Sixteen by FourteenThis is a featured page

"It's a local custom. I assume American students have theirs."

"Oh yeah, of course."

"More dignified perhaps."

"Well, we have uh...pantry raids and stuffing sixteen kids into a telephone booth, things like that."

Inga and Napoleon from "The Deadly Smorgasbord Affair"

Sixteen by Fourteen.

The thin, wiry child strolled moodily down the street, squinting against the evening sunset as it spent the last of its yellow light on the high walls of stores and apartment buildings. He looked to be about thirteen, dressed in a threadbare, somewhat dull colored t-shirt and jeans that had frayed edges. His strong arms held his bag of schoolbooks tightly, almost as if they were precious.

He hated summer. Today had been the last day of school. Every child had swooped out of school laughing and whooping and pulling at each other’s stuff, eager for a season of freedom. But this particular young man, with his blonde hair in a strange pudding bowl haircut and his bright blue eyes glaring at the world, seemed anything but happy.

He was the son of Russian immigrants, a family lucky enough to get out of Russia before the war started. But here in America they had no farm, no forests to hunt in, no friends and relatives to fall back on in hard times.

Food was scarce, work was plentiful, and tempers were short among his dozen or so siblings. Of them all, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin, though he was the smallest, was the only one his family could afford to send to school.

He had the brains, or so his father said. So he went to school. Illya was sure it was the only way to climb out of the slums he was stuck in. He could just see the following two or three months: no school, lots of work, fights with bullies, and above all, precious time wasted. Stifling heat that would raise up terrible smells and irritable tempers, smothered over all by a terrible boredom. The monotonous life of the poor.

He sighed and swung the bag carefully, fondly looking forward to the fall again when he could reenter school. He turned a corner and suddenly found his eyes drawn magnetically to a creaking, rocking phone booth surrounded by children, teenagers from another and better class school, judging by their clothes. The girls wore shorter skirts in a more modern cut with blouses, while many of the boys had white jacket shirts on.

But that was barely a glancing detail in Illya’s mind as he watched in fascinated anxiety. They all seemed to be pushing and jamming each other into the poor phone booth, which was groaning at the joints. Faces and arms and backs were smeared on the inside glass, looking like some ghastly modern art image.

Comments flew far and wide in the surging mass, sprinkled with helpless giggles.

“Push! Move your arm!”

“I can’t! It…won’t…there! Got it!”

“Can you move your head a little?”

There was a scream. “GET OFF MY FOOT!”

“Sorry.”

“I wish Mom could see this.”

“Ooh no you don’t.”

“My dad would kill me. Here, let me crouch.”

“K…got it?”

“I can’t breathe!!”

“Alright,” a clear voice came, “if anyone’s claustrophobic, this is your LAST CHANCE to back out.”

A boy scrambled out, ripping off his two top buttons as he fell at the feet of the speaker, a dark haired boy with flashing brown eyes. The boy bent down and hauled him up. “Told you, Stephen.”

Stephen rolled his eyes and held his elbow that had gotten bashed. “When are YOU going in?”

“Are you kidding? If someone doesn’t control this, the things gonna fall over and someone’s gonna get hurt.” Napoleon grinned. He pointed at the kids. “Alright, boys on bottom, crouching. Stick your legs and arms into every crack! Girls on top…take off your high heels or you’ll put an eye out.”

Illya watched, open mouthed, as the children got higher and higher inside, filling it to the roof. Napoleon stood outside, bending forward only to help crack a limb into place, sometimes popping a knee or a shoulder. He stood back, hands on hips, gazing at his creation. “Whaddya think, Steve?”

“Super.” Stephen laughed.

“How many?”

Stephen went around, peering through the glass at the shrieking, muttering kids. “One two three…oh gosh, look at Jill’s face!” He laughed shortly before moving on. “Four five six…seven…those socks don’t match, must be two different guys. Eight…nine and ten…eleven…” he slowly lifted his gaze higher as he looked at the girls crushed against the roof. “twelve, thirteen!”

Napoleon winced and slapped a hand to his forehead. “That’s an unlucky number! Are you sure?” He came forward himself and looked around. “Wait! Isn’t that Bobby’s foot sticking out from behind Mike’s head?”

“What?” Stephen jogged around and squinted. “Hey, it is! And that means the arm over there is Tammy’s! Fourteen and fifteen!”

Napoleon got down on his knees and peered. “There’s still a pretty big space there…kinda big.”

“I can’t fit in it. And I’m not gonna try.”

“My chest is bigger than yours. I can’t.” Napoleon slapped the side of the booth and growled. “We can’t leave that space there. It’s inefficient.”

Stephen snorted. “We could fill it with schoolbooks.”

Napoleon suddenly caught sight of Illya, standing there watching. He quickly took stock of the Russian boy’s slight build. “Or him. Perfect!” He rushed forward and grabbed his arm, tugging him.

Out of pure reflex, Illya dropped his bag and brought his hand down in a chopping motion on Napoleon’s elbow. The American gave a howl and backed away, holding his throbbing arm.

“Hey!” Stephen cried, flinging himself forward on top of Illya. The boy was bigger and heavier. Illya fought like a wild cat, but Stephen managed to pin him. Illya spat Russian names at him.

Suddenly, surprisingly, Napoleon came to his rescue, pulling Stephen up. “Common, get off him. He’s just scared.”

“Who’s scared?” Illya snapped, rearing to a stand, eyes darting furtively at the school book bag behind Napoleon.

The dark haired boy’s face grew solemn as he looked carefully at the small, wild eyed teenager as he stood there, breathing hard, fists still clenched. Napoleon was good with people. He understood things. He could see that Illya was afraid, afraid of people. Not of being hurt, or rejected. He was afraid of being friendly with them, of smiling at them.

Napoleon saw Illya’s glance at the bag. He took a deep breath, bent over, and picked it up carefully. Hands open in peace, he held out the bag. “Sorry about that, I got excited. Wasn’t thinking.”

Illya looked at him; saw the compassion in his eyes. He feared and shied away from the compassion at the same time as he was grateful for it. He swallowed, feeling the blood pressure in his head go down. He unclenched his fists.

A few more moments. The thin, wiry, slight teenager in frayed jeans and t shirt, his blonde hair and blue eyes and his fear of love stared at the taller, broad chested teenager in inexpensive brown suit with black hair and brown eyes and his hunger for love. They met gazes, and slowly, Illya reached forward and took the bag.

He didn’t look away as he held the bag to himself. He studied Napoleon’s face carefully, taking in every detail. Napoleon did the same. Then, he suddenly broke into a slow, laughing grin that spread over his face.

It was infectious, like a ray of sunshine. Illya felt the corner of his mouth turn up in a small smile.

The moment was broken by calls from the booth.

“I can’t feel my legs!”

“I’m gonna be sick!”

“Not here you’re not!”

“GUUYS HURRY UP!”

Napoleon and Stephen twisted to look sharply. Napoleon turned to look at the Russian. “We’re trying to make history here. Do you still wanna help?”

Illya’s smile faded and he looked suspicious. “And get killed? What if I get crushed?”

“My friend, kids are indestructible.”

Stephen sniggered at Napoleon. “You should know.” He turned to Illya. “You would not believe the things he has survived. He accidently drank something from science class instead of his lunch juice. Everyone rushed him to the medical and all the girls were crying…”

Napoleon cuffed Stephen. “Quiet.”

“You must be crazy.” Illya stated in amazement.

“He is. It was his idea.” Stephen supplied cheerfully.

“Can you be quiet? Or I’lll stuff you in there, no matter how fat you are.” Napoleon turned back to Illya. “Look.” He went over and pointed into the space. “Just back in feet first, and then at least you can scream if things collapse.”

I must be crazy. Illya actually listened, encouraged rather than discouraged by the last remark. He got down and shuffled his feet inside. I am crazy. He wriggled in all the way and took a deep breath as Napoleon closed the door, crushing his mouth. He ended up kissing the glass. He saw Napoleon grin mischievously.

It was very hot and heavy and something sharp was poking into his arm. The sound of breathing and talking and moaning was deafening.

Napoleon elbowed Stephen and grinned. The other boy pulled out a camera and snapped a picture. Napoleon cupped his hands to his mouth and called, “Alright, NOW I AM GOING TO PUSH IT OVER.”

From the tightly jammed phone booth came a collective, desperate, muffled scream and a renewed flurry of movement. Napoleon and Stephen laughed. They intended to do nothing of the kind, just teasing. “Welcome to summer vacation, Naps.” Stephen laughed, shaking hands with Napoleon.

But suddenly, the phone booth rocked. It tilted. Horror and dismay paralyzed the faces of the two outside. As if in slow motion, the whole thing went over…

NS IK NS IK NS IK

**ten years later**

Napoleon sat at his desk, feet on the table, flipping through the large, clumsy notebook. Illya strolled in, pausing to thwack Napoleon’s shoe soles with the rolled up newspaper he was carrying. “That’s very bad manners, you know that?” He went over to his own desk against the other wall.

Napoleon didn’t answer, still engrossed in the book. After ten seconds, he unconsciously put his feet back up. Illya sighed. “You can’t just be polite to women, Napoleon.”

His banter still fell on deaf ears. Illya saw his friend smile obliviously at whatever he was reading. He looked down and wondered what would happen if he pulled the pin on Napoleon’s chair and had him fly backwards. He got up and went over, stepping loudly. “Ignorance is bliss, they say.”

“Oh yes, yes.” Napoleon trailed off. Suddenly he chuckled.

Quite sure that Napoleon still wasn’t listening, Illya leaned down to read over his shoulder. But instead of a girl’s face or two, he saw a photo. In the photo, a phone booth stood, with mangled limbs and faces of children packed tightly inside. People were staring from across the street. Illya’s face darkened. He pointed. “What’s this?”

Napoleon grinned, still gazing at the image. “One of the best days of my life. You should have seen it. It was the last day of school, ninth grade. I took some friends and we packed sixteen kids in a telephone booth. Can you believe it, sixteen!” He laughed. “Good times.”

“Indeed.” Illya growled. “What happened afterwards?”

“It fell over.” Napoleon laughed. He looked up and saw Illya wasn’t even showing the shade of a smile. “What?”

“Do you know where I got this?” Illya pulled up his sleeve suddenly, baring his wiry arm. There was a long red scar going up his elbow.

Napoleon had seen it before, but didn’t know the story behind it. It didn’t feel right to pry into each other’s scars. “No…” Things began to click in Napoleon’s mind, and his mouth stayed in the O shape as he watched Illya.

“When I was thirteen, in eighth grade, on the last day of school, I got into a phone booth with fifteen other children, and the thing fell over when the dark haired boy who was safely outside threatened to push it, causing those on top of me to panic. It fell over, and a shard of glass pierced my arm and cut a few other children as well.” Illya’s voice was dangerous.

Napoleon’s open mouth began to work as his eyebrows looked sad in stupefied realization. “That was you?”

“Oh yes, that was me.” Illya growled. He slapped the newspaper down and hauled Napoleon up by his collar.

Napoleon was completely incapable of fighting back because of several things. One, he realized that yet another misdeed from his past had caught up with him and he was about to be punished with it. Two, he went along meekly because he had a theatric instinct that enjoyed being dramatically hauled around by an angry Illya. Three, he wanted to see just how far the Russian would carry vengeance.

Illya knew all this, and, as far as he was concerned, it was just another game on a boring day. Napoleon’s next question, however, exposed some uncertainty. “Where are we going?”

Illya marched him down the grey steel corridors under the amused gazes of male and female agents and growled dangerously. “To find a telephone booth.”

FINIS.


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