EEeee! There was a scream in the darkness. Seth sat up in bed and swatted his alarm. EE—whap
A glance at the clock revealed that it was only midnight, Monday morning. He had forgotten to reset the alarm to four. He did so automatically, half-dozing already, and slept again until the alarm pulled him from violent, terrifying dreams four hours later.
EEeee! He sat up again and swung, but missed the clock’s alarm button and instead knocked it to the floor. It went off three more times before he could retrieve and silence it. He turned to look at the room’s other bed to see whether his roommate had been woken up.
Isaac was awake, lying on his back. One arm was crooked over his face, hiding it. His breathing was deep and slow, regulated with obvious effort, although he didn’t seem to be feigning sleep.
Seth dressed and grabbed his CD player. “Sorry ‘bout that, man. I didn’t wake you up ‘cause of being mad… what? What’s up?”
He got no reaction, and tried again. “Are you okay over there? When did you get in? What’s going on? Did Thea see you at your job and break up with you or something?”
After a pause, Isaac spoke in a flat, controlled voice. “Thea was riding a bicycle out to the grounds. She had said something earlier about wanting to visit them. She must have come late, around midnight. Th… she… there was an accident.”
Isaac remained silent and motionless.
“You are SO shitting me!”
A whisper: “…no….”
“You—how do you know?”
Isaac was still breathing with forced depth and regularity. “I saw. I don’t know what they did after that; there might have been an ambulance involved. Now go away and do your job. And have your fun whining about it. And leave me alone.” His voice remained low and even.
“I said, go.”
Seth left. He let the door slam behind him, although he regretted doing so even before it had swung all the way shut. He put his headphones on behind his ears, holding them in place with his cap. He turned the volume all the way up. It felt as if knives were working their way into his brain as he walked out into the chilled darkness, but he didn’t touch the player until the music had stopped on its own.
The week between the end of classes and the start of finals: “Dead Week.” There had been a funeral, but Seth hadn’t gone. He had thought about getting drunk, but decided against that too—it seemed inappropriate. Instead, he spent the day staring out the window, watching birds shake the light snow-cover from the branches of a nearby evergreen.
After vanishing for a few days, Isaac had been spending more time in the dorm, staring at books for hours at a time and then disappearing again, presumably to class or work. His easy sarcasm had vanished so completely that others asked Seth about it, and when it returned, it was subdued. When he learned that Isaac was turning twenty-one on Thursday of Dead Week, Seth decided that they should go drinking. He still enjoyed going to the Welcome Mat, in part because it reminded him of better times and better company. But his one-time friends had moved on to the clubs, while he mostly kept to himself.
“Isaac,” he had said.
“You’ve never gone to a bar.”
“I’ll treat you.”
“It’s a tradition to get to know your alcohol when you come of age. And I’m not talking about that psycho fruit-juice they serve at your Jew things; I mean shots, or at least beer.”
“Give me a reason.”
“You need to relax.”
“Another reason. A better one.”
“I said I’ll treat you a round. You don’t get to bitch if you don’t like it though.”
“Fine, but don’t expect me to have more than that one drink.” Isaac had given Seth a speculative, distrustful look, then turned back to his reading.
Now, leading Isaac in, Seth smiled as the familiar wall of sound met them, muted yet almost tangible. The great thing about this place was that it hosted a continual rotation of local bands. The music wasn’t always good, but it was usually fresh. He took Isaac to one of the tables along the wall, with a good view of the band, and sat him down before heading over to the bar for drinks. He selected a rich dark beer from his favorite microbrewery so the taste wouldn’t scare Isaac away. When Seth returned to the table, Isaac was looking pensive.
“Hey, what’s down?” said Seth, putting one of the beers in front of him. “You’re a man now! Sort of. In a way. Cheers; drink up!” He sat down and took a drink.
Isaac picked up the beer and looked at it as if expecting strong acid. “Tell me something. Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Don’t get all moody over there. You’re not even drunk yet.”
“Fine.” Isaac audibly suppressed a sigh, took a mouthful, and made a thoughtful face before swallowing and setting his glass down. “OK, I’m drunk. Why are you being nice?”
“What, I take you out for your birthday and you gotta ask why?”
“Seth. We don’t usually get along very well. Our schedules are incompatible, our tastes are incompatible, and so on and so forth. I wouldn’t do something like this for you.”
“It’s your birthday! And you haven’t been an ass recently. That’s it. You didn’t, um, lose your position over there, did you? Or get put on probation?”
“What? Oh, no, nothing like that. In fact, they were very nice about everything after they found out I knew her. I’ve been staying away because— because I just wanted some time alone. To think things over, I suppose.” He gave Seth a close look. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I dunno. I thought you might get in trouble since your girlfriend got in an accident on her way out to see you without permission. There’s even a story that she got shot on the grounds during one of the exercises or something, even though it’s just a rumor. I mean, you know….”
Isaac was silent for a long time, pressing his lips together tightly. Then he picked up his beer and drank again as if trying to decide whether he liked the taste. In the background, the band launched into a new song about men and women. Finally, he sighed and said, “It wasn’t like that at all, really.” He paused to drink again, then continued while Seth was still trying to figure out what he had been responding to. “I guess I need to clear up a misconception: she wasn’t my girlfriend. Eligible after she started down the road to Jerusalem, as it were, but she always made me a little nervous.”
Seth snorted. “Coulda fooled me.”
Isaac bared his teeth sarcastically. This was the smile Seth understood the most. “If you weren’t such a pessimist, somebody besides yourself might need to participate in the fooling.”
That was effectively the end of the conversation and of the evening, although when they got home Isaac did thank Seth for the birthday present.
Seth let his bike fall on the hillside, checked the ground, sat down. It was the middle of the spring semester now, and he was taking a break from a vicious swarm of essays by visiting the countryside beyond county road W24. From his backpack he took a thermos; he popped a piece of crushed ice from it into his mouth and chewed noisily while extracting a can. He opened this carefully. He took a drink.
“Cold Beer, you’re my best and only friend.” He grinned briefly. “We should meet like this more often.”
Sighing, he drank again. The air temperature was high enough that he appreciated the ice and the shade of a nearby stand of pines. The trees in front and the hill at his back lent a sense of strength and depth to this little corner of the world. Here, he didn’t need or even want other people.
Birds flew overhead. The beer was gone, and Seth idly contemplated a grassflower he had picked. “Plain,” he murmured. “You wouldn’t even notice it. But that one Transcendentalist guy said we’re all just grass anyway.” That probably meant something, he felt.
He picked a piece of clover as well and stared at them, twirling the stems together between his fingers before finally tossing them away. A memory of sitting on the hillside, the first time he had done it with another’s company, came to his mind.
Jimmy said “Your name is in the Bible, Seth. My mom told me that.”
Seth said “It doesn’t mean anything. I’m not in the Bible.”
Jimmy said “My mom said Bible names are special. I’m special because there’s a James in the Bible.”
Seth said “I’m special because I can see the dog in the sky.”
Jimmy lay down too on the spring-smelling lawn and said “I can too!” even though there was no dog. But that was ok because Seth could see a dragon, and it was his.
The shell of the sky was infinitely blue; the land and trees around him curved up to meet it. Warm, calm, tired, somehow comforted by the enclosure, Seth slept. He dreamed of a world where nobody told him what to be. He dreamed that he became something anyway.
One evening, Isaac came back to the dorm and found Seth poring over a notebook page full of numbers and a large printed map of the campus, with details added in pen. “Oy vey, am I hun— what’s this?”
Seth flashed a self-deprecating smile. “I’ve gone psycho. Didn’t you notice? It’s all your fault, too. This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t set me up with that stupid newspaper gig.”
“What wouldn’t have happened?”
“I wouldn’t have assigned a number to each bush in the Rose Garden and then counted all the stems and leaves and thorns on each, and then kept track of the buds as they turned into more leaves and flowers and stuff, and I wouldn’t be keeping track of their petal count now. And I wouldn’t have started doing the same thing for every other garden in the place. And I wouldn’t be eying the trees now. Do you know how much counting a guy can do between four-fifty and seven, five days a week? A lot!”
Isaac looked over the map and notepad with wide eyes. “I thought you were lifting weights in the spare time. Or thinking of new ways to get back at me for recommending you to a paycheck. Hey,” he pointed, “those don’t have numbers, they have names.”
“Shut up!” Seth flipped the notebook shut and put his hands over the map defensively. “It gives variety. If you’d get your face out of your books, you might notice that plants have personalities too! Either tell me I need medication, or leave it alone.”
“I don’t think I’ll touch this one.” Isaac looked out the window with his tired smile, with an added touch of melancholy. “We all remember in different ways. Botany is a fine science.”
“Botany?” Seth looked up. “Maybe. Or something like that.”