True Tales from University: My Friend June from the Planet Xartex
As Told By Louise Milligan
Sometimes when you think you know a person, you’re dead wrong…
I know the secret now.
Among us live alien zombie droids from the planet Xartex. Now that I know, now that they know I know, I can only assume they are going to kill me.
My sneaky journey through darkness into the oldest, darkest part of the city – my home city – ended in a different kind of darkness, struggling against my captors until, finally, like Romans with their Coliseum, they’ve thrown me into this dark place where no doubt lions – or some alien-zombie-droid carnivores – lurk. Perhaps they have smelt me already and are closing in for the kill. I’m not really the fight back type. I curl up against the cold black metal of the door which slid so sharply down, cutting short, shorter than my presumptuous human mind ever suspected, the brief chapter that was the Life of Louise.
I can’t believe it happened. What was I thinking, sneaking around? It wasn’t like me. I usually avoid anything with even a vague whiff of danger around it. So why did I follow you tonight, June? Some silly childish game I was playing, I suppose. I thought you would turn around and laugh with me. Things didn’t turn out at all the way I planned them. But I hadn’t planned, really, and that was part of the problem. No weapons. No one told to wait for me, report me missing. I was an idiot, but I did it all in innocence. Sitting in the dark, all I can do is berate myself with the huge gaps in the logic that got me locked in here.
Close my eyes or open them, it doesn’t matter. It’s so dark in here. But for fear, I keep them closed. I find my mind wandering back to the past week, past month, the whole time I’ve known June. So many things make sense now. Perhaps I should start in the past. It is the real beginning of this story.
... Why, June? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought we were friends...
June was the nicest, sweetest person you could ever meet. Could ever want to meet. Any sweeter and I would have hated her. I almost did hate her, in fact. But when I was finally over that, there was just something about her so... out of this world. It was the way she had... like she could see through me. Yes, I knew she could see through me, and see all my faults. But she understood my faults. She never judged. It seemed I could do no wrong with her. She was one of that rare brand of people who could love unconditionally.
When I first met her, over a year ago, I was a little confused by her. She had an infectious enthusiasm that I should have immediately loved and grabbed on to, but the things she said were a little too far out for even me. I couldn’t grab onto even the tail of the conversation she was having with a mutual friend, Gary. He seemed to find her infinitely entertaining. I could only smile and nod. They were talking about some kind of psychology stuff. Gary had told me once before of his friend June, the Psychology major. I had seen them walking around campus before, in deep and animated discussion, but I had never before approached her when she was with him.
‘See, no, I don’t believe that,’ June said now, as I stared and tried to make sense of the words she was saying. It was perfect English, and I understood every word, but when they were strung together, I couldn’t grasp at the concepts she was sharing with Gary. It was like they were speaking an alien language. ‘I think Freud was wrong. Or at least, some of his ideas have become greatly outdated. Perhaps just a decade or so ago, he might have been right. But if you look around at most girls our age, in this country, they’re hardly affected at all by his notion of envy of the phallus. If anything the tables have turned and men are starting to suffer from a mental absence of phallus, if you get my meaning.’
I knew what phallus meant, but I hadn’t heard before of Freud’s ‘penis-envy’ theory, and I couldn’t understand why Gary’s face suddenly went bright red. ‘I don’t see how you can say that, June,’ he said, tipping his head to one side, maintaining as much calm as he could, although you could hear how pissed off he was in his soft, camp voice. His hands clasped together in his lap across the table, where he had his legs crossed in a strangely lady-like fashion. I just stared boggle-eyed at him as he continued, ‘You’re not male, after all.’
‘I am a Psychology major,’ June reminded him calmly, although there was a little smile on her face that I could see was really getting on Gary’s nerves. ‘I have to consider the mental worlds of all kinds of human beings. All sorts of recent psychologists and sociologists have written works on the new absence of phallus. Feminism seems to have damaged some males, unfortunately. And there are other circumstances as well. Of course, it is a highly individualised condition. I’m certainly not saying all men suffer from absence of phallus. But by that same token, you can’t insist that all women suffer from envy of the phallus.’
He breathed out, and his face lost a bit of its brightness. ‘Apology accepted,’ he said quietly, but with a touch of sternness. None of this, I noticed, could affect the serene smile on June’s face. We all heard someone call out Gary’s name, and his face broke out in a sudden smile. ‘Hi!’ he called back, and then said a quiet ‘Excuse me,’ to us as he stood up and walked over to talk to his newly arrived friend.
June smiled at me. ‘Sorry to do that. Sometimes he just needs someone to put him in his place, doesn’t he?’
I smirked. ‘Yeah, he is actually one of the most sexist people I know.’
June said knowingly, ‘Ah, well, you see, Gary doesn’t realise some things about himself. It’s not that it’s in his nature to be sexist, but he puts up a barrier of superiority to anything he considers a threat. And he perceives women as a threat sometimes, unfortunately.’
There was something about the way she said it that pissed me off. I hated being disagreed with, and I guess that was my own problem. But she was coming off as a know-it-all. And basically, hadn’t she just proved what I said; that he was sexist? So, she was one of those pretentious people who liked to sound intelligent, I decided then and there. Luckily Gary came back to sit with us, and the conversation turned away from uncomfortable and hard topics for the rest of the lunch break.
And so, for the next few months at least, I didn’t see June, and I didn’t make any effort to hang out with her and Gary and discuss a load of (what seemed to me at least) wank. But I didn’t really think about her either. She hadn’t impressed me, though she was a very memorable kind of person. And that was simply because of her stature and her hair.
She was indeed a young woman of impressive stature. Now I was taller than average, but I felt small beside June. So that meant she always stood shoulders above most crowds. But she was always easy to pick out of a crowd, if not for her height, then for her hair. She had naturally blonde hair, but for some strange reason, she always had at least the bottom half of her shoulder length hair dyed green. It was a very odd look. She looked as if maybe she was a strange flower or plant.
I ran into her more than I would have liked. She was always friendly, just waving to me or saying ‘hi’ as we passed on campus. Over time I was able to forget the ‘pretentious’ label I put on her, and I began to think she seemed like quite a nice, friendly person. It was nice of her to wave to someone she’d basically only met once. I’d hardly do the same thing to some of the people I met in my classes multiple times. Usually I’m really good at holding a grudge, and I should have, statistically speaking, held that grudge against her for being such a know-it-all and contradicting me. And yet I managed to completely forget about that part and only remember the friendly aspect of her. She was just a friendly face I passed in campus sometimes. A friend of a friend.
In the end, I finally managed to realise what it really was about June that had upset me at that first meeting. It was that I was getting territorial. I was used to being the know-it-all, and yet here was a person who dared to contradict me. Here was someone I was actually intimidated by, someone who seemed so much more intelligent than me. So at the time, it made me uneasy around her. But by the time we were finally friends, I realised what interesting company I had been depriving myself of.
It was a kind of universal chaotic chance that brought us together. Even though I was a Physics major, I had to complete a few non-science papers as part of my degree, so one semester I chose something that looked, on paper, to be an intelligent choice. ‘The Masters of Classical Theatre’. I had a soft spot for Ancient Greece, as I had studied, quite often in high school, the revelations of the Ancient Greek mathematicians and ‘scientists’ (not that the term scientist is really accurate). I retraced the footsteps of Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Archimedes, and every one that I could get information on. I was in love with the vigour of the Ancient Greeks, the thirst for knowledge. I felt as if we were kindred. I wanted to be the discoverer of something. There was something so inspiring about the idea of being the first. The first to do, the first to see, the first to find. At one stage, any first would be good enough for me. But finally, my heart settled on astrophysics. There were a lot of firsts to be made there, and to me, discovering things about unreachable space was so much more meaningful than anything else. Perhaps, as some people thought, it would be a better use of my time to discover a cure for cancer or something. But no, I wanted my achievements to be far off, stellar, untouchable. Mere dreams, perhaps.
It was for this convoluted reason that I picked the Masters paper. I read the texts again and again in the term break before the class started. Here were names parallel to my scientific heroes: Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. As it was, my obsessive study of the set texts would lead me to understand them to a far greater degree than was necessary. But I didn’t know this yet.
Heading to the first class in an unfamiliar portion of the campus, I realised, among groups of chattering people, I knew no one taking this class. It didn’t faze me, but it was a little disappointing. But then, head and shoulders above the crowd, as usual, I saw June. She was the only familiar face, so I headed towards her.
She spotted me and immediately her face broke out into that sincere smile that I was surprisingly familiar with. ‘Hi June,’ I said happily. ‘Are you taking the Masters class?’
She nodded eagerly. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here. I love Ancient Greece. I couldn’t resist picking this for my optional paper.’
I beamed. ‘Yeah, me too.’ It was odd to me at first, that I should have this in common with June. But then I reminded myself that perhaps, we weren’t too dissimilar: perhaps my initial hostility to her was based on the fact that we were quite similar at times. ‘I’m glad someone else is taking it that I know.’
‘We can be study partners,’ she suggested.
‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. Though it depends how hard the course is. If it’s like the last optional I took, we may not even need to study.’
She pouted, but her mouth sprang back into a smile straight afterwards. ‘I’ve had the same experience. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?’
‘It depresses me how everything is so simplified these days. I came here for intellectual stimulation, not stagnation.’
She nodded serenely. ‘It is rather frustrating at times, isn’t it?’
‘I’m glad someone finally understands.’
‘Psych’s nice and hard, though,’ she said cheerfully. ‘You should come to one of my classes sometime.’
I snorted and laughed. ‘Thanks, but I doubt I will. I just get lost when it comes to Psychology.’
‘What is it you do?’
‘Physics. Astronomy. That’s hard enough for me.’
Her eyes glowed as if with nostalgia, and her smile stayed on her lips. ‘That’s awesome. I’m pretty shocking when it comes to equations, unfortunately. But I love thinking about the universe.’
‘Why don’t you take an astronomy course as an optional?’
‘Maybe I will next year. But I could fail pretty hard on the maths.’
‘There’s a first year one that’s not too heavy on the maths. And the equations you need for the exam are on the front of the exam paper.’
‘Oh!’ She seemed quite pleased. ‘Yeah, well maybe I’ll take that one. It sounds like fun.’
The class before started filing out of the lecture theatre, and our class started to file in. File is perhaps too nice. It was more of a scramble or a riot. June and I hung back a little, not rushing, but our heights gave us a bit of an advantage in the intimidation department. We made our way into somewhere in the middle of the theatre, not hanging back like the ‘cool kids’, and not being too eager by going right up front. It was a silent agreement.
‘Have you seen Gary lately?’ I asked her, trying to make conversation.
‘He’s pretty busy running his social clubs and stuff. I only met him in an optional, like this. But we hang out occasionally.’
June nodded. ‘We hang out when we can, but he is pretty busy, like you say. We had a paper together last semester, but none this semester.’
‘So, have you had a read of the texts?’
June grinned widely. ‘Yep. It was a nice break from all my psych books.’
‘You don’t like psych books?’
June rolled her eyes and looked at me, her shoulders shaking a little with laughter. ‘Have you ever tried to read one? They’re the driest things on Earth! I may enjoy Psych, but that doesn’t mean I love the readings.’
I was confused. ‘But, isn’t most of psych to do with the theories and the readings and stuff?’
‘Some papers, yes. But I prefer to apply what I know.’
‘So... so you, like, psychoanalyse people?’
‘Not really. I’m not quite that invasive. I just like to see how psychology applies in real life sometimes. For example, look.’ She pointed to a couple sitting not too far away from us. ‘Look how much you can learn from body language on this planet. Look at the way that girl’s boyfriend is clutching onto her hand. The way they’re talking – look. Their eyes are meeting, there are smiles on their faces, and yet, look at the hands.’
‘Surely he must be hurting her,’ I wondered aloud.
‘Oh, no doubt he is. So you can see, from that couple’s body language alone, the balance of power in their relationship. Now, without getting to know them better, I wouldn’t be able to comment on their backgrounds and suggest events in the past that have lead them to take up the roles that they are playing right now: submissive and dominant. But we already know quite a lot about them for just this one moment.’
‘That’s kind of scary,’ I said, looking her in the eye. So, she liked to know things about people. That was scary indeed. And as she looked at me, I could get the sense that she was reading me too now, like an open book. I was on the brink of telling her to just cut it out. Maybe I wouldn’t sit next to June anymore.
But then she smiled serenely, and I knew from the sincerity of her smile that, read as she may into my life, see, as she might, right through me, my secrets were safe with her. It wasn’t about power, I believed with my whole heart. It was something about June. She was the eternal student, and her teacher was humanity. She was infinitely curious about everyone around her. I was sure she didn’t mean anything nasty by it. She didn’t mean to be nosey. Instead, everything seemed to fascinate her.
‘It’s not very scary,’ she told me. ‘Humans have always had body language. Animals have it too. It’s just another aspect of communication that, more often than not, goes unnoticed in the flurry of words thrown at us every day. So there is more truth to what we see than we realise.’
I nodded slowly and tried to fight the nagging feeling that I was being lectured. It wasn’t like that, my instinct tried to reassure me. June was sharing some very precious knowledge with me, not trying to be intimidating. ‘I never thought about it like that,’ I said, honestly, diplomatically.
The lecturer came in. He looked as if he really didn’t want to be here. June and I shared a conspiratorial look. The lecturer’s body language did not bode well for us, it seemed.
He greeted the class very formally, and gave us a very long, and very boring, outlook for the semester. A sheet was handed out that explained it all, but rather than leave it at that, he went individually through each and every one of the details. ‘I won’t read through the plays for you, students,’ he told us sternly. ‘That’s for you to do in your own time. We’ll just go over the details in each class.’ Then he launched into a lengthy speech on the benefits of having physical copies of the same exact translations of the text that he was working with. June and I already had all of the slim volumes stacked out on our desks like good little nerds. It looked like we might just have a boring semester ahead of us.
The writing notes to each other didn’t begin then. It began maybe after the third or fourth lecture when finally the boredom settled in for good. The first couple of real lectures were enough to hold our attention for the time, as they were on the general background of Ancient Greece. I already knew a lot of the stuff, but it was always good to go over it again. Family trees of gods and demi-gods. Those things made me happy. Homer’s epics. Good times.
Then, about the fourth lecture it must have been, we finally began on the first text. These optional papers were always run at an infuriatingly slow pace, since students from all sorts of different backgrounds came in, and they might have difficultly in writing specifically for a Classical Studies paper, or in managing the workload.
June and I, still sitting together as buddies, opened our books at the ready for the lecture. The lecturer walked in with his usual bored look. He set up his powerpoint slides and began. Ten minutes in, noticing my attention had totally drifted off and I wasn’t paying attention anymore, I tore a bit of paper out of my book and scribbled on it. I just couldn’t believe what was happening.
I thought he said in the first lecture that he wouldn’t be reading through the books with us!
I passed it to June, and out of the corner of my eye, caught her grinning and nodding. She carefully wrote back underneath my scrawl, and passed it back, looking down at the lecturer as if she were really paying attention.
I know! I hope this is just how he’s starting off, and the real discussion will happen over the next scheduled lectures.
I left it at that for now. The lecturer was actually, against his word, reading out pretty much the whole play. When he wasn’t actually reading the lines, he spent what seemed like forever explaining obscure references to politicians and gods, and strange metaphors with animals.... all of which was already explained in the notes at the back of the prescribed texts! It was the most infuriating hour of my life, sitting there having a text I already knew by heart explained to me in tiny little spoon-fed pieces. There were only a few intelligent things he said, things which I wouldn’t have gleaned from the text itself. I really, really hoped June was right about this just being introductory.
But the next lecture was exactly the same. June looked at me in despair. Out came the paper. And that was when it began in earnest.
ZZZZZZZZZ, I wrote on the piece of paper.
She sniggered and wrote back, I don’t usually skip classes, but God am I tempted right now!
The lecturer was saying something actually interesting for once now: “Now, I don’t know why Dionysus is immortal. Many students have asked me this over the years. Why isn’t Dionysus like other children of Zeus and mortal women? Why is he the only one out of the group, including great names like Heracles... why is Dionysus the only one who is fully immortal? I’d give a PhD to anyone who can give me the answer to that one.’
I grabbed up the paper again and stopped listening to the lecturer again as he rambled on about more stuff I already knew. June found it hard to not peer over my shoulder and see what I was writing. Finally, I passed it to her.
Um.... duh! How can he not know this? Dionysus was taken from his dead mother’s womb before he was born, and continued his incubation inside Zeus’ thigh! So really, Zeus was the one who gave birth to him! That’s why he’s immortal! That’s the answer! It’ so bloody easy!
I saw her smirk and nod, impressed. Then she bent her head and began her reply.
Wow... You’re right! I hereby award you with a PhD in Classical Studies.
She passed it over and we were giggling, and people around us looked at us weirdly. I scribbled back.
Zeus’ thigh. It’s the answer to every question anyone could ever ask in Classical Studies.
She took the paper and scratched her chin. Then she nodded in agreement, and replied to my note.
Just like how in Psychology, ESPECIALLY in the psychology of literature, the answer is always ‘He’s gay.’
I covered my mouth to stop my loud laughter when I got this note back. I considered what she had written, and came back with a question.
So, how about Oedipus then? Is the answer to his problems not the Oedipus Complex, but homosexuality?
She was very impressed with my question and took a moment to think. But when she had her answer, she rushed to write it down. I eagerly waited for her answer, only half listening to the lecturer go on and on. The answer was thrust before my eyes.
Okay. Yes, it is possible to explain Oedipus in terms of homosexuality. You see, he killed his father and then married his mother, right? Well, in the psychology of literature, a love triangle isn’t actually about the woman. It’s about the two men in the triangle. The woman is (according to the psychology of literature, not me!) just a battlefield for the men to act out their desire for each other. So through doing his mother, Oedipus was essentially doing his father too.
She passed this note over to me. I read it over two or three times before finally, I clapped my hand over my mouth and doubled over. She covered her mouth too, and her shoulders were shaking with laughter. I tried to scribble a note back to her, but I collapsed with silent laughter again. The people beside us heard me nearly hyperventilating in an attempt to hide my laughter from the lecturer. Finally, I managed to scrawl back to her:
I hereby confer upon you the degree of PhD in Philosophy! Oh and you are also a Doctor of Awesomeness too!
We bent over our desks and tried very hard not to laugh. That was it for the notes for about ten minutes, but then I finally realised something, and wrote it down.
Hey, look at the lecturer’s hair. He looks like a badger.
We both looked over at him at the same time and then ducked, laughing silently again. The lecturer was balding, but he had a strip of light grey hair in the middle of his head, and his sides were darker grey. He did look just like a badger.
And that was how it began. We spent time after that class just having lunch and talking and – most of the time – laughing. That was the thing June and I did best. We passed notes in every class now, and hung out heaps. Our study session for that exam at the end of the semester disintegrated into the two of us making a huge, composite chart of the Greek gods and their families, and demigods and all their relations. Everyone in the mythical Greek world was connected in someway. Anyone important was the cousin or grandson or relation through marriage of a god or gods. Well, we passed the exam anyway. We kept seeing each other just to hang out sometimes, and dubiously, I signed up for a psych paper that she encouraged me to take with her in the next semester.
That was the beginning of a friendship I had never expected to experience.
The last semester, and the last week especially, was when things really got strange, and perhaps where my story really begins to pick up.
My convoluted history with June was not something I remembered daily. In fact, it was impossible to remember, in her company, how I could have possibly even entertained the idea that I didn’t like her. We were the kind of people who could get along very well even after not seeing each other for a long time. There were no stupid expectations. Unlike other friends, she never asked that silly question, ‘Why do you never call me?’ Remember, people, you can always pick up the phone and talk to me!
And so it was that, after not seeing her regularly for a semester, except at a party now and then, I ran into her before another class at the start of a new semester.
‘Hey, Lou!’ she called out.
‘June!’ I practically shrieked. I didn’t care about the people around us, staring.
‘You’re in this class?’
‘Yes!’ she balled her hand into a fist as she said it, and thrust her elbow back. It was very exciting for us both to be back in the same class. ‘I thought you hated psych.’
I shrugged. ‘I think I picked up some of your enthusiasm for it. Besides, I had a class going spare, and the description attracted me.’
‘I’m doing that first year astronomy paper you recommended,’ she said eagerly, flashing the large tome that was the class text for that paper. ‘I’ve been reading the book in my spare time. The maths I don’t really understand, but the rest of it is simply fascinating.’
We went into the class and sat through the introductory lecture. By now I was sufficiently jaded as a student and these introductions completely bored me. June and I were once again sitting together and exchanging notes. It was a good thing we were actually intelligent people, otherwise we would have been failing because of each other.
We were hanging out regularly again, and I hadn’t realised how much I had missed hanging out with her. June was quite possibly the only person that I could be both childishly excited with, and at the same time intellectually stimulated. Once again I realised the extent of her intimidating intelligence. But it was fine. She didn’t look down on me or anyone. She was still strangely wise, in her odd way. She was a good judge of character, and could see things about people that I couldn’t have imagined in a million years. She could diffuse any difficult situation.
For example, at one point, I argued quite devastatingly with one of our loose circle of friends at a party. It was a guy called Toby. I was one of the few people left in the unofficial dance area, and Toby came up. ‘Dance with me!’ he cried.
I laughed uneasily, and shook my head.
‘Come on girl, give me some eye contact! Work it!’
I glared at him. ‘No thanks Toby! I’m quite fine.’
Well, he was a little drunk, and I was dizzy. He grabbed me, and my efforts to struggle out of his hold left me on the floor. Instead of leaving it at that, he straddled me and waved his hands in the air in a crazy dance. He was really drunk and didn’t mean to offend me, but I felt very violated. My mouth got away with me, and once I was done, he was well off me, and shocked.
‘Geez, girl, I didn’t mean anything by it!’
‘Just go away Toby! You’re always in everyone’s face, I hate it!’
He looked so offended and hurt, but luckily, June stepped in. ‘Come on Lou,’ she said to me softly. ‘I know why it offended you so much. But you know he didn’t mean to symbolise any kind of sexual dominance over you by doing that dance.’
‘He better bloody not have.’ I was almost foaming at the mouth in anger.
‘Lou, I didn’t, I swear!’ he insisted. Hearing his soft voice I knew he meant it – all of us had our suspicions about Toby anyway. Even if he was attracted to girls, it was unlikely I was his type.
‘Okay Toby. Sorry I mouthed off.’
‘I’m sorry I jumped on you. I just got carried away, girlfriend.’
I hugged him, and he spent the rest of the night at a more respectful distance from me. ‘Thanks,’ I murmured to June, and she shrugged as if it was nothing. But she had just intervened and stopped what could have been the argument of the year.
That was a while ago. More recently, with all that behind us and my friendship with Toby repaired, I had asked June if she was going to the party in the weekend.
‘Oh, um... maybe. It depends. I might have something on that night.’
I pouted, but let it go. ‘Damn. I hope you can make it.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
In class last week, June seemed a little distant. The note passing was less regular than usual. After class one day, I tried to help her out with her physics study. We were going over an old exam paper from a couple of years before.
‘Test me on the galactic questions. I’ve had enough of within the solar system,’ she said, showing some rare frustration that surprised me. She really was having trouble with this paper.
‘Okay....’ I flicked through the pages until I found one. ‘So the closest star to our solar system is...?’
She frowned darkly and massaged her eyebrows. ‘Oh what was it again... Jyrburthon?’ She looked at me hopefully.
I gaped at her. ‘What the hell, June? There’s no such place at Jyrburthon!’
She shook her head and hid it in her hands. ‘Damn it.’
‘The answer is Proxima Centauri. Come on, you can do this. Remember, Proxima is like proximity, it’s the closest in proximity to us. It’s the first star you reach after leaving this system. And Centauri is of course, the centaur, because it’s part of that constellation. So just think of it as being the closest centaur, or something like that.’ She smiled weakly at me. ‘Okay, maybe this is better. How far away is Proxima Centauri?’
June looked very panicked by the question. But then she smiled. ‘Oh I think I know this one... is it... 61 palperturons away?’
I blinked at her. ‘Dude, it’s four point two light years. June, do you even know what planet you’re on?’
‘This is Yalathos, right?’
I furrowed my brow. ‘June, are you all right?’ She looked genuinely as if my questions had confused her. ‘Let’s stop,’ I decided.
‘I should have never taken this course,’ June sighed. I felt a little sad and a little responsible for having recommended this course to her.
‘Let’s just stop for now. You obviously need a break. Your brain is so fried that you’re speaking gibberish.’
She laughed weakly. I was very confused by her attitude that day. She was actually tiresome, rather than being upbeat and energetic. She quickly went home after that, and I was relieved. I felt tired after quizzing her. I went back to the flat and collapsed on the couch. Leigh, my flat mate, woke me up later and handed me a plate with half a pizza on it. She had just bought dinner for us.
‘Hey Lou, you’re going to Harry’s party, right?’
‘Yeah, of course,’ I said wearily, rubbing my eyes, being slowly invigorated by the delicious pizza smell wafting up to my nose. ‘We can go in my car.’
‘You don’t mind?’
‘No. I don’t think I’ll drink. I just fall over if I do.’
She snorted, and covered her mouth to stop the food falling out. I was notorious for getting really dizzy after only a little alcohol, and I spent most parties either sitting down or avoiding alcohol. ‘Cool, so long as you don’t mind,’ she said once she had finished her mouthful.
I considered texting June and telling her I could take her to the party too, but then I remembered she had said she might not be able to make it. So I left it. I didn’t see June in class the next day, and then it was the weekend, so I didn’t get another chance to ask her. That was really weird. She hardly ever skipped classes.
I slept in late the day of the party. I got up slowly, lazily, and had a sickeningly fat breakfast of leftover pizza. I did a little bit of study for one of my physics papers, and then as the afternoon got later, I started getting ready, showering, choosing clothes, and straightening my hair for the party. It took me quite a while to get ready. Leigh arrived back from her job and got changed much quicker. It was just a real casual party, we both ended up wearing jeans, and she wore a pretty, sparkly top while I just wore a pale yellow t-shirt and a leather waistcoat with rivets on the shoulders.
We clambered into my car at a fashionably late hour and started heading towards Harry’s. He lived quite close to uni, so we had a bit of an effort finding a park, and even more of an effort to find a free park. But, as always, we were successful, after wasting probably as much petrol as the parking ticket would have cost. But it was the principle. We were students, after all.
We weren’t very far from Harry’s. As I finally pulled the handbrake on and turned the engine off, I saw a girl walking away from his place, crossing the road and walking over closer to the university. She was alone. Leigh followed my eyes.
‘Hey, isn’t that your friend June?’
‘Yeah, it looks like her.’ The unmistakable hair and the noticeable height could only belong to one girl.
‘That’s weird,’ Leigh said. I resolved to go inside first and ask if June indeed had just left.
We got out of the car and carefully made sure that each door was locked (My car’s a piece of crap. I’m a student, what do you expect?). I was a bit worried about the figure which was just about disappearing out of view, so I hurried ahead of Leigh in her high heels and got into Harry’s place.
‘Hey, Lou!’ a friend of mine, Mitch, already looking a bit wasted, put his arm around me. ‘Come, drink, and be merry!’ He was a really loud guy, always smiling, and his face was red, showing he no doubt had ingested a fair amount of alcohol tonight already.
‘Hey Mitch,’ I squeezed him back and refused the bottle of beer he tried to put into my hand. ‘Was that June disappearing down the road?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, still coherent enough for this conversation. ‘Hey Leigh!’ he loudly cried out as she passed the two of us. She gave him a gentle punch on the arm.
‘Hey Mitch,’ she said, before disappearing inside.
‘Where was June going?’ I asked Mitch.
‘I dunno, Lou. She just said she had promised to meet some people. Maybe she’ll be back later. I hope she gets back. June’s good value.’
I frowned and wriggled out of his hold. ‘I’m just going to go see if she’s okay, Mitch. I don’t much like the idea of her walking off by herself.’
‘She’ll be fine,’ he called after me as I headed down the steps of the student lodgings and started down the road. But he didn’t follow. The party and the warmth of the student building was too tempting to him, no doubt.
It had just been raining, as it almost always is in this city, at least this time of year. The sun was down and the inner city world was a black place. The pavement glittered black with reflections of streetlights and traffic lights. My boot soles scraped against the thin, lingering layer of moisture. The sky was overcast, but so dark I could hardly tell the difference – but for the lack of stars. The sounds of tires passing by made a slick, hissing sound on the wet asphalt. I was a little cold, so I began to jog lightly, trying to cover the distance between me and June. The cold air made it so that I wasn’t too exhausted by this effort. Like daggers the winter dug into my lungs, but I took the pain and converted it into energy.
Finally, coming over a small hill, I saw June again. She was much more sensibly dressed for the weather in a hooded jacket with long sleeves. It was unmistakably her. No one else had that hair. She kept heading down the same street.
I’ll never know what made me do what I did next. I closed the distance between us a little more, then dropped back, not so far that I’d lose her, but not so close that she might turn around and recognise me. I started to tail her.
It was purely childish of me. I thought I’d follow her to where she was going, and maybe if I saw her meet someone I knew, I’d come up and look surprised to see them. Or, if she went somewhere I couldn’t follow, I might go back to the party. But at least then I could make sure she was safe in the dark city. If she saw me, I could just tell her I was practicing being a spy, and we could laugh together.
Yes, laughing together. That had been the image that made me follow her, illogically. I was sad that one of my best friends wasn’t going to be at the party, and that’s why I had to follow her.
She hooked around the campus grounds. We’d been on one of the outer roads, but now she turned into one of the roads going through the grounds. On one side was the library, the quad, other central and non-departmental buildings. On the opposite side was the park.
You didn’t go into the park at night. Even if you were some buff kid who thought you could protect yourself. You just didn’t go in there. It was a lovely place to go in the day, sure. But it was probably the most changeable place in the whole city. At night, there were a lot of dark places in the park. The trees were huge in there, spanning out wide, reaching their heavy limbs out over the paths. What was pretty in the day became freakish and scary in the dark. There was no way to walk through the park at night and stay consistently in the weak light of the pretty, old-fashioned lampposts dotted throughout the park. There were just too many shadows. And who would be there to save you anyway, if they saw you grabbed in the light? The park was a place for people to smoke cannabis in relative peace and security. But that was the nicest kind of person you could find there. There had been muggings, attacks, and rapes in this park.
You just didn’t go into the park at night.
And so it was that my heartbeat rose to an alarming rate as I saw June turn off into the black iron fenced park. My footsteps faltered for a second.
There is no way I’m going in there.
That was my first thought. Self-preservation. You do not go into the park at night.
But my second thought was me realising that there was no way in hell I could let June walk through the park alone, at night. Sure, it was her own stupid choice. And maybe there was something bad, sad, or mad I didn’t know about her. But she was my friend. One of my favourite friends. I couldn’t let harm come to her, even if it was her own fault.
I should have yelled out for her. But I didn’t. So stupid. It would have ended then and there, if I had. I hopped onto the wet grass, thankful for the good grip on the bottom of my boots. I ran in the grass at the side of the road, to get to the park without her hearing my footsteps. I turned the corner to the park and got onto the grass there as soon as I could.
June was still in my sights. But she was fast disappearing in the pools of blackness in the park. Chills ran up my spine, nothing to do with the cold air. The park was like a painting left in the rain. The pools of blackness were just a mess that you couldn’t possibly hope to see through. The branches of the trees were twisted, the kind you might associate with Halloween and witches and scary stories. Could those be people sitting up in the trees? Was that a statue June was passing now, or a man waiting to jump her? It would have been better if I had really good night vision or something. But instead, my eyes strained in the dark, everything becoming grainy with imagined lights, like a badly exposed photograph.
Crouching slightly, I pursued June. I wasn’t going to shout now. That option was closed to me. By shouting I might alert any waiting rapist or mugger to the presence of two females in the park. If he hadn’t already seen one or both of us. My legs burned as I tried to catch up to June. I was planning to get closer to her, and call out softly to her.
She was only walking casually. I was running. I was making quite a good effort, closing the distance well. I reached a tree, holding in my puffing and panting as much as I could. I summoned a deep breath to call out to her.
The breath caught in my throat. I ducked into the full shadow of the tree, hoping my honey-coloured hair and pale t-shirt didn’t catch any light.
June was approaching a group of three darkly dressed figures. They were all quite tall, like her, and they waited calmly. There was something very serious about them. They struck me as very businesslike.
‘Greetings, Agent,’ the tallest of them said, in a deep, male voice.
‘Humble greetings, Commander,’ she replied to him, and did some strange gesture that I didn’t quite catch in the dark.
‘Follow us, Agent,’ another of the figures ordered her, a female voice. I could just see a pale face and bright red lips. ‘The new meeting place is rather hard to find.’
What the hell was this? Was June some kind of spy? Agent, Commander, meeting place... it was all seriously mysterious. I had to know then. I couldn’t possibly back out.