The place had a feeling to it like all places did. It didn’t
have any windows but felt open just as it was closed. Every wall was a window
to his ideas as he walked through the basement hall. But they reflected back to
him in a way that they were no longer his own; the people on the other side, or
the walls themselves had changed them. And though he liked solitude, anonymity,
here he felt different. He felt alone even with all the bodies visible to his
feelings, all the bodies he knew were on the other side of the wall but didn’t
know or didn’t care about him.
The long basement hall criss-crossed through the art studios and strange and tucked-away storage cupboards. It seemed the University here hoarded everything, and he half expected to see a pile of gold-plated ravaged Mayan artifacts while his other half expected a classroom behind every door. Every door was a bit of surprise and a bit of disappointment. And it just seemed to keep going.
He stumbled into his first class late, having seen no Mayan artifacts but having tried many doors. But, in the massive lecture theatre – far flatter, horizontal, more concrete and like-a-bunker than he had expected – was just a few other kids. They seemed to be nodding about – dancing uncomfortably, dancing academically, in a way trying to recall steps – to a slow jazzy-disco tune playing somewhere. This didn’t seem like his introductory class… his introductory class in what? Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember. He ruffled through his canvas messenger bag. The sounds of crinkling paper, the paper getting thinner and bendier like tar, punctuated the room, but no one seemed to notice. Everyone else was a movie. Except…
A hand grabbed him on the shoulder. He turned around to look: a stately, stout man in a tweed jacket, elbow patches. Balding on the top but hair flowing long and somewhat greasy on the sides down to his shoulder pads. Circular Harry-Potter Steve-Jobs medieval looking glasses perched on a nose drawn crooked with bursting veins. The nose looked about five years older than the rest of his face, and his face looked old.
“Looking for something my boy?” what could only be the Professor cooed, almost seductively from his brown-grey rusting beard.
“Y-Yes,” Matt stammered, “but I can’t quite remember what I’m trying to find.”
“Confused?” and without asking the Professor slipped his slender finger down near the boy’s legs, where they lingered a moment until plunging into the messenger back and tearing out the exact, crinkled piece of schedule paper Matt had been looking for. The Professor strained it, with one hand, in one motion, with a snap – rather theatrically. He looked down through his glasses like a librarian. Still, none of the shuffling kids seemed to notice them.
“Ah yes!” the Professor bellowed. Nobody except for Matt flinched. “Of course,” it seemed like the Professor ought to continue, his own cadence suggested it, but he just let his words lay there limp in the air.
“Of course what?” Matt spoke, feeling even more like he was in a bad night-before-school dream. “My boy you’re here!” the Professor turned the paper to him, his thumb hanging next to the typewriter-font written line that simply said OF Course 101. Matt couldn’t recall ever reading that line before, and his jumbled eyebrows must’ve spoke to the Professor what he was thinking. Must’ve…
“Oh, it’s a bit of a mixer course,” the Professor countered his worries, “a get-to-know-you sort of a thing.”
The other kids still hadn’t noticed or flinched or moved. They were still nodding off to music that was so faint it seemed it wasn’t really there. The Professor dismissively motioned to them, “They’re here for it too!”
“What are they doing?”
“Mixing of course!” the Professor laughed like Matt couldn’t see what was in front of him, but all he could see on the faces of the half-dozen or so other kids were pained expressions, or frowns. He blinked and then they were gone.
“First day is always a bit of a blowoff, but,” the Professor continued, “the course is quite important though. In fact, essential to your degree.” What was essential? Shuffling around? The Professor saw his discomfort. “You can go home today, but be back tomorrow.”
Matt had felt so shaken he didn’t bother showing up for the other two classes scheduled that day. He just sat, with his head in his hands, on the first grimy wooden bench he came across outdoors. The leaves fell above him like a waterfall; fall seemed to be coming faster here than anywhere else.
Amanda sat beside him soon. “How’d your classes go?”
“I didn’t go to them all,” he hardly looked up.
He nodded. They sat in silence a moment. Matt abruptly dug out the paper and just slid it on the slatted bench to Amanda. The air was chilly and nearly blew it away with the leaves, but Amanda was sharp and slammed it down with her first. Her fingers moved off in a wave to show: OF Course 101.
“I’ve never even heard of it,” Matt said, “it was just an empty room full of people – dancing? And the Professor gave off a really… weird vibe.”
Matt wasn’t sure if it was just him or not. Perhaps he had expected, and now made, himself to feel an outsider, taking an arts program in this predominantly medical school. He felt that all the eyes of all the students not dressed in leopard print or beanies or berets bore into him with a thick steel stamp marked ‘FAILURE’.
“Makes sense,” Amanda seemed to be validating his worst thought, “lots of people drop out of that one.”
“You know people who’ve been in it? You’ve heard of the course?”
“I mean, yeah, a little,” Amanda was hesitant; she bit off more than she could chew and didn’t have all the answers, “I knew acquaintances more like. I think the college tries to set up the mixer to introduce all the non-med students to the med-students. Seems like they do a piss poor job of making them feel welcome though, lots of people just drop it.”
“He said I’d drop the program if I dropped it.”
“Well then they drop their program, drop out. I guess it really pits people against each other.”
Even after just this first day, Matt had felt so watched, so outside, so unwanted, the thought had already crossed his mind. But then would he just miss this year? A year in his life gone? He asked Amanda about her classes to push the thoughts outside of his mind, but still they lingered, fluttered along anxiously like a butterfly. What was he doing here?
He had always known Amanda was going to be a Doctor. Ever since they were friends as kids it’s all she – well her parents – ever talked about. They were both doctors – Cardiology and Radiology – and they were both alumni of the University. They were cold. A bit stand-offish and weird; Matt never liked going to Amanda’s house if he could have her over, even so far back as the second grade. He felt that her parents fought a lot, and he never wanted to be there to see it. Sometimes he would walk past the office or the library and see one of them slumped over in a chair, crying for no reason. But Amanda never seemed to inherit her parent’s clinical condition. She was bright and smiley and bubbly and while was herself never an artist, often fell into the role of muse or curator or appreciator for the friends around her. “That looks great!” and “I’m so in awe of you.” were things often heard by Matt from her while he sat at an easel or a picnic table painting. Truthfully, he had always hoped that then, when she was standing behind him, hugging him with her words, she would lean in closer. Whisper in his ear. Kiss him on the cheek. She was more supportive – more close – to him and his artwork than his parents were. Not that they weren’t. But she didn’t just put it up on the fridge and take it down for the next one. She stared at it, watched him do it. She got it.
He loved her, and was distracted by these thoughts as they walked side by side through the trees. How nice to be walking arm in arm, hand in hand. He wasn’t paying attention to the content of her speech so much as the melody of her voice. It floated through the cool fall air and he wished he could touch it like he wanted to touch her palm right now – like he wanted her to touch him. Just a smooth tap on the back when he was painting.
Now they were nearly back to his apartment in ‘Res’. ‘Res’. He hated all the abbreviations and acronyms and doublespeak. The Universities always had invented their own way of talking, he supposed. It weeded out who wasn’t serious enough.
She cut through the thoughts with words so serious they overshadowed the song from her throat. “I think you should go tomorrow.”
“To the Of Course?”
“Yeah,” it was a bit awkward that she had suddenly changed topics so forcefully. Though Matt couldn’t remember what the topic had been before…
She smiled, “I mean, why not? Give it one more try.”
Her eyes glimmered and that was the real communication, the real convincing that he needed. He smiled back, “Sure.” He wished in that moment so badly to kiss her goodnight. But he prodded, alone, back up the stairs. Until, for one last thought – really one last excuse to catch one last glimpse of her – he turned. “Do you know what OF Course stands for?”
Amanda flashed her hair and smile back round to greet him.
“I don’t know… Operational,” a long pause, with her lips pursed like she was thinking, “…something.”
If anyone would know, it was her.
The OF Course was the first on his schedule the next morning as well. Heeding Amanda’s advice, he opened the door – only to see her standing there. “You decided to go after all?” Her hair was in curls and her eyes and mouth and – he stole a glance down – breasts seemed extra perky. “Yeah.” How did she know his schedule already. He thought they hadn’t talked about it much. Well, she always had been a great friend. “I’ll walk you there.”
The room he had found first, tucked away in the basement, that white curving room, had been, it seemed to him, in a maze. And he had only been there once. But now it seemed like Amanda was leading him, rather than the other way around. “You’ll meet some new people,” she cut the silence again, “you’re so likeable… you’ll have no problem making new friends.” Another pause. “Or a girlfriend,” she added, knowing he had never had one. Really, he now thought to himself, because on some level he had always been waiting for Amanda.
They were now in the basement, and though he couldn’t tell where they were, he started to feel closer. Like it was some sort of a magnetic force he could feel subtly tugging on the change in his wallet and the keys in his pocket and his pants zipper. And he had a thought.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“I can’t,” Amanda answered too quickly to have thought about it. She added, rationalizing retroactively, “I have class.”
She put on an expression like she just remembered. Not that she’d lie, but it seemed fake to Matt. She rushed off, back down the hall. But before she did, she did something even more strange. She kissed Matt, on the cheek. He turned and the door was right there. Just on time.
He opened the white double doors and found himself again in the curved, empty, plastic-y room. The Professor, once more in the jacket and the glasses, looking exactly the same except for a slightly shorter beard, greeted him. “So glad you made it! This really is an important program for the University,” he nodded, agreeing with himself, then motioned, with his whole body, behind him. In the empty room was a circular, white table. Stacked on it, a tray, and stacked on that, wine glasses filled with red. “We have refreshments!”
Being a first year course, they must’ve expected 18 and 19 years olds here. Matt himself wasn’t 21 yet. He inched over to the table and seized a glass, thinking it must be Kool-Aid. But when he lifted the glass to his nose, it certainly smelled bitter and musty like alcohol. And then it smelled like something else. And then he couldn’t see anymore.
He collapsed on the floor.
He woke up strapped to an excuse for a bed mounted on a rolling table. His eyes deceived him with double-vision grogginess, but as soon as he saw the belt, the restraints, really felt the mouth-gag, he started thrashing about. He turned his head but realized his forehead was clamped down with wet leather – drenched in his own sweat. And then he saw, on either side of him, the other kids that were dancing from the first day. Eyes closed and motionless. Or… one of their eyes seemed to flicker.
He managed to break one wrist out through the zip-tie, with such force, though, that his wrist started bleeding. The Professor, from some corner unseen in Matt’s peripheral (being fixed there to the top of the gurney) rushed over to him. “Oh dear! Don’t spoil the fun yet!” He ran over and clamped Matt’s hand down. Matt shot his wrist up and drew a line of blood up the tweed sleeve. The Professor reached into his inner-jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of metal handcuffs. He strapped Matt’s hand back to the bed frame again, with force, with one motion. KLACK! He had done this before. “Tsk tsk tsk,” the Professor scolded him, “that’s right… you didn’t drink any.”
The blood kept pouring out of Matt’s ripped-off wrist and he began to feel woozy. He couldn’t thrash quite so hard anymore. The Professor returned with gauze, and bandaged up Matt’s wrist tightly and expertly – he must’ve been a professor in one of the medical-biological fields. Then, he picked up one of the same red wineglasses from a table next to him, and pulled out a rusty looking, antique syringe from his pocket – old just like everything else about him. He plunged the needle-head in the glass. Rust particles broke off and sunk in the glass. He drew up the liquid. Matt had another surge of adrenaline and thrashed, thrashed so painfully with his bandaged raw wrist against the metal handcuff. But it was too late, and the syringe was plunged into his arm.
He found himself fading. But then… back. He wasn’t gone. He was just still. He now saw the professor once more, standing, looming over him like a sacrificial pyramid. The Professor was looking at him, and he looked back. He looked back over to his sides – the other kids were still there. And they looked at him. Out of the corner of one of their eyes, a blue iris stripped and sparking with fear shot at him. He looked back up to the Professor: tried to grab, tried to struggle, tried to even move. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t even turn his head to the side to look elsewhere. And the Professor could see that he was straining too.
“This one’s ready,” the twisted old man croaked, “wheel him in.”
And with that, Matt was taken through a swinging set of double doors. He could see the label above it: OPERATING FACILITIES. He heard shuffling, of the two people who rolled him in but now of more. Of a lot more. People clustered about him. He couldn’t make out half the faces past the surgical masks and the hair neatly tucked back in those paper-medical caps. A bone saw sounded in the far corner of the room. Another figure walked up, but she didn’t have a surgical mask on. She was grinning. She wanted to… she had waited to put the mask on so he could see her face. She had mixed feelings – she did care about him, but, it felt too good to watch the boys squirm like that.
He stared up from the table at her, but couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. His eyes said his last words, and she recognized them well: Amanda?!
After a few hours the tools were shut off and the excess bones and gristle and husk discarded in the bin neatly marked BIOHAZARD. The two students designated began rolling out the bin from the door. Everybody was getting washed up.
“Good work, class!” the Professor bellowed, “Another successful practice-run at organ harvesting! And good riddance of those pesky non-essentials too.” He took off his own surgical mask. One of the other students shouted: “When do we get our tuition cheque?”
“Oh – here’s a newbie!” the Professor cackled and everyone else laughed, “Depends how much we can get for the harvest. We’ll know in a few weeks time.”
The kid who had shouted put on a pouting frown like a baby. The Professor’s anger showed in a streak, the anger he needed to have done what he just did, “Oh shut up! If you do just a few more, you’ll be making money this year, not going into student debt.” These damn newcomers who didn’t know how a thing worked. The best harvests were with his alumni.
“Who’d we say was in charge of Post this time?” Another student answered: “I think Hanz and Dylan!”
Amanda spoke up, removing her blood spattered mask, “I can show ‘em where; I knew where he was moving in to.”
They used the key that was on his person to open up the door. “Good timing,” Amanda smirked as she led the other two ‘Posts’ in. For this one, she had agreed to be the ‘Pre’ grave robber, as they called it, leading them. The stickler medical types never did quite get the irony that their target, too, was ‘Pre’ grave. “He didn’t move in yet, so it’s all still packed up.” They started grabbing half unpacked boxes out of his apartment. They couldn’t help but open a few lids and rifle through their findings. “Dibs!” Dylan called out on a gold candle holder that Matt had just liked the look of – not that he liked candles. He had brought some of his favourite paintings, Amanda saw now in the box. They could get quite a lot for these. Value always went up when the artist was dead. She felt a pain in the back of her head, and almost felt a tear beginning to form. But it was okay, said her parents’ and her professors’ voice inside her head. They were smarter, better than the other students. College for such professionals was expensive. They needed to make money somehow.