High school is organized chaos, but by 10th grade Patroclus thinks he has learned to navigate it. The population of Ilium High is neatly divided into thousands of cliques, warlike city-states living in tentative peace just waiting for a reason to attack. But as of right now all is calm, and the various civilizations living in such close proximity have managed to avoid contact with each other for years. It’s a fragile world they live in, but everyone seems to understand and respect that fragility.
Patroclus, technically, belongs to the geek colony, but he avoids contact with them outside of the cafeteria. He does not dislike them; they gave him a city-state within which to reside, but he doesn’t get along with them besides the fact that they are all losers. Odysseus is the leader of the group, relied upon by the other residents of the geek table as their communication with the rest of Ilium. Cassandra is the group’s only girl, a paranoid and superstitious creature confident in her own psychic abilities but unable to convince anyone else of them. Nestor is a strange addition, a brainy senior constantly spouting (usually horrendous) advice to his younger tablemates. Patroclus is the fourth and final member.
Usually Patroclus pays no attention to the goings on of the popular world, but today it is impossible to avoid. The latest rumor is everywhere: Paris Priamides kissed Helen, Menelaus Atrides’ girlfriend, at his older brother Agamemnon’s party. As of yet it is unknown how this will affect the fragile peace of Ilium High’s city-states, but the general consensus is that all hell is about to break loose.
Patroclus hears these things but is unconcerned. Whatever war breaks out will not touch his city-state, he’s sure. The four-person geek colony flies under the radar, which is the primary reason Patroclus finds his home there. (The other is that he is at least mildly intelligent.) He’s confident they will be left alone, and if all hell indeed breaks loose it will be onto the popular world, of which he is not a member. His confidence is shaken, however, when Odysseus sits down at lunch that day.
“The strangest thing just occurred,” He says. Odysseus talks that way; it’s superbly annoying.
“The weirdest thing just happened,” Patroclus corrects. “That’s how a normal person talks.” Odysseus ignores him and continues.
“Menelaus spoke to me.”
Cassandra nearly leaps across the table.
“What?!” She cries, “Why?”
“He wanted my advice,” Odysseus answers cryptically. Patroclus rolls his eyes.
“On what?” He asks tiredly. A normal person would’ve supplied that information up front, but Odysseus likes to draw out the suspense. It drives Patroclus crazy.
“The best course of action after this whole Paris-Helen debacle,” Odysseus explains. Patroclus furrows his brow. Menelaus, like his brother Agamemnon, is a football jock. Why would they need Odysseus? “It seems to me,” Odysseus continues, then pauses for suspense, “that this is particularly bad.”
“Oh, this is more than ‘particularly bad’,” Nestor speaks up. “This is probably the worst thing that’s ever happened.”
“Why does Menelaus need your help?” Patroclus presses, ignoring Nestor. “I thought he would just beat Paris to a pulp and move on.”
“Normally, yes, a physical altercation would be the solution,” Odysseus agrees. “But Nestor, will you remind me the name of our dear principal here at Ilium?”
“Priam,” Nestor answers promptly.
“Paris’s father,” Odysseus supplies. “Even the pride and joy of the athletic department can’t go around attacking principal’s sons.”
“So the Atrides need a way to exact revenge without breaking any rules,” Patroclus says.
“Exactly,” Odysseus confirms, “which is where I come in.”
Cassandra lets out a high pitched wail of despair.
“The apocalypse is coming!” She cries.
“Don’t be overdramatic,” Nestor says.
“Don’t you see?!” She demands, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. Patroclus watches the show with mild interest. “There are cool kids and there are losers, there are jocks and rich kids and geeks and goths and stoners and everything in between, and we’re about to enter a swirling vortex of horror wherein they all intermix.”
For once, Patroclus wishes he had believed Cassandra.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“Crazy day, huh?” Briseis says as she climbs into Patroclus’s car. They’ve been carpooling all year, but he picks her up three blocks from school. No one can see a cheerleader climbing into Patroclus Menoetiades’ car. It will ruin her reputation, and earn him a sort of infamy he spends his days carefully trying to avoid.
“You have no idea,” He replies with a groan. “Cassandra basically recited a prophecy at lunch today.”
“A prophecy?” Briseis echoes with raised eyebrows and an amused grin, “Do tell.”
“She thinks the end is near.”
“What else is new?”
“But she says she’s serious this time.” Cassandra says she’s serious every time. Briseis punches Patroclus in the arm scoldingly, but she’s laughing.
“Don’t be a jerk, she’s nice.”
“But you’ve got to feel bad for her.
That’s true, Patroclus does feel bad for her. Cassandra plays a difficult role at Ilium High. She herself is a loser, like Patroclus, but her brothers are Hector and Paris Priamides, who are at the top of the food chain. Hector and Paris almost completely ignore her at school, but they protect her and, by association, Patroclus, Nestor, and Odysseus, from vicious bullying. This latest development, with Paris kissing Helen and Menelaus vowing revenge, threatens Hector and Paris’s position at the top of the social ladder and therefore Cassandra’s protection.
“Yeah, I guess,” Patroclus says. “So how are things in the popular world?” Briseis hesitates for a moment.
“Weird,” She finally decides. “No one really knows what to do. We all thought Menelaus would’ve dumped Helen and kicked Paris’s ass by now, but nothing’s happened.”
The popular world exists in a state of flux. Half of it is dominated by the jocks, chiefly the Atrides, Menelaus and Agamemnon. The elder captains the football team, while the younger is primed to take his place in two years. Beneath them but still in popular in their own right are Ajax, captain of the wrestling team, Achilles, captain of the track team, and Diomedes, the quarterback. And then there’s the other half, ruled by Hector, Paris, and their slew of younger brothers. Their main claim to fame is that they are insanely rich. They’re good at sports too, but only the kind you have to have a lot of money to play, like golf or skiing. Hector, for example, is a champion horseback rider. The two powers (the jocks and the rich kids) have managed to avoid contest with each other for years, but it’s clear they’re bitter rivals. All Paris did by kissing Helen was give Agamemnon a reason to destroy his only competition.
“How’s Helen doing?” Patroclus asks. He doesn’t really know Helen, but he’s picked up a decent image of her from what Briseis has told him. Beautiful and generally harmless, if a bit empty-headed and catty.
"Oh, she’s loving this,” Briseis replies. “Everyone’s talking about her, plus the cutest boys in school are arguing over her.”
“Menelaus isn’t the cutest boy in school,” Patroclus cuts in. Briseis raises her eyebrows.
“Who is, then?” She asks teasingly. He knows what she wants him to say, but he’s not about to give her the satisfaction.
“I am,” He jokes, taking one arm off the steering wheel to flex his muscles (or lack thereof).
“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m hot stuff.”
“Whatever you say, Patroclus.”
He pulls into their neighborhood and slows down, partially because of the speed limit in a residential area, and partially because he wants to prolong these moments with Briseis where they are not ruled by high school politics. He’s not a geek and she’s not a cheerleader, they’re simply two friends driving home from school and gossipping about their crushes.
“Even if we’re saying that I’m not the cutest boy in school, which I am, my point still stands. Menelaus is one of the most terrifying creatures I’ve ever seen; he’s not cute.”
“Alright, that’s valid. But he’s hot.”
Patroclus makes a face. “Are you kidding? He’s got more chest hair than a border collie. Please don’t tell me girls find that attractive.”
“I don’t, but Helen does,” Briseis reasons. Patroclus is about to point out that Helen obviously doesn’t, because Paris is about as far from Menelaus as one can get, but their conversation is ended by a voice Patroclus simultaneously loves and hates.
“Hey, Briseis!” Achilles calls. He is climbing out of his own car in front of his house, just across the street from Patroclus’s and adjacent to Briseis’s. Growing up, they were quite the trio. “You gonna help me with my homework?” She climbs out of the car.
“I’ll help you,” She says, “I won’t do it for you.”
“That’s all I ask,” He replies, then notices Patroclus. Maybe his mind is playing tricks on him, but Patroclus swears he sees Achilles’s face light up. “Hey, Patroclus, you should come too. Not to brag, but I need a lot of help.”
Patroclus looks at them standing side by side. Achilles in his varsity jacket, and Briseis in her cheerleading uniform. He does not fit into their world.
“Uh, sorry, I’ve gotta...feed my dog.”
The excuse backfires horribly.
“You got a dog?” Achilles gasps, and too late Patroclus remembers that Achilles loves dogs almost as much as Patroclus loves Achilles. He catches Briseis’s eyes, and no words can describe how hard she is judging him.
“Um, no, I meant, um...,” He flounders. “my nintendog.”
“Your nintendog,” Briseis echoes in a deadpan voice. “You can’t do your homework because you have to feed your nintendog.”
“Yup!” Patroclus squeaks, face burning. “Wouldn’t want it to die.”
“Oh, right,” Achilles says dejectedly. “Well, if you have time, you should drop by.”
“Probably won’t,” Patroclus continues, and why is he still talking?! “I’ve got a lot of nintendogs.” His eyes desperately find Briseis’s, and silently he begs her to save him.
“Okay, well, we’ve got a ton of homework, Achilles,” She cuts in, and Patroclus has never been more grateful for her in his life. “We should probably get started.”
“Right. Yeah. Homework,” Achilles says. Then, to Patroclus, “Have fun with your nintendogs!” Briseis grabs him by the arm and turns him away, and together they begin to walk up to Achilles’s front door.
“I will!” Patroclus calls after them, because at this point he’s lost control of his mouth. Then he too turns away, wondering how he could’ve allowed himself to become The Kid With The Nintendogs in Achilles’s mind.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Patroclus knows it’s stupid to be in love when you are barely sixteen. Because you know nothing, because it won’t last, because this is not yet real life. But all the things Patroclus knows, all the logic he’s acquired in his years on this earth, do not apply to his love for Achilles.
Patroclus never went over to Achilles’s house. He debated it for an hour or so. He had been invited, after all. Clearly Achilles wanted to hang out with him. But as much as Patroclus wants to help Achilles with his homework, he can’t let himself. For one, whenever he’s in Achilles’s presence, he becomes an awkward, rambling freak obsessed with his nintendogs. And the other thing is that he and Achilles are from different worlds.
Achilles Pelides is a god. Captain of the track team, sophomore class president, and probably the most attractive person alive. He plays guitar like Apollo playing the lyre and has a voice sirens would be jealous of. Patroclus is nobody. So, even if by some miracle Achilles loved Patroclus just a tenth as much as Patroclus loves Achilles, they couldn’t be together. Achilles would not want his reputation tarnished by someone like Patroclus. As soon as they got to school, Achilles would go back to pretending he didn’t know Patroclus’s name. And Patroclus does not want to be loved only after 3:30 and on weekends. He respects himself more than that.
It is nearing midnight when Patroclus gets the anonymous call. He has been finished his homework for hours and instead has been sitting at his desk, alternating between aimlessly surfing the internet and discreetly looking through Achilles’s window. Briseis disappeared from his bedroom hours ago. They’d looked like they’d been having a good time.
His phone ringing, in and of itself, is unusual. Very few people have Patroclus’s number. Briseis does, but she only texts, never calls. The digits displayed on the screen are unfamiliar, and Patroclus debates whether or not to pick it up. It could be a creepy stalker. Or worse, it could be Achilles. Right, Patroclus thinks, like Achilles would call me. So it’s not Achilles, and Patroclus does not think himself interesting enough to be stalked. Deciding he’s got nothing better to do, he accepts the call.
“I’ve had a genius idea.” A voice that is decidedly Odysseus’ crackles through Patroclus’s shitty speaker.
“You have my number?”
“Of course, Patroclus, I have everyone’s number. Anyway, my idea-”
“I’m not sure I want you to have my number.”
“Well, the damage is done. As I was saying-”
“How did you even get my number?”
“I lent Briseis a ruler some days ago; she owed me a favor. Anywho-"
“You bribed Briseis?”
“Patroclus, please. Of course I bribed her, look who you’re talking to. We have more important matters to discuss.”
Patroclus sighs and runs a hand through his hair, deciding for the moment to disregard the extreme creepiness Odysseus is displaying. It’s not like he didn’t already know Odysseus was a freak.
“Okay, fine, what’s your idea?”
That’s all Odysseus says. And had they been having this conversation in person, Patroclus might have punched him. He is getting exceedingly tired of having to painstakingly extract every little piece of information out of Odysseus.
“What sort of game?” He tries to keep the impatience out of his voice, although he’s not sure why.
“A game to settle the dispute.”
Patroclus waits a moment for Odysseus to continue, then snaps.
“God dammit, Odysseus, just tell me how to play!”
“Fine, fine. Good god Patroclus, have some patience.” Patroclus has been having some patience with Odysseus for two years. He’s just run out. “We divide the student body into two teams-”
“The entire student body?”
“For someone who was so impatient to hear the rules, you certainly are interrupting quite a bit.”
“Eat my shit, Odysseus.”
“We divide whatever portion of the student body that wants to participate into two teams: those who side with Paris, and those who side with Menelaus. Each team then commences trying to kill as many members of the opposite team as possible.”
“Kill? What the hell, Odysseus?”
“Would that you were here with me now, Patroclus, you might have seen my air quotes.” Patroclus refrains from pointing out that this is a phone call. It takes away from Odysseus’s dramatic bravado that belongs more in an epic poem than a high school. “Participants are killed by means of tackling. The rules are thus: Any victim must be at least ten feet from any other person, participant or otherwise, before an attacker may descend upon them and ‘kill’ them, terminating their participation in the game but not their life. Whichever team for which the last man standing plays is victorious, and the corresponding suitor takes Helen.”
Patroclus pauses for a moment, thinking this over. Odysseus’s grand plan is to resolve the burning hatred between Menelaus and Paris, the Atrides and the Priamides, the jocks and the rich kids, through a game that he decides is a bit too juvenile for middle schoolers.
“You really think Agamemnon’s going to go for this?” He finally asks.
“I confess I hadn’t thought of Agamemnon,” Odysseus replies. “After all, it was Menelaus that asked my help.”
“But you know Agamemnon’s orchestrating the whole thing. This is just the perfect opportunity for him to obliterate the Priamides once and for all.” Patroclus has been hanging out with Odysseus for too long; he’s beginning to talk like him. Since when has he ever said obliterate?
“True. Perhaps we ought to raise the stakes.”
Patroclus can tell from Odysseus’s voice that he has something in mind, but he won’t tell until Patroclus asks.
“The losing team, at least its leaders if not all its participants, leaves Ilium High School for good.”
Odysseus has been known to come up with some pretty outlandish ideas in his time. Just last year, he faked literal insanity to get out of gym class. Not a sprained wrist, not a twisted ankle, insanity. But this is almost crazier. The game itself is benign, but the consequences are more than even power-hungry Agamemnon might agree to.
“You realize what you’re suggesting here is basically a war,” Patroclus says.
“Oh, it’s not basically a war,” Odysseus corrects, then proceeds to say the most ridiculously dramatic and cliche thing he possible could. “My dear Patroclus, this is a war.”