S'wanee: A Paranoid Thriller (10 page)

BOOK: S'wanee: A Paranoid Thriller
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In the crowd, one girl poked another, then another, and soon the whole group was watching the Jeep. The boys stopped the game to watch, too. Ross kept driving, and the group disappeared behind a tree.

“The Quad,” Ross pointed out across Cody, who already knew. The centerpiece of the campus, up close and in person. All Saints Chapel and the two glorious towers looming right above him, still ringing. Cody had to remember to swallow.

“You there, kid?” Ross asked.

“Yeah, I’m just…looking,” Cody said, watching students crisscross the Quad. They were watching him, too. “It’s…just awesome.”

Ross laughed. “Yeah, I remember,” he said. “It’s overwhelming at first. You never quite get used to it.” Ross slowed down even more. “And it’s your home now. For now.”

Cody looked ahead, down University Avenue, canopied with trees. What else was down there? There was so much more.

Ross took a slow left into a pink gravel driveway that led to a two-story log cabin gingerbread house with a red tile roof and bright white lacy trim that looked like icing. Blanketing the front, cascading down on all sides, draped hundreds of bright purple flower pendulums that sprang from thick, ancient vines.

is your home,” Ross said, turning off the Jeep. “Rebel’s Rest, aka Purple Haze. Oldest dorm on campus.”

It didn’t look like a dorm. It was, in fact, a home.

“You coming?” Ross called from outside the Jeep. He already had Cody’s luggage from the back.

Cody’s legs felt wobbly. He was still buzzed and overwhelmed by it all. Rebel’s Rest stood magical and silent in front of him.

“Here? I live here?” he wanted to ask, but didn’t.

S’wanee divided the freshman class into five sections of thirty students each, like a high school homeroom. These sections lived, ate, and took classes together. Freshmen all studied the same core curriculum, preordained by the university. It was an old-school system that most colleges had abandoned, but S’wanee stood firm in what worked. Only in sophomore year did students branch out with classes they chose and friends they picked, as they pursued a major and an ongoing college life.

Cody knew all this. But all he could think about was the magical log cabin in front of him. It would be, he decided, the first real home he ever knew. S’wanee could pick his friends and classes and control his whole life, as long as they let him stay here.

“Where is everybody?” Cody asked, wondering if he was early, or late, or, unlikely, had the whole place to himself. He had trouble focusing his mind to ask the right questions.

“Oh, they’re around,” Ross said from the front porch, waiting for Cody. “Most frosh got in yesterday, or this morning. I’m sure some are still trickling in, or with their parents for the last time. Or whatever.” Ross shrugged and looked around. “They’re probably out exploring.” And then he said, “Upperclassmen get back this weekend. Except those stalking new prey at Freshman Week.”

Cody laughed, but Ross put his finger to his lips, shushing him. “Listen,” he said. Inside Rebel’s Rest, someone was playing an a cappella Aretha Franklin gospel song. It was a beautiful, strange thing to hear in a college dorm. Ross quietly cracked the front door open and motioned Cody to follow.

The foyer felt refreshingly cool and looked warm, rich, and inviting. It smelled exactly like Cody thought a log cabin would. The wooden, wide-planked hallway ran straight toward the back underneath a threadbare Persian runner. An antique grandfather clock with Roman numerals ticked patiently along the side.

Off either side of the foyer were living rooms with fireplaces and tufted leather sink-down sofas and overstuffed club chairs and more well-trod rugs. There were shelves of leather books and a round table flanked by wooden desk chairs. Crackled oil portraits of serious and long-dead people hung on the walls from ornate, gold frames. In one corner was a wicker basket stacked with board games: Scrabble, Monopoly, and Clue. Next to the front door sat a blue and white porcelain stand full of purple and white striped college umbrellas for the taking. Next to that sat a picnic basket brimming with flashlights.

It took a moment to register that the beautiful singing coming from the back was a live person. At the same time, Cody first noticed the delicious smells of cooking bacon and freshly baked cookies. The singing abruptly stopped and then a husky muttering: “I declare, Pearl, where
you hide the Clabber Girl?”

“Don’t stop on our account, Pearl!” Ross hollered toward the back.

There was a brief, confused silence, and then the woman hollered back, “Ross? You here? Wait, wait!” There was a kitchen clattering and a shuffling, and then Pearl was in the hallway barreling toward them with open arms.

She was big and black and beautiful. Her hair was perfectly coiffed in an old-school globe style. She wore a plain navy dress under her khaki, flour-dusted apron. She shuffled at them in pink bedroom slippers with flowers embroidered on the arch. She wiped her hands on her apron and threw her arms around Cody.

“Cody’s here! Now we’re all full!” she squealed through laughter. Unlike his own mother’s bony and brittle embrace, Pearl’s was lush and enveloping. It was a

“Look at this handsome boy,” she said, pulling back to inspect him with a wide smile. Her age was unguessable, but her sparkling, knowing eyes put her somewhere in her fifties. “All my kids are so good-looking this year. Really fine-looking.”

She reached over and swatted Ross on the arm. “You were supposed to call before you got here,” she scolded him. “I don’t have my shoes on!”

“I texted,” Ross said, and Pearl raspberried her lips. “Text, my foot,” she dismissed. “Baby, we don’t text.” She turned to Cody and repeated through a low, guttural laugh, “Baby, we don’t text. Pearl doesn’t have a mo-

On a dime, Pearl got down to business.

“Let’s get you settled in,” she said. “You hungry? The cookies are still cooling.”

“I’m okay, thanks,” Cody replied politely, although he wanted one.

“I got him a Stuckey’s pecan log,” Ross added.

“Yuck. Let’s get you to your room.”

“Upstairs, right? 2B?” Ross asked, pointing back to the foyer staircase.

“Follow me,” Pearl ordered as she shuffled down the long hall toward the back. This was a log mansion. She stopped in the huge dining room, which was clearly a newer addition. Fresh flowers adorned each of the three round tables. Beyond the full-length windows with tartan drapes was a stone back porch and a contained grassy field encircled by several smaller log cabins, like a campground.

“Where is everybody?” Pearl asked herself, and then she called out toward the open back door, “Banjo! Come show your classmate to his room!”

“What, I’m the houseboy now?” shouted back a playfully grumpy voice.

A light-skinned black dude rose from a wicker rocking chair on the back porch. Curiously, he was wearing a safety-orange construction hard hat. He was also strumming a banjo.

“That’s right; you’re my houseboy.” Pearl didn’t skip a beat. “Help Cody with his luggage.”

Banjo padded inside in a plaid shirt, olive shorts, and yellow flips. And the look-at-me orange hard hat.

“You pick the man of color to carry the luggage?” he asked. Up close, Cody saw the freckles fanned across his light-brown face under sharp hazel eyes. Maybe he wasn’t black after all.

“Honey, you don’t got much color,” Pearl chortled, and headed back toward the kitchen. “Ross, come reach the baking soda for me, would ya? It’s up high.”

Banjo grabbed Cody’s bag without looking at him.

“Follow me, paleface,” he said on his way to the stairs.

•   •   •

“Hell no, it’s not my real name,” Banjo said, sprawled across Cody’s twin bed like he owned it. “My real name’s Arthur.” His voice sounded a perpetual yodel.

Cody was surprised to have a single room, front and center upstairs, overlooking the Quad. From here, he could see the hub of campus activity. Were it not for the very old and very tall evergreen tree right across University Avenue, he’d have a perfect view of All Saints Chapel. The spires of the attached Shapard Tower peeked out over the top of the tree, which was almost perfectly centered in Cody’s window. The old tree was cordoned off with spikes and ropes to keep students from trampling on the fresh sod that surrounded it. It reminded Cody of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

“But the names at this school are whack,” Banjo continued, foraging through Cody’s freshman orientation folder, which had been on his pillow. “Paxton, Emerson, Vail, Bishop…I forget the others. All these blue-blood legacy names! But not just legacies: At the Klondyke, I met an Asian dude named Dollar.
His parents didn’t go here, and I
they didn’t name him that. So fuck it, I made up a new name for myself, too.”

Banjo Frisbeed the round, preprinted name tag from Cody’s packet. On his own, which he wore on his belt loop, Banjo had marked out his real name and written in his newly adopted one. “Who you gonna be?” he asked.

“I’ll be Cody,” Cody said, ducking from the slanted ceiling. His room was small but charmingly decorated. There were freshly painted moldings and wainscoting underneath new-looking yellow-and-red plaid wallpaper. Another small Persian rug covered the worn wooden floor that creaked. In addition to the twin bed, there was an antique desk, a chair, and a chest of drawers. His box from home sat on his desk next to a lamp of burnished brass. A purple and white S’wanee pennant hung on the wall, and a cube dorm refrigerator nestled in the corner. The little room was like a cozy cocoon. And it was all his.

“When did you meet all these people?” Cody asked. “When’d you get here?”

“My dad dropped me off yesterday,” Banjo replied. “He went back to Memphis. He had to work today. You scholarship, too?”

Cody paused for an instant and then said, “Yeah. I’m scholarship, too.”

“They put the scholarship kids up here, in the Big House. So Pearl can put us to work, probably. They give you a campus job yet?”

“Not yet.”

“I’m working at the gym. The equipment desk. Handing towels out to the rich white kids.” Banjo’s racial chip on the shoulder had a harmless, comical tinge.

“I gotta give you a new name,” Banjo continued. “Twinkle Eyes, maybe. You’ve been all twinkly since you got here.”

“Arthur, you still got my shampoo?” At the door, a skinny kid in a towel stood nervously tapping his bare foot. He was tall and plain and so scrawny that Cody immediately felt more confident in his own physique. He had dark bird’s-nest hair and seemed slightly on edge. He looked at the floor and not at Cody.

“Elliott, I told you my name is Banjo.”

“Banjo, you got my shampoo? It’s not in the shower.” Elliott yawned forcefully.

is in my caddy. Help yourself.”

“Leave it in the shower next time. Better yet, get your own.”

“Twinkle, this is Elliott. Aka Mr. Sunshine. We’re the three floor servants up here.” Banjo and Elliott already shared an ease and familiar banter with each other. They had a day on him.

Cody extended his hand, and Elliott shook it quickly, barely making eye contact.

“Hey, Elliott.”

“Hey, Cody.” Elliott yawned again. It was less a sleepy yawn and more a nervous tick. Cody wondered if he even knew he was doing it.

Downstairs, from the back, came a ringing triangle. Banjo scanned the printed schedule from Cody’s packet and checked his watch.

“Better get dolled up fast,” Banjo said. “It’s time to mix and mingle.”

•   •   •

Banjo was right: These names were goofy.

Cody had taken a quick shower, after Elliott, in the upstairs bathroom the three of them shared. It reminded Cody of the Restoration Hardware from his old mall. There was a white claw-foot tub with an exposed shower/hand shower contraption of daunting complexity. Water sprayed everywhere as Cody struggled with knobs and valves to tame the beast. He’d learn.

He hurriedly unpacked and picked out a green moose polo to go with his Levi’s. He wadded and tossed his sweaty travel clothes into the corner, making a mental note to get a hamper, and mussed up his hair with pomade. He followed Banjo’s lead by pinning his name tag through his belt loop.

“Light a fire, Jersey,” Banjo yodeled from the hallway, testing a new nickname. “They’ve tapped the keg.”

The Rebel’s Rest “shrimp boil” mixer was in full swing. The sun was gone, but the sky was still light. Around the backyard fire pit mulled the rest of his name-tagged section mates, seemingly materialized from just an hour ago. They stopped and turned when Cody, hatless Banjo, and Elliott—the scholarship trio—stepped out the back door, instinctively huddled together for security.

There was no need, and the trio easily folded into the crowd. Everyone seemed eager to meet everyone else, although a few clearly knew one another from some common past. Cody pegged these as the lucky “legacies”—children of alumni—who had likely grown up together, on special occasions, at this very place. Now they belonged in their own right.

Caleb was chatting with Emerson and Sinkler about the Philadelphia Eagles’ upcoming season, and Paxton was laughing with Huger about how bloated Vince Vaughn looked in his latest comedy that Cody had skipped, and Bishop was flirting with Vail, earnestly interested in her summer escapades at her parents’ place on St. Simons Island and lamenting how crowded it was with tourists in August. Skit, perky and bold, taunted Cody and Banjo for wearing their name tags on their waist. “You want people to look down south to know who you are?”

They were dressed casually and almost uniformly: guys in polos or plaid shirts over wife beaters and khaki, olive, or navy cargo shorts with frayed legs; girls in floral or pastel tops and slimming pants or very short shorts. Everybody wore flip-flops in a rainbow of colors. Cody felt overdressed in jeans and wrongly dressed with his moose. Everyone else had whales. Apparently, the moose was out. What did a whale shirt cost?

“How’s your room, Tiger?” Ross beamed, handing Cody a fresh beer in a purple plastic cup. Cody was eager to recharge his buzz.

BOOK: S'wanee: A Paranoid Thriller
8.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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