It was onerous work to wrench more information from table of intimidated students, and whatever was supplied came in petty scraps, at best. When Joey at last volunteered to clear away the smoke, the newcomer was enlightened to the elementary facts of life.
William Twain McGraph was learned to be in Crono's class, much to the new kid's dismay. This also implied a more foreboding possibility: that Crono and Billy would be sharing the same classes throughout their educational career. This wasn't taken with a light heart by the small boy. Already the gossip Crono had gathered about "Billy the Bully" was revolting. Popular propaganda maintained that Billy had recently slaughtered and eaten his neighbor's dog on the feeble grounds that it barked too much at night!
Billy's two sidekicks were Chucky and Darren. The latter Crono had already been acquainted with in a less-than-pleasant encounter, and there was nothing to learn about the former that couldn't speak for itself in appearance: Chucky was fat, ugly, and stupid, in no particular order. The only unknown concerning him was his relation to Billy; the most plausible connection Joey and his friends could concoct was that Billy let the ogre tag along because of his parents' supposed wealth, a valuable asset in any known situation to man.
What could be told with certainty, however, was that those three comprised the appropriately dubbed "terrible trio." Students and faculty alike were on guard against them, individually, and when the three were combined into one, roving squad, their very presence radiated something unique that sent others heading for the hills in fright.
Crono was fed some few, hushed words regarding the "forbidden girl," including Liquel's insistence that she was a witch. Even Joey, who was hardly the superstitious type, felt reluctant to disclose within public earshot what little he knew.
Booger was the ultimate outcast. She fit in nothing and with no one. She wasn't pretty or outgoing enough to be recognized by the girls, yet not ugly enough to be teased by the boys. Not even the well-informed Joey remembered exactly what her real name was; it had long been disregarded by the masses.
She didn't actively participate in class, sports, games, or anything remotely related to interaction with other people. Her best friends were books, ergo she was hardly seen without one. As much as she read, however, she never spoke. Judging by this, some secretly called her a genius, while others wildly speculated she was a complete retard who only stared at the print and pictures in those toted binders and never really absorbed a word of it. Whichever the student body's tendency, the general impression was that she was either crazy or in league with the dark arts.
As far as the girl and Billy were concerned, Booger apparently satisfied a set of prerequisites that permanently scratched her name onto the infamous "blacklist." The list was composed of the names of classmates whom Billy enjoyed torturing more so than the average victim. Whether or not there was an actual, tangible list stashed away somewhere was irrelevant; Billy knew all the names by heart. To join the odious club one had to be, among several related things, small, weak, and helpless. No one better embodied those qualities than Booger, therefore she was Billy's "favorite," destined to be picked on and harassed for as long as she may breathe.
Others that were "blacklisted" included Haru and Liquel, and learning thereof greatly explained their severe avoidance of the tyrannical kid. Conclusively, "Billy the Bully" was not a joke, but a real, formidable force to be reckoned with.
Before Crono's shrewd companion could share more, the briefing was compromised by a horrendously loud woman wielding a wooden spoon and bellowing, "Lunch is over! Git to class, ye hooligans!" After such spoon dealt smart welts to the back of some unwitting lunch-eaters' heads, the whole adolescent procession stampeded back to their classes like driven livestock.
Crono, ironically, had missed the opportunity to eat during the commotion, but instead was left to chew on Joey's promise to walk him to school the next day and explain away all of his bubbling questions.
In contrast with the swift, excited pace of the first half of the day, the second was afflicted with an incurable lethargy. Exacerbating this condition was the hot, stuffy room Crono's class was crammed into for the remainder of the day's lessons. The air conditioner was going to be fixed "soon," so he was informed.
The grammar instructor was under the alias of Miss Missy, a pun in herself who had decidedly tolerated enough sniggering by the time Crono had cracked up at first mention of her name. After receiving a testy rebuke he was herded into a seat and a lecture on the "parts of speech" began.
The tally of classmates had been altered in Miss Missy's room, with some familiar faces being replaced by others. Joey was gone, and so was Jessica. Amy had shown up in the roll count, and Gary seemed to be substituted for Keith. Darren had escaped the scene, but Crono was left with no hard feelings over that.
In a stroke of misfortune, however, Billy and Chucky were present. More ill tidings were in store for Booger, who couldn't escape being placed near them due to a fluke of desk arrangement and the accursed alphabetical seating the teacher emphasized.
The ticking second hand spun its laps around the wall clock, grudgingly tugging at the minute hand as if it were a lead ball chained to its ankle. When the hour reached three quarters after lunch, an unexpected break in events permitted a "nap time" to occur.
In this, chairs and tables were hastily pressed to the walls to accommodate a plethora of personalized floor mats, all heretofore locked away in cupboards at the rear of the room. Once those cushioned items were unfurled and smothered over the gum-sticky tiles, everyone leveled themselves with the ground and pretended to doze off for a half hour while Miss Missy stepped out for an alleged coffee break.
Upon her return, the room was restored to its original state, spare one crafty desk that always managed to misplace itself. In listening to the witty remarks and jokes directed at the mysterious seat, Crono caught an interesting analogy Haru invented that related the chair's frequency in returning to the same spot with a lightning bolt.
The final hour wrapped things up with "reading time," which was by all means self-explanatory. The only hinge on what might have been an uncomplicated affair was that each pupil was forced to take turns reading from the same text, out loud, before the audience that was their peers. In this fashion, a teacher's simple ploy to pass time had evolved into a test of everyone's ability to keep track, stay awake, and endure the agonizingly corrupted pronunciation of every word longer than four letters.
After Keith had successfully prolonged a thirty-second paragraph to five minutes with his sluggish phonetic skills, Booger's turn was predictably passed over. Miss Missy lacked a certain foolishness, patience, or both, that had faulted Miss Holt that morning when trying to coax the girl into talking.
The children's hardback story, "The Frog and the Sword," was fumbled off to the next eligible speaker in the row. Rachel smoothed the pages against her desk and prepared a breath that would raise her voice to an audible level, but just as the first syllable was poking out of her mouth the teacher plucked away her initiative.
"--Wait Miss Erguay," she was at least formal in her interruption. There was a scarce scent of malice in Miss Missy's following suggestion. "Why don't we let our new student read next instead?"
Crono was bunted upside the head with this, and he popped out of his hazy daydreaming to register what had just played against his favor.
No way! It wasn't remotely near his turn, his thoughts blindly stammered. 'T' couldn't be farther from 'E' on the last name chart if it was on the moon. Seeking confirmation of what he had just heard, Crono's bewildered look grazed the sly curl at the corner of his instructor's pasty lips. The boy grimaced as a sinister proposition dawned on him, and regret stung him for laughing at the lady's name earlier.
Was this Miss Missy's way of getting back at him?
Rachel wasn't beyond perplexity, herself, but she reluctantly complied, rose from her seat, and relinquished the reading material to the newcomer. Crono uneasily watched her retreat to her own allotted space, then attempted to deflect his concern from the sudden onslaught of waiting eyes by skimming over the passage left open to him. Where was he supposed to start?
Cursing himself for his lapse of concentration moments ago, he resorted to stalling to beg more time. "Um..."
"What's the matter?" Miss Missy urged him in a painfully baiting tone, "Please stand up, so we can all hear you."
Yes, Crono nurtured his germinating presumption; Miss Missy was out to get him.
The redhead's shock was rapidly dissolving into agitation. Bearing the swelling tide of snickers with a clenched jaw, he balanced his knees on the palm of his chair to imitate standing and hinted a glare at his insidious teacher.
She was a shriveled prune of a woman who couldn't hold a candle to Miss Holt's generously youthful aura. Distinctive features that had withered with age were painted onto her long, hollow face like understudies to actors tired of putting up a pretense of beauty. Miss Missy was as tall and thin as a summer reed, and just as liable to tip over in a strong enough breeze. This probably explained why she kept her classroom's windows sealed shut, daring the sun to steal its way inside and stir the already heated air to sweltering levels.
Posted at the head of the oven cooking the thirteen children with her arms obstinately crossed and a slender chalk holder squirming between her knotted fingers, Miss Missy ushered the brooding student along. Miraculously, not a bead of sweat tainted her pose.
Now, in consideration of Crono's vantage, one must realize that podunk fishing villages like his own were no less remote from the heart of society and culture than the standard lunar colony. Public education in such deprived resorts was courtesy of the resident crazy old lady, who spouted antique literature and senile ramblings beneath her husband's rust-perforated tool shed in a toothless voice that wheezed like eighth-century poetry quoted through a straw.
Granted this, no one from Marriville was very literate.
Shoving aside the notion of opposing authority and instigating trouble for himself, Crono resigned to the deed with a sigh, and plunged into the treacherous recital with his best guess on which line to begin reading.
"And the... braf--brave..."
Almost instantly his effort was impeded by a questionable word. He blinked at it, thrown off track by the spelling: KNIGHT. What was that "K" doing there? It looked too funny to be right. Maybe there was an error? Why would someone misspell a word that way?
Intuition told him he was going to sound like an idiot, but he strained to pronounce it anyway.
Never had the prattle of a school bell sounded so harmonious as it did when choosing to dismiss class at that precise moment. The crowd of suffocating kids unanimously started for the door without provocation, and within five seconds the room was practically cleared. Crono's own slip into the departing swarm was undermined by Miss Missy's hail, plucking him from the mob by name.
'No...!' his body language mutely screamed as he pivoted on one heel to meet the teacher.
As she spoke, Miss Missy engaged herself in packing a sagging cloth purse embroidered with pale daisies. "Before you go home the secretary needs to see you in her office in back," she stated simply.
Crono nodded lamely. That was all?
When a short silence followed, the old hag threw a smirk at the young man still lingering in her presence, as if he hadn't understood a word of her instruction.
"Well?" she impatiently prompted over her shoulder. "Be off wi' you."
Nothing was unclear about that, apparently. Crono darted away.
Slivers of afternoon sun sifted through the creamy white tabs blinding the window in the facility's back office, and impressed a golden bar code onto the secretary's desk.
Crono, tending to his own observations from the padded bench opposite the oak table, remotely inspected the clutter colonizing the desk's surface: bundles of disarrayed leaflets and documents, a glazed porcelain pencil holder in the mold of a kitten wearing a cooking apron, a wristwatch with the tail of its silver chain draped precariously over the front ledge, a scissor-like device for punching holes into the aforementioned papers, and an obsidian black typewriter pinning a pair of manila folders to the tanned wood with its girth. Neatly standing in a niche in the foreground was a modest label: Ms. Janice Debbins.
'She has two last names?' Crono mused. 'Cool. I wonder how that happens?'
Discarding that poser, the boy jumped thought trains to wonder why he had been summoned this way. Was he in trouble already? It didn't seem so. Thus far, he had only been asked a series of questions over things that he--and more importantly, the secretary--should have already known: his name, age, where he lived, and such.
Miss Debbins was nested behind the personalized bulk of furniture, sketching down memos that were masked from Crono's spying gaze by a prohibiting point of view.
"So, how long you been in Truce?" she entertained a light conversation. Her voice was soft, yet worn by the length of the hot, dull day.
Crono was the master of succinct answers. "A week."
"A week, huh?" she returned amidst her work, not fighting terribly hard to sound interested, "Where'd you move from?"
"Never heard of there before," she wasn't the first to admit. "Is that west of here, near the castle? Or on the southern continent?"
He shook his head, increasingly amazed by how obscure his old haven really was. "It's across the ocean."
The boy was treated with a short, peculiar stare, and then Miss Debbins quietly resumed her duties.
Crono was muddled by her reaction. What was so strange about living on the other side of the sea? It wasn't a bad place, he figured. Perhaps she misheard him?
As he thumbed through the archive of the unsolved, Crono arrived at a bookmark in his memory, and immediately blurted out as politely as he could, "Hey ma'm?"
"Hmm?" was the only indication that her attention was aroused.
"What's 'my sci key?'"
"Excuse me?" the secretary chuckled, not believing that she had heard anything besides the opening sentence of a childish yarn. She spared her exhausted pen for a moment to dedicate her eyes and ears to the boy.
"A 'my sci key.' What is it?" Crono reiterated, not daunted by her condescension.
Unaware he was completely serious, she replied, "Well I don't know," behind a smile that considered the boy amusing. "What is it?"
Crono, his mind narrowed to only relevant responses, didn't register the traditional capitulation to a joke, and his enquiry was derailed.
"Huh? I was asking you, m'am."
She blinked, finally reconciled to the fact that he wasn't trying to tell a joke. "Oh." To compensate for her slip, her courtesy accommodated the earnest question. "Well, it sounds like another language. Where'd you hear it?"
There must be some developmental glitch in the inhibition of a seven-year-old that permits one to simply spout the first words at the tip of his tongue, just because it's the truth.
"From a lady in my dream."
"A lady in your dream?" Miss Debbins echoed, humoring him as she found her pen and continued as she was before. "Well isn't that something? Hmm..." She pretended to mull over the boy's question with a thoughtful hum. "...I suppose you should ask someone else. Maybe they'd know what it means."
At this, Crono sank into the bench and pouted for a time, miffed by his unfruitful searching. He was positive that adults knew everything from the way they boasted their superiority to children, but that was the second grown-up he had asked regarding that strange phrase. Didn't anyone know what it meant? Did it mean anything at all?
The woman yanked him out of his reverie with a tired sigh. "Anyway, I think I've got everything straightened out. You can go on home now."
"Okay," he mumbled and bounced from the lofty, adult-sized seat to the scuffed tile floor. A chortle floated past him as he strolled out the open door.
"'My sci key'... heh. Kids."
As Crono pressed through the building's back exit and greeted the outside, a bombarding wave of heat instantly challenged him to retrace his steps into the school. He shrugged off the simmering sensation and cleared the doorstep, emerging onto the rear lot.
The campus layout was modestly straightforward, and Crono had memorized the general landmarks and routes with only a cursory walk-through. If he had many faults, an inability to learn quickly wasn't one of them.
Being established on the street corner of two neighborhoods, queerly titled Turkey and Brought, the grounds were easily accessible to the natives. While its face was open to Brought Road, a wooden privacy fence shielded its northern border to Turkey Lane. Spacing a narrow walking margin between that barrier and the building's broadside was a cobblestone pathway seized by weeds. The unkempt hedges that guarded each side of the ruptured trail competed desperately over the nutrient-poor soil, and their parched dabs of green foliage futilely begged for sustenance.
The schoolhouse itself was rendered in an "L" shape, with the longer piece parallel to the fence and sporting doors at its extremities. The escape nearest the offices opened onto the lunch courtyard.
Crono's gaze flew over the alignment of picnic tables, all serenely dormant in the absence of rioting youngsters. The watching birch wafted its branches alluringly, entreating passers-by to take shelter from the strafing sun under its spaded leaves.
The sight of the vacant lunch yard couldn't better remind him that he was still hungry, and a sore emptiness nipped the boy's stomach.
"Okay, we're goin' home," he sighed in reply to his belly's audible objections.
The boy was rounding the corner on his left and heading away down the slim, bushy aisle when...
"Here doggie! Com'on, fetch!"
"Com'on, it's right here! Beg for it!"
An eerie recognition halted him. Those were familiar voices. Voting to investigate, Crono switched course and sidestepped to the right. Peering around the bend exposed the angular hollow that chipped into the building to permit its "L" appearance. It was a barren space about two rooms deep and partially secluded from the afternoon sun by the two walls hugging its sides. The overcast region sheltered little else than a boxy air conditioning unit and some tin trash canisters.
Four kids were collected there for some type of meeting. One of Crono's two immediate observations was that, contrary to what he had heard, there was no dog to see. The other was that he could pin names on everyone faster than the consequence of their presence could register with him.
It was "Billy the Bully" and his two buddies in crime, Chucky and Darren. Judging by their activity involving the fourth member of the party, Booger, nothing of good intent was taking place.
Ducked behind the wall, and thus from their view, Crono kept a spying eye on what proceeded.
The three infamous students had caged the little girl between them, and with taunting whoops and shouts they tossed a dark shape betwixt them, while Booger scurried in frantic circles to snatch the object in flight. At a serious height disadvantage, she met only with fleeting success before one of the taller lads would steal the chance of retrieval away.
Obviously, Crono figured, the item in attention belonged to her, but he couldn't form a definite image out of the blur that shot from one boy's hand to the next.
"Com'on Boogs, you can do better than that!" Billy mockingly encouraged the frustrated girl. Darren passed their current toy into the carrot-top's grasp, and he dangled the shiny object from the tip of his finger like bait on a fishing hook. "Ya want it?" he jeered.
It was a pair of glasses. Following his conclusion, Crono noticed Booger lacking such. From her lowly position she stared up at the bully, her eyes wide and pleading, but her voice missing.
"Okay then, doggie, beg for it." Billy wiggled the item over her head, and the clear lenses glimmered in the afternoon light.
Chucky applied a rough shove when she hesitated. "Com'on, beg!" he goaded, his heavy, slurred voice a rumbling demand.
Booger stumbled to Billy's toes, wavered to reclaim her balance, and then tentatively reached up one hand. Squeaky grunts spoke for her straining effort as Billy tugged the spectacles another notch beyond her. "Aw, what's the matter? Can't reach?" he teased.
The threesome laughed heartily at this, and Billy furthered the charade by hurling the girl's glasses in a tall arc back to Darren. Deftly snagging them from the free air, the slender boy lured Booger into a short-lived chase before relaying the stolen bit behind his back and over to Chucky. In this fashion, the "keep away" game continued.
Crono frowned. 'That's mean,' he determined. But, what could be done? He juggled various options.
He should go help her. Yes, that would be the right, chivalrous thing to do. Just like Cyrus and the Knights of the Square Table. But wouldn't it be dangerous? Wasn't he outnumbered three to one? He could take them on, he ludicrously convinced himself.
Several red flags whisked before his reckless decision, as well as the onslaught of warnings Joey and his friends had taken sure measure to drill into his skull. Topping these off were Billy's own threatening words, haunting him in ghastly tones.
"...don't forget... she's mine."
She's his... Crono shrank against the flaking layers of paint and cobweb filming the wall. Was this something he really wanted to interfere with? Did he want to be "blacklisted"?
Then Matt's chiding message rang through his ears like the hammer of a gong.
"...How you ever gonna grow to be a warrior like that Cyrus guy you keep talkin' about if yer a wussy cry-baby??"
Cyrus... that's right! The brave knight Cyrus would never back down in a situation like this. Crono lowered his brow and adopted a mask of determination. He had made up his mind.
In the meantime, Booger had reached the end of her wits, and she plopped to the ground in a sobbing fit, refusing to participate in any more ridicule on her behalf. The trio of boys slowed a stop, confounded by this event.
"Aw man, she quit!" Chucky whined, disheartened.
"No she don't!" Billy declared, and attempted to provoke the crying girl into action once more by throwing a swift kick at her side. "Git up!"
She squealed piteously at the blow and reflexively shriveled into a ball, her legs and arms tucked beneath her.
Noting this result, Darren expressed a smirk toward the aggressive one. "Nice going, Billy," he berated him. "I hope you don't plan to play hot potato with Booger as the ball."
"Shut up!" Billy snapped, not concealing his agitation.
Everyone froze. Booger shed one hand from her covered face and chanced a peek at whom or what that could be so audacious as to intrude on the lot. Her grounded features mimicked shock as the school's recent addition boldly strode into view. Crono advanced several steps toward those huddled before stopping, swiping a lock of crimson out of his vision, and crossing his arms defiantly.
The band of ruffians spun to face him, their demeanors fluctuating from boy to boy. Chucky crudely snorted a tendril of slimy mucus back into his left nostril and squinted his eyes in a leer. "Hey, it's that new kid."
"Wha'ddya want? We're busy," Billy curtly informed him, his mood shuffling between indifference and annoyance.
"You stop that right now and leave her alone," Crono barked assertively.
A chilling quiet descended on the five. Billy's caterpillar brows inched upward as he exchanged looks with his fellows.
The three simultaneously exploded into laughter. Crono's spirit sank.
"W-w-what?" Darren cackled. He rolled his wrist at the cocky boy, inviting him to repeat himself. "Say that again, really! I don't think I heard right!"
As Chucky scrubbed at his misting eyes his cheeks flushed rubicund in their fight to refrain from grinning like a maniac. "Me neither! That's good... that's really funny!"
Even Billy succumbed to a few short, exclamatory bursts. "Ha! Haha! Heheheh! Good one!"
The good humor was abruptly dropped like a brick and his face transformed to stone. "Now seriously, wha'd you want?"
Crono pounced on the opportunity to regroup his courage. He inflated himself with a long breath and held his balled fists to his sides, mustering the guise of an imposing adversary.
"I said," he strongly repeated, "Leave her alone."
Crono didn't anticipate the delayed, incredulous reaction. Billy gawked at him, near astonishment. "Yer serious, aren't you?"
"No wonder he wound up at Omega," Darren snidely remarked to his cohorts, "He's a dumbass."
"Huh." Billy planted his hands on his hips and assumed a contemplative posture. "Well, what should we do, guys?" he opened debate. "The new kid wants us to leave Booger alone."
"Aw, I dunno, Billy..." Darren drawled, feigning indecisiveness. "I say we... um..." A derisive grin spread over his jaw. "...kill 'im."
"Pound him," Chucky concurred, complementing the suggestion by slamming four bared knuckles into the meat of his other hand.
"Okay. Sounds good." Billy ruled, as if it were a trivial affair, and the trio encroached on the intruder in unison.
As if the gravity of his predicament only suddenly caught up with him, Crono gulped down a terrified bile that turned his stomach in on itself and simulated the feel of swallowing a heavy stone. He started to tremble like a shrub in a gale as the three massive redwoods scaled overhead and blotted out the sun.
Amazingly, the boy hadn't yet fled, despite his racing heart. He unsteadily eased into what resembled a fighting stance, and his fists leveled with his shoulders, just as Matt used to train him during those idle summer days when self-defense lessons were considered a good, time-consuming precaution.
"I-I ain't a'scared a' you."
The "terrible trio" all sneered. Billy lifted his bouldery arm.
"You should be."
Day turned to night for Crono.