Chapter One

 

 

WAKE UP, Dashel. Break from the illusion. This is all for you.

The indistinct voice woke him up but faded from memory as soon as his eyes opened.

He rose from the carpet with a headache that could split the atom. In the days coming, Dash knew things would only get worse. He had made it as far as his room the previous evening before the pain claimed him, and he’d crumpled to the floor. He rubbed his eyes to massage away the throbbing.

As he unburdened himself of the layers of clothing he wore, his thoughts turned to his night visions and dreams. They had been more acute lately. Almost like lessons, or augury. Dreams of flight were far from abnormal, but Dashel’s dreams sometimes felt too real. As if his soul did, in fact, leave his body and take on the form of a falcon or a hawk cutting through the air with magnificent wings and keen, observant eyes.

And he, Dash the Great Bird, would always perch on the massive, solitary tree that overlooked the river at the far end of Verona College. Students called it the Point. He would land on the strongest and largest limb of the great tree, ruffle his feathers, and look out onto the valley that sloped gently down to a vast river. He would only ever be allowed to catch a brief glimpse of the river, however, before a rushing breeze would come up from the valley, disturbing his feathers with vigorous gusts. And then he would wake. It was always like that. Dash was left wide-eyed and wondering. Upon waking, in that uncertain state where what one knows and what one thinks blend, he wondered if the college itself, the very grounds, had some quality, an ethereal air, trying desperately to tell him something.

And so as Dashel Yarnsbrook stood naked above his piled clothes from the day before, the frustration of unanswered questions gnawed at him. He was irritated that he never saw the conclusion of his mind’s repeating manifestation, but surely there had to be a reason. A grand and hidden finis. He had a resolution tucked deep in his subconscious, and it was the right ending. Dashel liked to think that every ending was the right ending. There was always a “supposed to be.” There had to be….

He looked up at the high brownish ceiling of the room as he stretched out kinks from muscles and bone. Why was his room so lid-like and tiresome? Like a shoebox used to temporarily house a captured amphibian. He could drown amidst the walls and carpet that very nearly matched the dragging, muddy color of the ceiling. Indifferent. Apathetic. He had, of course, tried to decorate and make the room more pleasant and livable. He had hung various mismatched embellishments to displace the boredom of the space—posters, prints, party lights in the shapes of bell peppers, and a crudely constructed bar with empty bottles set in a diagonal design. But Dashel still choked on the brown color beneath. The disappointment was always there. Every morning as the sun tried to light the room, the blasé paint and carpet fought it off.

Dash looked at his roommate’s bed, which was empty and unmade, the same as yesterday. Ashley was already in class, but he must have stayed out all night. If he hadn’t, he would have found Dash on the carpet and immediately tucked him into bed, or at the very least, thrown a blanket over him.

Ashley’s determination and perseverance appealed to Dash. Dashel had found in Ashley a great roommate and a better friend. They knew they were the two outsiders in their fraternity, Sigma Gamma, the ones set apart. Together, they challenged the quips and snide remarks of hypocritical bystanders at the tiny school. They had gelled, Ashley the Albino and Dashel the Fag.

Dash looked at his nude self in the mirror on the door. His penis stood erect, begging to be touched or stroked, though it was only the morning blood rushing where it would. Dash felt unimpressed with sex of late. He looked at his reflection with no more than a passing sigh.

He strummed his fingers over the ribs that were, day by day, more evidence of his illness, a steady drop in weight that could not be explained away by his once stellar track career. Since he hadn’t run all year, his defined musculature was fading and his track team physique disappearing. He rubbed his abdomen in disappointment.

He wrapped the towel from the end of his bed around his thinning waist, tying it tight so he’d have no chance of a hallway slip-off. A shower might make him feel more at ease. It might dissolve, just for a small time, the idea of the wasting away, his father’s dangerous genetic gift to him. That was the worst part of every day. The thinking of it. The idea itself. Symptoms passed, lingering for small pockets of time, but the perceptible reminders were the true villains of disease. They chipped away at hope.

Not until the previous summer had the terrible news come, but he didn’t want it to matter. He’d had a few days of floating disbelief before he came back down, and then he continued with his life as he always had, using the illness as a prop, a rickety catapult to make sure he got something accomplished before it was too late.

Beside the bed, his desk leaned against the tacky fraternity wall, a hand-me-down from his father’s days at Verona. It was old, wobbly, and comfortable, with wood that had faded from a dark brown to a whispering tan. Above it, he’d hung a poster of Bernini’s David slinging the rock at the giant Philistine, Goliath. His computer and piles of notes were strewn and unevenly stacked on its surface. There was not an inch to spare, and the research had spilled over onto the floor.

Every word was for an Independent Study course on the nature of God and truth, the structure of belief. Dash had decided on theology as his major not because he was a particularly religious person, nor because he was ill and needed some divine insurance. No, he had declared theology as his major first year for no reason other than some strange need and lack of interest in anything else.

He had set to work on his thesis, giving the proposal first to Dr. True for his go-ahead. Of course, Dash told the professor, the study of how the dying or the horribly ill curse or embrace God and their truth was all theoretical. Merely an interesting idea.

So, stacks and stacks of paper and books and charts and polls were everywhere in the dorm room. Dash was working and writing all the time. Since the News, he no longer participated in any of his sports, nor did he show up to meetings of Love Out Loud. He even shirked his fraternity house duties. He devoted his attention entirely to the completion of his paper.

“Such determination,” everyone said. “You gotta respect that.”

“He used to be so much fun. I’ll be glad when he’s through with that paper!”

They had no idea just how far he still had to go, how much writing and thinking and questioning still remained. Dashel had too much to say, too many big, thick words to proclaim, and a growing uncertainty of how to shout them.

He turned the cold knob on the door, walking barefoot and preoccupied down the carpeted hallway to the dingy shower.

This had not been a good year, he thought. Not by any means. Forces pulled at him. There was the sickness, but there was also what had occurred the previous spring with Wilder Rawls.

 

 

FED UP and irritated, Sarah decided against wearing her contacts and opted for her black-rimmed glasses. She was no fashionista; she was no supermodel. Supermodels didn’t have the stress she had. The frustration caused by her father’s call last night was still etched on her face in the bathroom mirror this morning. Everyone could see it, how tired she looked, how beaten. Would she ever have the courage to stand up to him? To exclaim one word in defiance?

“So, your father called last night?” Lydia Hallenfeller asked, standing beside her, cheerful and giddy as ever.

“You know he called, Lydia. You answered the phone.” Sarah took a brush through her hair, even though she knew it would end up being covered by a hat anyway.

“He’s such a good man, Sarah. Such a sweet man.” Lydia’s voice was an interesting instrument. High and piercing like a squeaky hinge, it made her sound like a cartoon character. In fact, Lydia’s large, round face, popping eyes, and shiny black hair made Sarah think of that old campy tart Betty Boop.

“You don’t need to convince me of my father’s… goodness, Lydia.” Sarah moved back a bit, happily giving up some personal space to keep Lydia away.

“So, he’s coming to see you sometime soon?”

“Sometime.” He would never tell her exactly when, preferring instead to surprise her. To catch me at something, she thought.

“I love your dad. When he gets here, I would love to see him,” Lydia chirped as she left the bathroom.

“Oh, I’m sure you will.” Sarah rolled her eyes.

After the debacle the previous summer, when Sarah had been caught in the rectory half-naked with Bobby Denton smoking copious amounts of pot, her father had threatened to withdraw her from Verona.

“This is shameful!” he’d chided as Sarah grabbed her clothes and clutched them to her breasts.

“Daddy!” she exclaimed.

Bobby had scampered to his feet and completely forgot his jeans and T-shirt, running past the preacher and the church secretary in his underwear.

The Reverend Coheen had grabbed Sarah by the arm and dragged her to the car. The bruise didn’t fade for weeks. As they drove off, she saw Bobby Denton hiding in the bushes, lighting up what was left of the pot. Men were assholes.

Sarah’s father had only decided to let her stay once they found Lydia through the college’s Christian Society, on the condition that Lydia would be Sarah’s roommate.

“That’ll set you on the right course!” he’d said gruffly. “Lydia’s a good girl. You could learn from her.”

How Sarah had wanted to say something to him then, something hurtful that had been festering for years.

Back in her room, Sarah sat on her bed with her hands folded on her lap. Her shoulders drooped as she thought of her father, of eyes she never saw because she was too frightened to peer into them. His threat to take her out of Verona still haunted her. Dash was here, and she could never leave Dash. She had to convince him that rooming with Lydia had done her good after all. That Daddy’s plot had worked.

She rose slowly and walked to the window that overlooked the quad, hugging her thin arms tight around her as a sad chill came over her. She would have to see her father, and unfortunately, it would have to be soon.

“Goddamn,” she whispered about nothing in particular and about everything in the world.

 

 

WILDER RAWLS examined his weekly to-do list on the dorm room wall, a large, plain white calendar, each day filled with deadlines and notes and names and meeting times. Everything was neatly written, line by line, an exercise in efficiency. He crossed off each day on his calendar with a strong red marker as it passed into night. A perfect scarlet every day at five thirty in the evening. He allowed the night to come and the day to end.

Wilder knew certain things, certain rules. He knew of the world’s expectations and used them to his advantage. He knew the secrets of a charming personality and the power of a handsome face. His father was a political figure, after all. High ranking. Important. At a very early age, Wilder recognized everything was up for the taking, as long as it was taken with a few carefully placed precautions.

It was nine o’clock in the morning. He had a single room in the winding area of Raven Hall called “The Maze,” aptly named for the way the narrow, dimly lit halls snaked along, suddenly turning this way and that, like a tunnel under the earth. The hall was a hurried addition to the old Raven building. An unexpected surge in enrollment years ago had forced the college to hire a third-rate contractor to design the add-on, resulting in the odd layout. Wilder didn’t mind it, though. He liked the obscurity it offered him. His room lay in the desolate and mostly empty end of the Maze, whispered to be haunted by at least three different spirits. Wilder shrugged it off. He’d never believed in ghosts, smirking at the idea of a spirit world.

Wilder’s room was spare. Only the calendar hung on the dry brown of the wall. All the furniture was in the same place it had been when he had first moved in, and the drone of the fluorescent light overhead was the only sound he allowed. It was a bled room, lifeless and stilted. A single window looked out onto the unused back parking lot of the building, empty save for a sea of asphalt and a large brown dumpster. The only annoyance came with the sound of hydraulics and reversing alarms when the large trucks came to pick up the trash.

Wilder was to meet Tony Votts in the Campus Center for breakfast at quarter after nine. He left the room and locked the door as always. He had never really noticed Tony until this year. He had seen him, of course. Tony was a football star, but Wilder had never really noticed him.

Tony first caught Wilder’s attention while the football star was washing his shiny red Corvette on the front lawn of Sigma Gamma. Tony’s bare chest and shoulders glistened with sunshine, sweat, and soapy water. His shorts clung to his strong legs and buttocks. At that moment, Wilder had decided to pursue Tony.

It was a mission, a quest. He did everything he could to get into Tony’s circle of friends. He would “accidentally” bump into Tony at frat parties, or load praises on his friends and fellow football players. Before long he was eating breakfast with the guys.

It was that easy.

With the help of a certain fellow ball player, Wilder had even found out what classes Tony was taking and signed up for them as well. He offered to help Tony with anything. Any math problem, any historical date, any scientific hypothesis. His plan to ingratiate himself with Tony had been successful. But he still felt a certain withdrawal from Tony, as though he was holding back and didn’t quite trust Wilder. It was an extreme irritation for Wilder, something that might disturb the natural order of things, their natural progression.

Winter term was drawing to a close. The first day of spring had passed. Things needed to happen soon.

Wilder pushed forcefully against the side door, zipping his winter coat high against the cold breeze. Winter slouching into spring like a tired shoulder. The season unwilling to let go, forgetting its role.

 

 

DASH STOOD dripping in front of a foggy mirror that hung above a sink in the shower room. The warm water had done the trick, quelling his nerves if only for that brief time.

One other housemate was in the shower, but he was on the opposite wall and looked too morning-dazed to try to strike up a conversation. His name was Tony, and he and Dash never really spoke except for passing greetings in the hallway or on matters pertaining to the fraternity. Talking then would have just been awkward, two naked guys who barely knew one another shouting across the shower room above the sound of rushing water hitting the tiled floor.

The chilly air raised goose bumps on his wet skin, and he let the water drip and fall into puddles on the cold white floor beneath him. Beads of water collected on his shoulders and chest as he stared vacantly into the steamed mirror. Water ran from his thick, curly blond hair, creating trickling streams that cascaded down his neck and the length of his torso.

His eyes focused on the nothing directly in front of him. The dark brown of his eyes frightened him sometimes if he caught himself in the trance state. Occasionally, he would stare into a mirror until he could swear he saw someone else staring out at him, a stranger with dark eyes glaring at him from beneath his own flesh. In those instances, he didn’t recognize himself.

Until recently, those reflective trances were the only time he was ever uncertain of his own person, of his own meaning. But the illness had brought his obvious physical changes to his attention. His self-recognition was being challenged more so of late by the transformations, the betrayals from a body he had always treated well. He was still the handsome, dark-skinned, blond runner and swimmer he had always been, but he’d noticed certain frightening alterations, almost mutations. His skin was stretched across his abdomen, and he felt a growing lethargy and weakness. It was beginning to show ever so slightly in his eyes. How long could he hide his sickness from everyone? When would the questions begin?

“Mornin’, Dash,” Tony said in his first strained attempt at speech for the day. He passed Dash and left the shower room. Dash kept quiet, still involved in his own thoughts. Still lost in the stranger’s eyes in the mirror.

His death was going to be painful and slow. He knew it before the nervous, graying doctor handed down the diagnosis.

“This… isn’t easy for me to say,” he had breathed out. “Your father was always afraid of this. He would blame himself if he were here.” The ridiculousness of that statement never occurred to the old doctor, but it was all Dash could hold on to at the moment. He smiled to ward off the tears.

Dash knew death was not going to be a silent, sweet gift. It was crouched and ready to thrash, to jump on him and rip him apart. He had already seen it happen to his father.

His father had been so athletic when Dash was a child. He glided effortlessly to the finish line in cycling races and city marathons, but then the horrendous pain came one afternoon on the front porch.

“Are you going to run with me this year, son?” Dale Yarnsbrook sat on the swing with a glass of ice water.

“I’m planning to,” Dash replied, stretching his calves on the steps. He bent forward, giving his hamstrings a good stretch before his daily run.

As Dashel focused his eyes on the ground below him, his shadow eclipsing the sun, he heard the crash of glass and liquid, and then the terrifying sound of his father’s body falling to the wood floor. Dash ran to his father but could only watch as his dad tried to make some noise, some wretched cry.

“Mom!” Dash cried. “Mom! Help!”

He’d watched the pain take over. The pain was so intense, his father’s artistic and lovely hands curled into fists of taut agony, his fingernails tearing into his palm flesh. It was terrifying to look at those hands. The memory of them still clung to Dashel. He saw them attached to his own arms as an adult, those hands that now dripped water from their tips in the fraternity shower room.

Dash had eventually stopped pleading in quiet for a cure. Pleading and praying did nothing but consume him with worry and heavy want. Besides, his mother was doing enough begging to God for both of them. Her legs had given out when he told her of the news during the summer. She fell to the living room floor, having refused his request for her to have a seat. She searched desperately through the air between them, as if there were a fog she could not see through. She squinted harder for a more acceptable truth.

A bead of water made a crooked creek down Dashel’s forehead, then turned to the edge of his eye and continued down. It was the closest thing to a tear he could shed for himself.