“How’s it going, Delany?”
My fingers twitched, inexplicably, towards the little canister of pepper spray I knew was buried in my book bag somewhere.
That particular impulse may have been an overreaction.
I glanced up at Jacob over the grant proposal I was editing. He was leaning around my doorframe, looking even gawkier and shaggier than when I could see all of him.
I sighed, tossing the packet into the Everest of rejects that were threatening to take over my cramped desk.
It was terrible. I mean, my god, how many times could you use the phrase “way cool” in a federal document. I had to give it to the student who wrote it though, you missed a hundred percent of the shots you didn’t take.
So much of my time was eaten up reading these things. If I spent half the time on my thesis as I did combing through these rejects, I was almost certain that I could have finished my PhD by now. It was our own fault for making students write them. The kicker was that Eureka State assigned them with no real expectation of success. The thought was that quantity would make up for the glaring lack of quality.
I had yet to find that to be the case.
“Fine,” I smile blandly at Jacob.
Jacob was remarkably uninteresting; tall, a little gangly, and a little shaggy around the hair and stubble. However, for Eureka, the hippie town to end all hippie towns, he was about as clean cut as a guy got. He was also about as interesting to talk to as any guy here, which wasn’t a compliment.
When we first began working here, I had been excited to meet him, maybe even a little expectant. In my defense, it did feel like the perfect beginning to romantic comedy.
However, in our first conversation, I found that he wasn’t particularly funny, and he didn’t often have anything intriguing to say about life. This would have been fine so long as he had something interesting to say about Ecology. He didn’t.
Jacob’s hobbies included smoking weed, hanging with friends, and hiking. Not exactly a firecracker in any sense. You couldn’t throw a rock in Eureka without hitting a guy who would say the exact same thing if asked.
“Cool man.” Jacob said now, giving me a goofy sort of thumbs up and loped away from my closet-sized office.
With only the faintest flicker of irritation, I pulled the next grant proposal in front of me. Idly, my hand fished through a mini-sized bag of cheese puffs that I bought from one of the vending machines.
By far the best part of working in the environmental sciences building was the technicolored and spectacularly illuminated junk food dispensers which carried an array of off-brand snacks that I had never heard of. Not only had I not heard of them, but they carried things that you could not find in any commercial grocery store in the United States.
I had a bad junk food habit. It was my vice. Everybody gets one.
The allure was that it was so cheap, and I could easily power myself through the lunch, dinner, and sometimes breakfast hours with a couple of quarters.
Most students here ate like that—junk food and pop tarts—but not many of the faculty expected a PhD student to, especially since I taught a few classes. I had to be careful not to get orange fingerprints on my students’ exams while I was grading. Learned that the hard way.
I told anyone who would listen that the chips were vegan. I flipped the bag over now to check if it was true. Fruitlessly, my eyes searched the nutrition facts printed on the back of the bag. I couldn’t tell.
If they were vegan, it was completely incidental. Nothing in the bag of cheesy deliciousness could have possibly come from a living thing. It was just a compilation of various organic extracts and chemically engineered flavoring designed to make your brain drop so much dopamine that your eyes dilate and your teeth chatter.
The suckers here in northern California would love anything if it was vegan. Rebranding myself as some sort of vegan-on-the-go seemed like a whole lot more attractive than being the doctoral student who couldn’t get their life together.
At least I was thin; it lent credibility to the whole vegan charade.
The Charade wouldn’t help me though when I choked to death on a cheese puff, alone in my office.
My patience for nonsense grant proposals ran out in direct correlation to the dwindling snacks I had stockpiled. And soon, so soon, I found myself not really reading the words on the page but just moving my eyes back and forth meaninglessly. Plus, my glance at the clock told me it was half past seven and that sounded like as good a time as any for going back home.
I shoved the rest of the papers into my backpack and tossed my foil bag into the trash.
I headed out into the blandly carpeted and harshly lit hallway, passing a janitor and some of the other much larger faculty offices.
I was now thoroughly convinced that my office had previously been a utility closet, a place for the maintenance staff to keep their vacuums and industrial cleaners, at least until I came along. An idea strengthened by the dislike that the janitor showed towards me and from the almost noxious odor of disinfectant products and carpet cleaner that still lingered.
The approaching janitor, a short and paunchy man with a mustache, looked purposefully away from me as we maneuvered around each other.
Lame. It wasn’t like I had my pick of offices and just demanded his broom closet.
I trudged out to my car where it sat parked in the middle of the now empty parking lot, letting the sparse raindrops fall freely into my tangled, dark hair.
I was reminded by my anxiety about one hundred times a day that I needed to renew my policy on the beat-up old Honda. I envied the people who didn’t need cars, in places like New York or Paris. How much easier would life be without parking lots and meters and insurance.
However, in a place like Eureka, a car was as much a necessity as a sweatshirt or raincoat. I couldn’t imagine waiting for the bus in the rain, especially the winter rain we were having right now, or during the mornings and evenings every other season of the year where the mist crawled up from the freezing northern Pacific and settled, impossibly thick and heavy, around everything like an aura.
Not exactly the best weather for waiting outdoors for anything.
Avoiding the bus, though, would be the second, and most important, reason to have a car. Stepping onto public transportation here was like stepping onto a moving psych ward, because, first and foremost, Eureka was the gathering place for crazies.
Petri dish of human depravity that it was, Eureka’s plentiful drugs and tent cities of nomadic criminals facilitated the crazy drug addicts making the transition to crazy homeless people and crazy homeless people making the transition to dangerous crazy homeless drug addicts.
Ah, the circle of life.
I really didn’t know how this place was marketed to parents wanting to send their kids to college. Some of the freshmen here seamed completely oblivious to the problem when they arrived. You would think their parents would have investigated the security of the school they were sending their precious eighteen-year-olds to, especially since the homeless people wandered onto campus at their leisure. Students entered the library at their own risk.
You would think that someone would have closed the Eureka State library off from the public because of what the public was doing to it.
I reached my little car just as the streetlamps flickered on for the night. Jamming my key into the lock of my driver’s side door, I had to jiggle it around for minute to trip the little internal catch.
Once upon a time the automatic clocker had worked, but no more. I threw my bag into the passenger seat, sliding into the car after it and pushing the lock down behind me.
The rhythm was familiar to me, my own little ritual of siege mentality.
I drove through the almost empty parking lot at a crawl, watching the heavy mist bead into droplets and stream down the windshield.
I didn’t take the 101 on-ramp as I made my way back home; I instead opted for the longer, less convenient back way that went through neighborhoods and through towering sections of unkempt forest, again, wondering at the sheer Jurassic look of everything. The rain began to fall in earnest, pattering against the windshield insistently now, turning passing streetlamps into star bursts.
The drug addicts and the people whose addictions fried their brain, that was the worst part of Eureka. And honestly, the worst was bad. There were lots of murders too, more per capita than even big cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Yes, the bad parts here were bad, but the good parts were good, really good. The redwood forests were lush and vital. The ferns were towering, about the same height as most small cars. The beaches here were pristine and full of wildlife yet to be affected by humans or pollution. There was nowhere else this wild or beautiful.
Even the houses made me marvel, and I did as I approached my own, down the long scattering of driveways separated by thick sections of green.
The buildings here were nestled into groves of trees, or positioned carefully into clearings, as if built to cause as little disturbance as possible. I’d like to think that humans were so diligent, but it was probably a testament to the lush environment’s ability to take back its own.
My home, for example, was crowded closely by sequoias, straying from the redwood national forest, and healthy-looking conifers. The sides of the house, under the porch, and the edges of the backyard were thickly covered by Jurassic, pluming ferns.
It was beautiful, a far cry from a trailer in Chico, but the effect was not unique. The University looked like that, grocery stores looked like that, our neighbors’ houses looked like that, like if you walked more than a few steps in any direction, you might wander into a national forest.
Admittedly, you would.
I pulled to a stop in the long driveway of the house, the familiar sound of crunching gravel under my tires.
Because of the surrounding treelined, the house was almost always shadowy, murky, like something that should be underwater.
It stood watchful and empty now, stilted and dark in the settling dusk.
I got out of the car, hauling my stuff, not locking the door behind me. If someone or something wanted into my shitty car, I’d rather it didn’t break my window doing it.
I sighed, striding across the wet lawn and up the deep wood steps to my shared home, the steady percussion echoing hollowly.
“Hello?” I called, the screen door hissing closed behind me, “Anybody home?”
I lived with seven other people. The odds that someone would be home in a house of eight people were pretty good, statistically speaking.
But nobody answered.
We had four bedrooms, a basement, and a garage, with the latter two refurbished and acting as additional bedrooms. Eric had the basement, Sean and Tanner shared the garage, Holly and Matt had the downstairs bedroom, and Becca and Lissa rented two of the other upstairs bedrooms along with me.
The bathroom situation was a nightmare, but splitting a four-bedroom house eight ways really made the cost of California living negligible.
The house’s interior had extraordinarily low ceilings straight out of the sixties. It made everything astoundingly dark. You had to flip all the lights on if you wanted to have a normal conversation with anybody. The lights were orange, also straight out of the sixties. There was no use decorating carefully, nothing would look good in here except for a skylight. Good thing none of us had nice furniture. But you didn’t need beautiful houses when you lived in paradise.
I followed the muffled sounds of tomorrows weather forecast, coming from the living room.
I peaked in, expecting to see Tanner or Eric on the couch, but the thread bare sofa stood empty. Nobody watching the flickering TV.
The audacity, I thought, walking over and flipping it off. And in a house full of environmental scientists, no less. It must have been Tanner or Sean who had left it on, because the rest of us had spent at least four years being guilt-tripped into conservation by professors at the university.
After nonstop soapboxing about the death of the planet, you just sort of started taking shorter showers and turning off lights behind you.
I headed to my room, stopping in the kitchen to grab a diet Pepsi and a leftover burrito that I had stashed there last night.
I thumped up the narrow stairs to my bedroom where it overlooked the backyard. It was a beautiful view, not that I was here to enjoy it very often. I could see the entirety of the back lawn and the thick wall of trees that marked the edge of the property. When I sat or laid on the bed, all I could see through the windows was an unbroken blanket of green treetops. It looked just like a painting, or a poster you might put up in a windowless classroom, or one of those generic science textbooks covers.
I did this now, flopping on the mattress stomach first, doubtlessly shaking up the soda and rumpling the papers I had taken home. I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t impaled by a stray pen in my bag.
I took a minute to lie face down in my sheets. They needed to be washed but they smelled good, like home and nighttime. I extracted myself from the book bag and leaned over to flip on the lamp next to my bed, illuminating my simple room.
I had collected almost nothing of significance in my adult life, a fact I was somewhat proud of.
I had my twin bed, my lamp, an old armchair that I picked up on the side of the road, and an old sewing table or desk that had been in this room when I moved in.
The expected debris of my years in college cluttered the rest of the room’s available surfaces, incense holders, candles, and pottery I had made in a class my sophomore year. My favorite purchase had been my pretty Indian tapestry that I bought from one of the village square hippie shops. It was deep purple and ornate, now hanging on the wall behind my bed.
I sat up, against the wall and my tapestry now, sloppily pulling out the stack of papers and continuing my reading. Most of these were brief and I didn’t have to pull out my highlighter very often to draw attention to any work worth salvaging.
I had migrated to the chair in the corner of my room, taking a paper grading break to stare blankly at the asbestos textured ceiling, when my phone rang.
I grunted, making no move to retrieve the shrieking thing.
As a rule, I never like to pick up my phone after ten, for the sole reason that it was never good. It was usually Holly calling for a ride because she drank too much or a student calling to leave a message on my voicemail about why they weren’t coming into class. The number of grandmothers who died in a single semester was beyond me.
The shrill chorus bored its way through my skull, tunneling into my brain. I had selected the horrible tone just for this reason.
I surrendered, stumbling across the room, almost tripping on a pair of sweatpants I had left on the floor, to where my cell phone lay charging in an outlet.
“Hello?” I asked. My voice came out like indiscernible mush, sloppy from the late hour and disuse. So, I tried again. “Hello?” it wasn’t much better.
“Good evening,” a cool, chirpy voice on the other line said. “Am I speaking with Ms. Delany Parker?”
“Yes,” I grumbled, rubbing the space between my eyes where my headache was tap, tap, tapping.
“This is Sherry calling from Meadowside Psychiatric health Facility. I am calling regarding your mother, Daphne Parker.”
My shoulders slumped. Panic crept over my skin, leaving a numbing sort of chill in its tracks. I didn’t know how fast a person can work up a cold sweat, but suddenly my arms and back were slick and clammy. “What is it?”, I asked without thinking.
“Well your mother—”
I interjected after coming to my senses, “I’m really sorry,” I cut across her before she could get into it. “There should be a note in her file that specifies that I shouldn’t be called for any reason.”
There was a pause in which I heard the phone sort of crackling the way it does in a long-distance call. Chico wasn’t exactly transatlantic, but I supposed it was far enough away to experience a fuzzy connection.
“Yes, Ms. Parker, I apologize. But, if you could just—”
“Listen,” my voice trembled just a little. This woman seamed nice and she was going to think badly of me after this. “I have given you guys my consent for anything that the doctors see fit to do. There should be something in there that says I should be contacted for nothing except—” I just had to say it. I had to be firm. Or else they would keep calling. “Except in the event of her death. Is she dead?”
Another bit of crackling connection before this woman, whoever she was, clipped a short, “No.” I could hear clearly her repressed disapproval.
Well then, I thought and hung up, not bothering to say goodbye.