Slings & Arrows
An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
It was a cold winter’s night in Hartsburg.
A moon as dry and white as cork shone over the shadowed hills and dales of the Napa Valley, shone like a distorted clockface in the wine dark water of the Napa River. In the small town, shops were closing -- window displays of red and pink hearts, overweight cupids -- winking out. Down wide and shady streets, curtains and blinds were drawn across remodeled Victorian windows to keep out the chill rustling in the eucalyptus trees.
Over at the college, students walked in pairs or singly across the well-lit campus. The blazing buildings in Dorm Row pulsed with a variety of musical beats: The Flaming Lips vying with Lady Gaga for air space.
Carey Gardner, twenty-three, blond, cute, and brighter than he looked, pushed open the door to his dorm room on the third floor in Pio Pico House to find it, as usual, crowded with his roommate Sty’s buddies watching TV.
“Yo, Bones!” Sty waved a beer in greeting.
“Yo,” Carey responded, swallowing his irritation. The “Bones” joke was getting old. It was all getting old. For some reason Sty had taken Carey’s change of major to anthropology personally. Sty was still clinging to his major in management and entrepreneurship, which, granted, was better than the physical education major of a lot of the other guys on the swim team.
“Where’ve you been?”
There was pity in Sty’s voice. Whatever. They’d started out friends -- technically they were still friends -- and they were rooming together by choice. Or maybe it was more habit. Either way, Carey was not being held prisoner in Suite E (commonly known as Cell Block 8).
The problem was, Sty was the same easygoing, fun-loving goofball he’d been as a freshman. And Carey... was not.
In order to graduate on time, Carey had to make up a couple of classes he’d blown off the first time around. His courseload was heavy and his sense of humor was not what it had once been.
“Make way for Dr. Leakey,” Sty ordered, and the interchangeable frat boy sprawling on Carey’s bed, shifted to the foot of it and gave Carey a glinting look from beneath his shaggy bangs.
Yeah. Like that was going to happen. Like Carey was going to lie down, sheep to the slaughter, in the midst of these assholes.
“You’re blocking the TV, dude,” someone else said irritably.
Carey dropped his backpack under his desk, well out of the way of temptation -- although it was unlikely any of Sty’s pals would be tempted by anthropology books. Or any books that didn’t have plenty of pictures of naked girls.
“Have a beer.” Sty used the remote to turn down the sound on the TV to the vocal disappointment of an audience that didn’t want to miss one single second of Olympic ski jumping.
“Thanks, but I’m --” Carey hooked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate he was on his way out again -- although it was nine-thirty now and he had to get up for swim practice at five. They both did.
“Wait, wait.” Sty actually bothered to push upright. “Something came for you.” He jumped up and grabbed a large flat box wrapped in distinctive red paper with a black ribbon.
“What is it?”
“It’s from that shop in the town square.”
“What shop?” Carey asked slowly.
Sty lifted the box and checked the gold label beneath. “Sweets to the Sweet.”
“Candy? I didn’t order that.”
Five pairs of gleaming eyes zeroed on Carey. In fact, he thought he saw a pair of yellow eyes shining beneath the bed. The promise of free chocolate was not to be taken lightly in this jungle.
“Well, if you didn’t order it, maybe it’s a gift. Maybe your parents sent it.”
“Or your girlfriend,” another of the jerk-offs put in.
Carey ignored him. He reached for the box; Sty handed it over reluctantly.
“You’re not going to eat that whole thing yourself?” he protested, as Carey turned to the doorway. “You’re in training.”
“So are you, dude. I’m saving you from yourself.”
“He’s headed for Little Castro,” someone cooed as Carey closed the door behind him.
On the other side of the sound barrier Carey took a couple of steadying breaths. Not worth it.
He knocked on the door to the left.
“Venido adentro!” The voice behind the door was muffled.
Carey opened the door to Heath and Ben’s room.
Heath Rydell was lying on his bed in paisley boxer shorts reading the CliffsNotes to The Mill on the Floss. He was a tall, languid-looking young man with red hair and wide brown eyes. Ben Scully sat at his desk jotting down notes from a book titled 501 Spanish Verbs.
“Hola.” He was smiling. Ben was blond, broad-shouldered and blunt-featured. He wore jeans and a Hartsburg College tee shirt.
“Don’t those douchebags ever shut up?” Heath inquired. It was a rhetorical question.
Carey held up the wrapped box. “I come bearing gifts.”
At the promise of food, Heath, who looked like a consumptive and ate like a horse, sat up. “What is it?”
“Candy, I think.”
“Where did it come from?” Ben asked, setting aside his book.
“I don’t know.” Carey flopped comfortably down on the foot of Ben’s bed and slid the black ribbon off the box. “I guess someone sent it.”
He ripped open the blood red paper and his eyebrows shot up. He lifted out the heart-shaped box. “Candy for sure.”
“Wow,” said Heath, scrambling over to the foot of his own bed. “Look at that thing.”
“That thing” was an old-fashioned confection of red velvet, pink silk roses, and a black satin ribbon.
“That must be two or three pounds of chocolate,” Ben said, impressed.
“There’s a card.” Heath got up and knelt beside the bed at Carey’s feet, reaching beneath the blue comforter. “It fell when you lifted the box out.” He handed the small white envelope to Carey.
Carey slid his thumb under the flap, slid the card out. He read aloud, “From your secret admirer.”
Heath chortled as Ben inquired, “Who’s your secret admirer?”
Carey shook his head.
The three of them considered the bizarre notion of Carey having a secret admirer.
“No offense, darling, but you’re not the type.”
Ben shot Heath an impatient look.
“It’s true,” Heath insisted. “Look at him.”
They both studied Carey, who stared uneasily back at them.
“If he was any more vanilla he’d come in a bottle.”
The other two snickered.
At last Heath said, “Are you going to open that or just fondle the ribbon all night?”
Carey snapped out of his preoccupation and slid the ornamental lid carefully off the heart-shaped box. The smell of chocolate -- good chocolate -- wafted through the over-warm room. He closed his eyes and inhaled. It was unreal, that scent. Like pheromones or something. Weight was not a problem for him, but he was in training, and this was Jesus, that smelled good...
He resisted the temptation to bury his face in the box and graze; instead he bravely settled for a single dark chocolate and almond cluster, handing the rest of the candy around.
“Whoever he is, he has good taste,” Ben said, his mouth full of marzipan.
“He? It’s probably a chick,” Heath objected. “You know who it is? It’s probably that Nona chick from your anthropology class. She’s got the hots for you, dude.”
Carey shook his head. A three-pound box of fine chocolates -- and these were very fine indeed -- probably cost as much as a ten meal card at the cafeteria. Nona was always broke.
“Or what’s her name. Pronzini.”
“Kayla?” Carey said. “No way. She hates me.”
“That’s what you think. I think she’s one of those chicks who acts out her attraction in misdirected aggression.”
“One semester of psychology and he thinks he’s an expert.” Ben reached for the box of chocolates again. “By the way, Skeletor was looking for you earlier.”
Carey nearly choked on his chocolate. “Walt was here? In this suite? What did he want?”
“Walt!” hooted Heath. “I want to see you call Walter Sterne Walt to his face.”
Carey and Ben both ignored that, Ben answering, “He didn’t say.”
“Did he leave a number?”
“He didn’t say I should call him at Professor Bing’s office or anything?”
“No. Nothing. He was on his way out when I arrived,” Ben explained patiently. “I happened to catch him on the stairs. He said he was looking for you but you weren’t in. That was it. That was our entire conversation.”
“What time was this?”
Ben looked at Heath. Heath considered while he munched. “Eight? Eight-thirty?”
Carey scowled thoughtfully.
“Are you in trouble or something?”
“Me? No. I...”
“Hey.” Heath sat bolt upright. “Maybe Skeletor left the chocolates for you!”
“Don’t call him that,” Carey said, pained.
“Why not. That’s who he looks like. That’s who he acts like.” Heath quoted in a nasal Skeletor-like voice, “I must possess all, or I possess nothing!”
“He’s been totally cool with me,” Carey said. “I never would’ve gotten into Advanced Ethnographic Field Methods if he hadn’t talked to Professor Bing for me.”
“Gee, that would have ruined your life.”
“It would have kept me from graduating. It’s not offered next semester and it’s a required class.”
“He likes you,” Ben said with feeling.
“Everyone likes Carey.” There was a tinge of acid in Heath’s tone.
“Holy crap.” Ben stopped, staring down at the box of chocolates as though he’d tasted arsenic.
“What?” Carey asked uneasily.
Ben’s bright blue eyes met his. “Nothing. I mean... I was thinking...”
“No wonder he scared himself,” Heath put in, predictably.
“You were thinking... ?”
“About the Valentine’s Day Killer.”
In the sudden silence he could hear the muffled sounds of TV and voices from the room next door.
“Huh?” Carey said at last.
“You’ve heard that story. Everyone has.” Heath sounded bored, but his gaze was riveted to Ben’s.
“It’s an urban legend.”
“What’s the story?”
Heath was looking pointedly at Ben.
“This is way back in the seventies,” Ben reluctantly took over. “It was like over a period of five years or something, right?”
“Every year, right before Valentine’s Day, a girl on campus would get a big fancy box of chocolates from a secret admirer.”
Carey prodded, “And?”
“The girl would be found stabbed to death on Valentine’s Day.”
“What?” Carey burst out laughing.
“Hand to God, dude.”
“Sure it is.” He waited for Heath or Ben to break the straight faces. Both continued to look solemn. “That is such total bullshit. You totally made that up.”
“Swear to God, dude.” Heath put his hand over his heart. “Swear. To. God.”
“No. Fuck. Ing. Way.”
Heath spread his hands and looked at Ben for confirmation.
“It’s true,” Ben said. Unlike Heath, Ben knew enough not to milk a joke to the last laugh, but he still wasn’t smiling.
“Let me guess the rest. He was an escaped maniac from the local mental institution -- and he had a hook for hand.”
Ben and Heath spluttered into guffaws.
“No. Seriously,” Ben protested. “They never caught the guy.”
“Or gal,” Heath interjected.
“What, he just stopped?”
Ben said seriously, “He probably graduated.”
“To what? Mass murder?”
They all snickered uneasily.
Another blast of laughter and voices from next door filled the suddenly awkward pause.
“So... you two sent this box of candy, right?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Heath said, and Ben looked blank and uncomfortable. “That’s too pricey a joke for my budget. Although these are probably the best chocolates I’ve ever had.” Heath considered the tray of nuts, creams, and caramels before him and reached for another.
They chomped in silence. From the other side of the suite they could hear music, the thudding of a bass. Sometimes Carey thought that was the toughest part of dorm life. The lack of silence. Although the silence in this room was plenty loud.
He said abruptly, “Right. Whatever. I think I’ll go the library.”
Heath said, “Weren’t you just at the library?”
At the same time Ben said, “Now? It’s ten o’clock.” He was frowning, looking worried.
“The library stays open till three.”
“Yeah, but you’re the guy who can’t stay awake past eleven.”
“So I’ll sleep in the library. I’m sure as hell not going to be able to sleep with those loudmouths in my room.”
“Throw ’em out,” Heath advised nonchalantly.
“Like that’s going to happen.”
“Tell Sty --”
“Look, I’ll leave the chocolates with you.”
“Oh.” Heath subsided, shoving a pecan cluster in his mouth and reaching for The Mill on the Floss CliffsNotes once more. He said thickly, “In that case --”
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.