SAMPLE : BOOK ONE


PROLOGUE

THE DARK SIDE OF THE RAINBOW

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I suppose I could tell you that everything in this novel is inherently true, even though this is a work of fantasy, but I won’t do that.  No, I’ll leave that for you to decide, though you probably won’t believe.  One of the fundamental rules that govern freewill on this particular world allows everyone the freedom to believe whatever they choose to believe, so my hands are already tied.  Anyway, some truths are simply unexplainable; they have to be revealed in narrative form.  But you don’t really care about any of that, so let’s jump right to the back-story.

In the last decade of the last century, I was just another unconscious drone spinning in my hamster wheel.  On the surface, my childhood was vaguely normal; my adolescence was unremarkable.  I graduated from college with a superfluous degree.  I paid my dues and put in my time for a successful media career in Washington, D.C.  All these details are unimportant.  What is vital is that I was ready to wake up.

We always seem to choose sleep, resisting all those ridiculous, nagging coincidences.  Our eyes open briefly for a few minutes, only to close again as we cloak ourselves in blankets of comfortable amnesia.  The more the Universe struggles to wake us, the harder we dig our heels into this illusion of normalcy.  And so something in the Universe is constantly striving to manifest new methods to get our attention.

My snooze alarm went off the first week of June 1997, when I received a most unusual message.  An acquaintance of mine forwarded an email-chain about an underground phenomenon that was quietly going viral.  I was completely mesmerized as I scrolled down the screen and read the details. The attachment contained a specific recipe – instructions for an extraordinary event.

Now, I’ve known Synchronicity rather intimately for most of my adult life.  Synchronicity, as coined by Carl Jung, is the meaningful connection between two or more events that cannot be explained by the perception of cause and effect.  It’s serendipity, or in laymen’s terms, a ‘spooky coincidence.’  This email was a catalog of the ‘spooky coincidences’ that occur when the classic film The Wizard of Oz is played simultaneously with the equally classic Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon.  After years of extraordinary personal encounters, I had finally stumbled upon the Holy Grail – an experience that transcended individual perception.

My friend’s attached response was brief but concise, “I smell a party!”

Of course, I was euphoric.  On one level, I was amused by the odd pairing – a modern fable for children and a paranoid rock-opus for the drug culture.  Yet the paradox spoke to my own adolescent experiences, the innocence of a fairy tale crossed with the dark sophistication of the Twilight Zone.  Across the country, thousands were watching this mashup, witnessing an event, and spreading the word.  I knew I had to see it for myself.  More importantly, I wanted to decode the message.  Beyond all my expectations, it opened me like a key, unlocking my subconscious and ultimately conceiving the story you are about to read.

We arranged a small gathering.  I supplied the theater, the movie, and the music.  My friend supplied the marijuana.  For optimal reception, it was absolutely mandatory, a testament to the kind of higher education I received in college.  I have since given up the habit, but like an old college friend who always manages to stir up excitement and trouble, I kept in touch without rekindling the relationship.

As our event approached, synchronicity began to materialize around me almost like a preamble.   Rainbows appeared on consecutive mornings after light showers.  Working as a freelance video editor, I had just started a two-week job at a local production company.  One day, a group of actors arrived dressed up as Dorothy and her rag-tag companions for a Freddie Mac corporate video.  Dorothy was in the market for a new house so she sought out the Great Oz of financial planning for a home loan.

On another afternoon, someone left a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall sitting on the receptionist’s desk.  Then later that week, in my edit session, completely ignorant of my intentions, my producer playfully read aloud a curious article she found tucked away inside the Washington Post.  I was so astonished by the coincidence I kept the clipping.

“The Dark Side of the Wizard of Oz?  Record sales for Pink Floyd have soared the past month since rumors began to spread, as well as speculation, about the alleged cosmic coincidence.  Rentals for the movie have skyrocketed as well.  The supposed collaboration between film and musicians was dubbed ‘The Dark Side of the Rainbow.’  But unofficial word from the band denied any conscious collaboration.”

So I ask, which is more ludicrous?  The notion of an actual cosmic coincidence, or the idea that in 1973 a successful rock band wrote and produced their next studio album to score a children’s movie with random precision, only to reap the free publicity twenty-four years later?  Then again, there was that mysterious prism and light diffused rainbow on the album’s cover.

We assembled for our premier at my English basement apartment, six blocks from Dupont Circle.  The sales girl at Blockbuster Video offered one final disturbing twist to the evening.  She informed me that in one scene of the film you could make out the body of a Munchkin hanging from a noose behind the painted backdrop.  One of my guests confirmed the rumor, so we told him to point it out.  One thing was certain: The Wizard of Oz of my childhood would never be the same film ever again.

On the third roar of the MGM lion, I started the CD and our voyage began.   What followed was utterly amazing.  The music synced almost perfectly with the movie, with uncanny transitions where a dramatic scene changed, providing a supernatural narrative that waltzed between the ironic, the absurd, and the profound.  The entire story of OZ was turned on its side.  Unfortunately copyright laws prevent me from adequately quoting, but here is my well-embellished interpretation:

Life in Kansas played out like a dark satirical comedy, a Saturday Night Live parody of the all-American family.  It was the age of black and white.  Simple morals and simple values faded with memory into sepia tone, the after-glow of a fictitious golden age.

Dorothy raced home through the dust bowl crying out for attention, “Speak to Me,” but she is not seen.  Her aunt and uncle were hard at work feeding the eternal machine.  These simple-minded Puritans could not remember their own childhood fears or childhood tears.  They had forgotten how to feel; they had forgotten how to “Breathe”.

“On the Run,” Dorothy dreamed of fleeing this dreary, nowhere farm for the glittering, bustling big city.  But the price of fantasy is an inevitable fall.  Teetering on the fence of a decision, the music took a serious turn as Dorothy tumbled into the pigpen, a tumble that foreshadowed a sinister plot – her sexual awakening and her innocence lost.

The air-traffic was heavy over the rainbow as Dorothy began to sing.  The childhood dreams of flight had become the noisy, polluted congestion of consumer transit.  You could even hear the dishes rattle as a flying saucer hovered over the mutilated cattle.

Suddenly, dozens of alarm bells sounded as the mortal witch rode up on her bike.  “Time” for Dorothy to wake up!  The great bitch vented in comical fury with her pent up rage of expectation and disrespect.  A life wasted waging war eternal.

Cowardly Aunt Em caved in the way decent people always do, validating the small town witch.  Once again, blind arrogance managed to get its own way.  The melodrama in Kansas was the same every day.  With every delay, more and more sand in Dorothy’s hourglass was slipping away.

Escaping down the desolate tumbleweed road, she met a wandering prophet.  This wise New Age huckster gazed into his crystal ball and turned her attention back home, praising simple contentment away from life’s turbulent storm, which inevitably swallows up everyone who goes looking for more.

Suddenly the music and mood changed as the twister descended.  “The Great Gig in the Sky” cried more than it sang.  The feminine voice wailed with unrestrained grief.  How fragile is life, how utterly insignificant when measured against the destructive power of the Universe.  The emotional score brought tears to my eyes as the tornado descended to obliterate their farm.  Dorothy was trapped outside the family storm cellar all alone.  Knocked unconscious, Dorothy and her house were vacuumed up the funnel, the dark tunnel of a near-death experience.  A series of images flew past her window – all that she loved, everything that she knew, just like a lifetime review.

As her bed hit the ground, the female voice sighed for Dorothy.  Then a sudden musical transition, a change of perception as she opened the door.  Technicolor, Dolby surround sound, and oh, so much more.  From the golden era of monochrome television, Dorothy stepped into living color, the post-Kennedy world.

A cash register went ka’ching with the introduction to the song, “Money.”  This rich land of color was flashy, tacky, trashy, and plastic.  Hollywood, Vegas, Disneyland, and McDonald’s all rolled into one, a fitting tribute to the absurdity of modern civilization.  Behind the colorful backdrop, you could almost imagine teams of lawyers, advertisers, and accountants counting their gold.

Glinda, that good bitch, popped out of her soap bubble.  A sultry saxophone advertised her worldly charms.  The saccharine witch clutched Dorothy by the hand and gave her the discounted tour, like a politician sweetening in front of the camera, so proud and demur.

And the price of admission?  Dorothy had accidentally committed murder.  Yet in Oz, this grisly deed made her a media darling, an instant folk hero.  They threw her a parade of adult fetish babies and goose-stepping neo-Nazis.  Too soon, the Munchkins discovered their late enemy had a sister.  One tyrant died, and soon another dropped in to replace her.

What a strange and twisted place was Oz.  The archetypal witches cornered Dorothy – two con artists playing their mark, two drag queens fighting over a pair of designer shoes – their favorite obsession of which Dorothy had taken possession.

They both made a claim.  They both had a story.  And who knows which witch was right and which witch was just a poor loser.  Cornering the rube who fell from the sky, they forced her to choose.  Which camp, party, or team, “Us or Them,” you have to decide!

Dorothy was off to a trot down the Yellow Brick Road, or “Any Colour You Like.”  No sooner had she arrived, she was whining to go back home.  Back to boring old Kansas.  Can’t say that I blamed her.  Oz was giving me an Excedrin headache.  All the chaos of color, movement, and music on marijuana was a media blitzkrieg, another fun-frantic day in the information age.

Along the road, the first Loony Tune Dorothy would meet was a brainless scarecrow with an innate capacity for speech.  And he danced a wild, clumsy jig to the tune of “Brain Damage.”

The scarecrow danced around Dorothy as if he were stoned.  Welcome to Oz: the insanity of drugs, and suddenly this whole bizarre experiment seemed like some elaborate cosmic public service announcement.  But you had to do drugs to get the message so the logic folded back on itself.

Down the Yellow Brick Road they skipped, arm in arm, childhood and madness, blind to the shadow hiding further down the road – the Wicked Witch of the West.  Dorothy picked herself a treat, forbidden fruit from a forbidden tree.  But the trees were fighting back.  They threw their own apples at the thieves.

Meanwhile, rusted inside his metal skin, the Tin Man stood frozen in time.  He had so much armor no emotion could escape or get in.  Technology had built him a marvelous shell.  Yet he could only make the faintest yelp, trying to beg for a child’s tender help.

Just another cosmic public service announcement about technology’s inevitable dehumanization?  Or was the true meaning of life enfolded within the lyrics of the song “Eclipse?”  The layered narrative stopped abruptly as Dorothy and the Scarecrow pressed their ears up to the Tin Man’s chest.  A faint heartbeat played out as the Pink Floyd album came to an end…

The entire Floyd-Oz experience was a little surreal, like watching a solar eclipse.  It forced the mind to look at a familiar world in an unconventional way with an almost alien perspective.  Yet I was left wondering where the missing second act was, and how I could find it.  We were all blown away by the event in ways we could not easily articulate.  We were all moved to tears during “The Great Gig in the Sky.”  We were connected by the experience, yet I felt particularly isolated, as if the universe had something very important to say.  I was the only one in the room willing to suspend my disbelief and actually pay attention.

Of course, all of this might have all been inconsequential and easily dismissed had the next event not occurred later that same month.

Around three in the morning, I was driving back to the city from another friend’s party in the suburbs of Maryland.  I had even mentioned the Floyd-Oz event to a couple of individuals who seemed mildly interested.  The road back to Washington was unusually deserted.  People were away on vacation, probably spending the weekend at the beach.  The Mormon temple was the brightest thing on the horizon as I circled around the beltway.  As anyone who’s ever seen the monument will attest, it bares an uncanny resemblance to the Emerald City of Oz.  Entering the George Washington Parkway, I skipped through several radio channels and landed on a classic rock station.  A Pink Floyd song was playing, basically informing me that I had been told what to dream.  The song was “Welcome to the Machine.”

With the unexpected synchronicity of the lyrics, I snapped out of my late night driving trance.  I wasn’t drunk, but I was tired.  Behind the tree line, a light drifted in the sky, keeping pace with my car.  It was bright, and from the corner of my eye, I assumed it was the moon.  Then it flew over the trees, coming right toward me, hovering over the Potomac along the Parkway, still keeping pace with my car.

At first, it didn’t really register in my mind what it was.  I noticed it with disinterest.  Then curiosity set in as I realized it was something unusual.  Then, excitement as it kept pace with my car, quickly followed by physiological panic.  My heart was beating twice as fast as normal.  My knuckles were white as I clutched the steering wheel, but I calmly maintained my speed.  I had that strange, surreal sensation I get whenever some wild bit of synchronicity unexpectedly occurs.  My first instinct was to laugh.  My second instinct was to watch the thing compulsively.

I don’t know how large it was, or how far away it was.  I’m not particularly good at judging distances.  It was about the size of a Frisbee from my perspective in the drivers seat, straining to look upward out my left side window.  It was perfectly round, faintly glowing, and it moved without a sound as it followed my course for less than a minute until the Pink Floyd song ended.  Then it just vanished.  It didn’t fly away at an incredible speed.  It simply vanished into a point of light and disappeared.  And that was the end of my close encounter of the Spielberg kind.

The DJ at the radio station must have had a perverse sense of humor, because the next song to play over my car stereo was Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

When you experience something like this – something you can’t explain – something so far outside of your pedestrian reality, it changes you forever.  You may not rush home and call up your friends.  You may never mention it at all for fear of being laughed at.  You just resume your life as if nothing really happened.  But it stays with you.  You can never forget.  You can never fall back to sleep.  It lurks inside of you, itching to get out, filling you with questions you can never answer.  So the change is deeply uncomfortable.  You’re on the fringe now, over the rainbow, stuck in the closet, keeping this secret, standing outside the norm looking back at the garden where you were cast out.  You can’t get back.  You have no choice but to move forward.

And so, over the next decade, this story slowly began to unfold, emerging from my creative subconscious as if some divine and maddening muse was guiding its creation.  Fighting against my doubts and my procrastination, encouraging me when I became frustrated, I was gently pushed to complete this novel when most of the time I wanted nothing more than to quit writing it.  And much like The Wizard of Oz before it, this story begins in a boring place very much like Kansas.


CHAPTER ONE

THE FRESHMAN

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On a perfectly ordinary bright September day, Paul Venturi’s parents drove four and a half hours to abandon their son behind the bricks and bars of a state institution.  His sentence would last four to six years, subject to academic success.  If his mother had known the assembly of perverts, delinquents, and drug dealers into whose care she was leaving her only son, she might have urged him to apply to community college instead.   Nurtured in the time-honored tradition of Christian denial, and despite personal tragedy, she subscribed to the belief that evil seldom invaded the order of decent people’s lives.

On the other hand, Paul’s stepfather knew better.  He was a military man.  His career rested upon the constant threat of chaos – a systemic belief that homo-sapiens had to claw, scheme, and struggle for a slice of American pie.  At the close of the twentieth century, the laws of Darwin still applied.  It was time to turn the boy loose on the world, or more appropriately, turn the world loose on the boy.

For his own small role, Paul couldn’t wait to get away to college.   He couldn’t wait to escape the joyless suffocation of his parents’ split-level suburban home.  He was relieved when he graduated early from that soulless institution of social feudalism know as public high school.  College offered a fresh start – new friends, new freedoms, a new environment of intelligence, reason, and thoughtfulness… or so he thought… so he hoped.

The year was 1982.  Ronald Reagan was President, crusading against communism.  The economy was in recession with record unemployment.  Tensions and terrorism were mounting in the Middle East.  One dying, paranoid Soviet leader would soon be succeeded by another – former head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov.  The Cold War heated to rapid boil – the hottest international crisis since 1962.  The entire world teetered on the brink of thermonuclear self-destruction.

Paul just wanted to survive his own belated adolescence.

His university was quietly nested under the Blue Ridge Mountains in an obscure burg in the southwest corner of Virginia.  It was a long, tedious morning drive from the suburbs of Washington D.C, as far from civilization as one could possibly travel and still qualify for instate tuition.  Their green family station wagon with artificial wood paneling was packed with college provisions.   It entered the campus from the East, driving down a tree-lined corridor known as the Mall, which terminated at the head of the Ellipse.  Rising to greet them was a monument of eight sculptured stone monoliths known as the War Memorial Chapel – a modern synthesis of religion and war.  Paul thought the structure was a strange mix of Egyptian archeology and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The traffic of incoming freshmen moved at a slow crawl.  Paul’s stepfather pressed his elbow to the car horn, impatiently trying to merge into the Ellipse.  Slouching in the backseat, Paul knew he would probably be mortified by half a dozen parental quirks before the day was through.  Gazing out the car window, a paradox caught his eye.  Two ordinary signs just knee high stood side by side at the edge of the road.  Read together in a sentence their meaning was nonsense, a contradictory message, and yet a prophetic enigma:

“One Way… Do Not Enter.”

Paul’s stepfather honked his horn again.  A discombobulated mother was attempting to turn her Honda into oncoming traffic.  He cursed at the freshman traffic, ordering his wife to look for an alternate route on the campus map.  Paul’s mother objected to his unnecessary profanity and suggested that they patiently follow the other cars around the drill field.  Another argument ensued.

Paul sunk into the vinyl seat, hoping the afternoon would fly by a little more quickly.  Whether they bickered or not, he felt their tension under his skin.  He was acutely aware of the disappointments and irritations they concealed.  Their emotions surrounded him like a murky fog, with tentacles slipping into his mind, and toxins seeping into his chest, sucking the life out of him.  Paul was what was commonly, and somewhat ironically, referred to as sensitive.  He couldn’t exactly read their thoughts.  He lost that skill when his real father died.  But the intervening years had tuned his mind to receive and translate his parent’s dark muted emotions, which usually shouted louder than their words.  He only had to endure it for a few more hours.

Paul lifted his chin to catch another glimpse of his new home.  The summer sunlight was blinding; a glaring white heat reflected off the polished limestone walls of the campus.  The buildings were soaring, glittering fortresses of chiseled rock.  Their majestic towers were crowned with turrets.  Narrow windows aligned in regal order.  Tunnels opened in sculptured archways to courtyards and garden walks.  Some were closed with black iron gates, a bundle of spears that probably made a mighty “clang” when shut.  The University was a collection of mysterious castles that had already cast a spell over him.  They were strangely familiar.  He had walked through these castle walls before in the lucid dreams of his childhood.  The foggy details had been long lost, but the memory of glittering castle walls remained opaque.  This unexpected whiff of déjà vu filled Paul with hope.   He couldn’t explain it.  It just felt right.  He knew that he was meant to be here.  He was optimistic.  His future was waiting to begin.

Not yet eighteen, Paul Venturi looked more like fourteen or fifteen.  He was shorter than most boys, with a prepubescent face, broken like a sundial by a long Roman nose.  His dark eyes were empathic and haunted.  His face was a contrast of light and shadow, pale white skin and straight black hair.  It was a handsome face, but a dusting of freckles and a protracted war with acne made the distortion he saw in the mirror hideously unremarkable.

Scholastically, Paul Venturi was a heavy weight champion.  He tested well.  He cruised through Calculus and Honors English and was paroled from high school a full year early.  He labored in a world where parental esteem was measured by grade point average.  He was a parent’s wet dream – the award on the shelf, the diploma on the wall, a source of pride without a trace of willfully rebellious self-identity.  He slipped through high school, socially illiterate, completely untouched or unscarred by adolescent experience.  By the high standard that most teenagers judged themselves abnormal, Paul was a freak of nature.

Under the September sun, the day unfolded with cool deliberation.  Through a curving maze of narrow roads, the family wagon found its way to Paul’s new residence – a smaller castle crested on the side of a hill.  Crowds of parents and freshmen washed ashore from the parking lot, unloading cars like Mayflower pilgrims colonizing the New World, hauling their mini refrigerators and television sets across the courtyard in a frantic attempt to civilize the fortresses abandoned by their previous residents.  The invading faces were young, immigrants leaving home, many for the first time.

They passed each other with cool regard, avoiding glances, quietly evaluating their surroundings, remaining anonymous.  The presence of adults made them invisible to one another.  Their parents, on the other hand, stepped over themselves to exchange cheerful pleasantries.  Paul’s stepfather complained about the heat, the traffic, and the lack of administrative organization to anyone who would listen.  Meanwhile, Paul’s mother followed up with polite rebuttals trying to compensate for her husband’s gruffness.  Paul blended in with the rest of his freshman class, suitcase in hand, head lowered in silent humiliation.

His heart sank as he unlocked his door.  His dorm room was little more than a ten by twelve foot prison cell.  In one corner was a bunk bed: a black girder frame and two ratty thin mattresses with naked horizontal stripes and brown stains.  A porcelain sink protruded from the wall, pipes and all.  Two wooden desks sat at odd angles, antiques that probably survived the Civil War.  The cinder-block walls were painted puke green.  Cobwebs hung like tightropes from the corners of the ceiling.  A stale orange light bathed the room, sunlight filtered through the yellowed window shade.  A single naked light bulb protruded from the ceiling.   The room had an overabundance of rustic charm.

Alarmed by the sight of it, Paul’s mother set out to the car to retrieve her cleaning supplies.  She swept the floor, dusted the furnishings, cleaned the window ledge, and scrubbed the sink.  She was a woman with a conscience for tidiness.  Against her son’s protests and her husband’s criticism, she measured and cut plastic lining paper for his dresser drawers.  Ahead of schedule, Paul was mortified again.  Guys shouldn’t have plastic lining paper in their dresser drawers.

As Paul hauled a tower of empty boxes back to the station wagon, he entered the stairwell and accidentally collided with another boy who was carrying a milk crate stuffed with record albums.  Paul didn’t see him behind the stack of boxes, and the tower tumbled to the ground.  The impact knocked off several of the loose LPs stacked on top of the other boy’s milk crate.  Paul reflexively apologized as he stooped down to pick up the albums.  Scooping them up, he glanced at the covers.  Rush, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath: these were bands he was unfamiliar with.

“Sorry about that,” he apologized again, returning the records to the top of the stack.

“No problemo, dude,” the other replied.  His dialect was borrowed.  The California surf was a continent away.  Paul looked up and saw his face for the first time.  The image matched the voice.  He was slightly taller than Paul, a beautiful kid with tanned skin, flushed cheeks, ocean blue eyes, and a wet tangle of golden hair.  Sporting an orange tank top and showing off some prominent biceps, he wore a string of Puka shells around his neck.  The outer door was slowly closing behind him.  The constant trample of feet had stirred up some dirt outside.  A shaft of sunlight poured into the stairwell, the rising dust illuminated around the boy’s head like a golden halo, and for an instant the faux-surfer was surrounded by divine light, which was rather disconcerting.

“You have a lot of albums,” Paul added sheepishly, shading his eyes with his forearm, blinded by the radiant light.  “My name is Paul, by the way.”  He was eager to make his first new friend.

“Yeah, right.  Eric, here,” the other boy introduced himself shifting his feet under the weight of the milk crate.  “I’m a metalhead, I suppose” he proceeded to inform Paul.  “Rock is my god, but not that radio band-candy crap.  You should swing by my room later.  I’ll be firing up the old turn table.”

“Sure,” Paul hesitantly agreed, distracted by a flood of subliminal impulses.  Colliding with this boy, his guard down, Paul immediately perceived his mind.  He tried to suppress this sixth sense, which was more of a curse than a gift, as it was often difficult to separate other people’s emotions from his own.  It was a challenge to feign ignorance, to navigate endless superficial encounters, a social-survival skill that was vastly under-appreciated.

Eric’s emotional pattern seemed deliberately distracted and mischievous, light and sticky like a practical joke.  There was this towering wall of confidence surrounding him sustained by willpower alone – a freshmen determined not to be perceived as one.  Yet there was something else, something much deeper, something hidden behind that wall.

The outer door closed.  The sunlight vanished, and the boy’s face fell into shadow.  For a fraction of a second, by some trick of the darkness, another image superimposed over his face.  Paul glimpsed a different silhouette.  The tangled hair became horns.  His bright blue eyes extinguished, leaving flecks of yellow light.  A cold shudder raced up Paul’s spine.  The hair on his arms stood erect.

Paul sensed something incomprehensible and unfamiliar… two separate personalities.  A foreign intelligence was crouching behind the mask of the boy’s distracted thoughts.  A cunning and quick mind was watching him behind the dark windows of this colorful front porch.  It leapt out at Paul with a surge of complex emotions: surprise, malice, and sinister delight.  Then it vanished again without a trace.  Paul stumbled back a step in shock and confusion.  His heart was racing.  Summer perspiration turned into a cold sweat.

“Yeah man, when the parental units blow away, we should have ourselves a little celebratory toke.  I got some refreshment stashed away for the occasion.”  With a coy wink and a half raised smile the boy shuffled past Paul and disappeared through the interior door, completely oblivious to Paul’s panic attack.

More freshmen with boxes poured into the stairwell as Paul became self-conscious.  He grabbed his boxes and pushed through the outer double door.  The logical half of his mind was already rationalizing the disturbance.

‘Great, not even here a whole day and I’m already suffering from freshman anxiety,’ Paul chastised himself.  He always had an active imagination.  Then another thought occurred to him.  Had he really just been propositioned with drugs his first day on campus?  Perhaps, that’s what he sensed, the drugs.  Shaking it off, Paul returned to the family station wagon like a mule to the quarry.

Hours later the sun was ready to set, the last family dinner was over, and Paul was anxious to say goodbye and move in to his new life.  Although he ‘d soon be home again for Thanksgiving break, this moment, this farewell, marked the end of his childhood.  He was being released from their jail.  He was even inclined to forgive them for being so completely miserable, for making his childhood unhappy by osmosis.  Family appearances were continually propped up by so much polite self-deception.

His stepfather grabbed his hand and shook it violently, one soldier to another.  He never once looked into Paul’s eyes as he instructed him to keep his nose clean, whatever that meant.  But then, he never really looked at Paul at all.  So Paul nodded obsequiously for the last time.  He was almost free.

His mother hugged him loosely, a fragile airport embrace between distant relatives.  If she wanted to cry, she held back her tears.  She was quite proficient at holding back her emotion, channeling it into some form of domestic obsession, reminding Paul to separate his whites from his colors when he does his own laundry.  Paul often wondered if he had been secretly adopted, but the resemblance he shared with his mother was undeniable.

As the car pulled away and disappeared down the road, Paul’s heart raced with excitement and just a tremor of fear.  He was completely on his own.  The thought filled him with a perverse sense of joy.  He returned to the disorder of his dormitory room.  The single naked light bulb illuminated his work as he finished unpacking.  The novelty of freedom slowly made room for boredom as passing footsteps and distant conversations echoed through the walls.  And still there was no sign of his roommate.

Paul wandered down the hallway on his way to the communal bathroom.  Eric’s door was wide open.  His stereo was blaring music into the hallway, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” just a cacophony of screaming guitars and Satanic verses which Paul found both ridiculous and disturbing.  He was going to quietly glide by the open door when the boy suddenly emerged from the frame, sunburned, shirtless, and smiling.

“Dude… I wondered if you were gonna show.  I’m cranking the tunes.  Yah interested in a little herbal refreshment?”  His eyes were already narrow bloodshot slits as he leaned coyly into Paul to whisper under the music, offering him marijuana.

“Ah, no… sorry… actually… I’ve got a lot more unpacking left to do,” Paul lied.  He stepped aside and glided backwards towards the men’s room, shrugging his shoulders to look more convincing.  Then he turned around to escape.

Eric was unconcerned, stretching his body, grabbing the top of the frame, hanging in the doorway.  “OK, catch you later then, when you’re like totally bored.”

And then, in the back of his mind, Paul distinctly heard something in Eric’s voice, something Eric never actually uttered.  “… when you’re ready to surrender.”

Paul turned around.  The little hairs on the back of his neck were standing up again.  He felt that strange cunning presence leap into his mind, catching him in his lie, and calling him out.  Eric was still hanging in the doorway, grinning broadly with stoned amusement.  He slipped back into his room and closed the door, just as the foreign intelligence slipped away and closed a different door.  As Paul shuffled into the bathroom, he wondered if he just imagined it.   Was he going crazy?  Was he really ready for life at college?