Read Ex-Purgatory: A Novel Online
Authors: Peter Clines
He slipped off his jacket and clipped on his ID. The jacket went into his locker and the tool belt came out. A few moments later he was getting his assignments from Jarvis. The shift boss had a dark beard shot through with white and silver.
The first two hours of George’s day were spent replacing fluorescent lights in one of the labs. There’d been a power surge and three dozen tubes had blown out. Someone else had swept up all the broken glass, but he was stuck pulling out the jagged ends and installing new lights. It was slow work, but at least the halls were empty and he wasn’t working around wandering students. Afterward he mopped the hallway to get any last fragments of
glass or the chalky powder from inside the tubes. He didn’t mind the mopping. He thought of it as a very Zen activity, although he was pretty sure he wasn’t using Zen the right way when he thought that.
Just before lunch was a broken sprinkler head. Someone had kicked it or hit it or something a few days ago, and now it was shooting a jet of water right at one professor’s window in the chemistry building. He’d complained two days ago and his complaint had filtered through the system and become an item George’s boss assigned to him.
George poked and pulled at the sprinkler for about ten minutes before deciding to just replace it. A year or two back the sprinklers would’ve been groundskeeping’s problem, but budget cuts had trimmed some departments and merged others. He still didn’t know enough about the system to do fine repairs, so he had to go for big ones.
Lunch was a rectangular pizza slice with orange sauce and soft crust. He was pretty sure the pepperoni crumbles were just flavored soy meat. He’d read that once on the back of a frozen pizza box. The salad that came with the pizza wasn’t much more than lettuce and dressing. He ate them both and read through the first few pages of a newspaper someone had left in the cafeteria. He had a glass of chocolate milk for dessert.
After lunch he went back to the sprinkler and installed the new one. There was a sheet of instructions in the box that helped. Nothing leaked or shook, so he called it done. He packed the soil back around the sprinkler and looked around while he wiped his hands on his Dickies.
He’d caught the lull when all the parents took their kids out for lunch one last time before heading home. The campus was dead. A few grad students stumbled between buildings and across the lawns, still hungover from welcome-back parties the night before. The lawn was overgrown, he noticed. More grounds-keeping cuts. He’d mention it to Jarvis and volunteer to take care of it.
There was a poster on a nearby bus stop for a clothing store. George had never been into fashion, but something about the
poster caught his eye. A blonde and a brunette flanked a stunning woman with dark skin and ebony hair. They all wore half-buttoned shirts and tight pants. The dark-skinned woman was barefoot. She looked familiar, and George was pretty sure she was the current “name” celebrity supermodel.
He just couldn’t remember her name.
His Nextel walkie chirped. “George, you there?”
He pulled it free from his belt. “Yeah, what’s up, Jarvis?”
“Bad news, m’friend. Somebody just broke a lobby window over at Birch Hall.”
“How the hell’d they do that?”
“Backed an SUV into it trying to get close to the door,” said Jarvis. “You drew the short straw.”
“Sorry. Mark’s grabbing some plywood. He’ll meet you over there and y’all can get it cleaned up.”
George kept his finger off the button and sighed. Mark was a new hire this year. He’d been some level of film producer or development person—George wasn’t sure which—who’d been let go after the economy started to dive and his last three movies in a row had tanked. After eighteen months of looking for work, the man had bitten the bullet and taken a job on the maintenance staff of his alma mater.
On one level, George admired the man for being able to swallow his pride. On another level, though, he couldn’t stand listening to him complain about “how far he’d fallen” and the constant comments about “life at the bottom.” In fact, George was pretty sure he was going to have firm words with Mark about it sometime soon.
After all, this was his life. He didn’t need to listen to anyone badmouthing it.
GEORGE WIGGLED HIS
fingers and settled his glove a little better on his hand. He reached up and grabbed the curved piece of glass. It was stuck in the frame of the big wall-to-ceiling window. The jagged point at the end made it look vaguely like an Arabian sword, one of the ones from the old Sinbad movies. A scythe? A scimitar. It was like a glass scimitar was buried in the frame.
Half the window had broken away. A collection of other glass swords and spikes hung in the window frame now, each a foot or two long. George had been doing this job long enough to know some kid—young adult—would end up stepping through the opening in the rush of moving day. And once one of them did, it would become a new doorway. At least, until someone got cut. Or worse. So his first priority was getting all the glass out of the frame.
He’d set up a few cones and signs from the dorm’s supply closet and leaned a broom across them as a low barrier, but there were just too many people for it to do anything. A few hundred students were trying to move into the building, and most of them had at least one other person helping. There were close to a dozen bodies within five feet of his ladder at that moment.
The half-dozen shards on the ground had been easy. Now George was balanced on the ladder. He tried to lever the piece of
glass away from the frame without breaking it or slashing up his gloves. Or his hands.
He pushed down on the shard’s edge and felt the glass resist. The weight of his arms settled on it, then he added his shoulders. It was slow work, but rushing it would just break the glass and make a mess.
The sword-like shard tilted and slid free from the rubbery seal. George imagined it felt a lot like pulling someone out of quicksand—a slow, hesitant release. He got one hand under the two-foot piece of glass. His feet shifted on the ladder to keep his balance. The sword came away in his hands and he worked his way down the ladder.
George set the shard in the trash can at the base of his ladder. As he did, someone walked by and tossed a Taco Bell cup into the container. The paper cup popped open. Ice clattered and clicked down the glass.
He sighed and headed back up the ladder. The next piece was broad, stretching across the top of the frame. It probably weighed close to six or seven pounds. It also had a crack in it, which meant it would break apart when he tried to lever it out. The wide shard reminded him of a guillotine blade, waiting to drop. It would’ve been the first to go, but he’d needed to work out some of the big pieces around it.
He got one hand and part of his arm under the bulk of it and put pressure on the other side. That way, if it popped out or shattered, most of it should go away from the door, at least. The blade of glass resisted for a moment, then eased out of the frame.
“Hey, George,” called Mark. “How they hanging, big man?” He dropped the sheet of plywood he’d been lugging and let it crash against the ladder. The fiberglass legs wobbled and tipped, just for a second. George shifted his weight. His arms tensed.
The shard snapped with a bang. George heard the zip of fabric coming apart and felt the cold glass slide along his forearm. The first thought in his head was all the morbid tips he’d heard about the “right” way to slit your wrists, going up and down instead of side to side. The huge blade whisked down across his thigh and cut off the thought.
Half of the guillotine shattered on the pavement, turning into crystal confetti that pitter-pattered across the ground. The second half hit a beat later, slowed by its passage through George’s uniform, and added to the hail of glass. People shrieked. Mark grunted in surprise. George bit back a swear and grabbed at his arm.
“Job opening,” cackled one student.
“Jesus, guy,” shouted an older man. “There’s kids all around here.”
“Be careful, for Christ’s sake!”
“Sorry,” said George. “Everyone okay? Nobody hurt?”
A few more parents muttered at him. He shot Mark a look and hopped off the ladder. “What the hell?” he growled.
The other man looked at him, baffled. “What?”
George shook his head at the plywood. “What were you thinking?”
Mark had been an athlete in high school and college. He was one of those people who’d never quite outgrown the jock mind-set of “the quarterback can do no wrong.” He looked from the plywood to George, then to the ladder, and then to the glass-covered ground. “Are you saying this is my fault?”
“You threw a sheet of plywood against the ladder I was working on.”
“It’s not my fault you’re a wuss who freaks out three feet up in the air,” said Mark. He grabbed the broom. “At least man up and admit you made a mistake. You’re just lucky nobody got hurt.”
“Yeah, well—” The sensation of the glass blade sliding down his arm and across his thigh echoed in George’s mind. He felt the cool draft inside his Dickies. His pulse quickened and he glanced down.
The pants were open across his thigh, just below where the pocket ended. He could see skin and leg hair. But no blood. He’d been lucky.
He held up his arm. The shirt sleeve was slashed open from his elbow all the way to his wrist. It was a smooth cut. Like his pants, the fabric of the shirt had parted between threads without a single hitch or pull. Even the cuff of his glove was cut. The
blade of glass had gone right through the doubled-over canvas hem. He’d written his name on the cuffs ages ago, and the cut went right through the
His forearm wasn’t even scratched. No blood at all. He flexed his fingers and they moved in the glove without any trouble.
George wiggled his fingers again. He’d had cuts that were so clean they were almost invisible. They’d stay shut for a few moments before opening up and gushing blood. He made a fist, squeezed it, and hoped his wrist wouldn’t fall apart.
Nothing. And it had been three minutes since the glass had fallen. He poked at his forearm with his other hand and stretched the skin back and forth. Then he poked at his thigh.
“Damn lucky,” he said aloud.
Mark glanced up from his half-assed sweeping. “Eh?”
George held his arm a little higher and flapped the edge of the cut.
Mark looked at the sleeve for a moment. Then his eyes bugged. “Fucking hell,” he said. It got a couple of angry looks from parents. “You’re damned lucky.”
“Another quarter inch and I’d be using a mop right now instead of a broom.”
“I’d like to think you’d be using the truck to get me over to the Med Center.”
“Yeah, well, okay. But then I’d be mopping you up.”
George squeezed his hand into a fist again, but his forearm remained whole. The memory of the glass on his skin was so vivid, he was sure it had cut him. Maybe it had just been panic, like Mark said.
He shook his head and rolled the sleeve up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s pull the last of this stuff and get the board up.”
“Why don’t you just knock it out with a hammer or something?”
George waved his hand at the crowd in the lobby and brought it back to the door. “Because I don’t want to put a piece of glass in someone’s eye on their first day back.”
“Oh,” said Mark. “Right.”
They boarded up the window and Jarvis had new assignments for each of them. Mark had the truck, so he headed off to the far side of campus to deal with a blown fuse in another dorm. George had to go check on an abandoned couch in the middle of one of the parking lots. Day one and people were already abandoning furniture.
He found the couch right where it was supposed to be. He’d half hoped in the fifteen minutes it took him to get there some frustrated undergrad or parent would do the job for him. No such luck.
The threadbare piece of furniture had to be at least twenty years old. George understood why it had been abandoned. It was so ratty Goodwill wouldn’t touch it. It sat kitty-corner along the dividing line of two spaces. One end was far enough out to make a third space awkward to use. As he walked up, one car proved that fact with an impressive seven-point turn.
“Who the hell brings a couch to college?” he muttered. He looked at the dumpster, sitting fifty yards away at the far end of the parking lot.
He gave the couch a tug and found out why no one had moved it. It had a foldaway bed, complete with steel frame, springs, and extra mattress. On a guess, it weighed three or four hundred pounds.
George had a few more thoughts about the couch’s former owner as he yanked the cushions off and walked them to the dumpster. It was only a couple of pounds, but he figured every bit would help. He set them in the grass next to the steel bin on the off chance someone came running out to claim ownership before he threw the whole thing away.
The couch was still unclaimed when he got back to it. He sighed, bent his knees, and heaved one end up. It wasn’t as heavy as he’d first thought. It went up on one end with no problem. He looked at the metal framework between the legs and wondered if maybe it was aluminum rather than steel.