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You Find Him Eating Paint

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Not actually, of course, because otherwise he would’ve been in the hospital and this meeting would have never happened.

As it was, he was squatting on a bench and eating something that for all intents and purposes looked like electric blue paint from a metal paint can. Not sitting, squatting, even though the bench was a clean as was possible.

Nils, or Nines as he preferred to be called, was just strolling across the courtyard in a vain attempt to cool his head. It was with the utmost misfortune that he had ended up in a philosophy course with two of the most insufferable beings on earth. So every time that class concluded, he had to seek out some peace and quiet or else he might scream.

In the back of his mind, the sober part of him wondered at why he chose to take philosophy when he hadn’t needed to. He was pursuing a bachelor in information and communication technology, so a humanities course was rather out the left field. He was interested in it, sure, and it could help bump up his GPA. Was it worth putting up with such nonsense, though? Wondering about it made him feel like a jaded grandpa, staring judgementally at the current state of the world.

And then there he was, some nutjob pretending to eat paint, who also happened to be the only person around.

Not that this was particular noteworthy under normal circumstances. A lot of weird things happened in college and no one batted an eye (particularly if one were to enter the common rooms of the student residences). But something about the guy, maybe the way he looked or something, made Nines’ blood pressure rise again. If he ended up being snappish, well, it was just a poor coincidence.

“The hell are you doing?”

The man had to take a moment to finish eating. When he spoke, his mouth and teeth were stained with what Nines could only hope was excessive food colouring.

“Eating paint.”

“I can see that. Why?”

“I just like to.” He took another heaping scoopful as though to prove a point.

Nines rolled his eyes. “That’s obviously not paint.”

“Says who?”

“Me and the doctor who’s not pushing your unconscious ass around in a gurney.”

To his surprise, the man laughed. “Fair point. Yeah, this is just vanilla pudding with Kool-Aid mixed in.”

“That’s a lot of Kool-Aid.”

“Nah, I didn’t use that much. Kool-Aid just looks like that.”

“So why the paint can?”

“It’s funny when people get confused, thinking I’m eating paint.” Reaching into his backpack, the man rummaged around until he came up with a shampoo bottle, which he proceeded to drink from. “So, do you go to school here?”

“No, obviously I’m here hunting giraffes.”

Ignoring the sarcasm, the man went back to scraping at the inside of the paint can with his plastic spoon. “I go here too, with my brother. Name’s Eve; this is my second year here.”

Nines blinked, something nagging at his memories. Why did Eve seem familiar? It was on the tip of his tongue… And then he realized that Eve was staring at him expectantly.

“Oh um, my name’s Nils, but I like being called Nines. Uh, third year.”

One firm handshake later, Nines found that he was out of topics to speak about. He stood by, unsure. Eve didn’t seem interested in pursuing conversation either, digging at undissolved drink crystals from under the rim.

Looking down at his bare wrist, Nines piped up before awkward silence could settle in, “Wow, would you look at the time. I really need to go to class.”

Nodding, Eve was cheery as ever. “Oh okay. Let’s hang out another time.”

Giving a noncommittal grunt, Nines entered the S-building and then cutting off at a tangent towards the student residences, avoiding Eve’s line of sight. Guess he couldn’t use that courtyard as a shortcut anymore.

****

Niko, or Tubes as he had come to call her due to an incident at a hardware store, was his old-time friend and roommate. The two had met in primary school and became firm buddies despite what life threw at them, whether it was moving schools or neighbourhood. Despite being older by a year or two, she had entered an anthropology program at the same time as Nines, sharing his progress in study.

Nines was expecting her to be at their note-cluttered dining table, working on next week’s material in meticulous, colour-coded print but obviously she was preoccupied with other concerns at the moment. The moment he entered the dorm room, sobbing greeted his ears. Niko sat on the couch next to a bawling Murou, rubbing the latter on the shoulders and passing her tissues.

Murou was a friend of Niko’s and someone Nines met later in life. He wasn’t entirely sure how the two had met but Murou was a sweet girl, if unfortunate enough to be the victim of a luckless love life. Along with her sister, she intended to major in communications with a minor in performance arts.

Grimacing sympathetically, Nines set his bag aside and shut the door behind him. Niko looked up at him with an expression of gratitude; her entire posture, while trying to be comforting, was poised awkward and hovering.

“Hey Tubes, what happened?”

Niko frowned at the mention of her nickname (he was never going to let her live that down) but let it slide. “She got dumped.”

Nines winced at the implied again. He sighed and sat on the arm of the couch.

“S-sh-she said I was- was t-too clingy,” Murou blubbered. “Sh-she turned m-me down before I even- before I even finished asking if she wanted to talk about it! I don’t nnn- know how to go on living.” She blew her nose with a wet honk.

Niko gave her a there, there pat. “That’s- that’s ah, um, really unfortunate. Err, are you sure I’m the one you should be talking about this with and not your sister or someone…?”

“I can’t go to class and see her again. I can’t spend another day in this school.”

“Come on Murou, you don’t mean that. If you dropped out, who else would give me logistic support?” asked Niko, trying to sound optimistic.

Murou sniffled pitifully, pressing a fresh tissue to the corner of her eyes. “You really mean that? You know, you could just ask my sister if you need help with that.”

“Tsuhito’s busy getting her education certification. Besides, there’s no one else I trust more when it comes to planning. You can fit together people’s schedules and organize like nobody else.”

“Ooh, Niko!” she crooned, throwing herself onto Niko in a tight hug. Niko stiffened, tentatively closing her arms around the heartbroken wreck currently almost sitting on her.

Nines gave her a knowing look. Niko’s face flushed and she glared back in reply.

Sitting back, Murou dabbed at her face. “Thanks, Niko. It makes me feel better knowing you need me.”

“You’re welcome,” Niko enunciated like a question.

“Oh gosh, all my make-up’s come off. I need to get home before it’s evening. Ta-ta, you two!”

The moment the door shut behind her and she was out of earshot, Nines nudged Niko with an elbow. “Was that so hard now?” He grinned.

“Shut your face,” she gritted out. “Whatever. How was your day?”

“Doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“Jean-Paul and Adam giving you a hard time again?”

“I am, like, this close to snapping,” he whispered menacingly. “God needs to grant me patience because if he grants me strength I am going to strangle both of them.”

“Easy there.” Unlike the shy pats she gave Murou, Niko brushed up and down the length of Nines’ back in broad, firm strokes, as if she were washing a car. “Think about something else. Take your mind off it.”

“Well… There was I guy I met when I was crossing the courtyard. He was eating paint.”

Niko looked at him as though she wasn’t sure if she heard him correctly or not. “What?”

“Not literally, it was just instant pudding and Kool-Aid in a paint can. He also drank from a shampoo bottle but I didn’t get to ask him about that.”

“Oh, that guy? Yeah, I see him all the time. He’s always on that one bench.”

Nines looked up at her. “Seriously? Why do all the weird people pick this college?”

“I don’t know. Why did you apply?”

Laughing, Niko deflected the seat cushion Nines threw her way.