It follows a guy who thinks he's taking a tour of a prestigious school. In reality, he's entering into a world of pain. Here are the first six pages. It's from a collection called Hell & Other Exciting Places. Beta readers feel free to message me your e-mail and I will send a PDF of the collection.
of the Arts
by Oscar Lopez Jr.
Sheryl’s dull eyes stared at him.
“What’s so great about this college?” Jim took another bite of his colorful breakfast cereal. Each crunch made him feel like he was actively destroying rainbows and horseshoes, lost gems of a forgotten cereal world.
“Well,” She scrunched her nose, standing to one side of the drab room, arching her cheekbone. This is how their conversations went of late. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” He hesitated.
“It has a big ass sign in an arch that says: ADDLETON COLLEGE of the ARTS?”
She made the statement sound like more of a question, another of her new trademarks. It would later turn out, Sheryl was brimming with surprises.
“ ‘A big ass sign?’ ” He recapped, taking another bite of this death to rainbows and horseshoes cereal, sticking it to happiness one bite at a time.
“It’s a great sign.” Sheryl wore a dull smile, rubbing the sleeve of her beige cardigan. “You should go out there and see it sometime.” She shrugged with the whole side of her body, contorting really. “Maybe enroll?”
Jim momentarily ceased all mastication, sparing another horseshoe death by unmerciful crunching. His eyes peeled up from the cereal to meet his girlfriend standing in the center of the bleak living room.
“Okay.” He considered it a second, agreed.
“Really?” She almost exclaimed, but caught herself just in time to keep in tune with the lackadaisical mood of hers.
“I’ll swing by later.” He spoke through a mouthful of cereal.
“Whatever . . .” She shrugged again, but only slightly raised a shoulder this time.
“So,” he ran the spoon around the edge of the bowl, now mostly milk with a few pieces of cereal swirling about. “Is it just a regular sign? Or is it neon?”
Sheryl took a deep calm breath, lost in her own thoughts, sailing off into the horizon a million miles away.
“I’m sorry?” She realized Jim had been staring.
“The sign,” Jim found her dilated pupils somewhat telling. “Is it neon?”
“No.” She said with a bit of disappointment, “It’s plastic.”
“Oh.” He glanced up at her, then down at the milk in his bowl, placing it on the small gray lunch table. He mustered, “That’s too bad.”
“It’s one less tree getting murdered.” Sheryl pushed her glasses back up on her small pale nose.
Jim studied the gray plastic table on which he laid the bowl, then down at the marble floor.
“Is there anything wooden in this apartment?” He noticed that even the walls appeared to be made of something else, probably drywall.
“I have to take a shower.” Sheryl pulled her cardigan off and tossed it onto the brown pull-out couch, her breasts bouncing victoriously in the fresh breeze from a nearby window.
“Or, I could just go right now.” Jim called out as the water valve turned on in the bathroom.
“Doesn’t seem like a school.” Jim studied the piece of paper upon which Sheryl had drawn out a map. Complete with squiggly lines, it displayed the path one would need to take to arrive at this illustrious mansion.
“It is quite the sign, though.” He spoke of the large plastic sign Sheryl had so thoroughly admired.
“Dunno if I can park here.” Kyle, his best friend, reflected. He pulled into park on the side of a lengthy stretch of road that made up the farm belt. “Or really anywhere for that matter.”
To enter the grounds of this estate, one had to take the gravel pathway going beneath the archway sign. This place seemed out of sync with the rest of the farmland estates, as there wasn’t a single animal encroached upon it.
Persons in white robes were presently entering a barn house near the patio some yards away from the mansion.
“Maybe there’s a way around.” Jim proposed as he stared at the crude drawing his girlfriend made. It only went as far as this estate, which had been surrounded by other shaded squares which were meant to indicate farms, a few poorly drawn stick-figure cows.
“How? It’s all connected.” Kyle gestured with his hands, intertwining his chubby fingers. “It’s like . . . like one long field with fences sectioning off what parts each person owns.” He aimed his hand at the different residences. “If that’s a school, then my apartment is a cathedral.” He shook his head. “What, do they also have shotgun weddings on the weekends?”
“I doubt it’s that severe.” Jim countered, ruffling his brown hair. “It looks like it’s pretty kept up. Maybe it’s a private school.” He turned to face the driver. “It’s surely big enough.”
“What? People just drop their kids off here, right at this curb, and they walk down that gravel pathway towards that inconspicuous abattoir in the back there?”
Jim noticed how enormous the place was, taking up more than a half-mile of space all around, with the closest farm a little ways back. Despite a lack of animals on this estate, there were crops to one side, a minor wheat field.
“At least they appear to be self-sufficient.”
“Not sure how I feel about dropping you off here.” Kyle stared the lock and double chain on the gate, with randomly placed intercom to the immediate right of the gated entrance.
“Sheryl really wants me here, she needs the support, and I actually wanna marry her one day.” He faced his best friend, “What better way than to go to this school with her?”
“Yeah, but you already finished college. You’re just gonna throw away more of your dad’s money.” He shrugged, lifting his hands. “For what, to impress some girl with pretty eyes, a great smile, a velvety voice, nice rack, and perfect teeth?” He gritted, shaking his head slowly. “They’re a dime a dozen.”
“I love Sheryl, and you’re my best friend. You guys should at least try to be friends, instead shrieking at each other like stray animals.” He paused halfway out of the Prius, one foot already on the ground. “Let’s at least check it out. It’s not gonna kill you.”
Kyle let out a slow breath, feeling defeated. “If my car gets towed . . .”
“Dude, don’t worry.” Jim really didn’t want to go in alone. “There aren’t any tow away signs anywhere.”
“Dude, you’re paying that fine.” Kyle leered at him, and both friends vacated the safety of the blue Prius to be greeted by the smell of animal feces, old sweat, and another smell which they couldn’t quite place. Some would call the third smell ‘the country’.
“Smells like a crematorium out here.” Kyle stepped around the back of the small car, rubbing that dirt road dust from his window. “Yeehaw, New Mexico.”
Jim walked over to the intercom, a small silver button in the center, and a selection of numbers under the voice box. He pressed it, waited a moment, and then pressed it again, waiting for someone to respond.
“Quick question,” Kyle raised his hand over his eyes, keeping the sun out. “What’s Sheryl studying here?”
Jim really hadn’t thought of that. He did ask her what she liked about the place, and turned his glance up to the sign ADDLETON COLLEGE of the ARTS. Now that he thought about it, he really had no idea what she studied, and couldn’t remember ever seeing an acceptance letter in the mail from this cryptic place. And to think about it further, he didn’t remember her ever carrying around any textbooks.
“Ellooo?” Someone came to the other end of the intercom, maybe a little too chipper. “Addleton College of the . . . who cares?” And all too suddenly the voice lost its spunk. “What do you want?”
“I’m interested in fall classes.” Jim tried to convince himself of as much.
“Classes . . . ?” The voice cracked. “We don’t—”
“Are you turning away potential students?” A second voice argued with the first.
“Students . . . ? That what you’re calling them now?” The first gave a snarky reply, followed by an unnerving laugh.
The intercom cut off completely just then.
“That wasn’t awkward or anything.” Kyle dug his fingers around the heavy, and felt a discouraging gust of air hit his face. “What is this place, a fucking prison camp?”
“Hello, student or students.” The second voice returned, with a hopeful air. It was a strong sturdy voice, much more sincere than the first. “Are you still there?”
Jim turned to Kyle, shrugging, and he pressed the button again, moving closer to the intercom. “Yes, I’m interested in taking a look around, if that’s okay?”
The longer he stood out here, the more sun-baked his legs, arms, and face became. This was definitely shorts weather if he ever saw it. However, mosquitoes were another problem, as they refused to leave his exposed appendages be.
“Do you have a reference?” The voice asked with a slight intrigue.
“Yeah, actually,” Kyle said under his breath, crossing his heavily tanned arms over his chest. “That stick shoved firmly up your snobby ass.”
“Pretty bitter today, Kyle.” Jim folded up the piece of paper Sheryl had given him.
“Yeah,” he exhaled, letting the arms fall to his sides. “My mom is trying to get me to move out again, but then when I do she starts moaning about how she misses dad, and I feel like I’m forced to move back in again.”
“You’re going to be twenty-five next month, man. It’s time to fly the coop . . . for good.” Jim started thinking seriously. “She’s gotta understand that.”
“She’s only fifty-three, but acts like she’s at death’s door.”
Jim nodded his head in acknowledgement.
“When she isn’t nine sheets to the wind she’s actually a half-decent person.” Kyle casually added. “I mean, she gets money from me. It’s not like I’m free-loading around, taking up space or something.”
Jim figured that if mother and son were placed side by side it, one would find the same soul split in two separate bodies—his aunt Mabel, and his best friend/cousin Kyle.
Jim re-evaluated his attire: a pair of sneakers, some beige shorts, and a gray tee-shirt with the words Atlantic Drift on the front over the chest. It’d been a good four years since he’d graduated from some state community college, originally with a bachelor’s degree in English Lit and a minor’s in Child Psychology. He’d forgotten how important appearance was, or maybe he just really didn’t care anymore. He told himself that he was only doing this for Sheryl.
Was it true?
The speaker crackled and the voice returned, “Hello? Are you still there?”
“Sheryl.” Once her name escaped his lips he wasn’t so sure that he actually wanted to be here anymore. He turned to face Kyle who’d still been trying to pry open the chains with his bare hands.
A feeling washed over him, he should just go home and tell Sheryl the truth; that he wasn’t happy anymore. Not happy with the life they had together, not happy with the way things had turned out, and that he wanted more. He felt like he was coasting on some wave, not a lot keeping him afloat. “Sheryl Gallagher. My name is James Branden.”
I hate my life.
“And what is the motto?” The voice unraveled the words expectantly.
“The motto . . .” Jim echoed, searching his thoughts for this saying. He took out the piece of paper Sheryl had given him, remembering that she wrote something cryptic near the bottom of the page. It was something Latin, some arcane saying.
“Is there a secret handshake, too?” Kyle mocked the intercom voice. “This place is pretty cool.” He let out a slow breath, bored and tired of being out here, getting attacked by these unholy mosquitoes. “I’m going back to my car.”
“Cogito ergo sum . . .” He read aloud from the scrawled writing, feeling as if he’d just begun an invocation for some great demonic beast. He could already see it rise heavily upon hooves, from the underworld, to take him down to its lair, leaving Kyle staring in awe from his Prius.
He waited expectantly for the posh voice to beam and exalt him as winner of the grand prize—entrance to this illustrious mansion.
There was a moment of silence.
He turned his head enough to see Kyle sitting in his new car, yelling at the steering wheel. It became fairly obvious he’d been talking to his mother via headset, as the mouthpiece appeared slightly each time Kyle tilted his head forward.
“We are sending out a chaperone, of sorts.” The voice returned with a certain surreptitious slither.
A large man in white blouse tucked in to his white pants with matching shoes emerged through grand double doors.
“He will frisk your person, and then guide you to my office on the second floor. Do not act rashly, my young friend. He has been trained to react hostilely to nervousness or sudden movements.” The voice spoke callously, tone different than before, acting strangely now. “You are warned.”
“You’re kidding, right?” His finger wasn’t on the buttons surface. He turned towards the cloudy sky, wondering if he’d find an answer to his question up there. It had threatened rain for the past two days, but had yet to actually deliver on that promise.