We called him mental case. His parents abandoned him on moving day. They didn’t even help the hapless boy carry stuff into the dorms. He’d polish stones a lot. Other days he’d read books by a tall glass tank and feed crickets to his tarantula. Sometimes — mostly at night — I’d hear his bedsprings creaking like he was engaging in sexual intercourse, but he always slept alone. I’d frequently witness him carry out full black bags of trash. The wet sugary foods he must’ve ingested every day soaked through the dark liner bottoms, leaving a slimy trail ants slurped at hours afterward. I chalked up this proclivity for sweets to why he was conspicuously overweight. Worse, he smelled like fish sticks always. He was our floormate. I’m not sure why he did what he did . . . we’re all different.
Truthfully, I hated to be such a bother. All I wanted was enough peace and quiet to sleep and be fresh for Economics 100. My class started at 7:15 a.m. I tried to knock my disgruntled feelings into the door. He’d been playing electric guitar the last five hours. He repeated the same terrible cover of “Dock of the Bay.” It was dull and repetitive and poorly-timed, the arrhythmically played chords permeating every wall. He appeared in boxers, which also weren’t pleasant. His musky cologne — along with the heavy smell of incense — covered a terrible smell that I knew was something other than those distinctive aromas.
“That guitar is kind of loud,” I said, averting eyes. “Maybe . . . do it tomorrow?”
“Absolutely. Hey,” he pointed at me. “Are you into video games?”
His chest and stomach was flabby. His upper torso appeared in the doorway with conspicuous red scratches. Cats and dogs don’t leave finger trails on an epidermis that way, I thought to myself. He must have had one crazy itch. Did he suffer from OCD?
“Which ones you got?” I asked, instantly recognizing an opportunity to investigate.
We stepped inside the room. Afterward, we fell into vinyl beanbag chairs. The tarantula picked at the terrarium with one of its fuzzy, ringed legs. It was tapping the glass, eagerly, as if to say, “Hi. I know how I must creep you out. But I’m-friendly.”
Still, I wasn’t going anywhere near it.
“Is he hungry? Should you feed it some of those ants?” I asked the floormate, witnessing an uncountable number of them loitering near the kitchen trash.
“Oh, hello sweetie!” he said, excitedly.
He found a Tupperware bin of dead crickets. He dropped three in the tank.
“To answer your question — yes, and she likes dead prey,” he said.
His video game system lit up a flat panel. We played a racing game. The stones glowed in the television light. I expected him to recite “Lord of The Rings” the whole time, but he said nothing at all. I didn’t feel like talking, either. I was supposed to only hang with my best friend, Colt, but he’d broken his wrist and was in the hospital. Perhaps that’s another reason for accepting the offer to join in video games. When the game ended, the floormate showed me his rock collection. I wondered the whole time about those scratches.
The previous morning, we’d gotten in a fight. Some unruly teenagers walked by — one called Colt and me . . . Ebony and Ivory. Colt went to hit the guy who’d said it, but the guy had a crowbar. He hit Colt in the wrist. The group of kids then ran off. Colt left for his dormitory and called his parents. I sat on the sidewalk. I was thinking about the situation, how Colt should’ve just let it go, but yet I also wanted to see them get demolished.
“Hooligans,” an old man said.
He’d rushed across the street and now stood over me.
I spat on the ground. “Who? You mean me?”
“No. Those fucking punk kids that attacked you. Where’s your friend?”
“He’s back at the dormitory.”
The old man shook his head. “Your friend should be in the hospital.”
My right fist tightly curled up. I wanted to hit anything, even this old man.
“Probably,” I said.
“Look. A bad day notwithstanding, you’re healthy. Cheer up.”
“Fuck the world.” I said. “Fuck cheering up.”
“Sure kid,” the old man said. “If you want it that way.”
I took off my shirt and lay on the curb.
I’m sure the old man walked off some time shortly thereafter.
My present life is classifiably bohemian. I frequent bars, hitch rides cross country, find odd jobs to do here and there. Colt joined a cult in Rancho Santa Fe and died. There’s no way to escape that which we are, or destined for — but I still run onwards. I’ve maintained that elusive power, the ability to slip away from tragic fate like a mysterious Houdini. Back in our dormitory, I was standing again over the glowing rock collection. I knew nothing about rocks, but the fact those stones were shining like the moon itself.
The tarantula had whisked away to some hidden enclave inside the terrarium, probably tending to an exanimate cricket, maybe a fly. The floormate — or mental case — as most others called him, held one stone almost the size of his palm within his hand. He was stroking its smooth surface.
“I’ve been wondering,” I said. “Why didn’t your parents help you move in?”
“They think I’m gay.”
“No, but I told them I like men.”
“Oh,” I said. Next I turned my head . . . searching around. Afterward, I shoved a hand over my nostrils. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked the question, being rude and all, but I did. “What’s that terrible smell?”
The incense sticks were sending thin lines of smoke about the room.
He gestured to them and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well,” I said. “I need sleep.”
Curiously, I looked into his closet on my way out. We had no doors on our closets, but he’d placed a giant panel of particle board over the space. I grabbed the board and peered behind, at which point I saw four trash bags tied with twists. “Just curious,” I said, turning back toward my floormate. “If you’re not gay, why tell your parents you like men?”
“I get asked that a lot,” he answered. He tapped at the stone’s surface. He lifted it up. “As long as the body is still warm, I’ll screw it.” He lunged at me.
I ducked under his swing.
I went tumbling like Rambo over the jungle underbrush to his rock collection. It was only a stone’s throw away. Good thing, too. I hurled a side-arm pitch that cracked his forehead. He fell sideways and was laid unconscious. In that moment, I got the rock polishing habit. I also wondered — so what if I’d frozen up? An internal voice said: You would’ve been anally abused.
Later, my body shook in horror. I crouched in the hallway, musing over my father’s words — why did I kick it with the mental case? Why do I hang out with toxic individuals? Campus police arrived and hauled trash bags down the hall soaked in sugar. The dead bodies were four other college students with split skulls, dried semen, and old blood found on their corpses. I was fucking glad not to be among them.
“Excuse me,” someone said to a policeman. “Why’d he coat them with the sugar?”
“Ants,” the officer said. “Once drowned, he’d feed them to his spider.”
Ryan Gregory Thomas is an up-and-coming MFA in fiction candidate at San Diego State University. He has several books available on Amazon.com, but for worthwhile flash fiction and short stories he recommends Catch A Body With Two Steady Hands available in Kindle or paperback format. Currently, he just released a futuristic science fiction novel about integrated circuits being implanted inside the cerebral cortex, as a sure-fire way of controlling an unraveling world population. The Scan: Book of Rules has been available since 2016. https://rgtbooks.wordpress.com/