Chapter One of Griff Harrows: Told You No Lie
‘A fugitive, this captain, buffeted’
Virgil, The Aeneid
The old man didn’t know.
Griff rolled away from the screen with a grunt.
He flipped his custom headphones onto his shoulders, flicked a stray piece of his dark hair out of his grey eyes, and cracked his knuckles. He turned in his chair.
For a second, he felt sorry for the old guy.
He didn’t know.
The old man just didn’t know.
The Professor rubbed the persistent stubble on his jaw, pondering the latest student answer that flickered on the screen before him. The burgeoning black beard was less a trend and more a couple of days’ forgetfulness. His glasses were dark-rimmed, for reading, and lent a scholarly air to the dark eyes in his weary face. He was neat but not polished. No Marvel t-shirts or skinny jeans. No shiny suits and sharp-cut blazers. Just a nice dark suit and tie, a sweater under a blazer, Old School before it was something.
His video lectures were self-conscious and stilted until he got going, but few students made it that far before tuning out or just letting the lecture run as background noise.
He knew he had been sequestered to on-line when the Science and Technology departments needed more space; they brought in more money, more students were enrolled. No one is really majoring in your sorts of classes. Our numbers are just way down there, so you know. Nothing we can do here, about your department, there.
He knew it was a vicious cycle: follow the money to get the money, to recruit, to offer scholarships. But you had to make it coming out of school, too, and humanities majors weren’t billed as that. One locally famous author in fifty years did not inspire the confidence of parents who were plunking down their hard-earned dollars.
So the occasional minor, the half-hearted half of a double major that usually got dropped mid-sophomore year, the sometimes on-line student in a required class. The Board, the department, the whole thing. Fine.
Nothing sexy about a guy in a cardigan, worn sincerely. He hiked but didn’t usually post it on Instagram, except for the four posts a year required by the Social Media Outreach Committee, using the Department Insta accounts and school tags. He had managed to offend them greatly by first posting photos of books, which were deemed ‘too boring’ and apparently got almost no likes. He posted a photo of a grey stray cat, who had taken up residence by the Humanities office, which received one hundred likes, (and was thus deemed ‘acceptable’ by the SMOC) though multiple commenters were baffled at the name Freya. He flat refused to get on Twitter. He wrote and published things in journals they didn’t read. He was, to them, eminently forgettable, under the radar, and he liked it that way.
He glanced over at his bookcases. Students these days follow the money. How can they help it, when the price tag is so high and we have so little to offer in scholarships? It was, after all, just about whatever job they could get that justified four long years and all those dollars. The ‘democracy of the dead’ voiced their votes of opposition from the bookshelf: Chrysostom, Seneca, Aristotle. Too bad they didn’t have the same bite as an Apple contract, straight up STEM and rotten to the core.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘that wasn’t true, completely,” raising an eyebrow at his school-issued, late model iPhone on his desk, which played soft classical music.
‘Don’t be so bitter, old man,’ he laughed to himself, ‘it’s not so much their fault, either. Somehow we all got separated from ourselves. ‘We suffer each his own shade.’’
Griff Harrows never quite knew how to answer the question, ‘what do you do?’ “Student employee” wasn’t exactly it, although that was what was listed on his paycheck. They said he could put ‘Systems Analyst’ on a resume. All that doublespeak was for the official label, but really, what? Glorified electronic babysitter?
His I.D. card photo looked like any other college guy, save the startling grey eyes ringed in black staring back from the photo, and the SW stamped at the top corner. No one seeing it would know that he had this whole world at his fingertips. There was no limit here, and nothing for which he wanted out there. He had a big budget for tech stuff; they didn’t care what he did with it in his spare time, didn’t have to justify it, even. It was great.
What could anyone teach him that he couldn’t attain at the click of a key or the stroke of code? Nothing was out of reach from this room. Random, obviously computer-generated ‘good job’ report on a pay stub email as a supervisor every six weeks. Just stay out of my way, and let me work.
Anything worth knowing he could count or code or crib. He could buy it or sell it out there, from in here. Connect to anyone, or to no one. Everything else was whatever- he had no time or words for it. He had long since been able to hack almost anything, code almost anything, reroute things, control them. He was wired for this, felt it in his own code.
He had been accepted to a year-round, STEM charter boarding school in 7th grade, one that specialized in Tech and Science; open labs 24/7 and all that. Build your own machines. Choose your own classes. Make your own schedule. Technically graduated at 16, and took college classes there for a year.
Then the Recruiters came for this job, a special college program for the kids from just such a school, the best and the brightest! They had all taken multiple tests, and the results came back in Griff’s favor. There had been handshakes and certificates and free tuition and a job with experience to help later, with whatever you want to do.
Crazy, awesome ride.
This job wouldn’t last forever- those old guys, they were phasing out, slowly quitting, bleached into the faded past of paper and pencils and chalk. At some point, he’d have to do something else. This was fine for now, and anyway, what was past right now? This very moment, he lived on a floor with a bunch of other Comp Sci, I.T., tech majors, gamers all, and they hunkered down and did what gamers do. They even had a snack allowance. Between on-line classes, Uber eats, and Amazon deliveries, he wasn’t sure some guys had even left the building this year. He had everything he could want, or have, at nineteen, anyhow.
He cocked his head to the side and looked out the window. Crisscrossing the quad, the autumn leaves were swirling. The basement windows that ringed the room were narrow, running at above head height, a few inches above the stone walkway that ran along the building. If one were leaving, and another person was standing in just the right place, facing the basement, it would appear that you and he were staring directly at one another. It was in just such a position that Griff found himself now. It was still somewhat warm at the end of September, and the sun had begun its descent, but she was side-lit by the light. Her movement caught his eye, her strawberry blonde hair lifting in the wind and sun. She tipped her head for a second as if she saw him watching her, even though he knew she couldn’t see him at all because of the double tinted dark basement windows. A quizzical expression came across her face. He guessed whatever it was that made her stop must not have been that great because she turned and walked away.
He started for a second. No one knew they were down there. The whole bottom floor was labeled as storage. He got the impression that it would kill the old man’s ego if he knew that he didn’t actually have real classes. That guy really seemed to love those old books he went on about. They had promised him tenure, and apparently he was a little soft and so, Griff was basically babysitting. Griff didn’t have a degree because he was supposed to be a new student. He didn’t always know what the prof was talking about, which was good because students taking his class really shouldn’t already know everything.
On the other hand, Griff had wondered how he was going to get through without actually reading this junk. He always had downloads of the e-books so he could look at what they were talking about, check pages, put in good quote here and there. In the beginning, there were mostly other real students, and he took his cues from their posts and questions and quotes. He caught on to the storyline enough after going through the classes multiple times. In the beginning, he bought papers off of graduating students; eventually, he just hacked the turn-in system and pulled the ones he wanted for free. He had figured out, early on, that there were another couple of people like him in the boards, pretending to be students- just enough to make it sound like, you know, someone else. He was now multiple people at a time, so he created looped automatic responses, copied old discussion board paragraphs, and programmed the computer to change it all up with the push of button, to respond like a student, like whoever he was that semester. In short, he practiced his programming, pretended to participate, and learned very little about actual humanities.
Sometimes he thought he knew who the other gamer was since one of his friends had let it slip one time. Anytime there was someone who started with a J, he knew it was her. Sometimes, while they were all gaming, he’d look around the room, and try to figure it out. What he wondered about other times were the actual students at this university. What were they doing? What was that girl with the strawberry blonde hair doing?
Since he was hungry and she happened to be walking in the direction of the food, he figured two birds, one stone and all that. ‘Ah, Griff, old man,’ he said, borrowing the Professor’s words from a class discussion a few weeks ago: ‘You’re a veritable paragon of efficiency!’ He had to Google ‘veritable’ and ‘paragon’ but he understood efficiency. He was the master of doing things faster, easier, finding that loophole. If he could possibly shortcut it, he would.
He strolled slowly, trying not to be a stalker. She also slowed down. At one point, she paused and adjusted the straps on her backpack. He stopped instinctively and became suddenly interested in his shoes. She started up again. He waited a beat, then walked. He saw her turn her head, with slight smile on her face. She was accelerating ever so slightly, and he matched her pace to keep up when he came up almost beside her. She stopped suddenly and turned around quickly, ‘Hi!’
For a second, he looked startled then recovered quickly, running his fingers through his dark hair and trying to look as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. She gazed at him intently, with a somewhat wary expression.
‘Why are you following me?’
‘Food,’ he said.
She seemed simultaneously offended and perplexed as he pointed to the doors of the Café, the campus food court.
He watched her expressions change as the realization hit her, shifting from epiphany to embarrassment. She blushed.
‘Maybe since you basically just accused me of being a stalker, you might at least sit with me to eat.’ He smiled his most charming smile and held open the door for her.
She laughed. ‘Fine. You seem harmless enough, and it’s a very public place.’ She pointed up at the corners of the door, ‘Security Cameras.’
He had smudged the glass doors.
Chick-fil-a was open, so they grabbed trays and stood in line, debating the merits of ketchup versus Chick-fil-a sauce, nuggets versus sandwich. Navigating the crowd, they found a small table, away from the others, under a tree outside.
She spoke first. ‘If we’re going to make this situation a little less awkward, you’ll need to tell me your name. Otherwise, it’s still kinda weird.’
‘Griff Harrows, Sophomore-slash-Junior, depending on how this semester goes. Started at 16, computers. And you are?’
‘How did you start at 16?’ she asked, ignoring his question.
He tried to look impressive but not arrogant, intelligent, but modest. It was a fine line. He knew this from previous experience. Overstep it, and his reward would be rolled eyes and a quick exit. She seemed interested, smart, and not crazy. Three very good qualities.
‘I got accepted to this boarding school for STEM kids over in the Valley. You had to test in, be good at computers and coding, that kind of thing.’
He paused to see if this was delivered nonchalantly enough. She hadn’t bolted for the door, so he continued, ‘You could finish early, so I did. Then you could take college classes, so I did.’
He shrugged and started in on his fries.
‘If you could take college classes, why not just stay there, where it’s free? Your parents were ok with the whole thing?’
‘Well, my parents are dead.’
She looked stunned. Tears were in her blue eyes. ‘I’m so sorry. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.’
Ugh. Bad move, Griff. Too much, too fast, he thought to himself. It was hard to remember that other people were hearing, and feeling, for the first time, what he had known, and lived with, for seven years.
‘No, it’s ok.’
‘It’s… ok?’, she whispered softly, looking confused.
He tried again.
‘I mean, it’s hard, but it happened right after I went to the school. I just stayed on at school, since it was a boarding school. It’s not like I could live alone in 7th grade. My uncle, my ward, signed it over for me. He passed away when I was sixteen. I have a little savings from it all. So, I got to decide for myself when to finish and when to start college classes.’
He paused to inhale a few more fries.
‘They let me come here at 17 because of the school and scholarship I got. I’ve been here almost two years.’
‘You said you work at the school?’
‘Yeah, it’s um, IT stuff for the school, you know, student worker kind of thing.’
He ate a fry to buy time. Then another.
‘Just whatever they have for us to do. Good experience for the resume, and so on and so on. Like here, do this, do that.’
She had finished her food and was sipping her tea, considering him and his story.
‘Now,’ he said, biting into his chicken sandwich ‘your turn.’
‘Ok, Griff Harrows,’ she smiled into his grey eyes, ‘I’m a local girl, here for the art program. I started early, too.’
‘Did you take a test or something? Like the Recruiters gave us?’
‘No, I homeschooled, so we could go at our own pace. I got finished early, started taking art classes in the summer, and here I am.’
‘What kind of art classes?’
Really, the answer to this didn’t matter. Griff was just hoping that he had asked an adequate art question, and not one that would make him look like an idiot.
Is Art even an actual major here? Or does a person just take a class if they want to, like maybe a hobby or a minor or something? What would you even do with that? There’s no money in it all. You don’t make anything doing art for a job.’ he thought. With a start, he realized she was talking. Dude! Pay attention, Griff. He pushed his black hair out of his eyes and leaned in, nodding and trying to look as if he had any idea what she was talking about.
‘ …I started with a drawing class, just to see where I was and if I were ready. I’m in Art History I currently. I enjoy it all, but my emphasis is painting and ceramics. I hope to study abroad next semester.’
He stopped eating. ‘Wait, so you wouldn’t be here?’
She laughed, ‘Well, maybe you tech guys can figure out how to be two places at once, but the Art Department hasn’t mastered that yet, so yes, I won’t be here.’
‘Huh.’ He polished off his sandwich, feeling confused without knowing why.
When she stood up to throw away her trash, he did the same.
‘I’ll walk you back to your dorm,’ he said, just as he hooked his foot into the patio chair, flipping it over. ‘So, uh, you’ll be safe, and all.’
‘Are you sure I’m safe?’ she replied, eyeing the chair.
Trying for humor, he glanced around as if in a military maneuver and said, ‘The perimeter is secure!’
She grabbed her backpack and started walking in the direction of her dorm. Griff hustled to catch up with her.
‘Hey, so homeschool, huh? How does that work? I mean, social skills, am I right? That’s weird. Was it hard to be with people, you know because of the social ski–’ As he tripped over the edging of the flower bed, he spun and caught himself. His water bottle flipped out, splashing water all over, and rolling down his dripping pants and shoes. They both watched as it clanged noisily into a nearby gutter.
She gave him an appraising look, and returned the judgment with raised eyebrows over laughing eyes, ‘Of the two of us,’ she said, ‘you seem decidedly more awkward than I, Skillz.’ With that, the redhead disappeared through the double glass doors of her dorm. Just as the door clicked shut, he realized she had never told him her name.
In his office, the Professor raised his lukewarm coffee and toasted the great cloud of witnesses on the bookcase, and his two old friends in the Sciences. At least they were still here. His department had certainly dwindled. The older guys retired, and the newer profs sort of wandered off. They couldn’t get rid of him, technically. He had tenure, of a sort. He was too young to retire and too old to filibuster outright. But they didn’t have to give him an actual classroom or the best and brightest or honors classes.
They’d keep at this process until he gave up, he was certain. Here he was, scratched oak panels and parched leather books and a ratty, old green leather wingback he had inherited from the guy before who had been here for a hundred years, at least. An obscure corner. Nobody came down here. He wasn’t sure, based on the dust bunnies, if the cleaning crew even made it down here. Suited him just fine.
He read a lot, wrote some, graded and returned, planned the few lessons he had.
And he watched.
And he waited.
That smirk was confirmation.
He was almost certain this was the one.
The kid wasn’t the only one who could see a pattern, crack a code.
Combinations, expressions, voice.
There was always a tell.
Everyone leaves a trace with his words.