The overweight St Brigids girl in the booth turns pale and whispers something in the ear of her companion. Skippy blinks up at Ruprecht imploringly. Clearing his throat, adjusting his glasses, Ruprecht examines the message crystallizing on the tiles.
Tell Lori? he says.
Skippy rolls his eyes and croaks.
Tell her what?
I dont know! Ruprecht gabbles, I dont know, Im sorry! He bends down to squint again at the mysterious pink letters.
Tell her he loves her! the overweight or possibly even pregnant girl in the St Brigids uniform exclaims. Tell Lori he loves her! Oh my God!
Tell Lori you love her? Ruprecht repeats dubiously. Is that it? Skippy exhales he smiles. Then he lies back on the tiles; and Ruprecht sees quite clearly the rise and fall of his breast gently come to a stop.
Hey! Ruprecht grabs him and shakes him by the shoulders.
Hey, what are you doing?
Skippy does not reply.
For a moment there is a cold, stark silence; then, almost as if from a united desire to fill it, the diner explodes in a clamour. Air! is the consensus. Give him air! The door is thrown open and the cold November night rushes greedily in. Ruprecht finds himself standing, looking down at his friend. Breathe! he shouts at him, gesticulating meaninglessly like an angry teacher. Why wont you breathe? But Skippy just lies there with a reposeful look on his face, placid as can be.
Around them the air jostles with shouts and suggestions, things people remember from hospital shows on TV. Ruprecht cant take this. He pushes through the bodies and out the door down to the roadside. Biting his thumb, he watches the traffic fleet by in dark, impersonal blurs, refusing to disclose an ambulance.
When he goes back inside, Zhang Xielin is kneeling, cradling Skippys head on his lap. Doughnuts scatter the ground like little candied wreaths. In the silence, people peek at Ruprecht with moist, pitying eyes. Ruprecht glares back at them murderously. He is fizzing, he is quaking, he is incandescent with rage. He feels like stomping back to his room and leaving Skippy where he is. He feels like screaming out, What? What? What? What? He goes back outside to look into the traffic, he is crying, and in that moment he feels all the hundreds and thousands of facts in his head turn to sludge.
Through the laurel trees, in an upper corner of Seabrook Tower, you can just make out the window of their dorm, where not half an hour ago Skippy challenged Ruprecht to the race. Above the lot, the great pink hoop of the Eds Doughnut House sign broadcasts its frigid synthetic light into the night, a neon zero that outshines the moon and all the constellations of infinite space beyond it. Ruprecht is not looking in that direction. The universe at this moment appears to him as something horrific, thin and threadbare and empty; it seems to know this, and in shame to turn away.
Excerpted from Skipp Dies: A Novel by Paul Murray, published August 2010 by Faber and Faber, Inc., and affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by Paul Murray. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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