Someone was sleeping in the student lounge. That in itself was not unusual. Exams or light-night practice sessions or hangovers meant it was common to find someone gormless and drooling on one of the couches. But this was a stranger and so it was different. We didn’t have a procedure for dealing with this, so we just stood around awkwardly and looked at him. He was just some guy – about our age, it seemed, although it was hard to tell because he was rumpled and unwashed and therefore seemed older. He had the look of someone who’d hitchhiked, who’d slept in bus stations and tents (maybe even on park benches sometimes), who regularly ate vacuum-packed sandwiches from gas stations, and whose hair was spontaneously dreadlocking itself from lack of brushly attention. He was covered with a dirty jacket – the frayed cuffs and telltale shade of olive green suggesting its legacy as “leftover military” – and as we watched him turn in his sleep this measly blanket moved down, revealing its owner’s thin neck and a pinkish scar that trailed jaggedly from the underside of his chin to regions of the skinny chest hidden below scruffy gray sweater and once-white T-shirt. Discovering this echo of violence on an otherwise innocuously sleeping body made us feel even more that we were looking at someone alien, with secrets. Someone unknown and potentially dangerous had entered our sanctum and marked it, creating his own scar on our comfortable communal terrain.
We were apprehensive, but we couldn’t deny being intrigued by this interloper. We stood there in our studied thrift-shop hipster-wear looking at this sleeping vagrant, and silently invented back-stories for him that involved every off-the-grid fantasy we’d ever had. He was a hard-core tree-planter who travelled to the States to work in orchards during the winters, he was hitching rides on freight trains to see the whole country on less than $500, he was a carny who had missed his ride on the packed-up Ferris Wheel when it left town…in short, he was everything we fantasized about being when we were bored by our lectures or haunted by the looming spectre of ‘comfortable’ middle-class existence.
We wondered in whispers things like How did he get in? and Should we tell someone? We thought we were being quiet enough, but maybe in truth we wanted our speculations to force him out of his slumber. He was the invader, after all, and we weren’t sure if he was even owed our politeness. Plus, we wanted to know if any of our invented stories were true.
Anyway, then he woke up.
We were frozen immobile as the scruffy sleeper separated himself from the stiff purple couch cushions and sat up, bleary-eyed and scratching. Now that he was vertical and moving there was no denying his existence – his actual human-ness – and we were helpless at the thought of literally interacting with this outsider. A wave of almost palpable apprehension passed among and around all five of us, and everyone seemed to back up a little without moving. We all looked at each other forever.
Then Sadie, who always tried hard to be the most daring of all us, decided to earn some points toward that title.
“Um…hey,” she ventured, folding her arms but then letting them drop again a second later. “That couch sucks, huh?”
“Seriously years of drool trapped in that thing,” added Mike, almost too eagerly. Mike was ADHD, clinically diagnosed, and it was hard for him to stay silent or still for too long.
The stranger said nothing, still rubbing his eyes and his (at least) two-day beard with one dirty hand. The smell he exuded was a mixture of campfire, tobacco, and pot, with a topnote of male body odour – exactly in keeping with any one of our fantasy scenarios, which made us want to return to being curious, rather than frightened.
“So…how long you been here? Like, sleeping, I mean.” Sadie again.
“Is there a problem?”
The stranger’s first words, and the tone of suspicion and distrust with which they were delivered, made everyone’s eyes widen. Did he not like us? How could we have gotten off on the wrong foot so quickly? Whoever he was, he was the coolest thing to have appeared in our student lounge for as long as we could remember, so we couldn’t afford to screw up the interaction. I vowed to myself not to risk talking to him at all.
Sadie looked nervous, but she plowed in to salvage the situation. “Uh, uh…no….nope. No problem.” She started biting the nails on her left hand, and commenced looking incredibly nonchalant, both for the benefit of him and us, I suspected.
“People sleep in here all the time,” Cameron piped up. I was sure he was nervous, too, but he was doing his “mature one” act. Cameron’s mission was to appear worldly; imagining himself the most well-informed and unphased one of us meant that he would act as if it were commonplace to discover dirty vagrants sleeping on our couches. Which it wasn’t, of course. I looked over at Cameron, who was next to me, and noted the corner of his eye twitching.
“That’s why I said, um, you know…about the drool,” Mike was shifting from foot to foot and his long arms waved in the direction of our guest. “I don’t know if they ever clean these things.” Meaning the couches. “Seriously, like, do they? Have you ever seen the cleaners down here with vacuums and shit, like, reeeeaally digging into cleaning these things? Or that happens in the summer, maybe…?” His voice trailed off while he looked to all of us to join him in his latest non-sequitur excursion. No one did.
The stranger did not visibly acknowledge any of these utterances, but his eyes scanned the room as we made these weak attempts at interaction. I had never actually seen anyone “case a joint” before, but that’s what it looked like he was doing. And that made me wonder what he thought about what he was seeing, so I looked, too. Four lumpy, foam-leaking couches in shades of 70s orange and brown (except for the purple one our new friend was currently using) and a comparable number of old coffee tables (three usable, one with two broken legs that now functioned as both a back-rest and a skateboard ramp) were plunked around the open room’s hardwood floor in no apparent design. The officially-sanctioned art on the walls involved the combination of musical instruments and flowers in various soft-focus arrangements and was hated by everyone. These unpopular framed posters were supplemented and sometimes obscured by tacked-up cartoons, recital announcements, and manifestos such as the one currently taped to the cupboards above the overflowing sink: I HAVE WASHED THESE DISHES THREE TIMES IN THE LAST WEEK AND I AM NOT DOING IT AGAIN! LOVE, MIRANDA. A drum practice pad was balanced precariously on the edge of one of the overhead light fixtures, and a sculpture comprised of Styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery, and pizza boxes was displayed proudly on the table in the kitchenette. Everything looked normal to me in this, my home away from home, but I had no idea what it looked like to someone from outside. My eyes completed their surreptitious circuit around the room, and discovered, upon mentally rejoining the scene, that the stranger’s attention was now focused intently. On me.
“This is…your school…or whatever?” he said. Directly to me.
I dropped my eyes to the floor and tried not to look like I was panicking. Why was he talking to me? I didn’t even like talking, and especially not to exotic strangers. But his question hung in the air and demanded a response. My friends were all looking at me and hoping that I wouldn’t screw this up.
“Ya, we, um, take music here,” I managed. Lame! What a stupid thing to say. He doesn’t care what we study, and I didn’t even say it in a way that made sense. He was going to think I was a loser.
“Huh. Cool. Anyone play guitar?” He seemed to have been placated by my response, and now looked to the other faces gathered around him for an answer. Sadly, none of our Western European classical music training had prepared us to answer that question affirmatively. We all intended to pick up the guitar sometime – in some summer, when we had “more time” – but to date it hadn’t happened. We felt embarrassed and unmusicianlike as we said no, none of us played guitar. He appeared unphased, however.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, shifting and stretching as he spoke, “I had a guitar one time, but I had to pawn it in…” a dismissive gesture completed his sentence. Mike started to jabber something about learning two power chords one time awhile ago, but the stranger (wisely) cut him off by asking his next question: “So, is that door open all the time, or what?”
It was tricky to answer that question, so we made confused noises and didn’t quite look at each other instead of answering. The front door of the music building was officially locked at 11 pm each night, but we had found various creative ways of gaining entry after that time, most involving strategically-placed bottle caps in barely-open windows and folded paper shivved into door jambs. We needed to be able to practice whenever the mood (or muse) struck, and we also needed a place to have water fights and fumbling trysts and existential chats late into the night. We needed 24-hour access to our community’s centre, essentially, and so we bent the rules to accommodate that need. Of course, now someone we did not know or trust had permeated the boundary we had made porous through our naïveté, and we would have to deal with the consequences.
He was waiting for an answer.
“Um…it’s sort of…open all the time…” I offered, vaguely. Since I was the only person he seemed to have addressed directly, the task of conversation seemed to have fallen to me. I accepted grudgingly, but really hoped I had back-up, if and when I needed it. “But…we don’t usually tell people that.”
I risked some pointed eye contact with this last phrase. He needed to get the point that he had invaded someplace essentially private – that we had accepted him being here, but that there wasn’t normally an open-door policy, and that he shouldn’t spread the word to his friends.
He shrugged and pursed his lips in a motion of acquiescence. “Oh ya? Well, whatever. I’m on the road, anyway. Just needed a place to crash for the night. Pretty good deal to find this place.” He was turning his blanket back into a jacket as he spoke.
“So, where you headed?” Cameron, in a bold move, sat down on the arm of the couch and pretended to adjust his already-tied shoelace.
“Out west,” our new friend offered. “To the coast, probably. It’s warmer.” He was fumbling in the pockets of his jacket, but apparently not finding what he needed. “Fuck, man. Where’s my…? Dammit. Shit. Fuck.” Half to himself. To us: “Anyone got a smoke?”
“Uh, you can’t smoke in here,” said Sadie. She was not normally so rule-bound, but I supposed she was embarrassed by the stranger’s harsh response to her initial overture, and she wanted to regain the upper hand.
“Jesus. Sor-ry.” This pronouncement was accompanied by an eye-roll and a look of disdain shot Sadie’s way. Oh god, I thought. He’s going to think he landed on the planet of the prudes. Then Mike cut in, over-compensating as always.
“I have a lighter, though, if you do find a smoke.” He was practically waving it in the guy’s face. “I always carry one. I don’t know why. I don’t smoke – I can’t, ‘cause, like, singers can’t, right? Bad for the lungs, and all that – but I just like playing with it, I guess. And, hey, you never know when you might need one, right?” Flick, flick. Mike looked and sounded like a crazy person, and was not helping the situation.
“So,” I jumped in, without really knowing how I would follow that word. I was desperate to redeem our social standing, and because of that I was willing to risk talking – if I could only think of something that a cool person would say. “So, uh…you’re going right out to the coast? Like, to the, um, Island, or whatever? I hear the busking’s really good out there.” And I had heard this, truthfully. I had heard somewhere (or read, probably) that a street musician had made enough money busking on the streets of Victoria, BC to buy himself a house, which seemed impossible – but then again buying a house in general seemed impossible to me, so it was hard to put this in perspective. But anyway, that was something I knew about Victoria, so that’s what I said.
“Really?” said the traveller. “Well, geez. Too bad I don’t have a guitar anymore then.” And then he kind of looked at me sideways with a little smile, which completely freaked me out and made me stare at the floor and probably blush. Sadie made some kind of derogatory sound that made me feel even weirder.
The stranger made one more visual tour of the room, and then of us, his face set in an expression I found hard to read. My impression, if I had one at all, would be that he viewed us annoyances – like flies he had to swat away before he could continue on his way. This impression was reinforced by his next words, delivered with the accompaniment of a heavy sigh: “You fuckin guys and your fuckin school.” Although I could feel Wendie bristling at this indictment, I could tell that it was delivered largely without malice. It was just an observation, punctuated by an amount of obscenities that was normal if you were a guy like him. There was more insight to come.
“Fuckin hiding away from the world so you can learn about it. Like that’s gonna teach you anything. And then you’re gonna fuckin graduate and think you’re the big fuckin shit. Hell, maybe you are. What the hell do I know? But there’s a whole shit-load of stuff you guys don’t know shit about, with your fuckin posters and your fuckin… little kitchen.” These were accompanied by dismissive waves of his arm. Then a pause before he continued, with a sense of profound resignation about his next pronouncements. “The further in you go, the bigger it gets, man. The bigger it fuckin gets.” He patted his jacket pockets again, no doubt hoping the elusive cigarettes had materialized. Again he was unrewarded, so he just sat and stared at the floor.
We didn’t know what had just happened. We felt vaguely chastised by our acquaintance’s sudden judgemental speech, but also confused. The further you went into what? The bigger what got? Maybe this guy was just some weirdo conspiracy theory nutjob, and maybe we just wanted him to get out of here now. We shifted about uneasily, in silence – even Mike.
Luckily we didn’t have to think about what to do next, because what happened next was that Miranda came in. She was, as usual, in mid-text, probably nagging someone. We liked Miranda alright, but sometimes she had to be ignored when she was in full surrogate-mom mode. Anyway, when she looked up from her cellphone to see who was in the room, her eyes locked on the one person who didn’t belong, and the rest of us instantly felt like we were somehow about to be in trouble. The stranger and Miranda stared at each other for a few seconds and we stared at Miranda. Then she suddenly wheeled around and left the lounge without saying a word.
“Oh shit,” Cameron exclaimed as he raced off after her. “Shit, shit, shit.” We all knew that Miranda would never tolerate someone unknown and unwashed in her student lounge, even if he was surrounded by sanctioned personnel. She would definitely be, at this moment, in search of a security guard or a professor or someone else official enough to exert the authority necessary to get this interloper out of here; I supposed that Cameron hoped to at least slow down the process, and minimize our involvement in the situation to whomever ended up being that person. Mike started babbling to the stranger about how anal Miranda could be, and how she had once tried to create a policy for footwear removal before entering the lounge, which everyone had (of course) hated and ignored. Sadie just folded her arms and leaned against a pillar, no doubt curious to discover the upcoming fate of this person, whom she had probably branded as a jerk after his second dismissal of her. I tried not to feel slightly nervous as I watched the guy hurriedly shove his feet into a pair of beat-up work boots and cast a panicked eye towards the door. He knew something was up and that it was time to get the hell out of there, and, even though I was sure we’d done nothing wrong (we hadn’t, had we?), his apprehension was rubbing off on me, and I couldn’t help worrying if we could be implicated in something somehow. He looked wildly around the room for another exit, and his eyes fixed on the windows at the top of the wall. I wondered if I should tell him that they were pretty much impossible to open, but that fact would probably be obvious in a second. I didn’t say anything.
Then Cameron came back in on the run, followed closely by Miranda, and I could see George the security guard approaching down the hall behind them. I was relieved when I saw it was George, because he was frankly the most un-guard-like person I had ever met. I mean, he was a really nice guy, but that was kind of his downfall. He just wanted to be everyone’s pal, which was fine when you were trying to convince him to shut off all the lights in the building so that you could play Nerf tag all night, but I didn’t see how he would be able to kick someone out, even if that person wasn’t actually supposed to be here. But of course, our new acquaintance didn’t know any of this. He just wanted to get out, and the only way was through a window that looked barely big enough to allow that. He started to climb up on the ledge above the couch and had the window half-open – apparently he knew how to do that – when he stopped suddenly, like he had forgotten something.
“Fuck,” he repeated his favourite word with increasing levels of volume and annoyance. “Fucking fuck.” He ran back to his recent bed and scrabbled around on the dusty floor underneath it, resurfacing with a small black tote bag. He studied it for a split-second and then shoved it into my hands, fixing me with an intense stare: “Take this. DON’T give to them. Do you hear me? DON’T.” Then he bolted for the window, and was outside and running across the campus at top speed just as George ambled into the room. We must have looked kind of shell-shocked when we turned to greet our friendly security guard, because he took one look at us, one look out the window at the rapidly retreating figure, and then left the room faster than I had ever seen him move, summoning help on his walky-talky as he did so. After a split second Mike took off in pursuit, with Cameron and Sadie close behind. I was left literally holding the bag, frozen in place in the middle of the room and wondering what I should do.
Miranda knew. She accused me with her eyes. “That guy’s in trouble. He’s probably a criminal or something. You have to give George that bag.” I looked at her, standing there self-righteously like the embodiment of my conscience, and I kind of wanted to slap her. I knew I should tell some authority about this clandestine item in my possession, but I was also, in this moment, kind of relishing the fact that some unknown rebel had chosen me to safeguard his belongings. I knew it was silly to think like this, because he’d probably just targeted me as the most gullible mark in the group, but right now it felt as if he and I had a little secret – one that I could either choose to keep or to betray. I knew what the right thing to do was – and the thing that the good rule-following student I had always been would do – but I also didn’t particularly want to do it. The way he had dismissed all of us and our little hangout had made me suddenly more aware of how sheltered we all were, and how much of the world we knew nothing about. I suddenly wanted to do something atypical, just to be different somehow, and if I could do that by just holding onto a black tote bag, it suddenly didn’t seem like it would be so impossible to be rebellious. I glared at Miranda to shut her up. Then I headed towards the door to witness the action outside for myself when Mike and Cameron came rushing in, out of breath. Sadie did not appear to be with them. Perhaps she had just given up on the whole scene.
“Holy shit, you shoulda seen it,” Mike panted as his wayward arms flailed. “They called the cops and everything. It was, like, a total reality show out there.”
Cameron rolled his eyes. “Mike, what a fucking stupid thing to say. This IS reality. What is wrong with you? Uh, never mind.” He could tell I was confused and panicky, and after all, he didn’t have to waste time berating Mike right now, when that was something he could do anytime.
Miranda gasped. “See?” she directed at me, probably eager to maintain (or obtain) some kind of upper hand. ” I KNEW it. I knew he was in trouble. You’re aiding a criminal. That is probably full of stolen property or something.” Meaning the bag, of course. I clutched it closer to myself and ignored her.
“Ok,” said Cameron, sinking down into the couch where this whole fiasco had begun. “Here’s what happened. We go out there, he’s running like hell towards 18th St, with, like two security guards after him – not George, of course. He’d probably have a heart attack or something – and then, then two cop cars pull up, just on the edge of campus by the Health building. Sirens and lights and everything – seriously! So the guy’s running, and then he sees the cop cars, and he tries to deek back, but the security guys are there, so they’ve got him, right? But he’s fighting and he’s swearing, and they’re all fighting, and the cops get there and they just grab him and put the handcuffs on, just like that. They’re seriously pros, those guys. Man. And then they just took him away in the squad car, and that was it. I dunno what he did or who he is or anything. The security dudes wouldn’t tell us. Maybe they don’t know, but somebody must have called the cops.”
“Seriously, it was fucking nuts, man,” Mike had waited this long to offer his own take on things, and he wasn’t going to be put off now. “Did you see how the one cop just grabbed the guy’s arm like that? He just, like, twisted it around like some kind of UFC move or something, and then BAM, the guy was just down.” He proceeded to attempt a recreation of this spectacular feat, almost hitting Miranda in the process. Needless to say, she was not amused.
“This is unbelievable. How did he get in here? What did he say to you guys? Why didn’t you kick him out, or call someone, or…DO SOMETHING?!” She was wild-eyed now, and crescendoing to a shriek. “This is like our second home. Right? How could you let someone like that just come in here? You just don’t care, do you? You’re all just, just chatting with him, like it doesn’t matter! He could have murdered all of us! And…AND – ” her tirade found its focal point as she pounced on me, yet again. “WHAT IS IN THAT BAG?”
As all eyes turned to me, I knew I could no longer put off revealing the bag’s secrets. I had to admit, though, I was also curious to see what was inside. I set the mysterious item down on the couch beside Cameron and unzipped it.
Mike pushed past me before I could even see any of the contents, and he started rooting around and pulling things out. A length of rope, coiled and knotted at one end. A crowbar. Numerous small flat pieces of metal, a couple with L-shaped points on the end. A pair of gloves. A hunting knife.
“Holy shit!” Mike sounded half enthusiastic and half incredulous. “what the hell is this stuff? What’s it for?”
We stood looking at this bizarre array of items displayed on the ratty purple couch cushions, and tried to imagine its purpose.
Then Cameron seemed to have a revelation. “Ohhhh…” he said, dropping down heavily on the arm of the couch, “I think I know. I think I know what these are. Miranda, you’re not gonna like this.”
“I already don’t like this.” Miranda was actually pouting, planted there in the centre of the room with her arms crossed and looking even more self-righteous than usual, “so you can go ahead and just say it.”
Cameron acquiesed. “I think it’s a break-in kit. For, you know, like, robberies and stuff. For breaking into places. Picking locks and opening doors, you know – like that.”
All of our eyes widened. I was aware of Miranda launching into a tirade and Mike spluttering things like “How do you know that?” to Cameron, but the sound of their speech was drowned out by the white-noise thought-jumble in my head. He really was a criminal. Well, maybe. We still didn’t know for sure. But if he was, that was the closest I’d ever been to one. I felt like I had passed through a veil and that now the sky was green, or something. Everything still looked familiar here in our little enclave, but it wasn’t the same place it had been even a few minutes ago. For some reason I moved to the couch and picked up the bag. I knew I had been charged with safe-keeping its contents, but somehow it didn’t matter so much now who we gave it to or what happened to the tools that were in it. Their owner had already been caught, and these tools were just symbols of the real break-in that had happened inside my head. One scruffy vagrant had shown up and pointed out that the world had dimensions and shadows that I hadn’t noticed, and his presence had revealed that those shadows could seep in here, where I had always thought the lights were too bright for that to happen. it seemed like this revelation was the thing that was important, and it was what I wanted to keep to myself – almost as if that was what the stranger had really meant when he had shoved his bag into my arms. I didn’t feel shocked by this new knowledge as much as, well, awakened, really. Whatever it all meant, things were different now, even if only slightly.
There was something else in the bag. I surreptitiously reached in, although no one was even looking my way, and pulled out a book, of all things. It was a beat-up paperback copy, splayed and dog-eared, of a book called Little, Big by John Crowley. I couldn’t be sure what it was about, but the cover had the kind of swirly font and airbrushed forest imagery that was common to romance and fantasy novels, or sweeping epics of historical fiction. Was this his book? It must be, but it didn’t look like the type of book a criminal would read. Whatever that meant. I opened the front cover, and found the name ‘Garrity’ scrawled in black ink on the top of the page. So, now he had a name. And a pastime, evidently – something he did in between robberies. Reading. I opened the book at a random page and scanned it. A relevant question jumped out at me: “What is the explanation for this?” I skipped a few lines, until a familiar phrase caught my eye. “It is another world entirely, but it is enclosed within this one…the further in you go, the bigger it gets.” Exactly what our criminal acquaintance had said to us when he was looking around our student lounge and dismissing our safe little lives. It had a ring of truth now, where it had just seemed crazy before.
I suddenly wanted this book, as a souvenir of this experience, and as a manual for the revelation of future secrets. Would anyone notice if I took it, if I withheld this piece of evidence? I decided I didn’t care. A book – this book – didn’t help commit crimes, and it was something I needed to have and to read. It seemed like it was for me. I dropped the black totebag and looked around at my friends. Miranda looked on the verge of tears and seemed to be reciting Bible verses or something to Cameron, who was tolerating her tirade but waiting for his chance to interject. Mike had lost interest and was trying unsuccessfully to juggle two styrofoam cups and a balled-up paper napkin. I looked at them, and I thought of the times we had spent together and the things we had learned about ourselves and each other, and I felt like I was looking back on a memory. I knew we would all spend many more hours here in this room, but I also knew that I would always remember this moment as a bookmark – that things would have a before and an after, starting now.
I clutched my new possession close to me, tossed off a cavalier “I’ll see you guys later” that went unnoticed, and headed out of the lounge and the building. Sadie was sitting on the bench outside, smoking.
“Hey,” she said.
“So how bout that guy today, hey? Weird.”
“ya, no kidding. Crazy.”
“Most exciting thing to happen around here for awhile.”
“Hey, you wanna get something to eat?” She stubbed out her cigarette and stood up.
“Sure,” I said. I was kind of hungry, come to think of it. Sadie was already heading towards her beat-up Buick, and I started to follow her but then thought of something. “Go ahead – I’ll be there in a sec.”
I turned back and climbed over the railing that surrounded the basement windows of the music building. It was easy enough to inch along the ledge around the windows, if you knew how, and I did that until I was positioned above the student lounge, right in front of the window above the purple couch. I could see Miranda, Cameron and Mike in there, still arguing and kibbutzing around – just being kids, I guess. I reached toward the slightly-open window and pulled it open just a bit more, propping it with a rock that happened to be sitting there. I didn’t care if any of them saw me do it. If someone needed a place to get in, I wanted him to have it. Things were bigger now, because I was further in.