The Kristian Vang Fan Club.
When they've traveled together too long not to acknowledgement it, Paul turns and smiles. The boy's face beneath the scraggly van dyke is gaunt, eyes sunken. His close-cropped haircut looks self-inflicted.
"I never heard back from you," the kid says.
They're entering the zone of endless construction near the student union where police tape funnels the crowds into muddy single file. The kid follows closely, speaks over Paul's shoulder.
"I emailed you last month. You never answered." The kid sounds more dejected than angry.
"Huh. Must have missed it. I'll check my spam folder." Paul speaks to the boy familiarly, confidently, hoping the name will come, that it's somewhere. If he can just remember a paper, a presentation, even just place this face in a classroom alongside other faces.
"Like I said in my email, we just need your signature. You wouldn't have to come to the meetings. You wouldn't have to do anything really."
"Okay, how about you resend your email. And I'll take a look." They trudge in silence for a time. "So how's your semester going?"
The boy frowns and blinks, chews the corner of his mouth, looks in general as if this is a much more fraught question than it should be. "All right."
"Set to graduate soon?" Another safe question, though again the boy considers for far too long.
"I think so."
"Well, good. I'll look for that email." They've arrived now at the opulent new STEM Facilities building where Paul turns right, and the kid, mercifully, swings left, bent under his pack.
It isn't until the email from 'James Pelish' arrives later that afternoon that the memories return. Even then, Paul has to dig through musty grade sheets in his filing cabinet, from long before he went digital. Almost twelve years ago, the semester he started here at TFSU. Freshman Writing 1410. Paul remembers another face now, fresh-scrubbed and plump, so different than the haunted, emaciated kid with which he just spoke. So James Pelish has been kicking around here for twelve years too. The thought depresses Paul more than he can bear.
James Pelish's email bears no message or subject line, just an attachment that Paul cautiously opens. It's a scan of an official form, so many generations old that it's all blurs and blobs. "Student Organization Faculty Sponsorship Agreement." Paul reads down to where someone's filled in the middle in childish scrawl.
"FANTASY LITERATURE FAN CLUB AND DISCUSSION GROUP (WITH SPECIAL ATTENTION TO THE WORKS OF KRISTIAN VANG.)"
Paul Googles the unfamiliar name and gets a bewildering list of hits: a Seattle realtor, a Minneapolis high school halfback with a rushing record. Switching to image search, he spots a gaunt, scowling face with a beard a little like the boy's. Paul clicks that link. "Kristian Vang. Fantasy novelist. Philosopher. Ethnographer. Born: Malmo, Sweden, 1939. Died: Rochester, Minnesota, 2001."
A second email arrives while Paul is studying Kristian Vang's haggard face, the alert startling in his quiet office.
Thanks in advance, Professor Coronado. Having a faculty sponsor means we can book a room on campus. (We've been meeting upstairs at Stormcloud Comix). Also the SGA might give us money for snacks and things. If your willing to sign (hope you are) please leave the form at the English desk. I will do the rest. I thought of you for this because I have real good memories of your class. A lot of what you said back then has really stuck with me.
Paul prints the form, feels a quick flicker of unease as he recalls the kid's sunken eyes, but he signs before he can change his mind, reasons that this will be his small penance for pretending to know peoples' names, for agreeing to things that he shouldn't. He drops the form in the main office tray. It's gone the next time he looks.
WHEN JEFF MULLER FROM UNIVERSITY physical maintenance calls Paul three weeks later, he thinks at first it's someone finally getting back to him about his uninstalled office door name placard, is just starting in on that, venting his righteous annoyance, when the man interrupts.
"I'm sorry to hear about your placard, Professor Coronado. This is actually about something else." The man clears his throat. "The Fantasy Literature Discussion Group. You're listed here as their faculty sponsor."
It takes Paul some moments to remember. "Oh, sure. That."
"I'm only calling you because I'm not getting an answer from their contact number. They've been meeting in ESB 328 on Wednesday nights at nine. Some of our maintenance crew are a little unhappy about the condition of the classroom afterwards."
Paul sighs. "What's going on?"
"They've been rearranging the desks."
Paul laughs. "Like in a circle?"
"No, pushed into the corners. Piled up. It's a little hard to describe. Also, they've been smudging the chalkboards with something. Some glue or resin. It's nearly impossible to clean off. Instructors in other classes have complained."
Paul sighs. "Right."
"Also, the campus police night patrol says whoever's in that room have been leaving the temperature very high. I'm not sure if they're messing with the thermostat or plugging in heaters. Either way, that's a fire code violation."
Paul rubs his eyes. "Okay. To be clear, I'm just the faculty sponsor. I can pass a message along. I can't promise anything beyond that."
"We appreciate whatever you can do, Professor. And sorry for the bother."
"Hey, Jeff, while I have you on the line, could we talk about that other thing? The name placard? I mean, when I can expect to get that up?"
"One second. Coronado." Jeff Muller clucks his tongue. "That work order is actually showing in our system as complete."
Paul forces himself calm, knows it will do no good to rant in the way he'd like to. "Well, it's not. Like I was just tellingyou, they've taken the old one down, the previous occupant's. The new one's been sitting here on my desk for months."
"I'll put in a new ticket. We're backed up now. But someone will be by, I'm sure."
Various annoyances boil in Paul as he hangs up, as he composes a curt email to James Pelish, sends it off before hurrying to his graduate seminar, grabbing some notes for an abandoned paper on Every Man In His Humour on his way. The class goes about as expected. Most of the students haven't done the reading, stare at their hands through Paul's discussion questions. When he tries to riff off his old notes, Lucy Van homes in like a shark on the same argumentative flaw that made him ditch the paper five years ago. A few students never return from break. After class, Paul skulks back to his office, sees the reply email from James Pelish waiting.
Dear Professor Coronado,
On behalf of our entire group I want to apologize. You did us a favor and we let you down. We will most definitely take better care of the classroom space in future. We are sorry for any trouble and embarrassment we have caused. I want you to know that I personally feel terrible about this and will do my utmost not to let it happen ever again.
Yours very sincerely,
Paul laughs out loud in his dim office, can almost picture the boy's hangdog expression. But for the first time tonight he feels appeased, or at least feels a little of his displeasure fading. He thinks of writing back, but it's probably enough, one nuisance sorted.
THE PAIR WHO APPEAR OUTSIDE Paul's office, the young woman and man in shapeless cardigans, are grad students, Paul recognizes, tutors down in the writing center where he sends his truly hopeless cases. He doesn't really know either of them, hasn't taught them, isn't sure why they've found their way up to his quiet corner of the fourth floor or why they're leaning in his door.
"Professor Coronado?" the young woman says.
Paul waves her in.
"Sorry, we couldn't tell if this was the right office."
"I just moved here. They still haven't put up my ..." Paul stops himself, partly because he knows how uninterested they will be in his name placard, partly to head off the tight-stomached anger that rises whenever he considers the bare spot on his door.
"I'm Irene Kotsovolos. And this is Davis." The young woman squirms in her chair, seems almost bashful. "So I don't really know how to start."
The young man offers no help, sits and chews his thumbnail.
Paul smiles. "It's fine. Go ahead."
"So you're faculty mentor for the Kristian Vang Fan Club?"
Paul thumb-rubs his eyes. "I think it's 'Fantasy Literature Fan Club.' And it's sponsor, not mentor. Look, if this is about the classroom, they said they're not going to muck up the chalkboards anymore so--"
The girl shakes her head. "This isn't about that."
Irene looks to the boy for help, though he's still chewing his nails. She squirms again. For the first time Paul can see something he should have noticed sooner, an agitation in her eyes, bright and fierce, as if she's working herself up to something. "I mean ... you must see the problem, right?"
"I'm not following."
"Okay. I know that fantasy isn't everybody's cup of tea. But there's an audience, right? Also, you guys are tutors. Maybe we should be happy about anything that gets these kids reading instead of watching anime and playing video games or--"
Irene's laughter is loud, brittle, a little theatrical. "You think that's the problem? That Kristian Vang was a fantasy writer?"
"Okay, I'll admit I maybe don't know what the problem is."
"That he was a neo-Nazi. An occultist." She straightens in her chair, holds up her phone, a grainy black and white image. "A convicted rapist."
Paul studies the image, which is a smirking mugshot, he sees, does his best to ignore the prickling that's descending, like stepping fingers, between his shoulder blades. "Okay. I didn't know those things."
"Well, now you do. And I don't know what else to tell you. Just that we don't appreciate that we're at a school that has no George Eliot or Jane Austen or even a freaking Shakespeare club but somehow has a Kristian Vang club. That we don't appreciate our course fees funding an organization like that. And that we especially don't appreciate faculty in our own department supporting it."
Paul licks his lips. "I honestly wasn't aware of these things. I'm going to look into it. If what you're saying is true, I'm sure it will be taken care of."
The young man takes a breath, speaks finally. "We're very upset about this."
The pair file out, and Paul has a browser open before their footsteps fade, Googles a few key words and scans the results.
"Oh, Goddamnit," he says.
A HALF HOUR LATER, PAUL is still reading online newspaper stories, antifascist blogs and old court transcripts, still feeling faintly nauseous, when he stops, drafts James Pelish a short email then a longer one though he sends neither.
By the time Paul arrives at 9 PM at Earth Sciences 328, the classroom, like most of the floor, is empty and unlit. Paul turns on the light, double-checks the place and time on his phone then takes a desk. By 9:15, he's just about to leave when a wan-faced girl with a cloud of frizzy, auburn hair enters, sees him, and looks briefly panicked. Like James Pelish, she's oddly familiar.
"Excuse me? Sir?" The girl's voice is scratchy and adenoidal, as if she's just clearing the worst of a bad cold. She dabs her nose with the wad of tissues in her fist. "We actually have this room booked for our club meeting tonight. So ..."
"I'm Paul Coronado."
A blank stare. The girl clamps the wad of tissues hard around her nostrils.
"I'm your club's faculty sponsor."
"Oh, right. Oh, great." The girl smiles, backs up to her desk and sits, is on her phone soon after, texting, her thumbs a blur.
The young man who shows up next could be James Pelish's brother, equally gaunt and pale, hair shorn in a similar DIY haircut. His smile shows a missing top incisor. The young woman whispers in his ear, and a moment later the boy is on his phone too.
"So when do things usually get started?" Paul asks around 9:40.
"Soon as everybody's here," the frizzy-haired girl says and shrugs. "Soon as James gets here."
"And when does that generally happen?"
"I don't know. Soon."
Two more skinny, young men enter, sit but don't greet the others. Ayoung blonde woman in a baggy hoodie follows, sits briefly in the desk beside Paul's, has barely settled when she lights again, relocates across the room, watches Paul dolefully from over there.
"So you probably don't remember, Professor Coronado," the frizzy-haired girl with the cold is saying to him, breaking the silence. "But I was in your Shakespeare class two years ago. The mega-section. You gave the lectures. We mostly talked with our TA. I didn't even 100% know your name until just now." She smiles brightly. "You gave me an A on my final paper. Daisy Mulgrew. I'm sure you don't remember me."
"Mulgrew." Paul squints. "Wait. Did you write on Richard III?"
He snaps his fingers. "Antony and Cleopatra, right?"
The girl blows her nose messily. "Uh uh."
There's a silence then, and Paul smiles helplessly, wonders if she's waiting for him to keep guessing. But then James Pelish has arrived at last, out of breath, hands and ears pink from the outside chill. The other kids stare at him expectantly.
"Hey, Professor Coronado." The boy waves. "This is a great surprise. Thanks for coming. So I guess we should get going, right?"
Paul stands. "James, before you start, could I talk with you out in the hallway for a--"
"Can it wait until first break, Professor? Twenty minutes?"
Paul checks his watch. His plan to deal with this unpleasantness then head home, maybe watch a few DVR'd TV shows before bed, was shot some time ago. "All right."
"So, uh, let's get started." The boy strides to the lectern, stands in his awkward slouch there, flips through a worn paperback. "We should pick up where we left off, right? The Grey Wolves of Eurundus Prime. Chapter two."
Paul can't help but notice the circuit of anxious glances around the classroom, how only one other member, the girl with the cold, Daisy, seems to have a book. The others stare at their hands or at various coordinates in space. Paul knows these earnest, empty expressions, has seen them enough over the years.
James clears his throat. "So, just to start things off, do you all think Lupus is returning home to reclaim his birthright from the Winter Warlocks like he says he was going to? Or maybe is he after something else maybe?"
Though the silence after, broken only by the frizzy-haired girl's sniffles, continues far beyond anything Paul could personally endure, the boy waits it out.
James Pelish clears his throat, has grown even paler. "What do you think, Daisy?"
Daisy stiffens and flips pages. "I mean, it seems to me like, yeah, maybe Lupus wants to reclaim the throne or ... or I don't know. Maybe something else. Hard to say."
"Good." James Pelish nods vigorously. "Great. Does anyone have anything else to add?" James Pelish licks his lip, waits out another interminable silence. "Okay. Moving on to chapter three."
Paul stands, beckons the boy out in the hallway with him, waits for the door to close behind them.
"Sorry, Professor Coronado. I'm really embarrassed. I don't know where peoples' heads are at tonight."
"Just stop." Paul sighs. "Drop it, okay?"
The boy's small nostrils twitch. "Drop what?"
"Whatever this is. That was."
"Seriously, it pisses me off when people don't care enough to do the readings. I mean, you know how that is."
The boy's eyes drop, a shrug, a small, embarrassed smile.
Paul sighs. "I'll admit I didn't know much about your Kristian Vang before. But I've learned some things recently. Some disturbing things that we need to talk about."
The boy blinks, presents a fairly decent poker face. "Just so you know, there's a lot of misinformation out there. Vang had a lot of enemies, you know. Rivals. They were always talking shit about him."
"Well, whatever the case, it's pretty well-documented that he was a Nazi apologist, right? That he published anti-semitic pamphlets in the sixties and seventies. That he was involved with outlawed occult groups in Sweden. Norden Neopaganism--whatever the hell that is. That he was convicted of assaulting two of his female followers."
"Yeah, there's that stuff." The boy nods unhappily. "Though we're more interested in his writing and his ideas than his life, you know."
"Can you separate those things?"
"We do with other writers. In your class back then I remember you told us how Ezra Pound was a fascist jerk, but we should read his poetry anyways."
Paul is unprepared for this ready defense, hesitates. "James, I'm pretty sure from what I just watched that you're not having literary discussions here. So what are you talking about then? What is this group about?"
"I mean we do talk about the novels. Sometimes. Though yeah, we mostly focus on other stuff these days." The boy shifts his feet, looks almost bashful. "It's hard to explain to someone outside the group."
"It's not the Nazi stuff. I promise. We're not into that. I'm like a quarter Jewish." The boy cocks his head. "I mean, in the beginning a bunch of us got into Vang's novels, but then we got more into his ideas about the natural universe, about Norse ritual power, you know, sacred conduits, sources and destinations. We just thought it would be cool to meet and appreciate those ideas together."
"What do you mean appreciate?"
James Pelish squints. "See, I'm not sure how much I can say. I guess we view ourselves as a secret society really. Sort of like the Freemasons."
"Tell me what you can."
"In a way, we're just testing some things that Vang proposed. Experiments, you know. Different rituals. Incantations. Invocations."
"You're talking about magical spells?"
The boy scowls. "He never called them that."
"What was the sticky stuff on the chalkboards?"
"Tree sap." The boy looks sheepish again. "We only did that once. We tried to wash it off."
"Why were you putting tree sap on the chalkboards, James?"
"You know, for special symbols. Sigils." The boy shrugs. "Runes. You know, like there's Sowelu. And triple Ansuz. Tiwaz ultimate."
"Runes." Paul sighs, nods. "Okay. James, I don't think I want to hear anymore. It's a free country. You can do whatever you want at home. But maybe a college campus isn't the most comfortable fit for this secret society of yours. Especially given the political climate the last few years, I don't think either the administration or the student press is going to be that understanding about Nordic neopaganism or Kristian Vang."
"I guess you're right."
"And I do hope you're thinking about Vang critically, what he believed, what he stood for. The kind of person he was. I mean, he definitely was on the wrong side of an awful lot of things. Right?"
"Yeah." James nods. "Probably."
"Also, I hope you understand that I can't be involved further. I'll admit this is somewhat my fault. For not looking into this as thoroughly as I should have. That's on me. But I'm going to have to withdraw my sponsorship. Okay?"
"Sure. I just thought ..." The boy squints. "I remember in your class when we talked about unpopular ideas, unpopular writers. That unit we did on banned books and censorship."
Paul can remember those things when he strains, that unit taught all those years ago. Until some angry alumni parents made a stink about one of the banned books he'd assigned. And then his chair and dean didn't leap to Paul's defense in the way he'd expected. He remembers a stuffy conference room, a semi-circle of unhappy expressions focused on him. It seems so distant. The unrecognizable person he was then, the grinning face in the over-exposed photo on his faculty bookstore discount card, taken his first week here, thirty years old and fresh out of grad school. As remote now as that other, younger face of James Pelish.
Paul looks at the sad-eyed kid in front of him, toward the others in the room beyond, Daisy Mulgrew's wan face peeking anxiously out the door glass. So they'll go back to their comic book store now to perform their incantations, to whisper about supernatural forces so much more exciting than their lives. It's depressing.
"Okay, James. I'm going to leave now. I guess it doesn't hurt if you want to finish out whatever you're doing tonight since you're all here. Just promise you'll leave the chalkboards alone. Okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Professor Coronado."
Paul starts for the parking lot, out into the still night, too late to do much but drive home and go to bed, an evening wasted on nonsense.
HIS NAME PLACARD IS FINALLY installed, Paul sees with pleasure and a little disbelief when he turns the corner to his office the next morning, reminds himself to email his thanks, doesn't notice until he's closer that the new placard is askew, just a few degrees off horizontal though enough to offend the eye. He tries to straighten it by hand, but it's fixed tight. Paul struggles a while, curses. So now he will need to call Muller and those idiots at physical maintenance again, submit another work ticket for them to ignore. And he doesn't have time for any of this when he still hasn't prepared for class, hasn't even had time to check his email.
Paul senses someone behind him, feels the focused scowl before he turns and sees Irene Kotsovolos in her blocky cardigan at the end of the corridor. He starts to wave, but she's already darting away.
Then Toni Larisse from next door has emerged, is beside Paul, smiling over her NPR mug. This alone is unusual. She's migrated up to the fourth floor for reasons similar to his, to stay out of the fray. They usually respect each other's solitude.
"Did they find you?" Toni asks, sipping her tea.
"Did who find me?" Paul continues yanking at the placard.
"The campus cops." Toni gestures down the hall. "They were here looking foryou."
"For me?" Paul laughs, though he does recall a few troubling details now, the crowd of students milling around the main office on his way in, a few uniforms mixed in maybe, some hubbub he thought best to avoid.
Toni is still beside him, still sipping tea and eying him with hungry curiosity. Paul is about to brush her off, but her eyes are beyond him, on Irene Kotsovolos again, he sees when he turns, the young woman leading two uniformed police and a grim-faced woman in a suit.
"Professor Coronado?" the grim-faced woman says.
The conversation with the three police officers in Paul's office is brief and baffling, cryptic questions about the meeting he attended the previous night, about James Pelish, about the boy with the missing tooth, who has the preposterous name Reynolds McMaster. The questions make more sense after the police have left and the campus alert email arrives.
The missing girl is more recognizable in the email's photo than in the fuzzy driver's license picture the detective showed him, is definitely the frizzy-haired girl from last night, the girl with the cold, Daisy Mulgrew. In this picture she's a fewyears younger, smiling diffidently, standing beside an open car door in a baseball shirt and shorts. He recognizes the tangled bangs and upturned nose.
The text from the English department chair arrives while Paul is still studying Daisy Mulgrew's timid, hopeful smile.
"paul it's sharon come down here right away plz"
Paul does head down, ducking through the grim-faced crowds still crowded around the front office desk. Sharon greets him, tight-lipped, closes her office door behind them. Though Sharon's a couple of years younger than Paul, she's already taken on the haggard, burdened look of upper administrators, blonde bob gone dull silver. She takes off her reading glasses, massages her eye sockets.
"Paul, I've been directed to refer you to Megan Park--she's one of the university's attorneys--before you talk anymore to the police or the press or to anyone really. You're welcome to retain your own representation as well." She peers at him over her glasses. "I get the sense that might be a good idea."
"Okay, just hold on. I have no idea what's going on here. This girl, Daisy, she's only been missing since last night, right? Is it possible she just stayed over somewhere? A boyfriend's?"
Sharon licks her lips.
"It's just, if you'd seen these kids at the meeting last night. They're a bunch of weirdos, sure. But they didn't seem dangerous." Paul laughs. "I mean, don't the police usually wait forty-eight hours before everybody goes apeshit like this?"
Sharon moves swiftly to her office door, peers out the glass before she turns back to him. "They didn't release this to the press. And you can't tell anyone. Some of Daisy's personal belongings were found in the dumpster in back of ESB. Somebody had tried to burn them."
"Oh," Paul says. "Oh, Jesus."
"Look, I'm hoping she turns up too, that this is just some drama." Sharon sighs. "But if you talk to anyone, you can't talk like you did just now, right? So dismissive And ..." She makes a face. "You understand that, don't you?"
"Of course. I'm not an idiot."
Sharon glances at him coolly, says nothing.
"I didn't even know who he was, this Kristian Vang. I just signed their form because I felt bad about not returning an email. I had no idea what they were--"
Sharon holds up a hand. "I don't think you should tell me anymore. Okay, Paul? I honestly don't want to know anymore."
THE INVESTIGATION,OVERTHE FOLLOWING months and through the winterbreak, turns up nothing. No Daisy Mulgrew. No charges laid though there's talk for a time about persons of interest, photos of James Pelish and the boy with the missing tooth published in the city newspaper. Megan Park, as it turns out, is good at her job. After that initial police interview and one other brief talk with Megan present in which Paul is allowed to say virtually nothing, he isn't called in again. Soon enough there are new scandals, new candlelight vigils. Embezzlement in the athletic director's office. A star volleyball player dead in a car crash. The conquistador statue pulled down one night, replaced with a crude effigy of the University President in morion helmet. It's amazing how quickly the whole thing passes, becomes just a footnote of departmental lore, a whispered joke in the back row of faculty meetings about Coronado's murder cult.
It's over then, except for the occasional dream, because, though he could never tell anyone, Paul has begun to dream about the girl, Daisy, a few times a week, usually the two of them sitting together in a long classroom.
"Troilus and Cressida?" he asks her one night. "That was it, right? Your paper?"
"Uh uh." She shakes her head.
Someone unseen is lecturing at the classroom's front, a dull monotone that nearly drowns out their whispers.
"I know it wasn't The Tempest? Or wait. Was it?"
Dream Daisy shakes her head, blows her nose into her wad of tissue, stares sadly beyond Paul.
He's about to ask then what he really wants to know, where exactly she is, if she's all right, though he feels embarrassed, though his words keep getting swallowed by that droning, insistent voice. And then he's either forgotten her name or else she's become someone else, transformed into another, forgettable, frizzy-haired white girl he'll have trouble remembering even while the semester is on. And so he doesn't ask his questions, just wakes.
PAUL IS HURRYING TO THE first meeting with his spring Thomas More senior seminar, is scanning a printout of the first day roster, sees the name near the bottom at the same moment he enters the classroom and nearly drops the page. He glances around at the kids staring glumly back at him over their new textbooks, hopes for a time he's imagined the name on the roster until he spots the sunken, haunted eyes in the back row.
Paul goes through the first day business automatically, trying not to look more than he has to at the back, at the army surplus pack leaning into the aisle there. He rushes through the syllabus and the first assignment description, adjourns early, says he'll see them all on Wednesday. The whole time he can feel that he's sweating along his brow and upper lip, that he's talking too quickly, that he can't seem to draw a full breath.
And now, as the students file out, James Pelish is before him, waiting patiently, and though Paul would very much like to leave with the others, he waits too. Under the classroom's harsh fluorescent lights, James looks older, or maybe simply looks his age: wrinkled around the eyes, sallow-skinned and dissipated from twelve years of undergraduate eating. His beard, thicker now, is threaded with grey.
"Hey, Professor Coronado," the boy says finally, offers his familiar, timid smile.
"Hi." Paul glances around. Though most of the others have left, a pair of girls are trailing, maybe spectating. "Look, James--"
"Before you say anything, can I explain? So I only need one more required course for my major. But it's got to be pre-1800 Brit lit. I already tried Professor DeLisle's Milton class, but she dropped me. I think maybe she recognized my name from ..." The boy shrugs.
"I can't say I blame her."
James Pelish smiles. "But see, I just need this one class. The reason I didn't transfer away like some of the others is because I started here at SFTU, and I want to finish here. I was thinking, since you taught my first English class, it would almost be kind of fitting, wouldn't it?"
"I'm sorry. I'm going to have to drop you too."
"I mean, I'm hoping you'll change your mind."
The boy nods, sighs. "Well, I guess it's going to take me a little longer to get out of here then. Though I don't mind. I kind of like coming back to be honest."
The curious girls in the doorway have left. The boy leans in now, and Paul smells stale tobacco and the sourness of unlaundered clothes. "Just so you know, I didn't do anything, Professor Coronado. None of us did."
Paul closes his notes inside his binder. "Okay, James, I have to get going."
"They questioned us like nine, ten times. Different groups of cops and prosecutors. They held us overnight twice. In the end, they had to let us go because we were telling them the truth."
"We honestly don't know where she is." There is something imploring in the boy's face, in his sunken eyes, along with something else, an even deeper need or burden. Paul wonders what exactly he will do if the boy confides, confesses, says something terrible. He would like to not be here, would like to be at home now, eating leftover lasagna and catching up on his DVR queue.
James leans in further. "I mean I don't know where she is specifically."
"James, if there's something important you haven't told the police, you should be talking to them. Not me."
"I just thought you might want to know that Sidun's okay. Sorry, that's what we call her. In our group, I mean. Sidun's a goddess, you know. A Norse--"
"Yes, I know." Paul rubs his eyes.
"Anyways, I thought you might want to know too that she's gone away because she chose to. That she's the only one who can know the destination. Now that she's a traveler, I mean."
"What are you talking about? What do you ..." Paul shuts his eyes. "Forget it. Just forget it."
"Sure. Forget it." The shy smile reappears, the boy watching him. "So, another thing. A lot of our group dropped out or transferred. But one or two of us plus a few new people are still meeting. At Stormcloud. You're welcome to come by any time if you--"
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I don't know. You seemed interested before."
"Why did you think I'd want to know that? I don't."
James Pelish stiffens, licks his lips, nods finally. "You know, it takes me a long time to figure things out. Longer than most people. Maybe that's why I've been at this place so long, taking all these classes. I mean, I've probably taken as many as you've taught by now, huh?" The boy's laughter is dry and mirthless. "A lot of what you said back then, in that first class I took with you freshman year, it really did stick with me. How learning is a lifetime process. How there's power in language, power in art. How art can point the way, show us how to question things. Question society. Question reality even."
Paul sighs. "James, I was just doing my job. Trying to get kids excited about books."
"I mean, sure. I can see that now. But it really did change the way I thought. It changed me." The boy is staring downward, his brow furrowed in quiet consternation. "Though now that I've had all this time to think on it. To think about you. I wonder if I got it all wrong."
"I want you to leave," Paul says, and the boy does, thankfully, lifts his heavy pack, departs.
Back at his office, at his door with its still-slanted placard, Paul does what he should have done months ago, brings the fiat-head screwdriver from his drawer, finds some give under the placard's top corner and pries hard. The placard chips first, then gives entirely, though it's still there, Paul sees, though it's left part of itself on the door, a crooked remainder of plastic and epoxy.
PAUL HAS THE DREAM AGAIN that night. The tunnel-like classroom. The girl with her pink nostrils and her wad of tissue in her fist. Once more, they're listening to someone lecture from the front of the room, a steady, inflectionless drone.
"It wasn't one of the comedies, was it?" Paul asks Daisy Mulgrew. "Merry Wives?"
Daisy doesn't respond, is staring beyond Paul at the podium, towards the endless, passionless drone. "God, so boring," she sighs. "How can you stand it?"
The voice distracts Paul too, how it seems to rise in volume, a vibration he can feel in his skull and teeth. He wishes there was a way to tune it out.
"Where are you, Daisy?" Paul asks over the noise. "You need to let people know where you are. And if you're safe. If you are safe."
"I don't know how it's your business. Why you even care."
"I do. I mean I don't like to think about what might have happened. But I do care." That noise again, the droning. "Just tell me. Are you happy at least? Where you are now? Where you've gone to?"
"This guy really is terrible, isn't he?" She nods toward the podium, sighs.
"It's like torture."
"Just the worst."
"It's me." Paul says finally, unhappily. "That's me that's talking." He says this because he only now recognizes it, his lecture on Thomas Wyatt. A talk from old notes he could do in his sleep, that he is doing in his sleep, some lucid part of him recognizes.
"I didn't know." The girl's face shows neither embarrassment nor apology. She blows her nose again louder, her nostrils pinker.
"Was it MacBeth? Your paper. I'm pretty sure that's what it was. Right? Girls like you always like MacBeth."
Daisy shakes her head, is looking in the other direction now, where the door must be.
The droning voice continues, flattens, almost a chant. It no longer seems human. Is it really him? And how could he be both lecturing and listening? Though he doesn't care, just wishes it would stop.
"Maybe if you just gave me the decade of the play, I could work it out from--"
"I'm leaving," Daisy Mulgrew says and stands.
"I wish you wouldn't."
"I've got to go. I can't take any more of this."
"Please wait," Paul tells Daisy Mulgrew, tries to stand too, though he's unable, fixed in place like in a dream, which is where he is, he somehow knows. He wishes Daisy wouldn't disappear again, wouldn't leave him alone in this place with this voice. But she is leaving, is nearly of sight.
"You know, I'd like to leave too," he calls after her.
"Sorry," she says, gives a last snort into the tissue, heads off. "Really."