While Eagle had always been a meathead, he hadn’t always been Eagle. Before that balmy September morning when he was eighteen and a freshman at Carson College, he had been Tyler. Not a single person would have expected him to go to college. He hadn’t been the type to really get work done, or even know the work existed. He didn’t play school sports or do music or anything that could get him some sort of scholarship. He mostly skipped school to go surfing, or came to school but skipped class to get high under the bleachers. Imagine the surprise on his guidance counselor’s face when Tyler came to his office early in his senior year and told him he wanted to go to college.
“You…want…to go to college?” he had asked, gripping his glasses and wondering if that heart attack his doctors were always warning him about was imminent.
“Yeah, of course,” Tyler had said, sounding confused about why this was even a question.
“But…why?” Maybe it was a stroke. Could he smell toast?
“Because that’s what comes next. First high school, then college, then a job. Duh.”
They had stared at each other for a few seconds, Tyler confused and Mr. Hart thinking about the twenty dollars he had just lost in the office pool. But because Mr. Hart was good at his job, he helped Tyler prepare application packets, all for local schools near the beach, as per Tyler’s request. All the rejections came in first, including from the notorious party school up the coast. Mr. Hart was getting ready to float the idea of doing literally anything else when the last letter came in from Carson College. Lo and behold, it was one of the big envelopes, filled with admission information. Mrs. Johns, the calculus teacher, had smirked at it over her coffee when Mr. Hart showed her.
“Maybe they were low on their Blond Meathead quota this year.”
(Mr. Hart would wonder about how Tyler had gotten into Carson on and off for years. Mostly it was just idle conjecture but sometimes it would keep him up to the wee hours of the night. The truth, that Mr. Hart and even Tyler himself would die not knowing, was that there had been a clerical error made by an overworked secretary named Janet Lawson. It was Friday evening and Janet wanted to leave to be on time for her daughter’s dance recital, and didn’t notice that of the two Tyler Carridins who had applied to the school, she was accepting the wrong one. It would, of course, change our Tyler Carridin’s life forever. The other Tyler had applied to Carson as a safety school. He had already been accepted to CalTech, and his life would march on exactly as he had meticulously planned until colon cancer would drop him in his fifties.)
While Tyler actually going to college was beyond the imaginative limits of man, Tyler pledging to a fraternity seemed just about right. Before he had even made a class schedule, Tyler put in the time and research to find the perfect fraternity for him. He had notebooks, and a little scorecard. He did more research on the fraternities of Carson College than he did for anything else during the entire four years of his high school career. And in the end, there was only one answer.
There are, of course, fraternities that defy stereotypes and produce responsible members of society. Fraternities that do charity work, focus on academics, produce decorated graduates who go on to hold top positions in good corporations. Fraternities filled with young gentlemen who are only looking for community and, well, fraternity. All of these fraternities at Carson College wished that Alpha Beta Rho would fall off the face of the earth.
Alpha Beta Rho wrote the stereotypes. Their parties were loud and their pledges were hazed. Their house was at the end of Greek Row, and it was a few window shutters away from being condemned by the city. Mushrooms grew from particularly old beer stains in windowless corners, and there were rumors that some of the food in the refrigerator had once walked off with a freshman coed. This rumor was ridiculous, of course, because the Alpha Beta Rho refrigerator never held anything more than bottles of beer. The rooms upstairs were an unholy abomination of clutter, piles of clothes, textbooks laid flat with their spines open. Bad enough that the mothers in a five mile radius would, in quiet moments, often shudder to themselves in horror, not knowing why exactly. The only thing that stayed relatively clean in the Alpha Beta Rho house were the sheets and blankets. The first Monday of every month the entire house would take all of their linens down to the coin laundry and spend the day there, drinking and washing every sheet, pillow case, and blanket. Had to keep up appearances for the ladies.
Despite being not so much a real fraternity, as much as some sort of embodiment of Hollywood’s fraternity, brought to life through the energies of millions of movie-going believers, it was extremely hard to be accepted into Alpha Beta Rho. They were the most exclusive on campus, and because they only accepted a handful of pledges a year, the smallest. There were some every year who tried to get into Alpha Beta Rho not for the parties, or the coeds, or the beer, or the drugs, or the near constant weekend surfing trips. Every year there were serious-minded folks willing to put on a pair of aviators and a muscle shirt for the first time and pretend to love keg stands and beer bongs, just to find out what the hell these airheaded functioning alcoholics were doing right.
Alpha Beta Rho had the highest graduation rate of all the fraternities in Carson College. Not the highest GPA, not by long drive and a bus ride, but that didn’t seem to matter. Most Alpha Beta Rho’s graduated college and stepped into their dream job. Paul Tanasky moved back to Portland and opened his own brewery, Ta-Nasty Beers. It was the main brand of beer Alpha Beta Rhos drank. Actually, it was the beer most fraternities drank on the west coast. That year Tyler pledged was Ta-Nasty’s fifth year, and they were successfully starting sales in Texas and Oklahoma. Another five years and Ta-Nasty would be a fraternal staple across the country. It was cheap, had variety, and the caps taught you how to curse in different languages. Paul Tanasky knew nothing about brewing beer. Or business, for that matter. He had graduated with a degree in Spanish.
Frank Beamon became the youngest man to own a professional sports team when he acquired the San Miguel Chargers when he was twenty-eight. Tommy Chen designed skateboards and surfboards. Jose Carlos owned a comic book shop in Los Angeles. Ricky Peterson was a Secret Service Agent. Some were rich, some were famous, some were neither. But all had their dream job before they had a turned thirty. Was it the beer? The surfing? The mushrooms in the corner? No one was sure, but some people were willing to put up with it for four years if it meant unconditional success.
Pledging to Alpha Beta Rho, then, had become something of an arduous task, and even the likes of Tyler Carridin found himself flagging halfway through Pledge Week. He hadn’t been remotely sober in three days, but had found himself surfing out in the Pacific, surfing in Carson’s big fountain, playing an aggressive game of tackle beer pong, scaling the walls of Carson College Library, falling from a third story window of Carson College Library, winning and then losing and then winning games of tackle kickball, and playing a game of Never Have I Ever where five shots taken meant a keg stand and then dead sprints across the football field. Of the thirty-three pledges that had started, there were only three left by Wednesday night, and the ‘I Never’ statements were almost wholly unintelligible. Somehow, Tyler found himself taking shots. A lot. The last thing he remembered before passing out was Croak Neiman pouring him another whiskey shot while wondering aloud how someone gets to eighteen without ever forcing vomiting for safety.
Tyler never would have seen Thursday morning – or any of Thursday, probably – if the football team didn’t need to practice. He woke up surrounded by the Carson College Hellcats doing burpees and screaming about it. He was on the forty yard line. Soaking wet, as the sprinkles had gone off three hours earlier. Face down, pants around his ankles, cheeks spread eagle-
“-with an American flag planted in his ass,” Croak Neiman said for the eleventh time that day. It was the celebration party half a week later. “In his ass! Nobody even knows who put it there! Probably Spread Eagle did himself, the crazy bastard! This crazy bastard!” Croak had his arm around Eagle’s neck as he told the story, shaking him at the end, spilling both of their beers.
Anyone else maybe would have felt shame in hearing this story retold over and over. Eagle only felt pride. After all, it had gotten him into Alpha Beta Rho. And it had gotten him a sweet nickname. And Croak Neiman wasn’t telling the story to embarrass him. Croak Neiman was just as proud of Eagle as Eagle was.
(Eagle would never tire of this story, always telling it in full detail to anyone who bothered to ask why he was called Eagle in the first place. “Jesus Christ, Eagle, maybe you need to stop telling that story,” Carmello had suggested once. Eagle hadn’t even batted an eye. “You need to be proud of your roots.”)
Croak Neiman was the president of Alpha Beta Rho. He was tall and muscular and ethnically confusing, his skin some tanned brown color and his hair black with light brown highlights and his eyes blue. He could pass for roughly 83% of heritages. Of course he would never answer if anyone just came out and asked what the hell he was, usually turning the question back on them, making them feel racist. It was one of his favorite jokes, actually, along with the blonde who walks into the bar carrying a wiener dog, and the classic finger pull. He was smarter than he looked, which was easy because he looked just about as stupid as they come, but then he was even smarter than that. All Alpha Beta Rho pledges got a background check before Pledge Week even began. The kids pledging for the success and not for the party had usually been pegged before a keg was even tapped. His look through Eagle’s files had told him that not only was Eagle not there just to fulfill his dreams, he probably didn’t have any beyond being in Alpha Beta Rho. This was exactly the kind of person they were looking for. Eagle was in before he became Eagle, but they couldn’t make it look that easy. Eagle and two others were the only ones to make it that year.
For seven weeks, everything was exactly as Eagle had imagined. His classes were easy, all gen eds that he was paying one of the honor students to take for him. His room at the Alpha Beta Rho house was shared with the two other pledges, Logan Rhett and Scooter McMinnis, who’s high school nickname had to be voted on to be kept by the house and survived by a bare margin. All three of them were undeclared and spoke many times of sitting down and deciding on something before moving on to far more appropriate conversations, such as babe of the month or who’s turn it was to buy toilet paper. The girls at Alpha Beta Rho’s sister sorority Theta Delta Theta were almost always DTF, and if none of them were around at a party there was always a girl or two who’d had a few too many and was ready to make questionable choices. Eagle had found himself in the life television and movies had promised him. Four or five years of partying, then he would buckle down, get a good job and a hot wife. Exactly how life was supposed to go.
Nothing seemed strange when Croak Neiman and a couple of the other seniors woke him and Logan and Scooter up at two in the morning by flashing the lights and screaming WAKE UP FRESH MEAT over and over until all three of them stood at sloppy attention in the middle of the room, Scooter the last to get himself up as, unknown even to Scooter, he had only been one vodka shot away from alcohol poisoning when he finally quit a few hours before. Croak looked them over, strange blue eyes swimming with beer and pride.
“Boys,” he said finally, his tone low and heavy. “It’s time to pay your fucking dues.”
They followed him out of the house, the rest of the members leaning out of doorways, pounding the walls, the floors, cheering. None of this seemed weird to Eagle. Just another event. He hoped there would be chicks.
Out of the house, across the campus, and then they were marching along through the woods to the north of campus. It was the middle of October but it was unseasonably warm and even a bit humid. Breezes made leaves whisper and occasional crashes from deeper in the woods made them jump. They were too close to the city and its lights, and the sky above them, while cloudless, gave no stars. They marched forward in abject silence, not having to be told to keep their mouths shut. Occasionally Scooter would start to veer off the path and into the bushes, and Logan, behind him, would pull him back straight by his collar and push him.
Eagle was the first to hear the new sounds, but thought nothing of them. He wasn’t familiar with these woods. He didn’t know what sounds were supposed to be there and what sounds were telling him to run and never look back. There was a light ahead, he could see that about the same time he started hearing the sounds. When he figured out what the sounds were, his first thought was, Yes. Chicks.
The light was from a campfire in a good sized clearing that seemed to get a lot of use, although they hadn’t been walking on any sort of the path the entire way there, forging their own through underbrush for twenty minutes at least. Some kind of design was carved into the ground around the fire. Candles were placed around the fire, which seemed stupid to Eagle because, hey, there’s a fire there, fuckfaces. Symbols carved from wood, stuff he’d never seen before and wouldn’t be able to accurately describe after, hung from the trees above the candles.
All this secret society bullshit was exactly what you were supposed to find with fraternities. They loved all that Greek lettering stuff. No, it wasn’t until he looked across the fire and saw the three girls that Eagle finally started to think that maybe this wasn’t entirely on a level he was comfortable or familiar with.
Alpha Beta Rho let in a lot of local high school girls trying to pass for college girls. No way they would have let these girls in. There was no way they could have defended themselves with ‘they said they were nineteen.’ They didn’t look nineteen. They didn’t look fifteen. They also didn’t look like they went to any high school. No high school girl would wear those clothes or let their hair get like that. These were runaways, homeless kids who had more important things to worry about than the brand of jeans they wore or whether their football player boyfriend was cheating on her, which of course he was.
Also, they were hogtied with gags in their mouth. Abject terror bloomed on their faces when the frat boys entered the light, and the three of them tried to scoot away. They were tied to a peg in the ground, though. They weren’t going anywhere.
Logan was silent and watching. Scooter was silent, too, trying not to vomit and most definitely not understanding anything that was happening.
Eagle opened his mouth. Closed it. Held up a hand. Put it down. Tried to think. Gave up.
“What?” he asked.