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Andy breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he saw the sign announcing “Room and Board,” the first he’d seen after almost three hours of walking the streets surrounding the university. Though the day wasn’t particularly hot or humid, rivulets of sweat ran freely down his face, then along the creases in his neck before disappearing beneath his shirt. His backpack, stuffed with clothing and his laptop, was getting heavier by the minute. He was exhausted, and it showed. Physical exercise wasn’t his strong suit.
The sign was attached to a post on the front porch of a large, well-maintained Victorian-style home located on a quiet street. It was several blocks further from campus than he’d hoped for, but Andy didn’t care. Registration had already begun, and he still didn’t have a place to stay.
The door was opened by a trim, neatly groomed middle-aged man wearing grey slacks and a light blue shirt, open at the collar. After learning that Andy was interested in the room, and had been vaccinated against the worst of the viruses still going around, he ushered him inside.
Smiling warmly, he introduced himself as “Stephen,” and then proposed that Andy say a few words about himself while being shown around the house. If Andy wouldn’t mind, he’d like to know about his family, his friends, where he came from, what his plans were, whether he was on scholarship, and so on.
Though generally socially awkward, and especially so when questioned by an adult, Andy was nevertheless able to relate a fair amount about himself, including the fact that he was from a small town several hours away by bus, and that he would be the first in his family to attend college. As for his plans, all he knew was that he wanted to avoid spending his life in his hometown where the best he could hope for, with only a high school diploma, would be stocking shelves, or possibly clerking in one of the shops.
With a bit of prodding, Stephen also learned that Andy had no real friends, and had been something of a loner in high school. As for his financial situation, he couldn’t count on his family or the university for anything, and would have to rely on his meager savings and whatever he could earn from part-time work. He was only now seeking housing because his mediocre grades had landed him on the university’s wait list, where he had languished until a few days ago. All dorm rooms had long since been taken.
After a few more questions, Stephen was satisfied that Andy was neither a smoker nor a drug user, and was willing to comply with the rule against overnight guests. On this latter point, Andy was momentarily taken aback by Stephen’s question, as though the idea of someone sleeping with him was beyond his wildest dreams.
Stephen told Andy the house was owned by his father, a distinguished Professor of Statistics. Following his mother’s untimely death some years ago, he had returned home to give his busy father a hand. In addition to preparing for his seminars and working long hours on his publications, his father had other professional obligations, including the need to prepare for his numerous speaking engagements, both here and abroad. On top of this, he had to attend to several doctoral students whose dissertations he was supervising. He simply didn’t have time for the demands of everyday life.
It was Stephen’s job – though he didn’t look at it as “work” in the usual sense – to oversee his father’s calendar, make his travel arrangements, handle his routine correspondence, prepare all the meals and manage the household affairs. It was also his job, he added, to find a suitable tenant for their spare room downstairs. “Speaking of which,” he said, “let’s go down and take a look at it.”
Moments later, Andy was standing in a room he could hardly believe might be his. It was much nicer than his room at home. Spacious and carpeted, it was furnished with a full-size bed, a large maple-finished chest of drawers and a modern desk complete with a comfortable looking office chair. There was a bookcase, empty save for a few books that appeared to be texts, and a small sofa accompanied by a reading lamp and coffee table. Several family photos adorned the walls.
Andy knew there was no way he could afford it, but even
so felt compelled to ask. As though anticipating the question, Stephen
help up a hand signaling him to wait, then led him down the hallway
to the bathroom that would be his.
Stephen gave Andy a minute to take it in before leading him to what he referred to as the household laundry room, which Andy would be free to use. The tour now complete, he turned to Andy. “So, what do you think? Will it do?”
Of course it will do, thought Andy, but he couldn’t imagine being able to afford something like this. “It’s great, but… I don’t have…,” he stammered. “I mean….it’s more than ….”
Stephen interrupted by quoting a figure that was but a fraction of the amount the university charged its room and board students. Seeing Andy’s eyes widen in amazement, he added, “We can afford to help out. It’s the least we can do.” Andy was starting to say he’d take it when Stephen again interrupted.
“There’s something I need to tell you before you decide,” he said. Andy held his breath, expecting the worst. Would he have to clean all the toilets? Do everyone’s laundry?
“Here’s what you need to know,” said Stephen. “The meals I prepare will be mainly vegetarian. All of them: breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
After waiting a few moments for Andy to digest what he’d just said, Stephen continued. “When I say vegetarian, I don’t exclude dairy products like milk, or cheese or eggs, and I don’t exclude meat entirely. My father and I do eat meat, but we’re very particular. We think of it as a delicacy, so we have it only from time to time, sometimes in such small quantities that it’s more of a flavoring than anything else. Do you understand?”
Andy nodded. It seemed simple enough. “The point is,” continued Stephen, “you can’t expect any T-bone steaks or hamburgers, anything like that. Are you okay with this?”
Andy nodded again, this time with more conviction. What did he care? He could live without hamburgers. As for T-bone steaks, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten one, if he ever had.
“The vegetables are especially good at this time
of year, by the way,” said Stephen, enthusiastically. “The
fall harvest has only just begun. We’ll have plenty of green beans,
potatoes, carrots, and lots of corn.” He then added with a chuckle,
“They don’t call this the corn belt for nothing do they?”
Andy didn’t hesitate. “I have no problem with vegetables!” he exclaimed. “I love vegetables! I’ll take it!”
“Wonderful!” said Stephen. “We’ll be glad to have you. Why don’t you unpack, go to campus and register for classes if you haven’t already, then return for dinner. How does that sound? Dinner will be at six, by the way. Breakfast will be at seven and lunch will be at noon.”
The next three months went very well for Andy. Thanks to his minimal living expenses, he’d been able to concentrate on his studies without finding a job, and without worrying about where his next meal would come from. He was pretty sure he was passing all his courses.
Adjusting to his new living arrangement had taken a few weeks, but Stephen’s welcoming manner had helped him overcome his fear that he was out of place, that he was intruding. All in all, Andy was feeling good. His acne was even clearing up.
The only negative, if it could be called that, was his
growing midsection. He enjoyed Stephen’s cooking, and as promised,
the servings were generous. More than generous, in fact. Andy’s
weight gain was so pronounced that Stephen had tactfully offered him
several pairs of pants with larger waists, explaining that previous
tenants often left behind perfectly good clothes, including pants that
Andy would find more comfortable than those he was now wearing. How
considerate, thought Andy.
On those few occasions when he encountered the Professor, Andy had been struck by how closely he resembled his son. His features were a bit sharper, his smile was more reserved and his hair was turning a silvery grey, but otherwise, he appeared to be an older version of Stephen. Though he usually seemed too preoccupied to engage in conversation, he always greeted Andy with a smile and a few pleasantries. Andy sensed it was sufficient to respond in kind.
He was glad the Professor didn’t encourage lengthy interactions. Though the Professor was always cordial, Andy couldn’t imagine having a conversation with him. What could he say without making a fool of himself? Besides, Andy was sure the Professor preferred to spend his time thinking about numbers and equations, or whatever it was that statisticians think about.
Stephen, on the other hand, gave Andy several minutes of his time virtually every day. It was commonplace for Stephen to engage Andy in a discussion about his classes. More than once, he’d inquired about his health, and had even asked whether he had any worries or problems he could use some help with.
Andy couldn’t remember the last time anyone had
shown such interest in him. His mother perhaps, long ago, but he couldn’t
remember. For the first time in his life, he thought he knew what it
felt like to have a friend. Two friends, if you count the Professor.
It sounded like a big deal, thought Andy, nodding to show he was listening. This would be the first time they’d have any guests since he’d arrived.
Stephen continued. “My father goes to great lengths to serve his guests a fabulous meal. So far, he’s been successful.” Smiling broadly, he added, “He hits it out of the park, as the saying goes.”
Andy started to say he’ll be sure to be elsewhere
so as not to intrude, but Stephen cut him short.
Andy hadn’t known what to make of this. How could he possibly fit in with a gathering of university faculty? He wouldn’t know what to say or how to act.
“Don’t worry,” Stephen had said. “You won’t be expected to say or do anything. Your presence alone will be sufficient. And besides, I’ll be there too.”
Noticing that Andy’s brow was still furrowed, Stephen
had continued, “Listen Andy, we wouldn’t dream of putting
you through a painful ordeal. That won’t happen, I promise. I’m
bringing it up now only because the Fall Term is coming to an end, and
for all I know you might decide to leave town the day after finals are
over. You won’t do that, will you Andy? It would be a great disappointment
to my father, and to me, if you did.”
Whatever was in store for him, Andy knew one thing for sure. He wasn’t going to disappoint Stephen. Or the Professor, for that matter. They were the best friends he’d ever had.
Fresh out of the shower and dressed for breakfast, Andy sat on the edge of his bed thinking about what he might do with the day. Now that finals were over, it occurred to him that he could indulge himself by going to a movie. Or better yet, he could spend the day in an online game room, something he’d avoided while classes were in session.
He certainly had no interest in taking a bus back to his hometown. Nobody there was dying to see him, and besides, what about the Professor’s dinner party? He said he would attend, and that was that. He intended to keep his promise.
His thoughts were interrupted by a light rapping on his door. He opened it and was met by Stephen, a pleasant smile on his face.
“Before you come up for breakfast,” said Stephen. “I want to show you something I think you’ll find most interesting. Remember the dinner party I mentioned not long ago? The dinner my father will be hosting?”
“Yes,” said Andy. “I was just thinking about it, wondering when it would be.”
“Good,” said Stephen. “That’s
what I want to talk to you about. But first, you’ve probably noticed
that one of the rooms off this hallway is always locked. Am I right?”
“Come,” said Stephen. “I think you’ll be astonished by what’s inside. Stunned actually.” Before Andy could respond, Stephen took him by the elbow and led him down the hall to the locked room. He opened the door and guided Andy inside.
Andy stared in bewilderment at what he saw. Out of the corner of his eye he could see what appeared to be a large chest-type freezer, but what drew and held his attention was a large table directly ahead of him, near the middle of the brightly lit room. He had seen similar tables before, but always behind the meat counter in grocery stores.
Butcher blocks, he thought they were called, but he’d never seen one this long. Near the table was what appeared to be an electric band saw, the kind he’d seen butchers use to cut through bone.
Against the far wall were large stainless steel sinks, and beside them was a stainless steel table on which an array of knives and cleavers had been arranged. The floor throughout was covered with spotless white tile. He noticed a large drain in the middle of the floor.
Just as Andy was opening his mouth to ask what all of
this was for, he heard the sharp crackling of a high voltage electric
current crossing a gap between two electrodes, followed by a searing
pain directly beneath his left ear. He tried to twist away from the
source of the pain, but almost immediately his arms and legs began flailing
about, no longer under his control.
Lying flat on his back, he saw the Professor standing over him holding what appeared to be a soft plastic facemask with a tube leading to a small cylinder. The words “nitrous oxide” were printed on the cylinder, but before Andy could make sense of them, the facemask was placed firmly over his nose and mouth. An instant later, he heard a voice that he recognized as the Professor’s. “Just breathe, my young friend, breathe deeply,” he said. “You’ll feel better, I promise. Just breathe.”
Andy complied, and as promised the intense pain beneath his ear began to recede. In its place, he now felt a wave of euphoria, even giddiness, and heard himself begin to giggle. He could feel someone removing his shoes, then firmly tugging at his pants. A moment later he sensed that his shirt was being cut off and removed. He felt his shoulders being lifted to make removal easier.
As he continued to breathe deeply, his giddiness soon gave way to a gradual, peaceful slide into an ever-deepening sleep. Forcing his eyes to stay open a moment longer, he saw Stephen standing over him with a knife, its long blade gleaming in the bright overhead light. He spoke softly, in his usual reassuring manner. “Don’t worry, Andy. You won’t feel a thing.”
Before drifting off entirely, he saw the Professor looking
down over him, a cold smile on his face. Through the gathering fog that
had once been his conscious mind, Andy thought he heard him say, “He
fattened up quite nicely, didn’t he?”
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