I hate this place, Doug wrote not long before he killed himself. It seems like I'm drifting. It's like I have no purpose either, Mom. Everywhere I look, people are either having more fun or more misery than me. I'm a nothing. I know you say thing's will get better, but I've had it. I'm sick of waiting while things get worse. I really am…
Doug Archambeau wondered why they called Tate 'The Magician.' He'd never seen him pull a rabbit out of his hat or saw himself in half. Hell, he hadn't even seen him juggle. The only thing magical or extraordinary about Tate Pendergast seemed to be his ability to transform himself from a clownish distraction to a tremendous asshole at the drop of a hat.
Decked out in his usual regalia of black boots, a knee-length black woolen coat, a loud striped shirt, dark slacks and his tri-cornered hat, Tate cut an amusing, if not particularly imposing, figure. The attire accurately forecast an equally theatric personality. Tate was known for mixing bizarre food substances (mustard on salad, relish on fries), telling quixotic jokes ("what do you call a wombat operating a steam shovel?") and being a charming nuisance to everyone around him.
Doug often felt as if he was the only one who didn't find Tate amusing. His rationale was equal parts jealousy, disillusionment and legitimate grievances and he was damned if he would change his mind simply because it was the popular thing to do. No, Tate bugged him…. and probably always would.
Unfortunately, Doug had no recourse but to tolerate Tate's presence for a few hours each week while they both toiled on the campus newspaper. Actually, this was a bit of a misnomer: Doug worked, meticulously laying out text and photos. Tate wrote an offbeat gossip column. And, while Doug's job was infinitely more important to the continued existence of the paper, Tate received most of the fan mail.
Come one Sunday in mid-winter of his junior year, Doug found himself in editing hell. The stories for the cover page were scant and poorly constructed and the photos came out blurry. Luckily, he'd taken a few of his own. There was little he could do about the writing, however, save for try to fill in the blanks himself and pray for a miracle. It was too late to call the writer and get him to do what he should have done in the first place.
Doug's brow furrowed as he looked over the latest batch of corrections.
"Hey Tiff?" he asked. "What does this mean? I can't understand your writing."
"Oh, sorry," said Tiffany Gross, the mousy fact-check girl. She usually had very pristine penmanship.
Before she could clarify things for him, Tate burst into the office and flung his hat across the room like a Frisbee. "Greetings," he proclaimed, just as it winged Doug in the head.
"Asshole," Doug grunted.
In a flurry of giggles, Doug's fellow editors launched a half-hearted defense.
"Look at what you did now," Liza admonished. "Bad Tate!"
"Bad Tate," Tate echoed. "Sorry 'bout that, Douggie."
Doug waved him off and got back to work. It was going to be a looong night.
Emily Griesinger would later recall that she knew Doug…sort of. They were on the same floor of the same residence hall, albeit on opposite ends. Both had single rooms. Doug was in one of her literature classes as well (it was her major; he took it as an elective). From time to time, they would share in a gripe about an unfair test or a particularly dense piece of reading. And, while there was no lingering resentment between them as there was between Doug and Tate, no further pleasantries were exchanged between them.
Sadly, Doug got further with her than most people. Emily liked to believe that she lived in a world unto herself. She actually lived in a dark, cluttered dorm room that received no visitors, but the reality was catching up to the perception. A short, slightly pudgy girl with rusty auburn hair and glasses, Emily suffered from clumsiness, nervousness and low self esteem. Only her savage wit saved her from outright depression.
"I don't need to lose weight," she bragged. "I need to gain height." Among her other favorite quips were, "I think God screwed up and switched me at birth. See, I'm supposed to be a dude. Somewhere out there is a girl trapped in a guy's body," "Books are my friends. They aren't mean to me…. well, except for when they fall on my foot" and "ooh…strawberry. The bestest flavor ever, except for all the other flavors I like."
Whilst Doug tried to maintain his sanity and save the newspaper, Emily sat in her darkened room reading Chaucer by lamplight. She would have preferred to have read by candle light, but the school forbade candles.
"Safety risk my ass," she grumbled. She had a voluminous and eclectic array of books, ranging from classics (Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens) to curios (the Kama Sutra, an Encyclopedia of Jelly Beans) to modern fare (Bridget Jones's Diary, High Fidelity) and an equally diverse music collection to match. Anyone who took the time to know her would likely revel in how open-minded she was. Unfortunately, 'anyone' never seemed to materialize. To the world beyond her dorm room, Emily was too weird, too smart, too distant and not conventionally feminine enough to warrant much of an audience.
She learned to take things in stride. When she wasn't doing homework, procrastinating on doing homework or complaining about doing homework to her endless list of anonymous Internet buddies, she found plenty of other ways to keep herself occupied. If she was in a particularly foul mood, she'd hurl things out her window, only to retrieve them later under the cover of night. If she was feeling sad or trampled upon, she'd lay down, put her thumb in her mouth and imagine that she was a child again, a stupid, loveable child.
Lately, it seemed as if the latter impulse had been winning out more frequently. Emily kept a growing coterie of stuffed animals atop her bed. There was a bear and a lion and a puppy. To this, she recently added a kitty and a dolphin. Emily saw no apparent contradiction in devouring dense prose one minute and lying with her animals the next. She needed SOME way to keep her head, lest it blow clean off her small, squarish shoulders.
Doug actually did know Kev Tawmalty and Joss Klein. In fact, he knew them well enough to consider them friends, even though they hung out only sporadically. K & J, as they were collectively referred to, were good people to want to know. A pair of devious computer hackers, their ability to break the campus firewall and unleash all manners of electronic havoc afforded them significant recognition, albeit not genuine popularity.
Kev and Joss were in their third and possibly final year together as roommates. Like most dynamic duos, their friendship seemed comical in light of their differences. Kev was big with curly brown hair, Joss was lanky with dark hair that was long and straight. Kev was disorganized, Joss kept things neat. Kev was a heavy sleeper; Joss was up early even after going to bed late.
Mere idiosyncrasies, however, weren't the only obstacles to their peaceful coexistence. Kev had cerebral palsy. It wasn't of the paralyzing variety and while he could still walk, there were a number of complications that required getting used to. Joss, who hadn't encountered anything worse than his own asthma, suddenly found himself witnessing involuntary spasms and occasional seizures. Both their parents had initial worries that things would not work out. After two and a half years, it was quite clear that they had been wrong.
That Sunday found Joss reading a manga when Kev entered. He'd been home for the weekend and came bearing gifts.
"Head's up," he said, hurling a tinfoil wad at Joss's head. Joss caught it in a one-handed grip and began to unwrap it.
"Brownies," he said. "Sweet."
"You're telling me," Kev said, setting down his backpack and sitting on his bed. "I miss anything?"
"Not even a fire alarm?"
"Nothing, Kev," Joss assured him.
What held them together despite the differences and the difficulties was one glaring commonality. Both Kev and Joss were militant, unrepentant dorks. While their peers got their drink on at Friday night mixers, the nascent hackers watched Cartoon Network and Comedy Central. They preferred geek to Greek, the only "O.C." they watched was the Original Cast of Star Trek, and, as far as they were concerned, the amateurish routines of Will Farrell paled in comparison to the Mecca of unintentional comedy that was C-SPAN.
Kev yawned. "I'm gonna get some sleep."
"Gotcha," Joss said, turning down the volume of his computer speakers. He didn't bother turning off any of the lights. Kevin could sleep through a Mid-East firefight.
While Joss began consuming Mrs. Tawmalty's brownies, an aggrieved message from Doug popped up on his computer screen. Though he empathized with his friend's plight, he nonetheless concluded that Tate's latest exploits merited at least a "LoL!" Another one had fallen under the spell of the magician.
Allison Lawler knew Doug in a manner of speaking, though she would deny that she did if pressed to elaborate. They had gone to the same high school and went to the same college, but there was virtually no interaction between them. They shared no friends and no classes and lived in dorms halfway across campus. Aside from the vague sense of déjà vu that came when she saw his name in the paper (when she bothered to look at it), he might as well have been from Siberia (or worse: Emily Greisinger).
Like Kev, whom she at least knew by reputation, Allison had gone home for the weekend. However, whereas Kev rested and visited with family, Allison skirted spending time with her parents to hang out with her friends and boyfriend. Tony had been especially eager to see her: he was as horny as a 1996 presidential candidate and his performance did not disappoint.
Also like Kev, Allison had a roommate who awaited her return. Kira Soto – half black, half Portuguese, no bullshit – was listening to a Kevin Lyttle song when Allison made her grand return.
"Ali!" she exclaimed.
"Porkchop!" Allison replied, defaulting to Kira's nickname.
They made an interesting pair. Both were tall, slender and fit. Both were athletes (Allison played soccer; Kira basketball) and enthusiastic partiers. Both also had a penchant for general goofiness: they were not above seeing how many variations of "bitch" they could call one another or singing the presumed-forgotten songs featured in the animated Disney features of their youth.
"So how was it?" Kira asked.
"Grrrreat!" Allison said, doing her Tony the Tiger impersonation. 'Tiger,' coincidentally enough, was a nickname for her boyfriend, Tony.
"The whole distance thing working out?"
"Duh, I'm home like practically week."
"I know, I know," Kira said. "But I just figured you'd ease up now that you're getting more homework."
"Homework," Allison said, wrinkling her nose at the very mention of the word. "Eww. Can't you do it for me?"
"Sure. For about fifteen hundred bucks."
Both girls laughed, and when they did they looked eerily like twins. Allison was pasty white with blonde hair; Kira was tan with dark curls. Their attitude, however, seemed to be a uniform shade of mischief.
This was the world of Douglas Archambeau. A communications major who liked snowboarding and photography, he came to Brighton State College mindful of pressure, but hopeful of the opportunities that would be afforded to him. He left in a body bag. The questions Doug's friends and loved ones have been asking ever since range from "why" to "could it have been avoided" to "how much will we get if we sue the school?" None have been answered definitively, yet they continue to chase the unicorn known as closure.
Excerpt from Brighton's viewbook:
Brighton State College lies on 350 tree-lined acres in suburban _____. It is in close proximity to shopping centers and major cities….
Shopping centers, Doug cynically mused, meant pedestrian strip malls that were understocked and overpriced. Major cities meant driving through dense traffic just to get somewhere that was even remotely exciting.
Brighton State College features fifteen residence halls designed to provide a variety of accommodations. Freshman are guaranteed housing and upperclassmen are presented with a wealth of options within the Brighton community…
Doug remembered his 'accommodations' freshman year with bitter nostalgia. He was forced to share a small, cramped room with a loudmouth wildman who practically never slept. Sophomore year was better: he was given a bigger room and a roommate he actually got along with…until said roommate transferred and he was stuck with a complete stranger for the Spring semester. By junior year, he'd finally lucked out: a single room on campus. Hallelujah! Unfortunately, the room was all the way at the end of the hall by a staircase and he was entreated to the sounds of falling feet while he attempted fruitless slumber. When asked why he didn't simply move of campus, Doug's answer was stupefying naïve and simple. "I thought there would be something for me," he said. He thought wrong.
Come to Brighton and build yourself a better future today!
Doug came to Brighton and he built himself a great big mound of nothing. All that remained in the end was his correspondence; correspondence the likes of which Tate, Kev, Emmy and Ali never knew existed. If they did, things might have turned out differently. But they didn't and such is their guilt to ignore or to bear as they see fit. At least they could lay claim to knowing young Master Archambeau for all the good it did them, which was precisely none at all.