Harkness University was located in a small town in northwestern Connecticut. When I was a kid, I’d always thought that New England was supposed to be cold, but even at one A.M. the summer night was warm as I left the studio and headed toward the nearest gate into town.
Wormwood wasn’t my first choice of bar. It was snobby, the sort of place that preferred to serve little glasses of amber liquid. If beer was poured, it was called ale or lager, and served in a Pilsner or not at all. Still, the money I’d set aside for alcohol was burning a hole in my pocket, the only liquor store I could reach without a car had a picture of me by the register, and I’d already worn out my welcome at my preferred watering holes. Besides, Wormwood would be almost empty by the time I arrived, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the regulars.
“You can drink yourself to death if you want, but it won’t be me giving it to you,” said the bartender before I got my second foot through the door. “Go home.”
It might not seem like it, but that was a hopeful sign; I was used to practicing my low-altitude skydiving with the assistance of a bouncer or two. There was a shot that I could squeeze in one more night here before I was truly banned. I put on a friendly smile and made my way over to the bar, while I searched my memory for the bartender’s name.
“Hey...Gerry. It’s okay. I promise to behave myself.” Come on, just tonight, I thought. I’m so tired.
“Nope,” he said. “You drink to get drunk. That’s not what we do here.” It never ceased to amaze me when bartenders in a college town gave me that kind of line.
“It’s been a long night,” I said, trying and failing to keep a desperate edge from my voice. “Just one beer to round off the evening, that’s all I want.”
Gerry snorted. “Yeah. Sure.”
“It’s not like you couldn’t cut me off after that one drink.” I could already tell this was going nowhere, but I had to try. Bastard.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s one drink or five, kid. You’re doing it for unhealthy reasons, and I won’t be a part of it. Here, you need this.” He pulled a pamphlet out from behind the bar and passed it across to me.
“If I needed your damned advice I’d have asked for it,” I said. I’d been given A.A. materials before. The only twelve steps I’d be taking were out the door.
* * *
Idiot, I thought, as I walked back to campus on legs that felt like rubber. I didn’t drink to get drunk. I didn’t even like being drunk. I just wanted to render myself unconscious.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed a good night’s sleep. Maybe when I was a kid, but I wasn’t even sure about that. By the time I was in high school, I was tossing and turning every night, waking up repeatedly and staggering outside in the morning like the risen dead.
Which was bad enough. Then, about four months ago, I stopped sleeping altogether.
It didn’t matter whether I was tired or not; my mind just wouldn’t shut down. For a week or so, it was sort of cool; all those extra hours I could spend in the studio, and on weekends, I never had to bail out early on a party. That didn’t last long. My friends got tired of me hanging out in their dorm rooms until all hours, and the mounting physical exhaustion kept me from focusing enough to get any real work done. I started spending long nights browsing the Internet until I couldn’t sit up straight, then lay awake in bed, bored out of my mind and thinking disconnected thoughts until dawn.
After over-the-counter sleeping pills proved useless, I turned to the ready supply of cheap alcohol available at frats and dorm parties. It worked, to a certain extent. I didn’t dream at all, but at least I could get some relief from physical fatigue without staring at the ceiling all night. The only problem was that when the summer started, the on-campus supply more or less ran dry. Then I hit the bars, even though they hit my wallet harder.
I knew it wasn’t a good habit, so I tried only to do it when I was really wrecked. Like tonight. I was going to have a long, tired, frustrating time of it thanks to Gerry. I wasn’t some fricking barfly, I had this thing down to a science. Not that some self-important tap jockey could tell the difference. I kicked over a trash can to express my aesthetic displeasure with an uncaring world, then followed it down when my legs went out from under me.
I looked up at a bright light, and found myself staring into the headlights of a blue and white Ford sedan, the standard-issue car of the university police.
The car had stopped about five feet from me. I held up a hand to shade my eyes against the light; the driver’s side door opened, and one of Harkness’s uniformed pseudo-cops got out. Damn, I thought. My number had come up in the harassment lottery.
“Mr. Larkin. Wish I could say I’m surprised,” said the cop, as his partner climbed out of the other side. I recognized the voice, though I couldn’t attach it to a name or a face. They were basically interchangeable. “Why don’t you step over here. If you can manage it, that is.”
“I’m fine. No problems here,” I said. “Stanislavsky’s little sister is a syphilitic thistle sifter.” Phew. “See? Totally sober.”
“Why don’t you step over here, Mr. Larkin,” he repeated. The other one was circling toward me from the other side of the car.
I waved a hand at number two. “Sure. Whatever.”
I didn’t see the curb in the glare from the headlights. I stumbled, and my fatigued muscles weren’t fast enough to keep me from sprawling on the roadside again.
“Aw, crap,” I offered.
“Totally sober,” said number one, smirking.
* * *
I hadn’t expected to return to the Trask Center so soon, but I wasn’t there for long. It took the nurse on duty about three minutes to figure out what my escorts couldn’t, and then I was free to go. She told me to get a good night’s sleep. Heh.
The cops were actually cool enough to give me a ride back the dorm. They didn’t apologize or anything, of course, just offered to take me back. I accepted. I’d been on my feet long enough.
It wasn't often that I'd taken a ride in the back of one of these cars when I was in a condition to pay attention. It struck me how empty the campus was; during the school year, there were usually a few people around, no matter how late it was. Now it was just dead.
By that point I was too tired to be upset; I’d passed beyond emotion into a philosophical fog. People weren’t meant to experience all this time, I thought. Not all day, every day, hours running together like spilled paint. I thought about my chauffeurs; they worked at night, but they had to trade their daylight hours to make it happen. What was I trading? Was I aging twice as fast as a normal person by living through twice as many hours, swapping days off the end of my life to wander around this wasteland?
Sooner or later the scales would have to balance. Money or no money, I found myself clinging to the thought of Professor Harte’s project.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 2.3]