Nothing in the dining hall appealed to Jason. He wondered why he had come for breakfast since he usually skipped it. As he stared down at the tray of hash browns under a heat lamp, he felt a light shove from behind. Surprised, Jason dropped his empty plate, allowing it to clatter against the floor.
“Woah. Wake up, man.”
Jason glanced behind to see Chad standing there, adding a spoonful of hash browns beside the apple, a pile of sausage, and hard-boiled eggs already covering most of the basketball player’s plate.
“What? I’m not angry with you for ditching me yesterday.” Chad popped a grape into his mouth and chewed as he spoke. “Even if you did stay for that long-toothed Neanderthal. You have parents who care whether you get on the Dean’s list. I get it.”
Jason moistened his lips, searching for the right response. Whatever it should have been, the words eluded him.
“What are you planning to eat? Air?” Chad walked away without waiting for an answer. “Meet me at our table, okay?”
Preoccupied, Jason reached out to add a few food items to his plate. The ingredients were a haphazard mush of disparate dishes he could no longer identify. His stiff legs took robotic steps to join his friend.
“I’ve had the weirdest morning.” Jason shook his head.
“Ah, so you heard how that old motormouth bit it, huh?” Chad smirked.
Jason forgot how to breathe for a few seconds. “Chad? Why would you—”
“Oh, come on, dude. You know what kind of man he was. A waste of our tuition dollars, if you ask me. Couldn’t even get a glass of orange juice to concentrate.”
Jason’s heart thudded.
Chad picked up a sausage link and ripped off a chunk with his teeth. “They sent out a cop to ask me some questions this morning. I hope you don’t mind. I said I was with you. After spending all day tearing it up on Troll Smashers, I didn’t really have anyone who could say I wasn’t anywhere near that old goat’s toll bridge.”
“You used me for an alibi?”
“’Course. I’d do the same for you. All you need to do is remember when the broad comes out to ask you questions, make sure you back my play.”
Jason stopped his fork a few inches from his open mouth. He dropped it onto the floor along with the speared bit of ham on its tines.
“Wow, J. You’re dropping everything. Stay away from stained glass today.”
“Um. Is there a way you could say you mixed up who was with you?”
“No way. I practically had to swear on every translation of the Bible that it was you gaming with me all night. Why?”
“I think I’m gonna be sick.”
Chad waved a dismissive hand. “You haven’t even taken a bite. You look a bit pale, but that’s no biggie. So, are you gonna help me out or not?”
“I can’t.” Jason’s big eyes pleaded for forgiveness.
For once, Chad did not have a ready answer. “You – you can’t? Is that it?”
“She already found me this morning. I told her the truth.”
“You sold me out?” Chad’s eyes blazed.
Stunned stammers attempted to negate the claim. “How could I have – I didn’t – I – but she came to my – didn’t know until now—”
“We’re supposed to be buddies, Ramos. I guess now I know what that means to you.” Chad picked up his plate and stormed off to discard his half-eaten meal.
Jason’s head dropped into his hands, inches above his food. All he needed now was for someone to push his face into the mush, and his morning would be complete. Minutes later, he sensed somebody approach and heard a chair across the table scoot out over the carpeted floor.
“Morning, Jason. What’s that you’ve got there?”
He looked up to see Mary Crest. In typical Crest fashion, she wore a loose-fitting plaid shirt and jeans. A black knit cap covered her short black hair. The oatmeal in her bowl had the look of drying plaster. She took a picture of her breakfast and uploaded it to the social media platform, News Access + Your Activities, more popularly known as NAYA.
“It’s a big mess.” He sighed.
Mary smirked at the glop on his tray. “I can see that. I was wondering if you were constructing modern art over here. Are you okay?”
“Ever feel like you wish you could skip a whole day and save yourself the trouble.”
Mary’s eyes glanced at the ceiling for ten seconds before answering. “Nope.”
“Someone killed Dr. Vellion last night.”
Mary swallowed hard on her oatmeal. After a cough, she asked, “Killed? What? How is that not campus-wide by now?”
“Give it a few hours.”
“Man, I’ve gotta put this on NAYA. My MPlant’s gonna blow up with all kinds of notifications when my parents see it. So much for a small school being safe for their precious little girl.”
Jason slapped the table. “How can you be so glib, Mary? He was one of my professors!”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m sure he was a great guy. But I’ve never even laid eyes on Dr. Hellion.”
“Sure. Him. But you can’t expect me to feel much when I’ve never met the guy. People get murdered every day. Am I supposed to cry about them all to prove I have a smidge of decency?”
Standing to leave, Jason mumbled under his breath, “Maybe we should.”
“Aren’t you gonna finish your breakfast?”
“I can’t stomach another bite.” He picked up his tray and dumped his food into the rubbish bin. His empty stomach murmured, reminding him he would have needed to consume at least one bite to have “another.”