S'wanee: A Paranoid Thriller (5 page)

BOOK: S'wanee: A Paranoid Thriller
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“Stop it!” She giggled, like she’d been goosed. “Don’t you worry about my personal life. That’s icky. I’m happily, happily single.”

Cody didn’t buy it.

“I’m hungry,” Marcie said. “Let’s go out. My treat.”

Apparently she’d forgotten about the bill collector calls, too.

“We did last weekend,” he said.

“That doesn’t count,” she said. “That was at the mall. I mean someplace fancy.”

“It’s only Wednesday,” Cody reminded her. “We can’t go out to eat every day.”

She frowned and tousled his hair. Then she smiled.

“Every day is all there is, kiddo…”

•   •   •

Cody had Thursday off and swam in the pool. When two teenage girls came to lie out, he gathered his things and scooted off. He was uncomfortable shirtless around the girls, but he was mostly self-conscious about his feet, which he thought were ugly.

What a difference a few days made. On Monday, he felt confident and accomplished. He had momentum. By Thursday, he was anxious again. Of course, S’wanee was just now going through his application. He didn’t expect an answer so fast. But he wondered who was reading it. Did they pass it around a committee? How many people were judging him, on this very day? Or maybe his application was sitting in their e-mail inbox, unopened and untouched. There was no way to know.

Friday he was back at work and even more anxious. He jumped each time his iPhone dinged. They had to be scrambling to fill those last few slots. There were only six weeks until the school year began. Students had to make plans, buy plane tickets.

“This isn’t my computer,” a customer at the Genius Bar told him. “This is the wrong computer.”

Rutgers was having early orientation soon. Schools across the country were gearing up. Fall was coming.

“Aren’t you hungry, kiddo?” Marcie asked him at lunch. “That sandwich looks yucky. Let me buy you something else.”

The late-afternoon sun glared on the drive home. He never understood why traffic was worse on Fridays. He hated this time of day, especially during summer.

“Don’t frown like that,” Marcie said. “You’ll get wrinkles.”

“I’m not frowning,” he said. “It’s the sun.”

He’d barely stepped into the apartment lobby when he saw the orange and purple FedEx door tag stuck to their mailbox.

•   •   •

The girl at the FedEx counter was different. Friendly and efficient. She returned in less than two minutes with a full-sized envelope she slid across to him.

“Have a nice weekend,” she said.

Cody was back in his car. He had promised his mother he would wait until he got home, even as his hands ripped open the envelope and he was reading the first sentence.

S’wanee had rejected him.

Chapter Six

“D
ue to the extremely limited number of openings available, we regret we cannot offer you admission at this time,” Marcie read aloud, already dressed for a night out. She carefully weighed each word, perplexed.

Cody could barely remember the drive to and from the FedEx office. He had no idea what time it was now.

He did remember his initial sting of suspicion that Marcie had somehow sabotaged his application. To keep him close to her. That’s why she’d been so cheery all week. Now, looking at her, he felt ashamed. Marcie was quietly devastated, her maternal pride bruised. She was simmering.

“My my, that’s interesting,” she said, sucking her teeth. She held the letter up to the light, tilting it. “At least it’s a real signature. A live hand touched this.”

She drifted into the kitchen to pour a glass of wine. Cody could almost hear her ticking.

“I wonder what changed their mind,” she asked herself. “They seemed so nice.”

“When? You talked to them?” Cody asked.

Marcie swirled the ice in her wineglass and took a long sip.

“I called them, yes. You were there. You heard me,” she said.

“But did you talk to them?”

“Yes, they called back.”

Cody’s stomach tensed. “When?” he asked.

“I don’t know. A few days ago.”

“What did you say to them?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Marcie replied. “I asked the usual mother questions.”

“Who did you talk to?”

“The…girl who called me back. From their office. I don’t know who it was.”

Marcie took out a cigarette.

“Please don’t smoke right now,” Cody said, wanting more answers.

“I’m going outside,” she said, snapping “Back back, Max!” with unusual bite. Maisy and Max retreated to the corner and put their heads down.

“What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t ask questions?” Marcie went on. “I asked about the scholarship, about the financial situation. I don’t know this place!”

Cody said, “Did you argue with them?” and Marcie said, “Of course not. And I didn’t embarrass us. I’m your mother, and I’m allowed to ask questions about a college coming after my son!”

“It’s so odd,” she said, almost to herself. “They were friendly. I wonder why they changed their mind.” Marcie was repeating herself. She seemed genuinely confused.

Cody saw she took this personally. It wounded her immigrant pride. He felt sorry for her.

Neither spoke until Marcie finished her cigarette and came back inside.

“Do you have a date tonight?” Cody asked.

“No,” Marcie said. “Why would you think that? Why do you keep asking that?”

“You’re all dressed up.”

“Oh. Yes. I thought we’d go out. But…I guess not.”

She turned on the television.

“I think I’ll cancel the cable,” she said. “There’s never anything good on.”

•   •   •

It was his writing sample. He had tried to be clever and original. Who writes about a father he’s never met? The admissions department found it gimmicky and ungrateful to his mother. It was. What a stupid thing to do.

S’wanee wasn’t impressed with his Apple job, didn’t sympathize with his financial situation. He should have made stuff up. Why had he been so honest? No one else was.

This wasn’t his mother’s fault. She couldn’t possibly have said anything to the school that made them turn him down. She was too polished, too sharp, and she was clearly as crushed as he was. This failure was his.

Five nights ago he sat in this room, full of expectation. That was a long time ago.

But the question that kept him awake was: Why had he let himself hope that S’wanee would accept him in the first place? Why would a college, any college that could pick its students, pick him? There was nothing special about him. He’d always known that, and S’wanee had simply agreed with him.

Cody turned his head to his alarm clock. It was 5:23 a.m.

•   •   •

Cody’s genetic resilience came in handy over the next week. The question he had asked himself, and answered, helped him bounce back. Even faster than when his girlfriend—what was her name? Kimberly—had dumped him, since that had been a personal, targeted rejection. S’wanee was faceless, and by the middle of the week, he had more or less forgotten about it.

Rutgers e-mailed to remind him to sign up for early orientation, since even that filled up fast. He could get his books and school ID, secure a locker, and meet several hundred of his new classmates. There was a link to the Rutgers freshman class Facebook page with over ten thousand students.

“We’re gonna be late, kiddo!” Marcie called, pulling him back from the Facebook death spiral.

Marcie bounced back quickly too, per usual. Things must have been heating up some with her potential new boyfriend, and that focused her mind and filled her time.

“I’ve got lunch plans today,” she told him Monday morning as she went into the mall. That was how it began. Soon, dinner plans, and then she’d introduce Cody. Then, down the road, Marcie would be gone a couple nights a week. “Going steady.” Even at her age, Marcie used coy, teenage terms.

Thursday she called in sick. “Just a summer cold,” she said, still in her lavender robe. “Can you pick up some soup after work?”

Cody came home that night and smelled cigarette smoke. Just a toxic hint of it, which meant Marcie was on her balcony with the door cracked. The non-pinging dogs were already walked and fed.

“Okay, I’ll leave that up to you. I’ll leave that up to you,” Marcie was saying, businesslike, when Cody slid open the living room balcony door. “You’re the expert.” The door squeaked.

“Is that you, Cody?” She peered around from her balcony, a long ash dangling.

“I’ve got your soup,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said, and then she said brightly into the phone, “Yes, he’s here. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Thanks for the soup,” she said, whisking into the kitchen. She was dressed for a night out. “I’m much better. Just allergies. Weird things bloom in this state. Did you get the mail?”

“Who was that?” Cody asked.

Marcie sorted through the mail. She put the bills on the dining room table, faceup, unafraid.

“Yes yes yes,” she said, confessing. “There is someone…”

She giggled, her hands darting nonsensically about her stomach. “But…it’s complicated,” she finished.

It usually was.

“You going out with him tonight?” Cody asked.

“Not ready for that. You’ll meet him. It’s complicated.”

“Is he married or something?” Cody asked.

“Something like that,” she said quickly. “Let’s go out to dinner. I’ve been holed up in here all day.”

Marcie was very chatty at the restaurant. Life was back to normal. She picked up the check without a second thought.

She must have met a rich one.

•   •   •

Rutgers was prettier than Cody had remembered. The girls were prettier, too.

He sat in a colossal auditorium with several hundred others while older students talked about intramurals and fraternities and community outreach programs. Habitat for Humanity was already signing up incoming freshman for a building project weekend.

Cody saw several faces he recognized from high school. He vowed to introduce himself and learn their names.

The program ended with the co-ed cheerleading squad doing a
Glee
-esque routine, trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy. It was cheesy and fun. Afterward, they passed out surprisingly cool, vintage-looking, faded red ringer T’s with “Rutgers” printed across the chest. A girl flashed Cody a winning smile and said, “Go Knights!”

The students were herded into color-coded groups of one hundred for a campus tour. Cody awkwardly met a few in his group, but mostly kept to himself. His tour started with the library and then the student center, and they were heading toward the main gym.

And then his iPhone rang. From a 617 area code.

“Cody?” a male voice said tentatively.

“Yes?” Cody answered, quietly, in the middle of the crowd.

“Hello? Is this Cody Marko?” The voice was louder.

Cody stopped walking as the crowd migrated around him. A flabby girl in a tank top stood behind him, stupidly. Finally, annoyed, she pivoted around him and kept up with the group.

“Yes, who is this?” Cody said, still hushed.

“Did I catch you at a bad time, Cody?” the voice asked brightly.

“Who is this?” Cody repeated.

“Oh, my bad.” The voice laughed. “It’s Ross. Ross Marling. From S’wanee.”

•   •   •

“You still there?” Ross said.

“Yes. Yes, I’m here,” Cody said. He was standing under a tree by the sidewalk. His tour group had gone into the gym, not missing him.

“Yes, this is Ross. I’m a junior at S’wanee. I mean, I’ll be a junior this fall.”

Cody’s phone hand was trembling slightly.

“Hi, Ross.”

“Cody, this is embarrassing. I’m embarrassed.”

“Okay,” was all Cody could say. S’wanee had a voice.

“Did you get a letter from school? Last week or sometime?”

“From school?”

“From S’wanee. It was probably a FedEx.”

“Yes,” Cody said. “They sent me a FedEx.”

“Okay. I have to apologize. Can you talk right now? Is this a bad time?”

The next tour group was herding past him, toward the gym. Slowly. The student tour guide talked through a portable intercom to reach the back of the crowd.

“I can talk right now,” Cody said. “It’s not a bad time at all.”

“They fucked up,” Ross said. “I’m embarrassed.”

“Okay,” Cody repeated. The elbow of his phone arm felt wobbly.

“I’m in Boston. I’m from Boston,” Ross said. “You ever been here?”

“No.”

“Where are you right now, Cody?” Ross asked. “Are you in New Jersey?”

“I’m at Rutgers.”

“Rutgers University? Have they started already?”

“It’s early orientation.”

“Oh God,” Ross said with a pause. “You like it there?”

“It’s okay,” Cody said. “It’s big.”

“But you haven’t started classes?”

“No.”

“Whew!” Ross laughed again. “So. You got a minute?”

•   •   •

Ross explained he was a student rep on S’wanee’s admissions committee. He had personally suggested Cody to the committee in the spring, when scholarship openings had become available.

“I cover the Northeast,” he said. “We need more Yankees down there.”

He had lists from the College Board, based on SAT scores and geography. He’d made his recommendations and then left on summer break. The admissions department did the rest, including automatically, and mistakenly, rejecting Cody’s application.

“S’wanee dropped the ball, I guess,” he apologized. “They’re a little slow down there in the summer.” Marcie would agree, year-round.

Ross had followed up that week and learned of S’wanee’s error.

It was all very confusing. Cody didn’t push it.

“Long story short,” Ross said. “We want you at S’wanee.”

Cody was silent.

“You there?” Ross asked.

“Yes, I’m here.” Cody could barely hold the phone.

“It’s a full scholarship. I mean, with the normal strings. Good grades, campus job, work/study stuff. It’s what I do, too. I’m on the same scholarship. Cody, it’s a free ride.”

“I…well. Thank you,” Cody stammered.

“Hey bud, just think about it. I know it’s last minute. I’m embarrassed. So is S’wanee.”

“No, it’s cool.” Cody was forming sentences again. “It’s just…I’ve already got my locker. I paid my deposit. To Rutgers.”

BOOK: S'wanee: A Paranoid Thriller
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