A glance to the back of his classroom kills Juan’s rhythm on the chalkboard. The red-headed girl is pulling wet clumps of paper shrapnel from her hair as pockets of giggles erupt around her. The boy in the blue number eight varsity jacket doesn’t flinch under Juan’s gaze. What’s a counter example, Mr. Gamez?
The prick doesn’t even raise his hand first.
Everything wrong in the world sits in row four, seat six: Marcus Redmond with his buzz cut and two-toned jacket. A limp straw dangles from a toothy smirk, and the sight jumps Juan back fourteen years to his own ninth grade algebra hell where, standing at that very same board transposing his own homework, he had endured spit-bomb after spit-bomb before old Mrs. Havers, skilled in the art of feigning obliviousness, stumbled into the path of one.
Juan had hated Mrs. Havers. Outside of class, he had known how to survive. The library. Lunch lady. Nurse’s office. Safe harbor had required only a forged hall pass and a lot of speed. Security guards never really read the damn passes, they just stared blankly at the slip of paper, grunted Juan on his way, and returned to their sports sections while Juan hoofed it.
He was very good at running. And hiding. Always had been.
Nowhere to run in Mrs. Havers’ class, though. Nowhere to hide. And so the target had to sit there for the taunts, the head-thumps, and the spitballs. The only one with the power to stop it, to right the world, had been Mrs. Havers and what did she do? Not a goddam thing, except to keep him after class, offer a handful of jelly beans, and sign a late slip.
Juan does not answer Marcus’ question.
Because it’s not a question.
And for the first time in a long time, Juan doesn’t look away; he holds the stare. A dramatic hush settles upon room 302 and emboldens Juan’s resolve. The smirk falters. What’s-her-name, the freckled girl with the moppy red hair, sinks lower into her seat, desperate to avoid the crossfire.
Juan teeters, unaccustomed to such rapt attention from his pupils. This is his moment, but Marcus senses it, too.
The smirk is back; row four, seat six repeats the question: Mr. Gamez, what’s a counter example?
REEEE. REEEE. REEEE.
The class’ nervous energy deflates beneath a blaring noise that is interspersed with a terse, automated message: Emergency, seek shelter.
Juan considers the shelter in place protocol, but hesitates: has he missed an email?
Another drill? Marcus chews on his straw. So lame.
A crash, loud and foreign, kills the mood.
All heads turn to the front of the room, focused on the closed door beyond which screams erupt followed by fire crackers and more screams and more fire crackers and now there is a frenzy of motion. Desks are jammed together in front of the door, lights killed, shades drawn, and phones silenced. They have practiced this. Juan is supposed to lock the door and direct the response, but they don’t need him. Instead, he scrambles through the flock who reverse course and follow him towards the rear of the room, a leader who understands only the instinct to get far, far from danger. He pivots past the crying freckles and kneels low behind the furthest set of stone tables, grateful for once to have his second period algebra class scheduled in the chemistry lab. Students press in upon him, and as their limbs twist and bend to fill the voids of their massive dog pile, he recognizes this sensation is foreign, wrong. He is supposed to be the last into the huddle, the shepherd guarding his flock.
The students cry and hush each other and text parents and Tweet omens of danger while Juan does none of this. Instead, Juan watches the door with a manic intensity as if his eyes alone could seal the door shut.
REEEE. REEEE. REEEE.
Emergency, seek shelter.
The firecrackers grow louder; the screams become fewer and fewer until there is only silence and POP.
And now there is only the here, Juan huddled beneath these kids, and the there beyond the door where silence reigns. A silence that is heavier than the gasps and sobs weighing in upon him.
Silence and silence and silence.
Glass shatters there not here, and the distant, frantic screams edge nearer and nearer until fire crackers become a cannon.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
BOOM— Juan’s in class, BOOM— Juan’s on the field, a prior boom, a different boom, he flinches just the same.
Tenor drums, snare drums, bass drums:
The forty-member marching band incites a storm of pattering feet upon the stainless steel bleachers of Joe Hickock Field.
Be that a storm on the horizon?
HERE COME THE MONSOONS!
Juan Gamez sits on the rumbling bleachers, an alien in a field of humans, desperate to assimilate the local culture. He joins for the climax on monsoons, the only safe word that never changes, yet even there he’s always a step too slow in standing or clapping or shouting. Beside him, old man Gamez claps loud enough for the both of them. When the crowd sits as one, his father sighs.
Kid’s got balls.
Juan doesn’t ask which kid.
Later, over mama Gamez’s rubbery pork chops, old man Gamez will rage about Juan’s pussy voice and tiny hands, and then, after the fourth Bud, he’ll reminisce about the Big One: the 1965 state quarter finals and the time he had charged twenty yards through enemy territory on a busted ankle. The Monsoons, down by three, 27-24 with ten seconds on the clock, had their hopes pinned on their star senior. A touchdown for the ages.
Denied by a tenth of a second.
Before the empties are cleared from the table, Juan will need to endure another round of cultish chants as his fist-pumping father conscripts a cheer squad of two.
Where be the storm?
HERE BE THE MONSOONS!
* * *
The Monsoons flatten Juan into a corner; his extra-hold deodorant fails beneath the huddled sea of Axe Body Spray and Viva La Juicy. Whispers overwhelm him and he keeps shushing them as forcefully and quietly as possible, but still the voices conspire and snivel and bemoan and pray and they need to all just shutthefuckup!
Nellie! Mr. Gamez, you’re hurting her!
A blue blur yanks Juan off his knees, and it’s then that he sees the nest of hair he’d been crushing, as hands reach down and help right the girl. There is not much room to see, the only thing Juan understands is the blue, embroidered number eight kneeling in front of him for a moment, righting the girl before scurrying back to the front lines.
In the boy’s absence, the red hair commands his entire field of vision; pieces of white paper are knotted within. Juan reaches, threading out the final remnants of the morning’s crisis, wholly focused on the task at hand until a shadow appears at their door.
Heads dart up, silenced by the sound of a doorknob jiggling. Juan’s breath catches, his forgotten role as chief door locker very much remembered. Semi-hushed fear yields to full-on panic louder and harsher; limbs scramble to find a way for more distance between the door and the back wall. An elbow, a knee, many elbows, many knees crush Juan’s chest; he can’t breathe, he can’t move, so he swats at the red hair suffocating him and finally it moves in time to see Marcus Redmond. Row four, seat six crouches in his varsity jacket as a ragtag team huddles up. He clutches a metal rod as though it were a baseball bat.
Juan clutches only the tacky remains of chalk dust and spitballs.
The door bumps against a barricade of desks and chairs.
Marcus Redmond leaps.
What be a monsoon?
WE BE THE MONSOONS!
The door splinters, desks tumble away, and the cannon becomes a world imploding upon itself again and again and again.