Chapter 1

 

A GHOST roamed the corridors of Matthison Hall every night.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t a ghost, but I sure as hell wasn’t living. Not in any real sense. I was a shell of a human, lacking vitality. Lacking personality. Lacking… everything. I’d honestly thought escaping the sterile, nearly clinical existence of my parents’ house—not to mention their well-intentioned but completely overwhelming smothering—would change me. Not make me healthy, not that. I’d long given up any hope for medical science to advance enough to diagnose my encyclopedic collection of symptoms, let alone cure me.

I’d hoped going to college—living on my own, doing something normal for once in my miserable life—would somehow actually make me normal. Here at Cody College I wouldn’t be surrounded, monitored, coddled. I wouldn’t be pricked, prodded, and tested on a daily—sometimes hourly—basis. There would be no more experimental treatments, no more carefully designed diet plans. I was twenty-one for crying out loud. It was time to live my life on my terms, even if those terms went against medical and parental advice.

By God, if I wanted to eat donuts and pizza at three in the morning, then that was exactly what I’d do.

That particular stride toward independence ended up being a disappointment. Turned out pizza gave me heartburn and donuts made me queasy.

Such was my life.

Instead of celebrating my junk food rebellion, 3:00 a.m. found me drifting through the halls for the tenth night in a row.

Freaking insomnia.

It was bad enough I couldn’t easily fall asleep, but the jittery restlessness that came with it made it impossible to even sit still. So instead of going stir-crazy, trapped in the painted cinder block walls of my dorm room, I prowled the residence hall with little faith I’d eventually tire and pass out.

The worst part was, other than the insomnia, I felt better than I had in years. Maybe it was the fresh mountain air, but the debilitating headaches I’d suffered from for as long as I could remember had become less frequent. My body temperature always ran a little high, but there’d been no dangerous fever spikes in the last two weeks. If it wasn’t for the twitchy restlessness and the onset of insomnia, I’d have thought I’d finally found an effective therapy.

I pushed into the main lobby, starting to count. It was exactly ninety-seven steps from the entrance of the south wing to the entrance of the north wing. I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings, as I’d made this same trek through the building every night for almost two weeks. Either my physical exhaustion had caused my vision to blur, or a new and less-than-exciting symptom had joined the Medical Mystery Tour that was my life. Or it might have been complacency or obliviousness. Whatever it was, one moment I skirted the bank of student mailboxes on my left, the next I lay sprawling on my back staring up at the boring beige ceiling tiles.

The squeak of rubber on marble told me I wasn’t alone. “Holy shit. Dude, are you okay?”

I closed my eyes. I wasn’t hurt. In fact, my landing had been relatively smooth, rather like a runner sliding into home on a Slip ’N Slide covered in Jell-O. Speaking of Slip ’N Slide, water seeped through my flannel pajama bottoms. Ick. I planted my hands next to my torso and braced myself to lever off the floor. My right hand landed in a puddle, and I slipped back and found myself reexamining the generic ceiling tiles. Nope. The view hadn’t improved.

“What happened? Didn’t you see the sign?” The voice, a surprisingly deep voice, wrapped around me like campfire smoke at midnight, reminding me of the single camping trip my dad had taken me on back before I’d gotten sick. The body accompanying the voice dropped next to me. “Careful,” the guy said, pressing a hand into my chest as I tried to sit up again. “We should make sure you’re okay before you move.”

I held my breath at the warmth building at the point of contact between his skin and mine. The thin cotton of my shirt wasn’t much of a barrier between us.

It had been so long, years really, since anyone had touched me without the protective layer of vinyl medical gloves. I wanted to press into the touch, to prolong it.

But I couldn’t stay here, lounging in… who knew what.

I blinked, trying to clear my vision. It actually helped, which meant my fuzzy focus probably did have more to do with the serious lack of sleep I’d experienced rather than a medical condition. I brought my wet hand near my face and sniffed carefully. I didn’t smell anything off-putting, so the puddle was probably water.

“I’m so sorry. I was watering the plants and got a little carried away with this one. I made a bit of a mess, as you can see, and I had to get the mop. The Wet Floor sign was behind the desk, but I had to go to the supply closet to get the mop.” His words all rushed together, to the point I wasn’t convinced he breathed enough to get them out. Lack of breath clearly didn’t stop him, though. “I was only gone for a minute, and I didn’t think anyone would be running around at this time of night. At least not on a Tuesday. If it had been a Friday or Saturday, I’d have been more careful.”

“I’m fine,” I said to cut off the barrage of words. After taking a mental inventory, I admitted I really was okay. No sharp pains or scraped body parts. No aches that hadn’t been part of my life 24-7 for the last fifteen-plus years. I brushed aside the hand still pressed to my chest and pushed myself into a sitting position. Part of me really didn’t want to break the connection. It felt like the touch, simple as it was, started to fill in the hollow places in my body.

The damn insomnia was making me loopy.

Then I looked up and nearly fell back again.

I’d seen him before. More often than not he manned the front desk of the dormitory during the overnight shift. But none of my midnight wanderings had gotten me close enough to catch those amazing eyes. They were large and round and somehow filled his face in a way reminiscent of an anime character. And they glowed. Well, not glowed, but the irises were the brightest amber—almost yellow—color I’d ever seen on a person. They were, in a word, incredible.

I’d kept my distance whenever I’d seen him at the desk. Not because of anything he’d done or said, but because of me. Because I’d never been good at small talk or chitchat. I didn’t do well in social interactions. Like now. Now I was staring at him like a dolt. He started to shift in his squatting position, rocking a bit from side to side, and he rubbed his hands together like he didn’t know what to do with them. This. This was what happened when I was left to my own devices with strangers.

I tucked my legs under me so I could stand, making a point to avoid the water. I looked at the soil-flecked moat around the poor drowned plant. Carried away, he’d said. Well, that was one way to put it.

Before I’d gotten any further than a partial crouch, he sprung up, clasped my arm, and dragged me to my feet. “Wow, you’re tall. You’re sure you’re okay? You look pale. I can take you to the urgent care office. They have someone there manning the desk overnight. You know, just in case. My dad’s a doctor, and he sometimes gets called in when there’s a case the nurse practitioners can’t handle. And, oh my God, I keep talking.”

I barely caught a word in his excited babble. I was too focused on the feel of his hand wrapped around my forearm. He hadn’t let go after I stood solidly on my own two feet. Every second his skin touched mine, the warmth, the life of him seeped into me. He was shorter than me, maybe all of five nine, and stocky with it. Built like a wrestler, solid and broad, but with no extra fat. Aside from his extraordinary eyes, he was kind of average. Average blondish hair, skin a shade somewhere between pale and tan with a handful of freckles scattered here and there.

I probably stared at him too long, silent and awkward, making it even more uncomfortable.

“I’m Owen, by the way. Owen Weyer.” When I still didn’t say anything—or pull my arm free—he cocked his head to the side. “This is where you tell me your name.”

I licked my lips. Right. Conversation. I could do this. “Yusuf.” I cleared my throat. “Um, but you can call me Joey.” What in the world had prompted me to tell him Yusuf? I almost always introduced myself as Joey.

He flashed a smile nearly as wide and bright as his eyes. “Yusuf. I like it. But why Joey?”

I finally remembered to disengage my arm. “Yusuf. It’s, ah, like Joseph, but in Persian?” My voice cracked on the last word, turning what should have been a statement of fact into a query.

He seemed to accept this without question. It was a nice change. Every time I met someone new, a new specialist or new nurse, whoever, I almost always ended up getting questions about my name and therefore my heritage. And even those who’d heard of the Persian Empire because they’d read a book or attended a world history class at some point had trouble reconciling my pasty skin tone and hazel eyes with Iran. Apparently they assumed Iranian meant swarthy skin, black eyes, white robes and a kaffiyeh. Which was another reason why my parents, my very Caucasian father and Iranian-born mother, had started introducing me as Joey rather than Yusuf when I was young.

I pulled my attention back to Owen. I’d gotten so used to my own thoughts over the years, it was sometimes too easy to get lost in my head, to the point of forgetting there were things actually going on around me. A direct result, I was sure, of being quarantined—though my parents would probably call it protected—from the real world.

“Well, Yusuf, I have to admit I’ve been wondering about you.” The emphasis he’d given it told me the use of my full name had been deliberate.

I liked the way it sounded coming from his mouth; he’d captured the soft, almost slurring J-like sound of the first syllable perfectly.

I didn’t correct him; I didn’t insist he call me Joey, though I’d gone by Joey for as long as I could remember. Even my parents called me Joey. Maybe claiming Yusuf would be one more step in claiming an identity of my own, separate from the sick kid with the overprotective parents.

“Wondering about me?” And look at that. Me actually participating in a dialogue. Maybe I wasn’t the most engaging conversationalist, but I hadn’t been irredeemably rude. At least, not yet.

“Sure. Like, I’ve got questions. Lots of questions.”

“Questions?” I repeated. Nope, I really, really wasn’t going to win any awards in repartee.

“Yeah. You know. Where’d you come from? Why do you wander the building every night? You seem older than the guys who usually live in the dorms, so why are you here? Do you play chess? How about cribbage? You know, questions.”

I blinked at him. Questions indeed. I grabbed on to the one question I could answer easily and honestly, without needing to unload my entire pathetic history on him. “I play chess.”

“Really? You any good?”

I shrugged. “Depends on how you define ‘good.’ I’ve only played online. Do pretty well in intermediate level. Advanced level is hit-or-miss.”

The guy—Owen—tilted his head to the front desk. “Want to play? Unless you’d rather spend the night pacing the halls like you’ve done every other night I’ve seen you since the summer semester started.”

My thoughts screeched to a halt while my brain attempted to make sense of this. An invitation? And he’d noticed me? Something fluttered in my chest, and I didn’t think it was arrhythmia.

I had to think about it—balancing the pros and cons of awkwardly interacting with another human in real life. Pros: a way to keep my brain engaged on something other than how totally fish-out-of-water I felt; honest to goodness interpersonal interaction with someone close to my own age; those extraordinary amber eyes. Cons: nearly debilitating social anxiety; complete lack of experience interacting with people my own age—I’d probably say or do something completely wrong; the jittery, coming-out-of-my-skin sensation coursing over every inch of my body.

In the end, the eyes decided it.

“Yeah. Sure. Let’s play chess.”

 

 

WE SETTLED in at the dorm’s front desk, which was basically a long counter separating the back office from the lobby. Owen had hauled a tall stool from behind the desk around to the lobby side for me. I wasn’t allowed behind the barrier, he explained, because I wasn’t an authorized employee. Since the counter was the perfect surface for the chessboard, I saw no problem with the arrangement. He grabbed the chess box from a stack of dilapidated board games, and we divvied up the white and black plastic pieces.

You can learn a lot about a guy by the way he plays chess. Or, at least that’s what I’d decided during my online games. Some people were slow and methodical, stretching a game out for hours, sometimes days. I imagined them agonizing over every move, running scenarios, balancing costs and benefits of any given move. Some people played in a sporadic, slapdash way that made me wonder if they lived their lives in such chaos. Some people played as though they were reading a text on chess maneuvers, very by-the-book, even when their opponent didn’t play by the same manual.

Owen, he was deceptive. Instead of studying the board, he barely glanced at it before moving one of his pieces. It took me way too long to figure out his moves weren’t random. Mostly because I found him distracting. Very, very distracting.

I liked his smile. And he smiled a lot. His smile was just like him, full of life and energy, rejuvenating. Sitting this close to him felt like I was basking in the sun after months in the dark. It was intoxicating and a little scary.

And he talked. A lot.

“I like the night shifts,” he was saying while I planned my next move. I had a bit of a conundrum. I couldn’t decide whether to push my attack further or shore up my defenses. Somehow, while he’d been giving me recommendations for which professors to avoid next semester, he’d maneuvered his chess army into a subtly threatening position. And because of his casual approach to strategy, I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate aggression or a fluke of placement.

“It’s a total stereotype, I know, but I’ve always been a bit of a night owl,” he continued, reaching below into a red backpack behind him. He plopped a ziplocked bag of beef jerky onto the countertop while I tried to figure out how liking the night shift was a stereotype. “Help yourself.” He motioned to the bag.

I hesitated. The sight of the dried meat and the spicy scent had my mouth watering, but I didn’t recognize the brand. I had to avoid foods with too much sodium nitrate, and jerky, depending on the supplier, could be chock-full of it. Just one of many things on the list of possible health triggers I needed to avoid.

Sure, I could have asked to see the bag, to scrutinize the nutritional information on the packaging, but I didn’t want to draw attention to my differences. “I’m good, thanks.” The whole thing screamed of weakness, so I channeled my self-disgust into my game strategy. Screw defense. I was going on the offense. I moved my knight.

His lips twitched, and he hopped a pawn to the next square. He made a little boop sound as the white plastic settled onto its new home. Seriously. He had little sound effects to go with the pieces. Knights zipped, rooks whooshed, pawns booped. It should have been ridiculous. But no, it was charming.

He popped a bit of jerky into his mouth, leaning back on his stool. “There’s something so cool about the night, you know? On the surface it’s quiet and peaceful and dark. But underneath it all, there’s so much going on. Nocturnal predators, nocturnal prey, a constant battle of cat and mouse. We may not see it, but nighttime isn’t always quiet and peaceful and dark.”

As if to highlight his point, the lobby doors burst open in an avalanche of stumbling men. They laughed, voices echoing in the open space of the lobby. They made enough noise for a dozen people, but a quick glance told me there were only four of them. They stumbled up the counter, two lining up on either side of me. The scent of booze nearly overwhelmed me, and they stood closer to me than I was normally comfortable with.

“Hey, O, my man,” one of the guys said with a slur while he offered his hand for a fist bump.

“Mitch. Don’t tell me—”

Mitch, a husky-looking guy with a patchy attempt at a beard and a baseball cap, leaned on the counter. “C’mon, Owen. It’s not my fault. Well, okay, it is my fault. But I can explain.”

Owen leaned on his elbows, clearly trying—and failing—to look disappointed. The way he kept biting back a grin told me the whole thing was for show. “You know I’m not supposed to keep letting you into your room.”

“Dude, I know. And I was totally going to remember to bring my key. But, well, I screwed up.”

Owen rolled his eyes. “Seriously, Mitch. Next time you’ll have to face MacKenzie.”

All of them, even Owen, shuddered.

“MacKenzie?” I asked before I thought better of it.

Five heads turned to look at me. I wilted a little at the scrutiny.

“The RA,” the drunken guy to my right said.

I’d met the RA when I moved in. He seemed like a decent guy, not someone I would have expected to garner this kind of reaction.

Owen must have seen it on my face. “He’s a good guy, and a good RA, but he’s a stickler for the rules. If he knew these guys were drinking, he’d have to report them. They’re underage.”

The guy next to me was the only one of the four who actually looked underage. Maybe due to the lack of facial hair the others seemed to be sporting. He leaned closer to me. I leaned back. I tried to be subtle about it since he wasn’t threatening me, just encroaching on my personal space.

“I don’t know you, do I?”

“Um, I don’t think so.”

His exaggerated nod was probably due to his blood alcohol content. “Cool. Who are you?”

“Joey?” I cursed inwardly as my answer came out in a question.

“You weren’t here last year, were you?”

Now the other three drunks were leaning in.

“No. I started with the summer term.”

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Mitch said.

“It’s not common, I guess.”

“You look a little old to be a freshman.”

“Oh, well, I’m not. Technically I’m a second-semester sophomore. I took a lot of online classes for some of my gen ed requirements.” I hunched in on myself a bit. That was more words than I’d said out loud in weeks.

Mitch peered around his buddy at me. “Hey, are you old enough to buy beer? If we brought you cash—”

“Okay, guys, stop grilling him.” Owen came around the counter, a ring of keys dangling from his hand. “Mitch, let’s get you to your room.” He paused at my stool, then clamped his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll be right back. You good?”

“Sure.”

When I was alone in the lobby, I released a deep sigh. What a strange night. It was almost dawn, and in the last couple of hours I’d hung out with someone my own age and been interrogated by underage drunks. I glanced down at the chessboard. Narrowing my eyes, I examined the placement of the men. Damn it. In three plays Owen would have my king. Somehow with his laissez-faire playing style, he was going to trounce me. I hadn’t seen it coming.

My eyelids drooped, gritty and heavy. For the first time in a while, I thought I might actually be able to sleep.

I tipped my king, forfeiting the game. It was worth the defeat, though, for those first tastes of friendship.