| His pudgy hands guided the thin grease pencil with dexterity, yet hesitation. The page opened itself to him, enabling his visualization of the final product, but the actual resulting image betrayed him. Accustomed to this disappointment, he willed his wrist to continue traversing the page despite the fact that his efforts were in vain. Soon, a landscape emerged, an impossible window to an equally impossible happy place. He paused to survey his work. Juvenile, he reflected, before returning like Sisyphus to his self-imposed task.
He broke the tip of his pencil, leaving an abyss of a dark mark, when Kate startled him.
For a half-second, an irritated frown ruled his face, but his undeniable feelings for her quickly became an awkward but unstoppable smile. He rested his writing implements in his lap and looked at her. More superficial guys on campus would comment on various advantages that Kate possessed, but he was always entranced by her smile; not its symmetry, though it contained that, but its sincerity.
“Whaddaya doin’ here?” she inquired, absentmindedly chewing a few strands of her dark russet hair.
“Nothin’,” he lied, having planted himself in wait for her on the bench over an hour ago.
“Whatcha doin’ tonight?” she peered further through him with grey eyes.
“Nothin’,” he admitted.
“Well, you should come with Melissa and Dave and—”
“Kate!” interrupted Melissa, who was running up the sidewalk with her arms spread in an anticipated hug. As the girls greeted each other, Dave’s familiar form strolled slowly from the same direction. His smooth complexion, broad shoulders, and tall, muscular frame prompted the artist to self-consciousness. Not jealousy, exactly, but a sense of complete alienation that forced him to contemplate his role as an outcast. Across the street, the poster store was kind enough to lend its window so that he could peruse his own overweight shape and pale face. He was even blessed to discover a new whitehead he had not known about previously.
Once more his rumination was disturbed, pleasantly, by Kate.
“Anyway, like I was saying, d’ya want to go with us to Delta Sigma Mu?”
He searched the faces of the others to determine if Kate’s request was shared. Most guys around campus would certainly say that Melissa was more beautiful than Kate, but the artist had always considered her blond “perfection” a trap. She returned his inquiring gaze with an enthusiasm of unknown genuineness. In the meantime, Dave was clearly unafraid of competition; he wore a blank stare that betrayed only complacent boredom.
“OK,” the artist assented.
“Great!” Kate replied, and the three of them passed his bench, already walking towards the fraternity house. Melissa paused to look at his drawing tablet as they passed.
He said nothing, but packed up his things and slung his backpack over one shoulder and stumbled after them. When he caught them, their conversation was so mundane that he just trailed them in silence, his head down.
For several blocks, Kate feigned interest in Dave’s lacrosse season, Dave feigned interest in Melissa’s chemistry research, and Melissa feigned interest in Kate’s new roommate. As they talked, the fourth wheel glanced nervously around, especially behind them. Every now and then, one of the girls would try to re-engage him in their discourse, and he would grunt his agreement.
Mercifully, as evening approached and the streetlights automatically activated, they reached Delta Sigma Mu. Focusing on the ivy on the walls of the oldest fraternity on campus, the artist admitted some measure of social intimidation to himself. The only obstacle that greeted the group at the stately oaken door was a pledge’s pointed finger and pointed question.
“Who’s he?” His derision was obvious and unhidden, and made them all uncomfortable. Melissa and Dave did not immediately come to their companion’s aid, so Kate raised herself on her toes and said, “He’s with us. We’re here to see Bryan.” Cowed by the name of a revered brother of the fraternity, the pledge backed away and held the door for them.
The party was in its infancy, but Kate, Melissa, and Dave quickly dispersed and blended in. Since this task was impossible for the artist, he simply drifted from one room to another, looking for someone or something that wasn’t there. To his chagrin, the likes of John Mayer and Jack Johnson echoed through the house. Their collective omnipresence somehow enhanced the sensation that he was desperately hanging onto a small lifeboat in the middle of a deep, dark sea. He searched for a shadowy corner and found that his best chance to escape notice was in a nook behind the bathroom.
Unfortunately, his powers of overhearing were not voluntary. As soon as he secured himself away, Melissa and Kate’s voices invaded his mind, despite the fact that they were probably several rooms away.
“Why do you always have to bring him along?”
“I don’t know; he says some funny things sometimes. Besides, he always disappears after about five minutes anyway.”
Suddenly his train of thought was jarred when a brother turned the corner and blindsided him. Outrage immediately entered the brother’s eyes, and his lip curled in a sneer. He looked the artist up and down. “Who the hell are you?” was followed in moments by the artist being embarrassingly and forcefully removed from the house by a wholly unnecessary security detail.
As he was hurled through the front doorway, all of Delta Sigma Mu’s inhabitants gathered to watch. In his mind’s eye, Kate, Melissa, and Dave gazed as impassively as the rest. His chin connected with the slate front step and he was momentarily shaken. However, a growing sense of warning made him growl and take his feet. Standing on the winding sidewalk leading away from the house was his lifelong enemy.
“Worn out your welcome?”
Their pleasantries were interrupted by Kate’s ever-present curiosity. “Hey, who’s your friend?”
The artist’s rage somehow reached a more visceral level when he realized how taken Kate was with the form Belshazzar had assumed, but he pushed it down for the present. There would be time to process his own personal evil later.
“His name’s Bel— We just call him Bell, ‘cause that’s his last name.” Before Belshazzar could counter the artist’s clumsy surprise with any suave banter, he continued, “We have some things to catch up on. Let’s go, Bell.”
Each entranced with a different aspect of the newly arrived guest’s supernatural artifice, everyone in the house protested the artist’s declaration. However, as Belshazzar looked at them in consideration, a note of warning in the artist’s voice pulled his gaze back to the Outcast’s unexceptional eyes. There he found his answer, and he answered the group without looking at any of them.
“Yes, we must be going, but I hope to meet all of you again.” As the two turned to walk away, Belshazzar risked a final look back into Kate’s grey eyes, not to tease her, but to punish the artist. In moments, they had vanished from sight.
The two selected a nondescript corner several blocks away to continue their reunion. They spent a long moment sizing each other up; neither was who he appeared to be, and neither was certain of the intents of the other. Finally, Belshazzar broke their stalemate.
“Despite your powers, you are inferior to them. Even they can sense that you lack self-respect.”
“That’s just part of the act.”
“No, it’s not. If you really had an ounce of it, long ago you would have assumed a form like this one.” As if to emphasize his point, Belshazzar gestured towards himself with his palms inward. He paraded a victorious sneer that was dangerously reminiscent of the house brother’s.
“I live with realities, instead of hiding behind appearances.”
“You? Hardly. I know of few facades more misleading than your own. Your self-righteousness comes from desperation. With each passing day, I gain and you lose, albeit very gradually. Despite your haughty moral code, I know that you now regret not having destroyed me when it was possible. Even after that, for a time you could have appeased me and shared their souls with me. Soon, I will only allow you to exist so that you can be tormented by the knowledge that I am soul-taking because of your infinite mistake.” Sensing the impact of his words on his opponent, Belshazzar caged his arms protectively over his head, but to no avail.
If anyone had been standing near Eighth Avenue and Maple Road that night, he or she would have seen a short, pale, overweight youth thrust an outstretched, radiant blue hand through his counterpart. He or she would have observed that the taller man displayed first an insatiable grimace, followed by a triumphant howl that was quickly extinguished as he was incinerated. As the awkward youth slung his backpack over his shoulder and ambled slowly toward the pale green lights that led to his dormitory, the observer would have seen the ashes lose their glow as they were swept away in a chortling wind.