by Greg Stevens
This is only the first chapter: please leave a review if you'd like the story to continue!
|The Prince looked into the Dark, but the Dark didn't look back.
Instead, the Dark was laying on the floor on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, reading the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (second edition) Monstrous Manual.
"I think we have a lot in common," the Prince said. Dark's eyes flicked from the book up to the Prince, and he squinted. After a moment of eye contact, without changing his expression, Dark looked back down and continued reading. "Well, we could have a lot in common," the Prince offered. "Hey! I got some new Micronaut action figures, you want to see?"
The two boys were sitting in a corner of the Prince's toy room, which was not so much a "room" as the second floor of the east wing that extended as a balcony overlooking the entertainment hall. The secondary entertainment hall, actually, where déclassé things like the television and sound system were kept. The primary entertainment hall only housed glassware, expensive artwork, and the ghosts of cocktail parties that parents didn't allow children to attend. The Prince found the secondary entertainment hall much more interesting, but liked his toy room even better.
"Sure," Dark said. The Prince stood up and went to a corner of the room in search of the new toys.
* * * * * *
Dark met the Prince on the first day of school three years earlier, when they were in third grade. The teacher had introduced him to the class as James, and he had immediately talked back to her saying, "I'm Quinn, actually." The teacher looked awkward, and some of the kids giggled.
"So what's up with your name?" asked Dark when they were sitting together at lunch later that day.
"It's stupid," he said.
"My name's Dylan but if you ever call me that I'll throw out your lunch."
The new boy looked very solemn. "Ok."
"My last name is Dark. Everybody just calls me that," Dark explained.
"That's kind of cool," the new boy offered.
"I guess. So what's your name?"
The new boy's expression soured, and he lowered his voice. "My name is James Quinn Humphrey Princeton III." He rolled his eyes as Dark tried and failed to suppress a smirk. "My mom calls my dad James, so I get Quinn."
The two boys spent the rest of their lunch period talking about comic books and science fiction and which teachers were worth lying to and which teachers would call your parents.
That Friday, after school, Dark's parents told him that they had received a call from the new boy's parents, and that Dark was going to go over to their house to play because they were now friends. It had been decided.
"Now, just remember," Dark's mom said to him while she fussed over his sweater, "When you're at their house, they will probably have a lot of stuff. A lot of things we don't have. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just the way it is. Remember to be polite, and don't break anything. Oh, and have fun."
The first time Dark saw the Prince's toy room he gaped openly. It looked more like a cave than a room. It had no furniture, only cupboards lining the walls and a vast floor strewn with piles of... stuff. Dark didn't even have a word that did justice to the sheer chaos and variety of it all. Just at first glance, Dark could identify football gear, two hockey sticks, a stack of board games, unsteady mountains of science fiction books, comic books, and Boy Scout magazines, a child's chemistry set, a small plastic robot, at least four different types of Rubik's Cube, five model space ships, and a sprawling unfinished Lego city composed of a haphazard mixture of space station and medieval castle themed Lego sets.
"Pretty cool, huh?" the Prince had piped, with slightly less confidence than he had intended. The "huh?" hung loud and awkward in the air between them.
"Sure," Dark had answered. The Prince's gaze hung on him for a moment longer. Then he turned, and led the way into the room.
At school, Quinn spent the next couple of weeks trying to get everyone to call him by his last name, Princeton. But as the kids at school picked up little hints about his family from how he dressed, the way he described his vacations, and the way their parents talked about his parents, "Princeton" very quickly got shortened to simply "The Prince."
* * * * * *
Later that same year the boys realized that they had the same birthday: in fact, they were both about to turn nine years old. Dark didn't think either his parents or the Prince's parents had known this when they arranged the friendship. He wasn't sure, though. And that isn't the kind of thing you can just ask adults. Once the common birthday became known, however, Mr. and Mrs. Princeton suggested that they could host large joint birthday parties for both boys. The Princetons thought of this as being "generous to others".
Dark knew this because he had overheard them talking in the kitchen to other adults during that first party. Dark had wandered inside in search of the bathroom, and had been moving slowly and silently through the hallway. He wasn't particularly afraid of being discovered, he just felt that slowly and silently was the only way one should move around in a house like this, in which every room had shining oak and glass surfaces and everything looks impossibly new. Apart from the toy room, of course.
Dark had been moving slowly and quietly toward the bathroom when he heard conversation several rooms down in the kitchen. The Prince's parents had been saying something like, "Well, yes, they are good friends," followed by a pause when someone else mumbled a question. Then the reply, "It's just easier to have the party here. We're in a position to be generous, so why shouldn't we be? That's just the kind of people we are, after all!" Then there was laughter. Dark found the bathroom, and wasn't able to grasp the thread of the conversation when he came out again.
The Prince's parents were not wrong, and Dark knew it. Dark's parents were eccentrics: mom Julez was a yoga instructor and self-help counselor, and mom Tiff played guitar, and sometimes tambourine, in a band. Their home was a cacophony of color and incense. Their front doorbell was a gong. They did not have a primary or a secondary entertainment hall in their home.
"Your moms are quite something!" the Prince's mother said with a pleasant smile a few weeks later. Dark and the Prince were engaged in a large-scale Lego construction project they had begun the prior weekend, and he was over again so they could continue their architectural masterpiece. Dark had no idea what he was supposed to say in response this. He remembered his mom's instructions about being polite, and so just nodded. "OK, so run along and play," the Prince's mother said, seemingly not expecting or requiring anything more.
Later that evening, Mrs. Princeton made a comment to her husband about the contrast between Dark's spiked black hair and the hallucinogenic swirls of color that always seemed to envelop Julz Dark and her wife Tiff.
"Well, that's classic pre-teen rebellion, isn't it?" Mr. Princeton intoned, not looking up from his newspaper.
"I think it's nice," Mrs. Princeton mused, "His moms are letting him find himself. We ought to let Quinn do the same." Then she added, less certainly, "If he ever seems inclined, I mean."
* * * * * *
The Micronaut action figures lay in a forgotten scatter around the boys. An argument had broken out when the Prince had insisted that the Time Traveler was going to practice being a Galactic Warrior.
"They're totally different," Dark had insisted.
"Not really," the Prince said, "Their heads look the same. And their chest plate. I think they are the same pieces."
"Time Traveler and Galactic Warrior are different characters," insisted Dark.
"He can be whatever he wants, if he puts his mind to it!" the Prince said solemnly.
After a moment of silence, Dark put down the figure he was holding. "I don't think it works that way," he said. Dark had been annoyed by the Prince a lot lately, and he wasn't sure why. They've been friends for three years now, and they got along fine. Usually. There was something about the Prince that just seemed off somehow. Like he was an alien, trying to blend in with humanity but somehow he just didn't actually get how the world actually works.
"I don't think it works that way," Dark repeated softly to himself.
* * * * * *
Two years after the Micronaut incident, while the Prince's father was in Hong Kong on a six-month extended business trip, the Prince dyed his hair black and announced that he would run away.
"Not permanently," he explained to Dark. "I just want... I dunno. I want to meet new people. Like, your life is so cool and you go on these trips with your moms and it's all so weird."
"Thanks," Dark said, deadpan.
"You know what I mean. It's a compliment."
"Is that why you dyed your hair?"
"Yeah! I mean, no... I just like it."
The Prince's hair was black and spiky, and it was so obviously a copy of Dark's hair that it just made Dark mad. Even more annoying than the fact that the Prince copied his hair, was that it was a better copy. Professionally dyed hair, a cut that probably cost more than a hundred dollars, and a lifetime of expensive hair products all made the Prince look like Alternative Kid #2 in a Disney Movie: an extra thrown into the background of a school scene to add depth and authenticity.
The Prince's new hairstyle also just made him look like Dark generally, which was also annoying. All through middle school they joked about looking like brothers: they were the same height, the same build, the same pale complexion, the same blue-green eyes. Apart from that, though, they had always looked like they were from different worlds. Prince's pale pastel Polos looked like they were from such a different world from Dark's chaotic and marginally-offensive black-and-white band tees that some of their peers wondered how they could even be friends.
But now, Dark looked at the Prince's new hair and it felt almost like he was looking in the mirror. And the Prince looking back at him, watching, something expectant written on his face: Pretty cool, huh?
Annoying. Dark ignored it. "Where, uh, where would you go?" Dark asked instead.
"I was thinking of taking a train into the city. It's only like three hours. That whole urban thing."
"You're gonna get mugged," Dark said with finality.
The Prince's eyes widened. "You think?"
"Look, at least..." The Dark eyed his friend up and down. He decided that if his dumb friend was really intent on doing this dumb thing, he might as well help. "OK, so when Jules takes me out to visit Tiff when she's on tour in some random city, she always tells me to just wear bland clothes. Like, nothing that will get attention, you know? And keep a twenty in my shoe in case of an emergency."
"I, uh," the Prince stammered, "I was just gonna take my card..."
"Whatever, keep it in your shoe," Dark said, not wanting to lose his train of thought. He tried to remember more advice his moms had given him over the years about wandering cities alone. "If anyone asks, you need to have some story other than you being some rich kid who wandered into the city for kicks."
The Prince's eyes lit up. "That's easy, I can just be you!"
Dark's mouth fell open and he stared at the Prince. "What?"
"I can be you!" the Prince repeated cheerfully. He furrowed his brow and spoke as if he were answering questions from a strange adult. "Oh yes, I'm not from around here because my mom is in a little hippie band that nobody has ever heard of. I'm looking for some food, but I barely have any money because we are poor so please don't rob me!"
"Screw you," the Dark said, but he was laughing. "Actually, that's not a bad story. I should give you some of my clothes to wear, honestly."
"Yes! That would be perfect. What else should I tell people?"
"Uh. Well, where do you think you'll go?" Dark asked. Part of him was still deeply annoyed with his friend, but he was also getting excited about the scheme, despite himself.
"I don't know! I've been reading all about urban art and subversive counter-culture scenes, and it sounds so amazing. And important, too, you know? Reading about it just makes me feel like that's something real that's going on, and I want to check it out."
"Sure, but where?" Dark pressed.
"I don't know. I just figured," the Prince cringed slightly, "I'd wander around and see what I find?"
The Dark looked meaningfully around the computer den. The computer den was what the toy room had been rebranded to when the Prince started to outgrow action figures. The overall aesthetic seemed unchanged, however, from its "toy room" roots. It was still a furniture-free wasteland, now piled with monitors, keyboards, a disassembled hard drive, a tangled mess of joysticks, mice and track balls, several unsteady piles of computer manuals and boxes of computer games, and two full computers, one with the case off and an explosion of wires connecting its motherboard to peripherals that for unknown reasons were not completely installed.
"You're so gonna get mugged," the Dark concluded, shaking his head.
* * * * * *
As it turned out, the Prince did know which neighborhoods he wanted to explore. He wasn't sure why he didn't tell the Dark. The lie was out of his mouth before he even thought about it. Maybe he wasn't confident that he knew where the "cool" parts of the city were, and he didn't want to be embarrassed if he was wrong. Maybe he was just worried that Dark would think he was being stupid. The Prince had always been intimidated by how easy was for Dark to just... be cool. The Dark had this easy-going, mysterious rebel vibe that was so genuinely him that took no effort at all. Every time the Prince tried to look cool or act cool or sound cool, every fiber of his being screamed "fake" and he gave up.
But that's not what this trip is about, the Prince told himself. He had been reading about artists and political activism, about beatniks and punks and culture jammers and phreaks. He was captivated by the idea of an edgy subversive urban world, where artists are politically aware and everybody is doing something important.That's a much more important world than mine, the Prince thought. So he was determined to escape from his family home of clean, functional architecture and proper attire. Even if it was only for a little while.
The Prince didn't admit all of this to Dark, of course, but once it became clear to Dark that the Prince was really serious about going on this journey he agreed to help. They devised a plan together.
Dark's moms were out of town for the week, with Julez at a conference and Tiff on tour with her band. The Prince's dad was out of town on business, so that only left the Prince's mom to deal with. The boys agreed that they would tell the Prince's mom a story about a school project that involved them staying with each other's families for a week in order to get a deeper appreciation for the inherent diversity in different family lifestyles (or whatever), and that they would then both write essays about it.
The Prince's mom was watering house plants when the boys breathlessly informed her about this exciting school project.
"OK," she said simply. "You'll be doing Quinn's chores here while he's with your parents, right Dark?"
"Yes ma'am," said Dark, stiffly formal to contain his excitement.
"And, uh, should I be calling your moms to get any more information about this project?" the Prince's mother asked lazily, peering into a pot of chlorophytum comosum and using her finger to check the soil.
"Oh uh no, ma'am! I mean, that uh won't be necessary," the Dark stammered, "They are getting ready to go on tour and it's very busy, yeah, and since the Prin—uh, Quinn, is going on tour too, with them, so that's why they won't be really reachable at all, but they are doing all this stuff, and things, to make sure it's all safe for him, so he'll be totally safe the whole time. Don't worry Mrs. Princeton! I promise!"
"Ok," Prince's mom said.
Late that night, Mrs. Princeton was laying in bed, speaking with her husband with a lowered voice on the telephone. It was two o'clock in the afternoon for him, in Hong Kong. Her head was resting back on a pillow and she stared at the shadows that the bedside lamp cast on the ceiling.
"Our son is planning to disappear for a week. He just told me some ridiculous story about a school project." She paused, listening to her phone. "No," she said softly. "I don't know. Probably just an adventure." She smiled and closed her eyes while she listened to her husband. "Do? I don't think we need to do anything. I played along, of course!" She sighed, and rolled over onto her side. "No," she said as she reached to turn out the light. "No," she repeated, reassuring her husband. "Honey, it's fine. He's taking his card with him, so it's not like we won't know where he is." Now laying in the dark, she laughed quietly. "Yes, it is better than an anklet." She pulled the blanket up around her shoulders. "No, I don't understand why they don't allow chips, either, honey." She closed her eyes. "Mm hm. Yes." After a few more seconds, she said, "Yes, I'll be sure. Now I'm sleepy and I'm drifting off. Of course, honey. Loveyabye."
The next morning, the Prince endured the litany of warnings and advice and cautionary tales from his mother as he left the house to walk to school. When he was a block away from the school building, he turned off the normal path and headed two blocks south to the small park where he had agreed to meet Dark before school started.
"She bought it! I can't believe she bought it!" the Prince stammered giddily.
"Sure," Dark said.
"Now just remember, after school you need to go back to my house, like I'm supposed to be going to yours to go on a trip with your moms. And my mom is gonna try to make you do chores but you can probably ignore that. I usually do. And you can sleep in my bed but don't do anything weird. And try not to..."
"Dude," Dark interrupted, "Go do this. I'm fine. You'll be fine. Just go."
"Right," the Prince said. Suddenly he looked around, as if he just remembered something. He looked back to Dark with a grin on his face. "Right!" he said, and headed to the train station with so much excitement in his step he was nearly skipping.
Dark smiled and shook his head. "Definitely gonna get mugged," he muttered, and turned to head toward school.