It had been twenty-six days.
The bedroom, now known as The Cave, was beginning to smell worse than ever, probably because he had left something spoilable under a pile of his least favorite clothes, the kind he didn't get around to washing very often these days. Not much of the hardwood floor was visible under the heaps of soiled garb. Underneath the bed was a puke green shag that extended outward only a couple feet on all sides. The room was always dark now. A thick blue blanket had been strung up over the window keeping most of the sunlight out complimenting his current and seemingly perpetual doom and gloom mood and remain in dreamland until nearly noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays when his classes started at 12:30. On Mondays and Wednesdays his classes started at 9:00, and it was always difficult to rise without sun.
It did not used to be like this. Not twenty-six days ago. By nature, and historically, he was clean, organized, enthusiastic. His hair was neatly parted, combed, gelled. He cared what attire covered his body, how he looked—general presentation. He also cared how he smelled; how his room smelled.
The trashcan by the side of the bed was overrun with crumpled toilet tissue; there were small mounds around the perimeter and several individual tissue balls straying further away. A near finished roll was on the end table by the clock, which read 8:40 a.m. It was Wednesday.
The lump under the covers stirred, then he arose like Lazarus from the dead. Slowly at first, then with only the slightest indication of purpose.
Ned Banks was wearing the orange and black glow in the dark Halloween boxers she had given him and a pair of thick wool socks that kept his toes extra toasty during the night. His brown hair was longer now on top and standing straight up, Eraserhead style. He had a lanky body with a slightly athletic build and a chiseled face, three days unshaven and now lined with red pillow impressions. His physical appearance also reflected his current mental and emotional state.
Now the new normal in this crestfallen era, there was no time for a shower, hair care, or dental hygiene, just another layer of Old Spice under the arms and a shot of Listerine. No breakfast either. His appetite was low on the list of priorities. He pulled on a pair of sweats, stepped into his high-tops, blew his nose several times, stuffed extra toilet paper into his pocket for later, swallowed two Sudafed, and then grabbed a T-shirt and his coat on the way out the door.
Ned was listed as a business major, but the School of Business wouldn't accept him until he cleaned up his prerequisite math and accounting grades. Since he hated numbers and calculations of any kind, he concluded that he was not cut out for business school. The problem was that he did not seem to be cut out for anything. He started taking English classes hoping he might find some deep-seated love for literature and maybe a desire to create his own. So far, that wasn't the case.
Lit 234 was on the second floor of the English-PoliSci building. By the time Ned arrived at the door, the class was already in full swing. This was common lately. He walked in without slinking or shameful eyes, listless and indifferent, and he sat down in the back near the window. He used to be very attentive during the lecture, but now he only half listened while gazing out the window like there was something bigger and better coming his way to whisk him from his current monotone, depressive state of being. He watched the students outside in the cold, all bundled up and wishing they were warm by a fire someplace.
It had been unusually crisp for the desert this year for some reason. Dark clouds formed daily, thick and imposing. Snow was imminent. Just a matter of time. It hadn’t snowed in Tucson since he was a kid. Ned couldn't stand the cold because it brought on illness, like the nasty little virus afflicting his body now. In fact, at this very moment, snot was dripping from his left nostril. He pulled out some tissue and blew loudly, disrupting the class yet again. Clicking his pen and opening his notebook, Ned sunk into his seat, ready for the long haul.
Up at the front of the room stood Professor Langley, dressed in her usual neutral apparel: faded blue jeans, hiking boots, a blue button-up shirt, and a familiar beaded necklace. Hopi, she claimed. Her long dirty blonde hair was in a ponytail, as always. Professor Langley was a rotund, serious-minded instructor, and a highly opinionated feminist, who would occasionally leave the literary topic at hand to venture into some current controversial political discussion. That was the case now. The topic: environmentalism.
Ned's eyes immediately shifted back to the window where he found more than enough entertainment outside. The grass had apparently been watered last night, and there were patches of ice along the sidewalk. People were having a difficult time walking. They occasionally slipped, or even fell. One girl, for whatever reason, was wearing a dress and high heel pumps. She slipped and fell right on her ass. Some guy tried to help her, though timidly, so she slipped again.
Because his attention was fixed on the cold outdoors, Ned didn't notice the girl sitting two chairs over, whose concentration had also strayed from the class discussion in order to stare without a blink at him. The girl was thick and unseasonably tanned. She had full and glossy lips, thick eyeliner, eye shadow, and a modest amount of rogue. And neon pink polish on dagger fingernails. As she stared, she rolled a strand of her brown hair around a pencil. She bit her bottom lip. The strand of hair soon left the pencil and went into her mouth. She gnawed. Then she crossed one thigh over the other and began bouncing her dangling foot. She coughed a couple of times, looking down at first, then back at Ned, as if maybe the sound would make him turn her way. But it didn't.
After a while, Langley began discussing literature again, and more specifically DeLillo, who she said wrote much better short stories than novels. DeLillo? Ned wasn't doing very well with his reading list. He was still on Faulkner. Contemporary novels were still way down the line. When the semester began, he was on top of every reading assignment staying current and involved in class discussions. But things change. This was a year for big change.
It was time for class to end, but as usual, Langley went over. Ned still didn't notice the enamored girl sitting two chairs over, but he did notice the blonde girl outside. She was clad in L.L. Bean winter attire: a thick red coat, black gloves, black boots and a white pair of thigh hugging cotton tights. Her face, pearl white with a dash of winter chill in the cheeks, adhered to the rule of thirds, and more importantly, resembled Andrea's long-lost visage. Straight blonde hair, blunt cut, one length. Her strut was smooth, feminine, sexy, but not as self-conscious or as sweeping as the runway model she could easily be. She stopped right below Ned, in front of the building, looked both ways as if trying to decide on a direction, flipped her sandy blonde strands back out of her eyes, then decided to take the northerly route. The pace picked up.
She looks exactly like Andrea...
And there was something about her expression. An intensity. A sense of urgency. Not like she was late for class, but more like she was about to miss out on something extraordinary.
For the first time in twenty-six days, Ned found enthusiasm. And he stopped thinking about Jesse.
And at that moment, class ended. Ned clicked his pen shut, closed his notebook and rose. He would zigzag through the clusters of rising, walking, milling students, push and shove if necessary, but find his way to the nearest exit, quickly, and then pick up the scent of the Andrea clone. He made way for the door.
The smitten brunette showed a look of disappointment. She stuck her foot out to trip him, like it was all perfectly accidental—just to get him to slow down a little, maybe take notice of her. But he hurdled over her leg without even glancing her way, flew out of the classroom. She furrowed her brow, mumbled something with discouragement.
Outside, Ned quickly picked up the trail of the blonde. But she was moving fast, so Ned had to break into a casual trot. As he got closer, he slowed, relaxed, made like an average guy taking an average stroll to class. He was awfully close now and wished he could smell her, but of course, the cold, the stuffed-up nose, the bastard winter. He imagined her scent must be an intense combination of fine perfume, body lotion, and hair care product. The girl was oblivious to his closeness, evidently mindful of only one thing: her destination. Maybe a boyfriend picking her up, taking her to lunch: a burger, some fries, and a diet Coke. No—something light, like a salad. She didn't look like a burger person. A vegetarian. Like Andrea.
The blonde led Ned around the corner of the four-story Albert B. Weaver Science – Engineering Library, where he was surprised to find a throng of students standing out in the street. It was like a protest gathering or something. But there was no shouting, no accusing fingers, no signs, and no banners. In fact, the crowd was rather solemn. Obviously, this gathering had nothing to do with activism or political ideology. Instead, as Ned soon discovered, it had to do with death—and the morbid desire to see it.
There were several police cars parked off at the side of the road, and a couple of news vans parked further down. Cameras, reporters, sensationalism. There were long strips of yellow plastic labeled "CRIME SCENE" sectioning off a large area outside the building, in front by a row of hedges. The crowd of students had gathered along the perimeter of the crime area, all trying to get a good look at whatever had occurred. The blonde stood on her toes, a graceful effort, like a ballerina on point, and tried to see over the heads of the onlookers. But it wasn't good enough. So, she absorbed herself into the crowd, politely pushing her way toward a ringside seat. Ned followed, with less civility, pushing, shoving, and elbowing.
The blonde finally broke through at the front of the crowd. Ned broke through too, right next to her. He was thrilled. He looked over at her. At first, his glance was casual, but then for some reason it seemed safe to just continue staring. Her nose was small, straight, sloped. She had pleasant lips, slightly moist, painted red. And friendly blue eyes made vehement by tense eyebrows. She looked exactly like Andrea—or at least how he remembered she looked—and how she would look now. Amazing...
He noticed that her breath was visible, and she was panting, having worked so fervently to get to this prime vantage point. After a moment of scrutiny, Ned saw more than beauty; he saw a face that expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for whatever it was she was seeing. An exhilaration. Passion, pure and simple. This prompted Ned to look at the crime scene for the first time.
He was surprised by what he saw: the sidewalk was stained with spatters of dark red or maybe brown liquid, presumably blood—a trail that led from a large stain by the curb to the side of the building by the hedges. It was smeared in places; stepped in, slid on, or maybe crawled through. There was a bloody handprint or two, and scuffmarks made by slick-bottomed shoes, like loafers. Ned's mouth loosened.
"What happened?" Ned blurted out. An unintentional opening line.
The blonde didn't take her eyes off the scene. "Murder."
"I saw it on the news this morning. It happened early. A student."
"I don't know."
"Shit," Ned said, turning to the blonde. He now realized just how enthralled by the scene she was; her eyes were gleaming, her mouth panting slightly—the breath visible in the cold—and her tongue was scraping the top row of her perfectly aligned white teeth. It was more than fascination; it was enthusiasm. Ned looked over at the crime scene again to verify its horrific similitude. And yes, in fact, this was a ghastly display. He turned to her again and she was still beaming with what could be described as sheer exhilaration.
And then Ned sneezed.
"Bless you," she said, though still unable to look away from the crime scene.
Ned felt snot. Slimy green goo was oozing its way down through his nostrils, about to make an appearance. He sniffed, but the Law of Gravity prevailed. To remain in sync with the established rhythm of conversation, he would have to come up with another question or observation immediately or lose the opportunity all together. But he had to blow. And you really can't blow in front of a woman this sumptuous. He gave his nose a quick wipe with the sleeve of his coat, hoping that it would appear more routine than gross. Regardless, it didn't help.
The crowd started to thin a little, enabling the blonde to get closer to the actual scene, moving along the yellow strip toward the blood stain. Ned decided to linger, let her get a head of him, so that he wouldn't blow in front of her. Still sniffing, he reached into his pocket but only found a small, tattered strand of tissue left, not nearly enough for this particular job. He gave his nose another futile swipe with the sleeve. He had to blow and blow soon. He looked over and saw the blonde, still utterly engrossed by the crime scene. Ned glanced around the immediate area, and then across the street to the Koffler building where there had to be a bathroom.
Inside the Koffler building, Ned quickly found the men's room, pushed open the door, nearly trampled an exiting professor, offered apologies, sniffed snot, felt it oozing down to his top lip, rushed to the nearest available stall where he groped for tissue. Unfortunately, it was the kind of toilet paper dispenser that catches every square or two, so you can't yank off too much at a time and be wasteful. Ned kept getting these little squares that he couldn't use. He got frustrated. Said shit, then moved on to fuck. And then, of course, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. After a moment or two, he relaxed, jimmied the thing, got a good stretch of tissue, and finally blew snot. And there was relief.
Ned pulled off some more tissue, carefully, and blew again. Again, and again. It was like an open spigot with an endless supply of gook. It took a few minutes to run dry. He went to the mirror, checked his nostrils, now red and irritated. He shrugged, ran his hands through his thick, Eraserhead doo, smiled, but suddenly saw the value of presentation again after a long hiatus. He pulled out some Binaca and gave his mouth a blast.
When he walked outside again, the sun had gone behind a massive gray cloud, a wind had kicked up, and cold air chilled his face. He crossed the street, his eyes searching for the blonde as he went. But she was no longer standing where she had been just moments ago. Not near the dried blood, not near the yellow plastic strip. She had disappeared.