My life goes to hell in early September.
Two weeks before my third year in Swan University, I get an innocent looking envelope in the mail with George Ross written on it. I wrinkle my nose in disapproval but open it, recognising the logo of the foundation that gives me my scholarship. They probably want to wish me a happy new academic year.
Except that they don’t.
I stand in my small attic studio with the letter in my sweating hands. This is why I never answer my phone either: it’s only bad news.
The letter is blunt and to the point: my scholarship has been cancelled. The Margaret Goldberg Foundation has gone bankrupt. Just like that. Just… like… that my world comes crumbling down.
“Oh god, no,” I breathe in terror.
Looking out the window I see the ancient towers of the university buildings in the distance. It’s a short walk to campus, but suddenly there’s a vast, never-ending ocean between me and that world. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but the truth is that I am pursuing my dream in the university of my dreams, Swan University ranking right up there with Harvard and Princeton, and it’s all been thanks to my scholarship. I worked my ass off all through high school to get here. This is not a joke. This is my future.
Of course I panic. I frantically call my advisor of studies for an emergency meeting and he mumbles that he roughly has a half an hour free in the afternoon.
“Thank you so much!” I cry into the phone.
Instead of pacing around in my flat, I gather my stuff and get ready to go, stuffing my shoulder bag with pens, my diary, poetry books, and all of my other essentials. It’s not cold outside yet, but winter is on its way as I run out the door in fingerless gloves, hat and scarf. My heart is beating fast as I try to distract myself with the music coming from my mp3 player.
I can’t calm down.
The campus is located on the edge of town, slightly isolated as if a world of its own. The town itself is not big enough to be a city, just a large town in New Jersey. It’s vibrant thanks to the considerable student population. I have the letter from the foundation with me, and during the short walk to campus, I reread the letter five times.
The scholarship has covered my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and I spent the summer holiday tutoring the snobby rich kids of the local families. Any free time was spent in the university library where I got used to the quiet and tranquil nature of the campus in summer. Now as I make my way between the old buildings, I am startled to find students everywhere. It’s only then I realise that it’s Fresher’s Week, and I take in the new students, walking around with campus maps and with confusion on their faces. On a normal day I would be amused, but not today. Not when my life is falling apart.
I get a few strange looks, and it makes me even bitchier. Yes, I’m a guy, and yes, I’m wearing eyeliner. Deal with it.
The campus itself is a mix of greenery, old faculty buildings with offices and lecture theatres, buildings for cafés and bookshops. At the very heart is a square with four large buildings on each side and a large patch of grass in the middle. One of the buildings is the university main building, one the massive university library, one of them the student union with a bookshop, café and bar all combined, and the last one is the fraternity house. All four buildings are buzzing as I head for the Darwin Café to kill time until the meeting with my advisor.
Stupid Fresher’s Week. It’s Monday, and so the whole idiocy of drinking and fucking for a week has just begun. Thank god I don’t have anything to do with it. When I had my own fresher’s week, I stayed in with my new course books, while last year I crashed a fresher’s party after having too many beers. I remember making out with a guy, then I threw up on myself and on him a little too and spent the rest of the week in hiding.
Because I am listening to my music on maximum, I don’t hear being approached, but suddenly a hand lands on my shoulder. I am ready to give that person a death glare, but relax when I realise it’s one of my rare… friends? More like acquaintances.
“Ryan, how are you? How was summer?” the mouth of William Beckett voices before I get the ear plugs out of the way.
“It was good, yeah, just spent it here,” I reply as I try to smile back at my fellow English Lit student. But I’m anti-social, always have been, always will be. William is the exact opposite. The only reason we know each other is because he sat next to me on the first lecture of my first year, introduced himself and has been sitting next to me since.
Outside lectures we rarely see each other, and William’s hoodie shows the reason why: it’s indigo with two grey, vertical stripes with the Greek letters ΣXB on it. I briefly look over his shoulder at the three-floored Sigma Chi Beta frat house and see more guys with the same hoodie outside it. I’ve never understood the appeal of fraternities or frat houses. The whole organisation has always struck me as a centre for all the former high school jocks. Why would anyone in their right mind want to live in a house full of hormonal loud mouths?
Besides, the Sigmas, as they are simply known in Swan, have a reputation. Party on, party hard, party all the goddamn time if you can. And then you get the rumours, and I’ve heard them all: the story of some girl going into the house and sleeping with thirty members in a single night, or the scandal of the professor who had an affair with a student, and it was hinted that it was with a Sigma. I’ve heard that they only accept pretty boys as new members because behind closed doors they all fuck each other. I’ve heard that inside the house are a strip club and a bowling alley. Who knows if any of this is true, because non-members are only allowed in a few rooms within the house.
William has been a Sigma since first year. He doesn’t talk about it, which I imagine is one of the rules. It’s very secretive, and quite frankly I think it’s all just a big show for kids who want to seem mysterious.
“What did you do this summer?” I ask William, trying to act like I haven’t just had my scholarship cancelled.
“Me and a few of the bros went backpacking in Europe,” he explains enthusiastically. Ah, that’s what they call each other, “bros.” It’s like a damn cult. “You ever been?”
“To Europe?” I clarify, and William nods. “No, uh, afraid not.”
I’ve been to five states. There. That’s all I’ve ever seen.
And though it seems William and I have little in common, there is always that one thing that keeps us together: our studies.
“Man, I can’t wait for the lectures to start! We’re finally doing twentieth century poets!” William enthuses, and my face immediately lights up.
“Tell me about it! I’ve been reading Eliot and Auden all summer, Jesus, they were geniuses!” I beam before realising that I might no longer be attending these classes. My smile fades, but I say nothing about it to William. William’s family is rich; he doesn’t understand that not all of us could just pick any university to go to. I mean he’s smart, everyone in the university is damn smart, but he has money behind him, and I’ve never had that.
“Heard we’re also doing more modern stuff too, like Angelou,” William says, but I suddenly don’t feel like talking about the coming year at all.
Luckily for me, another guy in an indigo hoodie jogs over. “Will, we need you, bro,” he says, giving me a quick, judging glance that says, “Who are you, you outsider? What’s up with the scarf?” before turning his brown eyes to William and smiling patiently.
“You got it, J-Dawg,” William says and high-fives him. The guy leaves, and William gives me an apologetic shrug. “Busy man, Fresher’s Week, recruiting new members,” he explains.
“No, yeah, no problem,” I assure him. I again look over to the frat house, full of life, members, freshers and banners, and ask, “You guys get a lot of interest?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” William nods, obviously very proud of this fact. “Always have got at least a hundred new guys wanting to get in, but we only take as many as to replace the ones who graduated and left the previous year.”
“How many is that then?”
“Competitive,” I note.
“Yeah well, nothing better than being a Swan Sigma,” William says, and I force myself not to roll my eyes at this. “We really need to catch up, though, so hey, a beer after class some time?” he offers.
“You got it,” I promise him, the both of us knowing we probably never will. I stay still, watching William walk away. I wonder what William will think if I stop coming to lectures all of a sudden. How embarrassing is that? That the poor Vegas kid went home with his tail between his legs. God, this can’t be happening to me.
Stairs lead up to the gigantic double doors of the Sigma house, and a white marble pillar supporting a pediment stands on both sides of the doors. The house has always struck me as one of the most impressive houses on campus. A guy is now coming from inside the house with a megaphone, stopping at the top of the stairs. I recognise him because he is one of those guys that are hard to miss. I haven’t seen him since last year, and I smile at the sight. In fact, whenever I see this guy I can’t help but smile. In him is everything I wish I could be.
Squinting my eyes slightly, I see that this Sigma hasn’t changed since last semester: he looks hungover and out of place, the way he always has. He brings the megaphone to his mouth, and suddenly the square is echoing a chant of, “Sigma! Chi! Beta! Fuck yeah! …am I allowed to swear? Sigma! Chi! Beta!”
I shake my head and continue my way to the café. Swan Sigma? I’ve got so many better things to do with my time. Though, admittedly, they’d never have me, but the feeling is mutual.
Seeing William made me temporarily forget my sorry state, but now it comes back to me again. I go to the café, struggle to find an empty table and drink black coffee and read Walt Whitman until I have my meeting. I go in with a speech prepared.
“I mean, I know the semester starts next week, but surely there’s some scholarship I could still get,” I desperately tell my advisor, Mr. Gibbs. “I’ve already done two years here, this is my dream! It would be insane, a waste of time and resources, for me to drop out! Or maybe Swan could do an exception, let me study for free. I have no money, Mr. Gibbs. My parents don’t have any either, it was such a huge deal for us all when I got into Swan, my grandmother cried and died happy the following day. Please, Mr. Gibbs, tell me there is some way we can figure this out!”
Mr. Gibbs, an elderly man with big glasses, looks at me with a bored expression. “I’m very sorry, Ryan, but I can’t make scholarships out of thin air.”
I sit on the hard chair across the desk in the dusty office. Hope is slowly leaving me.
“Neither does Swan do any pro bono work,” he adds.
“I have been working for this since I was twelve years old,” I state. The begging tone I had is now gone, and only the gravity is left. “It’s been my dream to study English Literature in a world class institution such as this. I have half of my degree done. I don’t want to walk away. I will do anything to stay here. Mr. Gibbs, I have no other intention except to become a famous poet one day, and I want to be able to say that I am a Swan graduate. I want my fame to intertwine with the fame and glory of this university.”
I don’t care how pretentious I sound because I know I mean it. I grew up adoring this place. This makes Mr. Gibbs pause, and he looks at me, as if calculating me with his eyes. He looks at my file again and says, “I see you are a straight A student.”
“I am, sir.”
“Hmm,” he says and leans back in his chair. “It would be a shame to lose someone with your potential,” he muses. For the first time all day, a spark of hope ignites in my chest. “But there is nothing I can do,” he finishes, and I feel beaten to the ground.
I look at my shoes and, as all hope leaves me, I know I am going to cry. Great, I am going to start crying in front of Mr. Gibbs. What a humiliating end to my academic career.
“Here,” Gibbs suddenly says, and I look up to see him passing me a piece of paper. On it is written a name, a room and a campus building. “Go there. You might find it helpful.”
“What do you mean, sir?” I ask and hold the note carefully in my hands.
“I mean nothing by it,” he says, and I frown. Why is he being cryptic all of a sudden? “I didn’t give you that note, and we never had this discussion. Are we clear?” he asks sternly.
“Yes, sir,” I reply in complete confusion.
“Good. You may go now.”
I take my shoulder bag and stagger out of his office. I don’t know what to do or what is even going on, so I simply make my way to the Zoology Building. How could this – I quickly look at the paper again – Mr. Wentz in the fucking Zoology Building be able to help me? But I am desperate. I said I’d do anything, and I meant it.
I knock on the door of Room 503, which the sign on the door says belongs to a Mr. Peter Wentz.
I walk into another dirty, cluttered, dusty office. Behind the desk is a man in his late twenties, books all around him and a laptop buzzing on his desk. There are bookshelves on all walls, some shelves filled with jars of dead insects inside. The man looks up and sees me, his hand still writing something on the paper in front of him.
“Well, sit down,” he advises.
I nod, swallowing hard, and take a seat. Who is this guy? How the hell could he give me a scholarship? He doesn’t look like he has anything to do with university grants or financing. He proceeds to ignore me for two more minutes, constantly writing something. At last, without looking up, he says, “Who are you, and why are you here?”
I clear my throat. “Oh… um, I’m Ryan Ross, starting my third year in English Lit, um –”
“Thanks,” I mutter before saying, “Mr. Gibbs sent me –”
“No one is sent to my office. Everyone comes here on their own initiative.”
Suddenly, my pulse is picking up and my hands are sweating. Two years in this university and I have never come across anything dodgy. This, right now, this room, this guy, this all is dodgy.
“I’m here because… I think you might be able to help me,” I say. He finally stops writing and drops the pen on the desk. He leans back and looks at me.
“I’m listening,” he states.
I rush into it. “Well, see, I got a full scholarship to Swan, but now the foundation has gone bankrupt and, basically, I have no funding and I’m gonna have to drop out unless –”
“Did I ask you to give me your life story?” he questions me. “Stand up.”
I freeze and frown at him, but stand up anyway. He is doing the same thing Mr. Gibbs was doing, estimating me with his gaze. He does a swirling motion with his finger and I look at him disbelievingly, but quickly swirl so he can have a look at me. He nods in what I assume is approval and I sit back down.
The guy is nodding to himself, he is smiling even. “I’m Pete,” he finally introduces himself. “So, Ryan Ross, what are you willing to do to stay here?”
“Anything! Absolutely anything,” I am quick to tell him, not even caring how pathetic I sound.
Pete stands up and walks to the door. He locks it and resumes his seat behind the desk. Adrenalin is beginning to pump in my veins. He keeps his eyes on me, calculating and serious.
“What I am about to tell you, Ryan, you can never repeat to anyone. This has no ties to this university or its staff. Got it?” he asks me, and I nod. “Alright then. I have a job for you, and if you do it, your studies in this university will be paid for until you graduate.”
I can tell that he is not kidding, and I feel like dying right then and there. “I will –”
“Do anything, yes, you told me,” Pete almost smirks. “Are you willing to take on this job?”
“You’ve not told me what it is,” I point out.
“And neither am I going to until you decide,” Pete smiles, but it’s a cold, forced smile. “It’s nothing illegal, if that is of any comfort.”
If it’s not illegal, it surely can’t be too bad. This guy is offering to fund my studies, he is like Santa, he is like God, no, he is better than God! Should I ask where this funding is coming from? Is he paying for it? Who knows? Who cares? He is giving me the chance of staying in Swan!
“I’ll do it,” I say.
“Good decision. So let me fill you in. I am sure you are familiar with the fraternity Sigma Chi Beta,” he begins, and I nod. “You are going to join it. You’re starting your third year, did you say? Well, better late than never.”
“But –” I start. Joining the indigo guys? What? Why? No, no, that is not my scene, that is my goddamn nightmare.
“Let me finish first,” Pete interrupts me. “You are going to become a Sigma. You will move into the frat house and become one of them. Not just one of the members, no, I want you to work your way to the heart of it. You have to become a trusted member. But that is only the start of your work, because you’re really there for something else.”
I know he is now getting to the point he is trying to make, and I hold my breath.
“Have you ever heard,” Pete says and lowers his voice to almost a whisper, as if sure someone is listening in, “of the secret society of Sigma Chi Beta?”
“That’s a myth,” I immediately reply. I’ve heard this rumour, but I also know there has never been any evidence of a secret society. There are only seventy or so Sigmas, that number alone is so small that having a secret society within it feels absurd.
“Is it a myth?” Pete questions me. “No one knows anything about it, nothing but the rumour of a rumour of a rumour. Hell, no one knows anything about the Sigmas in general, because they guard their secrets carefully. If you cannot prove that the secret society doesn’t exist, well then, it could perfectly well exist,” Pete reasons. His appearance suddenly gets an aggressive edge to it. “And you, Ryan, you are going to become a member of the secret society. Then you are going to report back to me and tell me everything, absolutely everything. That is what I want you to do.”
My mouth drops open. “What? That’s impossible! I mean, let’s suppose I even get into the fraternity, let’s suppose I do. I mean, I’m not what they look for in members. I keep to myself, I’m a… I’m an artist!” I exclaim and motion at my fingerless gloves and ink stained fingers. “They would never have me!” I see Pete’s eyes narrowing, so I quickly add, “So let’s suppose I do get in. How am I going to find a secret society I don’t think exists? Sigmas want to seem mysterious, that’s their thing. Someone just started that rumour a hundred years back. How do I know I’m not wasting my time, trying to join a society that is fictional?”
“Listen to me Ryan, because this will be very helpful: it exists. I don’t know the real name of the secret society, but it exists,” Pete says with obvious conviction.
“How do you know?” I immediately question him. Pete has a sense of authority to him, but he isn’t all that older than me, not old enough for me not to second guess his words. Besides, he is not a doctor or a professor, and I’m guessing he is just a post-grad student.
“Trust me,” he replies.
“I just met you.”
“And I just met you. This job is very important, but I’m trusting you with it,” he states.
“I don’t know,” I end up sighing.
“Now, now, you’ve already agreed to do it,” he reminds me.
Dammit, I have, haven’t I? I didn’t realise I’d be regretting it this soon.
I think it all over before admitting, “I don’t think I can do it. I just… I can’t see how I could possibly track down a secret society that has never promoted its existence in any way.”
“Ah, but you’ve not let me finish quite yet,” Pete says.
He leans toward me over the desk, and I instinctively lean toward him. Our eyes are locked as Pete smiles to himself. There is something about the whole situation that feels surreal, there is something about the job Pete has given me that is more than fishy, and there is something about Pete’s eyes that makes me very fucking nervous.
I brace myself and hold my breath, waiting for the punch line to come.
Pete asks, “Do you know Brendon Urie?”