The week before exams and it was a million degrees outside. And since World Languages sat on the third floor of a school built during the Hoover administration, Spanish II class was roasting.
Miserable as it was, the scorching heat had its perks. Like Mr. Bishop suggesting we take a field trip to study in the auditorium. Or Holly Read wearing a tank top, revealing a constellation of freckles my brain prioritized over imperfect tense and irregular verbs.
I couldn’t help it, I’d had a thing for Holly right from Hola, when we’d been paired last year to play the role of married tourists in Mexico. Since then she’d make jokes in passing about our divorce, our own little inside joke. It hurt to think we’d broken up, even in joking. But like they say, it’s better to have pretended to have love and lost in broken Spanish, than to have never loved at all.
Headed to the auditorium, Devesh and I talked Infinity War when Holly came out of nowhere to nudge us left towards the steps, to the auxiliary gym instead of the auditorium lobby.
Her giggle, the touch of her shoulder, it sent us both careening without a question or care. Usually the auxiliary gym was gated and locked, but it was almost summer, and things were being packed away.
We plunged deeper into the tunnel, wet in places from various leaks, Holly’s hums filling the gaps of silence, accompanied by the steady drips and drops from the cast iron pipes. We roamed past old streamers, decorations, and decades old sports equipment. Devesh let his fingers glide along a wrestling mat. I could tell he was worried about Mr. Bishop.
“So, what exactly are we doing?”
Holly nodded at him. “Relax, D. It’s not like you need to study. Now, Eric on the other hand…”
Devesh smirked at me. Holly shook her head. “We’re going to the fallout shelter.”
“Yep, seriously. It’s right under the cafeteria.”
Holly went on about it like she’d been studying a blueprint. We’d all heard stories about the bomb shelter and what was in there. I imagined barrels of supplies lining the walls, a year’s worth of canned food, enough water to wait out a nuclear holocaust. It was probably nothing, but with a week of school left, it was nice and cool down there. I figured we might as well find some adventure.
Everything had changed this year. We came in as rising seniors, then we were buying caps and gowns and paying senior dues. Now, with one foot out the door, all we heard about was the next stage in our lives. Holly was headed to Richmond next year, Devesh was leaving for Virginia Tech where he’d study to become an engineer like his father. I’d be stuck here, in community college, living at home and looking after my eight-year old brother.
I was sulking about my lackluster life goals when the air changed, from must to cool to almost cold.
Holly grabbed at her sides. “Mas frio auqi”
“Wow. You’re so going to flunk your Exam.”
Devesh stopped. “Dude, check it out.” He pointed down to the end of the hall where mounds of old track equipment—hurdles, poles, Gatorade containers, cones in various stages of fading—blocked our path. “
“Come on,” he said, caught up in our adventure. Holly slapped my back and shrugged. I followed, not so enthusiastically, catching my shoe in a volleyball net, poles clanging together as I did my best to keep up.
Clearing a path, we found three wooden steps, leading up to a single metal door with thick hinges peeling paint. Holly shot me her best told you so look and Devesh climbed the steps and grabbed the handle. “Well, here goes.”
The door wasn’t locked. Devesh gave it a yank and the door swung open. A skeleton swooped down and greeted us with a toothy grin.
I jumped back, fell into a rack of hurdles. Devesh smiled. Holly rolled her eyes. “Eric, come on.”
He brushed past the skeleton, which turned out to be one of those ancient classroom exhibits. Only this one wore women’s panties and had a pirate’s hat on its head. A Seniors ’88 sash across its bony chest.
Holly found a switch. Four industrial lights, encased in cobwebs, buzzed to life overhead. Huddled together, our heads turned as we took in the room, like we’d discovered a tomb.
There were no barrels or food supplies. It wasn’t much more than an old storage room. A vault of sorts, everything dusty and untouched in years. A couch, some old crates turned over as tables. Empty soda cans. An ashtray still with a few butts in it. Yearbooks and magazines. Portraits of distinguished bald white men in gilded frames hung crookedly between parking signs and Christmas wreaths. Someone had colored in a mohawk on the baldest, most distinguished of them. Scrawled, I wanna Rock! below, in magic marker.
Holly found a stack of magazines. She picked up a newspaper and shook out the folds. “Onward to Mars.”
Devesh thought that was hilarious. I was back to staring at the skeleton when I found a note wedged into his ribcage.
Congrats, Righteous Ones. You’ve totally found our tubular hangout.
Enjoy. Lounge. Party. Chill. Make out. If Principal Williams is still around, tell him he can totally eat our shorts.
Class of ‘88.
Holly set her hands on her hips, knocked her hair back. “Oh wow.”
“Righteous,” Devesh mimicked, flipping through a yearbook.
“Guys.” Holly nodded to a suitcase looking thing with a speaker. Next to it was a boombox, covered with stickers, still plugged into the wall. She hit a button and a warbled guitar riff came to life.
I couldn’t imagine a much better afternoon. Lounging with my best friend and my crush, solving the mystery of ejecting and flipping over a tape. Discovering Sonic Youth, The Church, how U2 was actually decent at one time.
Turned out, it was a fallout shelter. We fell out of our lives for a few hours. We forgot about the heat. About the next stages of our lives. Devesh talked about the pressure his family put on him to succeed and make them proud. Holly talked about her sister who’d drowned nearly ten years ago, how sometimes at night she could still feel the warmth of her sister’s hand in her own. I could only listen, floored by their confessions. The’y’d always been so perfect to me. But now they were so much more.
Then we struck gold. Holly found a scrapbook of sorts, peeling at the edges. We all closed in, gathering around it. Holly’s shoulder pressed against mine, not that I noticed.
We flipped through the pictures of old cars, kids, goofballs wearing giant plastic sunglasses, big hair, stone wash jeans, lots of neon. Holly yawned when, at the back of the scrapbook were a few photos of the same room we were in now.
Devesh nudged her. “Check it out.”
Four kids on the very same couch we sat on, giving the sign of the horns. The caption read, Rock on.
Devesh pointed to one kid, the one who looked like he would raise the most hell. “Is that…? Is that Mr. Bishop?”
I looked closer. More hair, no suit. “So he was like, a kid once?”
Holly peeled back the plastic and snagged the photo. “Oh, I’m so keeping this.”
On exam day, I proceeded to bomb my Spanish II exam. But not before Mr. Bishop looked us over, cleaning his glasses, probably about to ask us about skipping out on study time when Holly shot him that million-dollar smile. She stuck out her tongue and gave him the sign of the horns.
He acknowledged us with a smile.