Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Eleanor James perched like a baby bird fallen from a nest on the broken curb and stared at the depressed winged elms surrounding the central quad of Illuminare University. She secretly wished she had never applied for and won the academic scholarship. September had brought winter to western Michigan and the leafless trees stood like mourners at a funeral. The snow-covered stone founder’s monument in the center of the dead lawn resembled an ancient tomb. She put her hands in last year’s coat pocket so her mother would not see her trembling fingers. The women’s dorm was a four-story building, rising from a mountain of rusty yellow leaves, that looked like it had been built by people long cold and in the ground. An icy wind blew a ghostly white shopping bag across a sign that said No Pets.
Mrs. Winston tried to be cheerful as she pulled her daughter’s three bags and suitcase from the car trunk. Her smile was broad but a pair of wrap-around sunglasses covered her eyes. Just a trace of a deep purple bruise showed on one cheek.
Eleanor felt movement from inside a large satchel purse with mesh side netting, draped over her shoulder as she took one of the bags from her mother. Eleanor’s stepfather Harry had already blown the horn twice as he sat smoking a cigar behind the wheel of his battered Cadillac. “There is no elevator and you’re on the fourth floor,” her mother smiled. “The exercise will do you good; you need to get out more … try to make some friends. People will be nice to you … if you let them.”
Eleanor wanted to cry, but she bit her lip. She had always been a loner through the eighth grade, and in High School things had only gotten worse. Standing against the wall in the school gymnasium during every afternoon dance was humiliating. She could barely look another girl in the eye let alone a boy. Other people made friends why couldn’t she? Eleanor had been shy to the point of a mental health evaluation ever since her father died. If only she hadn’t asked him for the strawberry ice cream and waffle cones for her sixth birthday party. The past was a wonderful childhood dream. The store was had only been a mile away. Now he was gone forever.
Her mother’s new husband wanted to be rid of her even though she had tried to spend as much time as possible, quiet as a mouse, reading in her tiny upstairs room. Twice he had entered her bedroom while she had been sleeping smelling of alcohol and groping with dirty fingers. Terror and shame had kept her from telling her mother. She forced a smile. “I will mom … I promise.”
The door to room 409 stood open. A very strong muscular looking girl who had to be well over six foot tall was hammering a picture of a girl’s High School basketball team on the wall. “Your bed is the one against the refrigerator,” she pointed a finger as big as a broomstick and then went back to pounding.
Eleanor was stunned, the school brochure had said the three-person facility was like a small studio apartment with a separate bedroom (two bunk-beds), bath and living-room/kitchen combination. The large girl obviously noticed Eleanor’s disappointment and shrugged her wide shoulders. “I can’t sleep in the tiny beds they supply in these dorms so I brought my own,” she explained. “I know one of the other girls who was supposed to be our roommate but she has already dropped out. You and whoever else they have assigned to this dump will have to figure out some other way to hang your clothes. I have some clothesline cords in my suitcase you can borrow, but I’d better get them back without knots at the end of the semester or there will be hell to pay.” There is only one closet in my bedroom and I’ll be damned if I want other people walking in and out.”
Mrs. Winston walked forward and extended her hand. “I’m Eleanor’s mother,” she said. “I do hope you will all have fun living together this school year.” The large girl glanced back, shrugged her shoulders and then went back to pounding.
Eleanor winced as her mother slowly pulled back her hand and then continued in a tiny voice she had heard her use with her stepfather so many times. ‘My daughter has always had trouble making friends, she’s just so shy. She wants to become an astrophysicist. I would appreciate any help you could give her.” She pointed to the basketball picture. “You must be very popular, and I’m sure Eleanor can learn a lot from you.”
The towering girl finished pounding the last nail and turned. The smile on her face was grossly large and exaggerated. “I’m Rhonda Johnson,” she said as she tossed the hammer onto Eleanor’s bed. “I’m here on a full scholarship. I was Point guard and Captain of the Mecosta County Wildcats and we took State in our division three years in a row. I don’t like rooming with losers, but right now it looks like I’m stuck with it.” She turned and walked toward Eleanor looking her over like she was a piece of meat. “You say your daughter is shy? Good! If she keeps her mouth shut and does what she’s told there won’t be any problems.” Rhonda loomed over Mrs. Winston like a boxer with an opponent in a corner, a full head and shoulders taller. “Don’t mess with me,” she threatened. “You try to make trouble and your little girl goes out the window … understand?”
Eleanor’s mother tried to talk, but her voice came out like a squeak. “My daughter can get along with anyone,” she managed.
Incessant honking came from the street below. Eleanor noticed a tear trickle from under her mother’s sunglasses and roll down her swollen cheek as she hugged her daughter. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I should have been strong for you … for myself. I pray every night that your life will be better than my own.”
“I love you mom,” Eleanor told her. Mrs. Winston hung her head as she walked down the hall; Rhonda closed the door behind her. She reached into a large cardboard box and pulled out a toilet brush, a roll of paper towels and two bottles of spray cleaner. “I bought this with my own money so if you waste any or if something gets broken you pay for it.” She thrust the items into Eleanor’s arms. “I want that bathroom spotless,” she demanded, “and that brush rinsed out thoroughly after every time you use it.” She moved her face close enough to Eleanor’s that their noses were touching. “I find one speck or skid-mark on that bowl at any time and I swear-to-God I’ll use your head and your greasy hair to clean it … you understand?” All Eleanor could do was gulp as she walked toward the bathroom.
A torn shower curtain hung from a bent rod and vomit filled an overflowing toilet and was splattered onto the vinyl floor. “The Alpha Delta Phi really know how to throw an initiation party,” Rhonda’s voice boomed from the other room. “Some of that power-punch is already starting to dry. You really should have got here sooner!”
It was after ten PM when Eleanor finished the bathroom. The door to Rhonda’s bedroom was closed and Eleanor could hear music playing. She sat on her bed and carefully unzipped the handbag she had hidden behind her suitcases. A Yorkshire Terrier no larger than a winter glove crawled out yawning and looking around with too large eyes. “This is your new home, Tinkerbelle,” Eleanor whispered. “But we have to keep you hidden until we find out what to do.”
She held the tiny dog to her chest and fed it a piece of bologna from the refrigerator as a single tear rolled down her cheek. “I’m so glad you are here with me … I can’t do this without you.”
The third roommate still hadn’t shown up by Wednesday and Eleanor was returning from the basement with a load of Rhonda’s laundry. The dimly-lit room with a half dozen washers and dryers was seldom used by the other students and it gave Eleanor a chance to let Tinkerbelle exercise while she ironed and folded countless uniforms, underwear and party dresses. A pay phone hung on the wall but Eleanor didn’t have any extra money … she longed to talk to her mother. The dog loved to dash behind the rumbling washers chasing one of Rhonda’s rolled up athletic socks that Eleanor used as a ball. Tinkerbelle lay hidden under a pile of Eleanor’s folded towels as she climbed the stairs lugging the huge basket. Rhonda stood glaring with the door open as Eleanor entered. “Is that my silk blouse?” she snatched the bright pink garment from the top of the pile. Eleanor had spent over an hour hand-washing the delicate fabric and smoothing it as it dried so that it looked perfect. “You bitch! You put this in the washing machine didn’t you?”
“I didn’t,” Eleanor gulped. “I washed it in the sink like you told …” Rhonda slapped her viciously across the face and then grabbed a handful of her hair dragging her into the hall. The carefully folded laundry and the basket spilled onto the floor. “I’ve put up with all I going to from you … people like you never learn do they?”
Rhonda released her hair before they reached the administration building but marched behind her as they entered the Dean of Women’s office. “Why Rhonda! What a pleasant surprise.” a middle aged woman stood up from behind a large mahogany desk obviously delighted. “With that new Center from Detroit it looks like we might make the playoffs this year!”
“I’m not here about sports,’ Rhonda declared. “My roommate has taken it apon herself to wash my clothes,” she said. “Just look at this two-hundred dollar silk A’Ghence blouse … ruined!’ she spat. Rhonda held up the blouse showing a tear in one side that Eleanor was sure wasn’t there before. Rhonda must have made the tear while they were walking.
“There is a strict rule about vandalizing another students property even if your intentions were good,” Dean Browning snorted. “This garment will have to be paid for!”
“But I don’t have any money,” Eleanor moaned. “The work study program only pays enough for basic necessities … there is no extra!”
“Lucky for you, your scholarship comes with a two-hundred dollar per semester cash allowance,” she said digging into a cash drawer. “I’m afraid you’ll have to forfeit that money to Miss Johnson for damaging her wardrobe. And next time dear, realize that your roommates property is strictly off limits!”
Eleanor was still stunned when she stumbled out of the administration building. Rhonda caught up with her when she was halfway across the quad. “Don’t feel too bad,’ Rhonda said tossing the blouse into a garbage can and smiling. “I haven’t worn that since last year and I was going to throw it away anyway.” Rhonda stuffed the ten twenty dollar bills into her jersey pocket and then ran to meet a group of girls who were just going into the Student Union Building.
Eleanor closed her eyes and turned her head as a group of laughing girls strolled by so they wouldn’t see her tears. Ten minutes later she was alone on the vent covered roof-top of her four-story dorm building. It had become her favorite place on campus and an outside place for Tinkerbelle to run. She sighed as she gazed at the glimmering stars. A meteor streaked across the horizon. Oh mother! I miss you so much … If I had one wish … it would be that your world is spinning smoother than mine.
Eleanor was thumbing through a pile of used books in the university bookstore. She had a one-hundred ninety-dollar text-book credit with her scholarship. “Astronomy 101 … Mr. DeLongs class!” Out of the blue, a very good looking boy with bushy blonde hair was looking over her shoulder. He smelled like the same Canoe cologne her father used to wear and it ticked her nose. “I had that same class last year.” He took the book, showing an engraved drawing of Nicolaus Copernicus looking through an ancient telescope, from her and smiled as he opened it. “In fact this is my old book … I just turned it in yesterday. Eighty-nine bucks I paid for it new and all I got was a measly five.” Eleanor stared. She saw Johnny Lang was written on the inside front cover just before she sneezed.
Johnny shook his head. “What a rip-off!” he pointed to the price sticker on the front cover. “Now the price is back up to forty-nine.”
Eleanor was wiping her red nose with a Kleenex and staring. She had never been this close to such a handsome boy before … and he was friendly!”
“I’m sorry,” Johnny said. “Astronomy is a very cool class … I shouldn’t try to be a raincloud.”
Eleanor didn’t know what to say … so she tried to smile … sure that even this gesture would be weak.”
“I dropped this book in a couple of mud-puddles running t class in the spring but I snatched it up so fast I don’t think it even got wet … but there are a few marks.” He confessed as he turned to book over in his hand. “I wouldn’t blame you if you picked another one.” He sighed as he placed the book back on the pile.
Eleanor was looking into his eyes and shaking her head, she had never before seen since a deep color of enchanting blue.
“I got an “A” in astronomy,” Johnny smiled uncertainly. “If you ever need any help finding Chepheus or any of the other constellations just give me a call. He took her hand and wrote a phone number on her palm with a blue ball point pen. His writing was shaky … and it wasn’t all her trembling hand.
Eleanor stood gaping wide eyed and astonished as Johnny walked away. A woman clerk from the bookstore brushed past her and reached for the first year astronomy text. “This one looks a little tattered,” she said. “I’ve got a newer one in the back.”
Eleanor snatched the book from the clerk with a speed she didn’t know she had. “I’m buying this one,” she told her.
Ten minutes later Eleanor had just made her purchases and was just leaving the store when Rhonda and two other girls surrounded her on the quad. “That guy you were drooling all over is Vicky’s boyfriend,” Rhonda pistoned an over-size palm into Eleanor’s shoulder knocking the package of books to the ground. Vicky Conner an equally-tall black girl wearing the same basketball jumpsuit moved in close while the other two girls blocked the view from other students. Eleanor had seen her in their dorm room one or two times but had never spoken to her. “I called dibs on that particular piece of man-candy during registration!” Vicky’s breath smelled like corn-beef sandwiches and beer. She punched Eleanor hard in the stomach. “You so much as look in his direction again and I’ll stomp your white ass,” she threatened.
It took almost five minutes for Eleanor to be able to breathe again. Her stomach felt like it was burning. Several groups of students walked by as she picked up her books. There were several looks of sympathy but no-one stopped to help.
Strangely Eleanor felt a dull ache in the back of her throat that somehow in spite of the beating felt pleasant as she walked toward the dorm. She had never before seen such an enchanting color of deep blue eyes.
It was almost dark on Friday afternoon and Eleanor was in a study room finishing an English assignment when a student aide told her to report to Dean Browning’s office. I wonder what the old biddy wants now? Eleanor thought. She had been extra careful doing Rhonda’s laundry and had even washed and ironed things for her teammates. Johnny Lang was the most popular boy on campus and still waved whenever he saw her … but Eleanor had been too afraid of Vicky Conner to even look at him … let alone wave back.
The Dean of Women motioned her to sit down after she knocked on her office door. “I’m a busy administrator and I have almost two-thousand girl students to look after so I’m not going to sugar coat this,” Mrs. Browning said as Eleanor was seated. She shuffled some papers on her desk. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this. Your Stepfather, Harold Winston, phoned earlier today. It appears your mother, Lucille James Winston, fell down a flight of stairs at her residence and broke her neck. Your stepfather has decided to have her body cremated without the expenses of a funeral … so there will be no need for you to return home.”
It took almost ten seconds for the shock to turn to a damn-bursting wash of tears and grief. “I want to … want to … go home,” Eleanor stood up trembling her face a look of pitiful horror.
“I’m afraid that is impossible,” Dean Browning handed her a Kleenex and snapped closed her file. “If you hadn’t squandered your scholarship dividend we might have been able to provide you with bus fare home. But Your stepfather does not want you there and besides we have enough charity students at this university already without pandering to your lot.”
Most of the other students were supposedly already tucked safely in their beds by the time Eleanor found her way back to room 419. The kitchen smelled like the time she had burned her hair with a curling iron. Rhonda sat at the table eating a roast beef sandwich. “I made you a little something but I’m afraid it got a little over-cooked,” she sneered as she pointed to the microwave.
Eleanor clearly wasn’t thinking when she walked over and opened the glass door to the Hamilton Beach appliance. The scorched and charred body of an indistinguishable tiny animal lay on the Pyrex platter. Even in death, the tiny twisted limbs spoke of unbelievable torture and agony as it had been burned alive by the invisible rays. Eleanor’s frantic eyes looked toward her suitcases and saw her black satchel purse open and empty on her bed.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve trying to sneak a filthy animal like that into our apartment,” Rhonda said. “You know the rules … no pets!”
Eleanor struck the table Rhonda was sitting at with such force she sent the girl basketball player sprawling onto the floor spilling a large glass of milk. “You’re dead you bitch! You’re dead!” Rhonda screamed as a hysterical sobbing Eleanor ran into the hall. Eleanor heard the Dorm Mother, a friend of Rhonda) bolting and locking the front door and she knew she was trapped. She fled up to the roof-top … pursued by an enraged Rhonda and two others. Luckily the door on the roof had a lock and Eleanor was able to get the bolt engaged. “You can’t stay up there forever,” Rhonda snorted as she bellowed and pounded on the door like a wounded bull. “And when you come back down … oh God in heaven … you just wait till you come back down!”
Eleanor knew Rhonda was right … her life was over. She looked longingly up at the star clusters she had loved for almost all of her eighteen years as she walked to the edge of the roof. She knew each one by heart and had wished on them all. It was an old building with very high ceilings. It was at least sixty feet to the concrete walk. No chance that she would somehow survive as a cripple. The stars seemed extra bright on this night. She looked up and tried to smile. So many hopes and dreams for the future just a decade past … now everything that she loved was gone forever.
The fear of high places that had dropped her trembling to her knees before, now had no effect whatsoever. She felt no dizziness as she climbed up on the raised roof ledge … only a sense of deep sadness. Late night truck traffic echoed in the distance. She closed her eyes … better not to see the end … when it came.
She was once more in her living room twelve years before surrounded by childhood friends. Her mother had just placed a decorated birthday cake on the table with six candles. “Where is the strawberry ice-cream?” her best friend Mary Treasure asked. Eleanor’s father slapped his head with his hand in an exaggerated way that made the other children laugh. “I knew I forgot something,’ he cried. “The store is less than a mile away … I’ll be right back!”
“And waffle cones,” Eleanor pleaded. “I do love them so much!”
The magnificent memories were beginning to fade and Eleanor had just placed one foot in the air when she heard a noise from below, a sizzling sound like bacon frying … and then a poof like a balloon popping.
“Excuse me,” a girl’s soft voice said. “I’m looking for room 419 … is it in this building?”
Eleanor opened her eyes and looked down, one foot dangling mid-air. The girl standing on the sidewalk far below was beautiful, long golden brown hair shimmered even under starlight and a distant street lamp. Something about the way the girl stared up at her, made Eleanor thing that she obviously knew all about the dreadful thing she was planning. The girl’s stunning blue eyes were kind and somehow fiendishly clever … she could have been Johnny Lang’s sister. “Yes,” Eleanor stammered, “but they lock the doors at eleven … you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Oh I don’t think so,” the girl said laughing. “Tomorrow will be much too late. I’m going to need you to show me around campus in the morning, share a few boyfriends, stuff like that … and you just can’t do that splattered all over a cracked and broken sidewalk.” Eleanor heard the bolted and locked front door to the building open with apparent ease. “My name is Alison Weatherbee and I won’t put up with anyone’s nonsense … unless it’s super fun.”
Something in the playful chatter said … it is never too late. Eleanor almost closed her eyes again and jumped … but she didn’t.
“I’m from a small town in Montana called Cloverdale,” Alison yelled from inside the building in a voice meant to wake up half the campus. “And it looks like you and I are not only going to be two bananas shut up in a cage with an ugly gorilla … but the best of friends!”
TO BE CONTINUED ….