Looks can be deceiving, and Aiden’s looks were deceitful in the way one person judges another to be trustworthy by their appearance; his appearance was the same every day. He combed his lightly salted hair to one side, not to hide anything, but to keep it out-of-the-way. His glasses perched in the large grove of his nasal bone and his eyes were always small and squinted. The collar on his polo bunched a little in the back from his hunched posture. Aiden wasn’t calcium deficient, but he carried himself more meekly than humbly, as if the pens in his breast pocket were more than just a matter of convenience. He spoke without much inflection, but his hushed voice made him seem more monotone than he actually was. He wasn’t known as a gentle soul, just generically gentle; the gentle used to describe someone who keeps to themselves and avoids conflict, not necessarily an agreeable person because you can never find them to ask if they agree with you on anything.
If you asked Aiden for a favor, he’d nod and say, “Yeah, sure,” and you wouldn’t hear from him until he put that thing you needed on your desk or bought cookies that he would never eat from the bake sale just because you asked him to donate to “save the children: mission number 77.” He was the word “nice”, said with an upwards inflection. We use “nice” to describe people we know who are not mean, but we don’t know anything else about them. And that was Aiden. Nice. He looked nice. He sounded nice. So, he must be nice. Logic.
He was an enigma, really, and we all had one or two theories about what is life was like — shell-shocked in “Nam” was the most popular, “child escapee from cult circus” was the most obscure — harmless fun. Then one of us got to know him. It was over coffee, in a renovated carpenter’s warehouse on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t unusual to run into professors on the weekends; most of them needed a 24/7 IV drip into their system like most students, but we never saw him off-campus. No one saw him on campus, aside from in the classroom. But, he was there, ordering a latte like a normal person.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” The barista couldn’t hear Aiden’s subdued voice over the pressurized steam of the espresso machine.
“I said a soy latte!” He strained. The barista nodded and she took his card. He shuffled to an open two-person table, rested his elbows on the fabricated grain and thumbed through the local paper. We watched silently, nodded at each other, then in his direction; we dared one another to be social. “You’re all a bunch of babies. He’s just our professor,” I said as I stood up, “I’ll go over and talk to him.” I put on a brave face, but talking to the socially awkward made me socially awkward. I took a step forward. Hi, Mr. Hannify, nice to see you here. I took another step. I was wondering…Another step…if the lab would be open…“Aiden, soy latte.” My professor scooped up his drink and darted out. I sunk back to my table, defeated, but relieved. When we left a little while later, I held-up in my room for a nap.
When I woke up, the sun was setting into that blend of reds, purples, and blues — dusk. A few hours had passed. I found myself at the base of a naked tree, its bark black and mangled, branches like arthritic fingers. I heard gravel crunch and scrape a few feet away and the soft thud of dirt piled into a growing mound.
Aiden dug with fervor in his muscles.