With two fingers, I lift Mooken’s icy hand from the keyboard, treating it like a disgusting bug I have to touch. I’ve watched enough television shows and read enough mysteries to know better than to disturb a dead body. But I need the letters on his screen to stop.
They remind me too much of how Mooken used to make his awkward hmmm sounds in the middle of his lectures when pondering a point his students weren’t getting.
Being this close to a dead person, my body revolts at the heavy cocktail of copper, feces, and urine in the room—a combination I’ve never encountered before.
Well, once before. But that was so long ago I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t another one of my nightmares.
But my stomach tells me the scene in front of me is real. My guts convulse and threaten to spew everything from inside of me, and I swallow hard, choking back my sickness…barely.
I bury my nose in my sleeve, breathing through my mouth. Other than the shallow in-and-out of my air, the room is quiet.
Inside my head, however, things are very loud.
Along with the loud buzzing, my father is telling me to run.
Leave now and save yourself, boy. Before they blame you for all of this.
I ignore him and stare down at Mooken.
After five minutes, his screen starts to fade to black, but I move the mouse, and the screen returns to full brightness.
I lean over my professor’s body like I’m showing a dead man something he might find interesting. I hold the mouse lightly in my hand and scroll up. There are so many pages of mmmms that the document appears to stand still as I scroll. I climb through a hundred pages of that single, lonely letter before I make it to the substance of the file and slow down to skim its contents. I scan blocks of Mooken’s text, reading snippets from the bottom up.
chronic sleep deprivation…
disruptions in personal affairs…
My head throbs as I continue further up the document.
auditory and visual hallucinations…
irrational anger and suspicion toward therapist…
potential for extreme violence…
formal evaluation recommended…
I speed to the very top of the document to see who Mooken was evaluating, and my stomach freezes when I read my name.
But this can’t be. I didn’t kill the professor. I know this for certain.
Professor Mooken was my teacher and trying to help me. That must be why I came here tonight—to get his help.
Not to kill him.
The delete key stares at me, cooing, tempting me to erase my name—to fix this.
But I can’t do that—not yet, at least.
I disable Mooken’s screen saver, stagger to the other side of his desk, and sink back into the leather chair.
When I check the clock on the wall, fifteen minutes have passed.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, and on reflex, I check it. As happens so often lately, it’s a missed call from my father, who suffers from dementia and calls and texts daily.
I love and miss my dad, but I can’t deal with him and his altered, severe personality right now.
My present situation is too dire, although there are still a few hours before other professors and students begin entering the building to start their days.
I squeeze my eyes shut to help me remember the events that led me here, but when I do, I hear my father giving me advice again, yelling at me, ordering me.
“Not yet,” I say through clenched teeth. “I need to remember what happened first.”
A minute later, the birds and insects around me all go silent.
It’s a subtle warning others may miss, but I’m always listening. I pay attention to my surroundings and what the world has to tell me.
The creatures have done their job warning me. Now it’s up to me to discover the threat.
Before I consciously process the slapping of feet behind me, my nape hairs stand on end. I don’t have to turn around to know that someone is approaching more quickly than normal. I speed up and take a sharp turn at the next street. And as soon as I’m around the corner, I walk faster, almost running. When I turn down the next street, I look back and finally glimpse my pursuer.
I recognize Tony—the local from our experiment—and his wiry frame immediately.
Despite the distance I’ve put between us, the snarl that distorts his weathered face is enough to tell me he is not here on pleasant business.
Maybe he resents being duped in our laboratory drama. Perhaps he thought he was making headway with Amber, and he’s angry that she was part of the act. Whatever his reason, I increase my pace, walking as fast as possible without running. When I do, the cadence of his feet hitting the asphalt behind me speeds up as well.
I’m not a runner. I never have been.
But as my adrenal glands flood my bloodstream with a huge batch of epinephrine, I break into a full sprint. When I look back, Tony’s in full pursuit. But luckily, he’s not in that great of shape, despite being rail-thin. His heavy breathing is louder than the sound of my pounding heart.
Even so, the next time I check behind me, his form is bigger as he continues to gain.
I turn another corner and move onto the sidewalk that runs along Rugby Road. The Greek-inspired fraternity and sorority houses blur by on my right as I jump onto the shoulder to avoid the crowd of students as I approach Beta Bridge.
As my heart slams inside my chest, my surroundings snap into clear focus.
The graffiti on Beta Bridge is newly painted in spring motifs of flowers and Easter eggs.
A female student steps on an earthworm without realizing it, smearing its body on the concrete as she crosses the bridge.
I inhale the sour odor of wet mud from Mad Bowl—the field on my right where popular guys, muddy and drunk, play rugby in the wet grass.
My brain processes all of these things in a single instant. And I silently thank evolution for the chemicals in my bloodstream allowing me to maintain this pace for much longer than usual.
But I don’t kid myself. My body is only responding this well to being chased because Tony is the dog and I’m the rabbit running for my life.
When I glance behind me, Tony has taken to the street, running against traffic, and has halved the distance between us. I should stop and let him say what he wants to me—allow him to vent his anger in front of all these student witnesses.
Being in public should keep me safe from any serious harm. Besides, even though he’s angry, he’s not a psychopath—not if Mooken’s questionnaire is as good as he claims at screening out psychopaths, sociopaths, and people with other serious mental issues.
While thinking about all of this, I spend a second too long looking over my shoulder and almost wipe out when I run into someone.
The person grabs me by my shoulders and spins me around, and I struggle to move past him. I’m an unwilling partner in this dark dance with him, and the sounds of bassoons and kettle drums from Beethoven’s Ninth flood my head as I ball my right hand into a fist, ready to fight if he won’t let me go.
But before I can throw a punch, Eugene speaks.