I made pretty good progress tonight. Life is getting busy for my protagonist as he keeps getting swept up in town politics and new relationships. There are some hard lessons to be learned. The first, of course, is never eat at the buffet.
Marshall finally spotted Benton Noro. She was on the far side of the room, in a group of six people. Everyone seemed to be listening to her, mostly with serious expressions. Marshall wondered if it was a story, or if she was sharing some news.
“What do you think Guerrero’s chances are?” Marshall asked Catrin.
Catrin took a moment to answer. She looked over at Guererro, talking to a group of red hats in another part of the hall. “As far as I know, nobody has ever put up much of a challenge to the Sheriff. I think he even ran unopposed a couple times. People like Guerrero though. My parents are big fans. He’s pretty well funded too. His ads are on TV constantly. It will be close. I don’t think Sheriff Dwight will lose though. It just doesn’t seem possible.”
Marshall looked again at Benton Noro, and this time she took notice. He saw her gesture at him. “Benton wants us to come over,” he said to Catrin.
“I’m pretty sure she just wants you,” Catrin said. “Go talk. I’m going to hit the ladies room and then get another beer.”
Marshall walked over and Benton introduced him to the group. He didn’t catch most of the names, but smiled and shook hands with the people. By way of introduction, Benton said, “Marshall is new to town. He’s been considering investing in a few of my enterprises. I have a feeling he’ll be a candidate for our little group soon.”
Marshall nodded as if he knew what she was talking about. For some reason, her thoughts on resource allocation came to mind. “I am an unallocated resource,” he said pleasantly to the group. “At some point she will decided where to fit me in.” Five of the six people just nodded, but one man snorted back a laugh. Marshall took note of him. He was about Marshall’s age. He was tall and thin, with short black hair. He wasn’t quite as dressed up as some of the others, simply wearing a black polo shirt and matching chinos. The man was drinking a bottled beer that wasn’t available at the serving station. He had an easy smile, and looked like the most relaxed guy in the room. Marshall made an effort to dig up his name before it disappeared with all the others. He remembered that his first name was Jacob.
The conversation itself seemed to be focused around a new hotel that was being built. This, apparently, was a complicated deal involving tearing down both the Wayfarer and the Beachcomber, two longstanding but not particularly well regarded motels that took up a lot of real estate. The idea was to put in a resort property that would upgrade the level of tourists coming to the town. Jacob appeared to be one of the backers. It quickly became clear that most of this crowd were both wealthy, and relatively new to town. Marshall had the feeling that their entrance into the community was a direct result of Benton Noro’s efforts.
“Old guard versus new guard,” he said quietly, not actually meaning to be heard. Benton caught it though, and gave him a direct look.
“More like old farts versus new farts,” Jacob said.
Benton Noro said, “This is a wonderful town, but it has been aging for some time. There’s no college, or an airport you can land a jet at. There’s been a decline in property values and wages over the years. We need to fix that.”
“And take advantage of it,” Jacob added, and then he put his fingers together and gave a cackle.
Marshall laughed. Benton Noro said, “We’re trying to build something here. We want to give the city a future.”
“And make a profit,” Jacob added.
The conversation went back to the hotel. Marshall followed it for a few more minutes, and then glanced over to see if Catrin was back at the table yet. She wasn’t, so he scanned the room to see if he could spot her. It turned out that she had found a conversation of her own. She was talking to two guys, both about her age, and both clearly interested in her. Marshall watched them for a moment. Jacob looked in the same direction and said, “It looks like some other people want a bite of your arm candy.”
This brought the hotel conversation to a stop. Benton Noro looked over as well and said, “She is not interested in them.”
Marshall shrugged. “We’re just friends. She’s welcome to talk to whoever she wants.”
“Nonetheless,” Benton Noro said. “She is not interested in them. She isn’t talking. They are talking and she is thinking of other things. Her left shoulder is pointing outward. She is looking for a way to leave. Besides, they are local.” Benton Noro said this with an air of finality, as if whatever she had found of interest had disappeared. “I should go rescue my own arm candy.” Benton Noro said, “It seems she has been caught by the Red Hats. They are measuring her head as we speak.”
Benton Noro’s group quickly evaporated without her presence. Jacob stuck around though. He gestured toward Catrin. “I admire your restraint.”
Marshall watched Catrin for a while longer. “Benton Noro was correct,” he said to Jacob, “They would never interest her. That would take a guy like you.”
The words hung in the air for a moment. “Sorry,” Jacob said, “I’m not trying to cause trouble.”
“Come along then,” Marshall said to Jacob. “You can give it your best shot. I’ll introduce you.”
Marshall and Jacob walked over to Catrin and he made his introductions, talking to her as if the two younger guys weren’t even in the room. “This is my new best friend Jacob,” Marshall said, “He seems like a cool guy and I’m pretty sure he’s the richest person in the room.”
“Second richest,” Jacob said, and then he appeared to do some calculations in his head. “I’m probably third actually.”
Catrin did not seem impressed, but shook his hand. The two guys who had been giving her attention sort of stood around awkwardly while Jacob not-so subtly angled his body so they were behind him. “You look like somebody who could tell me where to get a decent burger in this town. What do you recommend?” Catrin recommended a place called Papa Rock’s, and Jacob said, “Great. Marshall and I are going to go get a burger and talk about how we’re going to build a college in this town. We’ll’ need you so you can navigate.”
Catrin shrugged. “Might as well. There’s no bratwurst here anyway.”
“That’s what I said,” Jacob almost shouted. “Who has an Oktoberfest without brats? Let’s get out of here.” He looked over at the two guys, “Be seeing you around boys.” Marshall nodded at them and followed.
They had to wait outside the ladies room while Catrin deposited her beer. As they stood there, Benton Noro and Victoria Basha came out the door holding hands and laughing about something. Jacob spotted them and pointed at Marshall. “We’re heading out for burgers. Come with us.”
“Papa Rock’s?” Victoria asked.
“That’s the one.” Catlin came out of the restroom and took a look at the the additions to their little group. Marshall thought he noticed a slight flinch. He took her hand and whispered in her ear. “We don’t have to go.”
Catrin said nothing, but she continued to hold his hand as they walked toward the door. As they walked, Marshall became aware that his ankle was starting to get tight. He hoped that he would not have to do too much more walking.
Papa Rock’s was located in the old train station. The train line had been shut down many years ago after a major landslide a few miles up the mountain took out almost a quarter mile of tracks. The railroad had determined that the line wasn’t profitable enough to justify the repairs. The old station wasn’t an overly large building, but it maintained the distinctive architecture of an early 1900s station. The building was made out of blood-red bricks with three columns connecting two archways. Within the arches, the front wall was built out of wood and painted turquoise. There was a series of small windows in a row along the top. The inside maintained a bit of the old railroad theme, with murals of trains covering most of the walls.
The restaurant was half-full, and they had to wait a few minutes for a table large enough to seat five comfortably. Marshall tried to stand so that the weight was on his right foot. Catrin noticed, and squeezed his hand. Once they were at the table, she dug into her purse and gave him a couple ibuprofen pills.
Marshall declined to order a burger, using the excuse that he had eaten too much at the buffet. This was somewhat true. He hadn’t eaten a lot, but he felt full. He ordered some French fries though, just to be social. As they waited for their food, Jacob talked about his belief that a small liberal-arts college could be a big draw to the town. When he had first brought it up at the party, Marshall had assumed he was kidding, but it turned out that Marshall had a passion for this.
“Having a college can give even a small town an air of legitimacy. It doesn’t have to be particularly big. I’m thinking an initial goal of 300 students within five years. We could probably get by with half a dozen full time professors and a few adjuncts.”
“What are they going to teach at this college?” Marshall asked.
“We could do something along the lines of Bennington College,” Jacob said, “Keep it in the liberal arts, but allow the students to design their own major and pursue their own interests.”
Marshall thought about that. It seemed like an interesting idea, but a bit amorphous for him. “I’d go a different way,” he said. “If you really want to attract new blood to this town, what I would set up is an International studies program, with an emphasis on languages. I wouldn’t even market it heavily in the United States. I would push for international students. Market it in countries like China, Japan, India and the United Arab Emirates. You offer language studies and business classes. What you’re really pushing though, is the opportunity for them to get their student visa and spend four or more years here in America. They get to live in a quiet little seaside town with a picturesque beach. The students get to come to America, in about the safest entry point possible. No big city crime to speak of and a quiet nightlife that won’t freak their parents out. Put that college on the beach, and you’ve got yourself a nice little attraction, bringing in exactly what you want, people with money to spend and big dreams for the future.”
Jacob was quiet. Benton Noro spoke up though. “I could get behind that. In fact, I almost guarantee I could bring in at least fifty students a year from Japan.
When Jacob finally spoke, he said, “I really like my idea. Unfortunately, his is better.”
Catrin spoke up then. “What about the local kids. Does this do anything at all for them?”
Jacob smiled at her. “We can offer tuition breaks locally. That would be a good selling point when we try to get the city to chip in. Any graduate of a local high school who meets the entrance requirements gets a full tuition scholarship. That gives the local kids something to shoot for.”
This seemed to please Catrin, and Marshall wondered if that was Jacob’s entire motivation for suggesting the idea. The word frenemies popped into Marshal’s head. He shook it off though. Life was too short for frenemies.
The conversation continued on, but Marshall began to have trouble tracking it. He realized a headache was coming on and he turned to Catrin. “I’m going to need a ride home. I’m going to be incapacitated in about 20 minutes.”
“What’s wrong?” Jacob asked.
“I get very bad headaches,” Marshal said, pointing to the scar on his head, “and one of them is coming.” Marshall pulled out his wallet. The only thing in there was a hundred dollar bill he had taken from his sister’s envelope. He took it out and placed it on the table. “Thank you for an excellent time and a good conversation.”
When they got back to his apartment building, Catrin helped him down the stairs. He couldn’t really feel his ankle at that point, but the headache was affecting his equilibrium. Still, when they got inside, Marshall went to his routine. He got his mask and ice wrap from the freezer, placing them by his bed. Then he left Catrin and went into the bathroom, making sure to pee in case he was incapacitated for a while. Catrin asked him a couple of questions, but Marshall wasn’t sure if he answered. He got in bed and put the mask over his head, placing the ice on top. He thanked her, and started doing his breathing exercises. He felt Catrin climb into the bed with him and put her arm around him, stroking is chest. Marshall had the presence of mind to say thank you, but the headache was in full bore, and he didn’t have the excess capacity to contemplate her being there. As always, he pushed away every outside thought and just concentrated on his breathing. Eventually, he fell asleep.
When Marshall woke up the next morning, Catrin was gone. He looked around for a note, but found none. It occurred to him to check his phone, and he found a text from her. “Sorry I had to leave, but being out all night would worry my parents. Thank you for taking me out and for the other thing. I’ll be busy all day today, but text me and let me know you are alive.”
Marshall read the text a couple of times. He tried to figure out what she meant by “the other thing” but he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. He got up and did his stretches. He checked the freezer and noticed that she had returned his ice pack and mask. He felt a little, unfamiliar twinge then. “She cares,” he said quietly, and then he closed the freezer and went to take a shower.
He was about halfway through his shower when he felt the headache start to come back. His stomach churned. Marshall finished up quickly, then dried off and went to get his ice wrap and mask. He felt a little worried. He usually didn’t get headaches first thing in the morning. Sleep was like a reset switch. It generally bought him at least three or four hours before a new headache.
Marshall went back to bed and started the breathing process again, just as the night before, except today there wasn’t a pretty girl to get in bed and comfort him. He started to do his breathing exercises, but they weren’t going well. The pain seemed to be taking over his whole body,
Marshall got back up and rushed to the toilet. Once there, he spent the next half hour throwing up the entire contents of his stomach. He followed that up with an equally lengthy bout of diarrhea. By the end of it, he felt so weak that he crawled back to bed, afraid that he would not be steady enough otherwise. His headache, however, had receded somewhat by the time he was through. It was simply a dull ache that didn’t truly feel like one of his normal headaches. After a few minutes rest, he felt a little stronger and he reached for his phone. He texted to Catrin. “I think I got food poisoning last night. Are you ok?”
He waited for a response, but none came for a while and he started to drift off to sleep, then he felt his iPhone vibrate, and he checked it.
“Definitely food poisoning” Catrin had texted back. “Both of my parents are down and I just threw up. I blame the buffet.”
Marshall closed his eyes again. He was somewhat relieved that is was food poisoning, and not his body rejecting him. He got back up slowly, and went to his medicine cabinet. He looked through his pills and found one for nausea. The side effect was sleepiness and the ever present “confusion and hallucinations” that all of his medicines seemed to have. He stared at the pill, not wanting to take it but loathing the idea of another round of dry heaves. The muscles on his left side were still weak, and cramping was a definite possibility if he continued to dry heave. He poured a glass of water and sat the pill next to it, and then he crawled back into bed, deciding not to take it as long as he didn’t get another round of nausea or diarrhea.
Marshall cursed his luck for a moment, but then he thought of superorganisms and laughed a tiny laugh. “This city is testing me,” he said quietly, “but I will pass.”