Copyright © 2013 Heidi Cullinan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Hope University, Danby, Illinois
Freshman orientation at Hope University was an all-you-can-eat buffet, and Walter Lucas planned to gorge himself. The adorable youngling at the student union entrance, for example, would make a nice appetizer, despite the fact that the kid looked like he’d stepped out of Mayberry. Sex, however, would have to wait, because Walter had much bigger fish to fry—namely, figuring out where exactly he was going to be f**king all the nubile young beauties on the proverbial platter. The note in his mailbox had told him to go see the dean of students, so that was where Walter headed.
Unfortunately, he was already pretty sure this wasn’t going to be a great meeting. He took the long way around, swinging by Lake Sharon to give a quick hello to Lancelot and Gawain.
The man-made lake encompassed three acres, went about fifteen-feet deep in the center, and boasted a small campanile on the far northwest side where romantically inclined coeds had gone for one hundred years to stare adoringly into one another’s eyes and declare lifelong devotion. Walter liked the bell tower because it blocked the sun and wind, hid him from prying eyes and made a nice frame while watching the swans.
Today as ever they floated serenely on the surface of the water, two regal white heads bowed and moving in unison as they patrolled the perimeter of their domain. They eyed Walter with brief interest, but when they saw he had no offerings of bread or corn chips, they continued on their way. Unlike Walter, their residence for the year was already secured, their lake stocked with everything they’d ever need.
Good life if you could get it.
Walter watched them swim until he was in danger of missing the dean’s office hours, and then, ready to face reality, he headed back to Old Main and his nine-month sentence.
Dean Stevens was one of those back-end-of-middle-age women who, while once lovely, had missed the memo that declared wrinkled cleavage gross, boldly wearing plunging necklines without any viable flesh to keep them from being black holes of eww. Though he tried not to look at her chest while she greeted him and ushered him back into her office, it drew his focus like a lighthouse. A scary lighthouse.
“Did you get the lease for the new apartment?” He took up his usual position in the chair across from her desk. “I emailed it to your secretary.”
Her smile fixed a little more firmly, and that was when Walter knew for sure—he wasn’t living off campus.
Dean Stevens threaded her fingers together over the top of her desk. “As a junior, Walter, I know you understand our residential policies, and I know you’re committed to Hope University’s community motto. I know you understand we don’t lightly let our students live away from the dorms, because it detracts from that community.”
“I know that I lived off campus last year,” Walter countered, “and I know you approved my application to do so again this time.”
The smile was etched in the leather of her face. “We approved—with great reluctance—your request to live in the same residence as last year, a residence which I understand is no longer an option to you.”
“It’s not my fault the landlord didn’t cover his mortgage. God knows we were paying him enough.”
“Nevertheless, our agreement was with that lease, not a new one. I’m afraid we can’t approve a student living farther away.”
Walter had a fixed smile of his own. “The new place is two blocks away from the one you already approved.”
“We must set our limits somewhere, Mr. Lucas. May I point out also that your situation has changed. When you applied, you were living with another student, one whose graduation date was supposed to be this coming December.”
Of course she would hone in on his one little white lie, their attempt to use Hope’s own system against them. Cara as a fifth-year senior was practically a shoe-in for off-campus digs, especially since she was engaged—with her on the application as a mid-semester graduate, their request had sailed easily through. Except Cara never intended to stay that long, and as soon as the ink was dry on Hope’s approval of their living arrangements, she immediately signed up for summer classes and August graduation. It was sleight of hand no one would have paid attention to until it was too late…except the idiot landlord had stopped paying his bills and busted their plan wide open.
Walter tried to dust this detail under the rug as delicately as possible. “She managed to finish early so she could take an internship back in Chicago. That’s not my fault either.”
“Be that as it may, the fact remains you’re asking to move farther away than your last year’s accommodations, alone, and at the last minute. Surely you see the difficulty you place us in? If we allow you to do this, we’ll be flooded with requests to let others do the same.”
They were flooded with requests to live off campus, because Hope was the only place Walter had ever heard of that didn’t let students choose their own places of residence. It was drop-dead insane, but voicing this opinion wouldn’t help his case just now.
“It’s important we foster the Hope community,” the dean went on. “Our students and their parents expect us to provide a safe learning environment for those attending Hope. How can we do that if they’re scattered across town? Young people don’t always make the best decisions for themselves. We’re taking away an opportunity to fail on that score.”
“I’m perfectly capable of making decisions about where I live,” Walter replied, “and as far as my parents go, I’m better suited to make decisions for them too.”
He hated the way her expression turned to pity. “Yes, I’m well aware. Don’t you see, though, that this is even more an argument to let us take care of you for a change? How can you argue that having to pay rent, utilities and shop for your own meals is an advantage? Why do you need anything else to worry about?”
“I’ve earned the right to make those decisions for myself. I’m not some wide-eyed freshman. I’m not even a typical junior. Dean Stevens, you know my situation.”
For the first time in the exchange, her smile cracked, and some of the mask fell away. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a reprieve behind it, just another wall. “I do know, and I’m sorry, Walter. I can’t let you live off campus. Even if I wanted to—which I don’t—it isn’t my decision. The board of regents said no. We can discuss it as long as you like, but I’m telling you as one who has been with you through this entire rocky ride, it isn’t going to change. We gave you a pass because you were struggling and because you were living with your friend. Living alone is not a good idea for you.”
Walter slumped into his chair. “So where are you sticking me? Because I know for a fact you can’t get me in the manors with the other upperclassmen.”
Stevens lifted a piece of paper and propped half-moon glasses on the end of her nose. “Actually, I could. Ethan Miller’s roommate ended up as a transfer—”
“Ethan Miller?” Images of waking to a horny, desperate geek and a room full of science experiments filled Walter’s mind. He glared at her. “Try again.”
Pursing her lips, she scanned the paper further. “I have a handful of other spaces available. Unfortunately, they’re all in underclassmen housing and all in one dorm, Porter.”
Porter. Anger, shock and a little fear swamped Walter as he sat up as if a cattle prod had been applied to the base of his spine. “You can’t be serious. You have four underclassmen Communist block buildings. You can’t tell me the only openings are in Porterhouse.”
“Porter never fills, as you well know, though this year we’ve come far too close for comfort. Next year won’t be an issue with the new dorm’s construction. For now, however, it’s Porter or rooming with Ethan Miller.”
What lovely options. Walter tried to marshal himself, but it wasn’t easy. She was offering him the choice between two circles of hell. “Talk to me about the spots open in Porter.”
“There are seven vacancies there, all with freshmen or sophomores. This could be a good thing, you know. You’re one of the greatest advocates against that house, and you’re right, we have work to do there. You could help other young men find a voice.”
“So now I’m doing community service? I hope you’re comping my room.” He held out his hand, and she passed over the paper. A sea of names floated before him, all of them meaningless, nothing on the page giving him a clue as to who might be a remotely passable roommate. He wanted to throw it back at her and refuse. What could they do, really? Kick him out? Did he care? He should have listened to Cara and transferred back to Chicago after all. He shouldn’t have stayed, not even for Williams. He shouldn’t—
He stopped, finger landing on a purple square next to one of the meaningless names. “There. This one. What’s this?” Before she could answer, he remembered. “That’s your code for open to a gay roommate, am I right?”
Stevens squinted at the list. “Yes, but that’s a single.”
“Oh.” The singles were shoeboxes for one, and two was out of the question. Also the singles were more likely to house some reclusive upperclassman with an Xbox. Except there was an F, right next to the square. “How did a freshman get a single?”
“He has allergies, rather severe ones as I understand. He needs the air conditioner, and of course the only regular rooms that can support air conditioners are in the upperclassmen dorms.” Stevens paused, looking thoughtful. “Though come to think of it, his parents were upset at his living alone. If you wanted to room there, I could approve it.”
“Room where? Two people don’t fit in those rooms.”
“We’ve doubled up singles before. It’s not comfy, but it’s workable.” She smiled absently, clearly warming to this solution. “Actually, this could solve a lot of problems. The mother was in here this morning as they dropped him off, almost frantic as the reality hit her of leaving her baby at college alone. They’re from far out of state, and I guess the young man is just coming out. She’s very worried it won’t go well. He’s shy, I suppose.”
Fantastic. Now instead of having a solo f**kfest pad, Walter would play nanny to a shy, allergy-ridden newb who probably had backne. Walter frowned and pulled the paper into his lap, scanning it intently. None of the other open spots had purple squares, though, and if they didn’t sign up for a gay roommate, they didn’t f**king want one. Two of the open spots were sophomores Walter despised, and the others might well be gay bashers for all he knew. Not that they could bash at Hope. But as he’d learned to his peril—also in Porterhouse—there were many intricate ways to bully. So really, his choices were Ethan F**king Miller and squeezing in with a freshman.
His gaze drifted back to Backne Boy.
“Worst-case scenario,” Stevens pointed out, “you room there until you find a better situation on your own. You’ve done it every other time you’ve had trouble. I don’t see why you can’t do it now.”
“I wouldn’t have trouble,” Walter replied, “if you’d let me live off campus.”
Stevens sighed and picked up her pen. “Shall I put you down for doubling in the single?”
Walter stared at the paper a moment, then nodded, wondering what he’d gotten himself into.
After the meeting with Stevens, Walter cut across the faculty parking lot and headed to the cracked streetlights that marked the way to the communications building.
While many buildings on campus were in need of facelifts, the communications building probably would best be torn down and built afresh somewhere else. Sitting on the farthest point of campus, Ritche Hall had been built in 1950 and never so much as been given a new curtain, though it had received an electrical and cable upgrade in 1997 when the place had nearly caught on fire. The hallways were narrow. The walls were Soviet Russian concrete block. The lights often flickered because the power upgrade in the nineties wasn’t able to keep up with the needs of the current technology. Communications was the least supported department on campus, and the building that housed it made that disdain perfectly clear.
Naturally, this was the building that was Walter’s spiritual home.
He passed the sad little studio where he’d taken the elective course that spawned his possibly ill-conceived degree, and he smiled. He waved at Jax, who was playing DJ for a campus radio station no one paid any attention to. Finally, he headed down the stairs to the basement offices where the communications professors—all three of them—did their best not to hold office hours.
Professor Williams was at his desk, though, his lanky form huddled over the rough old wooden slab as he nibbled at a homemade sandwich, his graying and thinning hair sticking up in varying directions. Spying Walter, he waved and motioned him into the small, overcrowded space.
“Mr. Lucas. Entre vous.” He put down the sandwich and moved a pile of file folders off a chair. “What can I do for you?” When Walter didn’t answer right away, Williams studied him a moment before wincing. “Oh damn. They didn’t give you permission to live off campus.”
Walter shrugged, trying to make like it didn’t matter. “It was a long shot.”
“It was pretty important to you, as I recall.” He sighed and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “For the record, I went to the board and the dean personally and pled your case. Though in hindsight that might have not been the best plan. They seem even more irritated with me this year than usual.”
“It’s okay, really.”
Williams looked at Walter over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses, and Walter sighed before slouching in the chair.
“Okay. It sucks ass and not in a good way. I think I’ve been preparing myself for it ever since I got that notice from the bank, though.”
“Still, I’m sorry, Walter.” After pouring coffee into two chipped mugs from a battered thermos, Williams handed one to Walter. “Wish I kept a flask in here so I could make this Irish. Even though I’m not sure that’s kosher, giving alcohol to a student no matter whether or not you’re a legal eagle—today I would, because today sucks for you.”
“Thanks.” Walter took a sip of the lukewarm rotgut coffee and felt like he’d gone home. Some of the best moments in his life had been in this office drinking bad coffee with Williams. “How’s the family?”
“Good. Kids started school last week, so Karen’s not quite as homicidal. It was getting to be a near thing toward the end of summer.”
Walter winced. “Damn, wish I hadn’t had to go back to Chicago, or I could have helped.”
“Speaking of that. I know it’ll be grim, but give me an update on the home front.”
Walter sipped more coffee. “Mom is unstable again, Dad’s blissfully ignoring her, and Tibby is at Olympic-level pouting and flouncing. Cara is in full wedding-planning mode, and Greg is neck-deep in grad school.” He scraped his thumb over a chip on the rim. “They wanted me to transfer back to Northwestern, or somewhere in Chicago.”
“Hmm.” Williams tipped his chair back, making it creak on ancient hinges. “You sound oddly guilty when you say that. Did you want to transfer?”
“Not really.” He rubbed the chipped mug rim again. “It would have been easier to keep tabs on my family, I’ll admit.”
Williams snorted. “Good reason not to transfer, then. Keeping tabs on your family has only ever made you crazy. Though you know you’re wasted on Hope. Northwestern, U of C—anywhere else has to have a better communications department.”
This comment made Walter frown. “I like our department.”
“Nobody likes this department.” Williams poked at his sandwich. “I’m up for tenure this year. I have a very bad feeling they’re going to find a way to deny it to me. Goddamn, but I don’t want to move.”
“What?” Walter sat bolt upright in his chair. “Back up.”
Williams looked surprised. “I’m in a tenured position, which means now that I’ve been here six years, they either give me tenure—essentially ensure I won’t lose my job unless I retire or do something obscene with a student—or they don’t, and in the case of the latter, that means you’re out the door. With a black mark on your name when you try and find a new job.”
“They have to give you tenure,” Walter said, hoping he sounded less desperate than he felt.
“They don’t have to, but it is pretty hard to deny it. Still, I’ve been in close contact with the American Association of University Professors, and I’m ready to appeal if it comes to that.”
Walter simply sipped his coffee, though internally he reeled. He couldn’t imagine finishing his degree without Williams. He’d f**king sleep with Ethan Miller and give Porterhouse a naked parade while they jeered before losing his advisor.
“Anyway.” The professor put down his coffee and scratched at the back of his head. “I’m going to try to be a little more of a line-toter this year. Karen says that will last until about October. Probably she’s right.”
You’re the best professor on campus, Walter wanted to say, but he couldn’t because it would be too sycophantic. “If they deny you tenure, there will probably be a riot.”
This made Williams smile. “Rose Manchester has already been by full of fury when she heard I was up this year, promising to start a student committee within the Philosophy Club if they deny me. Apparently there’s precedent: in 1992 they denied a professor tenure, and during the appeal the students mobilized and in general made a big fit. I’m not convinced they’re what turned the tide, and like I told Rose, I need to not hear a damn word of whatever they do because there’s no way that will help, the dean of faculty and board of regents thinking I incited people to protest.”
“Jesus, you sound like you expect to be denied.”
Williams’s smile was almost wicked. “Well, the dean did call me a little s**t just last week.”
Normally that would make Walter smile, but given the current context, he couldn’t. “Dean Prents is the little s**t. God, that bastard is smarmy.”
“Hush.” Williams stuck his foot out to shut the door, then stopped himself. “Be good. I can’t shut the doors because Karen pointed out they’d love to revisit that debacle from two years ago.”
“Please. It isn’t Disney U unless someone accuses you of flirting with a student. Besides, you’re old enough to be my dad.”
“Hey!” Williams looked genuinely affronted. “Only if I’d fathered you under the ninth-grade bleachers, wise guy. Anyway, last time I checked, the daddy fetish was alive and well in the gay community.” He paused, turned slightly pale and pushed the door the rest of the way shut. “F**k, I need to stop talking.”
Walter laughed. “What, do you think they have the place bugged?”
“No, but—” He paused, clearly fighting some internal battle. “Here’s the truth, between you and me. I’m an even bigger wise guy than you. Yeah, you find that funny and fun, but it’s probably about time, as someone old enough to be your father, that I act like a real grownup. I took this job because it was what I could get and because I had dreams of getting them to expand the program. All I’ve done in six years is screw around.”
“You’ve done more than that,” Walter said, a little too sharply.
Williams gentled. “I know. I don’t mean to diminish what I’ve been able to give to students like you. I don’t regret my time here, either. Or any of my students, even the s**theads. The thing is, at some point I should probably grow up and have a career, you know?”
“You do have a career.”
“Sure. I’m a junior professor in a nearly defunct department at a university making its mark on the academic landscape with sky-high tuition, cutesy policies and diversity masquerading as a marketing strategy. I haven’t even been pulling my punches on Hope because I agreed with them or because I was desperate to keep my job. I’ve been lazy. I haven’t published but that one article, which right there makes tenure an uphill climb.” Williams looked almost grim. “Yeah. I’m sure that sob story has inspired you to greatness. Okay, Mr. Lucas, I need to finish this syllabus. Really sorry about your apartment. Just tell me they snuck you into the Manors and I’ll sleep easy.”
“I’m doubling in a single in Porter with an allergy-ridden freshman.”
“Wonderful.” Williams raised his mug in a mock toast. “Saturday night, Opie’s, back room, pitcher of beer. I’ll bring my wife so nobody thinks I’m seducing you.” He frowned. “F**k, I’ll have to get a sitter, and Cara’s gone. Jesus, I hate it when people graduate.”
Walter laughed, shaking off the hollowness that the thought of losing Williams had inspired. “I’ll be there.”
“Though I forgot to ask. When are you moving in? I assume you’re staying at Cara and Greg’s old place right now?”
“Yeah, finishing off the lease. Which ends on Wednesday.”
Williams lifted an eyebrow. “It’s Monday.”
“You could say I’m in a bit of denial.”
The professor checked his watch. “Given the time, I assume you’re not moving in tonight.”
“God no. Tonight I plan to go find someone young and nubile and terrified and take him back to enjoy my last night in non-Disney cohabitation. Though I might drop by and stake my claim on my four square feet of floor space and make sure someone puts in a bunk for me. Unless I decide to stick with the futon. More room on that for bedroom acrobatics.”
Williams tossed him a salute. “Go forth and f**k, young man.”
“I plan to,” Walter said as he left.
This time as Walter traversed the Ritche Hall corridors, he stuck his hands in his pockets and whistled, feeling a hell of a lot better than he had when he’d arrived.