She was a weak girl, Warren knew. Weak and stupid. She never saw the signs, couldn't bear any weight. He'd educate her.
A 7-Eleven near campus, one-oh-seven. Warren parked his Subaru beside the dumpster, killing Sting's lamentations over broken bonds mid-verse. He wore a sweatshirt, jeans, a backpack filled with reference books and six inches of honed steel. He looked like an older student studying for a second career. But he could educate, too.
A bum squatted by the dumpster, grimy, weatherworn, stinking. As Warren slammed the Subaru's door, he thought he heard him say, "You need to let her go." Warren eyed the man, but the bum began writing in the dust with a finger. Indigent. Harmless.
Kaye Hall, one-thirty-three, "Intro to Finance," her first class of the day. She'd arranged it so she could work mornings at King Hardware. Work with him. Warren couldn't see her from the door. He'd wait outside. She didn't need finance. He'd taught her the store's books backwards and forwards. Stupid. She'd told him school would build her confidence. Weak.
Outside spring sunlight gilt squat, multileveled buildings. Warren bought a Dasani from a vending machine, discovered the liquid inside was red, viscous. Bottling error. He threw it at a fichus hedge and watched a score of frogs lurch out as it crashed through.
A breezeway bench, three-seventeen. She filed right past him in a mass of students, smiling, tossing tawny hair. She hadn't seen him. She also hadn't seen the paid vacation and six-month bonus he'd given her and her alone. Stupid.
Warren followed her to the library, prowled the stacks as she studied linear regressions with an Asian girl. Weak. Test or no test, she only needed him. In one row, a sharp itch stung him on the neck when he blew dust from Pentateuch as Narrative. In another, he found twenty-three flies inexplicably hovering midair. He crushed them against the shelving.
When she shouldered her backpack and moved towards the main entrance, he forced himself to count to fifty. He couldn't educate her in front of all these people. At forty-three, he finally pushed through the revolving doors and nearly stepped on six dead birds. They lay on the pavement as though felled by pestilence.
Student Services, five-fifteen, she disappeared into the crush in front of the cafeteria. Warren fought back panic. Stupid, he should've stayed closer.
He started up the cafeteria steps.
A man blocked his way, grimy, weatherworn, stinking.
"You need to let her go," the bum said.
"Move, or I'll move you myself," Warren said.
The students flowed around them like a stream around a stone, unnoticing.
"I do not think you could," the bum said. "I fought the night at Peniel. I held the way to Kirjath Huzoth. I -- "
Warren swung. Missed. The bum stiff-armed him in the chest -- hard.
"She isn't yours," the bum said. "Let her go."
"Hey, watch it," someone said, jostling Warren from behind.
In a blink, the crowd swallowed the bum. Warren strove for breath. The man was obviously insane, maladjusted. But not weak.
The Life Sciences complex, five-fifty-seven. Warren's chest throbbed. There was a local sandwich chain by the biology labs, and he slipped into their restrooms. He removed his sweatshirt, saw a patch of pustules, red and inflamed, over his right pectoral. It was the size of a man's palm. He rinsed it, dressed, went out front, bought a ham sandwich, put it in his backpack.
Room 116, College of Education, six-twelve, exam time. Quantitative Analysis met across the hall. He hadn't exactly needed to follow her. Online syllabi made reconstructing her schedule easy. But he'd wanted to see her, to consider if education was strictly necessary. Room 116 was open and empty. He locked the door behind him. Maybe she would listen this time. He would give her the world. Age was only a sum. His wife had never really loved him.
Seven-thirty-two. Four students had finished, none of them her. A burst of what sounded like ice spattered the classroom window. Odd. Ice in April.
Eight-thirteen. Twelve students done. Warren bit into the sandwich. It crunched. He peeled it open, saw a chitinous leg the size of his pinky. Disgusting. He threw it away.
Nine-twenty-six. Warren saw her come out of the classroom with a boy. Saw her clasp his hand, kiss him on the cheek. Saw them part when the corridor split, him towards the computer labs, her the breezeway.
He'd been naive. She needed education.
Night had bled the warmth from the air. Fluorescents pooled light on the breezeway's sidewalk. Warren slashed the distance between them from thirty yards to ten. When he let the backpack fall, she whirled, startled.
"Hello, Katherine," he said, not breaking stride. An emergency response callbox stood right past her, but she'd never reach it. He was not weak.
"M-mister King," she stammered, "what are you -- " Her eyes slid down to the knife in his hand. "Oh no, dear Jesus, please, no."
He closed the gap in three fast strides, drew back the knife.
But her gaze had floated past him, her face gone gray.
A hand closed on Warren's shoulder.
Darkness fell, black as the underside of every rock.
Red agony, a wet crunching, and Warren understood it was his bones. He didn't need to see the hand that held him to know it was grimy and weatherworn.
"Nine signs," came the bum's voice, "and still you do not know against whom you strive. You will let her go. She is mine, and I am hers, and I am her might. Now, Warren Ramus King, firstborn son of a firstborn son, know the tenth."
The bum uttered a harsh syllable, and Warren knew it was one for which the human mouth had not been shaped. He felt it brush his forehead and branch through his synapses. He felt it slide along his spine to coalesce around his heart.
He even felt it when his blood began to boil.