It was that kind of boredom. I’ve never been able to figure how, even when I’m angry about being bored, I could still be bored. Well, school manufactured that kind of boredom.
I leaned back in my chair, bearing a bigger grudge than usual against the stupid metal bar that anchored it to the desk. It was always digging into my knee, and the paint was flaking off. Butt-ugly. No one ever re-painted them, but why bother, I guess. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime half-assed job, and, well, after a couple of weeks in a classroom, all desks become speckled, graffiti-carved non-objects anyway. If someone bothered to repaint the bar, it’d only be a matter of hours before some kid wrote “fuck balls” on it or something. There are no blank spaces in a high school filled with markers, pens, and chalk.
Mr. Phillip was reading from a handout about Ontario university applications—actually reading from it, like he thought we couldn’t read it ourselves. Maybe some of the kids couldn’t. You hear of things like that. I looked up at the clock, but homeroom wasn’t anywhere near over, so I slid down and got comfortable for the longest fifteen minutes ever . . .
It was ridiculous, though, the whole thing. The handout was supposed to tell us, the kids who had suddenly found themselves in grade twelve, the final year of high school hell, how to apply to university and college. Pick a school. Pick a program. What are you interested in? As if it were that simple. Sure, I liked math, but I didn’t think I wanted to spend my whole life doing it. I looked at the clock again and saw that there were still thirteen minutes. I didn’t want to hear about university and college programs right then—especially not so close on the heels of the Ninth Night. It made growing up seem too sudden, an overnight collapse of simple freedoms. I closed my eyes, trying not to think about who I was supposed to be, or the years of school it would take to get that far. I tried to forget that I had a name, a face, a direction in life, and to think: I am not a person. I tried to just breathe, but the classroom had a distinct smell, hard to locate, but a faint dust of BO, and, that day, sneakers rank from rain.
I turned to the window at my left, instead. The rain had come on sudden around seven in the morning, a torrential downpour of sky-vomit. It was lighter now, and since the cloud cover was getting thin enough for the sun to pass through, it would probably stop by the final bell. My homeroom was on the second floor of Burchell Lake High School, so I had a pretty good view of the town. Beyond the buildings, the forest was a dense green smudge in the rain, hard to make out. I couldn’t see Foot Hill. The sparse beams of sunlight were refracting off the surface heat of the lake, encasing everything in a wall of murky glow, but unless you went to the edges of town, you’d never know about the lake. You’d just think there was a wall of light there for no reason.
I stopped my foot from jack-hammering the floor and remembered how it had felt when my sneakers slid on the night grass of Foot Hill. I rubbed my fingers, feeling the rough dryness of crickets as I put them in the bottle for Fact. The Factory liked the sounds crickets made, and I always caught them for it, even though I knew doing that was pointless. I tried to put myself in the Ninth Night and couldn’t; tried to imagine Factory and Fingers and Booze and Boondoggle and the others beside me in the grass and couldn’t; tried to remember what crickets sounded like before I stuck them in bottles, and couldn’t. Oh, god. Eight more days until the next Ninth Night. Eight more days of school and homework and questions and life choices and guessing at everything until the next Ninth Night, until I could hear the Factory say “Did you know? ” And feel its distinct shadow beside me. Eight days. I didn’t think I could make it.
It was always hard to imagine the atmosphere of the Ninth Night the next morning. I guess the senses aren’t enough. I had been an n.e.1—a Non-Existent One—for six years, and that wasn’t enough, either, to keep the feel of the Ninth Night around me when there was daylight—even damp rain-light. Sometimes I thought I had to have the mask on, with its particular weight and smell, but really, it was just impossible to be in both the night life and the day life. You had to be two people at the same time to do that, and right then, with the crust of school and my classmates around me, I was Aiden White and couldn’t really be Mustard. Not really.
But, like when you reread books or whatever, I could always picture Mustard’s actions and how he spoke, what he said. I was Mustard, after all, when the Ninth Night came. I could remember how, last night, he had waved the spray can, arcing white paint on the community centre wall, and then what he had said to the Factory, and felt embarrassed for him—for myself, I guess. A rare moment of cohesion.
But Mustard hadn’t been wrong about how the Factory had cruised in the basket of the shopping cart the last time we all went carting. I searched the wall of light beyond the window, trying to justify how Fact had distracted me—arms spread out, head up, probably had its eyes closed too, trusting me entirely to get us to the end of the race course. Really, the sight had been kind of stunning. Embarrassing, too. The lake had been damn cold when I couldn’t look away from it and we missed that final turn of the hill.
But when I met the Factory for the first time, it was different. Everything, really, was different. I didn’t know about cricket song or night air, though it had been cold. I knew flames, the kick of kerosene, the burn of skin. I used to set fires just to feel the flame. Back then, though, Tumble had been in charge, a Ninth Night veteran in a banged-up motorcycle helmet. Something in the way Tumble would slouch used to make me think of my brother in the day life, but there was no real way to tell, and no way I could ask, of course—the Rules and all. Tumble and I never got along in the same way as me and my brother anyway, and things like slouches, they could be deceiving. The point of the Ninth Night was to make us less aware of ourselves, to be no one and not someone, but it could have the opposite effect too. I knew that some kids, like Tug maybe, who didn’t speak, changed things about themselves because they knew it was a dead giveaway—but you couldn’t trust that. I believe that we walk a little differently, talk a little differently, think a little differently in the dead of night when we know that no one can see our faces. The cold chill of the air breaks our voices, disperses them over forest. The hard, brackish wood trails demand heavier, more careful footing. The masks make us stand differently. You can’t even tell girls from guys, not with all those shadowed angles.
I’d been going to the Ninth Night for almost a year then. It was dark winter that night. Cold. The sky was like flint. Snow made it hard to get up Foot Hill, and I was almost late. I stopped to catch my breath at the fallen log outside the rendezvous, and my knees hurt from lifting my legs so high, so laboriously—I was short back then, but shot up in ninth grade, suddenly. I figured Tumble would call me a short burnout again—it could be mean—and make me carry all the wood-boggans to the hill by the lake, so I was trying to figure out how to play off my tardiness without making a stupid excuse.
I heard a branch. I swung around, and was momentarily blinded by the condensed breath that filled my gas mask. The Factory was behind me, hugging itself to keep warm. The plastic eyes of its owl mask were flicking up with what little light there was. It was shorter than me. I thought it looked awkward, vulnerable, but all the n.e.1s kind of look like that somehow.
I said, “Hey.”
It said, “Hey.”
“You lost? ”
“Ninth Night? ” I asked.
“Yeah.” Replied a pale, diffused voice; more a caress of air than anything.
I took in its outline, the white trace of light on dark sweater, dark hood, and felt the woods spread out around us in the rustling glow of birch trees and sky. I said, “Follow me.”
Fact nodded and tagged along behind me to the crooked pine. We were last to arrive, but Tumble and Woodchuck were fighting so no one noticed except Light Fingers.
“Oh? Finally found a grass-stalker shorter than you, eh, Mustard? ” it said. That jerk had always been so damn droll. I told it to shut up just when Tumble gave Woodchuck a sock to the gut and ended the fight. Tumble started into the Rules and I heard the Factory name itself for the first time.
There was nothing special about all that, really, but I remember the whole night clearly, brilliantly: how Tumble made me carry the slipshod toboggans anyway, for no reason; how the hill was really dangerous that night—Butt cut its leg on the icy plating that shingled the hill—and the bushes that caught us at the bottom chimed with scattering icicles on impact. I remembered how Woodchuck, Fingers, and Tonto built snow ramps that couldn’t hold against the boggans at full speed; how Tumble tripped me with an ice-covered branch and then shoved it up my sweater. I remembered how the Factory had almost, like magic, rode its boggan standing, with its arms out like the mast of a ship—the same as later in the cart—and made it safely all the way down only to face-plant when it stopped at the bottom.
“The little bird here has real landing finesse,” Fingers said and laughed.
“Yeah, fucking graceful,” Tumble jeered.
“Ow,” was all Fact said. The others headed back up the hill. I stayed, got Factory onto its feet again. I wanted to make sure it was real—after that—sort of wanted to know how it felt under its mask, the clothes.
“Well, the first part was pretty cool,” I said.
It kept its gloved hand on my shoulder to steady itself. “Huh? ”
“Standing. On the boggan.” I could feel heat under my skin, under it all.
“Oh. Yeah. Falling sucked though.”
That made me laugh. “You haven’t even begun to fall.”
“Good to know.” It brushed snow off its hoodie. “Did you know that the way you feel when you fall is caused by the vestibular apparatus or labyrinth in the inner ear detecting changes in acceleration? ”
“No . . . I did not.”
“But when you skydive, you don’t actually feel like you’re falling? ”
“That’s . . . weird? ”
“Hey, Mustard! Get your slow ass up here!”
Tumble. I shouted at it to keep its panties on, and Fact and I began the trek up the icy hill, using the shingled plateaus to pull ourselves up.
“Did you hear it? ” Factory asked.
“Hear what? ”
“A moose. Way out there, somewhere,” it pointed to the lake side of the hill. “It’s what made me crash.”
“A moose made you crash? ”
A laugh. “An invisible one.”
“Sound barrier moose.”
“Mach-moose,” I said. We both snorted.
Then Fact said, “So if someone crashes into an invisible moose in the woods, does anyone hear it? ”
I laughed so hard, I slipped, had to regain traction. We were at the top of the hill, but when I mounted that last slope, I was suddenly slipping down again, a sharp burn of impact against my shoulder where Tumble had hit me with a fucking snowball.
“You okay? ’ Fact called, its face full of the flare and glow of winter moons, owls lighting on snow.
“Last one up the hill carries all the boggans!” Tumble yelled, meaning me, of course.
That was the night I lit Tumble’s wood-boggan on fire.
Tumble was real fond of that strip of wood it had hacked out of a tree, but I lit that piece of shit on fire, sent it shooting down the hill. It skipped over the plateaus with a soft hint of burning bark and mould, and the firelight flicked across the ice and snow like, for a moment, a yellow moon had flown out from under us to burn out in the brush.
And maybe it was that fire that started it. I saw the flare and felt it burning. I don’t know. Years later, I could still feel it burning, but I don’t think I would have set it if the Factory hadn’t come to that Ninth Night. Tumble had pissed me off plenty of times, but that’d been the first I paid it back—that had been the first time I felt like I had to teach it something about me. Factory was the variable. It changed the equation for everything that night, talking about falling and moose and moving around beside me like that. It knocked me off balance somehow, even with my feet planted firmly in the snow. Falling down at first sight.
And because of the Ninth Night, and what it was supposed to signify for the n.e.1s—for me—who needed to be anonymous for one night every nine days to get out of their own skin, I’d never known who the Factory was. It was somewhere in Burchell Lake, made someone else by the daylight, and I would only ever know the barn owl mask, the sound of skin I could never touch, the falling.
The bell rang, startled me into the day life. Homeroom was over, but I was still falling.