After Timothy made his presentation, we shooed him out of the room. Once he was gone, we unanimously agreed to give him a temporary position as business manager for a small percentage of the profits. Surprisingly, he was happy with that. I honestly thought he’d push to make it permanent or get a bigger cut. Instead, he just smiled, and said, “You won’t regret this.” May didn’t seem too convinced.
Still, I had more immediate problems. Midterms were that week and I needed to do what felt like all the work. At this point, between my extracurricular weapons design, bar tending and actual school work, I was pretty much fueled by soda, candy, hot chocolate, and tea instead of actual sleep. At supper on Tuesday, May confronted me about it.
“Nate,” she said, “you’re falling asleep in your noodles.”
“What?” I said. Then I realized I was face-down in a plate of angel hair noodles. As I sat up, I was thankful that I didn’t put any sauce on the spaghetti. Being covered with parmesan cheese and olive oil was bad enough.
May sighed. “After you finish your food, I’m walking you home. You will go to sleep.”
“I…” I began.
“Did I make it sound like I was giving you a choice?” May asked. “Because if so that was a mistake, and I apologize.”
As she frog-marched me back to my dorm, I began making incoherent promises about sleeping more. May just rolled her eyes. “Don’t try,” she said, “do.”
I was actually able to do that for the rest of the week, mostly by putting the assault rifle design on the backburner. Due to how tired I constantly was, I actually managed to sleep better.
John, however, seemed to be doing better than me. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night due to nightmares, anxiety or simply needing a bathroom break, he’d be sleeping pretty well. I was kind of annoyed by this. If the guy who had been put into critical condition a few months ago could sleep, why couldn’t I?
There was also an awkwardness between us. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we’d just had a huge fight. It had been that way for a while, but I was really starting to notice it. So on Friday I decided that I needed some air.
I had just finished all my midterms and didn’t have to go to dinner or my bartending job for quite a while. For the first time in months, I was feeling rested. Originally, I hadn’t planned on being outside long (the island’s weather was as rainy as usual,) but then I saw him.
Ulfric Trollbjorn was sitting down on the bench outside the building I had my class in. As usual, the people who knew him by reputation (I don’t think anyone actually knows him, except maybe Alma) were giving him a wide berth. Even sitting down, you could tell he was a giant. His AMS hoodie was soaked, hanging off him. This revealed that, while he was incredibly ripped, he was still surprisingly lacking in muscles for someone who could literally rip people apart with his bare hands.
At first, I considered walking away. Then I noticed that Ulfric’s normally smiling face was downcast and he was staring at the ground. I stood there for what had to be around two to five minutes, staring directly at him. During this time he didn’t once look up. Eventually, I decided to walk up to him.
“Ulfric?” I asked over the sound of the rain when I was standing right next to him, “You ok?”
Ulfric looked up at me in surprise, and I could see that his eyes were slightly puffy. He held my gaze for about a second or two, then, finally, he asked, his voice hoarse like he’d been crying, “Do you wanna go bowling?”
“Sure,” I said, out of a combination of fear of a completely snapped Ulfric and a genuine sense of compassion. I mean, he had killed dozens of people not too long ago, but even so, I couldn’t just leave someone sobbing in the rain. “I didn’t know they had a bowling alley on the island.”
Ulfric gave his wide, completely joyful grin and got up. He motioned for me to follow him. I did. He led me down the main street. Near the gate, we got to a building by the hospital. I had probably walked by it dozens of times, yet I hadn’t seen the bright neon sign labeled “Bryke’s Bowling,” complete with dancing bowling pins. As soon as I saw it, I realized that it had probably always been there. Well, it wasn’t like I was the biggest bowler out there.
Ulfric, moving with his usual disturbing speed and grace, walked up to the cashier, a pimply brown-skinned man and plopped down a piece of paper. The brown-skinned man turned almost as white as Ulfric. When Ulfric saw this, he made his high-pitched giggle. For a few seconds, the sounds of people bowling and conversing stopped. This caused Ulfric’s shoulders to sag.
To his credit, the receptionist managed to ask in a quivering voice, “I see that you have decided to use your ticked for two. Who…?” Ulfric pointed to me. I waved. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Would you gentlemen please hand over your shoes?”
We handed over our shoes to the receptionist, and he handed over some bowling shoes to the us. When the shoes were on, he pointed us over to an empty lane. I’m not a bowler, so I’m not even sure if we were doing it right. I just know that Ulfric was consistently knocking all the pins down with one ball, whereas I sometimes couldn’t even knock them down with the balls allotted to me.
After a few rounds, Ulfric asked out of nowhere, “Am I defective?”
I honestly had no idea how to answer that question. Up until this point, I had thought of Ulfric as a ruthless, highly intelligent killing machine. I had known he had feelings, but didn’t know that he was capable of introspection. He had always seemed so child-like, an impression that was cemented by his baby face and his usually joyful smile.
“Depends on what you mean,” I said. “I mean, what’s your idea of a functional person?”
Ulfic shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that most people can talk whenever they want every day. I know people act the same every day.” He paused. “There’s also some unspoken rules I don’t get.”
He then went back to bowling. I tried to engage him in conversation several more times, but he went back to being his usual mute self. I had once noted in Hell Semester that he had days where he might literally not speak at all and days where he could string several sentences together in any language. However, this was the first conversation I had ever seen him have. It also seemed to physically exhaust him, because after speaking, he sat down and rested for a bit.
We continued to bowl until the machine stopped giving us balls. After we got our street shoes on, I asked, “You want me to walk with you for a bit?”
Ulfric nodded. We headed out the bowling alley and down past the hospital and into AMS/Shadowhaven territory. As we did so, Ulfric seemed to be getting back to his cheery self.
I wondered how he could still be happy. It’s not like I hadn’t noticed it before, but everyone seemed to be avoiding him, especially now that we were in an area where people were more aware of who he was. People would literally cross the street rather than come into range. They would also glance at his sweater, specifically around his armpits. Despite their small size (compared to Ulfric, that is,) you could still see the twin .50 AE Desert Eagles with their drum magazines.
Of course, most people here were armed. I, of course, had my Berretta and SIG-Sauer. The occasional Campus Security officers we saw would have their standard-issue FiveSeveN strapped to their hips. There was also the fact that many of the students and teachers who needed to brave the rain, usually the ones in the AMS and Shadowhaven hoodies, had their concealed carry weaponry revealed by rain-soaked clothes. A few also carried large, rectangular cases in addition to their backpacks that my experience told me were most likely long guns.
Here, everyone would know how to use their weapons. Yet they were still afraid of Ulfric. I wondered what that would be like, to live in what was the equivalent of a heavily-armed ghetto in a village full of people who hated and feared you, and were also highly armed and superbly trained. I would have been a wreck. Of course, I already was a high-functioning train wreck at that point.
After I considered this, I said to Ulfric, “You know, if you ever need to talk, you can call me.” Ulfric turned towards me and smiled gratefully. “Also,” I added, “from what I’ve seen, you could probably talk to Alma as well.”
At this, Ulfric stopped and turned completely pale. I stared at him. I never thought anything could scare him. I just didn’t know if it was because he was scared of Alma, me or both of us. Or why he’d be scared.
“Sorry,” I said, trying to pretend I hadn’t realized he was scared. “I just saw you two together around campus once or twice and…” I trailed off, then finally said, “Just forget it.”
“Forget you ever saw us together.” I turned to see Ulfric staring at me with the kind of fear in his eyes that made me think he would hurt me if I didn’t agree. He then placed a massive hand on my shoulder and added, “Please.”
Looking at the giant hand, I was reminded of how Ulfric had once ripped someone’s arm off and beat the victim and his friends with the soggy end along with a dozen other incidents. Not wanting to risk that he’d avoid confrontation because we were in public, I said, “Sure. Don’t worry about it.”
Ulfric stared at me for a long, long time, trying to see there was any hint that I would go back on my word. Eventually, he let go of my shoulder and nodded, satisfied. We then began to continue our walk back to our dorm. It turned out that Ulfric had a room right across from my dorm building. It was a single, probably due to a combination of the fact that he was Ulfric and that Hell Semester had taken more lives than usual in our year. It was supposed to be a double, but Ulfric had dragged the two beds together and had gotten sheets and blankets big enough to cover both mattresses. There were probably other signs that he had the room all to himself, but he wordlessly shooed me out. I didn’t argue.
When I got back to the dorm I shared with John, the first thing I did was grab a change of clothes (I had been soaked to the bone from being out in the rain for so long) and a towel and head to the bathrooms. Deciding to get ahead of the laundry for once, I threw my soaking clothes into my laundry basket and took that to the basement.
When I entered the room for the third time, I said to John, “I saw Ulfric today.”
“What’d you do?” John asked, turning from his computer to look at me for what felt like the first time in weeks. “Go bowling together?
“I swear I’m not kidding,” I said, “but that’s exactly what we did.”
“You’re fucking shitting me,” John said, laughing somewhat.
“I swear I’m telling the truth,” I said. “I even had kind of a heart to heart chat with him. He said more in two hours than he has in the rest of his NIU career.” There was a pause. John’s look of amusement began to fade. “Just out of curiosity,” I asked, “have you ever seen him and Alma Hebert around?”
John sighed. “Look,” he said, “I’ve been only doing this for, like, a year, but I’m starting to develop a sense of when things are going to go bad.”
“Next time you say you have a good feeling,” I said, “I’m going to hold you to it.”
“Key word,” John said, rolling his eyes, “is starting.” He leaned in close and said, “Listen to me, Nate, I have no clue what connection you’re going to draw from this or what it might motivate you to do, but I’m going to tell you right now: leave. It. Alone. No good can come of you doing your thing.”
I was going to argue. I really was. Then I considered my track record and my current workload. “You know what?” I said, “I’m going to concentrate on not fucking up what I’m currently doing.”
“Really?” John asked skeptically.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got enough to be doing. Besides, what would poking at it fix?”