arthur?”
You pass the entrance to your world history class. Your friend Eric is watching you from the doorway, but you keep walking. “Uh, yeah, I guess, but with other races, or creatures—”
“Like the Hobbit?”
“You’ve read The Hobbit?”
“Really? When?” Now it’s your turn to stare at her. “I mean, did you like it?”
“Sure,” she says, her brown eyes widening. “Bilbo Baggins, the riddles in the dark, the dwarves, the dragon.”
“Yes, exactly,” you say, and some of the shyness has gone out of your gaze and you take her in, the dark curls, the square of her jaw, the light dusting of freckles beneath her eyes. This is the same girl that’s been sitting next to you for the last four weeks … and it’s not. “I mean, not exactly like that, but yeah.”
“So,” she says, “tell me.”
“Okay,” you say. “It’s about this very normal guy who walks into a convenience store in the middle of a robbery and decides to be a hero. He gets shot in the head and wakes up in this strange land. He’s a farmer with a wife and children and sheep and pigs, and all of it.”
She is smiling, not a laughing smile, a thinking one. You keep going.
“He lives this life for a while, long enough to fall in love with his wife and kids, but still something isn’t right. He can’t help but feel he isn’t meant to be in this place, that this isn’t his life.” You’ve stopped paying attention to the shuffling mob around you. It’s like a path is opening in front of the two of you as you walk. You’re practically floating down the hall. “Then one day a message arrives from the king. War is coming. All able-bodied men must join the fight, protect the country. But his wife begs him not to go and he has to make a choice, so—”
She reaches out to touch you on the arm and you both stop walking.
“This is me,” she says, gesturing to the classroom behind her with a tilt of her head.
“It sounds really cool,” she says, and suddenly you feel ridiculous, except her hand is still holding your arm. “Can I read it when you’re done?”
“Thanks for walking me to class,” she says with a gentle squeeze of her hand.
You watch her turn and go, eyes transfixed on the back of her head. You want to look down, to watch the tick tock sway of her jeans as she walks away. You’ve done it before, many times, at the end of class, let her get up first, follow her out the door. But now, for some reason, you can’t.
Someone bumps into you, hard, nearly knocking the backpack from your shoulder. You turn to catch a slick-haired thug in a crisp white t-shirt and creased khakis growl a threat at you as he passes. It’s Slick, or at least that’s what you want to call him, the same low-life who’s been hassling you in PE all week. You move slowly in the same direction, letting the distance grow between you, just to be safe.
Eric is waiting for you when you make it back to your second period. “Dude, what was that?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know who her boyfriend is, right?”
You shrug. Some senior on the baseball team. “So?”
“So, did you at least get her digits?”
Again, you shrug.
“Too bad. You could have invited her to Kenny’s party.”
“That’s right, you weren’t there.”
You hate when Eric does this. Makes you feel uncool. Is it your fault your dad won’t let you go out on a school night? That you don’t get to come and go as you please? “Is that the dude with the pool?” you ask, despite yourself.
He slowly nods, a smile curling up one side of his face. “And you know what that means.”
He wants you to say, “No, what?” But you don’t get the chance.
“Vasquez. Van Der Boot,” says your world history teacher from his desk at the front of the classroom. “Get out of the doorway and sit down.”
“Sorry, Coach,” you say and move toward your desk. Eric turns and does the same. Coach Reyes is a short man with dark, sun-weathered skin and an extremely developed upper body. Prison pecs, Eric calls them, though never to his face. Coach Reyes being one of the few teachers Eric doesn’t talk back to.
As soon as the tardy bell has finished ringing, he announces, “Good morning, boys and girls.” And then, still without leaving his chair, he points with his thumb to the wall behind him. “Assignment’s on the board. Make sure it’s on my desk before the bell rings.”
You open your American History book to the appropriate page and then reach into your backpack again to retrieve your spiral notebook, making sure the paperback you were reading earlier comes with it. Just one more chapter, you tell yourself, with plenty of time to finish the assignment before the end of class.
“And,” said Ansgar, “if I choose to go?”
“If you go,” said the old woman, “if you take the warrior’s path, your time in this world will be brief. You will never again see your wife and children, never plow another field or gather another crop.”
“Never,” she repeated, sitting back and nearly disappearing into the folds of animal furs draped about her, “but your spear and your blade will harvest many lives.” The milky surface of the woman’s eyes remained fixed on Ansgar as she spoke. “Kingdoms will rise or fall at the edge of your sword. All the treasures of this world will be yours for the taking, all the pleasures of the flesh yours to command. You will be a living god, Ansgar of Holgur, and when your time comes, as it must come soon, your image will appear in the constellations, your story told for countless generations, and your name will never be forgotten.”
After class, you make your way to the locker rooms behind the boy’s gym.
You hate PE.
It’s not that you don’t like playing sports, you do, you’re just not that good at it. Instead of trying out for little league, you and your friends had rather been breaking bottles, digging holes, or fighting swords in the desert behind your house.
“Hey, Lil’ Boot.”
A girl with thick mascara, dark, copper-colored eye shadow, and very large breasts stops you in the hall. It’s Luz, one of your brother’s friends. She grabs hold of the front of your shirt and pulls you with her against the wall and out of the flow of traffic. Lil’ Boot. That’s what they call you, your brother’s senior friends, even though you’re taller than him by nearly two inches.
Luz is loud and bossy, and she sometimes frightens you, but you like her.
“My friend Claudia wants to know if you want to go to the dance with her,” she says. Her blouse is red and black, like a checkerboard, buttoned down the middle and tied at the waist.
“Tonight,” you say. “The dance tonight?”
“Yes. Well, do you?”
You look past Luz to the girl in the denim skirt standing behind her with arms folded, pretending not to notice you. “Your friend? What friend?”
Luz catches you looking. “Not her, dummy,” she says, frowning. “She’s not interested in you. Now pay attention.”
You immediately lower your gaze and find yourself staring down the front of her blouse. “But,” you manage to say, distracted by the lacy edge of her black bra. “I don’t even know her.”
“Well, no shit,” says Luz. “That’s why I’m asking and not her.”
You quickly lift your head. “I mean, what’s her name?”
“I just told you, Claudia.” She smiles, narrowing her eyes. “You know who she is. You saw her dancing at the pep rally last week. The really cute one with the short hair.”
“Oh.” You remember the dance team. You remember their black tights and gold headbands and how often they would reach back to tug down on the elastics of their black leotards, but you don’t remember their hair.
“Well,” says Luz. “What should I tell her?”
(A) Yes. Go for it, dude! She’s on the dance team!
(B) No, make up some excuse. Cute, is a subjective word. You don’t even know her.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.