This week I’m thinking about heroes and quests and fellowships. It’s a truism that the more loudly a friend proclaims their heroic nature, the less bravely they’ll weather the apocalypse. I’ve got a zombie apocalypse team, by the way, and so should you. But we’ll talk about that some other time.
I’m thinking about fellowships this week because Morgan and I are discussing Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring for an upcoming podcast and because I had a dream last night about my high school group of friends. My high school fellowship, if you will. Let me tell you a story. Please be aware that this story is peppered in inaccuracies because a dream inspired it and because that’s the way my mind works anyway.
Imagine seven(ish) kids between fifteen and seventeen. Imagine that we’re smart and funny and selfish and beautiful. That’s all true. We spend our high school days dancing, throwing fries at each other and indulging in the delicate intricacies of teenage relationships. We have study parties and mock the cheerleaders. We are those kids. In another world or another school maybe we would be losers, but we have each other and so we don’t give a fuck about anyone else. Our apathy makes us brave and strong; we all seem like little heroes.
But Boromir fell. Gandalf fell, too. Frodo got twisted. Sam’s pleas didn’t make a difference. Pippin pledged himself to an unworthy master. Merry didn’t know what was happening to his friend. Gimli couldn’t save his kin and Legolas was played by Orlando Bloom.
Aragorn abandoned his true love to wander in the wilderness.
No hero is perfect. Especially when that hero is a teenager. I don’t remember exactly what we are doing this particular night at Brittany’s house. We are probably eating something. There’s a chance we are arguing. There’s a chance we are planning to skinny-dip. Brittany’s dad, Papa Fiscus (who, by the way, is a real-life hero), is out of the house. We are almost certainly being loud.
Here’s the roll-call, if you’re the kind of person who can remember names: Mic, Morgan, Brittany, Sarah, Tyler, Blake and John. And Julie, who wasn’t there. And Phillip, who is absent. That’s our group, with a few additions here and there that didn’t weather our malcontent and priggishness and boredom.
The first we hear of the knocking and the scratching is around the side of the house. We are frightened already; someone has been telling stories. John is afraid of ghosts and does not approve, but the rest of us have spent a long time on apparitions. We have traveled hundreds of miles to visit haunted hotels, we have explored basements. We are adept hands at the Ouija Board. So when we hear that knock, we all look up. We all look scared.
Knocking on the house, especially along the sides where no one really goes, is not a good sign. It means something that doesn’t use a door. Sexual predators with hooks for hands. Tall, rank piles of ragged cloth. Something big with wings.
To understand how this went down, you need to understand a little about the group (The Group is what we called ourselves. You could hear the capitalization. It wasn’t a creative name but it fit and sometimes the shortest distance between two points is a straight name). Of the seven of us, Sarah is the most experienced in ghostliness and paranormal everything. Her mom is respectful of the dead and of magic and has instilled that plus a lot of knowledge in Sarah. She is our in-house expert on all things deceased, malevolent, shadowy and uncanny.
Tyler is the largest guy, Blake is the tallest. But they are different because Tyler has promised us multiple times, when we’ve driven ourselves into a panic all across a dark bedroom floor, that he will stand up and protect us all when we need it. Blake makes no promises, but just shrugs in the dark.
I secretly believed that both would protect me if something went down and my charm and my words and my mind had no effect. That was my only real defense as a teenager: personality.
John, terrified as he was of all things supernatural, didn’t even have to say anything. We knew he would run. And he has run, since. Off to LA to be famous and thin. But then, all of us have run somewhere since high school. We’re all around thirty now. We’ve escaped into drugs or marriage or Atlanta. Scholarship or sex or religion. One of us has already taken the final escape route. A clump is here in Austin, but we’ve all moved on from where we were into what we are.
Brittany is the princess of The Group. Her dad is our dad, her brother is our brother and her house is our house. She led us, I suppose, though any of us would have disagreed at the time. She is the Regina George but without the vapidity. She had a lime green Volkswagon Bug that we rode into the ground. And of course there is Morgan, who has always been strong and tough and who has always been okay with walking along the borders of things. This was the fellowship of heroes that we had collected from Jacksonville, Arkansas. We were bound together.
But on that night, when our couch-balancing and shit-talking was interrupted by the great beast rubbing against the house, it was like Elrond’s Council and suddenly everyone had different notions and different reasons to run.
Tyler books it faster than anyone. Damnit. Sarah follows right after. There goes our brawn and our esoteric brains. Brittany absolves herself of leadership, throws down her scepter and joins them in the pantry off the kitchen. John was already in there, trying to pick between Ramen flavors, so he doesn’t even have to run. Blake, my best friend, gives me a look that seems to say, “I’m nothing if not honest.” He walks (quickly) to join them.
Some things turn out just like you imagine they will. But most things are chaos theory, almost-hidden reasons and unforeseen complications.
It’s stupid, though, because that pantry doesn’t even have a real door. It won’t keep anything out; it isn’t sacred. It doesn’t contain weapons, except maybe cans of pop and green beans. But with five people squeezed in there you don’t even have room to wheel your arms and throw. So the majority of our fellowship is now helpless and shrieking in a small closet full of food.
And I’ll be honest with you: if there had been room in the pantry for me, I would have tried to hide, too. I will only survive the apocalypse if I’ve got a team. I mean it, I’m serious. I’m aware.
But the pantry is full.
Morgan and I look at each other, alone together as we often are. The knocking sounds like it’s everywhere now, echoing through the house. Disembodied hands tapping on every window. Our friends are trying to be quiet (they are giggling) and are searching fruitlessly for a hidden door that perhaps will lead to a vault or a safe room beneath the house. There is real fear in this house, tickling the very edges of our minds. But our friends can’t truly be afraid yet, surrounded as they are by junk food and childhood innocence. They can’t be afraid like me and Morgan, who were too slow or too brave and are left shivering together on the edges of the sanctuary.
The knocking becomes a pounding on the door that rattles the glass. The front hallway stretches before us like a steep descent and we can see a shadow moving beyond the panes. There is a knocking, too, from the back door. There is a knocking in our chests. We clutch each other and breathe in sync for a moment and then we begin to take steps toward our doom. We are too scared to be proud that, of all of us, we are the heroes who face the demon.
Our large fellowship is temporarily broken. Our friends are as quiet as dead things.
But then we are all just pissed and loud again because the demon turns out to be the Jacksonville police. Two officers, both of them unattractive, and a nosy neighbor who will go unnamed because she is her own punishment. She had called them because she saw us around the house and did not trust us and snooped enough with her burning eye to realize that Papa Fiscus wasn’t there.
The police quiet down, lower their eyebrows, and go away. Our friends peel themselves from the back wall of the pantry. We flip off the house next door and we hope she sees. We go back to whatever wonderful, stupid thing we were doing before heroics became a question. Morgan and I sit tall.