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Welcome Week

‘Twas the night before move-in and all through the dorm, not a creature was stirring—well, an eighteen-year-old college student was stirring, but in my experience, they’re more zombies than living beings, especially at that time of night. I’d moved in a few days early to take a two-day engineering course that was now (thankfully) over. Kind of a…credit padding, an extra cushion in case I had to drop classes, not that I ever have.

It’s a funny thing when you know you should be sleeping, especially since the next day you’re going to have two new guests in your room, but at the moment, I can’t take my eyes off my laptop screen. James Spader is executing one of his trademark speeches as “Concierge of Crime” Raymond “Red” Reddington. After experiencing him first as the voice of Ultron and now a notorious criminal mastermind, I decide that his theatric execution of lines is one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen in cinema.

My eyes glance to the left, to the positively glowing skyline of Philadelphia. First night here, I decided that was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Fifteen floors up, in the heart of University City, I’ve got a front-row seat to a little New York, with all the bells and whistles and lights and sounds one might expect from a concrete jungle. And the food—let’s not even start on that. I turn back to my computer screen, watching as a hint of fury plays over Red’s features for a moment as he considers the fate of his enemy.

I see him think for a moment, teeter on the edge of mercy or execution. Something shifts in his dark green eyes, and before he even opens his mouth, I know the decision he’s made. I wince, and the woman he’s protecting drops her jaw in shock as he shoves the antagonist into a vat of acid, using the killer’s own weapon of choice against him in a gruesome bit of poetic justice. My head shakes and a long breath is exhaled as I think over the situation in the black space between scenes. My eyes flicker to the time in the lower-right corner of my computer screen.

1:41 AM.

A low groan drifts from my lips as I jam my palms into my eyes to ward off the stinging sensations. Blue eyes flicker open again, darting around for clothes and toiletries as my hands follow. As I get up to leave for the empty communal bathroom, I hear a series of whispers too low to make out, too loud to ignore. Confused, I turn back to my laptop and check to see if Netflix is still running. The episode is paused.

My brows furrow. Weird.

Double-checking the interface, I set the headphones down and fold the laptop down on my way out the door. Another figure passes me on my way in, and I smile and apologize for bumping him. He just chuckles and waves it off. Bellec, a French exchange student and my Resident Assistant, was another early comer. Part of the job description, of course. Make sure all the freshmen didn’t burn the place down before the school year began. Ten minutes under the hot water, with all the aches and pains of the day washing away, and I feel like a new man. The liquid whispers to me as I start to turn it down, and I stare at it confusedly once more.

It stops a moment later, and I get out not long after. I’m out the moment my head hits the pillow.

8 hours later

The first time I wake, it’s to the sound of something being dragged across the floor, a piece of furniture, I’d wager. I nod off seconds after considering it. This process repeats several times until around 1:00 PM, when a combination of an alarm and my own need to use the loo, as they’d say in Australia, keeps me from going under again. I drop to the floor and check my e-mail. Nothing on my Twitter or blog feed.

Come on, people. Give me some love.

A loud bang issues from somewhere else on the floor, followed by laughter and shouting. I groan softly.

I’m gonna need it today.

More banging and dragging ensues before I finally muster the strength to pull a pair of pants on and grab my toothbrush. I pass a dozen freshmen on my way to the bathroom, which, evidently, turned out to be on the other side of the floor (much to my dismay), people who I assume will become exceedingly familiar by the time the year is out. One such person, a tall blonde with one of those “jock” faces, is seen laughing with two other move-ins as he leaps over a tub in motion on his way to the floor’s kitchen.

I take care of the necessities, teeth and such, then head back to my room, where I spot more movement and walk in to confirm that my first roommate has arrived, and is quite the paradox. Heavy-set with an air of shyness, but toting hockey gear and a lacrosse stick, two sports that I’ve never played (nor ever want to play), but know take confidence and no small amount of courage to perform. I hold out my hand and smile a little.

“Mason Prince.”

He shakes my hand, maybe a little lightly. “Andrew Brody.”

I blink once, assigning the face to the name. “So that’s what you look like.” I shrug. “Gotcha.” I smirk a little. “Well, I need to warn you, if I forget your name, it’s nothing personal. I’m not great with names. In fact, I’m bloody horrible about it, but I will never forget your face.”

I add a wider smile for effect, and he barely reciprocates, this small crease on his lips as opposed to my face-splitting grin.

Yeesh, man. Uptight much?

I don’t have any more time to think on it, as something hard and plastic collides gently with my back. I step forward to get out of the way and turn to see a thin, lanky boy with dark brown hair step through the door, an older couple just behind him, who I rightly assume are his parents. I smile at them too.

“Hi, I’m Mason.”

They give me polite smiles and greetings in return, too busy moving their son in to bother with the roommate just yet, which is more than okay. For myself, moving in was quite the affair, with most of my stuff packed into three tubs, minus the laptop, the microwave, and the micro fridge—which took up a lot more space than I’d have liked. Considering that the room was built to hold two and was about to house three, I was already feeling rather leery about the boarding situation. When all was said and done, though, I had just enough space to fit all my crap without encroaching on any of theirs.

And I got the loft, so, there was that too.

Turning my mind back to the present, I move back to my computer to update my blog and attempt to look casual while they do all the moving, occasionally looking out my window to see the afternoon sunlight reflecting off the skyline, as breathtaking in the day as it is at night. My momentary distraction holds my attention for barely a moment before I turn back to the computer screen. Surprise flickers across my features as I click on a link to “Welcome Week,” a schedule of events and meet-and-greets on campus to familiarize new students with the layout and amenities.

My black eyebrows hike up just slightly when I see a note about a pep rally in Center City, which will require us to take the Septa, Philly’s local subway system. Now, I’m not particularly afraid of any mode of travel (though for a while I was apprehensive about flying), but I don’t particularly enjoy being forced into new situations where I might be made to look ignorant or foolish. When I read the fine print, a pang of relief coursed through me.

“RAs will be required to give students the necessary tokens.”

So Bellec would be handling the process. Good. I’d only known him a few days, but from his greeting smile to the completely chill vibe he gave off, I already knew I could count on him to do his job. I hear laughter and goodbyes being exchanged and rise from my seat to see the parents off with little effort expended and more attention focused on the blog I have to get back to. It’s a slow day, but inspiration’s struck, and I can’t afford to lose it before I get my thoughts out.

After a few minutes of feverish typing, I hear a knock on our door and we turn toward it in tandem to see Bellec standing there, waving us into the floor’s common room. We follow, and I’m the last through the door, suddenly pushed into a crowd of about thirty-plus students, all milling about and waiting for Bellec to be ready. The man himself tosses a box onto a table in the center of the room and opens it up, tossing shirts to each resident of the floor. I don’t get one.

Bellec looks at me, and I give him a shrug and a look.

“They have more downstairs. Just have to grab one on our way out.”

I nod once, noting another point of surprise with regard to our RA as he keeps talking.

“Now, when we step out, we’re all going to want to stick together—”

It’s fascinating, but I can barely tell he has an accent.

“—the subway only takes tokens, and I have two for each of you.”

Maybe he’s just been here long enough to lose it, mostly. He is a senior after all.

“Pick a buddy and don’t get separated. We clear?”

I nod with the rest of them, catching blondie in the corner of my eye, his brightly grinning face striking me as off somehow. I wrinkle my nose briefly, quickly turning my attention back to Bellec and the elevators he’s just called. I don’t step into the first one, given that it’s already overpacked, or the second, scanning my iPhone for signs of response to my blog posts. Nothing yet. The third one is my ticket down, almost empty, so I make my way in and wait for a paltry twenty seconds for it to descend fifteen floors, probably one of the fastest elevators I’ve ever been in.

The moment the doors open, I see everyone filing out of the building, not one stopping by the front desk to grab a spirit t-shirt. Frowning, I peek at the people behind the desk, noting that they’re all looking away. I reach around a corner and feel my hands brush against soft fabric. I check to see that no one’s watching me, then look to see a medium tag on the shirt I snagged. Smiling, I pull it free and don it over the one I already have on. I realize this is a bad idea as soon as I’m out the door and thrust into the latent summer weather beating down on the concrete jungle of Philadelphia.

Between heat and cold, I despise the heat more. Maybe that’s weird. I think it’s practical. After all, if you’re cold, there’s always another layer you can put on, but if you’re hot? There are only so many layers you can yank off before you’re arrested for public indecency. I’ve never been arrested in my life and I’m not about to start now, so I grit my teeth and tough it out.

“Yo, Mason!”

I turn my head toward the familiar voice and give him a nod. “Hey, Ping.”

A lanky Asian student sidles up next to me, hands in his pockets. “Wassup?”

I huff quietly. “My blood pressure. This frigging heat is annoying.”

He chuckles softly, pushing a pair of square-framed glasses higher onto his face. “I hear ya man. But hey, we’re gonna be underground soon, so.”

I shrug. “Fair enough, I guess.” I shift irritably as we follow the crowds to the 30th Street Septa station, eyes darting around and stopping when an amused smirk crosses my lips. “Don’t you think it’s kinda funny?”

He looks at me. “What is?”

I motion to the throngs of students. “These shirts we’re wearing. They all say ‘Be Different,’ yet we’re all wearing the exact same thing.”

Ping looks around for a moment, blinking a few times, then breaks out chortling. “Yeah, guess you’re right.”

We don’t exchange any more words until we’re on the train (the process was a simple one—add token, step through).

“So, what’s your theory on the shirts?”

I look at him, then at the shirt bearing our university’s mascot, which Bellec had told me there was something special about that would be revealed at this pep rally. “My guess is ultraviolet.”

He arches an eyebrow. “Huh?”

I shake my head slightly. “Sorry. Science-speak. Blacklights. I’m thinkin’ they light up around blacklights or something.”

He frowns and looks down at the shirt. “I dunno man.”

I shrug. “Well, the pattern itself is riddled with that weird gray-white color, which is present in a lot of glow-in-the-dark tech. Might be that, might not.”

He grunts noncommittally, and it’s a few more minutes before the doors open and Bellec motions us out, all fifty-six from two separate floors. We flood the platform and ooze through the doors of the station, the streets passing by in a blur as I lose myself in idle conversation with Ping. That is, until we reach the Philadelphia Convention Center, and then I just stare. We both do. Finally, we exchange a look and grin in tandem, following the rest of the throng into the glass and steel building, the sounds of pounding bass coming from the massive auditorium one floor up.

I’ve never been one for big dance parties, or parties in general, so this particular event doesn’t appeal to me all that much, but I stick it out, if only for Ping’s sake. Five minutes in on the front row, and it seems he feels the same way. All the same, we can’t just up and leave, so we wait and we listen and, if only minimally, we participate. Suddenly, I hear the crowd start to echo around me and wonder if my ears have popped or something weird. Frowning, I turn to Ping and raise my voice above the roar.

“Hey Ping! That echo, it’s weird, right?”

He gives me a strange look. “What echo?”

I lift my hands to indicate our surroundings. “Dude, this whole place is a giant echo chamber!”

He raises his eyebrows slightly, a smirk on his face. “Mace, it’s way too loud to hear any echoes in here!”

I open my mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. Instead, I just stare at him for a second, eyebrows knitting, then turn my attention to the crowd at large. A painful thrumming enters my head, and I put a finger to my temple as the bass pounds hard in my ears. A gentle hand on my shoulder prompts a look to my right.

“Dude, you okay?”

“Yeah, just got a bit of a headache.”

Ping gives me a sideways frown, nodding in understanding. “You can step out, ya know.”

I smirk. “But then who would protect you from bein’ trampled, ya runt?”

He grins playfully and smacks my shoulder hard.

I wince and rub the appendage with a smile that turns into a grimace when the pounding reaches a fever pitch, like my head’s about to split open. “Ah…you know, I think I will step out.” I rise from my seat slowly, feeling the room spin as I get to my feet.

Ping notices. “Whoa, man. Need a hand?”

“No,” I answer a little breathlessly, steadying myself on a nearby chair. The strobes and floodlights of the expo center send daggers of pain lancing through my skull, and I close my eyes against them as more echoes fill my awareness. “Maybe.”

He takes my hand, which I can’t see because my eyes are squeezed shut. “All right, man. Just hang on. I gotcha.”

My breathing increases in pace with every step we take, a profound feeling of vertigo taking over as I stumble down the aisle, Ping’s grip the only thing keeping me aloft. As the bass and the echoes fade to a dull hum in the back of my head, the pain subsides, if only slightly, and I’m able to function well enough to walk on my own. The moment we step outside the auditorium, I’m leaning heavily against a wall, breathing slowly to try and dispel the headache.

“You okay, dude? Mace?”

I hold up a hand, unable to speak for fear of aggravating my condition. Passersby glance in my direction with increasing frequency, their numbers growing in thickness just slightly, but enough to be noticeable. And then the whispers start up, and the headache comes back full-force. A low groan passes my lips as I collapse to my knees, Ping’s voice a muffled hum in the back of my mind as I press my hands firmly over my ears. The whispers persist, and my eyes flicker open to see concerned masses drawing closer to help.

My breathing increases in pace until I’m hyperventilating, the aching slowly but surely giving way to lightheadedness as panic overtakes me. Ping tries to motion them to back up and give me space, but by the time they do, the whispers are unbearably loud—and distinctive.

What’s happening?

Is he okay?

Someone call an ambulance!

Back up!

I can’t believe—

Get him a—

Call 911!

He needs help if—

It’s already begun…

“Shut uuuuuup!”

The scream is torn from my throat, violently, desperately, as I try to shut them all out. For a moment, all falls silent, and I believe I’ve succeeded. It isn’t until I open my eyes for the briefest of moments, see everyone around me staring blankly into the distance, that I realize something’s wrong. For a full ten seconds, no one moves. No one even blinks. And then one does, a man in a brown hood and trenchcoat, just in the corner of my eye, turns his head toward me and stares. I feel the last of my strength sap away moments later as my head loses all weight and my eyes roll back into my head.

The sound of a resigned sigh is all I hear before my world vanishes in darkness.

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