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The Prank War

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10 October
Dear Father,

(Neil’s pen hovers, pristine handwriting cramped in the corner of the page, the rest of the paper stretching like infinity underneath. Every time he starts a letter, he could swear the paper, so innocent as looseleaf, grows to an unfillable mile. Every time, he thinks of nothing to write. Every time, he manages something. Every time, it’s the same thing.)

Life here at Welton is settling comfortably into the mid-semester pattern.

It starts with Charlie.

(Doesn’t everything start with Charlie?)

It starts with Charlie’s annoyance with Knox’s crush, with Knox’s deep desire to wax lyrical and his similarly deep inability to do just that: Charlie, fed up with Knox’s musings on gilded hair and moonlit lilies and cheeks like prosaic roses, sews Knox’s bookbag to the carpet overnight, and Knox, who has a tendency to run everywhere as if he is always ten minutes late, tries to pick the thing up and goes flying onto his back, landing with a resounding thud and an uncomprehending, injured stare, while Charlie almost gives himself a stroke holding back his laughter.

(Neil laughs and his pen shakes over the paper.)

We are all focused on studying for the midterms next week. My head is crammed so full of Latin tenses and verbs and rules that I can barely think in English anymore.

(He reads this over, thin paper thin between his fingers, considers.)

My head is crammed so full of Latin tenses and verbs and rules that I can barely think in English anymore. I feel reasonably well prepared.

Knox strikes back three days later, and Charlie wakes up in a cocoon of yarn strung from his ceiling all the way around his bed. Knox has thoughtfully tied a pair of scissors in the yarn; sadly, they twist and turn just outside Charlie’s reach, and he doesn’t manage to get out until almost lunchtime.

Charlie gets two days of detention and a week’s probation, forced inside to the common room while the other boys amble together over the dusk-purpled campus, joking and shoving and arguing about nobody cares what. Knox only laughs when Charlie swears revenge, but the others are more cautious and urge him to be the same. When they rehash the prank after curfew in Neil’s room, Todd watches them from over the edge of his Latin textbook as they laugh and congratulate Knox.

“You shouldn’t have done it.” They’re walking across the quad towards the dining hall, and Knox is still glowing with triumph. He slants a look at Neil over his shoulder, with the same unassuming, shy smile he’d had on his face the first day they’d met as freshman.

“Maybe,” he says, light-hearted, slinging his bag onto his shoulder.

Neil is the voice of reason; he always has been. Younger than Charlie, not so empathic as Knox, he finds himself in the position of advisor, counselor. “He was just bored. You can’t encourage him like this.”

Knox tips his head to one side as if listening, his smile turning introspective. “I don’t know, Neil. Maybe it’s better for all of us if someone does encourage him. Maybe that’s just what we all need: a little encouragement to push the boundaries.”

He walks off with a swinging step, lifts a hand in farewell. Neil finds himself standing alone in the watery autumn sunlight, calling: "fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He watches Knox leave, tips his head back and laughs.

The fellows are all well and send their regards. Charlie is starting chemistry this semester. Everyone thought he’d be a menace in the lab, but he’s stepped up to the plate with remarkable enthusiasm and interest. So far, he hasn’t blown anything up.

(When Neil chews on his pen, he always flicks his nail against the desktop as soon as he notices it, the sharp aching pain supposed to deter him from the habit. So far, the treatment hasn't worked, but as his father says, that's no reason not to give up on trying, and neither is a bruised nail.)

Charlie doesn’t even wait until his probation is up before he retaliates, and Knox walks into his first period classroom only to find that his desk and everything in it has disappeared, the others rearranged so as to cover the missing one so cleverly it appears Knox’s desk was never there at all.

"It really does make you ask the big questions, doesn't it?" Charlie hangs on Konx's shoulder, draped there like a tie, hair not quite mussed enough to warrant a scolding. "Who knew existentialism was still so prevalent in the cookie cutter, conformist society of today? Just look at this."

His hand takes Knox's jaw none too gently, turns his face to make him look at the neatly arranged desks. "What do you think, Knoxie? Feel the need to question your own existence? What are we really doing here, anyway?"

"Learning, one presumes," says Neil, sitting at his own desk. His textbook is already out, and yesterday's notes aren't far behind.

"Wrong!" Charlie is at his most exuberant while pontificating; he grows ever more expansive, tugging charisma around himself like a velvet cloak. He has a knack for speech-making, for finding a memorable turn of phrase, and everyone around him is compelled to listen. Someday, Neil thinks with a grin, Charlie will probably be a famous public figure. Won’t Welton be proud of that? The school spin doctors will have a field day. “We are here to be cut out into nice little sports-coat-and-khaki gingerbreadmen. Gentlemen! I implore you. Don’t allow Knox’s mistake to be yours. See how he accepts his banishment. Ten to one he’s already begun to question his own memories of being here, simply because the physical proof has been lifted away."

Indeed, Knox is looking a little shattered, a little crumpled about the face. It’s up to Neil to smooth things over, like always. “What’s your point, Charlie?” He tries to keep it casual, because he isn't entirely sure Charlie can't sniff out weakness and uncertainty.

When Neil speaks up, everyone else quiets: he’s not sure why this has always been the way, but it has. His whole life can be measured out in moments like this: he opens his mouth; the room stills, waits to hear what he’ll say. Surely there’s a better use for this ability than keeping Charlie in line. There must be: he simply hasn't found it yet, though he's beginning to suspect he won't find it in the operating room.

He looks around the class, taking in the identical desks, the boys in their identical uniforms. The queerly clear golden glow of autumn spills through the window and lights the dust motes in the room. “If what you’re saying is true, maybe it wasn’t Knox’s desk that got taken. Maybe yours did, if we’re so interchangeable.”

“Ah.” Charlie wags a finger like a proud papa, and Neil can’t help but laugh. “But it wasn’t mine. I, a free spirit, chain myself to no such plebian materialistic mindsets as to call any desk mine or, contrariwise, nor do I call myself its. Take what desk you please! I’ll find another surface that will no doubt work just as well.”

“Fine,” mutters Knox, knocking Charlie’s arm from around his shoulders. “Then I’ll take your desk, and you can stand. And I’m getting revenge later.”

(Sometimes Neil wonders what his father was like at school, what his friends were like. His father would consider a prank war to be nothing but a distraction, but still - Neil wonders; he wonders if the Neil-aged version of his father would have kept himself distant from such a temptation. Would he have been one of the silent audience? Perhaps have allowed himself to be a moderator, that role Neil is so adept at stepping into? Or would he – Neil can hardly allow himself to think this, but it must be thought – is it possible he may have been an instigator? Every group of boys has its Charlie, its Knox. Who was his father?

For that matter, who is he?)

It’s Mr. Keating who stops the madness before anyone gets seriously hurt. He points out the shenanigans in Shakespeare, the myriad literary rivalries sparked by misunderstandings and hurt feelings. The lesson is never pointed, but neither is it passive, and Neil wonders just how long Mr. Keating has been watching them all before deciding to step in.

I’ve been getting to know my new roommate. He seems a quiet, studious sort of fellow, and doesn’t talk much.

(He looks at this for a while and wonders if this is the part of the letter he should expand on, if he should voice his concerns that Todd is so very difficult to open, that he seems to study all the time, despite never seeming to enjoy it and never beating Neil’s grades. “Don’t count Todd out,” says Mr. Keating, one evening while Neil is in his tiny office, drinking tea and discussing college plans. “He has his part to play, just like anyone.”

“I would have thought the pranks would stir him up, if nothing else.” Neil wraps his hands around the mug and blows on the tea to cool it, wishing it were the kind of hot cocoa with marshmallows his mother used to make him as a child. Tea strikes him as unforgivably grown-up.

“Todd is no Charlie,” Mr. Keating says, with an air of vast wisdom that sends them both into laughing fits at such an understatement. Still, when Neil returns to the room, Todd’s already asleep, or feigning it well, the book he’d been reading – Leaves of Grass -- slipped to the floor.)

“Do you think you count in the world?”

Mr. Keating stands with his hands in his pockets like an overgrown schoolboy, his jacket loose over the back of his chair. In front of him, a dozen boys look at their looseleaf and twiddle their pencils, uncertain.

“Kind of a loaded question, isn’t it? You know, boys, we are raised to be modest, to keep our heads down and be grateful for the little crumbs life sometimes tosses our way. We are not meant to sing our own praises and demand recognition, but there’s a secret, a truth that not everyone knows that turns that lesson on its head. Do you know it? Has it ever been whispered into your waiting ears?”

He looks around. Neil watches him watch the room, sees how Knox looks up from his paper for the first time, his face looking tragically young. At another desk, Charlie’s spinning his pen so fast it seems about to fall any second, but his eyes are intent, his shoulders tense under the façade of languid grace.

“This is it: that each and every one of you is unique. It starts at a molecular level, the building blocks of your bodies, and extends to the choices you make every day, the music you enjoy, the skills you develop. So sing your own praises, lads, and those of the remarkable people around you.” The bell rings and the boys shuffle up and towards the door: Mr. Keating leans against his desk and as he heads out, Neil thinks he sees Knox walk over to him.

That night in the dorms, Charlie doesn’t hand Knox anything, he doesn’t apologize and doesn’t back down, but they lean against the wall near each other and by the time curfew is called they’re deep in laughing reconciliation, even congratulating each other.

“I had something amazing planned,” Knox laments, and Charlie claps him on the back.

“Well, you never know. I’m sure I’ll deserve it someday.”

“You deserve it now," jibes Knox, and Charlie chases him down the hall, whooping, until the resident threatens suspension and Neil laughs to himself as he unlocks his own door, only to find everything on his desk meticulously mirrored from its usual setup, and Todd smiling into his textbook on his bed.

It’s a start, thinks Neil, and closes the door.

I hope you and Mother are well, and look forward to seeing you both at Thanksgiving.


Your son,