Ethan drops his head over the edge of the top bunk.
Samuel sleeps soundly under a checkered comforter next to video game characters and weird Japanese cartoons pasted on the wall, a pathetic cave of his own design. “Sam. Hey.” No response from his roommate, except a slight smile as he snuggles into his pillow. He caps open a water bottle at the edge of his bed and squirts a stream of water into the shorter boy's ear. Sam bolts up so fast his head hits the top of the bunk (Ethan knows because, while laughing, he feels the thunk) and leaps around the room, head tilted, knocking on his other ear. “Hey, Sam? What the fuck are you doing?”
Sam squints at Ethan desperately, ear red from his own hand. “There's something in my ear.”
“Might be a spider. I read that spiders like to crawl into ears while people are sleeping.”
This is not the way Sam imagined this school year. When his original roommate (an obese, sullen Southerner) finally convinced his parents to let him come home, Sam swelled with the possibility of having a room to himself. But just as he began to spread out, he was assigned Ethan Harrington: a new student with a checkered past, easily researched. Still resentful, Sam had met him at the entranceway of the dorm for a tour. “There's the vending machine. If you shake it hard enough, you can usually get a candy bar to fall out. Remember, no girls are allowed in here. It's an all-boys school so obviously the security guards will notice.”
“What if a chick dresses up like a dude? Does that work?”
“No.” Though it probably would work. With a flourish, Sam had opened the door to their sparse room, scrubbed for the occasion. “This is your room. Everybody has a roommate.”
“Something tells me this guy doesn't get laid too often,” Ethan had scoffed, noticing the anime books and video game posters clustered under the bottom bunk. “Who's my roommate?”
“Who do you think? The top bunk is yours. We're on a weekly bathroom cleaning schedule with the Minkstein twins, which means... yep, your turn is Saturday.”
Now Sam hoists himself to Ethan's level. “Is there a spider in my ear?”
“Gross man. I'm not looking in your ear.”
The bathroom is occupied by two shaving Minkstein twins, so Sam sticks a twisted t-shirt into his ear canal. Ethan climbs down from the top bunk and lets out a leisurely stretch. “How do you feel about going on a drive today?”
“With me?” Sam inspects cotton for any sign of spiders. “Did you get permission?”
“Who can even keep track of all the things you need permission for around here?”
“They're all online. Or you can just ask; I know them.” Sam crawls back to his cartoon characters. “It's not hard. You just have to get permission to go off campus at least a day in advance.”
“Such bullshit.” Ethan bangs on their shared bathroom door. Aaron Minkstein swings it open. Two half-smooth faces peer at him expectantly. Josh and Aaron shave their identically patchy beards every Saturday with straight-edged razors. “You guys feel like going on a drive?”
Josh sighs. “I have to study for midterms.”
Aaron agrees. “We don't have permission slips, anyhow.”
“If you wanna live your life around permission slips, that's your choice.” Ethan shuts the bathroom door with an anger Sam doesn't understand. Can't he just take opiates like the rest of them?
It swings back open. “Going on a drive where?”
Once packed into Ethan's truck, the boys loop around the sprawling campus, tentatively at first. The twins fiddle with their phones in the back. Sam buckles up in the passenger seat. The sun bounces off his wavy blond hair and highlights a prominent mole on his nose, a detail he'll remove a month before entering Stanford. “Any ideas from the back?”
Aaron, having relented to pressure from Josh, sighs. “Just avoid the security booth.” Campus guards congregate around the brick booth at the main entrance, where they take their responsibility of checking student ID cards very seriously, so the boys drive toward faculty housing instead. Opposite a stone wall, townhouses occupy a single beige row. An appropriately beige math teacher carries groceries up steep beige steps. Nobody has to state how pathetic this is. It goes without saying that becoming a teacher (in essence, never leaving school) is akin to never becoming an adult at all.
Past the townhouses lies a small plot of land marked Faculty Garden. “Hold up hold up, I've heard of this place!” Sam stutters with excitement.
“A vegetable garden?”
“This is where my brother used to come to make out!” He spins around to explain to the twins. “My brother graduated two years ago.”
“Did he come down here because of a lack of security guards, perchance?” Ethan asks.
“Oh, I dunno. This one time, he said he brought two roommates from St. Mary's here, together.”
“Riveting.” At the fork in the road, Ethan turns toward the garden. Sure enough, the stone wall morphs into a high wooden fence past the vegetable beds, and then the fence morphs into a gate.
“Do you think that's locked?” Ethan asks.
“How 'bout you go and find out?” a twin suggests from the backseat.
“I can't. I'm driving.” He shifts the truck into park.
Without a word, Sam unhooks his safety belt and steps outside. The area appears to be a maintenance hub. A row of empty trucks—sanitation, delivery—dwarfs an empty security car. Back inside the car, each twin claims a lookout window.
Sam's sneakers crunch against gravel. He jams his hands into the front pocket of his hoodie to keep them from shaking. A few years later, as he raises money for his first tech startup, every pitch to an investor will feel just like this. Though he longs to turn back, a stolen glance reveals Ethan's smug, mocking gaze. If Ethan, who is unquestionably an asshole, thinks he's braver just because he's larger and athletic and has a sex tape, he's wrong. The exit is closed: no padlock, just a rusted latch. Sam stuffs one hand inside a fleece-lined sleeve and smashes palm against metal. The gate swings open. His world shudders. It takes him a moment to hear shouting and longer to turn around and notice three hands waving at him to hurry back. Gravel feels like quicksand now. He throws his body into the car, crushes his head against Ethan's shoulder, hears his brain yell shut the door. Sam blindly grasps a door handle. Next to him, Ethan flattens one foot against the accelerator.
A security guard, likely the owner of the parked car and still holding a hoagie in one hand, violently beckons for them to stop. The truck grinds past him. “Which way is the highway?” Ethan asks, glaring into his rear-view mirror. “Somebody! The highway!”
“It's this way,” Aaron says. “I think.”
Swiveling around for a sign to the interstate, Josh's eyes land on silent yet flashing lights. “Uh. Alert, alert!”
Aaron is still orienting himself. “We're on a service road. Does that help?”
“Guys? Can we talk about the security guard behind us?” A twin taps fretting fingernails against the window.
In the driver's seat, Ethan runs one hand through dark hair. Flashing lights grow brighter. The truck approaches a stop light. This time it's Sam who says “better run this.” They squeal toward the post office and, up ahead, grey highway shimmers in the afternoon sun. The boys accelerate, pass a school bus, merge.
Sam re-buckles his safety belt. The truck glides faster now, speeding past a packed minivan and a tiny hatchback helmed by a wrinkled woman and a pickup truck containing two laughing hunter types. When Sam tells the story later, at tech conferences and team meetings, he'll credit the experience as being his first real brush with risk. The story, while benefitting from a madcap, macho energy and air of privilege (“The time my friends and I outran a boarding school cop”) will be received, each time, by polite chuckles and Sam will wonder, each time, if his audience sees himself the way he wants to be seen, as a young and dashing innovator, or if the retelling unintentionally exposes him as the desperate, anime-loving youth he once was. Either way, he'll trudge on.
“We lost him!” A twin announces from the backseat.
Aaron is right. Flashing lights are nowhere in sight. Instead, traffic ebbs and flows around them with a surprising casualness. “That motherfucker has no power outside the school.” Ethan says, flipping on the radio. A thumping bass line oozes and resonates inside adolescent chests. The truck sails on.
Josh asks, “Why is everybody slowing down?”
“We must be on the toll road.”
“Oh, I remember this!” Sam reaches for his wallet. “It's four fifty.” He pulls out a five.
“Can you get it this time, man?” Ethan asks, suddenly genial. “I don't carry cash.”
“We don't either,” the twins say in unison, bursting into giggles. “Jinx!”
The toll collector, who doesn't recognize them as the band of young outlaws they are, waves them through. All four crane their necks forward, expecting freedom to look even a bit novel, and are met with the same blacktop artery jutting through the same flat land. A sign greets them: Welcome to Wisconsin.
“Ah, look at that.” Ethan thumps on the steering wheel. “We made it, boys!”
“To Wisconsin?” Sam's head spins.
The twins glance at each other. “Now what do we do?”
“Whatever there is to do in Wisconsin! Obviously.” Ethan exclaims. “Woo hoo! Freedom!”
The highway stretches on.