I very quickly found out that there was only one bribe in the world to which Stupid would respond, and that was a kiss. Yes, it was very much Romeo and Juliet in a weirdly twisted kind of way, and that was goddamn irritating.
Absolutely not, I said.
Then he refused to tell me.
Why was it so important?
It was unwise for a man to reveal such valuable information for nothing. (If you can’t hear my exasperated sighs from across the universe, you should put this down and pick up a less salty book.)
At first I was baffled, but then I remembered that he was probably an unwitting time-traveler, most likely from inside the mine. Kisses would actually mean a lot to him…I thought about paying someone to off him a blowjob, but I had an inkling that he wouldn’t react very well. And that was a thing that got me thinking. If I could perhaps dupe one of the other girls into doing this, I could ferret out what I wanted.
I made my not-so-unobvious attempt. . .it didn’t work.
He wanted his kiss from me, not from my lackey. He was telling me, not her. The ‘her,’ was, of course, Michelle, who had then been taken away and hidden somewhere by Raechel (who had flat-out said she would rather, and I quote, “lick a thousand banana slugs, or, if necessary, jerk off fifty bull elephants.” We reckoned the ratio to be equal in displeasure). Or perhaps Michelle was still in the room. I can’t be too sure. I do know she had a thing for naked people, but that’s all I can really remember about her as a person. She wasn’t very impressive as a student, and when she eventually graduated to field work, she was killed inside two weeks. That bit wasn’t because of her stupidity, but because of her bravery, throwing herself onto a grenade to protect her team. I was genuinely sad to hear she had died.
At any rate, the rigidity of Stupid’s obstinacy (look, a new word for the week, kids!) on the subject we discovered in about two hours. Raechel hadn’t been pleased that morning to wake up to an accidental nudist sleeping next to my bed, but she was fair game for helping me solve this riddle (see the above exception). I should point out, at this juncture, that she was irritated because he was on the floor, and not actually in my bed. Otherwise, she wasn’t really miffed.
“Why must you be so difficult?” I was continually groaning (in all the wrong ways). “It’s your name, it’s as simple as that!”
“A name is a man’s livelihood!” Stupid protested. “He doesn’t just give it up for nothing!”
“I’ll tell you what man doesn’t do,” I said. “A man doesn’t randomly show up naked in a Senior girls’ dorm room; that’s what a man doesn’t do.”
Raechel, who had been sitting with us for the whole of this argument nodded. “She has a point, you know.”
Stupid was suddenly eyeing me warily. “I have not seen it.”
“Not that, you twit!” I yelped.
“This is overwhelming on every conceivable level!” he shouted. “You primitive peoples have the poorest grammar I have ever had the misfortune to hear, your metaphors aren’t really metaphors, and the your use of words would make even the best scholars feel daft!”
Raechel looked at me hopelessly. “I mean, that’s kind of a back-handed compliment,” she said. “At least we’ve progressed vocabulistically.” I buried my head in my hands.
“Right. Okay.” I rubbed my eyes, an idea forming in my overly worked brain. “Rae, do we have anything? Anything at all? The Scarlet Letter, perhaps? That’s not his timeline, but he should be able to understand it.” I was referring, of course, to Nathaniel Hawthorne; perhaps he would better understand it than us, as I was about fifty-five percent sure he was lying about not being able to read. God forbid our newfound idiot friend be aware of this.
“A scarlet letter?” he repeated. “Do you hold the intangible in your pocket, strange sorceress?”
“Shut up,” I groaned.
Raechel was rubbing her temples. “I loaned it out. And Thomas wanted to borrow King Lear, so we can’t even get him to do homework for us if it comes up.”
“What is all this—”
I cut him off by plastering my hand over his mouth. “Just find something, and hurry,” I urged Raechel. “He won’t stay quiet for very long.”
Stupid pushed my hand away as Raechel darted out of the room. “Explain this to me,” he demanded.
I sent him a glare. “We’re supposed to be getting a vernacular you might just possibly understand.” Where she was going I wasn’t sure. . . .
“I find it difficult to comprehend native savagery,” he shot back at me.
I clenched my fists. “Just, if you could, shut up until she comes back.”
“And should she stray?”
“Then she will die,” I snapped, “and you will go with her.” My eyes narrowed at him so he would get the point.
“You are egregious,” he declared. “Lords are not required to explain themselves to their inferiors; wenches have no call to demand such conversation. Were you a servant in my house, you’d be lashed.”
“CEASE your incessant prattling!” I crowed, groaning when I realized I was starting to talk like him. “My god, you’re worse than my brother Ben!”
His eyes lit up. “Brother?”
“Yes, brother. Also known as ‘frater’, also known as ‘useless’, also known as a ‘pain in my—’”
“I’ve got one!” Raechel shouted. “I’ve got one! It was on hold for me downstairs in common room.”
“Oh, that’s where you went,” I quipped. “I thought perhaps you’d gone and hung yourself. Couldn’t blame you; I want to find a cliff right now.”
“It would a mortal sin to do so,” he commented.
I smacked him with one of my books, the one about the girl and her boyfriend who both die from cancer. “Shut up. What did you get, Rae?” As though to answer me, she let dropped the text in front of me. Stupid picked it up and his brow furrowed.
“Words are like Greek to me; I have crossed thee with this once.”
I felt like I was going to explode. Before I knew quite what I was doing, I had punched him. Stupid’s head snapped to the side and he fell back, his head smacking the random pair of stilettos Michelle had left on the floor. Stupid groaned, rolling to the side. He was in grave danger of rolling out of the blanket precariously wrapped around his middle. I panicked and pulled the corners closer together, desperate not to see whatever lurked beneath the cloth. He lurched when he felt the blanket tighten.
“In the name of God!” he yelped. “Have thy wits run amok with thy decorum?”
“My wits?!” I barked. “That’s rich coming from the boy who swears he can’t read!”
“You think literacy makes your station a superior one?” he snarled.
“It does, you entitled imbecile!”
We were both standing at this point, and I guess my insult was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He raised his hand, and it descended down onto my cheek with such a force that I stumbled. For several seconds, the stinging sensation was all I knew.
“You will not speak to me in such a way ever again, lowly bitch. Do you understand?”
I looked at Raechel briefly. She looked rather amused, likely because she knew what was about to happen to the poor thing. I looked back at Stupid.
“Did you just hit me?” I asked.
“Well now he’s gone and done it,” Raechel quipped from the side.
“Raechel, I think he’s just hit me.”
“Way to go,” she sniped at him.
“Hey, you,” I said, and he looked at me. I almost couldn’t help the smile. He was slightly afraid, but seemed to be more confused and bewildered than anything. “Did you just hit me?” I demanded.
I swung my fist back and hit him again, harder than the first time. He stumbled back and caught himself on the door-jam. Lunging forward, he balled up his fist, apparently intending to strike me again. I sidestepped and caught his arm, twisting it behind his back. He went to his knees and I circled my fingers round his throat, tightening them as a means of warning.
“You’re pushing your luck, you impertinent peasant.” He growled at me, and if I hadn’t been so irritated I might have been concerned. Given what I know now, it’s a miracle I wasn’t remotely terrified.
As we righted ourselves and he tightened his blanket like some sulking baboon, I noticed something was missing in the atmosphere of the room. When I turned and saw Raechel reading, I realized it was speech. There was actually existing quietude; I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I swear it felt like a little slice of heaven. But Raechel was being quiet; the lack of comment from her I found to be worrying.
She was quiet a moment longer and then read: “ ‘By the world, I think my wife be honest and think she is not. I think that thou are just and think that thou are not. I’ll have some proof!’” She closed the book and looked up at us expectantly.
“Was that relevant to something?” I asked.
Raechel winked and leaned in to Stupid. “What does it mean?”
I felt my eyebrow twitch, and then the light-bulb blinked, or, as we say in Latin, I had a candle moment. Between the other ridiculous classes we had to take, who had time to study Shakespeare and to interpret his words? Who better to help us than the boy from (roughly) the same period?
Stupid looked between us, his eyes suspicious. “It is an expression of disbelief.”
“What is this?” he demanded.
“Now we just have to teach him to read,” said Raechel, coming down off her high.
“Oh hell,” I sighed.
“I’m not teaching him,” she replied promptly.
“Well I’m not,” I fired.
“Yes, you are.” Only Raechel could have said these things and gotten away with it.
“Fine, but if somebody dies—”
“Don’t be dramatic,” she quipped. “If I were you I’d take advantage of the weekend.” And she stood as if to leave.
“Where are you going?” I needled.
She looked over at Stupid. “I am going to go find Mitchell.”
“Clothes?” I guessed. He was her brother, and roughly the same size as Stupid. He wouldn’t notice clothes missing from his closet.
“Yes. Have fun. I’ll be back—well, God only knows when.”
I couldn’t help the urge to growl. “I hate you until lunch,” I called after her.
“Okay,” she called back.
I turned to Stupid, surprised that he had managed silence. He was rubbing the back of his head thoughtfully, and then alternatively his cheekbone, massaging the places I’d struck.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Unbelievable,” he murmured. “Incredible.”
Really? I’d have to be a little bit more inventive, then, in my coercion. Force clearly only had so much of an effect.
Suddenly he looked up. “Have you a chamber pot?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “We’re savages; we just shit outside.” When he stared at me, perplexed, I sighed. “Not the kind to which you’re accustomed. Come with me.” I opened the door a crack, peeking out into the hall. No one was in sight, so I turned to Stupid. “It’s the door right across from ours. We’ll have to make a dash for it.”
Once inside the bathroom I closed the door softly and turned to my very quizzical cohort.
“What is that?” he asked, pointing.
I looked. “That’s the toilet. For you, it’s the chamber pot.”
He looked at it, puzzled. “How does it function?”
I reached over and pushed the lever. He watched, transfixed, as the water swirled and then cascaded down the pipes. It would have been hilarious if he weren’t so annoying.
“When you’ve finished,” I continued, drawing his attention, “you turn on the faucet,” I pulled the handle to me, “use the soap,” I pointed, “wash your hands, and then turn off the water.” I pushed the handle back and the stream of water stopped. “It’s simple; got it?” He nodded. “I’ll be sitting in the hall. Knock on the door when you’ve finished. We don’t want people to know you’re here.”
“Why the secrecy?”
I sighed. “I have an idea of how to help – er, you, but I need to confirm it. Just work with me on this.” I actually had no idea what to make of this, and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to find out, but no way was I going to let him know that.
He looked confused, but nodded.
“Knock when you’re done.”
Twenty minutes later there was a sharp rap from inside the door. ‘Finally!’ I glanced about the hall and then cracked it open. Stupid held up one of Michelle’s many lipsticks.
“What the deuce is this?” he asked.
I snatched it from his hand. “Nothing you will ever be needing, I hope. It’s not your colour. What took you so long?”
“I was enthralled…the cupboard….”
“What did you – ”
Voices on the stairs interrupted me; Stupid paled just a little bit. I grabbed the lipstick and chucked it into the bathroom. In the same breath I snatched the corners of the blanket still wrapped around Stupid’s waist and hauled him back into the bedroom, slamming the door behind us.
“What the devil—?!” he exclaimed.
I clapped my hand over his mouth. “Shush!”
Footsteps passed through the hall, accompanied by the voices of the other girls on the floor. It seemed like hours before they died away, but I suppose it might have been only a few minutes. I’d forgotten how many chatterboxes were in my hall; it wasn’t surprising though. Silent hallways inhabited by thinkers tend to lull us into a false sense of security. When the noise pollution once again becomes apparent we’re easily stunned. I turned back to the boy whose mouth was firmly planted beneath my hand. He looked up at me, his gaze curious and questioning. After another moment of silence, I let him go.
“I’m supposed to teach you to read,” I said, more to myself, thinking aloud, than to the young man in front of me. There wasn’t enough outside pressure for teaching to become even a remote possibility. I thought for another few moments, weighing the options and the circumstances. I finally came to a conclusion with a very forceful purpose. “Stay here,” I ordered. “I’ll be right back.”
“And should others come?”
“Hide. I don’t care where, just hide. I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t. Go. Anywhere.”