Looking up from the page he was skimming, Mark noticed it was getting late. He leafed through a few more pages of the dated text and considered whether it would do for what he had in mind. Of the nearly dozen books scrounged from the library shelves, only three showed promise for the project he was working on. He closed this last book and placed it with the other two he would be borrowing. Before leaving, he conscientiously deposited the rejects on a cart nearby for the library staff to return to their appropriate places.
There was a delay at the circulation desk as Mark attempted to check out his finds. One of the books wasn’t even in the system. Though slightly impatient at the holdup, he was amused that this lonely little book was so out of date that no one had bothered to sign it out since before the library had installed the digital catalogue. Perfect for my project, he thought with satisfaction. The clerk, who Mark guessed was a fellow student, rambled away pleasantly while he entered the book’s details into the computer and attached a new identification label to the inside cover. After ten minutes or so, he gave Mark a warm smile and passed the books over. Feeling self-conscious, though not certain why, Mark accepted them and tucked them into his bag. He was already out the door when it occurred to him that the clerk had been flirting. The realization stopped him in his tracks. Could it be? Mark was reluctant to trust his instincts, but the pieces all fit. Why am I so dense? He pushed himself back into motion and contemplated the huge blind spots in his social skills as he walked away.
Mark stepped into a large, echoing chamber that an architect might designate an atrium. Only a year earlier, the space had functioned as an entrance hall for the Beveridge Arts Centre. That was, of course, before the latest in a string of seemingly never-ending renovations rendered it redundant. Now it merely served as a connecting hub between the library and the two floors of the arts center. Arranged strategically around the room were several oversized bulletin boards. The maintenance staff installed them in an effort to contain the ubiquitous advertisements, notices, and posters that seemed to appear daily. Despite their best efforts to maintain order, the chaos defied them. The material was now overwhelming the bulletin boards and escaping onto the brick walls and concrete columns nearby.
Mark crossed the empty room without surrendering to the visual din that called for his attention from every side. Loose papers rustled and waved at him lazily, stirred by the turbulence that trailed him. Ignoring the clutter, Mark instead listened to the noise his winter boots made against the tile floor. The familiar sound, altered and amplified by the open space and hard surfaces, returned as a clopping that reminded him fondly of horses. His eyes found his feet in an unconscious effort to connect with the sound. Countless footprints marred the floor beneath his boots, the dusty traces evidence of the traffic of the day. Perhaps maintenance has given up on cleaning the floor until tomorrow, Mark reasoned, when there will be fewer people around to track in additional grime.
Not far away, a pair of broad staircases led up or down a half-flight each. Mark descended to the lower level, taking the steps two at a time. Keeping to the center of the wide corridor, his long legs cut the distance to the exit like scissors. The corridor, like the atrium above, was wide by design to accommodate the periodic surge and flow of students, but it was evening now and the entire building appeared abandoned. Mark felt strangely remote passing through the too-large and abnormally quiet spaces.
Approaching the exit, a glimmer of movement where there should have been none caught the corner of his eye. A glance revealed the pale phantom drifting silently beside him to be his own image reflected in the glass that divided the Art Gallery from the corridor. The apparition jumped from pane to pane in a race to keep up, but it was the room beyond that held Mark’s interest. The lights in the gallery were always on, even after hours. This evening the gallery was completely dark, transforming the windows into imperfect mirrors. They must be changing the exhibit, Mark mused. Satisfied with the observation, he marched on without slowing, his phantom-self left behind and forgotten.
Mark pushed past the double bank of doors that led out of the Beveridge Arts Centre. The B.A.C. was a sprawling, angular building that anchored one corner of the university grounds. This exit, pointed as it was directly toward the commercial core of Wolfville, acted almost like an airlock between the university and the town. It connected and separated the two communities. Due to its proximity to Main Street, these doors were one of the busiest access points to campus. For Mark it was just a convenient route home from the library.
Outside, the quiet street looked as deserted as the B.A.C. had been. Mark moved on at his usual quick pace. It was Friday evening, not late, but the sky was rapidly growing dark and streetlights were beginning to flicker to life in response to the spreading gloom. As spring approached, the daylight hours grew progressively longer, but night still came on fast this time of year.
Mark had been a student at the university for nearly four years now. In just a few weeks, he would complete the requirements for his undergraduate degree. A few papers and then final exams were all that stood in his way. Then, if all went well, he could start all over again at a new school. The steps of his future career were clearly laid out before him. Strangely, his future still seemed as impossibly distant as the new millennium, which was only eleven years away.
A term paper had kept him working late in the library. Normally he would have been home having supper by now, but he’d stayed back to do research. It had been quiet in the library, quieter than usual, even. Not surprising, really, as this was the last day of classes before the start of March break.
Crossing at the corner, barely checking to see if the way was clear, Mark started down Main Street. Settling in for the walk home, he shouldered his backpack and pulled up the hood of his coat to keep his ears warm. Though his hair was short enough to satisfy even the most demanding drill sergeant, he never wore a hat. In high school, Mark had worn his hair long. Over the last few years, the cut had gotten progressively shorter with each visit to the barber. Mark’s mother was disappointed. He found it amusing that his mother preferred his hair longer. Aren’t mothers supposed to nag their sons into getting their hair cut? Deep down, Mark reveled in being contrary to his parents, at least in the little things. Perhaps it made up for the big things.
There seemed to be no one else about this evening. If not for the lone, hooded individual marching purposefully down the center of the sidewalk, Wolfville might very well have been a ghost town. Most of the other students had fled earlier in the day, leaving town as soon as their classes ended, occasionally even before. Mark reflected on his decision to stay back a few extra days so he could finish a couple projects. His mother hadn’t been happy when he’d called to let her know. Mark could tell by her tone that she was disappointed, but he was resolved not to give in. In the end, she told him she understood and thoughtfully cautioned him not to work too hard.
Mark had a friendly if somewhat politely distant relationship with his family. He would be the first to admit it was his own fault, but he didn’t know how to repair the damage at this stage. Not wanting to brood over the dilemma again, he pushed the problem away for another time and forced himself to think about something else. He certainly didn’t regret missing the overcrowded train back to Yarmouth. All the extra bodies would have made the trip even more tedious than usual. The Dayliner from Wolfville to his hometown typically took five hours. At Christmas, the last time Mark had made the trip, the train had seemed to stop every five minutes to let someone off. The journey had taken more than seven hours that night. Yes, Mark decided, it’s better to wait until Monday at least. He could make a head start on some assignments and still have time to relax and see his friends and family.
Main Street, Wolfville, was part of the same continuous ribbon of asphalt that strung together all the little towns of the Annapolis Valley region of Nova Scotia. Mark glanced up the long street that would eventually take him to the tiny cottage he rented at the edge of town. Lamp poles now lit the street at regular intervals. The windows of shops and businesses in this part of town, however, were mostly dark, and there were few vehicles on the road. The quiet didn’t bother him. Mark rather enjoyed the peacefulness of it all. At least that’s what he told himself.
It had been a beautiful day. The sidewalks were bare of snow. What snow had been, had melted in the unseasonably warm temperatures. As the afternoon had waned and the temperature had dropped, the wet concrete had become treacherous with patches of black ice. Mark reduced his pace to navigate them safely.
Walking the sidewalk and cautiously avoiding the slippery patches engaged only part of his awareness. His mind was free to recall the incident in the library. The clerk seemed nice enough but wasn’t really his type. Is he really hitting on me? Mark shook his head. What’s the point of worrying about it? He then recalled the strange sensation he’d experienced when passing through the empty arts center. The B.A.C. was typically active with students. Tonight its corridors and lecture halls had been dimly lit and lifeless. Empty public spaces usually held a certain fascination for Mark. This evening was different. Am I lonely? Almost by reflex, Mark shied away from the question and concentrated more on placing his feet soundly. Now and then, one foot or the other threatened to slip him up, and he didn’t want to end up on his ass again.
Minor slips and falls were a common enough occurrence during the valley winters. Snow started in November and often didn’t retreat until April. Foot traffic packed down the snow, turning it to ice. Rock salt was of limited help in melting the ice, as the temperatures were often too cold.
Mark recalled sitting in a requisite Statistics class during his first year at the university. Huge windows dominated one side of the lecture hall. Slightly bored by the subject, he let the view distract him. Through the windows, the bobbing heads and shoulders of pedestrians were visible as they passed by. He discovered that if you watched long enough, now and then a head would abruptly disappear from sight. The icy pathway had claimed yet another victim. A moment later, the head would reappear wearing a look of embarrassment. In the spirit of the class, it was tempting for Mark to treat his observations from the standpoint of statistical analysis. At what rate did people vanish? This is not to suggest he was unmoved by witnessing the misfortune of a stranger. None of the victims appeared seriously hurt by their fall; only their pride was injured. Just days before, he had fallen in nearly the same spot himself and understood their embarrassment firsthand. The reactions amused him, though. The unfortunate victims would pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and look around sheepishly to see if anyone had noticed the gaffe. Mark knew he had done the very same. Chalking the behavior up to human nature, he shook his head in amusement and reluctantly returned his attention to the lecture.
The maintenance staff who worked for the university did their best to keep the walkways and exterior steps as safe as possible. They obsessively cleared the snow and spread sand everywhere they could. Students quickly learned to clear out of the way when one of the sidewalk plows appeared in their path. In the spring, when all the snow and ice finally melted, the sand reappeared as a layer of dirt and grime, a reminder of the hard winter. Workers would dutifully sweep up the debris and truck it away. Mark wondered if they would use it again the next year. It seemed sensible to his way of thinking.
Walking this way, correcting for the little slips and occasional losses of footing was becoming tiring. Mark could feel the pull and strain on the muscles of his legs and back. He had nearly reached the tiny park that separated the business core of downtown from the antique residences that lined the road out to the town limits. His place was just inside those limits. The walk usually took thirty minutes or so, but at the rate he was going, Mark knew it was going to be a while before he made it home.
Walking to and from school at least twice a day helped Mark maintain his well-muscled legs and trim waist. An impartial observer might describe him as lean, tall, dark, and even handsome. However, on those occasions when Mark received any such compliments, he shook them off self-deprecatingly. He joked that being a poor student made it easy to be thin as there was no extra money for food. Appearance-wise, Mark considered himself nothing special, perhaps even bordering on gangly.
Head down to keep an eye on his footing, Mark approached the end of a block of shops crowding the sidewalk. Just ahead, the structures stepped back from the street, making room for what the warmer weather would turn into attractively landscaped lawns and flowerbeds. As he stepped beyond the protection of the corner, a rushing impression of crashing into a wall surprised him. He quite literally didn’t see what hit him. The impact forced the air out of his lungs. I’m falling, Mark realized. Just as the oddly calm thought occurred to him, there was a flash of light followed by nothingness.
“Hey, bud, are you okay?”
The voice that spoke the words was clear enough but gave Mark the impression of coming from a distance. He was having a little trouble sorting out what to say in response. He was aware that the ground was very hard. Opening his eyes, surprised to discover them closed, he asked the disembodied voice, “What happened?” Lying flat on his back, Mark looked up to find someone hulking over him. The streetlight overhead created an illusionary halo around the shadowy form. The light danced as he tried to focus on the stranger’s face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” After a moment’s pause the shadow added, “You took a pretty good hit there. How do you feel?” The voice was friendly and carried a discernible coloring of concern.
“Um… I’m not sure,” Mark replied quite honestly. He shifted in an effort to get up. The pain that shot through him was sudden and caused him to gasp sharply. Mark froze in response, holding himself still and closing his eyes against the wave of nausea that passed over him. The pain had come when he’d tried to move his right arm. When the nausea eased, he slowly and very cautiously tested the arm again. It felt heavy, and he couldn’t seem to unbend it.
“Whoa, slow down there, bud!” A strong hand pressed down gently but insistently on the center of Mark’s chest, keeping him in place. “How many fingers am I holding up?” The stranger held out his other hand for Mark to see.
Mark looked at the hand in front of his eyes and scowled without realizing it. “I’m not that bad off,” he grunted in annoyance.
Unmoved by the tone of irritation, the large man insisted, “Yeah, yeah. How many?” He moved his hand in front of Mark’s eyes again.
“Three. Your pinkie and thumb are folded over,” Mark observed smartly.
The large man looked at his own hand and then grinned. He replied with a laugh, “Well, you can still see, anyway. That’s good.”
Mark blinked. He had to admit his vision was a little blurry. The light had stopped dancing, but his eyes watered. His head hurt, as did his arm, and there were other warning signals coming from here and there around his body, demanding his attention. None of it seemed too serious, though.
“Do you think you can sit up now?” the stranger enquired. The voice was so deep Mark could almost feel it resonate in his own chest.
“I think so,” Mark replied tentatively. “Maybe.”
“Take your time. Go slow. I can help.” A strong arm slipped under Mark’s left shoulder as he moved to get up. Slowly and gently, the stranger helped him. Coming to a sitting position, Mark’s vision swam, and he felt sick again. His helper seemed to notice. “Close your eyes. Take your time.” The voice was soothing. A big arm rested loosely over Mark’s shoulder, the strong hand now in the middle of his back helping to steady him.
Even in pain, Mark couldn’t help but tremble a little at the touch. It wasn’t that often that anyone touched him, and Mark now recognized this man. “I know you,” he said without thinking, regretting the words immediately.
“Yeah? Who am I?” the other asked suspiciously.
Feeling stupid now and wondering why he had said that aloud, Mark considered his options. While his helper wasn’t a complete stranger, they certainly didn’t know each other. They had never even spoken.
“You said you know who I am,” the large man prodded.
It’s too late to undo it now, Mark told himself. “You’re Cliff Stevens,” he observed in a flat voice. “You’re on the football team. We have two classes together.” The words seemed to tumble out. Oh yes, that was smooth, he thought self-consciously.
Cliff smiled good-naturedly. “I know you too,” he said. “You’re Mark Poole. You’re the painter.” There was only a slight hesitation before he added, “And you’re gay… right?”
Experiencing a sudden sense of panic, Mark’s mind raced. Did he attack me? Is this some sort of weird variation on gay bashing? His friend David had warned him ever since Mark had first come out to him that something like this would happen one day. Despite the apprehension he was feeling, Mark couldn’t help but be amused by the intrusion of this odd thought.
Cliff seemed to read some of what was going through Mark’s mind. “Hey, relax, bud. It’s no big deal. I’m not going to leave you in a ditch or anything.” He gave Mark a quick nod and what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
Mark hadn’t seen the smile, but he could hear it in the tone of Cliff’s voice. He forced himself to relax even though he felt exposed and a little frightened.
“How’re you feeling?” Cliff asked.
What am I supposed to say to that? Cliff was still supporting and steadying him. Mark’s vision had cleared, but his head was throbbing. His bum was cold from sitting on the ground, and there was definitely something wrong with his arm. He pulled it across his stomach and cradled it cautiously with his other arm. “I think there’s something wrong with my arm. I can’t move my elbow at all.”
“How’s your head? You hit it pretty hard when you fell,” Cliff noted.
“It’s been better.” At least he didn’t feel like he was going to throw up anymore. Mark was relieved. He was embarrassed enough without being sick in front of a stranger. Well, that’s dumb. The intrusion of these strange random thoughts didn’t alarm him too much. Might as well be entertained by them, I guess.
“Can you get up?” Cliff asked in a rumbling deep voice.
Brought back to the present, Mark answered, “I think so.” He wasn’t so sure but didn’t want to seem weak in front of Cliff. Again, the odd pattern of his thinking struck him. Maybe something came loose up there.
Cliff was quick to support Mark as he attempted to pick himself up from the sidewalk. Mark felt almost lightheaded as Cliff lifted him easily. He was unsure if the dizziness he was experiencing was due to his head thumping, the motion of getting up, or the presence of the very beefy man holding him steady.
“When you’re ready, I’m going to help you over to that bench.” Cliff pointed to a bench at the edge of the tiny park up the street. It wasn’t far. Mark didn’t say anything but took a steadying breath and nodded in agreement. Pausing long enough for Cliff to collect Mark’s backpack from the ground where it had fallen, the two men made their way out of the circle of light cast by the streetlamp overhead and started for the park. Cliff guided and watchfully assisted the smaller man. On reaching the bench, he turned Mark and gently directed him to a sitting position on the cold wooden slats. The air was crisp now, their breath clearly visible in trails of white vapor that vanished almost as quickly as it appeared.
Crouching at Mark’s knees and leaning slightly forward, Cliff found Mark’s eyes. On meeting Cliff Stevens for the first time, his imposing size made an immediate impression on people. At three hundred pounds of mostly muscle, he was well-suited to the sport he loved. The second thing a person noticed was his strikingly fierce eyes. Mark had never seen them from so close. They reminded him of the family dog, a Siberian husky named Blue. Those eyes seemed to see through you. Cliff’s habit of meeting and holding a person’s gaze when he addressed them heightened the effect. It felt almost aggressive. Over the last few months of classes, Mark had repeatedly observed people shying away from their intensity. He was startled out of his woolgathering when Cliff spoke.
“I want to check your head.” Cliff’s face was very close, well within Mark’s usual personal boundaries. Before Mark could register the intent of the words, Cliff rose and moved even closer to run his fingers gently over Mark’s soft, closely cropped hair. Mark could feel the other man’s breath in hot little blasts against his ear and neck. It sent shivers down his spine. “You have quite a bump there,” Cliff said, indicating a spot behind and slightly above Mark’s right ear. Again, there was a note of anxiety in his deep voice.
As he pulled away to look Mark in the face again, Cliff noticed a smudge of road grime that had dried on Mark’s cheek. Without thinking, he brushed the chalky residue away with his thumb, his fingertips grazing the jaw line below the other man’s ear. Looking for a moment at the face he was almost cupping with one hand, Cliff was completely astonished by what he was about to do. Without meaning to and unable to stop himself, he leaned in and kissed Mark softly on the lips.
Mark froze. The kiss lasted only an instant. It was feather-light. The barest pressure, and then it was over. At the end of it, Cliff pulled away so quickly it made Mark dizzy.
Cliff was standing now, not meeting Mark’s eye as he said stiffly, “I’m going to run home and get my car. Don’t move. I’ll be right back. I’ll take you over to the medical center so you can be checked out.” Without another word, he turned and fled.
Mark was stunned. What just happened? Is this some sort of practical joke? His mind balked at understanding. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. Did he kiss me? Warmth flooded his face. Mark knew he was blushing. He tried to clear his head. Will he really come back? Mark was suddenly aware that he was alone here. No one had driven or walked by the whole time since he’d opened his eyes to find Cliff crouching over him, or if someone had, Mark hadn’t noticed. Looking up, he saw perfect little flakes of snow begin to float lazily down from the night sky.