Leaving Misery

This story is about a guy who returns to his home town during a college break to find things not how he left them.  I have never attended Mizzou or ever met the people in the story; my story is fictional. It is a short story I wrote in my creative writing class Junior year of college – in March 2005. I had a final version I turned in at the close of the semester, but I seem to have misplaced it. Things I fixed in the final edition: 1. there was more back story to the main character’s house in the college town and his relationship and 2. the main character does not meet with his former girlfriend so coincidentally. Maybe I’ll fix it up and make it better another day?

Jeremy Karnowski

3/28/2005

Leaving Misery

The map of Missouri had always been in the glove compartment, and yet Mark decided to randomly seek out directions south of the highway. He was running on intuition, and it paid off, for quickly he leaned back the driver’s chair and cruised down the road toward what would seem like a skyscraper in the midst of fields and trees. As he drove under the bridge separating the sections of the hospital, he saw the giant letters of Boone Hospital illuminated under spotlights. He passed his birthplace and he drove into the heart of the campus town of Columbia, Missouri.

Mark pulled off to a residential side street and pulled out his cell phone and a small yellow post-it note with a number scribbled on it. After dialing, he waited and stared at a small white house outside his window.

“Hello?”

“Hey, is Coby there?”

“Yeah, hold up, let me get him for you.” Mark continued to stare at the house. A family was coming down the porch and heading towards the small Geo in the drive. The kid kept looking over at Mark’s car, tugging on his father’s coat and pointing at Mark. Mark looked the other way, but kept his car on the curb in front of the house.

“Hi? This is Coby.”

“Hey Coby. It’s Mark.” After a moment, Mark took the phone from his face and stared at the screen. He went to type in the numbers again, but he heard a faint voice. He put the cellphone back up to his ear. “What was that?”

“What do you want?”

“I’m back in town for the break, and I was seeing if you wanted to grab a bite to eat tonight, or sometime soon.” The car at the house had backed out of the drive and drove past him. All the while, the kid was staring down Mark, looking through the side window then the back window.

“I guess I’m free for a little while. I have plans tonight, though.”

“How does a short dinner sound then?”

“Short is good. I assume you have a car now?”

“Yeah. Want me to come by and pick you up?”

“Don’t bother.” There was a pause. “It’s hard to get around the campus in a car. Just try and park somewhere and walk over to my dorm. Room 317”

“Alright, which one is it?”

“It’s near the new construction.”

Mark furrowed his brow and shifted his shoulders up and backwards in his chair. “Construction?”

“Yeah, it’s hard to miss. Huge construction site.”

“Alright, see you soon,” Mark jammed his thumb into the red button, and tossed the cell phone into the passenger seat.

Mark went back out to the main road. He drove past the campus on one side and fraternities and churches on the other side, and reached a large demolished region. Cattycorner to the construction site was a large dorm that was also being renovated. There were several thousand feet of orange checkered fences blocking from every direction. Mark took a right turn past the construction and headed towards the heart of campus. Looking around for parking spaces, Mark finally saw a lot. It said visitor parking, but it was past hours for the meters. With a sigh, Mark made his way into the lot and took the free parking.

Mark walked down the street, took the phone out of his trenchcoat, and dialed.

“Hey Coby, are you ready to go?”

“I thought you would be heading up to my room?”

“Too much construction, I don’t know how to get through this mess of fencing.”

“Alright, I’ll be down soon.”

Mark waited around and looked around at the demolished landscape on the edge of campus. Jagged boulders jutted from the soil and weeds. Patches of snow and ice encased the landscape, and the lights on the construction equipment emblazoned the icy shards. Students were bundled up and walking to and fro conversing with each other. Mark knew that they had probably gotten used to the scar, but he still continued to stare back and forth between the pedestrians and the construction site. He glanced back at another passerby.

“Coby.” Mark stepped towards him and grasped his hand in greeting. Coby seemed to be just as Mark remembered. He was a tall, lanky boy with a thick head of black hair and a similar beard to boot. He wore bluejeans, a yellow Mizzou shirt, and a black jacket. As Mark looked away and pointed at the construction, Coby flexed and rubbed his hand. “When did this start?” Mark said pointing to the emptiness.

“A few months after you left. I think it is supposed to be some sort of new science facility, I’m not sure.” He began to walk back towards the parking lot, and Mark followed closely behind. They turned right and began to pass the academic buildings, walking in silence. There were a few other students walking around the buildings, and a few more lingering around the stone archway of the Union. Coby slowed down a bit and scratched the back of his head.

“Did you hear that we played Kansas last week?”

“Yeah, of course, they’re your rivals.”

Coby winced. “Yes, yes, our rivals. It was the last game in that stadium. They built a new one, and now we’re tearing down the old one.”

“Holy shit, are you serious?”

Coby looked sideways at him. “Of course. But it sucks, because we lost the game. You’d figure that we would at least tried harder to win.”

“I loved that stadium, too, but Coby… they aren’t really the greatest team.”

“We beat you.”

“Got lucky you mean. They were losing til the last two minutes. You lost your best man, and you still won. I’ll never understand it. It was totally a fluke.”

Coby’s jaw stood fixed while his lips pursed beneath the unkempt black tangles of his beard. “I’m just saying we should have won that last game.”

“Yeah, probably.” Mark picked up the pace a bit.

***

The door opened and Mark was greeted with an old familiar smell of crusty bread and the odor of searing meats. Shakespeare’s Pizza was busy with patrons at the counter and filling the dining rooms. The walls were wood paned, and some Mizzou memorabilia scattered the upper portions of the wall. Two small kids cut them off, running towards their left. As they waited at the counter, Mark turned and looked at the kids. They were standing on a short wooden staircase and had thrust their greasy hands and faces onto the plexiglass wall to admire the pizza making process. Two young college aged students smiled at the kids and proceeded, in the midst of gasps from the children, to slice up dough, flatten it, and twirl it high in the air towards the ceiling. Mark leaned his hand against the plexiglass near the order cutout and smiled.

“What do you want?” Coby asked from behind him and he turned.

“What did you want?” After Coby shrugged, Mark said, “I want the pepperoni.”

“Yeah, I was thinking that too.”

Mark grinned. “Sure. Here – let me get it.” He stepped in front of Coby to position himself at the counter. “I’ll take a large pepperoni pizza.” He looked at Coby, who curtly nodded.

They headed to the counter and gave them the order slip. “Would you like a soda?”

“Definitely,” said Mark. “Those cups make great souvenirs for my apartment.” He nudged Coby. “Right?”

“I guess so.” He rubbed between his nose and cheek, and looked at the cashier. “I’ll take a soda, too.”

They moved away from the counters and grabbed an empty table amidst the crowd. Both of them were sitting very firm and upright, fiddling with the end of the table on each side. Mark looked around to see the tables littered with the school paper. The free issues of this morning’s USA Today and the New York Times were still freshly organized in the paper rack, and Mark figured it would be the same way tomorrow. The dining room was full of friendly chatter, however, and Mark looked around at the faces. Frowning after some searching, he turned back to his table.

“So, are you still studying Biology?” Coby asked.

“No, I’m over that.”

“Oh, I see. It’s what I’m doing now.”

“Sure, of course. That makes sense.”

Coby let out a sigh. “So what ever happened to you and Rachel?”

“What do you mean?” Mark looked over at the pizza counter, trying to determine the situation on their pizza. He fumbled with the little red plastic marker with the number twelve etched in white. The piece stopped and he looked at Coby.

“Well, you headed off to college and left her. And, well, no one’s really heard from you since.” Coby glanced over at the pizza counter as well, and saw someone bringing over a metal pan. “And she’s never said anything about it.” The worker laid the pizza and a triangular spatula on the table and went back to the ovens.

“I thought she finally decided to head off to the east coast for medical school. She was up for that scholarship. There was really no point.” He opened his eyes a bit wider and stared at Coby, then squinted. “Is she still around here?”

Coby thrust the spatula between two slices and grinded back and forth to separate loose crust and stringy cheese. He slid the piece onto his plate, and rested his elbow on the table inviting him to take the spatula. “Yeah, she’s still around.”

***

Mark walked out of Shakespeare’s Pizza and his feet cracked on the sidewalk. The wisps of pepperoni and sausage simmered out of the door as it fell shut. With his hands out at his sides, he began to walk slowly to the grass, and continued towards the street corner leaving tracks behind him in the fresh layer of white powder. He paused at the corner, huddled in his off-white trenchcoat, and blowing heavily into his hands. He tried to brush the snow off his head, but it just melted into his blond hair. The blinking of the streetlights made the empty street glow red and yellow, and he checked to make sure no cars were coming.

He made his way along Ninth Street, nodding to passing people to try and get some acknowledgement, but people seemed either too busy or cold to take interest. He made a sharp turn and decided to head into part of campus. The staff parking was empty, and no one seemed to care this time around whether or not he could play on the sculptures, yet they seemed so small to justify the opportunity. He made his way into the middle of the field and stood still for awhile just staring.

At the end of the field there stood six large columns. It was as if remnants of a Greek temple stood midst a sea of white sand. It seemed as if the columns were supported by clouds and yet the columns grew upward to an empty ceiling of black and blue. A crow cawed in a distant tree, and Mark saw a shower of snow fall as it took flight. With his feet stuck firmly in the few inches of snow layered with ice, he took one foot out and tried to gently place it on the top of the ice. It was stiff, but when he shifted his body the ice collapsed. He tried a few more times, but each attempt brought the same result. He gave up and soon as he did, he was hit in the side of the head by a snowball.

“What the hell!?” Mark muttered. He spun around, flipping his hair around trying to free himself of the dust. He brushed his hand over his pale pink cheeks and put it back in his pocket.

“Mark!”

“Rachel? How did…? Where…?” He looked around the field. “Hi.”

“Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re back. It’s been forever.”

“Yeah, it has.” Mark stomped in some more snow around his feet.

“I saw you from across the way. Were you trying to float around the campus?” She let out a giggle.

Mark let out a sigh and humored her. “I used to be able to do it as a kid. The ice was just thick enough and you could walk on the top layer. Me and Josh used to do it on the playground all the time.” He looked her over, analyzing. “I bet you could do it.”

She blushed, lowered her head and shook it a bit. She gazed back up. “Look. I don’t know what you have going on, but if you are around later, let’s meet up, hang out. You know, have a good time.” She smiled and popped her shoulders up, bouncing her hair about.

“Why are you still in Columbia? I thought you left.”

“I didn’t mind… I don’t mind going to school near my family. Neither do most of our old friends, Mark. I really wanted to be near those I loved. You should have… you should call me later tonight.

“I’ll see what I’m doing.”

She pulled out a green sheet of paper and scribbled on it. Walking up to him, she slid her hand in his pocket, depositing the slip. While his arms were still thrust into his pockets, she wrapped her arms around him. She looked up at Mark and started to raise her head. He leaned back and she dropped her arms.

“I’ll see you?” she asked in a hushed tone.

“We’ll see what I’m up to.” He had his head jerked sideways a bit and was staring over at the columns.

“Ok.” She turned and walked from the field, pushing her foot through the ice on each step.

Mark walked the opposite direction, and trekked across the ice.

***

During his wandering, he strayed towards the outskirts of campus. The thumping of the bass on the nearby street made him change his direction and head towards its source. He looked up at the street sign, then down at the green flyer, and continued walking. Since it was the beginning of winter break, he assumed that not too many people were around, and this would probably be the only party he could find. He reached the patio of the two story white house and nodded his head towards the people sitting on the swinging bench. He noticed the disarray of the bottles all over the porch, and coughed as he passed through the film of cigar smoke. A few people eyed him, but no one said anything to him as he entered the house.

The house was full to the brim with partygoers, and he could see why some had spilled out onto the deck. A mellow pulsating dance track spawned a crowd of gyrating hips and lingering hands in the room to his right. Up the stairs on his left, he could see the tail end of a single file line, and a girl walked down the steps adjusting her skirt. Sticking his hand in between bodies like a wedge, he made his way straight into the kitchen. A guy was bending over with his head in the fridge and he pulled up to stare at the label and contents of his beverage. Coby took out a bottle opener and popped the tap off the cold bottle, while Mark immediately turned and walked towards the water cooler on the opposite side of the crowd.

Grapping a red plastic cup very slowly, Mark filled it shallowly with a pinkish liquid. He raised it to his nose, and smelling nothing, decided to sip it. He paused, looking out the window, then downed rest of it. While filling his next cup to the top, he felt a loosening of his bladder, but realized it would soon pass. When Mark turned, gulping from his cup, he opened his eye to see Coby handing a second beer to Rachel. He spit most of his mouth out, hitting a guy next to him, and dropped his cup to the floor.

“Hey, asshole!” said the partygoer, while a few others turned to see the cause of their wet ankles and shoes, and avoid the growing pink puddle. Mark stood still looking over towards the counter next to the fridge. “I’m talking to you, you little prick.” He shoved Mark back into the counter, causing him to slip on the floor and fall into a sitting position. Mark felt a tug on his shirt and jacket, and was lifted to rest against the sink counter. He looked at his assaulter.

“What?”

“What?! Dude, you just spit all the fuck over me.” He wiped his shirt collar and neck and showed him his hand. The room started to grow silent, but the bass could be felt from across the house.

Now recalling the immediacy of the moment, his forehead shifted upwards. “Oh shit, my bad.”

“Who let you in here anyway?” He looked down at Mark’s clothing and then back up to his face. “Who the hell are you.”

“I… I…”

“Do you know anyone here? Did someone invite you? I sure as hell know I didn’t.”

Mark struggled to free his hand from being pinned from the counter and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a green paper, and flipping his wrist, held the paper between his two fingers separating their eyes.

He grabbed the paper, and let up from Mark. The whole kitchen was looking towards their direction. Mark found the eyes of Rachel. He could see her hand at her cheek as she mouthed ‘oh shit.’ She looked anxious, and in a shaken manner, patted Coby’s arm as she walked towards him.

“Sorry Chip. This is Mark. He’s on break too. Cut him some slack.” She grabbed the sheet of paper from him and a paper towel from the counter. She slapped the paper towel onto the chest of Mark’s attacker.

He grunted while Rachel straightened out Mark’s shirt. Chip looked around the room, and headed back to the hallway.

She leaned over to the side of Mark, and stumbled. Her breath smelled of beer and vodka, and while cheek to cheek, she whispered “I told you to call me later tonight.” Rachel leaned back and winked awkwardly, but then she was pulled backwards. She let out a shriek as she almost slipped on the alcohol, and then a giggle. Coby hauled her to her feet and forced open her hand. He looked at the green sheet of paper, flipped it over back and forth a few times and then just glared at Mark.

Mark put his hands up and began to mutter. “Look, I had no idea…”

Coby shoved the note in the palm of his hand towards Mark and shoved through the crowd.

“Oh come on, Mark, don’t mind him. He’s been cranky all night anyway.”

Mark let out a groan and looked at her with a wrinkled face and shiny canines. “Shut up.” He pushed her aside as he likewise ran for the door. Outside, Mark saw a shadowy figure walking down the sidewalk. He half slid, half jumped down the staircase, and stood by the line of cars. “Coby!” The figure turned and began to walk faster. Mark kicked the nearby car and growled. Sharp pointy icicles hit the ground and shattered. “Damnit. Wait up, Coby!” he called and began to jog.

Hearing the quickened footsteps, Coby turned around and walked towards him. “Look, I know you knew. You’re a son of a bitch, you know that.” His fists were at his sides.

“I swear, Coby,” he stopped jogging and slid a foot or two on the ice. “She never said. You never said. I” he paused, still holding out his arms. Putting them down, he stood up straight and stared at the fists. “Look. Whatever you may think I don’t love her. Back before, you know, when she chose me, that’s not my fault.”

Coby lifted his arms out and shook them about. “Why are you here?” He took a step forward and pointed at the party. “Do you know how long it took for me to…”

“You win, man. You win. Look, I don’t care. She’s all yours. I never wanted a fight.” He put his hand to his chest and then brought them forward to point at Coby. “Look. See? I give her to you. All yours, man.”

Coby thrust a fist into his face and Mark fell to the snow, tasting blood and salt. Lying on the ground, Coby stood above him and kicked him in the gut.

***

Mark sat in the waiting room of the emergency room, holding a red cloth up to his nose. Suddenly a young girl walked up to him. She pointed at his chest. “Do you go there?” He nodded. “I was thinking of applying, and heading there next year if I got accepted. What do you think of the place?”

Mark looked around the room. He saw a boy in a wheelchair to his left and on his right he saw an old man bent over in his chair, his hand grasping a metal rod holding up the medicine that flowed to his arm. He took the cloth from his face. “I’ll see you there.”

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