by H. Bentham
This year’s Fictory is in partnership with BRUMULTIVERSE, a fictional multiple universe with dimensions, realms and parallel realities where amazing stories happen. All fics use the prompt: “The Main Character wakes up on the first day of school, late for their classes in a university to which they don’t remember enrolling.”
The sun was high and the air smelled wonderful. Karl knew something wasn’t right, what with the gauzy, almost gossamer quality of his vision, but he didn’t mind. He felt like floating, like all the burden he’d been lugging around in his chest had been lifted and had been replaced with helium. He thought about flying.
What tethered him to the ground though was a Narra tree. This tree was familiar, and the more he looked at it, the more he felt a nostalgic longing coming from it. Yellow flowers covered the canopy and Karl couldn’t look away. It was so beautiful.
The tree beckoned to be touched and Karl wanted to run to it and wrap his arms around its huge trunk. But he was stuck in place. It was so near yet so impossibly out of his reach.
“Not yet,” The tree seemed to tell Karl. “We’ll meet soon, but not yet.”
He accepted this from the tree. He couldn’t wait, but Karl had to be patient. He knew he didn’t have to wait too long.
* * *
Karl stirred and woke from the most pleasant sleep he had gotten in a while. He smiled even before his eyelids opened, and he stretched his arms and feet as far as they would go. When he came to, he slowly took in the rich brown of the ceiling, the soft but firm mattress supporting his back, and the overall feeling of being fully rested.
He still hadn’t shaken the hazy veil of dreaming about a Narra tree when a knock sliced through the tranquility and a boy slipped through an open door.
“Karl Sarmiento?” It was a question, but it sounded like an order.
At this, Karl became more awake and aware of his surroundings. He propped his elbows against the mattress and took a good look around. Cream walls, carpeted floor, and dark wood furniture. Posh, he thought.
“Are you Karl?” the boy said again. Karl turned to face the other person. He was wearing some sort of school uniform, with a purple tie tucked under a dark vest. He was scowling and the unwavering glare he gave Karl was disarming.
“Y-yes,” Karl said, his voice so soft from deep sleep.
The boy squinted. It looked like he was about to say something else when a tiny, incessant beeping came from his wrist watch. He pressed a button to stop it. “Well, I’ve been waiting for fifteen minutes now, and sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep, but we really have to get going. We don’t want to be late on the first day.”
Karl, still confused, stared at the unnamed boy whose eyes connected with his again.
“Karl!” The boy clapped his hands so loud Karl jerked up to a sitting position. “We have to get going!” At that, he turned on his heel and walked out.
When Karl stood up, he realized he was wearing the exact same thing the boy had been wearing, same tie and same vest. He ran his hand through the soft material. “What in the—”
“Let’s go!” called the boy from outside, the frustration apparent in his tone.
Taking tentative steps, Karl moved out of the threshold and closed the door behind him. The boy stood right outside, arms crossed. Around them was a wide hallway that had a similar, homey design as the room he just vacated. When the boy leaned in, looking like he was about to grab Karl by the neck, Karl tried to step back but his elbow hit the door. “Wait—”
“Stop fussing, we’ll be so late for the orientation!” Karl froze as the boy reached out to his shoulder and fixed a collar. He was just fixing the uniform.
“Orientation?” Karl squeaked. “What orienta—”
RRRRIIIINNGG! The loud school bell sounded out of place in such a fancy hall.
“Ugh, now we’re late!” The boy glared at him again, turned, and then he sprinted. Still confused, Karl couldn’t think of anything else to do but run after him.
What in the world is happening?
“Welcome back! SY 2021-2022”
Karl looked up at the banners and streamers all over the halls. They hightailed through huge glass doors, and glancing back Karl saw a name etched onto the entablature.
It didn’t ring any bells.
“Come on!” the boy urged. He was already a few meters ahead. “It looks like we’re not the only ones running late. They’ll have to keep the doors open a little longer.”
The impatience in the boy’s tone was no longer there, Karl thought, and though running was Karl’s least favorite activity, he couldn’t help but follow the only person who might give him an explanation.
When they got in the auditorium, the interior was alive with noise and chatter. People, mostly teens in matching uniforms, filled a theater-styled space that looked modern and brand-new. Nothing like its exterior that looked like it wasn’t built within the last half-century.
“This way!” The boy had to shout. His voice was like a beacon that focused Karl’s attention only to him. “I spotted empty seats over there!”
The boy led the way as they wove themselves through the throng of excited teens. When they got seated, Karl held a hand over his chest.
“You okay?” the boy asked, still projecting his voice over the ruckus. The concern in it made Karl half-expect a hand to land on his back at this question but the boy diligently kept his hands to himself.
“Yeah—I just—I wasn’t prepared to run,” he said between heaves. His chest and lungs were on fire.
Karl took one more breath, “I said—”
A booming voice filled the whole auditorium and shushed everyone. It was instantaneous and Karl’s ears almost hurt with the sudden silence. Both he and the boy turned to the stage as a man walked into a bright spotlight.
“Welcome to your first day at Berkeley-Reagan University!”
It was a welcoming speech and Karl heard every word but he couldn’t make himself listen.
“What am I doing here?” He asked when it seemed like he could breathe again.
The boy turned to him and gave him a look, “All new students are required to attend the orientation.”
“No I mean, how did I get here? Is this a dream?”
The boy looked puzzled. The intensity in his dark eyes made Karl want to look away but he held it. He was so confused and needed answers right away. The boy shifted so he faced Karl a little more. Heaving a deep sigh, he said, “Look, I know how stressful the first day is. But you’re gonna be fine. BRU is amazing, and I’ll help you adjust to this new school.”
The boy’s genuine concern made Karl even more confused. He was about to repeat himself and tell the boy about what he really meant when the man on stage finished and everyone burst into applause. The boy turned away.
“Shh, now they’re gonna present the university’s short history. This is my favorite part, listen.”
Karl wanted to hold this boy’s shoulders and shake the bejesus out of him. Heck, Karl wanted to be shaken out of this bizarre situation himself, but there was something inside him that felt secure in this place, in this whole scenario.
He couldn’t remember how or why he was here at all, which made it clear that this was only a dream. He had the urge to pinch his cheek, but he didn’t do it. Somehow, he acknowledged a weird sense of calm and chill about all this. He hadn’t felt this way in forever, and he admitted to himself that he wanted to feel this way a little bit longer.
After the orientation, everyone was free to go around and get acquainted with the campus. “I’m gonna be your tour guide,” the boy explained cheerfully. Gone was the slightly grumpy person Karl met this morning. Something about the historical presentation transformed the boy into this friendly and chatty guy.
His tone and voice had a certain softness to it. The more the boy talked, the more Karl noticed, and he was liking the sound of it.
Unprompted, the boy also told Karl that classes were to start tomorrow and the only thing they were required to attend today was a mandatory dinner in the evening. “It’s a welcome dinner,” he said, as if the orientation wasn’t big enough of a welcome.
“We should get you some food,” the boy remarked as the two of them exited the auditorium. “I know you haven’t eaten yet.”
Karl could only manage a “Thanks.” He wanted to ask his questions as soon as they got out of there, but the comment got to him. He really was hungry, yes, but he was thrown off because he couldn’t recall the last time anyone had been concerned about him. It was surprisingly nice.
The boy—still unnamed because Karl hadn’t gotten to ask for his name yet— talked about the buildings they were passing by. The excitement in him was contagious and as he told Karl more about the school and being part of the student body, Karl started feeling nice about being in it too. The boy continued his unofficial guided tour as they were walking towards what he mentioned was called the Mess Hall.
“The Mess Hall is probably one of my favorite places here. It’s just the cafeteria that’s why it was only mentioned in passing earlier, but it’s really nice.” He chatted away, “I used to sometimes forget to eat when studying, but since the Mess Hall is so pleasant to be in, it’s a highlight of my day.”
The boy turned and when their eyes connected, Karl realized he was staring at his companion instead of the buildings he was being introduced to. He turned away and tried to focus more on where they were going. “Sounds nice,” he said, after a short but awkward pause.
“Sorry, TMI,” the boy seemed embarrassed, “I’ve been told I can get carried away sometimes.”
“No, it’s fine.” Karl replied and another moment of awkwardness stretched between them.
“Um, how about we talk about you? Are you excited to be here in BRU?”
“I—” Karl stammered, unprepared for the sudden shift in the conversation. “I actually don’t know a lot about BRU.” Internally, he debated whether to start asking his questions now or if he should wait a little. The low rumbling in his stomach told him to wait.
Karl couldn’t just let the conversation die down, however, not when his guide had been so pleasant and accommodating so far this morning. He asked something else instead, “I do want to know why you haven’t told me your name yet.”
“Oh,” the boy smacked his forehead. “So sorry! I was in such a rush this morning I completely forgot to properly introduce myself.” He held out a hand and said with a dazzling smile, “Daniel Diaz. You can call me Double D.”
Karl took his hand and shook it. “Double D?”
“Yup. My initials.” Daniel, or Double D, explained. Before Karl could ask, Double D shrugged. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you next time.”
Something tugged in Karl’s insides at the prospect of a ‘next time.’ “Okay.”
As Double D went on with the tour, Karl lost himself in the stories and histories of the institution. He loved the visual balance of neoclassical architecture, its imposing strength and stability, against the tenderness of greenery and spaces that opened to the bright, blue sky. It gave him a sense of internal balance too.
He briefly remembered his questions about how he got here and maybe telling Double D about all the things he’s forgetting, but they finally arrived at the Mess Hall.
“We’re here!” Double D announced as he opened doors that led to what was probably the fanciest cafeteria Karl has ever seen.
Karl took a huge mouthful and savored the awesome flavors rolling around in his mouth. He recognized some of it—honey mustard, chopped onions—but he drew blanks on some distinct flavors.
“Mmm-hmm,” he groaned. “Thish-ish-so-foof!”
Double D cocked his head to one side and smiled. “Glad you liked it.”
When he got over the euphoria of the first bite, he opened his eyes and saw that Double D still had his eyes on him.
“What?” Karl asked. “Do I have sauce on my face?” He scrambled for a napkin.
“Haha, no. You just looked like you were really enjoying your sandwich.”
It didn’t seem like Double D was trying to be flirty, he was probably just saying things as it came to him—consistent with how chatty he had been the whole morning—but Karl took it a different way.
What did he mean by that? Karl thought. OMG, did my groan sound immodest just now?
Karl grabbed a water bottle and took a huge swig. He forced himself to breathe, hoping pure willpower would abate his blushing cheeks. “The sandwich is really good! Thanks for ordering for me.”
“You’re welcome.” Double D was still eyeing him as if Karl would spontaneously combust.
Karl understood. He thought he would definitely burst into flames if he couldn’t keep his emotions in check. “You’d have to write down whatever it was you ordered because that sounded complicated back there.” He gave Double D a genuine smile of gratitude. At this, the other boy laughed.
Before he could embarrass himself further, Karl asked him about all of the other facilities they were visiting today. Double D seemed to get a very specific high when it came to talking about BRU and he was such a nerd about it. It was adorable.
The rest of the morning, they walked around the museum, the library, and all the other fascinating places inside the BRU campus. They went back to the glorious Mess Hall for lunch where Karl learned that they not only serve hotel-level buffets for the students, but also Filipino favorites like the simple, everyday sinigang.
He also learned some very fascinating things about his companion.
One, for example, was that he was a full year ahead, even when they were practically the same age. Double D was so smart he skipped a grade in elementary.
Two, that the guy could talk his head off on a lot of topics ranging from BRU trivia (“Did you know that President so-and-so and General so-and-so were once fencing rivals here?”) to the really unusual (“Legend has it that one of the old trees in the World Park could help you find your soulmate! Isn’t that totally bonkers?”).
And three, Double D had no friends and was probably really lonely.
This he had deduced from Double D’s verbosity. Karl figured this handsome boy wouldn’t have latched on to Karl so quickly if he had other people he regularly talked to. There were acquaintances, people who waved at Double D when they passed by at the library, and Double D was all smiles and happy-chit-chat with them. He even introduced Karl to a few of his classmates. But Karl noticed he didn’t talk about anyone specific. There were no best friends, buddies or even roommates he slipped into their conversations. He didn’t even talk about his family.
Or was Karl just projecting his own loneliness at Double D? He thought about it and realized he hadn’t talked about his friends or family either. Not that there was something to talk about. He glanced at Double D, now talking about their next—and last—stop, the World Park.
Could he be lonely? Could we both be lonely?
Karl’s ruminations halted when Double D turned and caught his eye. “What?” His black hair moved gracefully in the wind. Soft and perfect, the total opposite of Karl’s messy curls. It gleamed in the bright afternoon sun making Karl wonder how it would feel to run his fingers through it.
“What?” Karl echoed.
“Was I talking too much again? So sorry.” Double D raised his arm and rested his palms at the back of his head. “I bet I’m boring you to death.”
“What? No,” Karl was quick to dismiss. “I have to say though, it’s been a lot,”
“But I like listening to you speak.”
Karl didn’t realize what he just said until Double D stopped and stood in place, staring at him.
“I mean,” Karl cleared his throat, “Um, you’re, uh, you’re clearly passionate about this—this school…”
Double D beamed and Karl’s heart melted like butter on hotcakes. “I am.” He looked wistful for a quick second and Karl would’ve missed it if he wasn’t looking directly. “I just love how the university preserved its history, and now it’s spearheading promotion and support for local culture.” He briefly lowered his eyes before raising them back up to meet Karl’s.
“I feel like there’s something more you want to say.” Karl teased a smile. “But you’re holding back.”
At this, Double D exhaled. “You can tell me to stop. No need to be polite, you can tell me if you’re bored. I can take it.”
Karl understood that he’d been told these things before, and unkindly at that. For some odd reason, Karl felt like he wanted to find out who hurt Double D and smack that person in the head. “No, go on. Really. I’d like to know more about what’s special about BRU.”
He could see Double D’s expression change like something deep within him had been lit up. And Karl felt a spark inside him as well.