The campus grounds thrummed with the hustle and bustle of students, milling to and from the dormitories with the crisp air and bright sunshine of late morning to invigorate them. With the lingering vestiges of winter finally gone, spring semester promised to be at least a comfortably warm one, if nothing else. Tis were one of the random thoughts of mathematics major Bea as she headed in the direction of her first class of the day. After having a nice breakfast and a soothing morning shower, she joined up with her roommate Jackie to chat away the distance to the central buildings.
"And Gavins expects us to have this assignment in class today, even though he practically slapped it on us outta nowhere as we're leaving! Damned fascist, I tell ya," bereaved the bespectacled goat lady, getting wound up for the rigors of the day as per her routine.
"You're gonna wear that word's effectiveness out real quick if you keep calling the faculty fascists instead of, I dunno, spacing it out," remarked Bea, speaking expertly around the lit cigarette held within her long alligator jaws.
"That word will never lose its effectiveness, Bea, so long as there are pigs at the top holding us down."
"Heh heh, like the one who broke that elevator the day you just so happened to be running late for chem midterm?"
"Exactly! Just any excuse, any opportunity to keep the strong-minded in line. But their day of reckoning will come, and the both of us will be the first to stomp our boots on their fat heads when it does."
"Ha ha ha, whatever you say, Jackie."
As they crossed the street to the university's central area, two familiar faces joined them.
"Yo Jackie, Bea!"
"Hey Cody, Chris," Bea greeted the owl boy and cat lad respectively.
"Hey guys," Jackie also greeted.
"Funny bumping into you guys at this hour. Aren't you class by this point?" Cody asked.
"If you actually knew our schedules, like you're supposed to, you'd know we still have a good twenty minutes," Bea stated playfully. "Speaking of, why aren't the two of you in class?"
"I'm skipping out today; the weather is just too gorgeous to be cooped up in sociology."
"Our professor canceled: had food poisoning," Chris said. "Probably from the sushi."
"You see, Bea? Oppressors being done in by their opulent lifestyles."
"Geez Jackie save it for after lunch, ha ha."
"So you're still coming to Rick's party, right Bea?" Chris asked, adjusting his glasses.
"Of course, Chris. I'm not that hopelessly bogged down in assignments, unlike *certain* people who have to repeat a course."
That got a laugh out of the group, then Chris sidled up to Bea to say, "We'll stop by Papa T's to grab some pizzas, and you and I can share a pie on the back porch. Sky should be clear tonight."
"Yeah, sounds wonderful, Chris."
"I still can't believe a guy like Rick has a freakin' *house* to stay in for college, practically to himself."
"Some guys just have all the luck, Cody," Chris nodded, before snuggling against Bea's shoulder. "But some are luckier than others."
"Down boy. Heel!" Bea batted Chris away playfully, laughing and feeling her day brighten up even further. Suddenly, there arose a clamor, and students all around began to rush past the group. "Hey, what's everyone's hurry?"
"Oh crap, I forgot: today's the Ceremony!"
"Ceremony?" Bea asked Cody.
"Yeah!" Jackie said excitedly. "We have to get there right now. Come on, guys!"
Jackie, Cody and Chris broke off into a run to join the hurrying masses, leaving Bea a tad befuddled.
"H-hey guys, Jackie, hold on!"
Bea shouldered her bookbag strap and began running after her friends. Eventually she arrived at the main common area of the campus, which was teeming with what could have very well been the entire student body. They were gathering around the statue of the school mascot situated in the center of the plaza: a cobalt-molded fish considered an eyesore by many, but something Bea had a childlike fondness for. The alligator girl made her way through the crowd, eventually pushing her way to the inner circle of the congregation, where her friends awaited.
"Great, you got here in time."
"Jackie, what kind of ceremony is this?"
"Ssshh! It's starting!"
The murmur of the crowd abruptly ceased as all eyes turned to the statue, where a lone individual stepped forth to address the gathering at large. It was none other than the dean, Bea noted. Figures he'd be involved in this kind of event.
"Good morning my wonderful students!" he began enthusiastically with a grand bellow worthy of his bear nature. "How are all of you this glorious day?" A pause for the happy cheers from just about everyone, and once that settled down, "Fantastic! Nothing fills me with greater pride than to be surrounded by people as full of life and vigor as yourselves. It is such an appreciation for being alive that we carry out this time-honored university tradition. As you all are aware, great sacrifices and trials had to be faced by many of you to come to this fine institute of higher learning, to broaden your minds and better yourselves for an enriching future. And we recognize these triumphs by acknowledging a single student and officially making them a member of our great academic family in a grand Ceremony. And today's student of honor is… Bea Santello!"
Applause erupted and the sun seemed to shine a bit more brightly down on Bea, who suddenly found herself the center of attention to a whole college's worth of cheers.
"Cody, what's going on? What's this about?"
"Go on up there, Bea!"
Jackie shoved Bea out into the open space before she could voice any objection, and finding herself with nowhere to hide, the alligator could only blush and timidly walk in the direction of the dean, lest she embarrass herself somehow in front of everyone.
"Come forward, Bea. Do not be shy," the dean encouraged, and once she approached him the cheers and applause died down. "You have struggled especially hard to get this far, Ms. Santello. You overcame family tragedy, financial hardships, and through grit and sheer determination you have succeeded greatly. However, there is still something holding you back from your true potential." To the crowd at large, he continued, "For the purpose of this hallowed Ceremony is to free promising students of unwanted, troublesome burdens. And today, we bear witness as our dear Bea does away with hers."
The ground began shuddering, and behind the dean Bea witnessed a structure rise up from the depths in front of the statue. It looked like some large wooden stage or platform, with two long thick beams of wood crossing over each other to form an X, which in itself was holding up… Oh my…
Indeed: strung up by her wrists and ankles was none other than the short stout black cat herself, unconscious and looking awful. Her signature "zero" shirt was ripped and dirtied with splotches of red, and her feline face looked roughed up and bruised, as did her other extremities. She looked far worse than that time in the mines. Wait, hold on…
"What, what is she doing here? What did you do to her!?"
"She really put up a fight for someone so small," said someone in the crowd. "But we were just too many."
"Mae Borowski is the final remnant of your failed life, Bea," the dean explained. "And this Ceremony will mark your severance from that miserable past."
"I, I don't understand."
Bea heard a groan, and looking past the dean she saw Mae stir. The little feline weakly opened her eyes, one being hideously swollen, and looked to the horrified alligator.
"Bee, Bee…" the poor thing slurred, trying to raise up her head.
"Mae! Just hold on; don't move!"
"I'm, I'm sorry, BeeBee… I'm such a screw-up. Making things worse for you, always…"
"Stop talking, Mae! I'll get you down!"
"You'll do no such thing, young lady," the dean said sharply, stepping closer to Bea. "This is your chance to fully unshackle yourself, to become what you've always wanted to be. This… *friend* of yours is nothing but an unsightly tumor that will suck the life from you, much like your inept and broken father."
"H-how do you know about—"
"Thus to save yourself a cruel return to your dead-end ways, you will do away with this blight, once and for all."
The dean reached into his sweater vest, and from his pockets he pulled out a drawing compass, its needle end gleaming sharply. He handed it to Bea, who in her confused and shocked state could only hold out a hand and accept it. When she did become aware of what's in her possession, she noted that it somehow looked like a misshapen pickaxe.
"You hold in your hand the key to your liberation. Now, plunge it into that troublemaker and carve out her heart without hesitation!"
The crowd cheered at this announcement of bloodshed, but Bea could only look at the dean wide-eyed, mouth agape and practically paralyzed.
"You, you can't expect me to do something like that."
"Oh but Bea, this is a tradition done by all our alumni since this institution's opening. Every student here has done similar acts, and now we're waiting on you."
"That, that can't be right."
"But it is, Bea," Jackie spoke out. "I took out my fascist step-mom with a shovel shortly after opening ceremonies freshman year."
"I fed my parents to a school of sharks," Cody added.
"That uncle I interned for… I have his face hanging on my wall," Chris said bluntly. "Just saying."
"You're… you're joking, right? Ha ha ha, okay, you got me. Quite a prank, yeah, ha ha?"
No one else was laughing. In fact, they all fixated the same level, glaring looks on her. Bea suddenly felt a weight building on her shoulders, and the sky dimmed to a sinister red.
"This is no joke, Bea," Jackie said gravely, her eyes and glasses cast in shadow.
"It is a practice to be taken with grave severity, young lady," the dean said just as gravely. "It is *deathly* important that this task is performed, by you alone. Now, take up your blade, and be rid of your doubts."
"Do it, Bea."
"It's the only way."
Bea just shook her head. Shook herself in general. "I, I, I, I—"
"Once you do it, I can give you my secret handshake and we can hang. All special like."
"Do I know you?"
"Just, do it, Bea," Mae managed to croak out through her pain. "I'll only keep ruining things for you. You're finally happy. We would both be better off if I'm gone for good…"
"No we won't! God, this is completely *crazy*!"
The ground trembled once more, only it was the statue itself that was moving! With an awful metallic groaning, the head of the fish wiggled and stretched forward, bending down to stare Bea right in the face.
"YOU DARE QUESTION MY WHIMS? DISRESPECT THE FOUNDER OF THIS PROUD UNIVERSITY BY NOT PARTICIPATING IN THIS MOST HONORABLE CEREMONY?"
"Wait, you're the *founder* as well as the mascot?"
"BUT OF COURSE, BEATRICE SANTELLO. IT IS TOTALLY TRADITIONAL FOR THE FOUNDER TO HAVE A STATUE ERECTED IN THEIR HONOR AT THE, LIKE, CENTER OF EVERYTHING. AND TO ALSO BE THE SCHOOL'S MASCOT. THAT'S HOW COLLEGES WORK!"
"Uhhhhhh, wha?" But the metal fish rambled on.
"YOU SAID YOU WOULD *KILL* FOR THE CHANCE TO COME TO COLLEGE, BUT THE MOMENT YOU'RE CALLED OUT TO DO SO YOU CHICKEN OUT? IT IS MOST UNACCEPTABLE, NOT TO MENTION DISAPPOINTING, TO THIS SENSITIVE FLOUNDER GOD!"
"Hold on, you're a god as—"
Bea only got sprayed in the face with water. "I BELIEVE THAT WAS PRETTY OBVIOUS, GUY." The fish statue pulled back and wiggled around in agitation atop his perch. "I AM MOST DISPLEASED AND DISSATISFIED WITH THIS TRANSGRESSION AND AM TOTALLY FEELING BUMMED BY THIS CRAP. DOES NO ONE CARE FOR THIS OLD FRY'S FEELINGS? UTTERLY NO RESPECT!"
"We care and respect you greatly, oh lord," the dean said in a placating tone. "Perhaps we can skip to the Recital and put this debacle behind us. Would that suffice?"
The fish statue wiggled ecstatically. "YES. YOUR LORD GOD FLOUNDER FOUNDER WOULD BE MOST PLEASED TO HAVE SOME SWEET TUNES SOOTHE THIS OLD METAL FISHY SOUL. LET US BEGIN!"
There's a sudden rush of air and a clanking and thumping of things, and to Bea's surprise she's been relocated to the seating section of the college music hall. All around the stage before her, various students as well as her friends have taken up a range of instruments, with the dean at the conductor's stand. Once all amps are plugged in and tuned, the dean tapped his baton and, pausing for dramatic effect, he conducted. A wolf boy at the piano began playing out a repeating melody, and after two bars' worth the rest of the ensemble began to play.
A cacophony of guitar, violin, bass, and even drums courtesy of Jackie's laptop ensued, shaking the establishment and flickering lights all other the place like an epileptic seizure. As chaos rang supreme, Bea found herself thoroughly freaked out!
"This is insane! I have to get out of here!"
The Rolling Girl, is forever dreaming,
Of some-thing she, caaaaan never reach.
Iiiiinside her flustered mind, it keeps on churn-ing,
Just keeps on, churn-ing!
Bea broke out from the music hall, colliding with a wall and losing her bookbag in the process. No time to stall as she ran down the corridor, which was also being warped by the psycho song.
"It's all fine," she mutters to herself.
Has she gone and, looooost her senses?
Just a failure, Just another failure!
Is all she'll keep telling herself, so
If you won't stand, then you might, as, well, spiiiiiin!
One more time, just One more time,
I'll roll over and let it slide past
The silly girl says, the silly girl says.
Toying with the meanings of her words.
"Are you okay?"
"No not just yet, because I can't see the end of this unending path.
So don't bother holding your breath."
Finally out of the building, but the entire world had become a kaleidoscopic Rubik's Cube of thumping sound and alternating shapes, like the psychedelic offspring of Inception and Dr. Strange. Wait, what even the hell are those? Bea could only find herself stumbling through the bedlam as the band continued to weave its manic spell.
The Rolling Girl, is just a mere shadow,
Unable to attain her truuuue colors.
Overlapping spectrums, mixing with each other,
Always mixing, with each oth-errrrrr!
"It's no problem." She can barely mutter out.
Who is she fooling?
How can she, oh how can she,
Expect to turn out fine when the whole
World, is, tear-ing aaaaaat her?
Everything, everyone grabbed at her, trying to drag her into unfathomable madness. Jackie, Chris, her father, Creek, all clawing at her feet and legs while the song continued to bombard her senses, even when the words dissolved into noise. At some point a girl in a school uniform with large green pigtails popped out of nowhere to further harangue her.
Mou ikkai, mou ikkai.
"Watashi wa kyou mo korogarimasu." to,
Shoujo wa iu, shoujo wa iu,
Kotoba ni emi wo kanade nagara!
She couldn't take it anymore!
"Why is this happening to me?!"
"Because you're a rolling girl."
And just like that, everything went quiet. Bea stood in a darkened room, and a thunk turned her eyes to a pillar of light shining down on a some guy sitting in one of those old-timey folding director's chairs. He was dressed in khakis and holding a large paper megaphone, but what was most peculiar was the large, horrendously-made plaster carp head mask atop his shoulders. Bea really didn't have time to go over this guy's wardrobe, instead focusing on something less insane.
"What did you call me?"
"I said you were—" He stopped to adjust the the megaphone against the mouth hole. "That you're uh... Oh come on, lousy piece of, geehh." He tossed the stupid mouthpiece in frustration. "I said you were a rolling girl: a lady who has given into a life of repeated failures. I'm sure there's a male equivalent as well. Rolling guy? Maybe?"
"Who are you?"
"Why, I'm god," he said quite frankly. "Or,*a* god. Not the one who made you; just a passerby, you could say."
"Umm, okay. Then, that means this is all—"
"A dream, yes. A wonderful place for all kinds of silly things."
Bea felt a wave of relief for her sanity, but that soon gave way to annoyance.
"So you made all that? All that twisted and random bullshit?"
"Indeed." The "god" stood up from his chair. "You're still experiencing anxieties about never going to college, and given the bizarre events you and your friends experienced recently, I thought I would combine them to convey to you the internal conflict you just started having."
"You're beginning to settle with what you have. Forego your dreams and accept being stuck in Possum Springs, now that there's someone who's just as stuck as you and who sincerely cares about you and wants to make you happy… in their own clumsy way."
Bea paused to process that, finding some sense in what the "ceremony" might have been hinting. However…
"If this is about my conflicting thoughts, then what was up with that weird-ass song and the world being turned inside-out? I don't listen to that kind of music."
"Well, I could tell you it's also a metaphor, but really I just wanted to play one of my favorite songs, and the fact that the lyrics match up to what is going on in your life gave me the perfect excuse to do so."
There's a long pause as Bea stares blankly at the fish head guy.
"Are you serious?"
"...Wow, Mae was right: you really *are* an asshole."
"That I am. Kinda, sorta. But there is something I can offer that your actual god cannot: a heart-to-heart."
He walked to Bea and took a seat beside her. Bea also found herself sitting, somehow.
"So tell me what's on your mind. How are you feeling?" he asked in a shrink's tone of voice.
"You sure you want me to tell you? You seem to have a pretty good grasp at reading my mind, apparently."
"Yes, but it's usually better to actually speak things out yourself rather than have somebody tell you what you're thinking. That'd be pretty weird and unsettling."
"Already late for that."
"Yeah, sorry. That's why I'd like *you* to state your mind without me fiddling about."
"...Sure, whatever. Probably won't be able to wake up unless I go through with this, anyway." Bea let out a sigh before continuing. "I've been feeling tired, which is nothing new. And also stressed. And still annoyed at how crappy everything is. And learning that our town has, or had, a murder cult that me and my friends likely killed, but I think we've gotten over that part somewhat."
"Mhm. Very weird episode there. No doubt therapy may come into play at some point."
"But apart from the murder cult, things in town aren't as crappy as it used to be, right?"
"Uhh, yeah, I guess not?"
"No doubt thanks to your pal Mae. With her back, things certainly have gotten pretty interesting this past month."
"Crazy would be more accurate, but yeah. Definitely a change of pace."
"But you still have grievances over not being away and off at college."
"Of course. A few moments of excitement won't just magically make *that* go away."
"Yes; it would be silly to believe otherwise. But again, those grievances are not as bad as they usually are, right?"
"And again, yeah. Is this going anywhere?"
"It is now. The dream you experienced some moments ago shows that you're not as deadset to get into the college life as you would have others to believe. Certainly not enough to take your friend's life."
"No, of course not. I'm not that desperate."
"Although you did say you'd be willing to kick Mae out of a moving car for a chance to get in."
"I was just angry at her, okay? She got piss drunk, made an ass of herself and threatened people, and I had to be the one to take her back although I told her to go easy, and Gregg and Angus no doubt told her the same. I told her those things to get it through her thick head how embarrassed and disappointed I was with her."
"She did end up crying to sleep, so mission accomplished there."
"Not really. She still acts like an idiot and disregards things I tell her."
"But do you truly hate her?"
"Is she still an unwanted burden in your already taxing life?"
"...No. Or, not entirely? I've gotten to know what's been going on with her, so at least I have some perspective to go by. Plus, she's still my friend who, in her own asinine ways, looks out for me."
"And that hesitation at taking her life in that ceremony is reflective of your newfound understanding and appreciation of her. She can be annoying, yes, but she's still a cherished part of your life."
"...Yeah. A unique part of it, at least."
The fish god guy leaned back and looked up to the nothing above. "What's worrying to me was how you told Mae you kinda hated her for leaving college. Do you still feel that way?"
"No, now that I know why she left. But it's still… frustrating."
"That I had no say in all of this, with my mom dying and my dad becoming what he is. It's something I'll never get over, which I guess makes me… bitter, all the time. Which makes me act like a jerk, like, a lot of the time. Don't know how long that's going to take to fix."
"I know exactly what you're saying," the god guy nodded. "But it doesn't have to be so hopeless for you. You can take courses online, get a degree that way. At least get a college education for considerably less cost, improve your self-worth and do away with some of that bitterness."
"I'm already taking free online courses."
"Right right right right right. But if it's the real college experience you're wanting, it's never too late to get into that. Plenty of people go to university in their later years for one reason or another. Heck, in my history course, one of the students was a lady in her 80s."
"Wait, *you're* in college?"
"*Was* in college, and yep. Got to do a whole lotta things. Got a degree, learned some Japanese, did lots of walking, ate *lots* of food, got drunk, got high, joined an anime club, helped organize an anime convention, went to my first proper anime convention. One time, I even got up onstage with a famous movie director so he could use my cell phone as part of his act. Boy howdy, those were some of the best years of my life."
He looked to see Bea giving him that critical look of hers, so he faked a cough and looked away. "Uhm, not saying that college is an amazing experience for *everyone*. Just detailing mine as an example."
"Uh-huh. Well, I don't really intend on waiting until I'm *that* old to get there. Besides, the appeal has kinda waned in light of everything that's happened."
"Yep. Just remember you can still make fun with what you have. Those times you hung out with Mae shows that's possible even with all your responsibilities, and it bums me seeing you so hung up and depressed."
"Well sorry that my life is putting a damper on your day. I'm quite inconsiderate, as you've undoubtedly picked up."
"Sorry sorry, that came out wrong. I'm not saying get cheery right away, but even so… optimism can go a long way."
"And you got someone like Mae to put some levity on things. She's a really good friend."
"That she is."
"Not many people would run over the rain-slicked rooftops of some strange town at night just to make sure their friend was okay. Or highjack a fish fountain to make her smile."
"Okay, I get it. I know she means well; I don't need some creep fish guy guilt-tripping me about it."
"Good to hear. So bottom line, be patient with her, and reciprocate… to an extent. She's bound to get grounded, with you being a stable part of her life now."
"And you'd probably want to cut back on the smoking as well."
"Geez, you're seriously going to lecture me on my habits?"
"I'm only saying because Mae is allergic, so take that into consideration. Plus it'd be a real shame for a cute thing like yourself to go losing her good looks at such a young age."
Bea just stared at him a while, then she got up. "Right, the horror college and trippy music video was one thing, but getting hit on by a fish god is where I draw the line."
"I'm just being honest. Gotta have confidence in your image, girl."
"Okay, yeah, I think that's been enough talking it out. Can you end this dream and let me wake up already?"
"Oh but Bea, the power to wake up... was with you this whole time..."
"Oh for god's sake. You know what, go screw yourself. I'm outta here." Bea began walking into the darkness, as far from the cackling dickhead as possible.
The moment she turned around, he pulled off his mask and gave her a wink.
Bea awoke wide-eyed to the blare of the alarm radio. It took her a moment to recognize the ceiling of her dark, crappy bedroom, as the tension in her chest eased and she started taking normal breaths. A sliver of sunlight filtered in through the blinds of the window. Turning under her blankets, she saw that it was a few minutes past 7. Shower, breakfast, get to the store and open shop. Another working day to be started.
She looked back up to the ceiling, letting the song on the radio play as her jumbled thoughts sorted themselves out. The dream she had left her feeling wired, a little anxious. One of her college dreams, only… way more bizarre. And something about… talking to god, or a god? It was all hazy, and she didn't want to think it over that moment. But it did leave her with one definite impression:
Today was gonna suck.