A PREVIEW OF
LAST STOP: MIDDLETOWN
Eric A. Shelman
It was autumn in Middletown, Indiana. The weather was brisk but decent, and there was some preparation to do before the next class. Charlie Noble didn’t care for the particular work that needed doing, so for the moment, he was content to sit at Professor West’s desk, browsing Facebook on his phone.
When the small university was in full session, the population of the town swelled from 2,200 to around 3,100. Charlie was already looking forward to epic Halloween parties, and after just a month into the school year, he was already anxious to let his hair down. Some kids lived in town, and others rented apartments, but lots of students lived in makeshift dorm housing provided by the school that more closely resembled FEMA trailers.
With his parents’ home in town, Charlie could have just driven to the campus every day, but no way was he going to miss out on the only dorm experience he was likely to ever have. The inheritance his grandmother had left him would guarantee that, even if his folks insisted it was a waste of money. They’d forgotten what it was like to be his age.
He told himself this would be his best year ever. A guy could hope, at least.
Charlie wasn’t in high demand with the girls in town. He’d had serious bouts with acne in his late teens, and at age twenty-one, his face showed the pockmarks. He covered them with makeup and thought he looked pretty good from about five feet away. There had been several times in classes where he’d spied a new girl who initially returned his interested glances with smiles from across the classroom, only to brush him off later when they encountered him up close.
Yeah. From that distance, he was pretty much what the assholes called him: crater face.
The sad part was, he knew if not for the skin problems, he might have been popular. He had steel blue eyes and sandy, blond hair. He was 6’2” tall and muscular and toned from his daily 3-mile runs.
Charlie had grown up in Middletown, and before the university opened, the words he normally used to describe it were comatose, boring and dead. So, when billionaire oilman Tank Everson announced his intention to fully fund the expansion of the old community college into a state-of-the-art medical and technical training center, and offer hundreds of scholarships, Charlie dove in headfirst and filled out his applications.
Everything he did was designed to help him eventually escape the incorporated morgue that was Middletown, Indiana. Maybe this teacher’s assistant gig would gain him some perks.
A knock came on the door of the classroom and Charlie sighed and grunted as he swung his feet to the floor and stood. He looked at his watch. The next class wouldn’t begin for another half hour. He walked to the door and opened it.
A uniformed young man holding a package nodded at him and said, “FedEx. Got a delivery my boss told me to bring here.”
“Well,” said Charlie. “Is it addressed here?”
The FedEx driver lifted the box and showed Charlie the label. “The address is pretty smudged, but you can see Middletown and biology. She figured it was time-sensitive and your lab would be the only logical place around here for it to go. Want to keep it or reject it?”
“Yeah, I’ll take it. If you ask Professor West, everything’s time-sensitive,” said Charlie, signing the electronic clipboard. “Thanks.”
The driver wiped his hands on his pants and said, “Careful. It’s wet on the bottom. You got a paper towel or something?”
Charlie held it up, saw the wet stain on the bottom of the box, and said, “Jesus, you’re right. Okay. Hold on a sec.”
Holding the oozing box in one hand, Charlie walked to a paper towel dispenser and tore off three sheets, carrying them back to the door. “Here you go, man.”
The driver took the paper towels and wiped his hands. “Thanks,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Stuff’s kinda pungent.”
“Probably some kind of cleaning solvent,” said Charlie. “There’s a trash can right by the exit to get rid of that.”
“Gotcha,” said the deliveryman as he turned and walked away. “Have a good one,” he called back.
“Same to you, man.” Charlie watched him walk down the hall. A delivery driver. Not the worst job, but definitely too much labor. The driver tossed the paper towel toward the trash can and trotted down the stairs. His towel missed the can and landed on the floor.
Charlie considered going to pick it up, but another student came up the steps a second later, saw the trash, and plucked it from the floor. He dropped it in the FedEx man’s intended receptacle and wiped his hands on his pants.
* * * * *
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