FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: The first glimpse of young love.
Just after dawn, it’s a paradise. He’s spent the mornings of the last six days running down campus avenues of fallen leaves that crackle under his feet. His only company has been the birds. It feels on those mornings like he is the only man on earth, like the whole world is his. It’s not a bad feeling for a city boy like him, even though he knows it’s only an illusion. When the daylight is stronger, and the paths between buildings become packed with students, he’s robbed of any sense of the otherworldly knowledge he can imagine he has on his runs. It’s only been six days, but now he knows that there’s been a mistake. He doesn’t understand anything. He’s not supposed to be there.
The realisation is almost a relief. He doesn’t need to try anymore. He doesn’t have to stay up all night reading books by candlelight, struggling to attain the impossible. He can go back to Los Angeles and sell his soul for a life of honest work. Perhaps his father would even forgive him for those angry, accusatory parting words. The thought makes him smile, trudging through the leaves, cold hands in his pockets. He’d do anything to avoid going back there. He’s had five years already to fail to live up to his father’s expectations. He can’t imagine a lifetime of the same.
But he doesn’t know what else he can do. It’s almost seven, and he hasn’t slept in two days, his fingers stained from frustrated scribbles in notebooks, his brain tired more than his body. He just doesn’t understand. A whole night, spent in the search of a solution to a niggling problem, poring through textbooks, demanding an answer from himself. He has no answers, except for the one he had anticipated: he’s no genius, after all. In comparison to these well-educated and better-dressed rich boys, he has no hopes of success. What is he, after all? He’s not only the uncouth son of a mechanic. He is a mechanic. The others even laugh at the way he talks. He’s kept his mouth shut, and kept to himself, but it still won’t work. By tonight he’ll be gone.
He expects that he’ll have to wait, finding no evidence of life in the building, and no answer at the door he selects. Maybe it’ll be one hour, maybe two, but he has nowhere else to go. Ashton sits down beside the door, back to the wall, and tries to keep his eyes open.
“Are you waiting for me?”
The voice sounds faintly amused, and it takes Ashton a moment to remember where he is. Not in bed, after all, but sitting on the floor, his head against the wooden frame of a bulletin board. Suddenly, his entire body seems to ache. Looking down at him, unlocking the door to his office, is a vaguely familiar man: Professor Baer, an Austrian (or possibly Swiss) academic, whose lectures had been fascinating and baffling in almost equal amounts.
Ashton scrambles to his feet, rubbing sore muscles in his neck. “Um, I had a question…”
Baer smiles, and pushes open the door. “Be my guest. It’s rather unusual to find such an… eager student.”
The room is small, and seems to have been decorated mainly with books. There’s a desk somewhere under the piles of paperbacks and journals, and a faded painting on the wall showing distant fields. On the one wall free from bookshelves are various plaques, showing certificates and awards. A single photograph shows a formal family portrait: a slightly younger Baer, his pretty blonde wife, and a baby in her arms. Nothing remarkable, nothing strange. Ashton is almost disappointed. From what his father had told him, university was a place of subversion and political intrigue. So far he’s found nothing but his own ineptitude.
Baer scoops up an armful of journals, revealing a chair. “Sit down, sit down. Please excuse the… Oh,” he says, glancing at one of the titles, “that’s where that went.”
Ashton sits, quietly glad for Baer’s chaotic office. It makes him, in his cheap and worn trousers and shirt, look a little less out of place than usual. Baer himself is neat and tidy in a good suit, with his straight brown hair cut into an almost military style. His appearance is so out of line with his office that Ashton wonders what kind of battle his wife must have to send him out looking presentable each morning. Only his glasses, rimmed with dust, suggest his profession.
“So,” Baer says, leaning back against the windowsill, crossing thick arms over his chest. “How can I help you?”
His words are marked by his German accent, but pronounced with the precision of a non-native speaker. Ashton is more thankful for the smile on his face. Hopefully they can understand one another. “Your lecture yesterday…”
“Did you like it?” Baer interrupts.
“Yes, very much. But I didn’t understand it.”
Ashton passes his notebook, containing all his painstaking reasoning and notes, to the professor. “This made no sense to me. I tried… I thought perhaps I copied it down incorrectly, and I tried substituting other variables, but nothing worked. I know it has to be simple, and I know you must think I’m stupid, but I had to find out before I left.”
Baer, who had been staring intently at the notebook, looks up. “Left? Where are you going?”
He has no answer to that question either. “I don’t belong here.”
Baer nods, glances at the notebook for a second time. “I didn’t think you were one of my students. You may have noticed that they all fit a particular profile. What have you been doing, sneaking in?”
“I… I know I have to pay, sir, but I can’t, and I…” He stops. He’d rather leave the office without an answer than have to explain why he has to steal into classes, why he has oil underneath his fingernails. He’s embarrassed not to be the kind of student Baer expects.
Baer shuts the book and looks at him. “Listen to me. You’re not stupid. You’re not wrong. And you’re not leaving. Here,” he says, handing back the book. “Tell me the answer.”
“I…” Surprised, Ashton looks through his notes again, trying in vain to see what Baer might find so obvious. “None of it makes sense,” he says finally, giving up.
“Mm.” Baer raises his eyebrows. “An intriguing problem. Where are you from, son?”
“What did you study in Los Angeles?” When Ashton hesitates, Baer points out one of the polished wooden plaques on the wall. “I have a doctorate from Harvard. Another one from a university you’ve never heard of in Germany. I know more about this subject than you will ever know.”
It’s obvious. He’s so far out of his depth that he’s drowning. He’s embarrassing himself by being here, by asking such an esteemed academic questions when he can’t even get a job that doesn’t involve oil and grease. Ashton looks away, down at his frayed shoelaces. “I don’t understand, sir. I’m sorry.”
But still, Baer’s tone isn’t angry, or accusatory. “It’s very simple. No matter how long either of us stares at your notes, it will never make sense. And you said yourself that you couldn’t have made a simple transcription error. So…?”
He knows the answer, now, even though he’s not sure if he’s supposed to admit it. Fortunately, years of living with his father has taught him never to be afraid of anyone else, particularly when he knows he’s right. “So you made a mistake,” Ashton says, and immediately corrects himself. “No, an intentional mistake. You lectured about nonsense. But why?”
Baer shrugs, and pats his pockets in search of cigarettes. He finds a pen instead, and takes Ashton’s notebook from his hands again, turning to a fresh page and beginning to write. “Do you like games? This is the first week of the semester. Everyone is tired and weary from all the fun they had during the summer. No one is really paying attention. After all, nothing important is taught during the first week.” He passes the book back to Ashton. “Except this.”
Even in Baer’s overly elaborate handwriting, it makes sense. Ashton frowns. “But why teach everyone the wrong thing?”
“Ah. I’ll let them in on it on Monday, when they’re awake.” Baer grins, and finds his cigarettes this time. “Smoke?”
Baer lights both cigarettes. “Does the eager student have a name?”
“Oh.” Ashton takes the cigarette out of his mouth, ashamed at his lack of manners. “Ashton. Jerry Ashton.”
“Ashton... A good English name.” Baer, unsuccessful in his attempts to find another chair, pushes some books back on his desk and hops up to sit on the edge. “We will have to call a truce. Our countries have been on rather unfortunate terms lately.”
“You could say that.”
Baer smiles. “How’s your German?”
“Uh, all right.” He can read it. At least, he thinks he can read it. It’s not as if anyone has ever tested him. “Why?” Hopefully Baer isn’t going to try to convert him to some kind of anti-American European conspiracy.
“I have something of a proposition for you.” Baer cocks his head to the side, as if considering something. “Perhaps we should continue this elsewhere. When was the last time you ate?”
He can’t remember, and Baer doesn’t wait for an answer before jumping to his feet and taking him by the arm. “I have to give a lecture in an hour, but we need to talk, and you need to eat something.”
There doesn’t seem to be any way to object, and Ashton finds himself being taken to the building’s canteen, filled with students grabbing a late breakfast before their first classes of the day. He sees a few of them glance in his direction, wondering why a professor is taking care of such a ragged example of humanity. Ashton glares back at them while Baer is paying for coffee. He may be a peasant, but he’s a six foot four peasant who has infiltrated their most hallowed of institutions. They might as well be afraid.
“Here,” Baer says, pushing a steaming cup of coffee and some kind of pastry across the table. “I can’t guarantee it won’t kill you, but I’m fairly sure it won’t kill you today, at least.”
Ashton prods the pastry with a finger. The way Baer looks at him makes him feel uncomfortable. No one has been this pleased to be in his company for years, not unless they felt like they had a reasonable opportunity to screw him over in some way. But Baer could simply throw him out of the course, and make sure he was never allowed back onto the campus. Baer knows he’s a fraud, an intruder. And yet they’re sitting having coffee together.
“Why are you here, Ashton?” Baer asks, thoughtfully sipping his coffee. “What made you leave LA?”
He can’t articulate a response. Any reason he can think of suddenly seems childish: either running towards a fantasy, or away from home. He stubs out his cigarette and hopes for some clever answer to enter his head. “You said you had a… proposition?”
“Ah, yes. You were wondering why I played this little game. It’s something of a selection procedure.”
Baer reaches out and takes hold of Ashton’s fingers, turning them up to the light. “You work as, what, a mechanic? You need money?”
“I’m not rich.” Ashton roughly snatches back his hand. The faint touch has made him uneasy. “If I could I’d pay the damn fees.”
“Maybe I can help you with that,” Baer says matter-of-factly, although his eyes betray a vague concern at the younger man’s reaction. “I need a research assistant this year. Someone very intelligent, very willing to work, and someone who can tell me when I’m talking crap.” He smiles. “That would be you, Mr. Ashton.”
Ashton stares at him for a moment before he realises that he’s expected to say something. “But… but I don’t know anything.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself.” Baer checks his watch and sighs. “I have to go. Duty calls. Perhaps you’re free this evening? My wife and I would be happy to have you to dinner.”
“Um.” Ashton struggles to find the appropriate response. He has never been invited anywhere for dinner in his entire life. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
Baer pushes his chair back and stands up, patting Ashton’s shoulder. “On the contrary. Maria prefers it when my students visit. It stops me from boring her with all the minutiae of my job. Stop by my office around six, and don’t worry about dressing up.”
As if he could. The best he can do is what he’s already wearing.
“And bring that notebook,” Baer adds. “I like that bridge of yours.”
He runs all the way home, shoes crunching down on autumn leaves. He’s late for work, tired, and hungry. The pastry is in his pocket, to be saved for a break between sweeping floors and repairing gearboxes. At least he has the promise of something better: an evening with people who are more sophisticated than his father, who can teach him something. That temptation is enough to get him through months of days like this. Maybe he’ll find his paradise after all.
He has one suitcase when he leaves the airport. All he owns in his life, everything he had in his room at home, has somehow been condensed into one suitcase, a backpack, and his skateboard. A cheque in his wallet is his father’s contribution to the greatest adventure of his life. His mother might have preferred that he take more, that he pack as many cases and boxes into the plane as possible, but Whitney suspects that however little he takes will still somehow be enough. After all, he’s survived for the last five years on little more than jeans, t-shirts, and his Walkman. His surfboard has, reluctantly, been left in his mother’s garage, probably to gather mould and scratches in his absence, but he doubts that there are many watersports in Boston.
At least, when he gets to his destination, he can carry all his belongings himself. He passes tens of other students, even though it is early in the morning, grappling with carloads of suitcases, guitars, and god knows what else. At least it’s a sunny day for the experience. Whitney checks his campus map, finds the correct building, and waits in line.
“Hi,” the girl in charge of administration beams at him brightly. “Wow, you’re tall.”
Whitney grins. “Yeah. Um, I’m Jason Whitney.”
“Whitney… Whitney…” She runs a finger down her list, and unhooks a key from a giant board. “Room 3-01. Take a right here, then straight, then the first set of stairs, up one flight, and, well, you’ll find it eventually.”
“Uh, great.” He takes the key and lifts up his case from the floor again. “Thanks.”
The room, when he finds it, past armies of other students crowding the corridors, is empty of any people or personal belongings. However, there are two beds, suggesting that at some point he might encounter a roommate. Whitney considers which bed to appropriate, before dumping his case on the one next to the window. He needs his daily quota of sunshine.
There isn’t much unpacking to do – just clothes he throws into one of the two dressers, some books he lines up on top, and a couple of creased basketball posters he sets about tacking to his half of the wall. Hopefully the roommate will be at least reasonably sane. It would be nice, for once, if he were the crazy one. He’s heard so many horror stories from his friends back in LA, and from his mother, that he’ll be thankful if whoever turns up at least marginally resembles a human being.
With nothing much else to do, Whitney lies down on his bed and flips through the various papers he has, telling him what he’s supposed to do for the next week. He thinks he can deal with it: signing his name in ten different locations, just to make sure that the entire university knows he really did turn up for class. Meeting new people could be a little more of a problem. Maybe he should just find a computer lab and a basketball court, and spend the rest of his time hiding out in his room. He’ll probably have enough work to make socialising all but impossible anyway.
Then again… There has been one possibility nagging at him, now that he’s away from home and away from his parents for the first time. In a place this big, filled with people his age, he knows there must be at least a chance that…
His thoughts are cut off by the door being pushed open, and a pile of bags collapsing into the room. “Sorry, sorry!” the pile of bags says, picking itself up from the floor.
Whitney jumps up to help, and finds a teenage boy standing there, various backpacks and bags strapped to his body. “Hey, you need a hand?”
“Um, well…” The boy adjusts his glasses with one hand, as he attempts to divest himself of some of his baggage. “This is 3-01 right?”
“Yeah.” Whitney takes some of the bags from him, revealing a wiry, black-clad, and rather pale young man, topped off with a mop of dandruff-infested black hair. “You’re my roommate, huh?”
“Guess so.” The newcomer holds out his hand. “Tom Docherty.”
“Phew,” Tom says, sinking down on the free bed. “I got lost so many times… Thought I’d end up walking back home.” He looks up at Whitney, scratching his head, and frowns. “Hey… weren’t you on the flight from LA this morning?”
“Yeah, yeah I was.”
“Cool.” Tom gets back to his feet and starts to look through his bags. “Thought there couldn’t be two freakily tall blond guys following me around. I’m from Palo Alto. My sister’s here too, somewhere… What’s your major?”
Relieved that Tom seems to be happy to do most of the talking, Whitney pushes the door closed, shutting out some of the din from down the corridor, where a girl is having a screaming match with her mother. “Um, electrical engineering. Computer science.”
Tom nods, triumphantly raising his toothbrush aloft. “Guess they put us together on purpose then. Charlotte’s probably pissed off. If they put her with some English Lit airhead there might be an explosion.”
“That’s your sister?”
“Yeah, she’s a little, uh, driven, you know?” Tom looks around. “So, any idea what the hell we do now?”
Whitney glances at Tom’s mountain of bags, still strewn over the floor. “There’s some orientation meeting tonight. I don’t know what we do till then.”
“Okay, come on,” Tom says decisively, kicking some of the bags underneath his bed. “Let’s go check out the labs.”
“Right now?” Whitney had planned to let the chaos outside die down a little before venturing out.
Tom plants a palm in his back, pushing him towards the door. “Course right now. Can’t let these east coast maniacs get the jump on us.”
Whitney takes his skateboard, although making any progress along the campus paths is difficult, since they’re blocked at every turn by people, boxes, suitcases, and cars that seem to have been parked on every reasonably flat surface. Tom, hurrying along beside him, seems faintly uncomfortable in the sunshine. “Allergies,” he explains, mopping at his nose with a handful of tissues. “So, Jason…”
“Whitney,” Tom corrects. “You got family out here? Girlfriend?”
It occurs to him that he could say anything, be anyone. No one has even the faintest idea who he is. He could have some stunning girlfriend back in LA. He could even… The memory of that other summer day, more than two years ago, makes him wonder what it might have been like. That other, mysterious, smiling boy who had kissed him… Where was he now? He could be here, weighed down by suitcases like the rest of them, and Whitney wouldn’t recognise him. But he could pretend, make up a story, act as if he’s not afraid to be who he is anymore. After all, at night he imagines the way it could have been: two tanned, lithe bodies intertwined in the shade of those trees. It’s a fantasy that’s sustained him for two years. If only it were real.
He glances at Tom, wondering how his new friend might react to such a story, and elects to tell the truth. “No, my Mom’s in LA. My Dad’s in England.”
“Oh yeah? Tough shit, man.” Tom takes out his map from the back pocket of his pants. “Okay, I think we’re going someplace over, uh, there?” He points towards the left fork of the path they are on, and sets off in that direction. Whitney hops off his skateboard, electing to carry it instead, and follows.
“So, yeah…” Tom frowns. “Look, Whitney, I’m gay. Thought I’d better mention it in case you want a different roommate. I mean… Don’t worry. You’re cute and all, but you’re really not my type.”
Whitney blinks. “Uh. No. I, uh, I don’t have a problem…” Should he just tell Tom, now, get it in the open? But Tom is looking at him anxiously, and he’s too nervous to say anything coherent. “Um, you’re not going to be screwing guys while I’m there, are you?” He’s not really sure whether a positive answer would worry him or not.
“Look, man,” Tom says, laughing, “I haven’t had a date in, like, forever, so I wouldn’t worry about it. And if you get lucky, we’ll figure something out. Guess I can always sleep in the kitchen. Or, you know, the computer labs.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling.” Whitney spots a sign for the labs. “Hey, have you read any of Hannon Fuller’s stuff?”
“Are you kidding me?” Tom asks, pushing open the door to the building. “His ideas are amazing. I’d love to just get a glimpse inside Fullercorp. You know, ten minutes on their mainframe would be worth a million dollars. If I had a million dollars.” The labs are behind the next door, and Tom pauses before going in. “Hey, thanks for being so cool about this, man.”
“No problem,” Whitney says, wishing he really could be cool about it. If he were, then maybe he might have a chance of getting a date.
Inside the labs, filled with the grating hum of computers at work, Tom lets loose an exasperated groan. “How the fuck did you get here so fast?”
Whitney looks past him, to find a young woman sticking out her tongue at them both. “I work quickly,” she says. “And my roommate’s some ditzy art history major, of all things. I had to escape.”
He can tell it’s Tom’s sister: they have the same starkly black hair and skin that looks as if it would burn under a Californian sun. But she seems to have bagged all the genes that deal with beauty and elegance. Sparkling blue eyes gaze at him, but it takes an elbow in the ribs from Tom to make him speak. “Um, I’m Whitney,” he stammers. “Hi.”
“Whit’s from LA,” Tom explains. “He was on our flight.”
Charlotte smiles at him. “I remember you. You seemed so shy.”
“Um.” Well, he’s certainly not doing much to disprove that idea. “I kind of am, I guess.” He’s somehow managed to meet two nice people, and he can’t think of anything to say that won’t make him sound like an idiot.
“Tom, did you call home yet?” Charlotte asks. “Mom’s probably calling round all the emergency rooms in the city as we speak.”
A sudden look of horror comes over her brother’s face. “Crap. I thought you were going to do that. Any idea where there’s a payphone?”
“I think there was one where we came in,” Whitney says, pointing to the door.
Tom pulls a handful of quarters from his pocket. “Thanks, man.”
When he leaves, the door swinging shut behind him, Whitney takes a deep breath and tries to smile. “So, uh, what do you think of the systems?” He grabs a chair and pulls it up to sit next to her at the terminal.
“It’s not the systems,” Charlotte replies. “It’s what you do with them.” She turns to him, and looks him in the eyes, as if contemplating something. “What do you want to do with them, Whitney?”
It’s the one thing he does know the answer to, the one answer that won’t make him nervous. “I’m going to make a new world,” he says, and he believes it. In this place, buzzing with electricity, surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds on the planet, it seems as if he only has to reach out his fingertips to touch another universe.
For the moment, though, it’s her fingers that he finds. She takes his hand, lightly touching his skin. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
As he starts to describe his ideas, to type it out on the computer screen, and scribble diagrams in chalk on the blackboards, it feels for the first time like something more than a dream. It might be an illusion, brought on by the sudden experience of freedom, the warmth of the day, or the relief to be in the company of friends, but it feels real. When she looks at him, it’s as if he’s the only man on earth. He’d build an Eden for her.
Maybe one day he will.
Wee Damn Table