They found my roommate’s body stuffed into a drainage pipe two miles from campus. I saw it on the news before anyone came to my dorm-room door. “Body of Missing Student Believed Found.” He’d been dead for five days. I’d like to claim I was the one who’d reported him missing. But I hadn’t even known he was gone until his girlfriend called the police.
The knocks at my door began a few minutes after the news of his death hit. Light tapping at first. Then people banging, shouting for me to open. I imagined them swarming in the hall. If I’d opened the door, they would’ve eaten me. Skin first and then the red parts. I sat in my desk chair next to the window, the February air coming in cold as I watched my roommate’s fish swim circles in his tank. A key rattled in the lock. Then the door opened, and there was the resident assistant with two cops, clones of each other, formal posture, pug faces. A crowd gathered behind them but didn’t come in. “You the roommate of Baron Butler?” one of the cops asked. The RA told him I was. “That’s David Nikkola,” he said. My name is Davis. But I offered no correction. Or maybe I mumbled one. I don’t know. This was five years ago now.
“So, you’ve heard?” the RA asked as the policemen concerned themselves with the photos Baron had framed on his desk. Baron in cap and gown with his prim parents. Baron in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Baron with his face smashed fish-like against Kayla’s face—his girlfriend, one of the only black girls on campus. Baron was black, too, which is probably why people kept saying that “he ran with a bad crowd.” They only said that after he disappeared. Before that, they never had a party without inviting him to come.
The cops didn’t do much of anything. They took notes. They asked me if anyone had called. They asked me to spell my name, but I knew they already had it. A detective had been by two days before. He hadn’t bothered to take anything other than Baron’s computer—as if shifting too many things might make it harder for Baron to come back. Like he might get confused about where he lived.
The cops left and the RA asked if I was okay sleeping alone. I slept alone a lot. Even before Baron disappeared he wasn’t around much: he was often at Kayla’s dorm room or at some frat house. I told the RA I was fine, which was a lie the RA eagerly believed. He left quickly, even locked the door behind him. I wanted to shout, “Would you be fine?” But I wasn’t a yeller. I was barely a talker.
I sat for a long time in the cold as the fish swam his endless loops. He was a koi, sunset orange and as big as a hand. He lived in an octagonal tank that took up the entire counter by the sink. But sometimes that tank wasn’t enough for him. Sometimes he leapt straight up and landed on the floor where he flopped in what I took to be joy. Pentecostal spasm. I always put him back, but I felt bad doing so. He only jumped from the tank when someone was around. I knew exactly what he was trying to tell us. I’d considered doing the same thing myself—leaping the one story out of my window and hoping someone would let me escape.
I don’t know how long I sat by that window after Baron’s body was found. But the longer I sat, the more I became aware of all the eyes that must have been looking at me from the other dorms along the quad. A thousand eyes peering in, trying to see what could be seen, decipher the clues, marvel at the normal little things that had become objects of horror. Like Baron’s jeans flung across his bed. Dead man’s pants. Dead man’s bed. Dead man’s fish tank sitting beside the sink and humming its dirge.
I’d like to say I lay down in bed, but that would be misleading. I didn’t “lie down.” I hid under the covers, blanket tucked around my head, breath hot across my face, and I couldn’t see a thing but red blips and sparkles of light, my eyes trying to create something out of nothing. I wanted to make a list of who’d want Baron dead. But who’d want anyone dead? Maybe someone wanted me dead. I tried to make a list of that, too. Find some pattern. Connect death to understanding. But I was nineteen. And nothing seemed more pointless than trying to put order to the world.
I want to say everything matters. The concerned calls from my parents. The detective who gave me a hug like he was my father. The school counselor leaning too close, never blinking and telling me I should discuss. All that should have meaning, its own scene carved into my memory. But that’s not how it is. Remembering most of what happened afterwards is like watching the tide, waves washing in, the same water rolling back and forth until you go into a kind of haze, a kind of timelessness where everything is everything is nothing.
I do recall a few things. Like Baron’s parents coming to collect his belongings, his body, too, I suppose. They were from New Orleans and drove for eight hours to get to our red-bricked campus north of Dallas. I’d met Baron’s father, a sturdy man with a gray-tinged mustache, on freshmen move-in day. “You a studier?” he’d asked me, and I’d said, “Yes, sir, I am.” He smiled wide. “Not too much of that,” he’d said. “Y’all only get to do this once.”
Less than once, I thought when he returned that next February. I want to say he looked half the size he had looked five months earlier, that his mustache hung limp and that his wife had to hold him steady. But I don’t know if that’s true. I didn’t so much as glance at Baron’s parents when they arrived, and I left before the door had swung closed behind them. By the time I came back, Baron’s things were gone, everything but the fish still circling his tank. I guess they didn’t know what to do with the neurotic little thing. I wondered if they knew what to do with the rest of Baron’s things, if there was a room back in Dallas already frozen in time, a shelf awaiting the last gasp of Baron’s life, everything he’d touched before someone took him away.
They called me four-oh, the other kids on campus. “Hey, four-oh! How’s it hanging, four-oh!” This was after the candles and speeches, after the sorority girls had stopped looking at me as if I trailed the ghost of Baron behind me. “Hey, four-oh, why you studying?” “Hey, four-oh, you should be drinking.” They all thought I’d get an automatic 4.0 because my roommate had died. That wasn’t true. The registrar called the day after Baron’s body was found. They said I could take time off but that, if I didn’t, I’d be treated like any other student. As if being “any other student” was even possible.
People thought I knew Baron. But I didn’t know Baron. The word that kept going through my head was “assigned.” Baron had been assigned to me as a roommate. And so his death became assigned to me, too. “Tell me about Baron?” people would ask. “Who were his friends? What was he like?” I know now they were just looking for peace, a way to believe what happened to Baron was Baron’s fault, something they could avoid. But at the time, I thought they wanted real answers. And I didn’t have anything to give them.
Kayla suffered worse. I don’t remember thinking about her much during those first months after Baron’s death, but she was there. She spoke at the only memorial service I attended. And I only attended because the counselor said he’d be looking for me. He said if I didn’t “start to address my feelings” he would recommend I take the semester off. I thought he was an idiot. There was a reason I’d chosen a school that was a two-day drive from home. I was done with Orange County, done with being the strange little kid who sat in the corner of the lunch room and invented comic-book heroes with other strange little kids. I had wanted to reinvent myself, to be normal. And I couldn’t imagine anything more abnormal than being the guy who ran away from school because he was too scared to stay.
Kayla felt the same way. She said so in that speech, “I’m not packing my bags. I’m not getting in my car. I’m buying mace. I’m walking with friends. But I’m not going to let them win. And neither should you.”
“I’m not going to let them win.” I liked that. The words kept moving through my mind until they felt like they belonged to me. By “them” Kayla meant the murderers, the beasts, the faceless cruelty that bludgeoned Baron over the head and stuffed him into a drainage pipe. But I meant everyone.
Months after Baron’s death, Kayla told me exactly how she suffered.
On the night they found Baron’s body, the police went to her first. They told her not to go anywhere. They told her they’d be back. After the autopsy, those two cops—the pug-faced ones who looked like the same man twice—came into a prayer vigil and hauled her away. Not hauled. More like asked her to come with them. But she said it felt like a hauling to her. They might as well have handcuffed her and frog-marched her to the station.
The detective—the one who gave me a hug as if he was my father, who seemed to me like the kind of guy who could grow a beard and be a mall Santa—attacked Kayla with questions. Who did Baron know? When did she last see him? What were Baron’s plans for the night of the fifth? Was he on drugs? Was she? Did she have a hook-up? Who did Baron know? Who. Did. He. Know?
Kayla was far too small to have shoved a man Baron’s size into a drainage pipe. No one ever accused her of that. But they threatened to arrest her anyway. Interfering with justice, aiding and abetting, whatever they called it. “I reported him missing,” she said. And the detective, the one who could’ve been Santa, he leaned his palms into the table and said, “Just means you’re a smart one.”
They told her she could go to New Orleans for the funeral but that leaving town would be “suspicious.” She didn’t know what to do. Her parents told her to cooperate with the authorities. They offered to come stay if she wanted. But she didn’t want them to come stay. She wanted them to call one of their rich lawyer friends. She wanted Johnnie Cochran. Hell, forget the lawyers; she wanted Jessie Jackson. Her parents told her she was being hysterical and threatened to take away her car. They never did come to town.
She mentioned none of this in her speeches. She thanked the local law enforcement for their diligent work. She asked everyone to call the toll-free tip line if they had any information. And in those weeks when I could do nothing but hunker down in my room, she stood by the school fountain and answered all the questions I hated to be asked. Did Baron hang out with anyone . . . you know? “He hung out with the same people you do.” But he must have known someone who . . . you know? “No. He was just a student.” But what was he like? “He was . . . he was going to be an engineer. But, you know, he had this great voice. I kept saying he should go for it, try to be a singer. He used to be in an a cappella choir. Can you believe that? Baron. You should have heard him sing. But his parents wanted him to be practical. And you know Baron. He did what he was supposed to do. He made people happy.”
Then, when the questions ended and everyone left, Kayla would walk with a friend back to her dorm. She told me she’d shut herself inside night after night and had stared at the ceiling, imagining it crumbling and suffocating her where she lay
Baron and I had one real conversation. This was early on, late September probably. I was in a political survey class and was reading the Communist Manifesto of all things. Baron had stopped typing and I could feel him staring at me. “I’m supposed to read that,” he said.
“For a class?” I asked.
“For a girl,” he said and then smiled wide, the same satisfied smile of his father. “I just met her. She said she was going to educate me.” And he ran his hand over his shaved head as if “educate” were code for something a lot more fun.
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say. Back home, whenever a girl so much as spoke to one of my friends, we’d all shove and laugh. “Go get you some,” we’d say. I had no idea what to say to a guy who really could get a girl.
So I said, “That’s nice.”
“Oh yeah, it’s nice,” Baron said. “Nice enough to scare me.” Then he leaned in. “You know when you like a girl so much you just know she’s going to take you over. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
I nodded as if girls had ever made me feel anything other than confused and stupid. Looking back, I sometimes think Baron knew the truth about me. I think if I’d just told him I’d never kissed a girl, he’d have been the type not to laugh. He’d have been the type to take me to parties and introduce me to girls until I could stand in one place without my body vibrating and all my pieces flying apart.
Or maybe that’s make believe. Maybe Baron was exactly who I thought he was the first time I saw him, one of the cool kids. One of those who thought of me not as a loser or even a “quiet kid” but as some sort of fog to move through. Maybe that’s why when I went back to reading Marx that afternoon, he stood up and began undressing—as if I wasn’t even there.
At first, I couldn’t believe what he was doing. Then I couldn’t look away. He took all his clothing off and stood by the sink. He used a washcloth to clean himself from his neck down to the bottoms of his feet. He wasn’t what you’d call athletic, but he was tall and his dark skin was pulled tight. I could see the contours of his body, the peaks of his hips, the sinews of his shoulders joining to his neck. I’d never showered in gym class, never played sports. I don’t think I’d ever seen another man—another person—naked before then. My whole life I had stared at my own smooth, pale body, like something pulled in from the water, something you could serve in soft slices. But Baron was none of that. He was alive, the slopes of his body clean, moving as if in one exhale. He started singing as he washed, his voice high and clear. It was the first time I’d seen him bathe himself that way. But it wasn’t the last. He did it time and time again. Those fluid movements. That singing. I always had the sense I was watching a man alone, complete in his solitude.
As if I wasn’t even there.
Kayla didn’t come to see me until two months after Baron’s death. There’d been no arrests, no suspects. The cops had told Kayla she could go home to her parents. She told them she was going nowhere.
“You have Emmitt,” she said as she pushed her way into the room. Emmitt was the fish. I didn’t know he had a name. “Is he still trying to kill himself?” she asked.
“I think he was just trying to escape,” I said.
She nodded as if she’d never considered the possibility. Then she turned to me, her eyes crystalline. She had long hair in tight curls that did little to soften the sharpness of her cheekbones or the seriousness of her long mouth.
“How you holding up?” she asked. People asked me that a lot. I always said I was fine. To Kayla I said, “I don’t know.”
“I miss him,” she said and turned away to look at Baron’s side of the room. I imagined she saw Baron’s things still there, his books, his photos, his jeans thrown across the bed. She may have seen Baron, too, his satisfied smile welcoming her back. “No one cares anymore,” she said, and I knew she wasn’t saying it to me.
“I’ll go to the library,” I said and started gathering books. “You can stay.”
“No,” she said. For the first time since I’d met her, she looked uncomfortable, uncertain. “I wanted to ask you,” she said and paused to take a breath. “I’m going to the tunnel. The drainage pipe. I want you to come with me.”
“What?” I said. The thought of her asking me to go anywhere seemed bizarre. Suspicious. Going to the drainage pipe seemed downright absurd. “Why?” I asked.
“Because he was your roommate” she said, her back straight, challenging. “You cared about him, too.”
I laughed. I couldn’t control it, the sound rising up from somewhere deep and spilling out in a short burst. “We weren’t even friends,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “You watched him undress,” she said. “All the time.”
I turned away as a flush burned across my face. I’d always pretended to be asleep or reading. I’d never made a show of it, never mentioned it to anyone. “That’s not true,” I tried to say. But the words came out jumbled. I wanted to open the window. I wanted to leap out into the dusk.
Kayla put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said. “He kind of liked it.”
And that did it. I shoved my keys into my pockets and hurried out the door. Kayla could have that room. She could have the empty walls where Baron’s posters once hung, the empty desk where his books once sat. She could have the naked bed and Emmitt. And Baron in all his absence.
I rushed down the stairs leading out to the quad and stopped at the first bench I came to. I remember leaning against the back rungs, the metal still warm from the sun. I’d like to say I noticed something grand in that moment, something profound in the patches of grass or in the cross-stitch of sidewalks. But I just stood there and stared at a long streak of green paint that had peeled away from the back of the bench. The metal underneath had gone brown with rust. And I wondered if it would ever be fixed.
“Davis.” I heard Kayla’s voice from behind but didn’t turn around. She touched my shoulder and moved close enough for me to feel her warmth at my side. “I do want you to come,” she said. No apology for before. No judgment, either.
“Why?” I asked again, this time having more sense of what I wanted to know. “You have a thousand friends.”
“Maybe I don’t want them to know where I’m going,” she said and then stood there as if that explained everything, as if I already knew she’d overheard her friends referring to Baron as “The Dead Baron”—as if I knew she’d found photos of them posing inside the opening of the drainage pipe. But those were things she wouldn’t tell me until a day or two later. In that moment, she just looked at me with her intense, wanting eyes.
And I agreed to go.
In my mind, I called it an impulse, as if under everything I was the type of guy who could run off with a girl simply because she wanted me to. But even then I knew “impulse” was the wrong word. A day hadn’t gone by since Baron’s death that I hadn’t thought about that drainage pipe, what it must have looked like, what it must have smelled like. What anger it must have taken to beat a man across the head and shove him into a hole. I didn’t go to that drain on an impulse. I’d been aching to go there for two months.
This is how Baron died, the official story as I understand it:
Baron Frederick Butler III entered the concrete drainage ditch near the intersection of Holly and Overmeir at sometime between 9:30 pm and midnight, Wednesday, February 5, 2001. Butler came either willingly or under duress. He came alone or accompanied by one man or several. Sometime between 9:30 pm and midnight, Butler received a single blow to the back of the skull resulting in a fatal brain hemorrhage. Forensic analysis determined the murder weapon to be an object of three inches in diameter and made of a composite metal. Butler died at the scene. His body was dragged several feet and hidden in a 36-inch drainage pipe, where it was not discovered for a period of 120 hours. His wallet was missing. The murder weapon has not been recovered. There are no witnesses. The investigation has yielded no suspects.
The neighborhood where Baron died was only two miles north of campus, but it might as well have been another city. The college, red brick in a cow pasture thirty miles north of Dallas, was built a hundred years ago. But a light industrial area had risen on all sides, rows of faceless buildings serving as warehouses and offices for companies with overcompensating names: World Wide Tech, International Billing, Supreme Allied Import-Export. The area was the type of place where no one had ever lived, where even noon on a weekday felt hollow.
Kayla and I parked on the empty street and walked over to the chain-link fence running alongside the drainage ditch. Someone had cut the fence in half, peeling back the links to create an opening big enough for two people to slip through side by side. The ditch was maybe five feet below the street and smeared with the remnants of the last rain, a slick of algae and leaves and dirt-covered cola cans. The only light filtered down yellow from the streetlamps.
“Well,” Kayla said after we’d made our way into the ditch. She was standing with her hands in her pockets, the hood of her sweater pulled up against a springtime chill I hadn’t felt on campus. A mockingbird called out from somewhere nearby, and we both jerked at the sound. I kept glancing up at the street and noticed Kayla doing the same. I wondered how anyone could go there at night, not just Baron but others, too. It was a young couple who had stumbled across the body. The paper didn’t say what they were doing in a drainage ditch at night, but I guess what made the ditch a good place to hide a body also made it a good place for desperate lovers. Standing down there, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like for that couple, their bodies hot in the February cold, hands moving under sweaters, into pants. How far did they get? When did they notice a man staring out dead from the pipe? In the movies, there’s always screaming, the girl gone hysterical. But I bet they were quiet, their minds turning everything off. At least that’s how I felt near the pipe—like I couldn’t think, like something had crawled inside me and turned to stone. I stood motionless, watching Kayla take gentle steps forward until she reached up and put a hand on the concrete opening. The mouth.
“I didn’t bring anything,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anything to leave.”
“I don’t think you have to,” I said, surprised at how clear my voice sounded.
She nodded and turned away from the pipe. She stepped toward me, and we faced one another for a long time. I thought we would leave, head back to the car. But she just stood there looking at me with her dark eyes glinting in the lamplight.
“I’m glad you came,” she finally said.
“I’ve been wanting to,” I said, the truth emerging on its own, forced free by that place. Her eyes.
Kayla smiled. She put her arms around my shoulders, and I rested my hands above her hips. I expected her to say something, to admit some truth about Baron, about me. And I know that sounds naïve. It sounds willfully ignorant—to believe, there in that ditch, a woman I did not know could have done anything more for me than hold me. Or to believe that I could’ve done anything more for her. And yet I think we both expected the moment to change us. We needed that. And when nothing did change—when our arms fell away from each other and we were still strangers in a ditch where a man had died—when that happened, I don’t think either of us could accept it. I think that’s why we leaned back in. I think that’s why we kissed.
Love came like what? A bull? A knife? Like a yellow sun burning? I know I wasn’t the first nineteen-year-old boy to collapse into rapture at the moment of his first kiss. I wasn’t even the first to spend seven ceaseless days and nights with his new love. But looking back at that week with Kayla is like looking crossways into another reality. Like I fell out of the world and into a timelessness where no one else existed other than Kayla, and there was nothing but an emptiness outside my dorm-room door.
Kayla told me everything about the days and weeks after Baron died. She told me about growing up in Oklahoma City. She told me about her parents, both lawyers. And she must have told me a thousand other things. About politics. About hair products. And what did I tell her? That I once stole a thousand dollars from my parents to buy The Incredible Hulk #181? That my father owned three restaurants and hid cash around the house? I must have told her those things. I must have told her everything. But I don’t remember speaking much at all. What I remember was her voice, deep for a woman’s but lilting in a way that carried me from one day into the next. And I remember the covers up over our heads, our lips together for so long that I lost the sense of taste. Sometimes there’d be a knock at my door, a voice calling for Kayla. But we never did answer.
Nor did we go to class. Or shower. For meals I would run to the cafeteria and bring our food back to the room. All our trays and leftover soda cups and paper plates went on Baron’s side of the room until we could no longer see the floor or the surface of his bed. For the first time in months, Emmitt began jumping out of his tank again. We never saw him leap. We just heard him flopping on the carpet. I’d lift him up and put him back, but I wished I could see him soar from that water. I imagined his graceful arc, his tail pushing against the air as he flew.
I didn’t sleep much. Kayla and I would kiss and fondle until she nodded off and left me lying there fully clothed. I wanted her to wake back up. I was hot and uncomfortable and I longed for her to undress, to remove the jeans and T-shirt she wore day and night. I wanted to see her completely. But I didn’t know what was normal with a girl, how long it took to go from kissing to nakedness to sex. I thought all I had to do was keep waiting, and she’d eventually turn toward me and put her hands below my waist. Often I wondered how long Baron had waited. I wondered if she’d ever allowed him to touch her skin. To feel her body curving over her thin hips and small breasts. I wondered if she’d ever touched his naked chest, his legs, or if he, too, had always slept clothed.
I wondered if I’d seen more of Baron than Kayla ever had.
A week into our seclusion we woke to the sound of knocking. And then the knocking became louder, more insistent. “We could jump out the window,” I said to Kayla. “Escape the siege.” She didn’t laugh. She sat up in bed with her knees near her chin, her hair bunched to one side of her head.
“She’s not here,” I shouted. “Go away.”
My resident assistant’s voice said, “Please. Just open the door.”
“Maybe you should,” Kayla said, looking at the trash in front of us.
“No,” I said, sitting up and putting my hands around hers. “We can stay.”
Just then, the door opened. My RA stood there looking at us as if to verify we were alive. Or, rather, verify that Kayla wasn’t bashed over the head and hidden under a desk. God knows I had a shoddy history of keeping people alive in that room.
“Jesus Christ,” the RA said as he stepped inside. He threw his forearm over his mouth and nose. “What’ve you been doing in here?”
I looked at the layer of trash. I looked at Kayla, hair askew and body slick with days of sweat. There was a group of girls behind the RA. All of them were staring at me as if I was the sole cause of the smell, of Kayla’s appearance. I did the only thing I could think to do. I made a run for the window.
And I jumped.
Over time, most everyone came to believe that Baron had gotten lost walking from one frat house to another. That he had traveled confused for two miles until he was robbed and murdered. Drunk, they said. Stupid. But I have another theory. I think it happened like this:
Baron and Kayla pretending to study in her room. Kisses. Touches. Too many. I’m not ready. “Come on, babe.” Baron, please. “Please? My roommate’s seen more of me than you have.” You like the attention. “Like hell I do.” Like hell you don’t. “Come on. I love you.”
“Don’t pull away like that.” I’m not pulling away. “You want me to leave?” No. “You want me to stay?” You can do what you want. “You know what I want.” But it’s not what I want. “It’s never what you want.”
Then he stands and goes right out her door without a goodbye. Down to the quad and onto the street, his feet moving forward because they need to move somewhere. Can’t hold himself still, his skin jumping and sweating and him thinking of Kayla, that slim body pulsing from within, everything contained, controlled, refusing his touch. The wind kicks cold. He moves faster to get warmer, forward, always going forward because that’s what’s expected. It’s how he’s always been, how he ended up here, running all the way to Texas, chasing what he doesn’t even need. Now this is a school for engineers. “Yes, sir. It is.” You’re unsure? “No, sir.” You’ll thrive, Baron. You’ll make us proud.
Now he stops walking, breaths coming in clouds. He doesn’t know where he is. No noise except the hum of streetlamps. No movements other than his own. It’s like the whole world has gone away. And he likes the feel of that. He sees a slice in a fence and makes his way down into a ditch, puddles iced in a moon glow, everything still. He could stay here, he thinks. He could sit and close his eyes and let himself be, no one expecting anything of him. Or trying to set his life in rows. He begins to sing, his voice slow, the words lost but the sound carrying over the ice and through the yellow light. His voice rises, filling all the spaces where no one ever goes or ever thinks about. And he keeps singing. To himself. To no one. To the man he never sees, who approaches from behind. Baron’s voice flowing clear, unburdened. Out and out. One last note escaping before the blow comes. Before he dies and never knows he isn’t alone.
I spent two nights in the hospital before they handed me a crutch and sent me on my way. Foot fracture. I expected to return to my things piled up in the hall and Emmitt dead atop his tank. My mother had flown in and spent a day in the hospital before I convinced her I’d be a fool to come home with finals so near. “You don’t look good,” she said. “It’s the cast,” I said. And she looked at me as if my hair was falling out and my eyes had clouded with white.
When I made it back to the dorm, my key still worked in the door. Someone had cleaned out all the trash, but otherwise everything remained untouched. Even Emmitt looked as he always had, circling his tank as I propped my crutch against the wall and began playing my messages. One was from the counselor wanting to set up a new time to talk. One was from the RA asking me to come by. And one was just a pause, a hiss of static, and then a click. I listened to the third message five, six times, hoping to hear the light breathing of a woman, the hint of a sigh. Kayla hadn’t come to see me in the hospital, hadn’t sent me a card. “What about that girl?” my mother had asked when I said I was looking forward to getting home where I had real friends. I didn’t answer. I turned away before she could see my eyes going thicker with white.
A day didn’t go by that I didn’t try calling Kayla or, rather, that I didn’t try making myself call. I’d sit there after class not having seen her on campus, and I’d try to think of what I could say. “Wow, that was strange.” “Hey, glad we got to hang out.” As if I wasn’t spending hours a day walking the streets and trying to shake her from my mind, from my skin. I went to the drainage ditch. I sat next to the dried slick of puddles. I never saw anyone. And I never came up with anything to tell Kayla.
When finals began, a friend of hers approached me as I sat alone at the café in the student union building. She was blonde and thin and hovered above me and my half-eaten burger. She didn’t introduce herself. She just told me Kayla’s parents had taken her home several weeks before. “She needs time,” the blonde said. As if maybe she was sick. As if being with me required a long convalescence.
“Well,” I said, trying to keep my body from flying apart. “Tell her I say I hi.”
I went back to my room after that and stared at an unfinished term paper. I didn’t write or reach for the phone. I ended up thinking about Baron standing there at the sink and cleaning himself as he sang. I could imagine him still there, alive, thinking about Kayla or finals or about heading back home in a few days. “When you leaving campus?” he’d have asked. And I’d have looked out the window and believed I had nowhere to go. I’d have had no longing to drive to Oklahoma City, no desire to get back to my friends in Orange County. With Baron still alive, I’d have been exactly as I’d been the day before he died. He’d have been the one with all the expectations, all the stories he’d one day struggle to tell.
I took a long breath and leaned back in my chair. “What do you think?” I said to Emmitt. “Should we go to Oklahoma?”
Just then, he leapt. The water sprayed from the tank, and Emmitt shuddered as he rose and then fell. A straight drop. No graceful arc. No confident flutter of the tail. He twisted sideways once and hit the floor with a wet thump.
I stared at him there, his eyes bulging. In hope? In fear? He flopped slowly at first and then faster, his body convulsing as he came within an inch of my feet. I looked at him and could’ve sworn he looked back at me. Then I reached down and lifted him up, his body going limp in my hands. I carried him back to the tank and slipped him into the water.
“There’s no more need for that,” I said. Because what else was there to say? What other way can you react to such a thing?