Babe Heffron slept like a rock, and this was a general problem.
Carwood Lipton was raised to the rigid tune of punctuality, and he wasn’t concerned exactly that Babe was never punctual, but because Babe had staggered in hours past curfew the night before classes began and collapsed on the bed, bloody nose first, and hadn’t really moved since. His key was still jammed in the scraped lock of their dorm room door. Lipton stepped out to retrieve it, into the deserted dormitory hall where he couldn’t have imagined an alarm going off if he’d wanted to. It wouldn’t have taken someone three years to know that these guys would sleep halfway through the end of the world if it happened before seven thirty a.m. Lipton, ever-prepared, was always ready an hour before.
Pulling the door quietly shut, he turned the key over in his hand a few times before setting it on Babe’s desk next to the pile of Easy Mac boxes and Cup Ramen that Babe had left in a jumbled mess after dumping them from the bag. Lipton couldn’t be bothered enough to count the times he’d gone to a hardware store to make a copy of his own key for Babe, who tended to lose them or gamble them away until the RAs shut that habit down. It was his second year rooming with Babe, and as much of a burden as it could be, he was glad. Babe needed the kind of quiet that Lipton could provide, especially after school. Especially now, sleeping off a binge. Especially constantly.
Lipton cleared his throat and reached down to touch the Babe’s ankle. “Babe,” he said, a step below conversational volume. Babe didn’t budge. “Heffron, come on.” He wrapped a hand around Babe’s ankle and shook it. “Babe.”
Babe turned his face towards the wall, not lifting it from the pillow that Lipton had retrieved from the floor in the middle of the night for him. “Nnh.”
“You’ve got an hour.” He paused for a reply, but there was none. “You hear me? One hour.” Babe kicked his foot away from Lipton and into the metal wire shelves. He wasn’t awake to hear the ensuing clatter. Lipton took Babe’s phone from the floor where it lay, plugged it in on the already-cluttered bedside table, and set a few alarms, in staggered intervals to ensure that the snooze button wouldn’t win.
Lipton was considering his options—there wasn’t homework yet, and he wasn’t complaining. He hadn’t procrastinated on his summer assignments like the majority undoubtedly had. His bed was as close to made as a seventeen year old could make it. His mother might’ve pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. His family—what was left of it—ran a boarding house in western West Virginia, a place that was still home to him. He was tangled in blank reverie when his phone buzzed on his desk. He jumped at the noise. Babe flapped an arm angrily, asleep.
6:42 a.m., from Joe Liebgott
Fully dressed and well-prepared for crises, Lipton tucked the phone in his pocket and opened the door. “Alright, what’s going on?”
“We got a problem.” Liebgott was leaned against the wall near the doorframe, picking at a nail with his teeth. Muffled staccato morning sounds meshed like an unorganized symphony tuning strings.
Lipton scanned the row of doors for signs of life. “When do we not have a problem?” There were few, but noticeable. Towards the far end of the hall, someone was backing out of his room dragging what looked like a large black trash bag, muttering. “What’s this one in particular?”
Liebgott ran a hand across his eyes. “My coffee maker is broken.”
"You’re fuckin’ kidding me.”
“Why would I kid about a broken coffee machine on the first day back? Or ever, really?” He waved his phone in front of Lip’s face. “Hence, crisis. It’s a crisis. It’s a problem—the fuck?”
Lipton followed Liebgott’s squinting eyes back down to where the emerging figure was approaching them, dragging not a trash bag but with a wriggling comforter.
“It’s for your own good.”
“Take me baaaaack.”
“Oh, sure. Right after a shower and breakfast and nine hours of class—then you can sleep!”
Liebgott tilted his head. “Who ya dragging there, Luz?”
Luz ignored him and struggled to shimmy past, grunting and muttering through a light sheen of sweat. He shifted his grip on the comforter’s edge. From his mobile cocoon, Floyd Talbert whined and slapped a hand on the linoleum floor, the impressivecrack of determined skin reverberating down the hall. “Forget to eat your Wheaties or somethin’, there?” Lipton grinned.
Luz stopped, turned, and dropped the comforter, eliciting a disregarded oh fuck me my legs that hurt ow from the ensnared Talbert. “You know what, yeah. And also, fuck you.” Lipton raised a hand to his chest, taking mock offense. “God, stop it, sorry, you know I don’t mean that.” Luz pointed sleepily at Liebgott. “Coffee?”
Lieb shrugged one shoulder. “No dice.” Ray’s door opened, followed by an explosion of books and paper and pencils and an unbridled shriek, and the door slammed closed again.
“No coffee. That’s funny.”
“Not funny. It’s a goddamn crisis.”
“What crisis? Who’s having a crisis?” Nate, poking out from the doorway of the room across the hall from Lipton, mumbled with a sharp edge of urgency. “Is everyone okay?”
“My legs…” warbled Tab. Luz settled a foot square on Tab’s chest.
Lipton assessed the increase in activity. Doors opening, cautious peeks into the hallway, the accelerated half-trots towards the communal bathroom for showers before the crowd got wise. “As far as present company goes, Lieb’s coffee maker is broken, Tab needs a shower, and Luz needs some Wheaties.” Lip nodded at Luz.
“Tab’s about to be at the back of the line if you don’t get a move on.”
Luz went back to muttering and struggling before one certain Bill Leyden arrived to alleviate half the duty. He lifted Tab, who was struggling to free himself from the blanket, and threw him over his shoulder en route to the bathroom. Luz trailed behind, bunching up the comforter in his arm without breaking from his rote of griping.
Nate emerged from his room, pulling the door quietly shut behind him. He felt weary, but still alert. He tucked his arms inside his faded blue sleep shirt and rocked on his heels. “Might want to find Brad to take a look at your coffee maker. He’s good with things like that, you know—electronics and tools.” Lieb nodded once, considering this. “We need to get coffee in this hall as soon as possible. Set up at least three fresh pots in the lounge—at least.” Nate popped his neck, steadied himself by leaning on the doorframe. “Someone needs to check on Malarkey and Skip, make sure they haven’t burned their eyes out with the tv going all night long…”
“Gene! Hey, Gene.” Lipton reached out to grab the sleeve of the passing Eugene Roe, who tended to wander the halls looking for ways to be helpful. He just happened to be passing at a time where he could. “Sorry, Nate, I just—“ He gestured with a thumb at Gene, and Nate nodded, shifting his boxers down slightly before ambling off towards a directionless group of panicking, undercaffeinated juniors.
Gene narrowed his eyes at Lipton. “Something’s wrong.”
“Well, no, he’s okay, but—“
“Bein’ okay shouldn’t need an explanation.”
Lipton shrugged helplessly. “I guess you should ask him.” He held out his room key. “He’s alright, just kind of banged up.”
Gene pocketed the key. “I gotta see this for myself; you’re scarin’ the hell outta me.” Lipton gave him a light slap on the back and offered his thanks before being summoned by one Shifty Powers, who didn’t fare well under pressure and was feeling the pinch of first-day-of-school-again panic. He had been standing patiently but visibly uncomfortable near the elevator door, like a puppy chained to a post, not at all dressed for school and his voice rising in volume and wavering with mounting hysteria. Lipton put a hand on Shifty’s shoulder and led him away from the clamor of the mobbing of the bathroom.
Gene’s room was towards the end of the hall, in the opposite direction of Lip and Babe’s room. He stepped over Ray’s papers and books and skirted around Liebgott, who was trying to charm Speirs into letting him use his coffeepot with little avail, and disintegrated into an ultimatum as Gene neared the end of the hall—either Speirs lends the coffee pot or Nix makes everyone mimosas. By the time Gene had retrieved his self-compiled aid kit from his room, Liebgott was gone, along with Speirs’s coffeepot, leaving only the discarded shrapnel of Nix’s thrown attempts to get him to go away—pencils, a pillow, the like. The door to Babe’s room was unlocked.
It looked as if Babe had attempted to wake up. He was sitting slumped, cheek against the wall, with his legs folded under him and his phone lying dismantled on the rug in the center of the room. Gene might have smiled if Babe hadn’t looked like he’d been run over by a fleet of armored trucks. He shook his shoulder. “You alive?”
“Am I?” Babe’s left eye blinked open, the one that wasn’t swollen shut. “Christ, I was hoping that I’d be dead.”
Gene sat on the edge of Babe’s bed, pulling the kit into his lap and extracting a small penlight. “Nah, Heffron.” He touched the blossoming deep bruise on Babe’s cheek and ran his thumb over the cut delicately. “You got a few years in you yet.” He pulled at the skin under Babe’s right eye. “Sorry ‘bout this. Look up, please.” Babe turned his eyes to the ceiling. “Does it hurt? Look left.”
“It don’t exactly tickle.” Babe looked left. Gene shone the light at an angle.
Gene smirked. “Not what I meant. Can’t see any bleeding in the eye, so that’s good. Does your eye feel unnaturally heavy?”
“Happen to see any flashes of light? Bright, brief, really silvery?”
“But you can see, yeah?”
Babe leaned away from Gene’s hand. “Yeah.”
Gene exchanged the penlight for a bottle of peroxide and a packet of gauze squares. “Gonna make this a habit again this year, Babe?”
Babe’s split lips turned up in a smile. “I guess we’ll see.”
Gene wasn’t smiling. He tore the packet open with his teeth and unscrewed the top of the bottle. “You do this to yourself and I can’t figure out a reason. Startin’ to wonder if I should even try.” Gene pressed the peroxide-soaked gauze to the jagged cut on Babe’s cheek. The first time Gene had to do this, Babe hissed and seethed and bit his own hand, but now, it didn’t even seem to register. Babe was looking distantly out the window, disinterested.
“Maybe you shouldn’t. Make it easier, you know. For you.”
Gene dried the cut and applied Neosporin to it. “You ain’t never gonna make anything easy on me.” Babe huffed something of a laugh while Gene smoothed a Band-Aid on. He started to tape up Babe’s hands, knuckles battered and flesh marred. Babe had been under Gene’s care too many times to count in the past two years. Not that he wasn’t grateful—no one could do a better job of putting people back together than Eugene Roe if they tried. It was that no one cared enough to try. Gene reached back into the tattered duffel bag of basic supplies. “I don’t like this, Babe Heffron.”
“You think I enjoy getting the shit kicked out of me?”
Gene smacked an instant ice pack down hard in his palm and shook it. He shrugged a shoulder. “Kinda looks like it, the way you seem to keep limpin’ back to get your fill.” Babe turned his gaze from the window, not missing the slice of sharpness in a voice that was always gentle. His good eye met Gene’s for a fraction of a second.
“Look, I can’t explain—“
“Oh, I know.” Gene slapped the icepack on Babe’s shiner, moving his hand up to hold it in place. “It’s too early for explanations, anyway.” He forced a little smile and patted Babe’s hand quickly before standing up and gathering up discarded bits of gauze and tape. “The icepack may be no good, but it can’t hurt to try. Anything to take down the swelling. Twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off. You know how it goes.” Babe nodded. “Anything else?”
Babe flexed his left hand, leaning his right elbow on his knee and the right side of his face, icepack and all, in the other hand. “Anyone check on Walt yet? He was right behind me when I came in.”
“You dragged Walt Hasser into this shit?”
Babe lifted his left hand in tired defense. “He dragged himself into it.”
“I’ll go check on him.” Gene heaved the duffel bag over his shoulder. Babe had gone back to staring at the window. “Take care of yourself. Think you can stay out of a fight for at least a week?” Babe said nothing. “One week, Heffron. You know I don't ask anythin' of you. Promise me.”
Babe thumbed a cut at the edge of his mouth. “I can try.”
“You oughtta.” He pulled the key from his pocket and tossed it underhand on the bed before turning to go.
He stepped back into the hallway, the atmosphere thick with anxiety and sleepiness. Lines were crammed close to the bathroom for showers, and Gene was glad he’d become a morning person, used to growing up in a house with so many children. Lipton was watching Brad Colbert dismantling a fairly nice coffee machine and murmuring to himself, tapping his cheek with the screwdriver. Lipton glanced up, his arms folded. “What’s the word, doctor?”
Gene shifted the bag on his shoulder. “He’ll be alright. Seen Walt?”
Lipton frowned. “I haven’t.”
“Did you happen to notice if he looked alright last night when they got back?”
Lipton crossed the hall. “I didn’t notice Walt coming back period. I didn’t know he’d gone.” He looked down towards the lounge, where those who had showered and those who had decided to forego hygiene were slowly congregating; Walt wasn’t among them. “Check his room—104. I’ll go check the bathroom.”
The door wasn’t far. Gene twisted the knob and opened it maybe an inch before something hit the floor inside in a scramble and a flurry. “Jesus! Think you could knock? Don’t come in. Is it eight yet?”
“Sorry, Sid.” Gene checked his watch. “You got plenty of time yet. I’s just wonderin’ if you’d seen Walt ‘round?”
Sid appeared in the tiny space between the door and the frame, where Gene held it slightly ajar with one finger. “I haven’t seen him. Why?” Gene quickly assessed his options: let slip that Walt was missing, or dismiss it and figure it out on his own. Before he could decide, Sid narrowed his eyes. “That duffel bag is like a fucking omen. What’s up?”
Gene looked around. No one was near. He leaned in, voice low. “Babe and Walt went out last night. Babe came back bashed up and now it looks to me that Walt didn’t come back at all.”
“Where could he be?”
“’Less Lip finds him in the bathroom or you’re hiding him in there—“ Gene’s phone buzzed in his pocket.
7:17 a.m., from Lipton
Not here. There?
Gene bit his lips. “You’re sure you haven’t seen him?”
“I really haven’t, I’m sorry.”
Gene texted back a short ‘no’. “Alright, then. Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” He nodded once and left, meeting Lipton back at the spot where Brad, sporting a satisfied but focused look, was almost finished with putting the pieces of the machine back together.
“Where’s Nate?” Lipton squared his shoulders. Brad gestured to the room behind him with the screwdriver. Lip knocked on the door, and within seconds, Nate Fick was in the hall, being briefed on the situation.
He cut his eyes up at Gene, though not maliciously. “This is not good.”
"What can I do?" Brad asked from the floor. The coffee machine, looking as operable as ever, was sitting upright about a foot away. Brad fidgeted with the screwdriver in his hands. His gaze was distant.
Nate held up a finger, eyes closed in concentration. Lipton and Gene exchanged a knowing look. “You take the coffee machine to Lieb, make sure it’s working, make as much coffee as possible with your resources. Ask him how you can help him, and please just… do what he says. Lipton, can you rally everyone somewhere convenient?”
“Lounge?” Lipton suggested. “Coffee’s there.”
“Yeah, good, just make sure everyone’s there. Be sure to cover the bathroom, too. Gene, if you could follow me?” They all split ways, Lipton knocking on door after door and shepherding sleep-ridden boys towards the lounge and Brad hoisting the fount of resurrection under his arm. Nate started towards the lounge, taking quick, militant steps. Gene followed. He wasn’t surprised by how quickly Nate cut to the chase. “I heard from the guys about Heffron.” Gene slid his hands into his pockets. He didn’t have anything to offer that Nate didn’t already know. “He okay?”
“Gon’ be just fine if he remembers to alternate that icepack.” Gene smirked.
“He really needs to cut that shit out.”
“You tellin’ me,” Gene laughed resignedly.
“Now,” Nate hitched up his voice a little, back to the rigidity of control and losing some of the sympathetic pallor. He was looking past Gene with his arms folded. “Did he say anything specific about Walt?”
“Ahh,” Gene said, scratching at the back of his neck. “Said he was right behind ‘im when he came in. S’all he really said.” He chose to leave out the part about Walt dragging himself into it. He didn’t quite believe it.
Nate’s eyes were heavy and well-worn creases of concern betrayed his attempts to be stoic. The noticeable drop in his voice made it worse. “That’s all?”
Gene would have apologized if it was his place, but unfortunately he knew his place all too well. He nodded once. Behind him, Babe was slowly shuffling his way out of his room, one hand pressing the icepack and the other wrapped around his ribs. Nate barely caught sight of him before things started happening too fast.
A door wrenched open in the middle of the hall and Ray followed behind it, staggering and slipping on the papers he’d thrown in the hall before.
“YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE.”
Babe stopped but couldn’t make himself turn. He lowered the icepack, shifting to minimize the pain in his side. “Not now, Ray.”
Gene took a step towards Ray, who brushed by. “Yeah, right fucking now. Where is he? What did you do?” His growl echoed off the walls of the hall, and suddenly everyone but Ray was aware that they four were alone.
Babe dragged himself around to meet him with bemusement. “Whaddya talkin’ about?”
“What the fuck did you do with Walt?”
“Don’t fuck with me!” Ray screamed and reached out to grab at him, but Nate was quicker, stopping him with a firm hand on his chest and a warning glare. Ray clawed for Babe, reaching over Nate’s shoulder. Nate held fast. “Where’s Walt? What the hell did you do?”
Babe glanced at each with a solid look of fear and confusion. “What’s he talking about?” His eyes fixed on Gene. “What did I do? What happened?” Gene moved to him. “What’s going on?”
Nate grabbed Ray around both shoulders and leaned to look at his face. “Ray, stop this. Stop it.” Ray heaved and shuddered and shook with angry irrepressible sobs, his face obscured by Nate’s shoulder. “Ray. Listen to me. Get it together.”
Gene put an arm around Babe. “C’mon to the lounge.”
“Tell me what happened!” Babe pled. But Gene couldn’t, and he didn’t know why. Babe was led to the lounge and, upon entering, was flooded with questions he didn’t feel up to answering. He hadn’t changed out of yesterday’s clothes, doused in unmistakable bloodstains. Babe felt lightheaded and horribly alone. He slid down into a chair. Gene took Babe’s wrist and guided his hand with the icepack back up to his eye, muttering about twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off. Luz nudged Babe’s elbow with a cup of coffee, and when Babe didn’t move to take it, Luz left it on the table near him, hesitantly patting his shoulder.
Nate dragged an apparently inconsolable Ray into the lounge seconds later, leaving him in the doorframe to slide down into a jittery jumble of knees and elbows and unhinged, frustrated tears. Brad knelt by him, placing a cup of coffee near his leg. Ray didn’t touch or look at it. Nate jumped up onto a chair and a wave of shh made it easy to capture the attention of anyone looking for some kind of answer, which was everyone. “Alright, listen, guys.” Nate looked over the crowd. It fell silent before him, as everyone trusted him to have a solution. Most had coffee in some kind of container—mug, paper Dixie cup, various Tupperware, and Hoosier drinking straight from the pot. Nate checked his watch—nearly seven thirty. Half an hour until class. “I’m gonna be brief and perfectly honest. If you’re not ready for the day yet, you have two minutes. If you haven’t had any coffee, get some now. I need everyone to be vigilant and sharp.”
Skip raised his hand. Nate sighed and gestured towards him, a half-hearted go-ahead. “Um, why?”
Nate rolled his lips in. He looked to Lipton, who nodded solemnly. “Officially, as of now, Walt Hasser is missing. I need everyone looking for him.” The crowd stuck, unmoving. Uncomfortable murmurs rose and hung in the air. Nate raised his voice. “If anyone knows anything, I need you to talk to me now. Otherwise, you have twenty-three minutes. Go.”
The murmurs escalated and divided into fearful ranting and strategic planning. The lounge cleared in no time. Guys split off into pairs and groups, down the hall and into the bathroom and onto the balcony, into the stairwell, and a few daring to breech the communal lounge to communicate with the girl’s dorm hall across the way. Nate and another senior, Andrew Haldane, stood in the hallway and directed groups with nowhere to go.
Babe Heffron was choking on the reality and drowning in his inability. Gene was sitting on the table near him, their knees touching. “God, I… I don’t know… he was right behind me, I swear, I… he was right there…”
“Hey,” Gene said softly, hand resting on the back of Babe’s neck. “It’s gon’ be fine. It’s all gonna be okay.”
“You can’t say for sure. You don’t know. I… I fucked it up, Gene. I don’t even know how, but I did.” Babe rubbed his eye on his sleeve. “Goddamn it.”
Gene squeezed lightly. “Relax. Worryin’ won’t make anyone find him any faster.” Babe tried to stand, but Gene kept him sitting. “You stay here.”
Babe leaned forward into his hands. He couldn’t pin anything down in his mind. Like a splinter under his ribs, his hurting heartbeat pulsed not again, not again. Gene traced light circles with his fingertips on Babe’s shoulder blade. With a sudden gasp, Babe stood up and crossed the room in a few steps, dropping heavily by the doorframe. “Ray,” he said, unsteady. “Ray, I’m so sorry.”
Ray cut his eyes upward, not directly at Babe. He had nothing to say and didn’t pretend to. He got to his feet and fell into the hallway. Babe rested his forehead against the door hinge.
The next fifteen minutes passed with the same kind of disappointments. Rooms were scoured for clues rather than Walt himself. None of the bars were open that early in the morning and therefore weren’t answering calls. There was no way anyone would be able to make a run around town on such short notice. Skinny Sisk and Shifty, who had run down the stairs, reported back that he wasn’t outside or in the small parking lot across the street. Malarkey and Muck had tried to infiltrate the female dorm hall, but were fervently rejected; however, Bill Leyden, who was in the Dance department with a few of the ladies and therefore considered trustworthy, was admitted only into their lounge. They searched and found no Walt. Nate, who hadn’t had high hopes but rather an assurance of diligence and precision on the side of his guys, was beginning to feel a little hopeless. Brad stayed close.
“Maybe you should start letting groups of them go downstairs,” he suggested. “To get ready for class and to get their minds off of it and all.”
Nate popped his fingers. “There’s nowhere else to look. He’s just… not here.”
Brad paused a second. “It’s not your responsibility.”
“Like hell it’s not,” Nate clipped back, rubbing his hands together irritably, watching the end of the hall for anything to happen.
“How is it, then?” Brad asked. “Tell me exactly how all this—“ He gestured to the dragging masses combing the hall. “Is your mess to clean up alone?”
Nate was scraping his fingernails against his palm. “They need someone,” he said finally, resolutely, but more to himself than anything else. He cleared his throat. “And, anyway, I’m not alone—there’re others that do the same thing that I do.” Brad watched him and his nervous habits. “I’m not the only one. Right?”
“I’m not, though.”
“If you say so.”
Nate smirked. “Maybe I do.”
“HEY, HEY—WE FOUND HIM!”
Nate and Brad exchanged a look before sprinting towards the voice. Malarkey flagged them down, showing them to the elevator door, being held open by Skip. Snafu stood against the wall inside the elevator, and what looked like Sledge was kneeling nearby, shaking something unseen. “Walt, hey Walt—“
Nate got there first, sliding up to the elevator door. “Sledge?”
Sledge kept his eyes on Walt, curled up against the corner walls of the elevator, slackjawed. Malarkey coughed before he started speaking. “We just opened the doors—we were going to sneak off and go downstairs and then he was here—“
Brad touched Nate’s elbow unobtrusively. “He’s probably been here all night.” The elevators from the doors to the two lower levels locked after curfew and unlock after seven thirty.
“He must’ve gotten stuck in here right before they locked it.” Sledge deduced. “So that’s, what… six hours?” He rattled Walt’s knee again. “Is that right?”
“Christ,” Nate said, running his hands over his face. He took a second, and then spilled a plan. “Snafu, go look through his things and find his schedule. Skip—no, you can’t even dress yourself—Sledge, bring back a decent looking outfit.” Snafu bolted down the hall, well-equipped with an idea of where to find things that didn’t belong to him. Sledge stood and took a step out of Nate’s way and into the hall. Nate reached down to touch Walt’s shoulder. “Walt, you there, buddy?”
“’Scuse me, comin’ through, ‘scuse me…” Gene was by Nate’s side before it registered, and Nate was stepping back. Gene swung the first aid bag down on the floor and settled next to it, edging up to Walt on his knees. “Someone get some coffee down here, please? Malark, if ya could?” Malarkey nodded and bounded off. Gene pressed his fingertips to the hollow of Walt’s neck, checking for the carotid pulse. “Walt, can ya hear me?” Walt rolled over. Gene pulled him back up to sitting, pulling at his eyelids. “Nothin’ looks… wrong… Walt?” Gene slapped him on the cheek lightly. Walt rolled over. Gene looked up at Nate, a little helpless but mostly tired. “I think he just powerful asleep.”
Skip chortled, but was cut off by a slap to the head courtesy Brad. Walt cracked an eye. “Go ‘way,” he mumbled, tucking his arms under himself.
Gene cut out a loose laugh, pulling himself back up to standing. “Naw, Hassuh—you got about five minutes to get dressed and get yourself downstairs.” Nate covered his eyes with his hand. Walt pulled his elbows over his head.
Nate nudged him with his foot. “Malarkey’s getting you some coffee, Sledge is picking out your outfit, and Snafu is finding your schedule. The very least you could do is sit up and say thank you.”
“You forget that he’s an ungrateful shithead,” Brad said behind a slight smile and folded arms. “Walt, get up or you will be dragged.”
“Is that a threat?”
Brad hooked his hand around Walt’s left elbow. “Goddamn right it is.” Walt squirmed. Brad, as promised, dragged Walt out of the elevator and started down the hall. Nate followed a half-step behind. “Where to?”
“Bathroom.” Nate directed, glancing at his watch. A small crowd was gathering near the middle of the hall, unsure of how else to help, embarrassed by their failure to check somewhere that seemed so obvious. Brad ignored them and their offers to help drag him. Gene intercepted Babe and led him downstairs before he had the chance to see. Nate coughed and raised his voice. “Everyone go to class now, before you’re late. That means you, too, Skip. I’ll stay and make sure Walt gets on his way.”
Brad threw a cursory glance over his shoulder. “You stay and you’ll be late, too. Let him deal with his own consequence.” Nate was doing his best not to listen, waving Sledge and Snafu over. The crowd mostly fell away, either headed towards the stairwell or the elevator or the short flight down one level to the single academic hallway. Ray lingered behind, unnoticed, tracing patterns in the threshold of his room’s door.
Walt, having been sufficiently embarrassed, got to his feet halfway down the hall and struck off towards the bathroom with his stack of fresh clothes and schedule under one arm. Malarkey stood just outside the lounge, bemused and uncomfortable with a coffee pot in one hand. Nate, retreating into the lounge, took the coffee from him and dismissed him to class. Brad followed him. “You can’t take every bullet. One of these days—“
“One of these days, but not today.” Nate hit the tap of the sink to wash out the coffeepot. He checked his watch discreetly—three ‘til eight.
Brad turned off the tap, resting his hand there. “He’s old enough to handle a shower.” Nate watched the sinews taut under Brad’s knuckles. “All that anyone needs right now is for you to go to class and carry on with your day as usual. You don’t have to play up for anyone. Walt’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
Nate wasn’t sure how to explain that he wasn’t playing anything up in a way that would make sense to anyone but himself. He couldn’t put it past Brad to understand it, even if he could think of something to say. A small cough from the doorframe cut him off, anyway.
“So he is okay?” Ray had his eyes trained to the floor, picking at his fingernails, oddly calm. “Walt, I mean.”
“He’s fine. You, on the other hand, are about to be late.” Nate sidestepped Brad without anything else on the subject, moving Ray out of the lounge with a protective shove. “Got about two minutes, Brad.” Nate pulled open the stairwell door and allowed Ray through first, then looked back. “Later, okay?”
Brad raised a shoulder and dropped it, a temporary white flag. Nate had no choice but to accept it and prodded Ray down the stairs at double speed. Brad crossed to the bathroom, slammed a closed fist against it twice, then yelled to Walt that everyone was leaving. The sound of the eight a.m. bell was drowned out by the sound of water falling and Walt humming something he was too tired to sing.