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.
Hoosier was staring at a map of Vietnam.
He was ignoring Skinny throwing erasers at him and Tab making faces, mostly because he forgot to care. He was trying to figure out how or why he woke up, how he made it downstairs, and how he managed to glide through four periods, lunch, and then the last two periods without opening his mouth once. It wasn’t that he had decided not to speak, and that was the astounding thing—it was that no one asked him to. He found a strange solace in this freedom, a patient acceptance. In the dorms, everyone had spent the night catching up with whatever summer stories they had saved, and so the only thing anyone had left to discuss was what class they had next period, which ended up being useless as everyone saw each other when they got there, anyway. He nodded in the hallways. He was never known for being the most vocal, but even this surprised him—an entire day of accidental silence. He wasn’t complaining. He had nothing to say about it.
He was holding out until specialty period. The way the schedule operated—at least for the four years he’d been enrolled—was a set number of academic classes back to back in the morning, then lunch, then the rest of academic classes before a three-hour block of specialized classes, which depended on one’s department, which one would have to audition for and be accepted. Out of the six departments—Theatre, Dance, Music, Creative Writing, Math/Science, and Visual Arts—Hoosier was only at home in Visual Arts. He was lucky, as he auditioned once, was accepted, and thought nothing more about it. It was common to be rejected at least once, more often twice. He had a habit of forgetting how lucky he was.
The bell trilled and seventh period AP American History II rose to leave. Hoosier was the first out the door and the first in the lonely stairwell after cramming his books and binders in his locker. He lazily regarded the stairs before taking a step. He felt exhausted by the thought.
“Hey, Hoos.” A relatively chipper Joseph Liebgott trotted past him and down the first few steps, slowing to a halt when he realized Hoosier wasn’t following him. “Y’alright?”
Hoosier shifted his backpack, effecting a shrug.
Liebgott didn’t buy it. He was accepted to the school the same year as Hoosier, two lonely seventh graders sketching their way through small classes and responsibilities that built up without them noticing. The school was structured to accommodate grades 7-12, but the first two years were lonely years, as it was harder to bullshit yourself into being an artist or a dancer or a writer or any other craft—you had to really believe yourself capable, not just be pushed to it by your parents or whatever else drives middle schoolers to this degree of rigor.
“Babe looks like the lesser side of paradise, huh?” Liebgott tried, repelling down the stairs back first, lowering himself down by the guardrail. Hoosier bobbed his head in a disinterested nod. He had been asleep during the entire fiasco, and he was zoned to search a few rooms near the end of the hall. He got back in bed to stare at the ceiling after not finding anything of real merit. Hoosier continued down the stairs, skirting around Liebgott at the landing. He hadn’t been trying to keep up his accidental vow of silence until it was recognized—now that he was thinking about it, he felt jealously attached to it.
The sounds of music students opening lockers and causing general racket with their instruments drifted down through the concrete and glass walls of the back stairwell. The upperclassmen art studio was on the other side of the building, just past the lunchroom, tucked between the main stairwell and the Math/Science wing of the school. Through the doors of the stairwell, the lobby lay as a convergent ground. One hallway stretched down the back of the school, holding the lowerclassmen art workshop on one side and the dance studios on the other; a second hallway near the front held the main theatre and the practice theatre as well as the dressing rooms; pressed against the wall of the lobby and dividing the two hallways was the art gallery, sometimes used for student work but mostly rented out to local artists. A separate wing beside the school’s main door was built for three Creative Writing classrooms and one multipurpose lecture hall. The school itself was a giant cinderblock with the occasional window, equipped to foster creativity and creation. At least, that was the general idea.
Hoosier had just pulled open the door to the studio when Liebgott shoved his shoulder. “The hell’s the matter with you?”
There was an answer, but Hoosier couldn’t pick out what it was. He had tried formulating a sentence, but the sound that came out of his mouth was a disappointed, broken sigh. He shrugged again and shouldered his way inside. He slung his backpack onto a drawing table near the back wall, a spacious cranny with a low roof due to the senior loft above. Liebgott chose the table nearest, slightly out of the cave. Large plate glass windows high above allowed enough light coverage to satisfy him.
They were the first, but the rest followed. Snafu picked the table beside Liebgott, tipping his head up once as a silent greeting. His table was pushed up against the wall nearest the door, on the opposite side of the room as Hoosier’s cave. He liked Liebgott and Hoosier well enough, mostly because they had enough sense; knowing that they understood art made it easier to talk to them as they spent less time trying to wade through flowery phrasing and political correctness. They both tended to tell it as it was, as Snafu was accustomed to doing. Liebgott nodded back at him. Hoosier dragged his table to the center of the cave, pulled a blanket from his backpack, and crawled under it on top of the table. Snafu regarded him from across the room, then looked to Liebgott for some kind of validation or explanation. Liebgott shook his head.
They arranged their spaces carefully, the uncaring Hoosier being the exception. Liebgott lifted paint cans of various size, content, and volumes onto his desk for inspection. Snafu unpacked a crate that he’d brought down from his dorm, lining up inkwells and fountain pens and fresh charcoal and hunks of graphite on the table. As they were juniors this year, they were allowed to store their things in metal lockers and cabinets inside their spaces rather than in the imposing, rickety wooden lockers down the hall from the lowerclassman workshop that the younger students had to deal with. Snafu was less vocal about the small rewards of seniority, whereas Liebgott taunted the ninth graders struggling with their pencil cases and tackle boxes full of their supplies. Hoosier barely noticed the students but remembered the lockers, his just above Liebgott’s for three straight years. He remembered them with an abject fondness, the little notes and song lyrics crammed through the gaps of the wood. He’d saved them all over the years.
Chatty, bubbly laughter sliced up the reverent silence like broken glass. Liebgott turned his gaze to the high ceiling, collecting himself in a sigh. Snafu chucked a broken eraser at Liebgott, snagging his attention. “’Least they on the other side of the room this year,” he said in a low voice, tipping his head towards the two girls entering. Last year, at least for part of specialty period, had been a special kind of hell, with the unceasing laughter bounding gracelessly over the underclassmen workshop, which had no limits of personal space.
A bolt of loud green fabric was thrown over the shoulder of Kitty Grogan, a sprightly senior with springy gold coils of hair tied back in a pink scrunchie. She was unnervingly happy most of the time, a quality which particularly annoyed the three junior boys who all preferred at least some variance in one’s daily disposition.
Ahead of her was a shorter girl, a quieter junior with dark hair tied back close to her neck. Kitty was talking at the top of her lungs at her, rather than to her. Hoosier cut his eyes at her as she entered, tucking a stray fragment of hair behind her ear. Snafu glanced up just in time to catch Hoosier’s glare. “Ah,” he said, and that was all. Hoosier dragged his eyes over to Snafu.
Liebgott deliberately knocked over a nearly empty paint can. It fell to the floor with an impressive clang. He tipped over another. “Sorry,” he called to the girls, ducking under his desk to retrieve them. “I couldn’t hear myself concentrating. It really helps one focus if there’s a loud annoying sound. Keeps you sharp.” He popped up on the other side of his desk and nodded to them both in a mock apology. “Ladies.”
Kitty raised an eyebrow at him, prepared to lash back; Vera lowered her backpack in a chair close to the table in the open space of the other side of the room. “Just leave it alone, Kitty,” Vera said quietly, eyes locked on the table.
Kitty turned her back and sashayed up the stairs to the loft. “It’s gonna be a great year, Joe,” she said over her shoulder. “Looking down on you and all.”
He tossed her a lax salute and grabbed the front of his jeans lewdly. “I hope you see get to see everything. Hey—” He whistled at her, and she made the mistake of looking before turning away with a disgusted grimace. “Ev-ry-thing.”
Snafu meandered over to Hoosier. He walked his fingers along the edge of the table. “I see what you doin’.” Hoosier gave a noncommittal grunt. Snafu popped him on the ear. “Can’t hide from a Cajun.”
Vera unpacked her bag diligently, quietly, avoiding looking at the other side of the room. Last year, without Kitty to protect her every minute, she was at the mercy of Hoosier’s dagger glares across their shared table. Liebgott trotted over to her and offered her a hand, which she rejected.
Snafu pulled Hoosier’s bag out from under his head, yanking out a hefty toolbag. “She ain’t nothin’ but another girl.” He opened it, shook it slightly, and set it to the side. He turned his gaze to Hoosier. “You listenin’?”
Hoosier gave a small nod.
Liebgott turned on his heel. He waited until he was away from Vera to say anything. “Yeah, Hoos. Ain’t nothin’.” Liebgott began before the studio door opened again. Hoosier turned on his other side as Leckie waltzed in and over to Vera’s table. Liebgott, feeling the tension ratchet another level higher, scratched Hoosier’s back with the ends of his fingertips. “And he’s nothing, too.”
“Hey, guys!” Leckie called, leaning on his elbow on Vera’s desk. He raised his hand in a little wave. Liebgott managed to edge out a sneering smirk and head nod at him, muttering a brief “Hey, yourself.” Snafu folded his arms and lifted his chin. Hoosier, hidden behind their backs, was watching the dark corner of the inside of his cave.
Kitty leaned out precariously far over the railing of her loft, waving. “Hiya, Rob!” Leckie smiled up at her. Vera reached over and touched Leckie’s hand, but no one had to see it to know that it was happening.
Liebgott bent his knees slightly and leaned back, whispering, “Who even calls him Rob?” over his shoulder to Hoosier, who was gritting his teeth so hard Liebgott could feel his own jaw aching. Liebgott patted his shoulder.
“You got class, don’t ya,” Snafu tipped his head towards Leckie. “Rob?”
Leckie scoffed, turning his gaze back down from the loft. “If you could even call it class, sure.” He took a beat to scan the studio. “Where’s Hoosier?”
“Ain’t here,” Snafu said dismissively, taking a step closer to Liebgott, closing the slight gap. Liebgott shoved his hands in his pockets.
Leckie tapped his free fingers on Vera’s desk. “I just saw him in History. Seemed like he was in an awful hurry to get down here.” He glanced down at Vera. She didn’t glance back. “Sure you haven’t seen him?”
“Ever cross your mind that maybe he was goin’ somewhere else?” Snafu leaned back against Hoosier’s desk.
Leckie, who was in the Creative Writing department, was stunningly bad at picking up on subtleties, but didn’t miss the cutting edge in Snafu’s question or in his glare. “I’ll just check somewhere else. Thanks.” He turned and left almost as abruptly as he’d entered, leaving the door wide open.
Snafu split from the table and pulled the door shut with force. Liebgott went back to tracing small circles on Hoosier’s back. As soon as Snafu started walking back to his table, the door burst open again.
“Fuck’s sake…” Snafu muttered, not turning to look. “Close it on your way out.”
“You’re kickin’ me out already?” Eugene Sledge took a semi-comfortable step into the main floor of the studio, pulling down on the straps of his backpack.
“We were just getting used to unwelcome visitors,” Liebgott said, betraying a small laugh as he pulled himself up to sit on Hoosier’s table next to him. “Hell, Sledge. You’re just in time!”
Sledge smiled and wandered over to Snafu’s table. Snafu rifled through his pencil case. “First Leckie’s ditchin’ class, now you?” He mumbled, retrieving his sketchbook. “Known you all these years an’ I still can’t see you as the type.” He pulled out a small knife and pared down a graphite pencil.
“We got a little break—Magnuson’s a sweetheart sometimes. Mostly only after six pages of notes on the first day in class. Biology is a killer.” Sledge shook out his writing hand as illustration. Snafu hummed a semi-interested note of acknowledgement. Sledge was watching Snafu’s hands carefully, the knife in his right hand coming dangerously close to the top of his left thumb with each swipe. “Christ, Snaf, be careful with that.” Snafu paused, tilting his head without looking up. Sledge bumped him playfully with his backpack. “‘Course, it would be too much to ask you to be careful with anything.”
Snafu set down the knife and inspected the point of the pencil held against the gray light coming from the windows. “You know me so well, Sledgehammuh.”
Sledge shifted his backpack on his shoulders. “Anyway. I just thought I’d wander a bit, see what y’all were up to.” He cast a glance up at Liebgott, who winked at him. “Looks like no good, as always.” More visual arts students shuffled in, bleary-eyed and tired of the day. Sledge stepped out of the way of the weary few, looking for a place to collapse. Snafu had started sketching aimlessly. Sledge raised his voice slightly. “I’ll see you fellas later, then?” Liebgott gave him an effortless thumbs-up. Snafu raised his head in a quick nod. Hoosier hadn’t moved at all. Sledge held the door open for an art teacher as he exited the studio.
Once the door closed, Snafu raised his eyes slightly from the page. He found one Joe Liebgott giving him a smirk with a heavily suspicious squinted-eye. Liebgott tilted his head to the side like a curious bird of prey. “Really?”
Snafu snatched up the knife from the table and leveled it at Liebgott from across the room. “This ain’t up for discussion.”
Liebgott raised his hands, sliding off Hoosier’s desk. “Fine, fine.” He ducked under his own desk and reappeared on the other side. “Not like I’d want to talk about it anyway. Because, like… gross.” He forced a shudder.
It took the barrage of six rubber erasers, one wooden drawing mannequin, three sharpened number 2 pencils, and a few more threats of the knife to stop Liebgott’s taunts. Hoosier had rolled onto his back, wrestling with something like a smile.
No one could understand a damned thing. Ms. Lugemwa’s garbled accent paired with English as a second language learned late in life made it hard to understand anything, let alone Art of Problem Solving, which was complicated enough as is. A squat woman from Uganda, Lugemwa wasn’t a fan of wasting time, and the first day of school was no exception. Her four chalkboards were covered in notes within the first twenty minutes of the hour-long class. She was, however, a fan of doling out “whops” at her discretion. A whop, as any Math/Science student could tell you, was simply a way to justify mild student abuse—a permissible consequence to any possible infraction.
Malarkey was well acquainted with whops. After the final bell rang and everyone fled out eagerly, he sat rubbing a sore spot on his left shoulder blade. Skip Muck, who had somehow found a soft spot in the hard heart of their Draconian teacher, twirled on the stool. “I didn’t know one student could piss off a teacher so much on the first day,” he mused.
“There’s a special place in hell for you.” Malarkey swept his books under his arm, heaved his backpack on, and side-eyed Skip. “Right up close to the blackboard.” He kicked at Skip’s legs as he walked past, shutting off the lights.
“Aw, Malark. You’re just sad that she likes me more.” Skip bounced behind him, pulling the door shut. The lower hall of the Math/Science wing was absolutely empty, and Skip’s sunny disposition lingered in the concrete walls.
Malarkey rolled his eyes to the ceiling. Posters of alumni’s senior pictures and the college they attended were plastered above doorways. Hundreds of them. “What if I am? You didn’t have to suffer six whops with a meter stick.”
Skip’s shoulders jumped up once happily. “I’ve got a way with older women.”
Malarkey leaned his weight into his free hand on the door to the back stairwell, which led to the second floor of the Math/Science wing and on up to the third floor, where the male dorms stood just beyond the counselors’ offices. Malarkey liked to walk the back stairwell every chance he got because the two slanted windows at the very top let in sunlight that wasn’t overwhelming, not in a great flood like the wall of small block windows in the main stairwells. Something in the way the light filtered down reminded him of Astoria, his distant and rarely-visited home, and that alone was worth the claustrophobic, steep climb. Plus, the elevators were always too crowded.
“That’s nothing to be proud of, Skip.” He held the door open. “Gonna walk up with me or take the elevator?”
Skip lifted his backpack from the floor outside Ms. Lugemwa’s room with both hands, grimacing at the weight. “Sheesh. You’d have to drug me, drag me, or carry me to get me to go up those stairs with this shit.”
“It’s only three flights. Come on.”
Skip whimpered, shaking his backpack at Malarkey like a beggar’s hat. “Yeaaaah, but it’s like three miles.” He pouted. “Can I get a raincheck?”
Malarkey grinned. “No, because you’ll never redeem it.”
Skip slung his backpack over his shoulder. “Damn you.” He waited for Malarkey to take the first step, but he didn’t. Skip gestured towards the open door. “Well, ladies first.”
Malarkey slapped Skip hard on the shoulder. “Of course. A gentleman insists.” He bowed gracefully at the waist as far as he could without his backpack falling over and crushing his neck. “After you, Madame Muck.”
Rather than come up with a rivaling remark, Skip pushed out his chest and flounced through the doorway. In a split second, he pushed Malarkey’s bowed head down with a single hand and tore away running up the stairs, laughing gleefully. Malarkey, who hadn’t bothered to zip up his backpack, staggered and spilled every single sheet of paper, every pencil, his graphing calculator, ruler, compass, binders, textbook, and whatever else he’d crammed into his backpack. Once he avoided strangulation by strap, he wriggled out of the backpack’s death hold. “Oh, you dick!”
“That’s no way to address a la-dyyyy!” Skip called in a raspy, high-pitched, ill-formed attempt at a proper British accent, leaning over the railing. Malarkey ditched the pile and bounded up the stairs in an alarmingly small amount of steps. Skip shrieked and scrambled, barely out of Malarkey’s reach. He hardly noticed when he crawled up the last step, gasping. He sprawled out on his back. Malarkey, who had gotten used to the physical challenge of the back stairs, had conserved energy by walking behind Skip, who was too busy spluttering and complaining to notice.
Malarkey pulled Skip’s pack off his shoulders. He unzipped it and methodically removed Skip’s iPod, graphing calculator, and laptop, anything of great value, then set them on the top landing carefully before upending the backpack over the railing of the stairs. The thunderstorm of the rest of Skip’s belongings ravaged the stairwell in an aggressive flurry. He gave it a good shake before tossing the empty backpack over Skip’s face. “Oops. Looks like you dropped your shit, there.”
“Fuck… you…” Muck wheezed, pulling air into his lungs. “Oh, fuck you.”
Malarkey stepped over him, pulling the door at the top of the stairs open. The bottom of it bumped Skip’s cheek. Malarkey stepped gingerly through it, but turned. “Hey, uh, while you’re down there gathering up all your stuff, would you mind getting mine, too? Thanks, you’re a doll.” He pulled the door shut, cutting off Skip’s vehement refusal.
He walked through the dark passageway alone, dragging his fingers along the cracks in the cinderblock walls. The lights of the offices were out, the counselors usually leaving at three, nearly two hours before the end of classes. He knew the offices and the two counselors well. He had been a nervous eighth grader, often very homesick for his backyard, his blue bedroom, a world 2634.48 miles (he’d MapQuested it many times) away. It wasn’t so much the distance, but the flashing red light of anxiety blinking in his mind that going home was more difficult than it should be. He was not a nervous flyer, but his family’s bank account was. And it wasn’t that he had anything to necessarily rush home for—when he was at home, he mostly slept the days away and ambled around his hometown at night, cradling that fond nostalgia for his youth in the pit of his stomach. He’d counted down the days until Christmas, then until Spring break, then until summer just to make the flights again, to touch down on familiar ground, to feel that winding sadness just to be able to say that he could. He missed his home simply because it was his home.
That was before Skip Muck, though. Skip had come to the school in his freshman year, a smart kid with a natural spring in his step. He began to strike up strange, spontaneous conversations with Malarkey, which was nice—most Math/Science students flooded in during eighth grade and formed strong friendships right off the bat, but not Malarkey. Skip, whether he knew it or not, saved Malarkey from more afternoons ditching class to curl up on a couch in a counselor’s office, crying into his knees. During the rare downtime in math class, Skip would make his way over to Malarkey and ask him about his dog, the last song he’d listened to, what he would do right then if he had ten thousand dollars. It kept Malarkey’s mind off of his weakness for the relapses into blankness, daydreaming about the jolt an airplane drives through you when it leaves the tarmac. Skip reverted Malarkey’s dangerous tendencies, as if on accident. Of course, Malarkey made more friends as the years turned, many of them close, but no one could be Skip, the insurmountable, the irreplaceable.
Skip lived in Tonawanda, a town in the northern suburbs of Buffalo, in the western pocket of New York. Malarkey learned just about everything to know about Tonawanda (“Hey, did you know that it was the first town in America to exceed a population of 100,000 people? No shit! That’s my town!”), whether he wanted to or not. And during Spring break of freshman year, unable to afford a trip home and back, Malarkey first saw Tonawanda in all its legendary splendor—undoubtedly blown out of proportion, but still nice. They walked to parks, parking lots, biked to the edge of Lake Erie. Every door was unlocked to Skip Muck, and he was dragging Donald Malarkey through it by the wrist. It was the greatest display of kindness and generosity that Malarkey had ever been shown, but Skip was deaf to any form of thanks. To him, that was just what a friend did for another friend, and Malarkey was grateful beyond words to have a friend like him. Between home and Tonawanda was 2741.72 miles. It didn’t feel so far away for a week.
Malarkey jumped. Lipton had been watching him cautiously from the darkened doorway that led to the dorm hall. Malarkey hadn’t noticed the yellow-gray sunlight through the window wall gradually fade, he himself silhouetted against the evening without the overhead lights on. A light August rain sizzled on the alleyway pavement three stories below where his toes met the glass. “How long you been standing there, Lip?”
“Long enough.” He narrowed an eye at him. “You okay?”
“Me? Oh yeah, just,” Malarkey jerked a thumb at the window. Lipton followed the gesture with his eyes, but saw nothing. “Thinking and stuff.”
Lipton came to stand beside him, watching the drizzle through the window. “Thinking and stuff?” Malarkey nodded, scratching at a speck of tape left on the window from something. “What kind of stuff?”
Malarkey rolled the tape in his fingers. “Home, mostly.”
“I see,” Lipton said, watching the cars inch along in traffic lined up on the interstate. Malarkey tried not to talk too much about home to Lipton, who knew the sting of poverty and the attachment to a distant home all too well. Lipton had duty, though—things to be accountable for at home. After his father’s death, he shouldered the incredible responsibility of helping his mother and older brother run the family’s boarding house. He worked there for a few years while going to school until his mother sent his brother off to a nearby university and him to this school, where he never complained about not having enough to go home but instead continued to channel what he knew how to do well—maintain things, fix things, where to cut corners and when to take an extra step—into his daily routine. To Malarkey, the distance from home was crushing. Lipton hardly noticed it, except that things were concrete around this city rather than green, that he had to make his own breakfast if he wanted any, and that his family had extended to a floor of guys closer to his own age and, if he was being honest, were better matches as brothers than friends. It was the same home in a different place, the same responsibilities to different people. Much as he missed his mother and helping out, he had learned from her that walls didn’t bind one, but the restrictions one imposed. Home was only a place—opportunity was his vice.
Lipton wasn’t about to reopen the wound by asking Malarkey how long it had been since he’d seen home—he knew Malark tended to count the days. He cleared his throat. “Your first day go alright?”
“Except for getting whopped a few times too many, it wasn’t half bad.”
“Ah,” Lipton said wistfully, taking a step away from the window and towards the dorm hall doorway. He pulled the door open and let Malarkey through first. “I remember those. But you know who remembers them even better is Nix.”
“Nearly every day.” Lipton pointed to his cheek. “Hurt to watch, really.”
“Across the face?”
“If he was lucky.”
The dormers were slowly filling in, some lingering downstairs to press out those precious few minutes with their friends who lived close enough to commute. The elevator dinged open and a platform hand truck, the kind found in hardware stores and apparently on the first floor of the school, tore out, spilling papers and the occasional textbook. Luz, who was the only passenger, snatched wildly at them while Skip pushed him down the hall at light speed. Lipton’s shoulders tensed upon sight. “Oh, Christ, be careful…” Tab sheepishly attempted to slink out of the elevator unseen. “Tab, goddamn it, you couldn’t stop this?” Tab shrugged.
No one saw it happen, but everyone heard. The aftermath was easy to judge—the joyride had come to an abrupt end at the hands of Ron Speirs, who had little patience and a low tolerance for general idiocy. Luz, along with the entire load of papers, books, Malarkey’s binders, and whatever else, was thrown across the floor. Skip, who had taken the handle of the cart to his stomach, was writhing on the ground, moaning about how Speirs was “literally a brick wall”. Speirs retreated to his room while Malarkey went to check on Luz.
Lipton yanked Skip up by the elbow. “Let’s save some casualties for another day, huh?” Skip lifted the hem of his shirt up, asking Lipton to check for broken ribs. Lipton tugged his shirt down and smacked him on the abdomen. “You’re fine. Luz, you okay?”
Despite his whining, Luz flashed small thumbs up.
Gene was listening vigilantly, uncomfortably to the carnage from the arm of the couch in the lounge, resisting the urge to jump up and run for it. From the other arm of the chair, Babe, whose body didn’t want him to move more than he had to, was attempting to reassure him that no one had thicker skills than those two. His argument was reinforced when Lipton entered the lounge without blood on his hands, rifling through the cabinets near the sink. Gene relaxed. “’Cha lookin’ for?”
“Food. I’m thinking of making a big dinner or something,” Lipton said into the high cabinet, climbing onto the counter. “Should’ve planned ahead, but.”
“What for?” Babe said, touching absently at his impressive black eye.
Ray was cleaning dirt from under his fingernails with a fork by the toaster. “You sure your hearing didn’t get damaged from having your ass handed to you over rocks in a highball? He’s making dinner.”
Lipton, elbows deep into the mostly empty cabinet, tossed empty pasta boxes over his shoulder. “Please, let’s not.” He kicked Ray lightly. Finding nothing of worth in the cabinet, he lowered himself carefully to sit on the edge of the counter, leaning his weight on his forearms resting on his knees. “Malarkey’s missing home pretty badly. He’s been at Sid’s most of the summer, and he’s been a real trooper about it. Thought we should do something nice for him, you know.”
“Poor guy,” Gene murmured, regarding the empty boxes on the floor.
“ON IT.” Luz sang, limping into the lounge, snapping a towel at Sledge’s calves ahead of him. Sledge, with his Biology textbook under his arm, looked mildly annoyed. “Sledge, we need pizza and you’re rich and Brad said no, so.”
Lipton cut a glare at Luz, who rocked on his heels and gleefully ignored him. Without much more than a sigh, Sledge was digging at his back pocket. “No, my dad is rich.” He flipped through a stack of plastic, mostly gift cards, a well-worn debit card, his library card. They watched him silently. “Heard about Malarkey. Sucks.” He held up a gold American Express card and examined it against the light. He looked up and between Gene and Lipton, who were staring back with varying degrees of confusion. “Who am I trusting this to?” When no one stepped up, Sledge handed the card off to Lipton, who held it by the edge like it was about to burn him. “It doesn’t leave your hands unless you’re handing it back to me.” He waved off the beginnings of an argument. “Listen. I could drive home and back seven times before he could make it home once, and over the summer, I think I have.” He folded the wallet again with a good-natured smile and stuck it back in his pocket. “We’re good. Just don’t go too wild with it, alright? I trust you won’t.”
“How am I ever gonna have a shot at getting into Heaven when there are people like you in this world?” Ray babbled, jabbing the fork into the toaster as if staking his claim on a patch of land. Gene jolted up to standing, cringing, but Babe snatched at his elbow, reminding him that the toaster’s cord had been severed for a good two years. Sledge smiled, lifting his book-laden arm slightly in a goodbye gesture before turning to go back to his room.
Lipton slipped the card in his pocket and popped Luz on the shoulder with a firm hand. “Hey—ow—I didn’t know he’d actually do it!” Luz cried as he threw his towel across his shoulders, curling inward in attempted defense.
Gene smiled. “They really don’t get the southern hospitality thing, do they, Lip?”
“Not a bit, I’m afraid.”
It was a beautiful confluence in Malarkey and Skip’s room. It went unquestioned, the sudden advent of twelve pizza boxes and a river of bodies crashing into one room. To those not expecting it, it was a fascinating coincidence—true thanksgiving. And, as planned and hoped, Malarkey didn’t really seem to notice that it was all for him. Eyeing him from across the packed dorm room that must’ve looked like something out of a still from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Lipton could see no trace of loneliness in Malarkey, shrieking laughter and kicking at Ray who kept putting olives down his socks. He checked the points of vitality in the operation—Luz stealthily picking discarded bits from Nix’s plate, Gene swiftly abducting the Biology notebook from a reluctant Sledge’s lap and replacing it with a paper plate, Babe up to his bruised neck in a heated conversation with Bill Leyden about something that sounded like it didn’t matter. Malarkey, after kicking Ray into a brief retreat, was working his way down from hysterical laughter when he caught Lipton watching him. He raised both hands in a dumbfounded, relinquishing kind of shrug—how do things like this even happen? And Lipton smiled back, nodding dismissively, knowingly but not tellingly—welcome home.
It was a narrow hallway, but Ray Person was sprinting. It was an act of fleeing, though hardly anyone in this world notices the difference between running and fleeing other than those forced to know. He wasn’t thinking about it, or much of anything, as he leapt over discarded backpacks and dodged elbows and shoulders of students moving like sardines in a can—barely at all. He gritted his teeth and trapped his arms close to his body, pushing through with his shoulder, maneuvering at high speeds. He clipped the edge of the stack of books in the arms of Poke Espera, a senior in Creative Writing, who looked after him with an irritated glare.
“Easy, white boy! You ain’t goin’ anywhere that won’t wait for you! You got that privilege, man! Don’t you know anything?”
Ray tossed a quick glance over his shoulder and yelped out a brief, unsatisfactory apology. Poke muttered something about the white man always walking on his people, mostly metaphorical, “but this physical shit is ridiculous.” In his negligence of the path, he accidentally split between a pair of freshman, Ronnie Gibson and Albert Blithe. Ronnie pitched forward and staggered into the wall, dropping his books in the process. Blithe slipped on a few stray sheets of paper from the slew of binders and fell flat on his face. Ray apologized again, rushed and repetitive, almost going back to help but deciding against it, regarding the ticking clock.
Floyd Talbert, who was loitering with a few teachers outside of his Chemistry classroom nearby, let out a whoop. He reached out and yanked Blithe back up to standing by the little cloth hook near the very top. “Run like the wind, Person!” He shouted after him, slapping Blithe on the back. Blithe and Gibson, as freshmen usually are, were stunned by any kind of interaction from upperclassmen and scurried away without a word.
Ray ignored him as the bell shrilled, managing to slide into his third period Ethics in Science by the soles of his sneakers and the skin of his teeth. Ms. Chambers, an old, grandmotherly woman who taught the eighth grade Math Science kids Honors Biology and seventh grade Life Science, looked down over her half-glasses at Ray and smiled, the soft skin around her eyes folding happily in content. “Glad you could join us, sugar.”
Ray let out a sigh, collecting his breath. He nodded. “Sorry.” He looked around the room, a spare classroom at the end of the academic hall used for the odd elective or occasional practice room. A tired, small piano was pushed against the far wall under the windows with slatted blinds. The Ethics class had seven students, all familiar faces except for a ditzy senior dancer who was never paying attention. Ray took the desk to Walt’s left; Walt cleared his own books from the seat of the desk. “Ooh, a gentleman,” Luz remarked from his desk to Walt’s right, propped with his back against the wall.
Ms. Chambers waddled over to her desk, a standard office desk the color of Manila paper. “I’m sorry about the change in location, my angels,” she said, looking slowly through some Xeroxed articles on her desk. “One of my poor seventh grade babies left my room incapable of use, so we’ll be in here for the next two days.”
“What’d they do?” piped Frank Perconte from the seat behind Walt. Ms. Chambers didn’t hear him, as per usual. He snatched Webster’s pencil from his hand, eliciting a dull glare. “What’d they do?”
“I heard,” Webster said lowly, retrieving his pencil. “That someone was cleaning the terrarium, and didn’t secure all the creatures—hermit crabs, geckoes, whatever—and they didn’t tell anyone until everyone noticed they were missing, and things started smelling weird.” He went back to his Chemistry worksheet that he’d neglected to do earlier, concealed behind his stack of books from view of the teacher. “But that’s just what I heard.”
Perconte scrunched up his nose. “Sick!” He looked around for a reaction, but Ray had put his head down on his desk and laced his fingers over the back of his neck, effectively severing the ties to his reservoir of witty remarks. Perconte shook the tip of Luz’s shoe, which was resting on the back of Walt’s seat. “You hear that, Luz? Hermit crabs.”
Luz had his eyes closed, leaned against the wall in a sleepy doze with his arms folded across his chest. “Yeah, I heard it, Perco.”
Ms. Chambers evidently couldn’t find what she was looking for. She excused herself and shuffled out the door and began the treacherous trek towards the teacher copy room at the opposite end of the academic hallway, a trip that would take a good fifteen minutes for the saintly Chambers. Taking advantage of the allowance of time, Webster finished off his worksheet and moved on to his Physics homework, also unfinished. Walt, who had been carefully watching Ray since his grand entrance, galloped his fingers a few times near Ray’s right elbow, not quite touching him but getting close enough. “Ray?”
Ray’s fingers tensed at the sound of Walt’s voice. He dug his dirty thumbnails into the skin. He pulled in a breath and let it out.
It seemed that no one else was paying much attention—the dancer was putting on too much makeup, Webster huddled close to the page sketching out trajectories, Perco tying Luz’s shoelaces together, and Luz twitching his foot every now and then to undo Perco’s work. Walt wrapped a hand around Ray’s thumbs and pulled them up, the thumbnails leaving red welts close to bleeding. Wincing, Ray struggled to win his hands back, but was pinned to the desk. “Stop, Walt, c’mon.”
Ray scratched the rest of his nails at Walt’s hands, but he was holding fast. They both felt the joints straining and popping, useless in the grip. “Nothing. Let go—you’re gonna break my fucking thumbs, Jesus.”
Walt drew his hand away, watching warily as Ray tucked his arms under the desk and turned to face the other wall, but Webster was sitting in his line of sight. “Just a leisurely jog to class. Right?” He asked, smirking at his sheet. “Happens every day, skidding into your desk at breakneck speed. Totally normal.”
Ray turned his face down to the desk. “It’s nothing!” He forced in an upbeat chortle, shoulders churning out several disarming shrugs. “Nothing’s wrong, everything’s… fucking awesome!”
“Bullshit,” added Webster, sitting back to stretch, uninvited to the conversation. He flipped his page over, trudging through the pages of the textbook.
“Let them have their thing, Web, Christ,” Luz whined, desperately snatching at the wisps of sleep that came every now and then but were being torn from him by Webster’s comments.
“Careful what you wish for.”
Walt was too busy running a light fingertip on the tiny trenches on the back of Ray’s neck to have any kind of retaliation. Luz, who had whipped out an immaculate impression of Liebgott, seemed to have his battle covered, anyway. It wasn’t that erratic behavior was anything out of the ordinary for Ray—it was that Walt could tell the difference. After a long minute of uncomfortable silence on his part, Walt mustered up the will to say something. “It’s not nothing.” It wasn’t as powerful sounding as he’d hoped, but it was the best he could come up with.
Ray brought his hands up to his face, scratching at his cheeks. “Can we please, please talk about this later?” He pulled at his eyelids, daring a glance at Walt, watching him. “Don’t look at me like that.”
He waved his hands in front of him irritably, the nagging flies of his self-consciousness. “The Disappointed Mom look. Cut it out.”
Walt scrunched up his face, bringing his own hands back to his lap in defense. “I wasn’t giving you the Disappointed Mom look.”
“It was more of a Hockey Mom look, you know,” Luz said, setting himself forward in his chair. “Where her amateur of a son couldn’t stand up still or steady on his skates if it would win him the Stanley Cup, and she’s sitting there up in the stands—“ He clasped his hands in front of him in a white-knuckle prayer clutch, shaking his head slightly with a thousand-yard state. “Watching his ankles go all wobbly, leaning on his hockey stick like the crutch that would carry him off the battlefield, the other kids skating circles around him, and she’s—“ He snapped out of it and held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, squinting an eye for emphasis. “This close to going out on the ice in front of God and everyone and slitting her kid’s throat with his own skate, just to put him out of his misery.”
“Thanks for clearing that up,” Walt deadpanned.
Luz slapped him on the shoulder before returning to his previous position, right elbow leaned on his desk, cheek propped in his hand. “No problem.”
“That was eloquent, there,” Webster said, taking to his favored past time of flipping to the back of the book for answers. “You should be in Creative Writing.”
“It’s more fun verbally kicking your poetry in the face from a different department. Thanks, though—that’s really touching.” Luz clipped back, putting a hand to his chest in mock flattery.
Somewhere in the Hockey Mom soliloquy, Ray had been lost to a Rubik’s cube he’d had since he was a kid, sitting in the dirt of a trailer park, bored of just about everything. It showed up early one Christmas, the lone gift in his Christmas
stocking sock. He learned it dutifully, studying it, easily distracted from everything but this one little puzzle. He kept it with him throughout his childhood—when the starched blue motel-quality blankets stood at the ready to staunch the bloody flow of a punch in the nose, the Rubik’s cube was in his hands, distracting him from biting the inside of his cheeks washed with tears. It was a comfort when there wasn’t anything else except for hard-packed dirt and his running mouth going on and on about anything and everything even if he tried to stop himself, and it was still a comfort. Each turn scraped and screeched due to the overuse. He had gotten quite fast at it and it only took him around half a minute to complete it, if he was thinking about other things, which he usually was. He handed it off to Walt, who ordinarily scrambled it again for him, but was only looking at it with slight derision. Ray, catching the drift, picked up Walt’s left hand and pressed the cube into it. “Just… don’t worry, okay?”
Walt kept his right hand in his lap, tapping a patient finger on his leg. He rolled the cube around in his left hand judgingly. “That’s not really an option.”
He shrugged a shoulder, finally resigning himself to scramble the Rubik’s cube. “Just saying.” He turned the faces, shuddering at the untuned violin sound, trying to keep the colors as separate as they could get, because to his untrained mind, this was the best way to do it—polarize things as completely as possible and it’s harder to pull it back together. Ray, who had memorized algorithms to solve the cube, knew this wasn’t so. It was harder to solve when the colors are juxtaposed in a certain way, so deceivingly close. In a lot of ways, it didn’t make sense, and that’s why he remembered it so well.
Walt glanced up, the traces of anything irritated or Hockey Mom flushed from his eyes in a wash of determination to put it behind him for the time being. “You can’t watch—cheater.” Ray averted his eyes, thin pinpricks of a smile pulling at the edges of his mouth. He watched Walt’s hands, steady and diligent, try to place the colors in an unpattern, to splinter up the pieces into the flood of the others, displacing things. It was a solvable puzzle every time, but it didn’t keep Walt from trying, and it didn’t bother Ray. Looking over his miscreation, he smacked it down on Ray’s desk with a satisfied smile, folding his arms, his tongue poking out at the edge of his lips. “Solve that.”
Ray looked it over once. “You make it too easy.”
Walt was preparing a comeback when Ray tossed it back at him, solved.
It happened every now and then, so it shouldn’t have been anything to mope over. Eddie Jones didn’t make a habit of thrashing the strings of his guitar—he knew well that the fragile E string gets tired, as everything does, and occasionally has to snap, and therefore tried to save himself and the guitar the trouble. He was good at catching those things before they happened, but he had changed his strings over the summer and, two weeks into the school year and halfway though Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau, he wasn’t expecting a string to lash out at him, let alone two at once.
With a muted curse, he undid the strap and held the guitar close for inspection on the floor of the dark technical booth in the main theatre, keeping the company of Andrew Haldane, who was setting up his lighting and sound boards with a jealous, parental precision, hunched over from the waist and tearing patches of gaff tape to mark switches and dials and ports and sliders. Andrew sat up at the lack of music, which he was happily accustomed to. “Why’d you stop?”
Eddie held the guitar by the neck to his lap, scrutinizing two small lacerations on the underside of his left forearm. “Goddamn,” he muttered, giving his arm one firm shake before pressing it to his dark jeans. He flicked at the jagged, curled tendrils of the dead strings uselessly. One had broken at the headstock, at the tuning post; the other, near the bridge pin.
“Break a string?” Andrew said, uncapping a sharpie with his teeth.
“Two,” Eddie replied with a glaring disappointment. Though there were guitar stores relatively nearby and he could probably even pilfer a pack of strings from another guitarist in the department, he wasn’t thrilled by any thought of inconvenience. He picked at the bridge pin of the thin E string. “Hell.”
After rifling around in the drawer to his immediate right, Andrew held a pair of needle-nosed pliers by the tip over his shoulder, eyes still stuck on the instrument panel in front of him. Eddie, leveraging himself up on his left hand and keeping the guitar balanced on his lap, took them, mumbling his thanks. Andrew set back to work, numbering the scraps of gaff tape. “You ever think about how many strings you’ve broken or will break in your lifetime?”
Eddie plucked out the bridge pin, dropping it in the front pocket of his flannel shirt. He was usually meticulous and careful with the string fragment near the bridge pin, but he didn’t even try to keep it from falling into the guitar in the dark. He heard it plink against the bottom in the hollow of the guitar’s body. “Nah, rather not,” he said plainly, turning the guitar over and shaking it to get the string bit out. “As it depresses me thoroughly.” He unlooped the string fragment from the tuning post with ease and grace, replacing the bridge pin, then moved on to the next. He set the pliers down by his foot, then propped the guitar on his knee again, running a hand comfortingly down the neck. “My poor baby.” He tapped the pads of his fingers rapidly on the remaining strings of the fret board. He gave it a hard strum. “Could still play Smoke on the Water, if I wanted to.”
Andrew recapped the sharpie, storing it in the drawer. He turned around in the wheeled chair to take back the pliers. “Yeah, but why would you want to?” He asked with a good-natured smile, tossing the pliers in the drawer.
Eddie struck out the unforgettable beginning seven chords with a strange grin. “You’d think after all these years and concertos, I’d have earned the respect of at least Van Morrison.” He started Brown Eyed Girl, tapping a foot with time signature, raising an eyebrow to Andrew, who rolled his eyes, smile unfading. Then he took a brief second, transposing the piano intro from St. Dominic’s Preview, then played it with sure fingers. Andrew leaned an elbow on the desk, taking into account the discarded guitar strings in front of them. “Guess I’ll just go buy a new set,” Eddie said, nodding at the floor in front of him, eyes distant, the absent two strings leaving out vital notes that fell hard on his ears. “Missin’ my little strings already. Busy after school?” He pulled the rest of the bridge pins, wrapping the strings around the fingers of his left hand as he unlooped them from their respective tuning coils. He refastened the strap to the bottom, checking it for security.
“We’ll see,” Andrew said, checking his watch. Four o’clock—between half an hour and forty-five minutes left, depending on how long he stuck around. “Calculus homework. You know how it is.”
And he did—he wasn’t nodding for the fun of it. People were always busy with coming and going, but also staying. Eddie didn’t like to go to the guitar store on the basis that they kept offering him a job ad nauseum, which he could’ve and probably should have taken, but as it was his senior year, he wasn’t feeling any particularly strong urge to exert himself more often than necessary. He didn’t like going out very much, the dorm being something of a small sanctuary in this city, not the largest one he’d seen by any means, but being taken out of his quiet life in the backlands of Pennsylvania to suddenly living 24/7 in this moderately sized self-contained Deep South industrial city took a bit of a toll on him over the course of the five years he’d been enrolled. Birmingham, Alabama wasn’t home, but it was becoming good enough, a little too late. He found his comfort places much like he did when he was a kid in the woods, playing war—distant observation, then reconnaissance, then complete and unabashed commitment to the safe places, the little caves under rock bluffs, low and broad branches, the little twigs and scrapes and slices of home. He didn’t abandon anything—never had, never planned to—especially not the places he deemed home.
“Well,” Eddie said, pulling himself to stand using the back of Andrew’s chair. “You think about it and let me know.” He rolled up what he could of the strings and stuck them in his pocket, slinging his guitar over his back.
“Leaving so soon?”
Eddie looked down over the rows of empty seats and the empty stage. He didn’t feel at home there, under lights and scrutiny, but in the shelter and semi-concealment of the tech loft, he felt safe in a way that he couldn’t explain. The lonely lightbulb in Andrew’s low lamp shuddered. “Got places to go, Haldane. Gonna go give these broken strings away—“ He tapped his pocket twice. “And make good on a promise.”
Andrew turned the chair to face Eddie, who kept edging towards the stairs. More bored than desperate or lonely, his hands fidgeted against each other in his lap, silhouetted against the lamp and the dim light from the stage. “Nothing I could do to persuade you to stay?”
Shifting the guitar on his back, Eddie reached out and turned Andrew’s chair towards the desk again. “Not this time, I’m afraid.” His smile showed in his voice, and for a second, he dared. “You know how it is.”
“Ouch, Jones. My own words against me.”
Eddie jammed his hands in his pockets and struck off down the stairs to the left of the tech loft. “Let me know about after school,” he tossed over his shoulder halfway down the stairs and then towards the main door of the theatre, which opened to the middle of the theatre hallway. Andrew flashed the peripheral lights twice, blinking a farewell.
He ran his finger along the theatre lockers, three times as spacious as a regular academic locker. In the music department, he was lucky—he had a locker large enough for his two guitars and whatever else he decided to throw in there, which wasn’t much. The other guitarists had lockers of the same size, and students who played sizable instruments (trombones, cellos, French horns, the one tuba player, and a senior who played standup bass) had lockers that accommodated their instruments. For the rest, they had what could only be described as locked cubby holes for their folders of sheet music and had to trust that their instruments were safe locked up in the offices and practice rooms of the Music wing. Eddie usually carried his guitar back up into the dorm after school, his practice time extending into the rest of his waking hours. Out of all the things he could be indifferent about them, Angelina, a scuffed but treasured old acoustic Gibson, wasn’t one of them. No other guitar in the world could grace the midrange in the same way, sweet and strong but not barky, and for that, he was jealously protective of her. His classical guitar that the school paid for was a beauty, a Brazillian rosewood guitar built for mellow play, but he was more in awe of it than he was in love with it. He left the delicate Stefan in his locker, mostly with reverence and a slight fear.
He had to cross the lunchroom to get to the upperclassman art studio, and in doing so, had to pass the desk of Jason Akins—school nurse, overall dorm director, and former Marine—stationed against the wall between the door to the Math/Science wing and a set of glass doors to the outside world. He tapped the knuckles of his right hand on the desk as he passed, wordlessly.
Jason looked up from his computer, where he was quite indiscreetly watching Young Frankenstein. “Hey,” he called to Eddie, who, skirting around a lunch table, turned to report to the call. “Where you goin’, Hillbilly? Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
His face split into a grin, fearless. He dawdled over to the desk again, resting Angelina facing upward on a nearby lunch table. “Weren’t you a senior in high school once? Don’t you remember skippin’ class a few times yourself?”
“I don’t remember being so insolent as to not go to class, Mr. Jones.” Jason smacked at Eddie’s hands with a ruler. He was well respected, had a bit of a thick, combative exterior, but past that, no one had known a greater sweetheart or someone that genuinely cared more. He was a teddy bear with extra teddy. “The Corps stomps it out of you if you have any to begin with,” Jason added matter-of-factly, taking the dorm sign-in sheet from under Eddie’s elbow on the small ledge raised slightly above the desk. After storing it in a drawer in his desk, he stood just for the sake of being out of the chair.
Eddie toyed with a ballpoint pen on the ledge, pushing it in a small circle. “Think any of us in the dorm is fit for the Corps?” He clicked the pen a few times. “Considering there’s anything left after all the insolence and soft art school pulp is beaten out of us, I mean.”
With a contemplative shrug, Jason folded his arms. “Maybe a few. Not many, I’ll say that. You might make it alright.” He gave a second’s pause to think about it, then started again. “Fick, Colbert… they’d make it fine.”
“HELLO MY BABY, HELLO MY HONEY, HELLO MY RAGTIME GAAAAL!”
Turning with a smirk, Eddie found that Jason already had the reply he was waiting for. “I don’t think Ray Person could fight his way out of a paper bag.”
Eddie rolled his shoulder thoughtfully, watching Ray dodge tables as he dashed giddily from the Math/Science wing to the Theatre hallway in no time. “Who knows. He may surprise us yet.” In a few steps, he had Angelina in his hand again, gesturing towards the art studio. “If you’ll excuse me.” Jason dismissed him with a nod and a reminder to go to class, and Eddie made his way across the lunchroom and to the studio.
He hadn’t meant to linger, but he realized that he must’ve been watching Snafu sketching for a good solid few minutes. Snafu seemed to be checking the high windows for reference the way one would reference a photograph. In a large, black, beat-up sketchbook and with a fountain pen, he was shading in the round cheeks of a laughing toddler in the bathtub, leaning out defiantly from the arms of a young woman up to her elbows in suds, pushing back a strand of messily pinned hair with a smile. Nodding rhythmically to whatever was on his iPod, he reached back to dip the pen when his elbow brushed Eddie. Instinctually, he quickly threw the sketchbook shut and shoved it off his desk, a gut reaction for quick protection. He yanked off his set of headphones touchily. “Jeezus Chris’, you want a whole goddamn show or what?”
Eddie reached into his pocket, playing with the guitar strings. “Just lookin’ for Hoosier. I got somethin’ for him.” He drew the strings out and waved them around a little to emphasize his point.
With a harsh, hostile degree of petulance, Snafu stored his pen and folded his arms on top of his desk. “Ain’t gonna find ‘im in my sketchbook.” He tipped his head forward once. “He’s set up ‘cross the room, but I don’t think he’s in.”
Eddie tapped the fingertips of his left hand in a gallop across Liebgott’s desk as he passed, earning a distracted nod. Liebgott struck up a conversation with Eddie, and Snafu took advantage of the diversion to duck under his desk to retrieve the sketchbook, throw it in his backpack, and glide out of the room, undetected.
Snafu disliked the elevator on principle—he was a fan of efficiency, practicality, doing things as they needed to be done in a timely, silent manner. The elevator just outside the doors of the studio (which deposited inside the male dorms on the third floor) was loud, slow, and grated on every ounce of patience that Snafu had steeled within himself over his time there. He preferred the stairs, just a few simple flights, but as he was cutting out of class early, the door from the stairwell was still locked. He gritted his teeth the entirely slow trip up.
The unsupervised chunk of time at the end of specialty period was precious to Snafu, especially on Thursdays. His agenda, which he augmented in place of the lacking one that the school imposed, involved skipping the last half-hour of class on Thursdays to get to his dorm as fast and unnoticed as possible to manage a decent and necessary nap before heading off to his first shift of the night.
From five until eight, he worked sometimes as a valet but most often as a waiter and kitchen hand at a classy restaurant on the south side of town called Bottega, which was always lit up with soft gold floodlights that shone up from the ground to emphasize the architecture, where businessmen and their wives clinked glasses of the house Cabernet Sauvignon and left inflated tips after insisting to pay. Though he was disgusted by the faux sincerity and skewed southern chivalry, he refused to argue for the sake of the tips he brought home. At eight o’clock sharp, he was changed into street clothes and waiting on the curb for R.V. Burgin and his refurbished red truck with a telltale dent near the left taillight. At eight twelve, he was pulling open the back door to the Trans Load Limited warehouse, eight minutes early. He did grunt work for two hours, taking a cigarette break at nine fifteen and catching the ten o’clock bus back to the intersection a block down from the school. He worked the timetables so that he never missed role call at ten thirty, and he sat at the little white circular dining table in the lounge until he finished as much homework as he could be bothered to do before calling it a night at two o’clock. But that was Thursday.
On Tuesdays, Snafu took on a two-hour shift from six until eight at the warehouse. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday nights, he worked from six until nine at Bottega. Saturdays and Sundays, he worked from noon until 4:30 at King Cotton, a fabric store owned by Ms. Cantwell, the AP/Honors Chemistry teacher. Several others worked at King Cotton, but none worked nearly as many hours, with the exception of Gene Roe, who had the social skill to run the desk while Snafu cut bolts and measured and ran machines in the back. They split Saturday’s pay evenly.
No one had ever asked, but Snafu wasn’t bothered by the work. It was never stressful or boring enough to irritate him—it was a series of movements, applied knowledge and skill and combinations. It took his mind off of all the reasons he had to work so hard for so long. He opted for slightly lower pay if it meant that he could be paid in cash, which he was for all three jobs. His employers weren’t aware of all the many child labor laws—especially in terms of hours and wages—they were breaking because Snafu was a good-cause liar. With the exception of Ms. Cantwell, his other employers didn’t know that he was seventeen and otherwise employed. To them, he was an average, diligent college student working a single job for pennies of pocket money. He saved his earnings in a tatty gold-yellow Café du Monde coffee tin artfully concealed in his room, only dipping into it for necessities—a prepaid, no-contract, cheap ass phone in case of emergencies; the bare minimum amount of food and lunch money; a reserved twenty dollar bill for his monthly supply of cigarettes.
As far as art supplies went, Liebgott usually picked up whatever Snafu could need during shopping trips and tended to forget to ask for reimbursement. Out of a strange need to protect his honor, Snafu tried to pay back at least a little when he could afford to; otherwise, it was considered a necessary expense to the Liebgott household account, a fine repayment for all the amiable support that Snafu could provide at any given time for their son so far away from their home in San Francisco. Ink, charcoal, paper, and the occasional oil paint seemed to drown noiselessly in the whirlwind costs of Liebgott’s paints and canvases and wood for frames. No one seemed to mind the cost except for Snafu, hyperaware of the value of the scraped-together pennies that he treasured.
The elevator pinged open at the top floor, and Snafu slouched towards his door, snatching at his keys in an outer pocket of his school bag. One of the RAs, Daniel, who was never really around, nodded at Snafu as he passed. Snafu caught his questioning quirk of the head. “Thursday,” Snafu said, and that was all the explanation any of the RAs ever really needed. While the jobs themselves varied from year to year, Snafu had been working solidly since he arrived at the school his freshman year. He unlocked the door.
The presence of his room always reminded him that this was the most concrete version of a home he had, and even that wasn’t permanent. He believed that even if he had very many possessions, he wouldn’t be as careless and haphazard with them as some of the other guys tended to be. (His first year at the school, he shared a room with Skip Muck, and to this day he isn’t entirely sure how Skip managed to find everything when he needed, given that his room looked like a post-demolition site.) He was happy to have been placed with Brad Colbert this year, and happy that the only divide of objects in the room seemed to be strictly socioeconomic. Brad, coming from a wealthy upper-class family, was built and equipped to be state-of-the-art, but not obnoxious about it. Brad had a trust fund; Snafu had a coffee can. That was just the way it was.
He dropped his backpack near the bed and undid the laces of his shoes with a swiftness only acquired through repetition and practice. Toeing them off, he opened his backpack and removed the sketchbook, slightly scuffed and scratched from loyalty and constant use. He picked at a fraying edge, soft from having Liebgott’s paint water spilled on it on accident. With a protective diligence, he lifted the edge of his mattress and slid it under, making sure it was as far out of the zone of possible discovery to anyone who might snoop around for it. Though Brad wasn’t keen on visitors in the room, few were exceptions, and some of those were dangerous. He pulled his legs up under him, threw the blanket across his waist, and was asleep by the time he hit the pillow.
Snafu didn’t dream, and he didn’t notice Brad coming in the room roughly twenty minutes later, but he awoke to the sound of arguments, which he tried his damndest to sleep through.
“C’mon, Perco—I’ll give you two cigarettes if you let me copy the chapter review.”
“I don’t smoke!”
“And I don’t understand fucking statistics!” A sigh. “There will come a time, young Perconte, when you’ll wish you took me up on this offer.”
Snafu was a pro at trying to sleep through Luz’s yapping, which never really trespassed much further than the hallway, but he had not quite mastered Ray’s.
Ray had a horrible knack for following Brad anywhere, but it was especially bothersome to Snafu after school, and even more so on Thursdays. Ray was kicked back in Brad’s desk chair, leveraging himself on the back two legs, babbling endlessly and hopping tracks of logic faster than he could think them up. Brad, legs crossed on his bed with his Calculus book open in his lap, wasn’t really listening. Snafu didn’t have a choice but to hear it.
At long last, Snafu rolled over, forced one eye open, and pinned Ray with a glare that cut his sentence short in the dead middle. “Ray, I ‘on wanna hit ya, but if you don’t shut the fuck up, I’ll rearrange my morals.” He turned back towards the wall again. “An’ your teeth.”
Brad, a fine mediator, laid his pencil in the spine of the book and closed it. “Why don’t you take a walk, Ray?”
With accidental grace and a pinch of luck, the four legs of the desk chair found their way to the floor without disaster. After a final parting request that Brad just “take a second to think about it,” whatever it was, Ray jogged back into the hallway and into Luz’s conquest for the chapter review. The door swung heavily shut behind him.
Once Ray had gone, Brad set his book aside. Snafu, giving up on going back to sleep, rolled onto his back and inspected the geography of the high stone ceiling. “God, ‘s a fuckin’ miracle.” He raised his right hand to rub his eyes, the left resting on his abdomen. “Yack yack yack, all th’ time.”
“He’s not the worst thing ever,” Brad said with a fairness rather than defensiveness, checking his watch. It was just after four forty.
“Not the worst,” Snafu agreed. “Maybe the loudest.”
A few soft knocks on the door folded over to Gene Roe opening it slightly, barely leaning in the room. He nodded cursorily at Brad before giving a sweeping glance through the sparse room. “You got about eight minutes, Snaf.”
Unpeeling a blanket from his abdomen, Snafu mumbled out thanks. Gene closed the door as silently as he had opened it, a wonderful oasis of gentleness in the calamity of the dorm hall. Snafu folded his legs under him and righted himself, dragging a hand through his hair and across his bleary eyes. “You going to make it?” Brad asked with an edge of protectiveness, but the marked distance which Snafu demanded nonverbally from everyone he knew with few exceptions.
He stood, crossing the room in few steps to the tiny closet. He buttoned a black dress shirt halfway over his faded off-white t-shirt, throwing a pair of black slacks over his shoulder. “Always do.” He had his jeans off and the slacks on in a remarkably efficient snap of time. Snafu reached down and swept up a pair of nice-looking black dress shoes by their back edges onto his bed, pulling them on, tying the laces with a mechanic confidence. Inspecting himself in the mirror, he shrugged, neither approval nor disapproval. He prodded at the space under his eyes, perpetually darkened by exhaustion and lethargy.
Brad balanced the mechanical pencil on his forefinger. “Well, look at you.”
“Don’t start that shit with me. Not on a Thursday.” Snafu worked at his hair lazily with one hand and did up more buttons on his shirt with the other. When he deemed his appearance respectable, he gathered his jeans from their puddle on the floor and his sneakers and rolled them all together, tucking it under his arm for his second shift. “A’right, then. Guess I’m off.” He cast a lidded glance to Brad. “Don’t wait up for me.”
Brad scrunched up an eye with a smirk. “Why would I do a thing like that?”
Snafu crossed to the door with a muffled almost-laugh. “You do a lot of things that don’t make sense.” He pulled open the door to find Ray standing as close as humanly possible to the door, one arm splayed in what looked like a failed-knock-turned-GQ-photoshoot. Snafu stared him out of his way. “Like letting this one hang ‘round.”
Ray managed to drape an arm across Snafu’s uninviting shoulders for a tense split second. “Oh, you love me, too.” He tweaked Snafu’s cheek between his thumb and crooked forefinger, earning a substantial glower. “Off to suck the dick of corporate America?”
Snafu shrugged off Ray’s arm. “Stay the fuck out of my room.” Ducking to the left, Snafu accidentally stumbled into Sledge, who appeared to have been trying to stop Ray from entering. Instead of any form of apology, Snafu grunted and stepped around him, bound for the stairwell.
Sledge rubbed his fingers together nervously, watching his quick retreat. “Snaf?”
Snafu turned one shoulder with a heavy weariness, giving Sledge a rolling up-down glance. Sledge, as was his custom due to his polite upbringing in sleepy south Alabama, offered up a tiny smile. He hid his hands in his pockets. “You look nice.”
Snafu looked down at himself. There was nothing new, nothing different from any other Thursday. His thrift-store “nice” shoes were scuffed, but no one noticed that in a dark restaurant. He was used to acting unfazed, and that was his instant reaction. “Think so? My Thursday best.” He straightened his right sleeve with averted eyes.
The smile didn’t fade from Sledge’s voice. He gestured generally towards his head. “Your hair’s a little messed up on the left side.”
Snafu held his jeans and sneakers closer to his side, starting off towards the door again, swept over with an unexpected iciness. He pushed the door open and turned towards Sledge as he exited. “It works for me,” he said, disappearing into the stairwell, just as Sledge was afraid he always might.
Chapter 4: Please read! Changes on the way.
First off, if you're reading this, that means you must have at least a sliver of interest in my fic, and for that, I am so, so thankful to you. You guys have made writing the first three chapters of this something to look forward to, and I appreciate your readership and your comments and kudos more than I'll be able to say. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I'm just putting this up to let you know of some changes that I intend to make in terms of structure and execution. Due to the massive amounts of headcanons and subplots and little odds and ends that I want to fit in, I've realized that the format of this fic is better served through a 'verse rather than just one mega-story. As with many things that I write, I tend to get nervous and mechanical when the numbers of chapters start climbing and the lengths of chapters slowly but surely get longer; also, I have this nagging anxiety that I'm going to leave out one of my precious boys (or ladies!) and that unintentional favoritism will start to play in, and that one character may get too much exposure while another receives hardly any. For the sake of my sanity, productivity, and (I think) the essence of this story, I've decided to break up Be Safe into several sub-fics with a lot of floating coda fics surrounding it, following the same characters in the same situations with the same relationships and interactions, but engineered so that each character has an uninterrupted plot that still feeds into the overall storyline. I feel confident in the subplots that I have lined up to accomplish this. I plan on updating the sub-fics simultaneously rather than writing and finishing one and then moving on to the next. Think of them as more focused, organized chapters. At least, that's what I'll be doing.
This all being said, rather than rewriting the first three chapters, I think I'm just going to leave them up to serve as a form of general extended introduction. If it doesn't seem to work out, then I can go back and rework them. It's all up to you guys, really.
If you have any questions or comments or rage or opinions about this, please don't hesitate to let me know through my tumblr or, if you prefer, email. I check both of them regularly and love hearing from you guys, so don't be shy! Again, thank you so much for your kindness and your patience, and I hope to see you guys hang on for the ride!