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Chapter 15

Three of us look at our watches at the exact same instant, and I resist the silly, tequila-induced urge to yell “jinx,” which is probably not even appropriate. We have about an hour to look for the Old One, and I don’t relish the thought of that, even with the lights on in the Anthropology building. But actually we have less than that, because Ned will have to go disarm the bomb with plenty of room to make sure that he can get to it in time. So we start to stroll down the hill and across toward anthro, with no plan at all. Just before we get to the stone and cement fence that borders the walkway we hear a noise, startling in the silence there. It sounds like a diesel truck starting up, which is a pretty odd thing to be happening on a campus that has been through what ours went through in the past week. I start to wonder who it could be, but Ned leaps to the ground with the eight-bore and yells “somebody help me hold the end steady while I draw a bead.”I’m closest to him so I get down on the ground to help, but I also say “wait a minute, Ned, what’s all the shootin’ fer?”

And everyone is apparently thinking a lot more clearly than I am, because Nolan kneels down, says “it’s escaping,” and then starts to give Ned instructions. This takes a second, and Marisa sits down on the walk and pulls out her cell phone, presumably to call the police. While Ned and Nolan are discussing how to bring down a large truck in a populated area with an ancient hunting rifle the ground leaps up at us and the wall comes down. The next thing I can remember is looking at my family in the hospital.

“Jesus, Neal, you had us worried,” Molly yelps and bursts into tears. This makes the kid cry too, because he doesn’t know what’s going on. So she must have held things together pretty well. So I wonder to myself how long I was out of it and try to calm her down at the same time.

I wasn’t seriously injured, nor were any of the others who were there on the hill with me. We all sustained mostly bruises and scrapes, and Travis caught a brick on his side and got a few broken ribs. Three of us had concussions, maybe from the blast, maybe from chunks of brick and building and such. The fence apparently saved us from some super-sonic chips of the anthropology building that scarred some of the buildings across the way. I was mostly just tired, and I woke up within a couple of hours.

The next morning I was able to talk to Scott, and he filled me in on what happened to the others. There may have been some casualties in the building itself, but the truck with the Old One in it got away and was still at large.

The drilling had stopped permanently once the administration woke up and saw what was going on. The Chancellor and some of the others involved with the building projects had a number of things to explain, not the least of which were the destruction of several campus buildings and a few missing faculty. Classes were canceled for a couple of weeks until they could be certain the place was safe. No telling whether the kids and their parents would ever be certain of that, though. They’ll drift back when they find out that no-place is ever really safe.

Scott had brought Quillan. The old guy dropped everything to come out and tie up some loose ends in town that he felt guilty about leaving in the first place. For a while, federal authorities would be swarming all over campus, and Quillan wanted to make sure that he got to the right people to tell them about the problem the campus had had.

I couldn’t imagine the campus recovering from all of this, but somehow I felt better about things while I slept, a great deal, on Sunday. I continued to feel better on Monday, although I called in sick, just to make sure.

Despite the fact that I had a concussion, I was in better shape than the school itself. I felt like I was almost certain to be fired, since I was on campus for what could only be nefarious purposes at the time it suddenly blew up. And there is nothing like knowing you are about to be fired to make you feel like you have nothing to lose. Monday I slept a lot and played with my son, recovering. But Tuesday morning I got dressed and headed for the office, intending to give my boss a piece of my mind before he fired me. After all, it was the day I was supposed to present my strategic plan to the boss and his expensive lapdog consultant. How could I miss that?

I looked pretty rough, still had scrapes on my face that looked a little raw and a bruise on one cheek that looked ghastly. But I smiled to myself as I put on my stupid suit, thinking that this would probably be the last time wearing it before my next job interview. Something nice about looking like you have been in a fight. It can make people think twice about hassling you.

I got to the office a little early and pulled out my notes, the ones that realistically appraised the funding environment that the school faced, and read them over one more time. They were a little sketchy, still, but they were probably a good enough start. A couple of people stopped by my office to gawk at my face a little, and Sid stopped by once to make sure I was okay. I told him I was fine. And I was.

When I got to the big boss’s office his secretary made me wait while she phoned him, even though I could tell there was nobody in there but he and the consultant. He made me wait a few minutes anyway.

I walked in and sat down at the stupid glass conference table with the two of them, a stupid smile hanging from my damaged face, and prepared to launch into my plan. But he preempted me.

“Neal, we met with Quillan yesterday, and he gave us some story about what had happened. Just to let you know, I don’t believe one word of it, not a word. But he has assured us that you have been instrumental in securing a large foundation donation for this campus, so I’m willing to overlook these lies, for the time being. Keep them coming and I’m willing to look the other way. Remember that.”

I just stared at a place about a foot behind his eyes thinking thoughts like “foundation donation, story, lies. Which are the lies? The foundation donation? The story? Who knows?” His consultant-toady nodded, so he kept going.

“Now this gift is all restricted money, which is really unfortunate. As you know, the Chancellor really wants us to find more unrestricted money to devote to the excavation project, which we believe will continue as planned.”

More nodding, pretty much the same sorts of nods as before, and I just sit there, stupid smile, although I have no idea what he’s talking about. I can’t imagine Quillan telling this guy what really happened, but, again, who knows? Not me, that’s for sure.

“So I hope your plans will take that into account,” he says, and I realize that it’s a question, maybe even a prompt, and I prepare to launch into my plan. But I realize that, having brought in some sort of large gift about which I have no knowledge casts this whole enterprise in doubt. I don’t know how I can say anything, but he saves me from having to. I find that fundraisers are pretty uncomfortable with silence. They abhor it like nature doth a vacuum.

He starts in again. “Neal, I’m sure you’ll understand, we have Kyle something-or-other, the maths prof, coming in to talk to us about a great-and-lucrative-new-business-possibility-that-we-may-be-able-to-capitalize-upon. So I’m going to have to cut this shorter than usual so we can fleece the guy. Keep up the good work, and get us some unrestricted money.” He stands up to shake my hand, and I hate that, because he’s got one of those dead-fish things going on there.

My head spins a little. Did he really say “fleece the guy”? I turn around just before I open the door to leave. “Hey, Paul.”

“Yeah,” he says, already chatting with the consultant, having dismissed me he’s surprised I still exist.

“This guy, if he puts you in a tough spot, just mention that the University could be persuaded to revisit the issue of eminent domain with him.”

Just then Ted breezes through the door and apologizes for having nearly run me down. “Hey, Neal,” he says, “heard about what happened. Say what-the-hell were you doing up there, anyway?”

Probably the question is rhetorical, most of his seem to be. But as he joins the Exec and his toady I feel like I should answer. “I don’t know, just trying to help, I guess.”

The three of them give me this puzzled look. Then the Exec speaks again.

“Help. Neal, you know what the road to hell is paved with, don’t you?”

They go back to their conversation and I shake my head and walk out, almost bumping into Kyle as I turn. I smile at him and apologize, and then I close the door behind me.

A couple of hours later Ted comes into my office, white as a sheet. I was just sitting there staring into space and trying to process the last week, not in an active way, but more like staring at the wall and leaning back in my chair. “Say Neal, have you got a second?”

“Sure, Ted. What’s up?”

“I don’t know if I should tell anyone this, but you saw what happened with Kyle in the cafeteria last week, so I’m hoping you’ll believe me.”

I just look at him. Then I feel a little bad, although I’m wondering what the hell has happened to make him turn white like that. Hopefully this whole thing isn’t happening all over again. So I ask him “what’s up, Ted? I’ll keep it quiet. Did Kyle give another one of his demonstrations?”

“I guess you could call it that.”

“Didn’t it go well?”

“Depends on how you look at it. We talked a little bit and then Paul wanted to see a demonstration, but you know how he could be a little demanding?”

“Yeah.”

“So Kyle didn’t want to show him. And then Paul got this attitude about the whole thing, like he had a right to see what the fuss was about, and since the University was paying his salary when he got this idea, and, well, you know how he could be?”

I just nod.

“Well he got to the point where Kyle really had him flustered, I guess, because Kyle wasn’t saying anything. Not yes, not no, not anything. So Paul started into how it would be a shame if the University had to push its eminent domain suit against him.”

I almost choke at this last part, but I manage to blurt out “there’s nothing to that suit, and he knows it.” I had asked Scott about it on Sunday, for some reason that still escapes me.

“Yeah, nothing to it. Anyway, so Kyle says to him ‘when Neal left you reminded him of an old saying, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ And then Paul said ‘that’s what they say.’

Then Kyle got this look in his eye, though. And he got up from the table and then started acting more like a professor. He said something about there being many roads to Hell. And then he said that these roads are paved with all sorts of different materials. And then he walked over to the whiteboard and started drawing some things. And he kept lecturing us and I wasn’t really paying attention, never was when it came to math, you know. But when I looked over at Paul he was in this sort of trance. He was just staring at the whiteboard. Well then Kyle stopped talking, ended up with the words ‘as you can see.’ And Paul just looked terrified. And then suddenly he got up from the table and took a step. But as he took that first step he just vanished—vanished.

Ted’s sweating now and I have no idea what to say to him. No idea. “Congratulations,” is what I finally decide on.

The next couple of days were a blur, with a whole range of investigations into what had happened. It didn’t take long for everybody to decide it was a federal matter, though, and then things got pretty quiet again, except for my job.

Quillan asked me to head up a private foundation he put together in the wake of the disaster. He and a couple of other professors got together and found a few commercial applications for things that were inspired by dreams the week before and then money began to pour into the fund. He wanted me to keep talking to professors on campus and fund projects that looked promising in terms of their ability to keep the world safe from bug-eyed monsters. Top of my priority list was figuring out where that Old One went and making sure that somebody put it out of commission. It was a cause I could really sink my teeth into.

There were at least forty-odd professors on campus who were working on projects that were significantly bizarre, which they had started that semester under the influence of the Old One. I now had an interesting job, one that felt pretty important and vital.

I guess there’s something to be said about being in a place that you find really strange, and then being confirmed in that opinion, being validated. At least there is for me. So this place, this town, wasn’t the western suburban paradise that I grew up in. So what? So its weather was too muggy in the summer and there were too many bugs, and the drivers are jerks and the roads are a living hell. The most important thing to me in my life, I had come to find, was being right—and I was right about this place. Suddenly, I could forgive the rest.

I began to feel like I was making a home here at last.

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Comments»

1. It is done « Sure as a Blog Returns to its Vomit - November 30, 2006

[…] You may find the final chapter here.  Tomorrow the whole thing is going to be collapsed into a pdf on this site, I think.  […]


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