Archie Hellshire © 2018
All Rights Reserved
When humans lacked knowledge, they made do with having faith. Our ancestors ventured into the uncharted wilderness, armed only with pointed sticks and confidence that they could fight off anything with pointed teeth. Generations later, someone made a gamble that if a plant grew where it fell, then it should grow where it was planted and be just as edible, thus giving birth to agriculture. The age of exploration dawned when the first mariners set sail for the horizon, fairly certain it wasn’t a waterfall. As history progressed, people attempted more daring and complex endeavors, fueled by the belief that they would, at the very least, survive. Knowledge may be the substance of progress, but faith is the duct tape.
More than anything else, we have, as a species, progressed because of our faith in each other. Our ancestors hunted in packs to bring down larger prey, trusting that the guy they were hunting with wouldn’t kill them so they didn’t have to share. Legal systems were constructed on the premise that enough people would obey the law that sorting out the remainder wouldn’t be a problem. Civilization is built on the basic philosophy that people will be good to each other, people will help each other, and people won’t kill each other when it suits their interests, not usually at any rate.
Unfortunately, faith has a dark side. Wars have been started because one side believed they could win. The different religions of the world have been in an ongoing disagreement about who’s going to heaven and why; sometimes these disagreements have escalated to the point where they found out the hard way. People have murdered, pillaged, and swindled when they thought they could get away with it. Careless hearts have fallen in love with uncaring people.
Faith is a power that lends itself to good just as easily as it lends itself to bad.
It was in the early evening in one fair city, the power of faith was being abused to its breaking point as a group of UFO researchers was convening on the rooftop of a warehouse. On the spacious tar flats high above the city, with a few of the more ambitious stars already visible in the failing light of dusk, men and women set up a complex array of antennae and computers. The less technically minded among them set up a craft services table featuring on-theme menu items like Cattle-Mutilation-Sloppy-Joes and Little-Green-Men-Guacamole.
They were motivated by a bone-deep belief that if they set up their mobile receiving station at just the right time and listened carefully, they would win the electrodynamic lottery and hear a broadcast from an alien world. Tonight, their faith was rewarded by a brief jolt of excitement, followed by a slow stab of inevitable disappointment.
“Oh, lordy!” cried Calvin, looking at the monitor, where the interface displayed a wildly jiggling radio wave. “This is it! We’re receiving a signal!” He reached over to a different machine and flipped some switches with well-practiced speed.
“We’re recording!” he announced, pressing is face up against the screen to make absolutely sure he wasn’t missing anything. “Oh, lordy! This is incredible!”
Susie walked over, shaking her head in exasperation.
“Are you sure it’s extraterrestrial?” she asked, trying to get a view of the graph from around Calvin’s head.
“Of course, I’m sure!”
“It’s just that you were sure last month,” she said. “When you spent four hours recording a Finnish talk show.”
“This is different!” he protested.
“And the week before that, when you followed a UFO with your car.”
“This is completely different!”
“And you followed it to the state line before you realized it was a crack in your windshield,” she finished.
“This is…ow, ow, ow,” he cried, as an older, bulky man pulled gently but firmly on the tuft of hair on Calvin’s temple, prying his face away from the monitor.
The newcomer surveyed the image for a second before a look of disappointment settled on his grizzled face.
“Is it extraterrestrial, Moe?” Susie asked, a faint note of hope in her voice.
“Nah, that’s terrestrial,” Moe said finally. “I saw it before, when I was in the Air Force.”
“At Area 51?” asked Calvin.
“I keep telling you, I was stationed in Britain.”
“Well, that’s what you say…”
“It’s a frequency jamming signal,” Moe finished. “They broadcast noise over various bandwidths and try to block transmissions.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” asked Susie, eyeing the monitor suspiciously.
“Because they’re trying to cover something up!” declared Calvin.
“Or some jamoke is trying to keep people from using cell phones in his store,” said Moe. “But keep recording,” he added, before walking away. “This night won’t be a total loss if we can document a felony.”
But this story isn’t about them. It just occurs near them. This story is about faith. The faith one man had in another, what that faith led him to do, and how that faith changed the person it was bestowed upon.
Tucker Albany stood alone in the locker room. With mechanical indifference he reached into his locker, pulled out an item, folded it, and stowed it in his athletic bag. He even packed his pads and football jersey, which he normally kept in his locker at all times; better there than his cramped dorm, to which it would bring their ingrained aroma of sweat and mildew. Reaching into the locker one final time, his hand collided with the smooth metal bottom. Turning to look, he saw that it was, in fact, empty. He stared at it and absently worried at his bracelet. Unless he wanted to unbolt the locker door and pack that, too, he didn’t have any more excuses not to go back to his dorm.
Heaving a sigh, he zipped up his bag and hauled the overpacked duffel onto his shoulder. A smaller person would have fallen over from the weight. He exited the locker room, ducking slightly to avoid the lintel, and made his way outside.
Stepping out of the gymnasium, he was greeted by a blazing sunset. Red light painted the sparsely filled parking lot. Above him, the sky faded to purple, the sheet of night slowly covering the University of Northumberland.
After taking it all in, he turned and started walking to the dorms. Once he got there, he wasn’t sure what to do. He had enough time to start packing, but he could also use the time to wonder what he was going to say to his roommate. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket to check if he had any messages. When the screen turned on, it alerted him that he wasn’t getting a signal. His brow furrowed in confusion; he couldn’t remember ever having less than full reception anywhere on campus. A sense of mild panic settled in as he wondered if he hadn’t paid the bill.
“Hey, Tuck!” someone yelled behind him. He swiveled around to see Andy, his teammate, bounding up to him across the athletic field.
“I was waiting for you,” Andy said exasperated. “You took forever in there.” He stopped when he caught sight of Tuck’s duffel. “Why do you have so much stuff? You aren’t quitting the team, are you?”
That last question came out with a tone of panic. The team’s whole strategy was built around Tuck, who, at his height and weight, was the closest you could legally come to driving a snow plow down the field.
“No,” said Tuck, reassuring Andy with a deep grumbling voice. “I was just,” he cast about for an excuse, “cleaning.”
Andy looked a little dubious but shrugged it off.
“Cool,” he said, “you can just drop it in my room.”
“Um,” Tuck grumbled, “I’m going back to my dorm first.” He kept walking with Andy following behind him, running slightly to keep up with Tuck’s long strides.
“We finally get to share a dorm room!” Andy cheered. “You and me, just like we planned in high school.”
“Yeah,” Tuck agreed half-heartedly.
“No more asshole roommate,” Andy continued. “No more… Hey, what did Sam say when you told him you were moving out?”
“He was cool,” Tuck lied.
“Yeah, I bet he cried,” Andy teased. “Your wife cried when you told her you were leaving her for all this!” He gestured to himself, grinning. The grin evaporated when he saw the expression on Tuck’s face.
“Do not. Call him that,” Tuck said and kept walking. Then he saw something that stopped him short.
“What the…?” Andy asked when he saw it, too.
“Keep it moving!” yelled a man in full riot gear as he waved a nightstick.
“We’re moving, we’re moving,” grumbled a woman, carrying a sign that read “End Oil Dependency”. She was one of a long column of people walking down the street, being shepherded by armed police. They were all wearing green shirts, some of them carrying signs that had some variation of “Stop Killing the Planet” on them.
“Concord,” said Andy in a hushed whisper. “I knew they were going to try to blow something up.”
“They don’t blow things up,” said Tuck, annoyed. “‘Concord’ is just a student environmental group. They have a faculty sponsor and everything.”
“What about that bomb that took out that power station in Iowa?” asked Andy. “Concord took credit for that.”
“It was in Idaho,” said Tuck. “And Concord is an environmental movement, not a corporation. Anyone can claim they belong to it.”
“Bullshit!” called Andy. By then, the whole procession had moved past them and was headed up the street to the Student Center. “They’re ecoterrorists. They started a chapter on campus to get organized and now they’re…they’re…” He tried to think of something insidious he could remember them doing.
“Hosting town halls on alternative fuel sources?” Tuck offered. “Organizing tree plantings at the local park?”
“Yeah! Wait, what?” asked Andy. “How do you know? You went to that?”
Tuck shook his head.
“I’ll catch up with you later,” he said, brushing Andy off.
“They don’t bring out the riot gear for planting trees!” Andy called after him.
Rolling his eyes, Tuck thought back on the tree planting, which he had gone to because Sam had dragged him along. The students in Concord he had met that day were about as threatening as a sleeping bunny, and about as good at digging holes in which to plant trees. In the end, Tuck was glad he went, both for the sense of fulfillment he got from contributing to the community and the entertainment value of watching a liberal arts major try to work a shovel.
There would probably be no more of that, though. He was about to tell Sam, his roommate for the past year, that he was moving out. There would be no more planting trees with suspected terrorists, or any of the other drama that followed Sam.
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, still a short distance from the dorms. His fingers moved back to the plain hemp braid he wore around his wrist, nervously spinning it, as he looked down at the curbside. It was completely unremarkable, with nothing to distinguish it from any other concrete slab in the entire world, yet it was significant because it’s where all the drama had begun.
In the week before term started, Tuck squeezed himself through the door to his only slightly larger dorm room, carrying the last box of his stuff. He set it down on the floor and sat on his bed, which gave a protesting groan in response to the weight. Despite having not an ounce of fat on him, too-small doorways and protesting furniture had been the story of Tuck’s life since puberty which had pulled him up like a bean stalk and slapped a whole second person’s worth of muscle on him.
Andy came into the room and dropped a bag on his bed on the other side of the room. In a room this small, the phrase “other side” didn’t accurately describe anything, and though Andy had nothing on Tuck, he was cast from the mold of “bigger is better”. Tuck felt like they were two ships in a bottle in the room, but if Andy had any misgivings about space, it didn’t dampen his spirits.
“This is awesome!” Andy said. “How long have we talked about going to U-North on a football scholarship and rooming together?”
Tuck shrugged. He and Andy had been friends in high school, both on the football team, but he hadn’t really factored into Tuck’s decision to go to the University of Northumberland. Nevertheless, Andy had been thrilled about it from the moment he found out they had both been accepted, and his excitement hadn’t abated since then.
“Full ride, easy classes,” Andy continued. “It’s basically gonna be nonstop partying all year.”
Tuck grinned at this. Now, that was something to look forward to. Tuck had chosen to major in agribusiness. He had big plans to expand the family farm into a commercially viable entity ready to do business in the modern age. He had every intention of being focused on his coursework and committed to his long-term academic and professional goals. That being said, the first-year courses were pretty easy, so there was no reason nonstop partying couldn’t fit into the schedule.
“And ladies, Tuck,” said Andy, looking at Tuck with a reverent level of seriousness. “Ladies lining up to meet the champions that take the team all the way to the…championship.”
Tuck giggled at this. Fortunately, in his deep, rumbling bass, even giggling sounded manly. The prospect of ladies—ladies everywhere—was a huge draw of college life, running neck and neck with career security. He had not had a serious girlfriend in high school, nor casual girlfriends nor fleeting encounters. His small town was not parochial, but it was still small; gossip traveled fast and didn’t have far to go. He would always remember his middle school dance, where he’d had his first kiss with LueEllen Watts, and getting back home that evening to find out his mother already knew about it and wanted details. The prospect of that scenario repeating when he lost his virginity kept him chaste.
Aside from that, part of him always felt he wouldn’t want to be that, well, intimate with anyone unless they really cared about each other.
Now, he was in college with forty times the population of his home town, an average age that was fifty years younger, and his mother and her network of busybodies were worlds away. He was fully ready to explore the undiscovered country of his sexuality, and the tourism bureau was offering special rates.
Andy had launched into an extemporary about the women he’d like to meet and the things he’d like to do with them, and Tuck settled onto his mattress. Something in his pocket jabbed into his leg. He reached in and pulled out his car keys. As he did, a small doubt nagged at the back of his mind.
“I’m gonna go make sure the car is locked,” he said, pushing himself up. He left the room, but Andy continued talking, unfazed by the lack of anyone listening.
Down in the parking lot, Tuck jiggled the handles of the car door. The car he drove down in, along with Andy and their stuff, was a prehistoric hatchback he probably couldn’t pay anyone to take, never mind worry about someone stealing it. The paint was lumpy in places where he had spray-painted over the rust. The engine required several more intensive steps besides just turning the key in order to start. Scrap metal though it was, it was his scrap metal, and he wasn’t going to leave it vulnerable.
Once he was satisfied that it was as secure as a broken lock was going to make it, he headed back to the dorms. That’s when he saw him. Sitting on the pavement outside the dorms was a boy in baggy clothes, surrounded by garbage bags, and glaring at a packet of papers he was holding, willing them to make sense.
He was small. Granted, he was sitting down, but Tuck imagined it wouldn’t be much of a difference once he unfolded himself. His skin was a dark tan that almost perfectly matched the color of his hair. At first, it appeared that he had styled it, but Tuck would later learn that his hair was just naturally uncooperative, sticking out at odd angles, and kept short to prevent total chaos from taking over.
As Tuck neared, his shadow fell over and entirely encompassed the sitting boy. His head swiveled up, and two green eyes took Tuck in, looking a little alarmed. That was when Tuck recognized him.
“Sam…right?” he asked.
A grin broke over Sam’s face. He looked relieved.
“Yeah, Sam Oxendine,” he said. “It’s Tucker, right?”
“Tuck, my friends call me Tuck.”
Tuck was slightly embarrassed, as he probably should have introduced himself to Sam back when they were both students in the same high school. Sam had started there when Tuck was in his sophomore year. He had seen him around, knew his name, but they hadn’t crossed paths before. Tuck had been comfortable with the same group of friends he’d had since their mothers dumped them all in the same playpen, so he hadn’t made any attempt to reach out to the new kid. He wondered if anyone else had bothered to try. He wondered if Sam had been lonely.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, trying to distract himself from that depressing line of inquiry.
“Um, I was accepted here, so…” Sam started.
“No, I get that. I mean…” Tuck gestured down at the pavement. “…specifically here.”
“Oh!” Sam shook the packet he was carrying. “I’m lost; trying to find my dorm room.”
Tuck gave another look to the trash bags surrounding Sam. There were four, heavy-duty bags, knotted shut.
“Is…is this your stuff?” Tuck asked.
“Yeah,” Sam answered, sounding more defiant than embarrassed.
“How’d you get here?” Tuck asked.
“My aunt dropped me off.”
“She just left you?” Tuck asked. “On the pavement?” With no idea where you’re going? With trash bags so she could save however much money a duffel bag costs?
“She has work,” Sam snapped. “I can handle myself…” He looked back down at the packet. “…eventually.”
Tuck sighed, irritated, but also a little impressed. Despite his excitement at his new freedom, he was apprehensive. He was new to the big city and far away from home for the first time. At least he had Andy with him. Sam came here alone, with bad directions and luggage that didn’t even have handles. No wonder he looked relieved when he recognized Tuck. He was probably the first familiar thing he’d seen all day.
“You have to see the housing supervisor to get your room number,” he told Sam, pointing toward the building. “He’s set up by the elevators.”
“Oh, thanks.” He reached for one of the trash bags, but they were all gone. Tuck had them all gathered up in his arms. Sam looked at him with the expression bystanders probably gave Superman when he picked up a bus.
“Um,” Sam started, getting over the shock. “You don’t have to…”
“Really?” said Tuck, with a teasing grin. “You’re okay making four trips?”
“Okay.” Sam smirked. “You do have to.”
He stood up, and Tuck found he was right. Sam couldn’t have been more than five feet standing on a box.
They found the housing supervisor who directed them to a room on the second floor. Tuck elected to take the stairs since there was a line forming at the elevator.
“What are you here for?” Tuck asked as he lugged all four bags up the stairs with no sign of any effort.
“Uhm,” said Sam, watching him, awestruck. “I’m here for the biochemistry and biophysics program. I got a full academic scholarship.”
“Really?” That sounded both difficult and expensive. It somewhat undercut his sense of achievement of having gotten into a business course by dint of running over people.
“What are you here for?”
“Agribusiness,” said Tuck, sheepishly.
“Awesome,” said Sam, sounding genuinely impressed.
“Yeah,” confirmed Sam. “We’d starve to death without agriculture.”
“I know, right?” said Tuck, feeling a newfound sense of confidence.
“What’s a regular business major going to do?” Sam continued. “Move money from one pile into the other?”
They had reached Sam’s room, and the first thing they saw was a fat guy with an acne problem. He was also the first thing they smelled.
He turned when the door opened and, after looking Sam over, greeted him with “Listen up, pipsqueak! Don’t touch my stuff, don’t complain about my music bein’ too loud, and if I have someone over, don’t come in.”
Tuck’s good mood evaporated, and he regretted that his arms were full; he felt like swinging one of them just then. Next to him, Sam moved closer to his side, as if seeking shelter.
Later that week, following some complaints to the housing supervisor, Tuck had been moved into Sam’s room, and Andy got to bunk with Sam’s previous roommate, who was much more agreeable once roomed with someone bigger than him.