The Boy in the Tunnel
by Gardner Linn
Sarah knew the blonde guy from somewhere. He said his name was Roger. That sounded awfully familiar. If he knew Renee, she’d probably seen him around somewhere, at a party or something. Hard to keep track of everybody you meet, especially when it’s dark and you can’t feel your own face.
Sarah wiped at a cut on Roger’s hand with a damp paper towel. The first-floor women’s bathroom was empty except for them. The box social was going on next door, but Sarah didn’t really mind missing it. Dealing with Roger seemed more important anyway.
Sarah threw away the paper towel, stained with a blotch of pink. For some reason she thought of Shawn. He had invited her to his band’s show tonight, the first time they’d talked in a month at least. Sarah missed him about as much as she missed the box social.
Who Sarah really missed was Dick. She hoped he wasn’t upstairs right now, searching the arcade for her. If only. She didn’t know why this guy, with whom she’d spent a grand total of about five minutes in conversation, occupied such a prominent place in her thoughts. He didn’t seem very smart, or even pleasant. And he had taken off just like that. But still.
“Do you know Renee?” said Roger. His hair was stringy and shoulder-length, strands starting to clump—he obviously hadn’t washed it in a week or two. Or shaved; a bristly growth of orangey-yellow hair obscured his jawline. His nose was too big for his face. Definitely looked familiar too.
“I’m going to call her. She should be here anyway. Can you sit here for five minutes? I have to go find a phone.” Sarah turned on the faucet to wash her own hands, pumping a swirl of pink soap from the dispenser with the heel of her hand.
“I want to see your tattoo again.”
Sarah pulled two paper towels from the dispenser. “Sit here and don’t move for five minutes and you can see it when I get back. Okay?”
Roger watched her wrist greedily as she dried her hands. She threw the wadded-up paper towels in the trash. “Five minutes,” she said.
Sarah left the bathroom and walked over to the dark glass wall of the Student Activities Office. She cupped her hands around her eyes and peered in. No light, not even a sliver from under the door of Charlie’s office. Sarah tried the glass door. Locked.
The hall to the right of Student Activities led to meeting rooms used by the various Student Organizations for their gatherings and functions and whatnot. A few of them were in use tonight; Sarah could hear muffled voices coming from behind two doors. But the third room on the left, Room 1-J, was empty, and the door was unlocked. Sarah entered the room, closed the door behind her, and unfastened from around her neck the locket that contained the last of her gunpowder.
Kenya hung up the emergency phone. “The Man Who Said He Was Dick,” ext. 3333, had not answered. Kenya didn’t know why she thought he would. He was just another piece in the game. He and Charlie were probably rooks or bishops, maybe even king and queen, and Kenya, she was starting to realize, was just a pawn.
There were maybe a half-dozen cars scattered around the Rape Lot, the majority of the Family Delmonico’s drivers either downtown or on weekend trips, probably back home to stave off the despair of independence for another week. Kenya thought it was the smartest thing her parents could have done, not letting her take her car to school freshman year—it kept her from coming and going as she pleased, which she resented at first, but it forced her to make friends (even if only for rides) and kept her from relying on the familiarity of home. If, by sophomore year, when she was allowed a car again, she had discovered that maybe she didn’t need to see her parents more than once a semester anyway, well, that was the price they paid for raising an adult.
Kenya looked in her Handbook’s index for something about ext. 3333 or unusual campus phone extensions in general, but found nothing beyond what she already knew. She wished, not for the first time, that she had some gunpowder; Anthony was always good about pointing her in the right direction. She could even say that her visits with him had taken the place of trips home, and fulfilled much the same purpose.
Something stirred in a LeSabre to Kenya’s left. The horn honked, abbreviated, the accidental squawk of an errant elbow hitting the wheel. Through the fogged-up windshield Kenya could see two figures moving on each other. Given the lot’s appellation and reputation, Kenya considered investigating, but as she heard no sounds of struggled, she decided to let them enjoy the night, those who had reason to enjoy it.
Kenya looked again in the Purple Pages, but Chet was still only reachable at 9999. Maybe he had received her message, and even now the red light was blinking on the secretary’s phone in the SAO to indicate his reply. Maybe she should go back to the Student Union to check. Maybe she should just go to her room in Mary Rutherford and go to sleep and in the morning all this nonsense will just seem like a bad dream, the kind you remember only as a sense of gnawing unease, like a mental stomachache.
The LeSabre honked again, louder and longer this time. Kenya smiled and kept herself from looking over at the car; she couldn’t help but be curious about what the occupants were getting up to that produced such a barrage from the horn, but it would be impolite to gawk. Better to focus on finding Chet, and console herself with thoughts of what he and she could be doing together in a Buick.
The horn honked again, and this time it didn’t seem accidental. The headlights flashed. Kenya had no choice but to look, but the lights were too bright and prevented her from seeing the person who was getting out of the car, and who said
Someone handed Joanie a red plastic cup, full of liquid and ice. She smelled it—sugar and fake fruit and alcohol. Chemical pink, though maybe that was the red cup and the red light that swirled around the cramped room. Joanie was at least four inches taller than anybody else in the room, and from her vantage the party was just a sea of bobbing heads. Joanie took a sip of the drink. It was so sweet her teeth hurt, but it burned going down, and the aftertaste was bitter, almost gritty. Almost like gunpowder. Joanie’s heart rate instantly doubled.
Snoop gave way to Young MC. “Bust a Move.” The frequency of the intersecting waves of bobbing heads increased, but that was the only reaction from the crowd. The red light spun around the room, like the lights of an ambulance speeding to an emergency. Joanie finished half of the drink in one swallow.
Someone’s hand found its way to Joanie’s ass. To her surprise, she found that she didn’t mind. She finished the drink. It was almost better than gunpowder, maybe. Joanie’s feet started moving. She had to dance—there was no way to be a part of this mass of skin and sweat and not move with it. You were either part of it or you weren’t.
Somehow Joanie’s cup was refilled. She took another sip of the neon-sweet liquid. The more you drank, the better it tasted, she thought. The hand slid up to her lower back, under her shirt, a finger tracing the curve of her spine, a fine sheet of sweat the only barrier between skin and skin. Every spot on her back the hand touched lit up with heat, blood rushing to the surface to meet unfamiliar blood.
You want it, baby, you got it.
The hand circled around her waist to her stomach, to the hard flat plane she spent years carving, three hundred crunches at a time. High-protein, low-carb—you eat muscle, you become muscle. Another sip of the drink. Been so long since she’d had this much sugar. She was starting to lose focus, starting to shake. A flutter in her neck. The hand pulled Joanie to its body, pressing denim-encased muscle against hers. This was all forbidden. So much sugar in the drink, so much caffeine. Totally off-limits to the collegiate volleyball player. Lord knows what Coach would say about the gunpowder, but Joanie’d been a good girl otherwise. Wasn’t she due five minutes of abandon, listening to a song from when she was ten? A birthday party at the roller rink was probably the last time she had this many unauthorized chemicals in her body, back when she thought “Bust a Move” meant to duckwalk or skate backwards or something.
The guy behind her grinded against her ass. This was something Tim would never do. Something Joanie would never do, normally. Another mouthful of the tangy, medicinal drink. All around her heads with no gaps between them, a bumpy, hairy, constantly shifting carpet. She could climb up and walk on them if she wanted to. The dozens of waves all undulated separately, unable to reconcile their inebriated feet with the bassline, but every thirty seconds or so everyone would dip at the same time, and for a second Joanie could see to the edges of the room, like a mountain climber at the summit seeing all the way to the horizon.
There was someone in the corner of the room who wasn’t participating. Standing on the wall like you’re a poindexter.
The hand tried to creep up her stomach to her chest, but she pulled away a bit. The guy in the corner seemed familiar, but now he was hidden again behind the heads of anonymous youth. The hand pulled Joanie back against the body. Her left eyelid twitched. Every cell, every vessel in her body was overstimulated, all pathways surging with information, blood mingling with foreign fluids, waters from far-off lands.
You take the other into you to find out who you are. In isolation you are nothing. You have no idea what you are until you know what you aren’t.
“Bust a Move” faded into the intro of Faith No More’s “Epic,” a towering black edifice looming over the plains of Armageddon. Armies marched through Joanie’s veins to their final battle in her brain. Her hand, shaking, found the thigh of the body behind her. There was no physical change among the kids in the room, but the dancing now seemed desperate, violent even, the greater body of the party flailing against the crushing inevitable.
Lips pressed in close to Joanie’s ear, whispering something inaudible over the popping metallic bass. Joanie could only feel the hot wet breath on her neck, smell the drugstore stink of preserved tissue. She remembered that she had forgotten she was trying to go somewhere. To find something. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, that’s what all the honors-program kids, the official guides, had said about college when she visited campus her senior year of high school. Doesn’t matter where you’re trying to go, only how you get there. Joanie was sure the phrase “stop and smell the roses” was used unironically. The breath condensed into a film on her neck. She could feel it seeping into every pore. The hand, thwarted in its attempts to move upward, started creeping down. (Her first boyfriend, a National Geography Bee winner of all things, would have said he was “moving from the mountainous region in the north into the southern valley.”)
The heads all dipped again. Joanie caught a glimpse of a shaggy head disappearing through a hole in the wall. She could stay in this room forever. The party was, the party is. These are the roses. This is the reward. This is the promise. This is the trap.
You want it all, but you can’t have it.
Joanie raised the red plastic cup above her head and held it for a second. Waves crashed around her, everything vibrating with artificial energy. She tipped the cup backwards.
© 2006 Gardner Linn