Will you come stay this while with me,
as for the journey I prepare,
we will take each other’s hearts in hand
and speak of all the ways we care.
– Sandy Wood (1997)
Chapter 1: Ruthie
“Ruth, I can never tell if you’re late for your last class or early for your next one?” says Principal Coles as he approaches, tipping his head to the side as he does when he’s not so much wondering at all.
“Dr. Coles, question.” The sophomore shakes her textbook at chest height. “Why’s it called history? Is it because the stories are about men?”
“Go on,” he says, repressing a smile.
The young learner had indeed been late for her last class, if by late you mean skipping it.
It’s 11 am at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, and Ruthie had way overslept.
Forced to hoof the 1.7 miles from home; she’d missed the bus again and not by a little.
Still and all, she’s at her locker, number 436, not far from History. There’s an irredeemable minute before the bell rings, signaling the period change.
The halls of the 40-year-old school are empty, with the staccato tapping of Dr. Coles’ shoes against the tile floor receding into the distance.
Ruthie is an inch past five feet, with a ponytail, hazel eyes, and a few freckles on her face. With jeans and a t-shirt featuring the OutKast logo, she wears scuffed combat boots that add another two inches to her height.
She whirls the dial on her locker door and pulls it open, looping her black winter coat with its twice-patched sleeve on the hook inside.
At the bottom of #436 is a clutter of report cards and permission forms that missed their lift home, and a copy of The Monthly Wootton Poetry Journal.
The aspiring writer has submitted dozens of her poems to the Journal, without a single response.
In an atypical fit of neatness, she scoops this mess of paper and slam-dunks it in a trash can.
While storing her beat-up backpack, she notices the locker floor panel is irregular. There’s a hole the size of a thumb, and a ray of light emanates from it.
Ruthie reaches down, crooks her index finger through, and tugs. The metal rectangle lurches a fraction.
Ripping it out with a vicious yank, she tumbles backward to the floor.
Scrambling to her feet, she peeps both ways along the hall, then into her locker. A puff of air makes her coat wobble.
Ruthie is certain—as certain as a high schooler can be about such things—that there in the gauzy glimmer below the actual bottom of her locker, she sees descending stone stairs.
Chapter 2: Chocolate Cake
Ruthie is not an incurious girl.
She is lithe of body, if not mind.
With no delay, like the consideration gap between hearing the words “chocolate” and “cake,” she re-dials her combination, ensuring it ends with the correct third number aligned.
She angles sideways and squishes herself into locker 436.
Grabbing the rear of the lock apparatus, she closes the door, plunging herself into near total darkness.
She edges her feet onto the top step.
The bell rings, giving students five minutes to go from 3rd to 4th period.
Ruthie listens, seeking any clue as to what lies below. A drum thumps, the air rustles.
Perhaps her metal cuboid is channeling the Wootton music room, the percussion class in session?
No, she realizes. It’s the beating of her heart and vibrating of her knees.
Her footing is firm. Ruthie stands atop the stairway.
She can turn back.
Chapter 3: Cho
Cho has a careworn face at fourteen years of age.
He lives in the Chinatown area of San Francisco and helps his father Sun, a doctor.
Sun had managed the Tung Wah Dispensary for one cherished year.
The Tung, however, had burned to the ground in a fire and now Sun must offer house calls.
He intends to rebuild what was the major healthcare destination for Asian refugees in The City by the Bay.
Sun and Cho were born in Fujian, a southeastern Chinese province known for its mountains and coastal cities. They’d emigrated to America when Cho was a baby.
The elder speaks passable English.
The younger is bilingual and serves as translator in the rare case when there’s a non-Chinese patient.
The boy would never miss a trip to see any patient, because their tiny home is crowded—think nine extended family members in 1,200 square feet.
On this Saturday afternoon, a railroad accident has injured several laborers.
Cho races to the closet off the kitchen for extra bandages and linen pads.
The boy fills his cloth sack, which otherwise has a handful of marbles in a pile at the bottom. Cho’s never played marbles, as much as he’s wanted to, but gives them out to sick kids.
Sun taps Cho’s shoulder and says in his soft, stilted Cantonese something to the effect of “Our chance has expired, son, these poor wretches have been irreversibly mauled by the ferocious equipment.”
The doctor goes outside to smoke his pipe and pace, as he would upon gloomy news of this type.
Cho shifts the kit back, forming a neat pyramid on the floor.
He’ll be idle until his father has another appointment or emergency.
While shutting the closet door he spies marbles that must have dropped, rolling into the corner, as orderly as a row of soldiers.
He grabs at the runaways, yet gravity has its inevitable way.
Each marble plummets through a crevice and disappears without a goodbye.
Cho flexes an eyebrow in surprise.
From outside: “Cho Lung Tho, we must prepare the stiff bodies.” Sun is an amateur mortician of sorts among his myriad other duties, and Cho his key and faithful assistant.
Off go father and son, side by side, to dress the dead and bring balm to the brokenhearted.
Chapter 4: Ali
Maybe the molecules in the air around Ali dance joyfully because of her radiant beauty?
Who’s to say? Molecules can’t be seen by the naked eye.
Ali can be seen by the naked eye, and the girls inevitably want to look like her, and the boys irrevocably want to look at her.
It’s good to be Ali.
It’s good to be Ali at Robert Frost High School in Edison Park, a tony suburb of Chicago, on Valentine’s Day (or the day before at Frost, as in 1998 it falls on a Saturday).
Robert Frost has the obligatory Student Government Association, aka the SGA.
Ali isn’t part of it; she’s not about clubs or sports.
The SGA makes Valentine’s Day quite the rigmarole at Frost—encouraging students to participate and selling relevant items from the school store.
There are cards to roses to chocolates, at a range of prices from $1 to $25.
The SGA encourages every student to give … and receive.
The carton for like and love notes must be “sufficiently narrow to fit in front of your locker, jutting out no more than twelve (12) inches.”
Ali has a sturdy carton at #436—two feet square.
It would not prove big enough.
It’s after school on Friday, February 13th.
The last bell had rung thirty minutes before; Ali had holed up in a bathroom stall.
The junior carries a vinyl bag her salesman father had brought home from a recent pharmaceuticals trade show, emblazoned “Merck Makes Meds 1998.”
She’s embarrassed at her haul when other students get a couple pitiful cards or choose not to even deploy what could prove a yawningly empty receptacle.
In addition to eleven assortments of chocolates, the 5’10”, amber brown-eyed, platinum blonde-haired Ali catalogs the following:
- A napkin holder made of pine wood.
- A chic sweater.
- A sombrero, with a message inscribed in cursive with copper thread.
- An origami flower with a placard complete with misspelling: “Alley Be Mine.”
All of this plus the chocolates go helter-skelter into the bag, except the sombrero Ali doesn’t want crushed.
What remains, 200-ish cards, is light enough to carry.
Ali seals the box by interleaving the flaps, shimmies her backpack over her shoulder and drops the pregnant vinyl bag on the floor of her locker—it’s too much to deal with today.
She karate-kicks the door.
A second before the bang of the locker door shutting, there’s a whooshing noise. It sounds like when Ali puts clothes in the hamper in her room at home, whereby they drop three floors to the first-floor laundry via a square tube behind the wall.
Hefting the ten score of unrequited sentiments, her lanky legs propel her to the parking lot, where her car awaits.
She’s as delighted as she allows herself to be.
Chapter 5: Ruthie Descends
Ruthie is not an incautious girl.
With her feet on the pinnacle of the rock stairs, she procrastinates.
She’ll miss History, but her “C” is solid in there.
The fifteen-year-old shuffles a step lower.
She lacks extra-curricular activities. Her aunt is home asleep. She has no new poem to write.
One hundred seventeen steps later she’s at the bottom of the narrow, bowling alley-straight, low-roofed passageway, which she notes is crumbling here and there, made of boulders in the gray-white spectrum.
There’s full-on light where she emerges through an arched opening.
Ruthie gasps and shields her closed eyes with no slivers of space between her fingers.