Frank looked upon this view of his hometown and could only see the end of the world. Hogstown State University rose up a shallow incline. Strings of pathway lights led up to the soft orange glow of streetlights from Hogstown’s small down town on the horizon. The old man knew it would never be the same again.
He turned from the window and sat. The chair was hard and too low. It didn’t fit bedside the hospital bed. There, in a tangle of tubes and wires, laid his Natasha. He reached out, his hand clutching hers. Her short, stubby fingers did not grab back.
Tired eyes hung over a mismatched smile. “Say, dear, this has got to be the worst Friday date we’ve ever had. Come on. Let’s see you get out of that bed and we’ll try to find an all-night diner.” His voice was soft as a wish. “Please, sweetheart, wake up. Let’s get you out of this awful place.” His lip curled and twitched as he added, “I’ll even kick in some ice cream.”
Her eyes bolted open with a sudden gasp. Frank jumped.
“Easy, dear. I’m here. Don’t try to move.”
“What … Where?” she mumbled.
“You’re in the hospital. You fell, Tasha, remember?”
Natasha slumped back into the bed. “No,” she said, then winced. “Nono no. No! It was not supposed to be like this. Damn it.”
For the first time in his life, Frank saw real fear in his wife’s eyes. “It’s OK. I’m here for you.”
Her ice blue eyes fixed him in place. “I know. I know.”
They gazed at each another across the bed sheet. Her hand grabbed his as the monitors beeped and the oxygen hissed. Natasha broke the quiet with her weak voice, still dripping with her native Russian accent. “You are such a sweet man. I love you.”
“I love you too, sweet heart. Always.” He stood and leaned over her.
She slipped her hand from his grasp and brushed it against his cheek. Her other hand rested on his arm. “Beautiful words. Kindness. It is what made me fall in love with you.”
He smirked. “I thought you said it was my natural charm.”
A weak laugh came from her lips. “That helped too. Kiss me.”
Frank leaned over, being careful of the monitor wires and IV lines. His old hamstrings strained to keep him from falling into her. He puckered and kissed her tenderly as her hands brushed up his neck.
Breaking the kiss, Natasha looked at Frank. “My love, I need you to do one last thing for me … for the whole world. It is the right thing. You will save many much grief, hardship.”
“What are you…?” Frank looked in her eyes, puzzled. “What is it?”
“I need for you to die.” The old woman’s fingers slid around his neck as she popped her thumbs around his Adams Apple. Frank choked, his windpipe disjointed and completely blocked by the sudden move. His lean meant he could only fall into her, aiding her in her task. He flailed aimlessly for something to grab, but found nothing. As his vision gave way to the blue and red flashing checkerboard of asphyxiation, he found her face. Tears ran from the ice blue eyes of an old soldier. “I’m so… sorry, Frank. Duty. Without me to keep you tame, you will be the death of us all!”
The late summer night outside the hospital baked from the ground up. Earth and concrete gave up the heat stored from the day’s sun shine. The water from afternoon thunderheads still collected in puddles even though midnight had come and gone. The air, already thick with humidity, could not possibly hold it.
Low, hot fog lay in tiny thermals down the hill from the hospital and further into the university. Going back up the hill, even further onto the campus, the trees dripped with Spanish moss, sucking sustenance directly from the damp air.
The buildings went from new to old up the long, shallow incline on which the campus stood. While the newest parts near the hospital seemed to blend in to the surrounding town, up the hill, where the oldest of the universities halls stood, the boundary between school and city was as sharp as the other side of a street. Marked by bars and bookstores, one of these boundary streets, University, ran like a spine from the school to the city’s municipal center, through a dozen busy blocks.
At the core of Hogstown, a different life emerged. A life not as much sustained by the transient nature of college, but one more suited to the ways of northern Florida. Less of the architecture was made of cinder block or covered with vinyl siding. The people in these houses were not just passing through, they lived here. Older houses, more southern with their porches and high ceilings, stood proud on larger lots, even those whose subdivided nature draped them with odd external stairways and hastily arranged doors. Students may have lived here too, but they mingled with the more civilized society that did not appreciate the gross improprieties of youth.
A block of row houses stood in mute tribute to their own age and watched over the quiet order of the first few hours of Saturday. They represented an architectural anomaly, seemingly dropped here from some northern town and anchored by an old apartment block. It was almost as if the town, in a fit of southern hospitality made brick, ceded this small segment to the north in an attempt to make some visiting Yankee professors feel more at home. Though odd, the houses were beautiful and massive, with their brick walls, high ceilings and wide windows. These windows were now dark. The residents, lacking the mindless vigor of the town’s students, had long ago gone to sleep for the evening.
. A white mini-van rounded the corner and skulked up the quiet street. Halfway down the block, it slowed and the side door opened. Two figures hopped from the van and stole across the brick sidewalk. They cut right, and hugged the waist high, iron fence.
A quick snag went unnoticed in their hurry. A looped shoelace, pressed into service as a temporary key chain caught on the top of a fence post. Gravity pulled the key and the cord straight and in the dim light of the hot summer night, it disappeared into the slender post.
The figures cowered in the shadows of the brownstone’s small front porch. The white van had slowly moved away and pulled into the alley that serviced the row of houses.
The smaller of the dark figures whispered, “Ok, we’re clear. Mr. Aye, get the door.” The voice was alto, female and gave the orders with comfort and authority.
The other figure, a very stocky man, was already searching his black coveralls. The night vision goggles over his eyes made the shaking of his head even more pronounced. “I don’t have the key,” he whispered, extending his empty hands in frustration.
“What?” The woman lifted up her night vision equipment, revealing a tan complexion and wide, angry eyes.
Mr. Aye still had his hands out. “I know,” he whispered. “Fuck. Just shut up, Bee. I’ll pick it.” After a brief pause, the man who had lost the keys simply tried the door. To his astonishment, it was unlocked. He smiled at his partner.
“Lucky,” Ms. Bee said. They silently opened the door to reveal the deep darkness of the house.
From their earpieces a calm voice chastised them. “Please tell me you aren’t relying on luck. I have prepared for every contingency, except, of course, gross incompetence. Should I plan for that in the future?”
“No” said the stocky man.
“Maybe,” his partner replied, giving her partner a look before pulling her goggles back into place.
They slipped into the dark and swept their eyes across the room. It was unlike anything they had ever seen before.
Over the radio, the voice asked, “What do you see? Is my data there?”
“I’ll be damned if you could have planned for this.” Ms. Bee whispered. “This is unbelievable.”
“What?” the voice said. “What do you see?”
Every table top, floor space and shelf was full of stuff. The impressive collection sat as a huge circular pile of paper, shorter on the outside but reaching to the center stacked as far as a person could reach. A rough maze of slender pathways, only wide enough for a thin person to walk, pushed through the stacks of paper. It was all neatly piled, but the amount of stuff in just this first room was overwhelming. The men knew that this was just the beginning. This house was four stories tall with a shallow basement.
“It’s… Pwsh!” Ms Bee let out a frustrated sigh.
“It’s what? I want everything incriminating out of that house, Bee. Do you need something?”
Looking at the top of one of the stacks of paper, Ms. Bee said, “Yeah. I think we’re going to need a bigger van.”
Back up Main Street and off a few blocks, Harlie’s Tavern still buzzed, as did the majority of its patrons. Typical of a college hangout, the woodwork was worn soft from use and repeated cleaning. A low stage was set up to host entertainment, but at this time of night the drone of the patron’s conversations warred to drown out the awful straining of a dying musician.
At the length of bar facing the stage, Ryan Goldberg and Joy Winter drank wheat beer to celebrate each other’s company and wash away the stress of another week of grad school as teacher’s assistants.
“God, I think some of my Stats students are actually retarded. I mean, don’t they teach these kids to THINK in high school?” Goldberg took a deep slug of beer and winced at one of the singer’s truly misplaced notes.
Joy snickered. “You think that’s bad, you should see some of the creative writing pieces I get. Every kid in there thinks they are Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, or Dave Barry. Problem is, they haven’t done crap with their lives and lack the imagination to make up anything. It all just sucks.”
“Hard to believe that we were once those kids.”
“I was never one of those kids.” She took a quick sip and eyed the wax sculpture that was a basket of fries a mere three hours ago. “I knew my stories sucked and used the class to get better. These kids just expect me to not only pass them, but to give them good marks for just showing up.”
“I remember you being a rather anxious freshman, actually.”
Joy turned her head, swishing her hair. “And I remember you as being that nerdy kid down the hall that smoked too much weed.”
“You remember me from the dorms? I would have thought you were too busy with all your suitors.”
“You mean the hormones who read too many penthouse letters about identical twins, you mean? I’ll tell you one thing about being a twin Goldberg, I learned early on to ignore that kind of attention.”
“Sarah didn’t though,” Goldberg said while tipping the glass to his lips.
“No. No she didn’t. Still doesn’t. Personally, I like when someone shows an interest in me for me, not because I’m one of a set.”
“Well, I think you are one of a kind.”
She eyed him and slowly said, “Why thank you, Mr. Goldberg.”
Fidgeting under the successfully received compliment, he changed the subject. “So, you were saying about your students, Ms. Winter.”
“Ah yes.” She raised her glass and gestured with it. “When asked to write about something they knew, one guy wrote about playing Videogame Football against his roommate.” She drank a bit from the pint glass as her eyebrow shot up. “Come to think of it, that was probably one of the better ones.”
Goldberg had been taking another sip when her last comment hit him funny. He snorted and choked on his beer. He swallowed, and then flat out coughed, doubling over. Bright pinpricks shot across his vision, leaving dark streaks in their wake. He finally caught his breath and noticed Joy Winter’s slender hand massaging his back.
“You know, it really wasn’t all that funny.” She continued to rub his back tenderly while he lay in her lap, drowning in a teaspoon of hefeweizen.
As the shooting stars passed, He slowly sat back up. The hand on his back casually slid and now rested on his side near the ticklish spot over his kidney. He looked at her through his bleary haze and dirty glasses. The fair skinned, dark-haired woman smiled at him and he smiled back.
“It wasn’t so much funny,” he choked out, “as clever. You make me laugh. … Possibly a little too much.”
She gave him a sly grin. “The Russian judge gives you points for a good recovery.” Her gaze lingered on his wire rimmed glasses and long blond hair. “Speaking of Russians,” she said, breaking the long look, “Did you hear about Professor Reilly’s wife?”
He took a careful sip and instinctively scanned the crowd. “No what about her?”
“It was awful. I was in my office when he got the call. Apparently she fell down the stairs and got pretty badly roughed up. He ran straight home and I had to take over his last class.”
“Wow, I hope she’s going to be OK.”
She sighed. “Well, you know, they are both in her nineties. Strong as oxen up till now, but…”
The conversation went dead as they both considered the bad news. Into the lull, the musician on the stage dropped a cover song so butchered it became an original.
“So, I’ve got to ask you,” Joy said, breaking the silence, “why haven’t you asked me out before?”
“Well it’s not like it’s a date or anything,” Goldberg tried to play cool. “It’s just happy hour.”
“Happy hour ended five hours, six drinks and one dinner ago. Once you pass one, it’s officially a date.”
“By whose rule?”
“Mine!” She grinned. “And you are dodging the question.”
Goldberg paused. “I’m not sure. Social circles never really crossed I guess. And even when they did, either you were with someone or I was. So, what’s your excuse?”
“Me? Well, that… and you spent a lot of time doing psychedelics with your buddies.”
“And you aren’t into that?”
“Ah, well, it’s still not my cup of tea, but I’ve come to notice that the world’s a strange place, you know? Life’s short.”
Joy played with the ring on condensation on the bar with her finger. “And … well … you’re not with someone now, are you?” She glanced up to see Goldberg’s, spectacle – rimmed eyes.
They looked at one another while the bar buzzed around them. Goldberg searched her face for meaning and found her doing the same. He couldn’t look away, didn’t want to, but he was frozen in her gaze. To him, the moment seemed unbreakable.
“Thank you!” the guitar player said loudly when no one clapped. He had given up on his song and was trying to save some face.
From the back of the room, a drunk shouted, “Hey, Ass Clown! Play Free Bird!”
“Ok, that’s it!” The young man slammed his guitar down with a loud, dissonant clang. “I’m tired of taking this fucking sh…” The mike cut out and a squawk of feedback rang as the bartender scrambled to put on a song. The musician stomped off to find his heckler while the crowd jeered.
Goldberg wasn’t sure when he broke the gaze, but he found himself once again swiveling around to look at Joy.
“Wow, you sure do know how to pick out all the nice places,” She deadpanned. “What’s next? Wrestling? Monster trucks?”
“Well, that depends. It’s just about last call anyway, but I know this nice place with coffee and ice cream. Open all night if you know the secret knock.”
Joy gave him a grin. “A speak-easy? Why Mr. Goldberg, what will our students think?”
“They will just have to be left wondering.” He returned her grin.
“Is Miss Winter a Vanilla or a Chocolate?”