Chapter One

Christopher took the last of the dirt road’s corners. So excited was he to see the road unfurl into a parking lot that he almost announced his arrival with manslaughter. Fortunately, his senses had been doused in adrenaline and his mind was alert enough to coordinate a swerve around the hunched figure who walked in the road.
 No more obstructions loomed in the vehicle’s immediate path. This allowed Christopher to survey the lot and its dense woodland border. A space in the far left corner, next to the only visible break in the trees, was free so he drifted towards it and, once there, killed the engine.
 He lowered the sun visor and considered his reflection in the mirror. Despite the cool, air-conditioned interior a bead of sweat had made its way from Christopher’s cropped hair onto his black-skinned forehead. He wiped it away and glanced out of the passenger-side mirror. The break in the trees marked the start of a footpath. A cluster of individuals and subdued families leaked out from it. Most shuffled through his mirror-scape in a daze. Reasonable: sadness and excitement often accompanied the baby bird’s first flight from the nest. He raked his eyes over the empty passenger seat next to him, thankful that his own goodbyes no longer lurked on the horizon.
 Christopher grabbed his phone and keys and exited the vehicle. He circled to the rear and opened the trunk. He donned his brown leather travel rucksack then threaded his coat through the twin straps of a brown leather duffel. He picked the duffel up with his right hand before he stepped back and, with his left hand, closed the trunk and locked the vehicle. Loaded like a mule, he rotated.
 Car doors opened and slammed shut. Engines sputtered into life. Christopher’s eyes went right and he located the teen he’d almost mowed down. The boy would be the same age—all the students were—but Christopher was surprised at his comparative smallness. Then again, Christopher’s own width, depth and height weren’t typical.
 The boy’s head turned neither left nor right as he walked. He focused on nought but his destination. This allowed Christopher to continue his examination. The boy’s t-shirt, pinned in place by the frayed chassis and straps of an overlarge, once-colourful hiking backpack, stuck to his pale white skin with the glue of perspiration. His limp black hair was splayed across his head and a film of moisture lay above his heavy eyebrows. The boy’s right hand trailed behind him. It clutched a battered suitcase impervious to the presence of the small stones that littered the lot.
 Christopher tracked his progress and, at the right moment, set off at an angle that would bring the two together. “The Barker Institute?” he asked, as the new couple entered the woodland’s maw.
 They met no one else as they walked and saw no alternative routes, aside from a series of old, overgrown tracks which veered into the undergrowth and promised to lead nowhere in particular.
 “Did your family drop you here?”
 “No. I got a train, a bus, and then a taxi.”
 The only prevalent noise was the turbulent skips of the wheeled suitcase. After the case plunged over a mini-precipice of earth and thumped to the ground, Christopher asked a third question.
 “What the hell is in that thing?”
 Christopher turned to his walking partner and met his grey-blue eyes.
 “You know there’s a library here, right? And don’t you have access to Alexandria? What d’you need dead trees for?”
 “I prefer them.” The boy faced forward once more and added another thought, more to himself than to Christopher. “They’d be burned if I left them at home.”
 Christopher avoided the obvious question.
 The boy eyed him before he responded. “The Mystical Properties of Fizzy Water.”
 Christopher, like every member of Barker’s online platform, knew much of the voluminous five-part trilogy.
 “Which one have you brought with you?”
 The boy smiled. “All of them.”
 Christopher chuckled. He reached his left hand across to offer a handshake.
 They walked on.
 “How late do you think we are?”
 George glanced at his watch. Christopher did too: worn leather straps, a face marred by a web of hairline fractures, a dented case, a still-sprite movement of the second hand. “About twenty minutes.”
 They rounded the final bend and came upon a clearing, larger than the parking lot. It contained an island of buildings surrounded by a hybrid sea of dirt and gravel, packed together by generations of man, beast and machine. At the island’s centre sat a recently renovated barn which had spread out and up. Instead of a hayloft door there was a bay window and below that was an entrance. Wide panes of glass repeated every several metres of the forward-facing ground floor wall. An equally renovated farmhouse occupied the right-hand of the barn. Multiple single-storey outbuildings extended from both the barn and the farmhouse towards the boys to form a loose semi-circle. The structures themselves exuded a certain stability, as if they’d been grown instead of built. Christopher turned to George.
 “Where do you think we have to go?”
 “Towards the woman who’s just come out of the barn, I expect.”
 The woman eyeballed them as they crossed the yard and drew nearer. When they were just a few feet away she consulted the tablet in her hands.
 “You must be Christopher and George.” Her eyes scoured the pair once more. “Glad you could make it. My name is Mary. Head inside and leave your bags with the others. Then we can all get started.”
 Mary opened the door and stepped aside. Christopher headed through, George in tow, and spied the suitcases piled in the hall. After they made their deposit Christopher turned, uncertain. Like an NPC in a roleplaying game Mary stood adjacent to a door and beckoned them onwards. Again, Christopher went first. The gazes of half of the forty or so people in the room assailed him.
 The room itself had four rows of six chairs in its centre. All but two of them were filled with other students. These final spaces were on the right side, one each at the end of the middle rows. Christopher hustled towards the forward-most chair. As he reached it and began to sit he noticed the girl in the neighbouring seat. Her skin was a soft brown-gold and her hair was long, black and loose. It draped over the shoulder nearest Christopher, pooled in her lap and created an inky pond. Christopher looked into her eyes; midnight with an obsidian shimmer. He managed a muffled greeting which was reciprocated with a smile.
 Christopher turned to the front. A man with a short, silver-flecked beard, prominent crow’s feet and a grin was perched atop a table: James Barker. Behind him was a white screen. After Christopher heard the door he had entered through close, James Barker slid off the table and onto his feet. Christopher was reminded of a crocodile slipping off a bank and into a river.
 “Welcome to the Barker Alternative Institute of Learning,” said James. “Or BAIL, as those who are stingy with their syllables like to call it.” James let the silence linger awhile. “You’re the first class of students to go through our in-person program. Congratulations. Details of the coming days and weeks will emerge soon enough, but for now you have one task: pay attention.”
 James’ energy departed. His smile faded and his eyes slid shut. After a pause the energy returned, more focused this time, concentrated via the point of a needle instead of a marker pen. Eyes open and body motionless, he began to hurl words at the students assembled before him.
 “I have to inform you of certain policies rules and responsibilities concerning the duty of care we have towards you I also have an obligation to inform you of our own expectations regarding your conduct as well as the agreements you’ve signed in advance of attendance at BAIL we won’t kick you out of BAIL for not conforming to these policies but your fellow students may be a little annoyed at the forfeits your laziness or lack of adherence provokes so listen to what I’m saying”—the screen behind James lit up and ten lines of text appeared—“there are one hundred documents in total you need to be aware of we only need to review ten right now as these are the ones considered critical you’ll receive copies shortly and you need to confirm that you’ve read them using standard authentication protocols the rest will be available in the student resources network folder you don’t need to authenticate these but you need to know where they are and what they contain we’ll get to that for now onto the first document”—the screen transitioned to a scanned text document—“this one has the evocative title of ‘Health and Safety Policy’ it states that…”
 Christopher often found talk of policies, rules and responsibilities boring but James delivered the information at such a velocity that if one’s attention wavered for a second then it would be lost for the next few minutes. Christopher let his attention slip only once in the forty-minute period.
 The tirade ended with the same rapidity with which it was delivered. After its conclusion, James paused and took a breath. His eyes went to the rear corner of the room.
 “Good enough?”
 The answer to the question wasn’t audible but it must have been positive because James winked in the same direction before he turned back to the students.
 “Now,” James said, “second task. Open the envelopes that were waiting on your chair.”
 Christopher froze, confused, then lifted his body from the chair. He fished out the envelope beneath his buttocks and attempted a subtle look left. The girl watched, amused.
 “I’m Alex,” she said, to the backdrop of envelopes being ripped open.
 He opened the A5 envelope, withdrew and unfolded the paper within and scanned the contents. Sandwiched between two bodies of text was a 2×2 table. Each section of the table contained one capitalised name at the top and six names beneath it.
 “You’ll see a few niceties,” said James, “followed by a description of which residence you’ll be staying in and who will be responsible for looking after you. Most of you don’t know who the individuals listed are. That’s okay. You’ll meet them soon enough.”
 Christopher glanced to the right of the room. Set perpendicularly to the twenty-four chairs in the centre were another two rows of ten seats. These were filled with adults whose only shared attribute was physical maturity.
 “Below,” continued James, “is a brief summary of your first few days. Mary will explain all that tomorrow. For now, we’re done. Students, collect your bags and meet your head of house in the yard. They’ll take you to your residence. You’ll then have some time to unpack before we all meet at the boathouse for dinner.”
 James slumped back onto the table’s edge and said nothing more. The students remained. None wanted to make the first move. The adults to the right rose and broke the stalemate. That uncorked the students from their seats.
 “Who are you with?” asked Christopher, as he shuffled with George towards the exit.
 “I’m with Linda.”
 Christopher double-checked the location of his own name as they walked. “Me too.”
 “And me,” said Alex, from behind them both.
 Christopher half-turned, slowed a little and made the introduction. “George-Alex-Alex-George.” An uncomfortable smile passed across George’s face.
 The trio exited the room, collected their bags and made their way outside. In the twilight, the resident professors had arranged themselves into a square. Christopher glanced back at the paper in his hand. His name was in the top-left quadrant. He looked back up. Furthest back on the left was a middle-aged woman with oriental features. Her smile was bright. Her hair was dark, shoulder-length and parted to one side. She wore jeans, with a navy jacket over a light blouse. Christopher headed towards her.
 In response she offered her hand. Christopher took it, as did George and Alex. Three more students arrived and the introductory process was repeated before Linda said, “How about we get going?” The question was rhetorical.
 They were the first group to move away from the complex and retread the earlier path. Linda informed them, as they walked, of the multiple paths which lead to the residences, the lakeside and the boathouse. “The land BAIL is at the centre of contains a maze of tracks, trails and roads. The main arteries are the one you all came in on and the service road which cuts right to the rear of the barn itself. We’ve created a map of the major trails for you, but there are more, uncharted.”
 After several minutes of walking and a turn or two, the group came upon another clearing. This one contained two rows of buildings: four two-storey houses and behind that a series of bungalows, positioned at right angles to the houses.
 Linda led them to the furthest house on the right. Its front door, like all the others, was raised up and sheltered by a porch. Linda took the steps and pulled out a key from her jacket pocket. She slid it into the lock, popped the door, stepped back and encouraged them to enter. Christopher entered second, and with his new housemates, he huddled just inside the door. Linda followed them in and closed the door behind her.
 There were stairs in front of them. To the right and to the left were doorless arches. Linda directed them through the right-hand arch.
 “A half-hour or so to settle here,” she said, “then we meet at the boathouse, lakeside. Remember, the simplest way to get there is to head back down the path we walked and take the first fork on the right. Happy?” A short girl with long brown hair tried to say something but Linda continued on. “Good. See you shortly.”
 Linda exited. The door swung shut. The six students of BAIL stood still as the vibrations from the door’s closing faded. They were in a rough circle, adjacent to a three-seater sofa, a two-seater sofa and a couple of armchairs, all of the same dark canvas. Another arch led to a kitchen at the rear. A boy with messy blonde hair wondered towards it. Alex and the two other girls drifted back towards the front door and through the opposite arch. This left Christopher and George alone.
 “Rooms?” asked Christopher.
 George shrugged his assent.
 They wrangled their bags and headed up the stairs. At the head of the stairs was a bathroom. To its left and its right were doors propped opened to reveal bedrooms. George chose to go left. Christopher followed, but only after he’d darted right and peaked around the opposite corner.
 The second storey was symmetrical, an upside-down U. The left of the U began with another bathroom and ended with two bedrooms. Christopher poked his head in each of the bathrooms and bedrooms as they went. Simple content, similar sizes. George took the room at the end of the left-hand wing. Christopher took the one next to it.
 Christopher dumped his bags on his bed. He removed a few things then gave up. He left the rest untouched and headed next door. George didn’t unpack so much as prepare to unpack. He removed small pouches from within his bags and laid them out on his bed in what Christopher guessed was a predetermined order. George worked fast but laid each part down with care. Christopher observed from the doorway for a few seconds, envious and curious of George’s orderliness.
 “I’ll wait downstairs,” said Christopher.
 George’s head jerked up as if he’d been accosted in the midst of a profane ritual. The tension drained after a pause. “Okay.”
 Christopher was true to his word and walked a clockwise circuit of the bottom floor whilst everyone else chose rooms and faffed. He began at the foot of the stairs and went through the arch into the dining room. He moved past the eight-seater table and through another arch. This one led to a kitchen that ran two-thirds of the length of the back of the house. The other third was a utility room that contained a washing machine and dryer, as well as other household amenities. He continued the circuit and went from the kitchen back into the living room and to the foot of the stairs. He completed the loop a few more times, and his speed increased in tandem with the pace of his thoughts. His housemates reemerged during his fourth loop, ready to depart.
 In step with George and five feet behind Alex and the others, Christopher headed away from the residence. The track that led to the boathouse was the same as the one they’d walked previously—mostly narrow and dim in the remnants of the day. After a few minutes, the train—which also contained students from the other residences—exited the track and came upon a lake.
 The lake’s opposite bank wasn’t visible but as Christopher looked to the right he could just spy the curve of its shore. He guessed that it was half a mile or so in diameter. His view left was obstructed by a long, single storey wooden building which he presumed was the boathouse. The interior lights of the boathouse stood as a shield against the threat of night. Moth-like, the students made their way towards it.
 The door opened. Music and chatter tumbled out, Christopher went in. Opposite the door was a stone fireplace, complete with kindling but in need of attention. Multiple wooden tables and cushioned chairs were strewn about the room, mixed with the odd sofa and armchair. The staff were in conversation and distributed in the space. On the far-left was an interior hatch set into a partition wall. It formed a portal into a kitchen of admirable capacity. There were three people within. They shuffled about and prepared, based on the smells entering Christopher’s nostrils, a feast.
 The students poured in and the professors and staff began to quiet down. Christopher wasn’t the only one who was unsure what to do. James took the lead.
 “Welcome back and don’t act so nervous. Help yourself to the food and drink; talk to each other; ask the professors and the staff questions; sit or stand as you like; and most important of all, make sure you say thank you to the people who prepared dinner for us.”
 James turned. He doffed an imaginary hat to the three in the kitchen before he wandered over to a staff member and started a conversation.
 The scents that entered Christopher’s nostrils teamed up with the agents of Christopher’s stomach to remind him how hungry he was. He had driven non-stop and needed sustenance. He threaded his way through students and staff alike, greeting as he went. Christopher selected a bit of everything from the buffet, with a pronounced bias for meat and vegetables. He collected cutlery and a napkin and turned back to the room. More concerned with his hunger than investment in rapport, Christopher headed towards an unoccupied table off to the side of the room. He sat with his back to the wall. Moments later, George joined him. Neither spoke, both ate. They managed a few mouthfuls in the absence of talk before Alex also joined them. Her plate was half as full as George’s and sparse compared to Christopher’s. She looked from Christopher to George and back again.
 Christopher declined to answer as he was busy masticating. George, who had ceased eating once Alex arrived, responded instead.
 “No weirder than I expected. You?”
 Alex paused for thought. “We all know Barker’s a maniac. What I’m wondering is whether the other professors would beat him in a contest for a place at an asylum.”
 Christopher laughed, looked over Alex’s shoulder and then began to cough. Linda hovered there, her face severe. She sat down on Alex’s left, wine glass in hand. Christopher gulped.
 Happy that she had successfully spooked the trio, Linda let slip her mask of severity. “Put James in an asylum and you’d never get him out. He’d have too much fun toying with the inmates and staff. Yes, James is mad. We are too but we manage to hide that fact.” Linda twisted in her seat and swirled the contents of her glass. “See the tall man there, with the blonde hair? And the woman next to him: blonde, tall and elegant in equal measure? That’s the Bard twins. Exuberant, kind, a touch odd too—I’ve known them for a long time, so I can say that.”
 “That can’t be their real name,” said George.
 “Short story,” said Linda. She turned back to them. “They’ll tell it with glee, given the opportunity.”
 “How do you know them?” asked Alex.
 “I used to work on Wall Street, managing funds. That’s how I met them. I’m still in finance but I don’t work on a scale anywhere close to what I used to. To be honest, the whole culture began to sicken me. I’m better off now: I manage the Bard’s estate for them. Theirs is a family I know and trust and we have a good relationship.” She took a sip of wine and swilled it before swallowing. “When James pinged me about the possibility of teaching here he told me who else he was looking for. That included someone well versed in the narrative arts. I recommended them.” Linda turned to the room once more and fixed her eyes on the pair. “Their whole life has been one great immersion in tragedy, comedy and the many things in between.” Linda’s eyebrows shot up in recognition. She put her glass down. “Another born performer.” Linda raised her hand and called out. “Arty. Come and say hi.”
 Christopher watched a tall, spaghetti-limbed male acknowledge the call and approach. He wore sandals, baggy trousers and an ill-fitted t-shirt. His hair was unkempt and undulated between shoulder- and ear-length as it circled his skull. He straddled the chair on the right-side of Alex and addressed Linda, his eyes narrow and voice quiet.
 “How much do they know?”
 “About what?”
 “About everything.”
 “Not enough,” replied Linda, flashing a smile at the three of them. “I have told them you’re a born performer, though.”
 Arty wagged a finger in Linda’s face. “Half-truth. Linda is referring to my family—both my parents were circus artists, true, but it doesn’t mean that I’m drawn to the spotlight.” Arty hid his mouth behind his hand and lowered his voice to little more than a whisper. “She’s confusing a lack of self-consciousness with a need for attention.”
 Linda stood and made her way behind Arty. She rested a hand on his head and patted a few times. “My mistake.” She turned to the three of them. “Better do the rounds.” She gave Arty’s head a soft shove.
 Christopher, done with food for the moment, followed Linda as she walked away and made a scalpel-like incision into another group’s conversation. Until now, BAIL’s curriculum had remained a mystery. Christopher knew that there were five core classes plus a selection of other lectures. Linda’s course must have something to do with finance. The Bards teach something about “narrative”. The others?
 “What was it like growing up in the circus?” asked George.
 Christopher refocused on Arty.
 “We were always on the road. But most of the other artists had a partner at home looking after the family. Someone outside of the troupe. A tether to reality. Both my parents were performers and because I was their only child I stayed with them wherever they went. I had tutors instead of a school, aunts and uncles instead of friends, a van instead of a home, and a circus instead of a hometown. Everyone was always performing, or practicing, or preparing, or resting and recovering. Or partying.” Arty breathed in and out. “It was incredible, but lonely too.”
 Christopher turned his thoughts from his future to his past, to his own upbringing, his own parents. Always present, always content, always composed. They encouraged Christopher to ask questions, make decisions and take responsibility for his actions. He’d spent most of his life in the same place with the same people and, upon reflection, it had woven within him a stability that showed no sign of departure. Arty had something similar, but it appeared that Arty’s stability came from a developed tolerance for unceasing motion. Christopher tried to assemble these thoughts into words but Arty continued before he could finish.
 “I’m grateful though. I got to wander and wonder. To spend time with some amazing people. I got to watch them, learn from them, imitate them. All I do now—the movement practice, the exploration—comes from that mix of solitude and community.”
 “Bet you didn’t think that at the time, though,” said George.
 “Nope,” said Arty with a shrug. “This will come up in the movement class. It’s a central part of what we’ll be learning about, after all. But right now I have a question: want to play a game?”
 “What is it?” asked George.
 “Only yes or no” said Arty.
 Christopher turned to George, who showed less than zero interest. He transferred his gaze to Alex.
 “Yes,” she said, and she dared Christopher with a smile.
 “Yes,” said Christopher in response.
 They all turned to George. He scowled.
 “I guess… Yes.”
 A joyous grin rolled across Arty’s face and once it had achieved domination he propelled himself upwards. He turned on the spot and clapped his hands until silence reigned and he had the room’s attention.
 “Game time.” Most were too surprised to respond. “Who’s in?” Arty walked around the room and pointed at everyone until they answered. “Players assemble in the centre of the room. The rest of you? Surround them.”
 Tables and chairs were dragged clear and the players formed up. Arty explained.
 “Game one of three. First, I need you to pair off.” A few seconds of shuffling followed. Six pairs were made, and James, who had agreed to play without hesitation, was left partner-less. “James, you can help me judge. The game’s simple. Two people stand a foot away from each other. They look into each other’s eyes. Hands stay at their side. The aim? Take the other person’s hat.” Arty neither held nor wore any hats. “Players cannot leap away, or lean back, or fend off an attempt with their arms, or feint. Doing so is an automatic loss, and we’re going to be playing a one-off match. Sudden death.”
 Arty walked out of the circle and approached the kitchen hatch. The caterers, who had watched with amusement, surrendered two of their three white hats without a word. Arty walked back into the group and placed the hats atop a pair’s heads. This done, Arty motioned the non-players to close up and cinch the pair together. He gestured for James to stand perpendicular to the pair, opposite himself.
 “Meet one another’s eyes—good. Hands relaxed, yes. When I clap, begin!”
 Unease built within Christopher after the clap. The pair—a girl and boy he hadn’t yet met—struggled even to look at one another. The crowd’s murmurs died with Arty’s clap and the pair’s discomfort swelled in the void that followed. No one said a word. No one swayed or dared shift their weight. After two minutes of horrific silence one of the pair, the smallish girl, reached for the other’s hat, embarrassed at the temerity of such an act. She paused, hand atop her partner’s head, as if to remove the hat was to take a foot off a primed landmine. Eventually, she brought it down to her side and turned to the crowd around her. Applause and laughter bubbled up, lead by Arty.
 After that, each round became faster. Christopher went second and took his opponent’s hat after a half-minute eternity. George went fourth and took his opponent’s hat a heartbeat after the commencement clap. Alex went last and lost hers before she could take another breath.
 The sixth round was over and half the players were eliminated. Christopher, George, two female students, a male student and a staff member remained.
 Arty stepped in, said, “Stage two. Everyone, follow me next door,” and left.
 Christopher wasn’t the only to pause before he followed—next door? Arty went outside, turned left towards the lake’s shore and went around the back of the boathouse. A smaller building was nested to the rear, with doors that opened up the majority of its lake-facing wall. It became obvious why.
 Stacked on the walls were canoes, paddles and life jackets, as well as an assortment of other objects suited to lake-side leisure. Arty ignored all of that and went to a fold-up, wheeled table tennis table jammed in a corner. He moved it into the centre of the room and opened it up. This building was small and the unfolded table made it smaller: the crowd clumped together. Arty motioned for someone to open a cabinet and procure bats, a ball and net.
 “This game is simple,” he said whilst he strung up the net. “Around the clock. Hit the ball and move counter-clockwise to the other side of the table.” He handed out the bats to the players that remained. Christopher spun his bat in his hand as Arty talked. “Everyone gets three lives. We’ll have one practice round.” Arty turned to the non-players squished into the room. “If you could provide us an appropriate beat…”
 With six players lazy movement proved enough to circle the table and make a shot, but as the game progressed each player became more competitive and less generous, hitting shots low and hard instead of high and soft. Soon, the first person—the male staff member—lost all their lives and was eliminated. With five players left, the intensity upped and lives were lost en masse. George and Christopher were the next to reach zero lives.
 Christopher made his shot and hustled around the table’s corner and down its length. Christopher’s stroke was returned by another player and the female student now opposite him had to stretch to make her own shot. The result? The ball looped upwards, came back down and bounced to the sky. Christopher had time to see George scramble. He collected himself and exaggerated the angle of his body, as if he intended to hit it left. After the ball reached its apex and began to descend, Christopher pummelled it overhand, shallow and to the right. George was unable to cease his momentum nor parry the ball that flew towards his centre of mass, sprung up and struck him in the forehead.
 George’s skull sapped the energy from the ball and it reversed direction. The clapped beat of the crowd stopped. The ball fell and tapped a few times on the table. George, red in the face from either exertion or embarrassment, suffocated the ball with his left hand. He put his bat down beside it.
 “I’m out,” he said, and he melted into the crowd.
 Arty stepped forward, cleared the bat and spoke.
 “The six is now four. Final game. It’s still around the clock. The difference is that with every stroke must come a word that continues a story. Each of you will have five lives, and a life is lost when a word is not offered or doesn’t make sense. A life is also lost if you hit a shot that another player is unable to return. If you’re too good we’ll bring the crowd in. Clear?”
 Christopher nodded, as did the other players. Arty tossed him the ball and Christopher fumbled it. He bent over and plucked it from the ground then shook his head in an attempt to regain focus. The other three players took their positions around the table. Christopher flicked the ball into the air, cut across it with a back-handed stroke and began the story.

Hitler, My Hero: A Novel by Matthew Sweet
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