The elderly taxi driver drops me off at a chain link fence blocking the main drive of the University of Hollinsbridge. “You sure you want to do this, lad?”
Lad. As if I were 21, like I was when I came from California to spend my junior year abroad at this university in the Midlands of England. As if I weren’t 41.
“I’ve got to do this,” I say. “I’m hoping to meet someone very special at noon. I knew her when I studied here in the nineties.”
“There’s no going back to the past,” he says, “and I’m not sure you’ll want to see what’s beyond that fence. It won’t look like it did when you were a student.”
“I know what could be there.” The owner of the B&B where I’m staying warned me: severely mentally ill people who are dying from a rare variation of mad cow disease that struck nearly 10% of residents in this area. Bovine+, they call the condition. It has an incubation period of decades and causes standard neurodegenerative disease symptoms, like numbness, jerking movements, dementia, hallucinations. But it can also trigger antisocial and even violent behavior. It started from people eating contaminated beef in the mid-nineties.
The years 1995 to 1996 were when I lived here. When I ate hamburgers in the university cafeteria and gyros from the kebab van parked in front of the Students’ Union on weekend nights. When I apparently managed to dodge both standard mad cow disease and Bovine+.
The years 1995 to 1996 were also when I fell in love with Emma—a vegetarian.
I hand the taxi driver a 10-pound note and step out into the warm June air. I can see dandelions in the lush grass past the fence. I remember Emma blowing on a dandelion in the direction of my face while we smoked spliffs by the river that curves along the edge of campus. We were partaking in the combination of hashish and tobacco to celebrate my completing an essay on Homer’s Odyssey. When I brushed the dandelion seeds off my face, Emma laughed that sweet, singing way she always laughed.
“All right, Gregory?” she asked. “You’re not going to break it off with me now, are you?”
I ask the taxi driver, “Other people sometimes go onto the campus even though it’s closed, right? I mean healthy people who don’t have Bovine+?”
“Sure,” he says, “although I don’t know I’d call them healthy. A little mad, maybe. Mostly teenagers and university students.”
I shut the door and he reverses the car without looking at me.
As I climb the fence, I’m able to see the tops of buildings over the gargantuan English oaks lining the main drive. Most of the buildings are modern structures built in the ’60s and ’70s. I spot the pyramid-shaped building that housed the English and Comparative Literature Studies department.
It was in that building where I met Emma. I stood outside the classroom where I was taking a course in Devolutionary British Fiction. She was cutting through the building to reach her biology class. I asked her if anyone had ever said she looked like Kate Moss with red hair.
“Only a cheeky American who’s too tall and skinny to look like a celebrity,” she said. Then she winked at me. “But he’s still cute.”
When I’m past the oaks and have a full view of central campus, I wince.
There are shattered windows. Missing doors. Graffitied walls. Burnt patches all over the steps leading up to the Students Union. In front of the building where I listened to so many lectures, a tipped-over statue of Virginia Woolf.
The owner of the B&B told me the campus closed soon after people in the area started showing signs of Bovine+. Some of the sick attacked students. Some of the students became infected with the disease. People realized infection can occur from the transfer of bodily fluids. The university rented a corporate office tower up north, in Birmingham.
“The bloody class system has crumbled!” someone shrieks.
I see a man waving his arms on top of the Mathematics building. He looks as if he’s in his twenties. He has a bushy brown beard and tangled hair that reaches his shoulders. He wears a military-green trench coat. I think I see dried blood covering one of his shoulders.
“Go back to your manor, you posh wanker!” he shouts at me. “The villagers no longer need your funding. All is meaningless now. Do you want me to prove it?” He pulls a pistol out of a coat pocket and points it against his temple.
“No!” I shout, terrified. I hold up my hands. “I’ll go!”
I hurry down the road leading from central campus to the student residences. I look back at the man, and I’m relieved to see him retreating from the edge of the roof. I consider leaving the campus to avoid similar lunatics, but I want to reach a certain tree near the river. Two decades ago on this day—June 7—Emma and I carved a spiral into the trunk of that tree. We added our initials in the center of the spiral.
It was our last day together. The next morning I was flying to LAX and Emma’s mother was driving her to their house in Ipswich.
“Let’s meet by this tree in 20 years if we’re unhappy in our lives,” I told Emma, “and we want to try being together again.”
Memories swarm me as I near the familiar cluster of two-story brick residences that time hasn’t changed or damaged much. Other than smoke stains above some of the windows, the building where I once lived looks the same as it used to. I recall lying on my bed reading Hardy, Gide, Camus, and Burroughs, and deciding I would become a writer of gritty and experimental literature. Drinking sugary and milky tea with Emma in the communal kitchen while she told me her father abandoned her, her younger sister, and her mum for some stripper in London when she was only 10. Her saying she wanted to become a doctor so she could help support her family financially. Pulling Emma’s blue tights down past her pink thighs before we made desperate love on my beanbag. Taking ecstasy tablets together before going out to the nightclub on campus and peaking on the drug at the same time.
“I want to move to Cairo with you one day,” I shouted at her on the dance floor. The DJ was playing The Chemical Brothers. Strobe lights warmed our sweaty bodies and made me think of the colors of love. “I’ve always wanted to go there. I could write a novel and you could be a doctor.”
She was beaming. She stopped dancing and started nodding. “I’d like to help people with AIDS,” she told me. “I could do that in Egypt and maybe in nearby countries as well.”
“We could travel all over Africa,” I said, leading her off the dance floor and slipping my tongue inside her mouth. We kissed until it felt like our bodies were melting into each other.
Emma suddenly pulled her face away from mine and seemed to stare deep inside me. Her dilated pupils were enormous. “We’re in the Twilit World,” she said.
“The Twilit World. Everything is softened and shape shifting and surreal, and what came before and what comes after doesn’t matter.”
I hear a cawing sound.
In front of the building where I once lived, a crow pecks at a dead white cat. The bird lifts into the air as I approach the carcass, and I see there are three red wounds in the dead animal’s side. It appears something larger than a crow has bitten into the cat.
Emma and I used to feed strays by leaving bowls of milk outside the front door of my building. Emma always brought the milk. “They’re our babies,” she once said of a few wild-looking felines before bravely petting them.
The door to my building is open. I can see a lopsided light fixture and wiring dangling down from the hallway ceiling, but the floor seems to be clear of debris. My old room is only four doors down that hallway. I could be there in just a minute.
But I also need to reach that tree.
“What if you don’t like what you see in 20 years?” Emma asked with a grin after I suggested we meet by the tree. She took the knife we’d used for carving and thrust it into one of the knobs on the trunk. “Or what if I don’t like what I see?”
“I can’t imagine ever not being attracted to you.”
She hugged me tightly. “Are we making a mistake by not trying to stay together?”
“I’ve got to go back to LA for my senior year,” I said. “And you said you could never leave England because you need to be here for your mom and your sister.”
Emma gave me an apologetic look. “I know we talked about Africa and all that, but we were high. I mean how can we make major decisions about our future when we’re only 21?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to conceal my hurt. “We were high.”
I see a pile of rags outside the doorway of my old building. I fetch one and crouch by the dead cat.
“I’m sorry nobody took better care of you,” I whisper, and then I drape the rag over the corpse.
Rising, I see a bald man emerge from the building and stagger toward me. He wears jeans and no shirt. His ribcage is apparent through his pasty skin. His head trembles.
“Have you heard from the king?” he asks. He has red, swollen rings around his eyes, one of which is wider than the other.
I step backwards, preparing to run. This man seems as off as the other.
“He’s revealed the code,” the man says. He glances down at the dead cat and, unfazed, looks up at me again. “I saw the code on the wall of my garage. 4-5-9-8-4-3—‘All is vanity.’ The king transmitted it for some of us, and we’re supposed to share it with others.”
I nod, guessing this man’s limp would prevent him from catching me in a chase.
“The code is the truth,” he adds. “The highest truth. That’s why I’ve left my wife, my son, my home. I’m here to tell people. Do you have a wife?”
I shake my head and hope I don’t appear too nervous. “Not anymore.”
“Did the king inform you earlier than the rest?”
“I’ve got to go,” I say, slowly moving toward the path that will lead me to the river.
“But wait,” he says. “The code is also under the skin. In the blood. Can you see it?”
He turns around to reveal a red, oval-shaped wound on his upper back. Whatever bit the cat must have bitten him.
Before he can face me again I sprint down the path, repeatedly glancing over my shoulder to make sure he’s not following.
I run until I have to stop because of my wheezing. Twenty years ago, I jogged along this path every other day. Now I actually have a difficult time standing up straight because I’m so winded. What has happened to me? Am I devolving into some middle-aged man who tires too easily? And why would Emma want to reunite with that?
I should have agreed to meet her when I was 27.
I was living in LA when she called.
“Will from university gave me your number,” she said. Her voice made her sound far away and afraid. “I’m in Santa Monica for a nurses’ conference.”
“You’re here?” I felt an old, uncomfortable ache in my heart.
“I can’t believe we haven’t spoken since you left the UK. But I- I’d really love to see you.”
I couldn’t allow myself to want to see her. I was in a relationship with Lizzie, who would become my wife when I was 28 and my ex-wife when I was 34.
After I told Emma I couldn’t meet her because I was about to catch a plane for Puerto Vallarta, she asked if I was still writing.
“Not in a while,” I said. “I only managed to get a couple stories published. I’m working in project management in the medical industry—your industry. I’ve thought about trying to start a small press on the side, though.”
“But you’re a writer,” Emma said.
“Life changes people, I guess. Listen, I should go. I’ve got to pack and all that.”
I didn’t go to Mexico because I’d lied about the trip. And I didn’t start a publishing company even though Lizzie offered to assist me. She knew what it was like to abandon one’s passions. She’d wanted to be a doula, but rather than assist in birthing, she rose in management for a chain store that specialized in shelving. I, too, advanced in my industry, hopping from a cosmetic surgery center to a medical device firm to an internationally recognized pharmaceuticals company. Lizzie and I moved to San Diego so I could be part of the city’s “Biotech Beach.” We worked weekdays, weeknights, and weekends, and we were too tired to celebrate on our anniversaries or Valentine’s Day. We gradually stopped having sex and eventually ceased talking to each other.
After I gave her my key to our million-dollar home on a cliff above the Pacific, we hugged politely and exchanged guilty looks.
I think I see the tree. Emma’s and my tree. Across the river, on the edge of the campus’s small forest. I check the time on my phone. 12:02.
As I traverse the wooden bridge over the river, I only see greenery ahead. Trees, shrubs, and flowers of the forest, and distant pastures speckled with sheep and cattle. This is the greenery that enables the University of Hollinsbridge to advertise itself as “the center of learning in the center of the English countryside.” I try to forget the damaged buildings and people behind me like I’d forget a bad dream.
Emma isn’t at the tree.
Our initials are still in the trunk. They’re not decipherable until I’m a few feet away, and I see they’ve lost their depth. The spiral is even less noticeable. But the markings lasted through two decades of rainstorms and snowfall and a stream of thousands of students. I slowly trace the initials with my index finger.
What if Emma’s dead?
I have no reason to think otherwise. All I know is she was alive five years ago, when I was finally planning to go to Cairo. I had the crazy urge to tell her about the trip—and I thought maybe she would meet me there. I searched for her on Facebook and other social media sites, but I couldn’t locate her anywhere.
Until I googled her and found the article about her mother and sister dying in a car crash on the M25 Motorway. The article said the two women were survived by the eldest daughter, Emma Willows.
After reading the story, I stopped searching for Emma’s contact information. And I never went to Egypt because a revolution made it an unsafe destination for Americans.
I turn toward the forest and see a woman walking through the shadows. She takes familiarly dainty steps that make my heart pound.
“Emma,” I exhale. I feel woozy again, but this time it isn’t from exhaustion.
Her face is the same—perfectly oval with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. She has tiny wrinkles in the corners of her eyes and mouth, but she looks like she’s 31 rather than 41. Her hair is shorter and messier, barely touching her shoulders. The yellow knee-length dress she wears reveals her body has remained thin and fragile-looking.
When she emerges into the sunlight, I notice a long tear in the side of her dress. She also has smudges of dirt on her clothing, and a splatter of what looks like blood near the neckline of her dress.
“Did one of those sick people harm you?” I ask, hurrying toward her.
“Sick people?” she asks, sounding dazed. “I only see you. I’ve only been looking for you.”
I reach to take her hands, and I notice one is clenched in a fist. “It’s all right,” I tell her. “We’re together again.” I stare into her eyes, which don’t seem to fully register me. Her mouth twitches, and I see a spot of dried blood on her lower lip. She must have bitten her lip.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” I ask.
She embraces me, her chin resting on my shoulder. Concerned she may be infected, I consider pulling away from her. But I can feel the heat of her through my button-up shirt. And her breasts are pressed against my chest.
“I’m wonderful,” she whispers into my ear. “This is wonderful.” She kisses my shoulder, and her lips move along my shirt toward my neck.
I close my eyes and anticipate her mouth on my skin, on my lips.
She pulls away my collar and tongues my trapezius muscle. I feel a nibble.
“You used to do that when we were-”
I don’t finish speaking because she’s biting me—tearing into my flesh.
“Ow!” I pull away from her in pain and see her mouth is a smear of red. Blood soaks my shirt, and I press my hand over the wound.
I stumble back from her and fall on the grass. Emma’s skin begins to bubble as she stands over me. The sky turns a fluorescent purple. Tiny, writhing things interrupt my vision, as if swarms of microscopic creatures have landed on my eyeballs. I think my body’s on fire, and sweat begins to escape my pores. The wound between my neck and shoulder is numb.
I see a handkerchief dangling from Emma’s hand that had been closed before. The cloth is covered in blood. Blood that had been on her mouth? Blood that had been in that cat and in those men?
“You’re sick,” I tell her, sounding betrayed. “But how? You never ate meat when we were together. Never.”
She kneels in front of me and presses her hands against my cheeks. Her palms feel like sponges. Before kissing me for the first time in 20 years, she says, “Life changes people, Devon.”
The last of my fearful thoughts fades, and I’m surprised by how easy—how wonderful—it is to kiss her in return. Suddenly, everything seems possible, and Cairo’s right down the river from here.
“Life changes us,” I tell Emma, “but we can change back.”
BIO: David Massengill lives in Seattle. He spent a year at the University of Warwick in the mid-’90s and probably ate more kebabs and burgers than he should have. He is the author of Fragments of a Journal Salvaged from a Charred House in Germany, 1816 and other stories (Hammer and Anvil Books). Montag Press will soon be publishing Red Swarm, his novel about lethal, cockroach-like insects invading the Pacific Northwest.