Strange thing, time. It weighs most on those who have it least. Nothing is lighter than being young with the world on your shoulders; it gives you a feeling of possibility so seductive, you know there must be something more important you could be doing than studying for exams.
I can see myself now, the night it all began. I'm lying back on the old red sofa in our dorm room, wrestling with Pavlov and his dogs in my introductory psychology book, wondering why I never fulfilled my science requirement as a freshman like everyone else. A pair of letters sits on the coffee table in front of me, each containing a vision of what I could be doing next year. The night of Good Friday has fallen, cold April in Princeton, New Jersey, and with only a month of college left I'm no different from anyone else in the class of 1999: I'm having trouble getting my mind off the future.
Charlie is sitting on the floor by the cube refrigerator, playing with the Magnetic Shakespeare someone left in our room last week. The Fitzgerald novel he's supposed to be reading for his final paper in English 151w is spread open on the floor with its spine broken, like a butterfly somebody stepped on, and he's forming and re-forming sentences from magnets with Shakespearean words on them. If you ask him why he's not reading Fitzgerald, he'll grunt and say there's no point. As far as he's concerned, literature is just an educated man's shell game, three-card monte for the college crowd: what you see is never what you get. For a science-minded guy like Charlie, that's the height of perversity. He's headed for medical school in the fall, but the rest of us are still hearing about the C-plus he found on his English midterm in March.
Gil glances over at us and smiles. He's been pretending to study for an economics exam, but Breakfast at Tiffany's is on, and Gil has a thing for old films, especially ones with Audrey Hepburn. His advice to Charlie was simple: if you don't want to read the book, then rent the movie. They'll never know. He's probably right, but Charlie sees something dishonest in that, and anyway it would prevent him from complaining about what a scam literature is, so instead of Daisy Buchanan we're watching Holly Golightly yet again.
I reach down and rearrange some of Charlie's words until the sentence at the top of the fridge says to fail or not to fail: that is the question. Charlie raises his head to give me a disapproving look. Sitting down, he's almost as tall as I am on the couch. When we stand next to each other he looks like Othello on steroids, a two-hundred-and-fifteen-pound black man who scrapes the ceilings at six-and-a-half feet. By contrast I'm five-foot-seven in shoes. Charlie likes to call us Red Giant and White Dwarf, because a red giant is a star that's unusually large and bright, while a white dwarf is small and dense and dull. I have to remind him that Napoleon was only five-foot-two, even if Paul is right that when you convert French feet to English, the emperor was actually taller.
Paul is the only one of us who isn't in the room now. He disappeared earlier in the day, and hasn't been seen since. Things between him and me have been rocky for the past month, and with all the academic pressure on him lately, he's chosen to do most of his studying at Ivy, the eating club where he and Gil are members. It's his senior thesis he's working on, the paper all Princeton undergrads must write in order to graduate. Charlie, Gil, and I would be doing the same ourselves, except that our departmental deadlines have already come and gone. Charlie identified a new protein interaction in certain neuronal signaling pathways; Gil managed something on the ramifications of a flat tax. I pasted mine together at the last minute between applications and interviews, and I'm sure Frankenstein scholarship will forever be the same.
Excerpted from The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason Copyright© 2004 by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Excerpted by permission of Dial Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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