We Still Live
Sara Dobie Bauer © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Dr. Isaac Twain stood in a cozy house surrounded by strangers, where a forced jubilation floated like stale smoke. The house was something out of the Shire, a hobbit home for humans, on a hilltop in Lothos, Ohio, overlooking Hambden University’s campus.
Isaac had been dragged around the party earlier and introduced. The head of the English Department called him an “emergency hire.” Emergency because two of their professors had resigned a week before the semester started when they realized they couldn’t come back, not after what happened.
The unfamiliar faces of his new coworkers floated in and out of Isaac’s attention. In the overwarm, crowded kitchen, two older ladies smiled up at him and tried asking about his work, his life—did he have a wife?—but he ducked their questions like a soldier ducks bullets. For a time, he hovered among them with his glass of wine until a delightfully disorganized bookshelf in a room off the main foyer caught his eye, and he took solace.
Stepping inside, he cast a glance over what had to be someone’s office. An antique oak desk anchored the space, though its surface was bare and dusty from nonuse. A couple of framed band posters decorated the walls, but the only name Isaac recognized was Freddie Mercury. Trying not to snoop, he turned his attention back to the initial object of interest.
Books of all shapes and sizes crammed into the shelves at odd angles. Half were alphabetized, as if their owner had once considered organization and admitted defeat. In the top right corner sat a bobblehead, some kind of rodent with a red W on its chest. Isaac bopped the critter on the head, and it nodded in response.
An author named John Conlon dominated an entire half shelf. Isaac grabbed a book with bright binding—young adult, if the cover was anything to go by. He set his glass of wine on the nearby table, empty but for a photograph of a smiling couple with dark hair (whoever lived here was apparently not a fan of clutter) and flipped pages. He read the first line—It wasn’t meant to happen that summer, but by then, Declan understood the things he meant and the things he did were often at odds—until a stranger arrived at his side.
“Hey, newbie. You hiding?”
Isaac looked up to find an overgrown frat boy with spiked blond hair and a square-shaped head staring back at him. “Maybe,” Isaac said. He lifted his chin toward the kitchen. “It’s claustrophobic in there.”
The man shrugged. “What can I say? We’re overbearing, given the right amount of alcohol.” He extended his hand. “I’m Tommy Dewars.”
Isaac slid the Conlon book back where it belonged and accepted Tommy’s greeting. “Isaac Twain.”
“We’re playing the name game later. See if you remember everybody. If you mess up, you’re fired.”
He squinted up at Isaac. “Not to be weird, but English professors aren’t usually seven feet of solid muscle.”
Isaac almost choked on his drink. Granted, people often commented on his height and physique, but Tommy’s remark still caught him off guard. “I used to run marathons,” he said. “But I’m a geek on the inside. Promise.” When Tommy smiled, Isaac tipped his head toward the dusty desk. “This your place?”
“Mine? No, God, no. I live in a shithole closer to campus. This is John’s place. He’s driving back from Wisconsin today, but he should be here soon. How long have you been in town? Heard you moved up from North Carolina?”
“South Carolina. Charleston.” He finished half the glass of wine in one go. “I’ve only been here a couple days.”
Tommy’s wrinkled plaid button-down untucked from his jeans when he scratched his belly, and he sipped what appeared to be whiskey. “Why the hell would you move to Ohio from Charleston?”
Isaac shrugged as the boisterous kitchen conversation spilled down the hall. “Change of scenery.”
Somewhere, a glass dropped and shattered. Disinterested, Isaac paid the disturbance no mind so was ill prepared for a sudden assault. He huffed out a breath when Tommy suddenly tackled him to the floor, both their glasses flying. Isaac held his hands up, bracing for a punch…until he realized he wasn’t being attacked.
Tommy, eyes wide, scrambled off Isaac and sat back on his heels. “Shit, I am so sorry.”
Isaac leaned up on his elbows. “You okay?”
Jaw clenched, Tommy sputtered a chuckle. “Apparently not.” He stood and helped Isaac to his feet. He laughed some more and brushed at the front of Isaac’s blazer. “I, uh…” He pressed his lips together and glanced behind him. “New habits, I guess. Jesus.” He smacked Isaac on the shoulder. “Seriously, are you okay?”
Isaac’s heart thudded in his chest, but he still said, “Fine.”
“I need to get you another drink.”
Isaac picked up their dropped glasses, spilled but not broken. “It’s all right.”
“You came at a really bad time, man.”
“I know.” He did know. Well, he knew enough. School shootings were practically a weekly occurrence. Six people had died in a campus shooting at Hambden the spring before, although that was his only detail. Details seemed too heavy, the number of lives lost countrywide like rocks tied to the necks of those drowning in despair.
“What are you teaching this semester?”
“Mostly composition,” Isaac said, silently agreeing to Tommy’s need to just move on and forget about the impromptu tackle. “Guess they want to make sure I know what I’m talking about before they give me upperclassmen.”
Tommy frowned at the empty glasses Isaac placed on a shelf. “Composition. You don’t even get English majors in there. You’ll probably be dealing with a bunch of business nerds trying to learn how to write office memos.”
Close as they were to the foyer, Isaac was the first to notice the front door opening. A student walked inside. The kid dragged a heavy-looking suitcase behind him. Dressed as he was in a slim-fitting button-down, Isaac immediately assumed preppy, although that assumption altered and changed when taking into account the tight black jeans, Converse sneakers, and shaggy hair the color of caramel and chocolate—a mass of waves and curls that fell down the back of his neck but not quite to his shoulders.
The kid pushed his hair out of the way and looked up, eyes finding Isaac and flashing a moment of panicked nonrecognition before seeing Tommy.
“Um.” Isaac pointed toward the new arrival.
Tommy turned and shouted, “John! My man!”
Not a student, then.
Tommy wrapped John in a hug that actually lifted his feet off the ground. Isaac imagined it wouldn’t be difficult. The new guy might have been average height, but he was gangly, skin and bones.
Tommy ruffled his hair. “Have you lost weight?”
John grumbled and scratched his face with his middle finger. “What are you freeloaders doing in my house?” His voice was surprisingly resonant for someone Isaac considered “pretty.” At John’s pronouncement, crows of approval rang from every direction.
“Come meet Isaac,” Tommy said.
John wiped his palms on his jeans before reaching out to shake, and Isaac’s large hand dwarfed his.
“Isaac Twain is the newest addition to our special corner of Hambden hell. Isaac, this is John Conlon.”
John brushed more hair out of his face. “Nice to—”
John and Tommy froze.
Isaac jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The books on the shelf. Those are yours?”
John’s face, immobile in what looked like dread a moment before, melted into relief, tinged with a bit of blush. “Oh, yeah. You’ve read?”
“No, but I should. You’ve published a lot of books. You must be good.”
John’s nose wrinkled, and he looked away.
Tommy shook him by the shoulders. “John is an amazing writer. He had a story published in The New Yorker when he was, like, five. Are you working on anything right now?”
John glanced at the bookshelf. “Not lately.”
“You need a drink,” Tommy said.
John’s eyes widened on a big breath. “God, yes, I do.”
“Nice to meet you,” Isaac said, but John just nodded quickly, smile thin, before allowing himself to be herded farther into the house toward the sound of quiet laughter and clinking bottles.
Isaac felt it then—an outsider’s emptiness. He became a nervous-looking coat rack in the corner, a terrified tree waiting for the ax. As the party doubled in auditory volume, he bemoaned his spilled wine. Was it okay for him to leave? It wasn’t like he was supposed to make a speech. He was only there because he figured it was the easiest way to meet everyone before the first official faculty meeting, but he’d been standing around too long. He wanted to run.
Out of curiosity, he reopened John’s book from earlier and read the front flap. It was a coming-of-age story about a gay kid in the Midwest. He flipped to the back, and a picture of John stared back at him. He’d assumed the guy was tired when they first met, but no; apparently, John had perpetual bedroom eyes, and his hair was always an artful mess. He skimmed…creative writing professor at Hambden University…gay rights activist…Converse-wearer and “old-people music” enthusiast.
All arrows pointed to John’s probable sexual preference for men. A spark of interest flickered but quickly went out. True, John Conlon was what most people would consider beautiful, but he wasn’t Isaac’s type. John was the kind of man butch guys fought over in gay clubs, but he was too small for Isaac, too fragile-looking, girly. After all he’d been through, the last thing Isaac wanted was someone feminine.
A thin figure ducked into the library and literally hid against the doorframe. He took a long drink of something brown and leaned his head back. “It’s not good when you want to hide in your own house.”
“Library is the best place for it,” Isaac said.
John kicked away from the wall. “Tommy mentioned you just moved here? I’ve been in Lothos forever, so if you need anything…” He examined Isaac from his brown boat shoes to the top of his blond head. John’s large eyes, dark green, seemed bottomless—drowning pools of intellect and soul—only slightly overshadowed by his thick eyebrows.
Isaac took a step backward in response to his inspection. “Um, Tommy mentioned you were on your way back from Wisconsin?”
“I grew up there. My family’s still there. I took the summer… I…um…” He closed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I’m usually really good at finishing sentences.”
A bubble of amusement rose in Isaac’s chest.
“You look like I feel.”
“And how do you feel?” Isaac asked.
“Like I want to bury my head in a hole. Or get messy drunk.” He lifted his glass in an unreciprocated toast and drank.
“This is going to sound really insensitive, but can I ask you a question?”
John coughed once, quickly. A loud laugh from the hallway made him startle and look over his shoulder.
Isaac could have backpedaled—should have, based on the way his coworker now resembled a spooked deer—but in for a penny. “Do you mind me asking what happened?”
John stared at him for a long moment before his mouth curved into something like a smile. The intelligent scrutiny of his gaze disappeared in a haze of what Isaac assumed was memory. Then he said, “You don’t know,” with an abundance of relief.
“I know it’s very ignorant of me, and possibly callous, but no.”
John traced his pale finger along the edge of the bookcase. “It was on College Green last June. The College of Arts and Sciences award ceremony. One of our students started shooting, and he eventually shot himself.”
“You were there?”
John laughed, which seemed sorely out of place. “Yeah, I was there. All of us were there.” He leaned closer, so close Isaac smelled bourbon on his breath. “A word of advice: don’t ask anyone else about it unless you’re really good with tears.”
Isaac shifted from one foot to the other. “You’re not crying.”
“No.” He finished his glass and spun around. “I need more alcohol.” It felt like a brush-off, an escape.
“John. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t.” He tapped his palm on the doorframe and looked back. “You know, you don’t have to stay here hiding. It’s painful watching introverts try to acclimate in social situations.”
Isaac smirked. “How do you know I’m an introvert?”
“We recognize our own kind, man. Every day of my life, my mantra is ‘Don’t be awkward.’”
“How’s that working for you?”
“Not well.” John smiled, rows of white teeth on display, and Isaac felt like the sun shined on his face. “Nice meeting you, Isaac. Now, go the fuck home.”
Relieved, Isaac dug his leather coat from the hall closet. Isaac having come from the South, the Midwestern nights chilled his bones. He did his best not to draw attention as he snuck to the front door and out into evening. He glanced back once and pondered John Conlon, a contradiction of a man. Not a student but a teacher; not a yuppie but a man who used “fuck” at faculty parties. Not a friend yet, but maybe.