In which our heroes are given their (dis)orientation.
CHAPTER 4: MAGICAL MYSTERY BORE
Leaning over the tabletop and lowering his head to nearly eye-level with the tin tray in front of him, Jack inspected the assorted mushy substances piled on it with a critical eye and poked at them with a fork.
“Huh,” he said, the dim light filtering through the canvas of the long, wide tent casting even more of a shadow on his face. “Well, that’s disappointing. There goes my appetite.”
“Yeah,” said Danny, who was sitting next to him on the bench, as he went a bit green. “I might not actually eat any of that, if I were you.”
“How come?” asked the pretty brunette girl sitting on the other side of Jack, giving him a concerned look.
“Well, I looked at it, and I think something looked back.”
All the other new recruits within earshot at the lengthy table groaned in disgust as they pushed their own trays away. Others, their hunger getting the better of them, did their best to swallow at least some of the things before them without immediately throwing up.
“I guess it could be worse, though,” said Jack, offering a slight smile. “It could be raining. Right, guys?”
At that precise moment, what little sunlight was coming down from above them disappeared, and his eyes crossed as he felt a drop of water land on the tip of his nose.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
A crack of thunder sounded and the rain began to pour down from the tiny flock of black clouds that had materialized right above the table, drenching everyone as the boys swore and grumbled and the girls screamed, pulling napkins, jackets, and anything else within reach over their heads in a futile attempt to stay dry. As water slowly soaked into his hair, Danny looked up and glared at Jack, droplets dotting the lenses of his glasses.
“You just had to say it, didn’t you?”
Snickers and catcalls came from around the tent as campers at three other tables, two on the left and another on the right, pointed and laughed at the recruits, each wearing their own color blazers. A boy at the far end of Jack and Danny’s table groaned, his ears turning red with embarrassment.
“Sorry, guys. I think that’s me. I just can’t get it to go away.”
The rest of the new campers shook their heads and muttered under their breath.
“Yeah, you’re sorry, all right.”
“Thanks a lot, jerkwand.”
“This place stinks.”
“Hey, come on, guys,” said Jack, making them look toward him. “Let’s just chill out, okay? Besides, look at the bright side.” He pointed to the water that was now overflowing from his tray. “Now we have an excuse not to eat this crummy food.”
There was a general wave of laughter at that, and the rain began to slow and then stopped altogether, the clouds evaporating back into thin air. Danny blinked, unable to believe his eyes, and then wiped his glasses off on his napkin, nudging Jack with his elbow as he did so.
“Hey, Jack,” he whispered, giving his head a nod. “Check it out. Look at those banners over the other tables.”
“Huh?” asked Jack, turning away from what appeared to be a stirring conversation with the girl next to him. “The flags, you mean? What about them?”
“I think those are for the troops,” said Danny, replacing his glasses and gesturing toward the nearest one, a red and silver picture of a half-man, half-horse brandishing a spear hanging above the table filled with muscular scouts in familiar crimson blazers. “See that? That’s a centaur. You know, for Centaur Troop.”
“A what now?”
“A centaur. That’s what it’s called. All the troops are named after magical creatures. Don’t you ever read?”
“Not on purpose,” Jack said with a sigh. “Okay, man, fill me in. What’s with the other ones?”
Danny looked down to the Centaur table again, where he noticed Chad Fordman sitting at the head and giving him a deadly sidelong stare. Swallowing hard, he turned his attention to the next flag over: a green and gold one with a picture of a winged snake.
“That one over there is for Quetzal Troop, I bet,” he said, nodding toward it. “It’s a Mayan thing.”
“You sure are a fountain of fake knowledge, Danny,” said Jack, pointing at the banner over the table to the right. “What about that blue and purple one down there? The one with the cat thing?”
“That’s a sphinx,” said Danny. “It’s from Egypt. They’re half man and half lion, with wings, and they tell riddles to people.”
“Okay,” said Jack, giving him a bemused smile. “So it’s a cat that flies and tells jokes? Dude, I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing.”
“It is too,” Danny insisted, looking beyond Sphinx Troop to where a single, lonely table sat with its places all empty. A tattered and worn old banner hung above it, a drab yellow and brown affair featuring a rabbit with antlers. “And see that last one? That’s a—umm—okay, I’m stumped. What is that thing?”
“Duh,” said Jack, raising an eyebrow at him. “You don’t know? That’s a jackalope, Danny. Half rabbit, half deer. It’s in all the tourism brochures when you go out west.” Seeing Danny’s confused look, he gave an exasperated sigh. “Man, you need to get out more. Try reading a book or something for once.”
“Wait, but that’s what I said!” Danny exclaimed, frustrated, but further words died on his lips as his eyes drifted back over to the Sphinx table, populated mostly by uncomfortable-looking, scrawny scouts hunched over their trays and trying not to draw attention to themselves. He suddenly found himself locked with a steely gaze and brown eyes not entirely dissimilar from his own. The tall, good-looking boy at the head of the table, his wavy hair parted with a devil-may-care style and his troop jacket cleaned and pressed with pride, was watching him closely.
“Who’s that guy over there?” Jack spoke up, startling Danny enough to make him jump. “He hassle you or something?”
“Sort of,” Danny squeaked, sweating bullets. “It’s my brother. That’s Sam.”
“Really?” Jack asked, frowning as he looked from Sam to Danny and back to Sam again. “That’s your older brother? The troop leader?”
“Wow. Okay.” Jack considered for a moment. “You sure you weren’t, like, adopted or something?”
“Yeah. I wish.”
Seeming satisfied, or just bored, Sam returned to minding his own business as the doors of the mess tent squealed open on their rusty hinges, with Hasselberry stalking through from the outside and Crowley following on his heels. The scoutmaster surveyed the space with barely concealed contempt as he and his assistant passed between tables to take their positions at the makeshift podium hastily erected at the back of the tent. While Hasselberry wasted no time slouching into one of the ten empty chairs lined up behind the podium, Crowley tugged at his collar and gulped as he stepped up to speak.
“Attention, scouts,” he said, clearing his throat noisily and waving his arms to be noticed over the general hubbub of conversation. “Err—I said, attention. Now look, I want it quiet in here. Did you hear me? Quiet! I need some attention.”
Over at the Sphinx Troop table, Sam rolled his eyes and raised his own hand.
“Quiet,” he said, barely even raising his voice, and everyone else in the tent instantly fell silent, minus a few venomous glances from the resentful Centaurs and Quetzals.
“Right,” said Crowley awkwardly, giving Sam his own disapproving look. “Thank you, Mr. Falco. As most of you already know, I am Assistant Scoutmaster Regulus Crowley, and I would like to welcome you back to Camp Prospero. For those of you who don’t, well—umm—I wasn’t really talking to you, anyway.”
“Hey, you think those guys are our teachers?” a girl on the other side of the freshman table whispered.
“Well, whoever they are, they sure invited a lot of empty chairs,” Jack cracked, drawing snickers from the table and a suspicious frown from Crowley.
“Anyway,” he said, trying to get the discussion back on track, “I hope you all have enjoyed and appreciated our welcome banquet.”
“Yeah, I sure did,” Jack whispered to the rest of the table. “And just to show how much I appreciated it, I’m going to wait until I get outside to throw up.”
“And now,” said Crowley, desperate to ignore the restrained laughter of the new campers, “I’d like to move on to the moment I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. Once again, may I introduce the esteemed head of our camp, Scoutmaster Rudolph von Hasselberry.”
There was a smattering of lethargic applause as Hasselberry rose from his chair and took Crowley’s place at the podium, temporarily swallowing his pride.
“Thank you, Crowley,” he said, straightening his uniform and trying his best to appear in command. “Scouts of Camp Prospero, both new and old, I welcome you to yet another summer of magical education. And may I say what a horrific—I mean—what a terrific occasion it is. This camp is a historic and sacred institution: a rite of passage for all wizards from the irresponsibility and impulsiveness of boyhood, and girlhood, to the wisdom and maturity of men. And women. And everything in between. The government mandates that I be open-minded about these things.” He rolled his eyes. “As such, it must be preserved for all future generations.”
“For crying out loud,” Jack groaned, letting his head slump onto the table with an audible thump. “Someone wake me up when it’s over, okay?”
“As always,” Hasselberry continued, “let me express how grateful Crowley and I are for your bearing with us during these difficult times. I regret to inform you that due to last year’s unfortunate budget shortfalls at the Bureau of Magical Affairs, we had to let our last remaining full-time instructor go before the start of this term. Professor Finnigan was a good teacher, and he will be missed by all. However, let not your hearts be troubled. This just means that from now on, you will have the immensely pleasurable and highly educational company of either Crowley or myself to look forward to in each one of your assigned instructional periods.”
He smiled magnanimously, but it wilted as he saw no reaction from the scouts.
“Also,” he grumbled, “this of course means that said periods will be shorter, with more potential leisure time for all campers.”
Cheers and whistles erupted from around the tent as the scouts clapped and voiced their varying degrees of excitement at this turn of events. Hasselberry, meanwhile, gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the podium.
“Twerps,” he muttered. “In addition, I have a few housekeeping notes before we commence the troop assignments. Firstly, due in large part to last year’s—shall we say, disciplinary issues—access to the equipment shed and all other camp facilities will be on a case-by-case basis. Only scouts issued proper identification by myself or the assistant scoutmaster will be able to check out supplies, training wands, or other materials. Presentation of these papers to any superior officer on duty at said areas will be mandatory: I repeat, mandatory.”
“Wait, we need papers now?” asked Jack, looking up from between his arms. “What is this, Soviet Russia?”
“Nah,” a curly-haired boy across from him joked. “I bet even Soviet Russia had more class than this place.”
“Next, as some of you may already be aware,” Hasselberry droned, “the annual Scout Jamboree will be held at Camp Prospero this year, with many important officials and government representatives in attendance. Needless to say, much of this summer’s time will be spent preparing for this auspicious occasion. Each and every one of us must adhere strictly to all rules and regulations to keep this camp functioning like a well-oiled machine.”
“Oh, man,” Danny breathed. “That sounds important, huh?”
“Whatever,” the girl next to Jack griped. “It’s probably the same oil they didn’t drain from the tuna fish. Gross.”
“Yeah,” Jack grinned. “Didn’t anyone tell them they should do that every thousand miles?”
“And finally,” Hasselberry said with a grim tone, setting his jaw firmly, “a general note about conduct. It has come to my attention that certain parties who will remain nameless—”
He threw a meaningful glance toward the new recruits, who all abruptly canned their laughter, and then to the empty Jackalope table.
“—have been giving the rest of us, as well as this entire camp, a bad name due to their criminally lax discipline measures and their nonexistent work ethic. Let me be clear that this sort of behavior cannot, and will not, continue under my supervision. All of you scouts would do well to bear this in mind: if you play fair by me, you will no doubt find me to be a considerate, rather easy-going commander-in-chief.” He smiled a thin, warning smile. “But if you cross me, at any time, for any reason, you will find very quickly that underneath this charming, boyish exterior beats the heart of a relentless, sadistic maniac. And if you are not with me, then you are most certainly against me. Do you get me?”
“We get you, sir,” the scouts collectively mumbled.
“What was that?” Hasselberry snapped. “I didn’t hear you!”
“We get you, sir!” the scouts replied, shouting this time.
“Excellent,” said the scoutmaster, looking slightly more smug. “To all of our new recruits, please to do not be intimidated by my remarks. If you follow all camp rules to the letter and take heed of all the advice to be found in your standard-issue scout handbook, you’ll no doubt be fine. I am a strict man, but let it never be said that I am not a fair one. I look forward to meeting you all.”
He gave the audience a curt nod as Crowley got up to join him.
“Excellent, sir,” the assistant scoutmaster whispered. “As eloquent as always. You really have a way with words.”
“Shut up,” Hasselberry shot back, making a face. “Fortunately, I was able to restrain my gag reflex until after I finished that deplorable speech. Crowley, if I actually have to have a conversation with any of these peons that doesn’t start with me giving them orders and end with them saying, ‘yes, sir,’ I’ll make you regret the day you ever took this job.”
Crowley bit his thin lower lip, looking hurt.
“Was that before or after meeting you, sir?” he asked sulkily.
“Don’t get smart, Crowley. It doesn’t suit you. Now stop wasting time and hand out the troop assignments, or so help me, I’ll string you up from the flagpole by your dental floss.”
“Right away, sir,” Crowley said with a scowl, pulling out his wand and making a flourish while giving an arcane gesture with his other hand. There was a chorus of yelps from everyone at the recruits’ table as the new scouts clapped their hands to their foreheads and there was a searing sound like steak hitting a grill.
“You will now each receive your individual troop assignment,” Hasselberry lectured over the noise, as though nothing were out of the ordinary. “Once you know what your assignment is, you will report immediately to your troop’s commander for blazer fitting and indoctrination based on your aptitude test scores. Those of you with athletic experience will go to Centaur Troop. Those of you with proven background will go to Quetzal Troop. Those of you with marginally more brains than the others of you will go to Sphinx Troop. And none of the above—” He chuckled dryly. “Well, you get the idea.”
“Oww,” Danny moaned, massaging his forehead with his hand. “That stings. Jack, what do I do?”
“What, you’re asking me?” Jack chuckled, pushing his hat up high enough that Danny could clearly see the word JACKALOPE marked in big red letters on his forehead. “Dude, you’re the one with all the magic experience, remember? I don’t know squat.”
“Jack, you have ‘Jackalope’ written on your head.”
The other boy blinked.
“No I don’t.”
“Seriously, you do,” Danny insisted. “Look.” He gestured around at all the other recruits, who were busily chattering away among themselves, trying to figure out which of the four troop names had suddenly become tattooed on their person.
“Oh,” said Jack, raising his eyebrows as he momentarily tried to look up at his own forehead and failed. “Right. Okay, I’ll take your word for it. Let me see yours.”
But Danny didn’t move.
“I can’t,” he moaned, keeping his hand clamped over his head tightly. “Oh, God, I can’t do it. What if I end up in some lousy troop? Like Centaur, where everyone hates me? Or Sam’s? What if I’m not in the same one as you? You’re, like, my only friend here. I won’t make it without you.”
“Bro, calm down,” said Jack. “You’re going to give yourself a stroke or something. Just trust me. Everything’s going to fine. Now let me see.”
Up at the podium, Crowley turned to Hasselberry confidentially.
“If I may, sir,” he asked in a lowered voice as the senior scouts turned to make fun of the panic of the recruits, “surely there must be some more efficient and orderly way for troop selection to take place. We could simply give them letters, sir. Or at least burn it into the bottom of their trays or something. It would certainly make for a nice surprise. And promote the eating of the surplus food.”
“More efficient, yes,” Hasselberry mused, smirking. “More fun, no. Any opportunity I can get to watch them squirm is an opportunity worth taking, Crowley. A little public humiliation builds character, and it puts the troops in their place. All helped along by some well-chosen words from me, of course. Ah, social division. Such a useful tool for keeping the dimwitted in line.”
Back at the recruits’ table, Danny took a deep breath and slowly removed his hand from his forehead. Looking on, Jack’s face fell.
“Danny, I don’t know how to tell you this, but—”
“What is it?”
After an agonizing moment of silence, Jack’s grin jumped right back into play.
“You’re in Jackalope, too. You and me, buddy. Told you so.”
“Great,” said Danny, suddenly quite a bit less excited than he thought he would be. “That’s cool, I guess. But did you hear how the scoutmaster was talking about Jackalope Troop, though? It sounds like people here don’t like them a lot. Plus, where even are they, anyway? Their table’s empty.”
“Don’t know, man,” said Jack, unworried, as the red markings began to erase themselves from his forehead along with everyone else. “But I guess we’ll find out soon one way or the other, right? Don’t worry about what other people think. So what if half the people we’ve already met were total jerks? They can’t all be that way. Trust me, for things to get bad around here, we’d have to get somebody that was nasty, had lots of money, dresses badly, and was just seriously rotten. What are the chances of that happening?”
Just then, the door at the far end of the mess tent banged open once again, and all the scouts inside turned their heads as a cold, snarky voice spoke up.
“So, this is Camp Prospero, huh? Man, it’s even more pathetic than I thought it would be, and that’s saying something. I’m disappointed. I mean, come on. Canvas? That’s so low-rent.”
Seeing Danny’s accusing and anxious look, Jack sighed heavily.
“Damn,” he said. “I really have to stop saying stuff like that.”