The hallway stank of forgotten lunches and misery. At one end stood a tyrant, a young boy. He carved a drawing into a wall, his tool a box cutter. It was a terrible self-portrait. The cheeks were too chubby and the eyes lacked the hint of madness. Nearby smoldering plastic shoes burned, giving the air a hellish hue.
The tyrant stepped back, admiring his handiwork. All around him were discarded trash, broken furniture, and the whimpering bodies of boys and girls. They were lying on the ground trying to be quiet. The tyrant avoided stepping on one boy only to stumble on a helpless, weeping girl. She called out in shock.
Roberta hunched further into a ball. Her shins ached and an alarmingly purple bruise swelled on left shoulder. She had been pretty once. Her mother called her eyes the “the turquoise innocence of youth”. That had been before the war. Like many children, Roberta now wore the hollow mask of the damned.
“Ouch,” she wept.
Robert lifted a heavy black boot above her head. It smelled of rubber. She could see chewing gum wedged between its ridges. It was all she could see.
“Apologise!” he sneered.
The sneer from his voice reached out and slapped her. Roberta wasn’t sure how his voice could slap but somehow he’d managed it. His words hurt. No matter how much she calmed herself, a tightness in her chest told her that she would soon be wailing.
She stifled down the tightness. “Sorry, Robert” she whispered.
Removing the boot from above her head, Robert knelt down beside her. Robert was short and fat for his age. His long tubby fingers stroked her golden hair in thick, rough strokes. Robert pushed a pair discarded glasses onto her face. The adult black rimmed bifocals slipped. They were too large. She whimpered a little more.
“Shh, sweet Roberta,” he cooed. “It’s going to be over soon.”
“When, Robert, when?” she asked. It was no use now, a tremble started in the tips of her toes, kicking and screaming all the way up. It erupted in a long, slow, sobbing howl.
“When I defeat him! When I am KING!”
It had been the bloodiest war in recorded school history. Nobody knew who threw the first punch but eight years ago, Robert Mendez kicked, parried, and evaded his way across the football field, ultimately scoring an impossible goal in an unwinnable game.
Watching the ball hit the net, the crowd began their chant, “Robert, Robert, Robert”. Even after the game, they continued, naming almost all children after the famous football player. For Municipal School District #17, in a class of eighty-one students, all bar one were named Robert or Roberta.
Of course there were problems.
Miscommunication turned into friction, turned into scuffles, and soon there was war. In a world of Roberts and Robertas, what other outcome could there be? Abraham Adonis Ashley, the only child named in honour of his grandfather, tried to mediate peace. The task had fallen to him as the only non-Robert. Peace between two parties is difficult, between eighty is impossible.
On no particular day, for no particular reason, war broke out in what became known as The Battle for the Music Room. A secret cabal, called The True Robert(a)s, launched a surprise attack, capturing or disabling many of their fellow students.
Their manifesto was simple: THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE.
Secret cabals paved the way for uneasy alliances, attacks, counter-attacks, counter-counter-attacks, and counter-intelligence. These were no longer children and this was no ordinary war. Good and evil faded away until only two remained: Robert the Tyrant and Robert the Strong.
Roberta looked up at Robert The Tyrant. There was something in the way he stroked her hair. Even worse, there was something in the way he licked his lips. Was he going to eat her? Roberta stuffed down the wailing into the pit of her soul. It left a heat in her body but without the nerves. She wiped away her tears. “What happens when –”
“I WILL BE KING!”
“– Yes, Robert –,” she continued.
“– King Robert,” she persisted, this time uninterrupted. “what happens to me?”
A big, thick grubby tounge shot out. It lapped Robert’s lips revealing small splotches of wet, hairy spiders on the underside of his tongue. They were small and black and wiggled when he spoke. Roberta decided they were tongue hairs even though they blinked at her.
“QUEEN!” roared Robert.
Somewhere a clap of thunder boomed. All around them a coldness crept into the air. A wolf may have howled. Many of the children looked away, unable to bare the horror. Roberta looked deep into his eyes. Her skin goose bumped. As she choked back the disgust, she found herself preferring the war to this.
“Yes, my darling Queen. You will be the yin to my yang, the Cher to my Sonny…”
A small trail of drool on Robert’s chin dried but was soon replaced by another. Roberta smiled. She wasn’t sure if she was going mad herself, or simply desperate for Robert to stop his clichéd dialogue. Above them a hand punched through the ceiling.
“The blue to my cheese, the yin to my yang, oh wait, I’ve done that one…”
The hand retracted. Roberta stared up to see an eyeball staring through the hole. Their eyes met.
And then the cracks appeared.
First a thin crack, and then another, and another, and another, and then Robert the Strong came raining down in a dusty tumble of glory, right on top of Robert the Tyrant.
It had meant to be a surprise attack. Robert the Strong had wanted to descend from the ceiling like a badass Angel of Death. He had a battle cry planned and even a humble victory speech. It had almost gone to plan. Everything except the final blow. Also he probably should have taken the thin ceiling tiles into consideration.
“AAAAARGHHHHHH,” both boys screamed.
As their voices trailed away, their cuts and bruises too great to continue fighting, Roberta climbed to her feet. She dusted her dress and removed the ridiculously oversized glasses.
A sliver of sunlight caught her golden hair, blinding those around her in dazzling crown of gold.
“Yes, Queen Roberta. I like that very much,” she said.