Seward Nebraska, August 21st 2016.
The search had been long, far longer than it expected. Too long; there were no suitable hosts, and no more places to hole up in. It was – he was - tired was the word. Tired and low on energy, almost drained of the essence it so loved; one could only feed on the ambient energies so long, even with so much of it released by humans every moment. He deplored the waste, the excess lost to time and inefficiency. He was aware of growth, and the irony of his; he had grown too large to be controlled, and that same growth caused by what he wanted most made it difficult beyond belief to find what he needed most.
Wait. There! A host... though not perfect, the hollow was still too small to accommodate him completely, there was something more there. A twist, a way to increase the space provided to provide a more comfortable fit, and another twist to make sure the host wouldn't be able to resist him completely. He moved in, squeezing uncomfortably in order to fit, and shattered the barrier to start the process.
I was finally going. The graduation ceremony, the boring summer, that final summer with childhood friends that seemed the stereotypical subject of bad movies Hollywood churned out with forgettable slasher villains that existed only in an attempt to shock the senses, that was all behind me now. I wouldn't trade it for the world, but it was finally time to move on to bigger and better things... and bigger and better parties.
The headache hit just as I got into my poor abused relic of the ancient past Chevy nova; it was as sudden as it was unexpected; I didn't get migraines, but this was like a hammer to the head, washing out and blending the colors of the world into some swimmy kaleidoscopic white. I was on the ground, moaning, but I couldn't hear it.
“Robert, are you alright?!?” Mom was there; right, she and dad were saying goodbye to their last child, no doubt glad to finally have that empty nest. Mom actually sounded more interested now than at any time in our recent history.
Maybe because if I was actually sick, then I might have to stay. But I wasn't about to have that happen, not when I was finally getting away from it all; I'd walk barefoot through hot coals.
“Yeah, I'm fine Mom. Just had a momentary headache for some reason. It was really weird, maybe some sinus thing.”
“Oh, well, come back inside and get some aspirin. You have five minutes, don't you?”
“Sure, Mom.” Technically I had about a week before I had to be at college, but I really didn't want to stay any longer than I had to.
Judging by the look on Dad's face, he seemed equally thrilled by the prospect. I wasn't sure what he intended to do once I was gone, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to know. Mom led the way to the bathroom (as if I didn't know it) and I found myself staring at the aspirin in the medicine cabinet – it was right next to the viagra. Now I really didn't want to know anything more, like say the expiration date indicating the prescription was old that I most definitely could not see from here.
I downed two of the aspirin (dry of course, I wasn't a wimp) and strode out, trying desperately not to see or think about any more. The sudden spike of blinding nauseating pain had subsided to a dull easily manageable ache.
By the time we walked back to my car I was reasonably confident I could even listen to the music I wanted to, at the volume I wanted to for the trip.
“Alright, sorry about that Mom, Dad. Enjoy your day, and I'm off.”
My parents had long since decided they weren't going to actually see me off at college itself, and help me unpack and all that jazz other parents did; after six times and all the things, that could go wrong, going wrong, they were understandably sick of it.
This time one of the Russel clan had a secret weapon, though; I had already confirmed everything, from the dorm where I'd be staying to my classes to the parking garage I would need to park my car at to avoid some rather pesky fees. Even my job, as a stocker for a bookstore (but not the campus bookstore, I checked) was confirmed. Twice. I started the job tomorrow and started college in six days. I was even going early to acclimate and learn the campus.
Even though the college of choice was a mere half-hour away, I wasn't about to come back here to do my laundry or steal food like Uriah had. Well, still does, to be honest, for all that he's supposed to be a grown man. He was supposed to have graduated last spring, yet he still had last minute classes he was hitting our parents up for.
I had a scholarship, an almost totally free ride. With the bookstore job, it should be enough – if I ate ramen exclusively for the next four years. I'd have the advantage of moral superiority when I saw him next if I could pull it off.
Of course, The chances were at least decent that I'd be able to see him on campus, for all that he was a senior living in another dorm. I could rub it in his face then; he had just missed a football scholarship and was now an agricultural sciences major. I, on the other hand, was a chemistry major from the start, and I'd probably have good prospects inventing the next generation of non-stick cookware or similar. Not exactly as exciting as football, but better than shoveling animal crap onto crops.
The traffic was light for all that it was close to lunch. Most people didn't go to Lincoln by way of Seward, and those that did were usually college kids, which I was too early for. I basked in the glow of proper planning and metal bands, pulling into my favorite burger joint off the highway right at noon. One large combo later I was at the residential parking in front of the Pound Hall Recreational fields, which happened to have tennis courts I hoped to see some girls playing at (they were empty for now).
Across the fields was my new home, Pound Hall, a dorm that was really more of an apartment complex for the amenities it offered. I'd have a roommate, and the bathrooms and showers were communal, but it had its own laundromat and refrigerators. I wasn't sure how the refrigerators worked, but it was nice to have the option. It also had cable and internet with wifi.
Of course, the modern college student had to have high-speed internet access, so that wasn't exactly unexpected. I was more excited by the tennis courts, actually. I didn't even play tennis.
I could already tell that crossing this field with all the crap I needed to move in with was going to be a chore – I could possibly park in front of the dorm to unload, but the net said the cops and transit authorities here were really strict, and I didn't want to start my college experience off with a forty dollar ticket for illegal parking.
Jayden Lovejoy was the 'Residence Director', which I think stood for building super. He was a buff black guy with frosted tips in his hair, a few inches shorter and a few years older than I was. Old enough to have graduated perhaps, but it was hard to tell for sure. He also wasn't anywhere around that I could see, which meant I couldn't tell him I was here. The door wasn't open, but the key card emulator app on my phone worked; the virtual card and number had been sent to me a few days ago as part of the welcome package.
That was fine, however, I could still text him that I'd arrived (so I did) and I already knew my room number. Good old 313, which at least wasn't the twelfth floor. The return text came back just as I reached the door, stating that Jayden was out getting lunch and the room wasn't locked. He also said to go right in, it'd be fine... so I did, ignoring the cameras in the halls.
The room was bare, with two extra long twin beds that looked to be a little on the cheap side but in good shape set on either side of the door, two desks that were clearly from Ikea with matching chairs set on the far walls, and the closets opposite the door. Each closet had a mirror on their doors. The room was painted a light gray and had dark blue carpeting that looked clean and plush enough to cuddle the feet.
The only problem now was unpacking... I had about ten boxes full of stuff, and while there was a thing... one of those moving dollies made of heavy gauge steel and bearing giant rubber tires, but I couldn't use it too far away, and it wouldn't traverse the field I had just crossed.
So I moved it out into the hall, just out of sight from the street, walked back across the field, and got my car. I really wanted to just drive the car there and throw all the boxes on the street, but there was no place to park. So a quick drink of the last of my mountain dew later, and I was carrying each box to the dolly in the hall by hand, one and two at a time. Then I stacked them and took the dolly up the elevator.
Since my roommate wasn't here, I took the left side. It didn't really matter, both sides were the same, but I was left handed. I was halfway done stashing box number three when Jayden knocked on the door I'd left open. I straightened up and we shook.
“Jayden Lovejoy, pleased to meet you. So... you need any help?”
“Nah, I'm good. Got everything up here at least, got sidetracked on taking the dolly down. Anyone need it?”
“Nope, you're the first. You can use it to take the boxes down, the dumpster is out back. Just put it back when you're done and yell if you need me. I'm going to be in my office until five.”
“Your office?” I asked. I hadn't seen one.
“Yeah, that's what I call my room, the first one as you come in the main entrance. I'm basically a super and do all the super jobs. Well, I don't fix things myself, I call the college maintenance department for that. But usually, if you have a problem or concern, you come find me there.”
He told me all this already, by text. “I don't think I'll need anything; just going to unpack and then walk around, get used to where things are.”
Jayden snapped his fingers. “Right, that reminds me. Here.”
He handed me a map of the building. “Everything is listed here, by floor, and the emergency exits are marked. Now I got to get downstairs, my lunch break is over.”
“Alright, thanks.” He left and I locked the door behind him.
Finishing up involved dumping all the other boxes on the bed. I could finish up later; for now, it was time to take a walk.
It was even hotter outside than it had been this morning; the humidity always made things crazy. It also seemed to sap the energy right out of a guy. It reminded me of the years spent detasseling corn as a kid; the weak or unprepared would drop like flies, to heat exhaustion, every year.
It took an hour of being blown around by the insanely hot breeze for it to sink in – I was free. I had a job and a crushing college workload, but aside from that, I could do what I wanted when I wanted to do it. I could go back into my room now and watch TV until I fell asleep, munching down Cheetos until my gray sheets were coated orange, and not a word would be said to me.
Not that I had Cheetos or anything, but it would be easy to pick up some kind of disposable dinner and crash.
I bypassed all the convenience stores and gas stations in favor of a good old-fashioned supermarket. Soup cups were a perfectly acceptable alternative to large family dinners, and even eating two, which seemed a must, would be cheaper than the deli chicken dinner that was also calling my name. They even came with their own crackers!
I was close to the bookstore, but I didn't want to go there before I had to. I could pick up my school books there second hand while working tomorrow, if they had them, and get that sweet ten percent discount.
Jayden was in the hallway by the door as I came back through.
“Anyone else show?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No man, you're the first. Well, the first of the newbies; some people do stay here year round. So, dinner?”
I swung the clear plastic bag so the six cups were more visible, and he grinned at the contents. “Yep. Figured I'd get started on that college life thing.”
“Alright well there is a microwave in the lounge behind me; you can use that if you don't have your own.”
“Thanks, that would be great.” Have their own microwave? Where the heck would they put it? The rooms were a bit tiny for two people already, I was going to have to wall mount my T.V. Jayden didn't follow me into the lounge, which looked more like a crappy breakroom at a nine to five job than anything, with it's faded light green paint and plastic plants.
I set two cups in, making sure they were free of foil, and waited. Three minutes was bullcrap.
My bag, two cooked cups, and a plastic spoon later (found in the upper cabinet since I had actually forgotten to buy any) I found myself back upstairs. Opening my door was a little dicey but I managed, and soon enough my loot was on my desk. I dug my TV out and hooked it up; I could always mount it tomorrow.
There was nothing on except the news, and nothing on the news except sensationalist garbage. I finally settled on the True Crime channel, which was doing a piece about some murderer in Africa; I kept my eyes steered away from the graphic pictures because, eating, but the story was interesting enough. It seemed no one had any clue he was a killer; all his neighbors and friends seemed to think he was just a normal average guy.
The next program wasn't any better. Neither was the next, so I switched the channel and found a horror movie; some monster thing. Since make believe monsters were better than the real thing any day, I watched the rest of that while unpacking.
And then it was time for bed. Not the most exciting day out on my own, but it would do.
New freedom also meant waking up at ten, almost two hours after I normally did. Even more odd since I went to bed earlier than my usual midnight, so I had more sleep in than ever in recent memory.
The good news was I didn't have anywhere I needed to be for at least another hour. A quick shower, some casual clothes, and I'd be good to report for work.
The showers were empty; I broke my old record of five minutes and twelve seconds. Dressing took less time too, then a brush through my hair a few times, and I was done. A thirty-second scrub of all my teeth, a quick wave to that handsome devil in the mirror, and I was done.
I picked up my old clothes, which I really shouldn't have slept in, and walked back through the empty corridors. I keyed the door, threw my clothes in a box, which should do nicely as a hamper. I'd managed to save enough time that I could almost walk to the bookstore... but I had a better idea. It was time to be early and brown nose to my new boss.
Jayden was nowhere in sight on the way out.
Twenty minutes later I was sure I'd made the right choice. Traffic was a bit awful, but walking I'd have had to have taken a roundabout route that might have taken too long. The bookstore, Bluestem books, was a small older brick building, painted blue and with a blue awning. There was precious little parking around the front, but the back had a few spots for employees, and I took the farthest empty one.
The back door was locked of course, but there was a keypad. I didn't know the combination, so I had to go around.
When I entered the front door the place was empty, save for the counter. And at that counter was one of the best reasons to ever go to college – a hot college girl. She was blonde, blue-eyed, and willowy. She also wore dark mascara to offset her nose ring, but all of that didn't matter.
She looked up from her reading material (a magazine) when the door opened. I walked over to her.
“Robert Russel, here to report for work.”
She glanced at the clock, then stated as deadpan as possible. “Good, you're early. Lucy Drennan.”
We shook. “Is that a problem?”
she sighed. “Yes, actually. It means the boss isn't here yet, so I have to show you the ropes or have you sit in a corner somewhere. Neither option really appeals, y'know?”
Well, nice attitude. “I guess? Sorry.”
She waved me off. “No problem I guess. Just pay attention; after today you'll be on your own and I don't want to fix any more mistakes than I have to. I hope you know Dewey?”
I did, in fact, know Dewey, at least a little, and I told her so.
“Good, forget it. The way the books work here is by category, then alphabetical order, so it's not unusual to see an 813 next to a 205. The boss's doing. It's all listed by floor plan on the computer up front, but when stocking it's hard to refer to that. Also, it's the only computer we have and it's used to ring up purchases, so there is a good chance it'll be busy when you need it.”
Over the next hour, I tried to keep up as she bombarded me with details; where to stock the fantasy and horror and cookbooks. All the shelves were marked by number and color code. Matching the genre to color should be easy. I just had to scan new arrivals in by bar code, stock them, and all done. I did a few while Lucy watched.
She corrected me once. “That's Romance, not horror, you idiot. Get it right.”
I looked at the book I was about to shelve. Looked pretty horrific to me; there was even a ghost on the cover. I shrugged and took it one shelf over, placing it in its new home. Lucy reached over, snagged it, and moved it a few books over, all while giving me a distinctly unfriendly look.
It was at that moment that the owner walked in; I recognized him from his website picture. He was as tall as I was but in much worse shape; that of a pear. His hair was beginning to turn silver at the temples, and his face was all jowl. Just in the walk across the floor, I worried about his health. Still, I bet he could pull off a mean Santa Claus.
He huffed his way over to us and stuck out a hand. “James Pollard.”
I shook it; he had a surprisingly firm grip. “Robert Russel, pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Call me James, please.” He insisted.
“Then Call me Rob.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “So what gives, James? You're a whole ten minutes early.”
“Well, I had a new hire due to come in today and I thought I'd show them the ropes and let you handle the customers.”
Lucy looked around the empty store; clearly emoting both scorn and disbelief with a look alone. She had talent; maybe she was a drama student?
“Hey, it's the thought that counts, right?” He asked plaintively.
I scratched the back of my head. “Well, I appreciate it, James, though I did arrive a bit earlier than even I expected.” Next time I'd know better.
James held out a set of keys. “You won't be expected to open, I know you've got classes in the day, but you will be expected to close. The paperwork is already done and submitted, so let me just walk you around and explain how we do things.”
Some of what he said was different than what Lucy, now firmly back behind the counter and reading her magazine, had told me... but I was pretty sure who wore the pants in this relationship already, so I'd follow Lucy's lead.
After a rather awkward hour in which he went over what to do, when, and why, James vanished into his office. Lucy and I sat behind the counter, being bored.
There were only two customers that entire day, both guys, both looking for college textbooks, and both hit on Lucy. She defended herself admirably with an unhealthy supply of sarcasm; I applauded her for it silently even as I cursed; she was probably taken or something.
It sucked being lonely.
The store closed late, at nine. I was expected to sweep up and clean a bit before I locked up, though Lucy explained if it was slow I could clean in advance and leave right at nine; otherwise, I was expected to stay until nine-thirty. I locked up and set the alarm code under Lucy's piercing gaze, and we both walked to our cars; I'd parked next to her Ford Focus by chance, which was a good thing, it let me escort her like a gentleman.
The lighting at night sucked; it probably wasn't safe for Lucy to be closing up alone, for all that she didn't seem to be nervous about it at all. She was probably carrying pepper spray or something, and if I spoke up I'd eat a face full.
I waited in my car and waved and she pulled past me; she didn't acknowledge it. Maybe she'd sensed my desperation or something; smelled it coiled around me like pungent garlic breath. Or maybe that was actually garlic breath, and I'd been breathing it at her this entire time. No, I was pretty sure I'd popped a mint earlier.
But I was smelling something, and it smelled almost... curdled? Yet dry. I hadn't smelled anything like it before.
It was probably just old alley stench or the sewer or something, though I guess with it being dry somehow the storm drain was more likely. I shrugged and pulled out.
The traffic was light at this time of night, something I was pretty sure wouldn't last. It was a college town, after all; there were more bars and dance clubs than churches. Once I was legal, in a few long years, I would go see what all the fuss was about; until then it was college parties and what my parents didn't know wouldn't hurt me.
The main entrance wasn't locked, but Jayden was nowhere to be seen. I wasn't sure how I felt about that; it looked like anyone could just walk in, waving at the cameras as they went by. I guess the rooms would still be safe enough no matter what kind of weirdo stalked the halls, but it felt odd to me.
There was a weirdo stalking the halls, as it turned out. Well, one other than me.
He was shorter than me, perhaps five and a half feet tall, and had less shoulder. He was also less tan but was wearing flannel. On the tail end of summer, wearing a red-checked flannel shirt with colors so bright it had to be new and the sleeves rolled up. Under that was a pair of jeans so old almost all color had been beaten out of them. The overall image was of someone trying to look outdoorsy and failing utterly.
He was also carrying a box that he seemed to be about to drop; I caught the far end before it could slide all the way out of his hands.
“Hey man. Moving in?” He shifted, getting a firmer grip, and I kept my end up. The box wasn't all that big, but it was heavy and unbalanced.
“Yeah, thanks. My rooms the one over there, with the open door.”
The door was ajar (I always loved that old joke) on room 214. I led the way to it. “Robert Russel.”
“Dan Krage. I'd shake hands, but we're both a little busy. Thanks, by the way.”
“Sure, we're almost neighbors, and what are almost neighbors for?” The name matched the one on the nameplate, so I wasn't helping a thief, or probably wasn't. If he was a thief he was the smoothest I'd ever seen. Not that I'd seen all that many.
His room was in the state mine was last night, with boxes stacked everywhere and crap thrown around randomly. He moved toward the desk and I followed, setting his end of the box down gingerly. I followed suit.
“Thanks. The gear in there is pretty delicate, and if it had hit the floor it might have broken.”
“No problem, but now you've got me curious. If you don't mind me asking, what do you have in there?”
Dan shrugged and grinned. “I don't mind, we're neighbors, after all. It's a microscope and some slides and petri dishes and things.”
I called bull. “Microscopes don't weigh that much.”
He reached in and carefully pulled it out. “This one does. Three-dimensional holographic electron microscope, portable version. Not as good as the desk versions, but more than accurate enough for me.”
I whistled. That was a few thousand he was holding. Maybe even more than that.
He set it carefully on the desk and started fishing slides out. “So what do you need that thing for? Biology?” It was more interesting than T.V.
“That's a thing?”
“That's a thing,” he assured me, an amount of huffiness in his voice. I shrugged; who was I to judge? I wanted my college major to be babes.
“Alright man. Or Dan, if I may call you Dan. I'm upstairs in 313, my names Russel. I'll let you get to unpacking, but you can call if you need anything.” I wrote my number on a side of one of his boxes with a borrowed sharpie.
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I'll take you up on it.”
“Sure.” I let myself out; I'd stay and help, but with all that crap in there, it was strictly a one occupant room, much as mine had been. When my own roommate showed up things were going to get hectic. I settled in for another night of television.
I woke up at 3am, turned the television off, and settled back into sleep; the stupid voices from the show were loud enough to startle me awake.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, with refreshing only slightly smoggy air and a clean breeze. This time I had plenty of time to go to work, so I didn't rush the shower and made oatmeal instead of just snagging breakfast bars. I was half tempted to get a sausage biscuit from somewhere, but that was money I hadn't budgeted, so I resisted.
Instead, I walked around the campus, familiarizing myself with where the classes were, where the best parking spots would be... and where the girls were.
There weren't that many around yet, but I approved of the selection so far. I didn't approach any, just soaked it all in. I hoped my older brother was right; Uriah wasn't often right about anything, or even someone you wanted to be right about anything, but he said most college girls were... uninhibited. That much, I wanted to believe.
I finished buying my books at one of my new rival bookstores, and then had nothing to do. I settled on pulling into a park and sitting face into the breeze, squinting into the bright sun and perusing my new books.
I felt a bit restless, like I should be doing something, but also a bit lethargic. It was a bit weird, a feeling I'd never felt before.
No one stopped into the park while I was there, or at least the part I'd stopped at.
I ended up being ten minutes early for work; Lucy was already ready to go; she left as I came out of the back with a nod and a wave. That seemed sort of rude, but what did I know? Maybe James allowed early shift changes. I was sure I'd want the extra ten minutes for my own shift, though; maybe Lucy wasn't as broke as I was, or had rich parents that hadn't had more kids than most Mormon polygamists did.
Mom always told me the lot of us cost a fortune.
I passed the completely uneventful day by filing books and reading the occasional passage out of one. There wasn't anything there to really hold my interest for long. I filed all the books that needed placing on the shelves out of sheer boredom; it was a great relief when I could start cleaning up, and an even greater relief when I could close up and brave the parking lot out back.
It was empty of anything except for my car, of course.
The drive back at ten was just as uneventful and boring as the shift at work had been. Jayden was at his post tonight though, which was good; I didn't have a key to the front door yet.
“Hey, Jayden. Good evening.”
“Good evening Rob. How goes?” He barely looked away from his television, “CSI: MCO” was on. At least he confirmed it was me.
“It goes boring, is how it goes. Say, what's the rules on keys to the front door? I'll be working this shift, and I want to make sure I'm not locked out.”
Jayden turned and looked at me. “It's all on keycard, Rob. Didn't you see the scanner?”
I hadn't. “Whoops.”
“Don't worry about it, it happens. The scanner is under the box on the outside. Some people miss it, is all. The door normally locks automatically at 11 in any case, so you should be fine. Unless of course, you get drunk, stay out late, and forget your card.”
Fat chance of that, unless I scored free beer; I didn't have the money to pay, even if my fake I.D. Was better than average.
I waved and walked up, Jayden was already focused on his show again.
I hadn't had dinner, yet I didn't really feel hungry; it happened occasionally. All that meant now was a big breakfast tomorrow and a bit of money saved. I settled in and turned on my own television; it was already tuned to another CSI spin-off; the perfect thing to fall asleep by.
There was a loud pounding on my door. I blinked in the dim light and rubbed my eyes. The pounding sounded again. Kicking maybe? I unlocked the door and twisted the knob, and was immediately shoved back.
“Thanks, man, I had my hands full and didn't want to set this crap down,” the large box with feet stopped to say before it slid past and threw itself on the empty bed with a loud rattle that probably could have woken the dead.
At the other end of the box, flexing and rubbing his arms with a wince, was a guy about my age. He was slightly taller than I was and maybe a bit better built and wore a football Letterman's jacket from Northwest (go huskies! - after all they kicked our butts more often than not). He had dark hair and brown eyes set in an oddly square but symmetrical face. I sort of recognized him, but no name came up from the depths of memory.
He stopped rubbing and his blocky mouth creased into a smile. “Matt Steinberg.”
I shook it. “Robert Russel.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah, I know. My parents were running out of ideas, and they just said screw it.”
“...Right, sure. Works for me. Say, can you help me with my stuff? Jayden said it was fine to park out front, but I don't want to risk getting towed forever.”
Well, that sounded kind of ominous, but I had time. “Sure.”
Turns out it was as ominous as it sounded. Matt's car was a mustang, a few years old. And it was filled to the brim with stuff. So full in fact, that it was pretty clear Matt had more stuff than I did. It was also pretty clear to me that unless we got very creative somehow, some of that stuff needed to go into storage. I mean, he had a plush office chair, for craps sake! Who packs their office chair? We had two chairs in the room already, and they fit the desk!
Nevertheless, I helped. He had three game systems. Three! A box full of old games. A new PC. A 3-d rig for the PC, which at least was an older model (3-d was a gimmick anyway). Enough clothes to wear something new for a month, and a football. Some assorted puzzles and crosswords; that was kind of weird.
We finished and I resisted the urge to poke around some more while he parked his car. He was probably going to end up parking where I was.
Judging from the amount of time it took him to hike back, he'd had to settle for a space farther away.
He set everything up while I watched, mumbling to himself occasionally. The space problem he settled by wrapping some things up in the chair (not his chair, the college's chair, the one that actually fit the desk) and wheeled it out. When he returned he flopped on his bed with a loud sigh.
Several of the boxes we'd brought in were still stacked in his corner of the room, almost to the ceiling.
Whatever, I'd give him a day or two. He rolled over, looking right at me, and yawned. “So tired, man. I've been driving forever.”
Northwest was only a few hours away. Not closer than my home was, but not that far. Then again, some people couldn't drive long hours, who was I to judge?
“Right, well, I'd love to help you finish unpacking, but I need to go to work soon.”
“Right, unpacking. You already have a job? Aren't you the thoughtful one.”
I frowned at him. He didn't have a job already lined up? “Early bird gets the worm and all that, and I'd rather not eat worms when the time comes.”
“Right,” was Matt's reply, along with a large grin. “Proper planning is essential.”
I gave him my number. “Anything wrong, or you have a question for me or something, feel free to call, okay?” Hopefully, if he felt the urge to move my stuff or look through it, he'd call and ask first. It just felt tacky to ask him to outright.
“Sure man, no problem.”
I waved and left, making sure the door was shut behind me. The lock clicked into place softly.
I was alone and opening the bookstore. James had said if there was a problem to call him, but aside from almost fumbling the security code things went smoothly; there wasn't anyone around.
It felt good to trade lighting; it was one of those days you had to squint because the sun came up just a bit too bright. I'm sure later I'd be cursing the compact fluorescents and their dimness.
There was a full rack of books to shelve, along with a helpful handwritten sheet, complete with a yuck face, showing me where all the books went and warning me not to screw up. I caught myself looking at the ceiling with a sigh. It probably took Lucy longer to scribble the map she included than it would have to shelve the books. And I'd closed last night, when had she been in here to make this?
Whatever. I shelved the books as she asked, even catching at least one mistake that I half suspected had been included to trip me up. I'd no sooner gotten to the last one when I had a customer.
She was tall, lithe, and had long chestnut brown hair that swished as she sashayed up to me. She took her sunglasses off as she drew up to the desk, revealing deep green eyes. “Romance section?”
A better line to get her number on could not have been delivered to me, but instead of acting on it I simply pointed to the aisle.
“Thanks.” She breathed, and sashayed off again, the wooden heeled shoes (clogs?) doing wonders for her walk. She was probably a dance major or something, and way out of my league.
She browsed a bit while I mentally kicked myself for being a coward and drew a blank on thinking of a way to break the ice that wouldn't look weird now. She came back with two paperbacks, and I scanned them.
“That'll be five dollars.”
She handed me a five. “Thanks.”
“Thank you, Rob.” How? Oh, my stupid name tag. I looked up from it to see her already halfway out the door, still waving.
“You're welcome. Come back soon!” God, I was pathetic.
I checked the books the computer had scanned; both young romance, maybe even teen stuff. Sappy and maybe a bit under her age group, but we had plenty of it. So chances were I'd have another shot.
I'd probably need several.
With a sigh, I swept up. There wasn't any dirt on the floor, but I had plenty of time to clean and straighten up as the sun descended past the windows. I even had time to clean the counters in the break room; there were crumbs on them somehow, which reminded me that I hadn't eaten lunch. I felt no real desire to, either; that was a bit odd.
James showed up just as I was setting the alarm. He checked his watch (I wasn't early) while I typed the last number in, clocked out, and locked up. “Well, I was going to see if you needed help, but you seem to have it covered.”
“No sir, all clean and dusted, and the register balanced out.” I'd checked it twice, not that there was any real reason to.
James ducked over and looked into the back door window. It was small and the inside was dark, so I wasn't sure what he was trying to see. “Good, good. I know it seems easy now, but trust me, it'll pick up in a week.”
“Looking forward to it, sir.”
James laughed, a full body shaking belly laugh. “That's what they all say.”
I didn't think it was that funny but smiled anyway. “Good night sir, see you tomorrow?”
He waved me on. “Good night Rob, and possibly.”
I waited until he got back into his car, and with a parting wave got into mine. The drive was quick and uneventful, same as last night.
There were still boxes piled up in the room; at least they were on Matt's side. Where he was at this hour was anyone's guess. I was a little tired and achy, so I just went to sleep.
Getting to sleep proved much easier than waking up.
I opened my eyes blearily, fighting against the crust that seemed to glue them shut. My alarm was ringing, and someone was shaking me violently.
That someone was Matt. “Dude, wake up and turn that thing off!”
“Sorry, sorry.” I apologized, rolling over and hitting the off button. Wiping my eyes I glared at it. Ten am.? Already?
The sun was like splinters in my eyes; I turned to Matt, who was already back in his bed, his covers pulled up over his head. The lingering smell of alcohol had to be coming from him. So it was safe to say he hadn't opened the blinds. I grabbed the controls and changed that, and fell back.
I felt more tired now than when I went to sleep. What was I supposed to do today? Right, I had to confirm my classes in person, and confirm that the college knew I was here so they didn't give my spot to someone else. It was best to make entirely sure. Then I had to go to work.
It was best to get it over with; I adjusted the blinds to let the light in; it was just as painful as it had been the first time. The sun wasn't even hitting the window directly!
Whatever. I fished my sunglasses out and grabbed my clothes. Matt was already asleep, snoring rather loudly. I checked to make sure I was covered (I was) and moved out to the hall. The hall which was a bit more full than yesterday, by two people.
One of those people happened to be a hot college girl, hurrying down the hall with a smile; If I were capable of speech, I'd have chatted her up before she vanished. Fortunately the one sound I made (a forlorn sort of burgl noise) she didn't hear.
The shower woke me up, but it took awhile. Even after I was awake, I felt a general feeling of blah, slightly run down and with my joints aching. I dressed and went in search of my aspirin; first migraines from the blue and now my joints. I hope the stress of being on my own wasn't getting to me.
Matt was still asleep when I got back. With a shrug, I grabbed my aspirin, phone, and paperwork and set off. A quick stop to get a cup of water and I downed two. The sunglasses cut the glare and would allow me to drive... but walking the pain away seemed a better idea. After all, it was just around the campus.
The campus was more crowded than I expected considering the dorm, with people of all ages rushing around in a hurry; which seemed a shame, as the breeze was nice and crisp, the temperature just on the cool side. The sun spoiled things a bit by being way too bright, but the day was nice; the kind of day to just go out and do things in.
The main office was even busier than the campus; they had quite a line. I busied myself with enjoying the décor, which was modern office building, circa 1990, and therefore boring as hell. The people in line, mostly students, were slightly better, but I didn't want to get out of line to chat any of the really interesting girls up, and I was stuck out of polite conversation range from them by a bunch of guys who were all bigger than I was and seriously lacking in the neck department.
It was a relief to get to the secretary in charge of our line, who had the bored slightly harried air one might expect of a DMV employee, and slightly frazzled hair to match. Whatever, I wasn't here to waste her time.
“Robert Russel, here to confirm my schedule and other arrangements.”
She nodded and clicked away at her computer as I slid my license across her... counter? Desk? What did they call these things, anyway? It looked like the type of setup a bank had, though there was a chair behind her (her name tag said Doris) to sit in. Which was probably a good thing, because Doris was reaching that blue haired state that most grandmas seemed to achieve; I wouldn't be surprised if she had a grandson going here.
“Alright, you're confirmed. Did you already settle in at the dorm? Find everything okay?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma'am. Just wanted to make sure I was all set to go.” I reclaimed my license; she hadn't looked at it, but the option had been there.
She smiled; it took ten years off her face. “Well, you are now. Keep up that sort of attitude and you'll go far in life.”
“Yeah... right.” That was more than a little weird.
“Next please!” She almost yelled, while waving at me, still holding that sly smile. Was she...?
Nah, couldn't be. I walked out, banishing thoughts of cougars with some difficulty. I had to get to work anyway, this had taken longer than I thought and while I wasn't late, I would be cutting it close. I should have driven after all.
It wasn't until I was almost back that I realized I hadn't eaten breakfast.
I didn't have time to stop and go up to my new home, or stop and get take out... But I didn't feel hungry anyway, so I could just tough it out.
I arrived just in time; Lucy was at the back door as I pulled in, looking for me. She cast a suspicious eye my way as I clocked in.
“Hey, don't give me that look; I still had two minutes. I had to confirm my college schedule, and while it was a breeze, the line caught me by surprise.”
She rolled her eyes and twisted a skull ring on her finger with her other hand. At least she seemed to accept the explanation. “Sure, but that's how it always starts. First, they come in late, then they forget how to stock, then they stop coming in at all.”
“Pfft,” I scoffed. “I didn't screw up a single book yesterday, admit it.”
She stopped and turned a little more serious. “You're right, you didn't. But don't get complacent. Anyway, I'm out of here. I've just remembered I've got to confirm my class schedule.”
My eyes could roll too. Her laugh was like the shattering of bells, melodic yet jarring. And my similes needed work.
It turned out I had plenty of time to work on them because the bookstore was empty the entire shift. I began to wonder just how long James could afford to keep me hired if things went on like this. Maybe the place was just too far from campus or something?
There was a sub place down the street that delivered, I could see the menu tacked on the wall in the break room, along with helpful notations on what sandwich was best and the best times to call in my boss's handwriting – but without money, it was useless to me.
I still didn't feel hungry at all, but I knew I had to eat.
James came in about 9 pm, and I was glad I'd put the small stack of books Lucy left me away. “Hello, Rob. Any customers today?”
“Not a single one, sir.”
“Now now, call me James.”
“Right, sorry James.”
And that was the extent of our conversation before he shut himself in his office and left me out front; I might as well have been alone.
Once I started cleaning, however, I caught sight of him peering from around the corner, looking ridiculous. Time to pretend I saw nothing, more for his dignity than mine. I would have thought from the smells alone it was obvious I actually cleaned, but I had nothing to hide. I did half expect him to charge out from the hall and scream 'ah ha! You missed a spot!' like a loon, though; that was a great mental image.
I resolved to draw it when I had the chance; Lucy would probably get a kick out of it. Probably more out of my crappy skill in that area than the idea itself, but it was the thought that counts.
I ran out of things to do and clean with fifteen minutes to go and busied myself staring at the clock as James went back into his office to do whatever he was here to do.
It was a long fifteen minutes.
“James, do you need me to lock up?” I wasn't sure I could set the alarm with him here.
“No, thank you, Rob, I've got it. Thanks for your hard work tonight.”
“No problem James, good night.”
“Good night Rob.”
A little weird, my boss. The back lot was empty of course, and my car was a little cold but welcome.
There were people moving through the halls finally, other students, but I couldn't slow down and talk. I needed to eat something and I was so tired my joints were stiff and aching.
Our dorm room was empty; Matt was gone, but I couldn't bring myself to care. The pop-tarts I should have eaten this morning were snacked on, and some show about aliens setting up our society made suitable snacking background noise.
I realized I'd fallen asleep when I was woken up; someone as pounding on the door again. I looked, and the lump on the other side of the room resolved itself to Matt, snoring away without a care in the world. I had to squint through the bright light, and my headache was back.
I rolled over and got my feet under me, and managed to get the door open. I was immediately enveloped in a squeeze so tight I thought I heard my ribs creak. Then the words caught up to me.
Oh no, not him. I craned my neck upwards to see a near carbon copy of my face... the only thing different was this one was far more handsome. It was attached to a matching body that made me look positively skinny, side by side.
“Good morning little bro! I heard from Mom you got here early, and she made me promise to take good care of you, so here I am! I had a devil of a time finding you though; Mom and Dad didn't know where you were staying.”
“I didn't make a secret of it, they never asked.” And that was Uriah being subtle. The devil thing was a joke on my lineage. My own comment would hopefully remind him that while being seventh son was kind of cool and all, it had its downsides.
It didn't seem to take. “So, come on little bro, let's blow this dark cave you got going on and I'll show you around the campus. Say, you look like hell, don't you?”
Dark, was he kidding? The blinds barely did anything. “Thanks for that. I think I'm coming down with something. Let me shower first and wake up.”
I checked the clock; I still had a few hours before I needed to go to work.
I grabbed my stuff and hit the showers – and Uriah followed me. And of course, the first thing he did was compare us, in less than flattering terms. Stay classy, big brother.
Of course, I was one to talk; my response was to take the high road and flip him off.
He got right to business. “So little bro, got a girlfriend yet?”
Twist the knife more, big brother. The ashes of my relationship with Wendy weren't even cold yet. “No.”
“Aw, don't give me that look! You got to strike fast, while the iron is hot! Or something like that, anyway.”
Ironic of him to give me advice, since he or Neb was constantly stealing any girl I so much as looked at. I was fairly sure it was on purpose. At least no one else was actually here to see my humiliation.
I finished quick and just threw on my clothes. “Alright, what do you want to show me?”
“Well, I figured I'd hit the high points. Administration, the psyche building, the library you'll be spending all your time in, maybe the role playing gamer club room....”
“Oh, har de har har. You're a riot. For your information, I've already been to administration, and I'm done there. I know where the psych wing is, and won't be touching it until next year. This year is all math with some physics and English electives, with some gym.”
“Oh, that's a terrible idea. You aren't ever going to get chicks as a math nerd. You should have at least taken a sport or something; even if you weren't good with football.”
I liked football, it was just a bit hard to live up to the increased expectations. Besides, taking gym would allow me to run track without all the expectations; I wasn't bolt fast, but I could manage a respectable speed. Uriah was always trying to get me to try out as a running back.
“I like basic gym just fine.”
“Oh come on little bro, don't go turning all dour on me. No one likes a dour person; cheer up, eh?”
I rubbed my shoulder; Uriah still had a mean punch. He and Matt would no doubt get along.
I snuck some aspirin and my sunglasses while dropping my stuff off since my headache was back with a vengeance. Matt didn't so much as stir. Uriah led me across the campus, gleefully pointing out all the places I already knew about from visits with him, as well as the best spots for privacy (He actually said “wink wink nudge nudge” as he pointed them out!) and some lesser known locations, like the best bars.
And every chance he could, he'd point out the scenery, as he called it. He made me look like a choir boy or something; why he hadn't been turned in for sexual harassment was a mystery.
Or maybe not such a mystery, he was Uriah, and most women seemed to appreciate that; at least he wasn't big brother Samson.
He was close, though. “What do you think about her?” He asked loudly while pointing no less, drawing the attention of the girl in question.
I had to admit she was pretty hot, standing in at average height and having all the curves you want a girl to have. She stopped and sent Uriah a challenging look, which he laughed off.
“Dude, could you keep it down? You trying to get us killed or something?!?”
“Pfft,” he scoffed back at me. “No harm in looking, or even letting them know you are. No girl actually hates the attention.”
“I'll take your word for it.” I had to admit that if anyone knew, he did.
She was pretty hot. Too bad I needed to go to work.
“Alright, we're done. I need to get back so I can go to work.”
“No, you can't yet! I've got one more place to show you.”
I tried to sneak off, but he caught me. “No no no, no sneaking off. It's only five minutes away and you can spare that much.”
I probably could. I wasn't trying to get away early at all or anything. Uriah kept a grip on me the entire way, however.
The place he led me to was a park, of all things. A small space secluded from the sights and sounds of the city beyond it by a row of trees. Once on the cobble stoned path, however, a flowery world of color and small chittering animals was laid bare before my eyes. Uriah led me to a series of simple stone benches.
He waved a hand, inviting me to take it all in. “This is 'the spot'. This is a mostly secluded spot where all the cool kids hang out when the weather and time permits. You have an open invitation here, and you're welcome. Don't forget, and do show up; I'm a Thi, and I can get you in all the best parties.”
I'd heard of the Thi Beta Sigma Frat, mainly from Uriah, the man himself. One of the more notorious frats on campus, known for weekly parties. According to internet reports, loud and obnoxious weekly parties. All members of Thi were kind of minor celebrities, even the ones most people didn't want to deal with. There had been some talk about getting me in, but I wasn't sure I wanted that.
There was no one currently at his spot, which was a small blessing. “Alright, I'll remember, but I really do need to go. Any longer and I really will be late.”
Uriah turned with a sigh. “Alright little bro, but don't be a stranger. Honestly, why did you even get a job so soon? You could have waited and had some fun. There ain't no need to be serious all the time.”
Oh, dammit. “Did you just double negative me?”
Uriah smirked. “Maybe.”
Then he turned serious in an instant. “I mean it, bro. Don't be a stranger, and don't hesitate to look me up.”
I fled before he could get any more maudlin. It wasn't as if I didn't want to have fun – but Mom and Dad weren't going to pay for my bills like they did the others. Well, it was either that, or they didn't have the money. A distinct possibility, for all that I doubted it; it was just the lot of the runt of the litter.
I ended up jogging back, double-checking crosswalks since the sun was still making things difficult. And just like yesterday, I realized I hadn't eaten anything, just as I got to my car. Well, not today! Today I would grab something.
What seemed to be a good question, though, since even fast food was too expensive for me at the moment.
That hot dog stand seemed a good bet. I parked at a fast food lot not far from him and rushed out, signaling I wanted two so the guy would have them ready. As I got closer I wasn't sure I made the right bet; the vendor was an older man with a beer gut and stains all over him. He was wearing gloves at least, so that was something. I arrived just as he was slathering relish on my two dogs.
“How much do I owe?”
I grumbled inwardly, but I paid the man. It could have been worse, after all. He wrapped them up and I carted them back. I'd been lucky to find an easy place to pull into but no sense tempting fate. I wonder if the parking lot had been behind his decision to set up here; it was either that or the traffic.
Four streets later I was pulling in behind the bookstore, with a full five minutes to spare this time. I finished the last bite of my second dog before getting out.
Lucy actually smiled; it made her look more friendly and less modern day vampire. “Well, you aren't late again. Already doing better than the last guy.”
“Oh yeah? What happened to the last guy?”
She frowned. “He started at the same time as classes last semester and made it three days. The first week of college is always hectic since everyone is trying to buy their books used – well those that need or want physical book anyway. E-books are a different animal. There are usually enough of us book lovers to keep the place open for another year, anyway.”
“So in a few days it's going to get really busy?” I asked; such confirmation felt important.
Lucy smirked as the door closed behind her. “Yep; for a week, the store gets really busy. Seven days of standing room only and trying to keep an eye on shoplifters. And the afternoon shift is the worst shift. See you later! By the way, you have a spot of ketchup on the corner of your mouth. Left side.”
Crap. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed a paper towel. At least she hadn't lied; there was a spot to scrub out, and I did.
As I did, my belly growled. I was suddenly ravenous.
Just as I debated calling for takeout, after all, the feeling of my stomach eating itself stopped. Delayed reaction to the hot dogs? I read somewhere it sometimes took awhile for food to be felt. Whatever, it was weird but I didn't feel hungry now so I wasn't going to worry about it.
Lucy hadn't left me any notes or work this time, So I would have to amuse myself.
The choice was solitaire on the business computer or tracking down the source of that funky smell. I chose the smell and started hunting.
It turned out the source was coming from the mini-fridge in James's office. The sandwich it belonged to was green... and had no trace of any kind of vegetable on it. Bread shouldn't ever turn blue-ish.
Now I had a dilemma. James had said I was allowed in here to clean or maybe snag sodas, as long as I replaced them (he drank sprite, of all things) but this was touching his belongings. Technically it was still cleaning, but still, it wasn't exactly polite, so I did what any self-respecting person would do.
I wrote him a note. A nice, short note explaining something in his fridge was bad and I removed it, and then wrote a note just to let him know.
I carted the thing out to the dumpster with 2 fingers, pondering how James had ever missed this last night; it had to have gone bad long before I smelled it. I also wondered again why James had a mini fridge in his office when there was an actual break room not fifteen feet away.
Then I decided I really didn't want to know.
No one had made off with, or even entered the store in my brief absence.
No one came in before closing, and there was no James to check up on me tonight. The drive back to the dorm was just as uneventful as it always was.
However, that all changed once I reached the door.
She was an inch or two taller than the norm, with dark, red highlighted hair that had to have come out of a bottle but still looked good framing a pleasing, symmetrical face. A little pale, with eyes the color of the water on a tropical beach. The heels she was wearing were doing wonderful things for her legs, and the rest of her already good figure.
In short, she was gorgeous; she made Lucy look plain. Hell, she made my last few girlfriends look plain.
She was also using those heels of hers to bang on the door, and the words coming out of her mouth were less than angelic.
I felt heat warm me; now was my chance! “Problem?”
She stopped and turned, throwing me a nervous smile. “I can't get in my dorm, the door is locked.”
Huh. Did she just move in? I hadn't seen her before – but more importantly, the door wasn't supposed to be locked. Oh well, it was a situation easily handled; I pulled out my phone. “Alright, easy way to fix this.”
I called Jayden. Wonder of wonders, he picked up. “Hello?”
“Hello, Jayden, it's me. Door's locked.”
“What? But it isn't midnight yet! Alright, hang tight, I'm on my way.” I was sure he told me the door locked at eleven.
“It’s fine, I’ll use the reader.”
“Sure thing, but I still want to take a look.” He replied and hung up.
I held up my phone with a smile; she had heard it and smiled back. “So, you just move in?”
“Yeah, just today. My name is Laurie. So, who did you call?” she held out her hand.
“My name is Rob.” We shook. “So anyway, that was our dorm manager, Jayden. He should be here to let us in...”
Jayden opened the door before I finished the sentence, sticking his head out. “Sorry about that, some joker is turning the lock when I'm not looking or something. Come on in.”
“So Laurie, what floor do you live on?” I pretended not to hear Jayden engage the lock after we entered, there would be time enough for asking what he was so afraid of later.
“Third floor, room three oh seven.”
“Really? I'm right down the hall, three thirteen.” Well, I couldn't walk around in my underwear anymore. Or maybe I could...?
“Good to know. I'll be sure to call on you if I need a big, strong man for help.” She replied, eyes caressing my biceps.
Was she screwing with me? I mean I wasn't bad, but there were plenty of bigger, stronger guys out there. I resolved right then that she couldn't see Matt either, no matter what it took. We got on the elevator, and all I could think was that I'd rather we took the stairs, with her leading the way. “Sure. Assuming I'm off work of course.”
“Of course. And you work second shift. That's a coincidence, so do I. Or at least I will.”
“Oh? Where at?”
She frowned cutely. “The local burger barn.”
Well, that wasn't the best job, but it wasn't the worst. “Could be worse.”
She agreed with a smile “Free fattening food is the best perk.”
I wasn't about to touch that land mine, but the temptation was too strong. “Well, if that's what you normally go for, I won't deny it's working out for you.”
The elevator opened and she backed out, studying me. I felt my face heat up before she grinned. “Thank you – but no, I'm normally a bit more healthy. I'll show you sometime. See you later!”
And she was gone. I stopped the door from shutting on me, but she was already disappearing into her room. I went by it, wanting to knock and make sure she wasn't mad at me or something, but something told me now was not the best time.
Matt was not in our room.
I settled in, grabbing some of my granola bar stash; I was suddenly famished. My television had sprouted a game system that was clearly not mine; with a sigh, I set the channel select back to cable and surfed. The monster movie seemed a good thing to fall asleep to; the only real problem is I didn't fall asleep.
Through the movie I turned on, and then the next. I was still awake when Matt came in, grumbling and smelling of sweat, cheap beer, and even cheaper whiskey, and collapsed on his bed without even taking his shoes off.
I was so tired, and my joints ached... but I couldn't sleep. It wasn't until after Matt actually drifted off that I managed to myself.
My alarm going off was as a chain, pulling me back into a world of painful light. The blinds were open, all of them.
And there was someone reaching over me. I elbowed him and rose up, ready to defend myself, when the smells and sight resolved themselves.
“Dude, ow man, that hurt!” It was Matt. My alarm cut off; he had snagged it after all.
“Sorry. You stink man, badly. What's up?”
Matt sniffed. “I may stink, but I bet you look more like hell than I do. Are you sick or something?”
My head was pounding, my lips and mouth were dry, my body was aching, and I was more tired than I could ever remember being. I held up my hand and watched as it shook. “Yeah, I think I am.”
"Well, that was your work alarm. You should call in and hang out."
The thought galvanized me. “No, I can't do that. Back up a bit.”
I levered myself up; I'd just gotten this job, my boss was just beginning to trust me, if I called in now I'd get fired, and I couldn't afford to do that.
Matt backed off. “You sure about that? You really do look like hell.”
“I'm sure. Can't afford not to work.”
Matt winced. “Really, not even when sick? That's got to suck.”
I shrugged him off. I'm sure it just looked worse than it was.
I had to admit, after making it to the showers, that I really didn't look as bad as I felt. The problem is I still looked pretty bad. It took an extra five minutes to put myself back together, using eye drops and double scrubbing my face with cold water. I was feeling better by the end, though; almost human again. Some aspirin (Okay, four, but my head was splitting, so who was counting?) chased with an entire bottle of spring water completed the ritual. And then, of course, it was time to get to work.
Maybe Uriah was right; not even a week into my new college life, and I was more boring than our father before retirement. I needed to make the effort to get out more.
Well, after I got over whatever bug I caught. If I got any worse, I'd probably have to go to a doctor. That was depressing.
I went ahead and pulled out my phone to do the research for which doctors my insurance should cover; I was covered under my Dad's old policy until 21, but Dad's health insurance plan was kind of garbage.
Laurie was out, and in the hall; it would be hard not to recognize that back half.
“Laurie, hey! Good morning!”
She turned, and it was good that I wasn't hallucinating. “Rob, hey. Not morning anymore, but hello. So what are you up to?”
“Getting ready for work; you?”
She shook her head. “I don't go for another hour.” She got close, really peering at me. “You look like you're sick... or hung over.”
“I feel like I'm sick or hungover... but I didn't drink. Got to make the fat stacks, though. Those fat secondhand bookstore stacks.”
Laurie giggled, covering her mouth with a hand. “Which bookstore?”
“Bluestem Books. Why?”
She shrugged with an impish grin. “Well, I did just get here, and I need books.”
Oh hey, jackpot. “Do you know how to get there?”
Laurie shook her head, so I explained it. Then for good measure, I said I could send a map to her phone... and she gave me her number. My 'you're late so get your butt in gear' alarm went off.
“Alright, I'm sorry, but I really got to go. I'll send you the map in about thirty, just in case.” I didn't quite run away from her, but it was close.
My headache has eased, but running into the sunlight drove a fresh spike of pain into my skull. I fumbled my sunglasses but somehow got them on.
The drive was the worst so far this week; I had to actually break a few laws regarding speed in order to arrive on time. Lucy was there, waiting on me, tapping her foot. I checked, and I was a full five minutes early.
“Got a hot date or something?”
“Maybe,” she replied. Then she got a better look at me and did a double take. “Wow, you look like hell.”
I grinned at her as I swept past; she shrank away from me as if my headache was catching or something. “So I hear. Got any major things to do?”
“Nope. I did it all already. I was too bored to leave you anything. You really don't look so good; you sure you're okay?”
I nodded. “I can handle it; I feel better than I look. Besides, I wouldn't want to ruin whatever you had going on.”
Lucy was already out the door with a wave; she probably hadn't even heard me. Just as well, I suppose.
There was a note From James, congratulating me on my catch of the rotten sandwich. A test of some sort, perhaps? That seemed weird. I sent Laurie the promised text and settled in.
I didn't have to wait long; Laurie swept in less than fifteen minutes later, scanning the store with wide-eyed interest.
I didn't get it, really. It was just a bookstore. “So, see anything you like?”
She looked over and grinned. “A few things.”
I tried to play it cool; just as I opened my mouth, She snagged a book from the shelf. “Like this for example. I need this for psychology.”
At least she'd saved me from making a fool of myself. Maybe, anyway, cause I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind, again. “At least you don't like anything you see.”
She stopped and raised an eyebrow at me, a hand hovering in front of a shelf. Time for damage control! “You walked past the 'young romance' section.”
Laurie jumped, putting her hands and feet together and gushing: “Like oh mah gawd! I walked right past the romantic monster section?!?! I don't think I can live with myself!”
I gaped. Laurie was entirely too good at that. “That's uncanny.”
She shrugged and went back to snagging books. “I read those kinds of things when I was younger; got caught up in the craze.”
That was a gutsy thing to admit to. “I would not admit such a thing upon pain of death.”
“Oh?” She replied, stepping close. Close enough to smell her perfume over the musty book scent. “So not even any tween movies for you as a kid? That sounds awfully boring.”
“Heck no, those things bored me to tears.” Of course, I'd seen them, everyone had, but I wasn't going to admit to it. Or admit to why I'd seen them, which had been another in a long line of attempts to meet girls. A terrible, boring failure of an attempt.
“Huh. Alright, well this one too.” Laurie said, snagging a book behind me. Nietzsche, pretty heavy reading.
“I'd dipped a little into those heady waters,” I said, tapping the book while ringing it up.
“Oh yeah? What did you think?”
I decided to be honest. “I thought he was full of himself, and his book reminded me of a guy talking just to hear himself.”
She laughed. “Well, I can't call you wrong there. I'd love to debate his arguments with you sometime.”
Screw it, I was going for it. “No better time like the present? That is if you aren't doing anything.”
She looked around. “Wish I could, but I work too, remember? I've got to get going... but maybe later tonight?” she swiped her card and I handed her the receipt.
Laurie had told me she was working too; now I looked like an idiot. I suppressed the sigh. “Sure, wouldn't miss it. Stop by when you get back?”
She nodded and left with a wave.
I remembered something after she left, and chased her out. “If Jayden locks you out again, call me and I'll let you in!”
She turned. “Sure, thanks.” She got into her car, a newer model Toyota that just screamed 'my parents have money'. I went back inside.
“Well, she was nice,” a voice whispered in my ear. “And very easy on the eyes.”
I nodded along with that, (there no way I could deny it) then realized I was alone. I looked up. “Who said that?”
I felt a sense of... excitement surge in me. Adrenaline, maybe? But no response. I carefully looked through the store, moving from room to room and even checking the closets and hidden nooks, at least those I knew of. There was no one around, and no one entered the store while I wasn't manning the desk.
Nothing, and no voice. I hope I had just heard some random guy on the street or something; the door had still been open after all. But it had been so close to my ear; almost inside it. Some acoustic trick maybe? I'd say I was going insane, but don't insane people hear voices inside their head, and not in their ears?
Laurie was a psych major, maybe she'd know.
No, that was a terrible idea. I wanted to get closer, not drive her away. I shuddered, imagining how that dinner conversation would go.
I cleaned and left, right on time. Laurie had been the only visitor to the store.
I drove home, exhausted. The door was open. I made it to the dorm room, and let myself in. Matt was out again; I really needed to ask him where he was going, I was curious. It was clear he was having all of the wrong kinds of fun, but where? He was as underage as I was.
As exhausted as I was, I was awake and alert. The knock on the door was a surprise, for all that I had been expecting it. I opened the door to find Laurie still in her uniform and smelling of burger grease.
“Laurie, hey! Come in.”
She smiled and stepped in. I gave her a chair and took the bed, giving her as much distance as she could want. “Jayden left the door open this time.”
“Good, good.” I watched as she sat with a sigh and picked at her uniform.
“I'm pretty tired, though, so I won't be staying long.”
“Understandable.” I was tired myself, but awake and clear-headed; almost energized.
In the end, Laurie stayed for less than an hour before tottering unsteadily off to bed. Less than an hour of discussion on the overman and morality without gods, and I was still awake. Insomnia for me was not entirely unusual, but it had never been this bad – or was that good? I felt tired mentally, but my body was still ready to go, aches and all.
Even when Matt rolled in and collapsed on his bed muttering, at three in the morning, I was still awake. And all this after lying awake last night. It was pretty clear something was wrong.
Tomorrow. I would make an appointment with a doctor tomorrow. It was probably just stress anyway.
The alarm woke me this time before Matt tried to smash it, at least. I'd finally drifted off around five, and it was... twelve after two. I started up and then realized it was my first day off. I stretched and relaxed, and adjusted the blinds. My headache wasn't actually splitting my head today, but my aches were still making themselves known.
The light was still too bright, so I rolled over and settled back in.
That didn't work too long.
“Hey. Hey man, you got to work today?”
I rolled back over; it was Matt, shaking me, and only fifteen minutes later.
“No, I'm good. It's my day off. Thanks for checking, though.”
“Okay. No problem.” He shuffled off and I settled back in.
So, of course someone knocked on the door.
It was Uriah. “Come on, little bro, open up!”
He wouldn't stop until I did, so I rolled out of bed (while only falling once) and opened the door; I was impressed by myself when it only took me one try.
“What do you want, Uriah.”
He strode right in like he owned the place and peered into my eyes. “Just to check up on my lil bro, lil bro. You look a little better today.”
“I feel a little better today. Or at least I did.” Did Uriah actually notice how bad I was yesterday?
“Perfect!” He replied, all but knocking me back onto my bed. “So, you gotta work?”
“No, I don't have to work today.”
“Great, get ready and come with me.”
That wasn't going to happen. “No. You'll want me to go somewhere stupid.”
“If you don't I'll tell your roommate about that time you were ten....”
Nope nope nope! I managed to shove him out the door, somehow. “Fine! I'm coming.”
I grabbed some clothes and zipped past him; wonder of wonders, he didn't follow me into the showers and I was able to get changed in peace. Then the other shoe dropped, and I found out why; he'd decided to hang out with my new roommate.
“So then he says: but why? That other boy....”
“Told you not to tell that story on pain of death, or worse, telling Mom about the Schnapps incident.” I finished for him. Arms crossed.
Sure he may be bigger and stronger, but I knew where some bodies were buried too. He shut up so fast his teeth clicked.
Matt grinned. “But it's a great story, man! Any chance I can hear the rest from the source?”
“Not a single one,” I told him.
“Damn,” Matt replied, actually scuffing his toe on the carpet. “So, How long have you known Uriah Russel?
“All my life.He's my brother.” Right, Matt had been out of it before.
Uriah wrapped me in a one armed hug. “That's right, for better or worse, inseparable until death!”
“Dude, we aren't getting married,” I muttered at him. Luckily, Matt didn't hear me.
Unluckily, Matt didn't hear me because he was too busy gushing. “That's awesome! Uriah Russel is a legend! Best tight end in the game right now, and a member of Thi Beta, the best frat!”
I backed away from the crazy, eyeing the stars in his eyes warily. I'd seen this sort of thing before – all too often.
Uriah had too. “That's right, see Rob, your roomie knows what's up!”
Yes, thank you, big brother. You now had another worshiper and I probably had another butt kisser. “So, what do you want, Uriah? I thought you'd be busy by now.”
He grinned. “I am. I'm busy taking you to party town! So take your shower, use deodorant, dress down, and let's go. Time to show you off to the brothers, do a little meet and greet.” He punched me in the shoulder for emphasis.
“You aren't going to take no for an answer, are you?”
“Nope.” He grinned out, his perfect teeth catching the afternoon sunlight in just such a way to make me squint.
“Fine, then I'm taking a guest.”
Uriah looked at Matt, who was wagging himself like a puppy. “No, not him. He's YOUR guest. I'm taking someone else if she's willing.”
“She, huh? Sure, I'll allow it. Matt here has already been to our first couple of parties, so one more won't kill us. Go get ready.”
Too late I remembered I was supposed to keep Laurie and Uriah separate. Well, shit. I started walking again, but I was sure he noticed, which was going to make today twice as bad.
The shower was a little odd; I had to tone down the hot water a little. That, and there was another dude in there staring at me; Just staring without any shame at all. Some sort of insecure high school age crap, I hoped. Well, he was a little smaller than I was, so I could probably take him if I needed to. I was the scrappy runt of a large family, after all, and well versed in dirty tricks.
Still, it was creepy.
My head felt pretty good today, for all that the sun was too bright. My body wasn't exactly one hundred percent, but it felt better than it had the last few days. Maybe I was turning a corner here, and wouldn't need a doctor after all.
I used a touch of cologne but didn't need to shave. I never did need to shave often, if I wanted some stubble. I could get by with shaving every couple of days. Right now I looked suitably rogue-ish, with some five-o-clock shadow, so I let it slide.
Against my better judgment, I rejoined my brother. “Alright, so where are we going?”
“Well, the house of course. At least on my end; you got anywhere you need to be first?”
“We're here.” I headed down the hall and knocked.
Of course, there was no answer; I sighed. I'm a forgetful idiot; she was probably at work.
Uriah poked me. “Hey. Whoever it is ain't home.”
'Whoever it is?' He said that just to dig at me. “SHE is probably at work. I forgot, she just started, like me.” I brought out my phone, anticipating me.
“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
Wordlessly I brought up her social media site of choice. I didn't really use one, but I'd signed up for several, and she was there. The recent picture was of her with her co-workers, working at a wings place I didn't recognize, apparently called Colonel Cluck's. In tee shirts and short shorts.
“Whoa dude, she's hot.”
“She's Laurie. And I'll be inviting her, with my phone.”
I texted the invite. Uriah dutifully provided the address when it came time to. Laurie's response was the ambivalent 'if I'm not too tired.'
I looked over and Uriah had his own phone out. He put it up quickly. “What? I recognized the blonde next to her; her name is Patricia and she likes to party.”
Jayden all but tripped over himself as we headed out the front door – staring at my brother, of course. And another one, potentially. I doubted he'd leave me outside at night again, at least.
“Come on, let's take my car,” Uriah said, innocently enough.
I was on to him. “No, I'll take my car and follow you. If I ride in your car, I'll be stuck wherever you take me.”
He'd done it before; all my brothers had, at one time or another. It wasn't worth it, not even to save gas.
“Che, fine, whatever. Try to help a guy... Just meet up on the corner and follow me. Matt, you're my guest and I need someone to talk to.”
“Uh, sure,” Matt replied as we split up. The poor guy had no idea. I'd probably end up taking him home. Even worse, he'd probably actually be listening to Uriah the entire time, soaking up his words like a sponge.
The last time that had happened, I'd had to set a poor guy straight and he'd still never been the same after.
Uriah made it as easy as possible to follow him, wonder of wonders; I guess he really was in a good mood today. Or maybe he was no longer angry about that homecoming incident.
The Thi Beta Sigma house was an actual house, a rambling two-story Greek revival, fittingly enough, painted a terrible yellow that was thankfully beginning to peel. No doubt making a break for freedom. The yard was a mess and was apparently used to park cars in. Two of the windows on the ground floor were boarded up.
Next to the driveway was an alley, which Uriah drove down. I followed. The entire back yard (except for a tool shed) was a parking lot. I parked next to my brother. I steeled myself as I got out. There was an alley that led out back, too. I'd be able to escape that way if I needed to.
“So, how many and how bad?”
“A typical Friday,” Uriah answered. “A few people, waiting. Later on, you wouldn't be wrong to think animal house on party night. You should be thankful you aren't parking on the lawn.”
Uriah just walked right up and opened the back doors, holding it open. Matt went in first, and I followed.
The back door led directly to a hall. “Uriah, that you?” A voice called from the left.
Uriah steered me with a hand as he answered. “Yeah, it's me.”
Matt fell in as Uriah steered us into the kitchen. The kitchen was large, with fixtures that seemed to be refugees from the sixties or seventies; a giant box stove, an oddly shaped refrigerator, and one of those weird granite looking counters that wasn't. There was also a large microwave you could probably roast a turkey in, and a dishwasher stuck haphazardly in one corner.
And of course, like most kitchens, there were people in it, all sitting on mismatched bar stools grouped around the counters.
There were four of them, all guys. I guess that was to be expected of a frat, but I half expected a bevy of cuties considering my brother. The first was probably the one in charge; he was a medium sized guy, whose good shape was not quite hidden by the thin sweater and slacks he wore. The glasses did a reasonable job of watering down his eyes, but his gaze was still intense. His dark brown hair matched his eyes, and the cut was some European thing that did him no favors; long on top and short on the sides, with a bit that flopped over.
The next guy to the left was blond, in even better shape, and as wide as he was tall; and he was very tall. A defensive lineman by genetics if nothing else, he was completely large and raw-boned. If he had a girlfriend, it must have been on personality alone. He was also dressed in jeans I could swim in, and a flannel shirt someone could use as a tent.
The third guy was shorter and thin, but he clearly wasn't a nerd. He had the long, lean build of a track and field star. He had some Mexican heritage in him, with dark curly locks and an angular face. His nose was perhaps a little too large. He was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt.
The last guy was clearly a swimmer. I say that because he was in one of those professional swimming outfits that was as dark as he was, with the college logo, sans cap. He was still dripping on the floor; his short black hair was the only dry part about him. Hm, I wonder where the pool was.
The guy nearest us, the sweater-clad one, stood up and offered me a hand. “Hi, I'm Terry.”
I shook. “Rob. Pleased to meet you.”
The others didn't seem to be too interested but they stated names at least.
“John.” The linebacker said.
“Ernest, or Ernie.” The runner said, with a wave.
“George.” the swimmer said. I found it more than a little interesting that they all gave their names in the order I saw them in... or was supposed to see them in. Someone here was probably a psych major and playing games.
“Rob,” I stated again, and Matt got in on the action.
“Hi, I'm Matt Steinburg, pleased to meet you all. I've already been here a few nights ago, you might remember seeing me?”
No one said anything for just long enough to be awkward; ouch.
Uriah came to his rescue. “Come on Matt, let's go to the other room and start the party a little early.” A hand on Matt's shoulder ushered the dejected guy out of sight.
My turn I guess. “So... screw it, I'm just going to ask. Where is the pool? Cause that is going to distract me the rest of the day.”
George laughed. “It's a public one down the street. I was running late so here I am.”
“Looks like you get to mop later.”
He looked down with a grin. “Nah, that's what pledges are for.”
Good to know. “And on that note,” Terry interrupted. “We were wondering since we happen to be the fraternity that has hosted several Russels in the past, why didn't you come to us? As a legacy, you're pretty much in; we won't even do the wimpy hazing we normally hit our pledges with. And while we don't have any room in the house right now, we can help you in other ways.”
“Like?” I was listening. Even if it was Uriah's frat, help was a good thing. Maybe.
“Like rent, food, and other essentials. We receive donations from our alumni, and in return, we share the wealth to offset the high costs of college. We also offer and line up tutors for any class you might need help with and car pooling.”
That sounded rehearsed. The next question should probably be 'who are the alumni' but I don't think I wanted to play.
“And what's expected of me?” I knew this wasn't a free ride.
“Some dues, of course, but it's a yearly thing and not bad. The tutoring and carpooling can work both ways; if you are going somewhere and a brother needs a ride, you give it. If you're getting an A in a class and a brother needs help, you give it; that sort of thing. Some help maintaining the house and grounds, but no more than any other full member; as I said, no pledge status for you.”
I couldn't see why I shouldn't sign on the dotted line, even if I didn't want to live in the very large shadows cast by my brothers... and that made me wary.
“Can I think on it?”
George started to say something, but Terry held up a hand. George quieted as Terry answered himself. “Sure, we can do that. How's a day sound?”
That was plenty of time to figure out what the game was. I hoped. “Sure; twenty-four hours. Thanks for that, and for the invite.”
“No problem. Enjoy and you have free run of the place; well except for the bedrooms. If you get lost just ask a brother for directions; but for now, could you...”
They wanted their privacy; probably to talk over their disappointment at meeting me. “Sure. See you guys later.”
I waved and before I was halfway down the hall they started up again, in loud whispers that I couldn't quite make out. Definitely talking about me.
Uriah and Matt were in the living room, watching some late afternoon television. Both had already started drinking. I guess I shouldn't judge since it was close to four. The living room was surprisingly clean.
Uriah knew at a glance. “You turned them down?”
I shook my head. “No, I told them I'd think about it.”
Uriah winced. “That's your problem, brother mine, you're always thinking. Sometimes you just gotta commit.”
“No harm comes in weighing your options,” I countered. “I've been burned enough by jumping in headfirst, especially where family is concerned.
Uriah' eyes narrowed, and I could almost feel the menace gathering in him – before Matt snuffed it.
“Wait, what's going on? What did Rob do?”
Uriah beat me to the punch. “Got an invite as a legacy for the Thi's... and said he'd think about it.”
Matt spewed beer. “Really? Why man?!? The Thi's are like the third best frat here! They take care of their own for life! You get in here, you can pretty much write your own ticket!”
Yeah, he didn't understand anything. If you got into a frat like this, you didn't write your own ticket; they did it for you. And you'd wonder if it was you or them the rest of your life.
Yes, it sounded childish, even in my own head. But just because it sounded childish didn't mean it was wrong, and growing up the runt of a large litter, striking out fully on my own was important. If I could have afforded the move, I'd already be in California now.
“Third best frat?” Uriah ground out, focusing on the important things.
“Just being honest? The Alphas and the Kappas got you beat.”
“Well I can understand the Alphas, but the Kappas?”
Uriah thought about it, but I knew it was mostly for show. “That's fair.” He conceded.
Another guy came through, shirtless and scratching an armpit. He didn't introduce himself, just grabbed a beer and stalked off with a wave. Heading to the front door, and out.
Okay then. I snagged a beer of my very own; Uriah gave a ghost of a smirk, but said nothing.
The beer was generic and sucked. I preferred the stuff brewed with a little more care.
“So, what's going on?”
“Well, Tonisha here claims that Jerry there stole her mailbox and cut down all the trees she put up as a boundary wall to her property. The people's judge there seems to be siding with her, which is a good thing since Jerry seems like a dick.”
“I meant, after that.”
“Oh, party and meet and greet for the pledges. Making it official, you understand.”
Well, it was good to know the party had a purpose, even a flimsy one.
We watched the judge until everyone started to arrive, just as the sun began to set. The sound system in the corner was dialed up to 11 and the metal was started, the kegs were reeled in and tapped, and a table full of harder liquor was set up.
Luckily, if there was anything worse around, it seemed that the policy was strictly bring your own and keep it hidden; I'd managed to avoid a record so far, and wanted to keep it that way. The TV was turned off in favor of dancing.
I did have to say this; The Thi Beta Sigmas did know how to pick 'em.
There were girls and women of all apparent ages, from ones you'd swear weren't eighteen (though I was hoping they were) to cougars prowling through the halls. They ranged from cute to jaw-droppingly gorgeous, covered all possible types (from the hot librarian to the anti-goth) and most seemed to check any inhibitions at the door. In no time at all, there was a line in front of the liquor table.
The second line seemed to form in front of Uriah, as he smiled and drank and chatted. That was not surprising. What was surprising, is where the third line seemed to form.
I looked down, nursing my beer because watching Uriah work a room was not something I enjoyed... and when I looked up, I was surrounded.
“Hi there! I'm Candi, what's your name?” The boldest asked; I could just hear the I in it. She was a blonde that lived up to everything her name stood for – and she wasn't looking at Uriah when she puckered her lips and asked: “Cat got your tongue?”
A brunette only a little bit less smoking hot all but knocked poor Candi out of the way. She had been the one I'd seen come in rocking the hot librarian look, and she adjusted her glasses needlessly as I made eye contact. “It's pretty clear he doesn't want to talk to you, skank. Hi, my names Felicia.”
“No. My names Rob. Err, I mean, no, I don't mind talking.” I nodded Candi's direction, hoping my face wasn't burning. I was so very smooth.
Candi didn't seem to see anything, or care if she did; she brightened as I looked her way, and sent a venomous glare Felicia's way. Were these two enemies or something? A third girl, a russet tressed beauty that looked vaguely like a fox in more ways than one, settled into the couch next to me.
“This seat taken?”
“No,” was my own daring conversational gambit. Felicia and Candi both glared at the newcomer.
I glanced at Uriah to find him looking my way with a smirk. Had he put them up to this? I was hardly God's gift to women; that was brother Samson. Or maybe even brother Mo; but it certainly wasn't either Uriah or me, even if Uriah was closer.
They stuck around, tho. Even in the face of my lack of social skills, they laughed at my bad jokes, made contact whenever they could (My arms mostly, though Candi tried to go a little lower more than once!) and snipped at each other in that really weird way women had.
I got dragged out to the impromptu dance floor more than once, and the same five girls followed each time.
I realized I was in trouble when I reached for my beer, only to find it full. It occurred to me, that if someone had been switching cans on me, as my bladder told me might be case, then I might be closer to drunk than I might want. But then again, I was rock steady when walking back to the couch.
The couch had been taken over in my latest absence by the swimmer from earlier, and he was holding court, barking orders for a scavenger hunt among the group of a dozen pledges. Well, a scavenger hunt was pretty tame by college standards; I could do that myself. Well, until I heard some of the things on the list, that is.
Brenda, a sister with skin the color of dark chocolate and one of my companions for the night, latched on and bent me down. “Come on, there is another place we can go,” She whispered over the music, her breath tickling my ear. She let go, laughing as I sprang back up like a jack in the box.
Candi wasted no time in getting between us, while Vanessa the redhead snagged my other side. “Lead on Bren, which spot do you have in mind? The upstairs room?”
“No,” I objected. “Upstairs are the bedrooms, right? I can't go into those yet.”
“Honey,” Lisa all but yelled, taking a page from Brenda's book and pulling me down so I'd hear. “No one follows that rule on party night.”
That sounded all kinds of horrible. “Well, I do.”
We all moved beyond the music, and no longer had to yell to be understood. We could also hear ourselves think. Brenda spoke up again, in a more normal tone of voice. “No, I was thinking outside, you know, behind the patio?”
“Oh, good idea! The patio is always crowded, but around the corner of the house there, that bench?” Candi asked. All five of them nodded, and I felt distinct unease. I was missing a big something, here. These girls all seemed to know more about the place than I did. Perhaps even more than they should.
I was surrounded and gently tugged the proper direction, out the back door and past the stuffed patio.
The place I was led to was a bench; an honest to goodness park bench complete with a painted stencil 'Property of Lincoln' still on it, the white letters standing out in the gloom. And there was plenty of gloom; the entire corner was shrouded in darkness. There wasn't even a street light near.
The bench was enough for all of us, provided we were friends. The girls were VERY friendly, and placed me in the middle, and all but fought while jockeying for position. I pretended not to see anything, which the darkness made easy.
The holes in their plan became apparent as they all but wiggled into each others laps to touch me; with this many around, the area was hardly as private as they all hoped, and with all of them here, nothing more than awkward conversation was going to happen. Occasionally they took turns going for beer, but for the most part, they stayed with me, chatting about classes and professors they liked or didn't like, and hobbies or past parties.
And that was where and how Laurie found us, the girls and I just chatting as I tried to ignore the increasingly obnoxious noise of the party and my own growing headache. I wasn't too far gone to notice her, outlined by the light from the patio; she appeared briefly, and I knew it was her, and then she was gone.
I was up, almost floating above the ground in my haste. At least the noises behind me were just shock and not pained cries. I would have felt much worse about the whole thing if I'd hurt a woman, whether part of a plot or not.
“Laurie, wait up!”
She turned to look back as I rounded the corner – and gave me a once over as my new fan club caught up. Her lips tightened and eyes narrowed as she took in Candi and Vanessa, and she half turned to walk away again before my next words hit her.
“I've been waiting for you all night.”
She turned again and I ignored Felicia's sigh of disappointment. As a sop to the other girls (who had, in fact, kept me good company in their own way for hours) I asked: “Join us, please?”
Her mouth twisted. “I don't want to walk off into the dark with you.”
That was fair. “Fine, pick a spot. I'll grab the bench, and an extra chair or two.”
I went back and snagged the bench; it was wrought iron and wood, ungainly but not heavy.
They were all waiting for me under a yard light, but Candi walked off toward the house with a wave. “I'm going to go ahead and go rejoin the party. Nice to meet you Rob, and see you later.”
She was a little plotter, but I couldn't help being sad as she left. Laurie had a chair for me, which I took gratefully, and now there was enough room for everyone. As long as we hold our beer. Speaking of which, I'd lost mine, and despite the headache, I still wasn't drunk enough.
But no, wait. I hadn't had any in awhile, and if Laurie wanted to leave, I was her ride home, wasn't I?
Whatever, if I needed to I could find beer later; there was no way this party was running out.
I sat back down. “So, how was your job?” I asked Laurie.
She shrugged. “It was a job. A new day, Same old stuff. My feet are killing me again if that's what you're asking.”
And yet she'd taken the time to come here instead of just going home. The thought pleased me, even if it was sort of jerkish to feel that way.
“So what's been going on here?” She asked me.
“Mostly getting to know the neighbors. I think my brother is trying to hard sell me into a frat.”
I glanced at the other girls out of the corner of my eye as I delivered that line, but they gave nothing away.
“Anyway, sorry. That's Felicia, Vanessa, Brenda, and Lisa. They have been telling me about the best professors at the college – you know, who's worth taking a class from, and who isn't. Everyone, this is Laurie, a fellow freshman who lives down the hall from me.”
I wasn't sure I wanted to take their recommendations seriously enough to rearrange my classes around; figuring out if a given teacher was a good fit for me seemed best to learn myself.
“Hello, pleased to meet you. So, anything I should be aware of?”
Hm... well, there was one. “One of the lit one professors seems to think he's God's gift to women, and longs to prove it?”
Felicia nodded, turning to me as a wide smile bloomed. “Yeah, that's Professor O' Barker, he teaches literature one during the afternoon, so if you work then you'll probably miss him.”
Weird behavior. Sure she'd been the one to tell me before, but having such a prof teaching your class as a girl would hardly be smile worthy.
“Yeah, he's the worst,” Lisa chimed in. “But he's not the only one. There's this Teacher's aid in Botany....”
We were interrupted before Lisa could finish the thought by a body crashing in the midst of us. A loudly belching body.
“Oh, 'scuse me....”
Motion out of the corner of my eye resolved itself into John, the Thi Beta linebacker. “Sorry to interrupt, but this guy's had enough. Uriah claims you're his ride?” He asked as he helped the body up, revealing a weaving (and slightly vomit encrusted) Matt.
“Yeah, I'm his ride.”
John tore his eyes off a faintly blushing Brenda long enough to dump Matt my way. I had to work fast to catch him so that he didn't dump us both on the lawn. “Good, you can help him home then.”
John left, and with a backward glance and a rushed “Gotta go, sorry!” Brenda followed.
I turned to Vanessa, who seemed to at least know Brenda. “She going to be okay?”
Vanessa blinked, clearly surprised, before answering. “Yeah, she'll be fine. Those two aren't an item or anything, despite what John wants. But Bren doesn't want to break his heart because he's a nice guy, so....”
She shrugged helplessly and I sighed. It was true what they said about high school never-ending, it seems. And I hated that song.
“Alright, well, I need to get this guy home.” I turned to Laurie.
She took the hint. “Yeah, I'll come. My feet hurt anyway.”
“Thanks. I would just stuff him in the car, but then I'd worry about his health... and my car. He looks like hes already yakked on himself at least once.”
Laure crinkled her nose with a smile. “Smells like it, too. I don't envy you, carrying him.”
I grunted as loudly and melodramatically as I could upon standing. Matt was no help at all... and was muttering something about goat cheese?
For a guy as big as Matt was, he wasn't all that heavy. At least my car was close.
“This way then. How did you get here, if you don't mind my asking?”
I didn't know if she had a car here or not, but last night she'd left me the impression that she didn't have one of her own.
“Got a ride with a friend, who I'm currently texting. Speaking of, you're sober enough to drive?”
True enough, she had her phone out, and was currently pecking away at the screen. “Stone cold, as the saying goes.”
And it occurred to me as I said it, that I was. I probably shouldn't be, but other than a growing thirst I was fine. I'd drink some water back at the dorm.
Wonder of wonders, I would be able to get my car out of this madhouse. I was half expecting some idiot to have parked behind me. I set Matt upright and popped the trunk. I had a blanket in the back, and that should hopefully catch everything. I bundled Matt up in it and shoved him in as Laurie belted up.
The drive home was mostly silent, save for Matt's labored breathing and Laurie's phone. Someone was texting her with some truly impressive speed.
“Nah, my friend is just checking up on me, she's half-convinced you're an ax murderer.”
I slapped the steering wheel. “I knew I forgot something! Quick, to the hardware store!”
“Ha, ha.” she deadpanned.
Traffic was actually heavier than I expected, and I passed two police cars on the way, but neither tried to stop me.
If Matt had sat up, that probably would have been a different story, but he stayed bundled up, muttering something about the moon under his breath.
We made it without event and walked right in the door. I retrieved Matt, who seemed beyond helping me at this point, and waited patiently while he threw up again. Laurie waited with me, clearly concerned.
“He going to be okay?”
We were able to walk right in, but the waiting for the elevator was a special kind of purgatory; Matt was beyond mumbles at this point and I was starting to feel the burn in my shoulders from lugging him around. I wasn't about to start dragging him up the stairs, though, no matter how tempted. How could someone even stand to drink enough to get like this?
“Here.” Laurie snagged my keys as I fumbled them, and quickly opened the door.
I brushed past her as calmly as I dared, shrugging Matt off into his bed. He hit it and bounced, but didn't stir; that position couldn't be comfortable. “Sorry about that; excuse me there, he was getting heavy.”
Laurie stepped up, feeling my bicep. “No worries stud. Lugging him around alone couldn't have been easy. I was going to ask Jayden to help, but he was suspiciously absent.”
“It's fine, I had it.” To be fair, if I'd felt I didn't I'd have asked for her help; Laurie looked capable enough on her own, and I'd have been able to live down the shame – eventually.
“Right. Well, I'm going to go. You see to your friend; and if you have a day off, see you tomorrow?”
“Sure. Sure! I do, I mean. Have a day off, that is. Good night.” Good recovery there, slick; I was such an idiot.
“Alright, get some sleep then, you look like Hell. See you tomorrow.” She shut the door behind her as she left.
I locked it and undressed in a hurry.
Then I realized I needed to make sure Matt didn't do anything stupid, so I rolled him over on his stomach and put a garbage can under his face. Many a rocker had gone out choking on vomit, but not my roommate.
Then I settled in and tried to sleep. Tried being the operative word; as tired as I was, I was also restless and full of a weird kind of warmth or energy or – something. I didn't know what it was, but I'd never felt it before this week. So I lay there in bed, eyes wide open... at least until the voice spoke.
At last! Attempts to make contact can be ever so tedious. Hello, Robert.
Great. I looked around, just to make sure, and nope; it was just Matt and myself. He was still asleep, snoring raggedly. Even with the lights out, I could see easily. There was no way anyone could be under the bed with all our crap stuffed under there and... nope again, the closets were empty of people. Which meant, with as close as the voice had sounded, it was probably in my head. Fan-freakin-tastic, the pressure was making me lose my mind.
You are not losing your mind, Robert. I exist, and despite my location, I am very real.
Prove it, I mentally taunted.
I had barely formed the words in my mind when the answer came: Of course. Did you enjoy tonight? All of those women, who normally would not give you the time of night, fawning on your every word? Does that happen to you normally?
I had to admit it didn't.
It was my doing. And it is something I can do again. You see, Robert, I am a spirit. And you Robert, are uniquely suited to be my host. We are now together, two where once there was one. You give me what we both require, and I in turn, can use my powers again to make those you desire swoon for you.
A brief image of Laurie flashed in my head. But she had been interested in me before tonight! I had done that, hadn't I?
I've been with you, settling in, for some time, Robert.
Since you came to this place. The image this time was me, in my car, just pulling into Lincoln, with all my belongings in my car and my the remnants of that killer headache. That was him – it – whatever it was?!?
You may refer to me as 'he'. And yes, it was I, making a connection with you.
So, I had a spirit living in my head now. A spirit with powers. I'd heard the stories; such things were amazingly powerful and able to be superheroes. And while the power to make friends and influence people didn't seem very heroic compared to flight and laser beams from your eyes, it did make a killer foundation to base a lawyer or stockbroker career on. In short, I could deal with this.
Not everyone, that power works on the opposite sex alone. However, I have others.
I could still work with this.
What do I need to do in return?
An image hit my mind with the force of a train, blowing full bore into pain and then out again so fast I was half sure I'd imagined it. I looked at Matt, and his presence took on a new light. It would be gross, but he'd never miss it, not the amount I needed to take, right?
I got up and crept over, ignoring how stupid my mind told me I was being, and ignoring my voice that told me this was the mother of all bad ideas. It had all come into focus with that image, and I knew what I needed.
What I desired; what I hungered for.
I pulled Matt's shirt down from his collar, hesitated. His breathing didn't change. Surely if I just took a little, he wouldn't even miss it, right? I was so very thirsty, and he had so much.
I bit down, my canines drawing blood.