A master of deceit and a wearer of dark suits, the detached operative from Nightmare, Indiana transfers to Kent to exercise his strengths. Accepted into the Kent branch of an unknown organization, he is given a map with pin-pointed areas of interest and the number to a hotel. Here, the Nightmare Op records his nightly exploration of the Kent State campus and surrounding area in the midst of corruption and the seething mystery of blue and gold.

A master of deceit and a wearer of dark suits, the detached operative from Nightmare, Indiana transfers to Kent to exercise his strengths. Accepted into the Kent branch of an unknown organization, he is given a map with pin-pointed areas of interest and the number to a hotel. Here, the Nightmare Op records his nightly exploration of the Kent State campus and surrounding area in the midst of corruption and the seething mystery of blue and gold.

The Big Flash

By Zachary Lutz

I first heard Kent called – Can't by a blonde-haired sandbag named Diamond Cory at the Town Pump in Nightmare, Indiana. He also called his fist a cannon. I didn't listen to him much longer, and then he started to rile the whole bar into a mob about some town-girl named Margaret. I showed his nose the wall. And then, the next day, at the office, I showed Al my transfer papers. I watched Al fake a pout at the cactus on his desk, and then I rolled a silver coin towards him:

"You think you don't need to water that, but, well, It might just be time."

"Once a week kid, that's safe," He said, and spat.

Al took up the coin and dropped it into his shirt pocket. Then he strangled his signature out of a pen and onto the document, and said I could ask him for a recommendation letter whenever I saw it fit. I said it didn't fit, and that it was kind of him to offer, but that I was ready to leave Nightmare like a baby crowning. Al coughed and then things got quiet and I knew if I didn't leave then, that he would start in on trying to keep me there. So I left.

In the rectangle that said branch, I had written the word Kent. I didn't even know if there was a branch. It was to spite Diamond Cory. And, there was a new city, which was the more benevolent side of myself that I was liking already. I would see about dominance later. I was at the airport. The ticket emptied my wallet, and then I emptied my stomach on the back of the seat in front of me. A doctor, who revealed himself later as a psychiatrist, said it was the cabin pressure. I told him to get me a rag and a mint.

The director of the Kent branch wore a crisp blue suit that looked like a stiff napkin, and a gold tie. I laughed when I thought of Al in his grey shirt, and the director glared me out of the laugh quick. His eyes were two blots of brown mud.

"So you know the job?"

"Yes, sir."

"McGilvrey."

"Yes, sir, McGilvrey."

There was no cactus on his desk. I laughed again.

"Is there something funny? Should you be telling me a joke right now?"

I wondered why I hadn't stopped him between sentences and apologized.

"No, sir."

"You know the job?"

"Yes, sir. Nightmare College; seven years. I made considerable effort."

"Well, considerable isn't what we're after here," His nose was a downturned thumb.

I had only meant that I was a good worker, but he knew me already like I was his own unfortunate son. I started not liking McGilvrey when he started talking. I wanted my badge, and I wanted to find a hotel and draw a bath. My mouth smelled like a reptile house, and I could see McGilvrey's blunt nose hounding the stench.

I said, "On the plane. Threw up."

"Never flown?"

"No, sir."

"Well, I suppose you'll be wanting this." He handed me a square of metal and on it, the embossed head of a snarling eagle.

"Our shield. And you don't show that to a soul." He blinked. "Unless you meet one."

"Sorry?"

"This is a state university, kid. Excellence in action."

I thought it was funny that he called me a kid, and I thought of Al again, and his cactus. But I kept that one to myself.

"Yes, sir."

"Dolores will get you a map. And the rest," he paused, "is you. I'll expect reports every week."

McGilvrey turned and sat in his chair, ballooning the gold tie off his chest like a knuckle. I swiveled and grabbed the doorknob, waiting for something else. There was nothing. The secretary handed me a leather briefcase and said I had a nice smile. I said thanks, and that I didn't use it often. I asked her for the address of a hotel, and then I found the hallway. I looked back and then at the placard that sat on the wall by the door, in the foyer. "Library of Maps." I nearly laughed out loud. Then, on the sidewalk, I saw the side of the building. McGilvrey Hall. I laughed out loud.


Part 2


Rain loves this city like a little sister. I saw this when I woke up. I was in a room at the University Inn and I lay awake all through the night. I watched that rude camera obscura of headlights filing across the back wall. I should have closed the blinds, but there was something about the hint of occasion. So I kept them hanging at an angle. Besides, I had been working nights in Nightmare for six of my seven years there. And there was no such thing as jet-lag from a red eye. I realized that quick after I found the couch. 

It was nine in the morning. When I opened the front door, I was stepping into a whole new place. People didn't drive in Nightmare. But it seemed like that was all anyone did in Kent. I saw the choke of vehicles at the intersection, which my map indicated was Water street and Summit. Then the long vein of traffic down Water trying to get into the city. There was already an accident at the foot of the building. A big man in a black leather vest was berating a young athlete about her assured clear distance. The girl was kneading fingers into her cell phone. 

If there were any dialogue here, I would include it. But there is not. There is only the rain, and my exchange with the gargantuan lady at the CVS. I bought a carton of milk and a package of brown eggs. I also bought a round tin of chewing gum. For the sake of thoroughness: 

"This all?" she asked. 

"Yes." 

She had a cactus on her shirt and I immediately thought of Al. I will remember not to do this kind of reminiscing.

The rain was thin enough that I made it back to the hotel dry. I made it my midday-work to plot out Kent State to the extent of my comprehension. I didn't want to go into the place completely cold. I picked up some some criteria on the University Inn and other places of interest and dropped the pamphlets into the side of my bag. The steps were wide and concrete to the third floor. The door was burgundy. 

If the phone rang I decided I would answer it, but it did not, and so I did not. I began research. I am a very effectuating analyst, and very encyclopedic. 

There are too many buildings to list here, and I'll rely on exposition to cover them all. What I was most interested when I unfolded the map was the crescent shape of the front campus. These were the oldest buildings, a flyer maintained, and well-kept in their fashion. On a side note, the Kent State University Museum is an eight-gallery white house on Lincoln that houses some of the world's most definitive collections of fashion and decorative arts. I cracked two eggs in one hand and set the pan on a burner. 

The five original buildings on the front campus, Merrill, McGilvrey, Lowry, Cartwright, and Kent, stand as behemoth blocks of classical revival, the construction of which began in 1912. The names have been amended or modified here for their modern names, for verisimilitude. I set the coffee maker on, as the Inn had provided me with two pouches of French roast for my arrival. I heard an almost rotating din of burgundy doors opening and closing, at odd periods through the day. The eggs were good, but I had absent-mindedly punctured a yolk with my fork and so tossed the rest of my plate into the garbage disposal. 

I carried on in this way as long as the lobby information would produce. But I knew after my leg fell asleep that I had reached a boundary in things. It was one o'clock and it was time to find a library. 

When I am at full blast I like a good solemn walk. The map, which I named Samuel, told me the library was down Water street and then left on main, and a few fingertips to the entrance. 

For possessions, I had brought from Nightmare only my essentials. That was three black suits and one navy blue suit which inhabited a stuffed garment bag and two pair of black bluchers, which my sister Lucy had purchased for me three years past. I quit my informal attire and fitted myself well into one of the black suits. Then I gathered my paperwork and my shoes and knelt at the inside of the door like a track star and tied at my laces. The rain had stopped. The afternoon would be illuminating.


Part 3


The afternoon was not illuminating. I didn't have the proper paperwork with me, which was something I blamed on Al, and his grey shirt. The library would not allow me to open a new account with just a wink. I thought about passing the shy librarian a coin and a kiss over the counter, but then I decided against it and wandered to the local history section. I found I was over-saturated.

I wondered if it was the eggs, or if it was my sense of displacement. I could not tell what broiled in my stomach, just that it was turning over like a devil. The librarian wouldn't get her eyes off me and I knew if I sat there any longer she would report to the local authorities that there was a strange suited man casing the place. Or, I thought. She didn't move when I left.

I found, after consulting my watch, that I had spent a considerable amount of time uneasy and glazing over books. This was an affectation. Really, I wasn't reading anything at all. It was the red eye catching up with me, and the fact that my sleep pattern was skewered entirely.

The parking lot swallowed me up and I took out Samuel and traced a line that would get me through downtown. A rush of blind exploration, that would clear the body of wrong. It has cleared me of many wrongs past. So too does the wearing of a good suit. I found quiet in the anticipation of the Cuyahoga river, which I descended upon from a jaunty iron staircase that wound into the ground. The hint of a noise ushered me onto a fiber-board walkway that stretched the shoulder of the bridge and continued on for the whole distance of my view. The sky was bruised from raining so much, but I had no apology to offer. It was the sky's own fault.

A kayak passed by in a great banana horror, and I watched in disbelief as the oars dipped among a frothy white film. The ends were marked 'KSU' which I immediately attributed to the university. I waved to them, but I was pale, and so the pilots smirked at what I imagine to be an equally strange observation on their part. I wanted to yell out, "Hi-Oh! Friend of the University!" but I knew it would only elevate the situation. And I was sure that they would tip right over and bob there in their puffed-black vests, gasping in desperation. I never start a fight where there isn't a fight. Diamond Cory would disagree.

Feeling a little dejected, but altogether confident that my regular breathing pattern had revived, I wandered along the river following a path north. It wove behind trees and I concentrated on a very restrictive walk so as to not disturb the sides of my bluchers with mud. There were sunken steps along the footpath that looked archeological, and I made a note of this.

Brady's Leap. It sounded like a cafe. I had a strange notion to yell here too. There was a placard with some historical information, and I quickly copied it down over a scrap of newspaper I fished out of my pocket. Here was a grassy gorge of a spot that was a thumbprint of green and it said that a Captain Samuel Brady leapt here in 1780 across the Cuyahoga to avoid a band of Indians. Twenty-one feet. An admirable distance. I made a few mimetic starts on the knoll and then I saw another banana coming up the river, and so I turned and went away.

"You, Tommy, get away from that!" (A woman from behind, on the path with her young.)

"You, Tommy!"

"Ma'am, I didn't see you there," I said, surprising her. She cupped the child against her and swatted at the broken amber claw of glass near a bush. She smiled up at me, beaming almost. Her turquoise sweater was loose and the neck of her undershirt came up to cuddle her chin with a warm nearness. The two wandered away and I turned back again, yawning at the deep washing vein of the Cuyahoga river.


Part 4


Then it was Sunday and the first week was over. I had nothing to report. I imagined McGilvrey wouldn’t be pleased, but I couldn’t say exactly why. Working for the Department of Campus Aesthetics is never a heavy job. In Nightmare it was a cinch and it took me a while to realize I’d never get out of there until I left. Here was another place that would do that to you. Kent, Ohio; The Tree City. Founder: John Haymaker, named for Marvin Kent. Sister city: Dudince, Slovakia, Sister Cities International. Earth Day. May 4th. Black Squirrels. Acorn Alley. Portage Hike and Bike Trail. Six wards. I was a regular spouting encyclopedia of the city, and then I was in it. 

After my walk on the river, I returned home and slept almost continuously for three days. From the balcony at University in I could see the Star of the West Mill rising on the south of Water Street, in a crude blooming reality of the picture on my map. I had my coffee standing in a lean on the wrought-iron fence there hoping for smoke. Traffic was continuous. 

Kent is an old mill town with railroad tracks. 

I fished through my notebook and read through some of my notes from Nightmare, to see if anything sparked an observation. Like any learning system, success comes from engaging with material. I wanted to say McGilvrey would understand that, and give me a break. But then on the other hand, I knew he wouldn’t. There was a thing about his blue suit that intimidated me. I thought about doing some character sketches of a few individuals that I had met. Maybe Tommy, the young boy. Maybe the librarian. Or maybe not. 

Character sketches was what I’d done time and time again in a lull in Nightmare, prophetic notions of the city born through its citizens. I’d made a pretty good penny free-lancing them to the Nightmare College Gazette, filler for their Arts section. I submitted them under a false name, of course, and Al never got wise. If he’d gotten wise I probably would have left sooner. 

Your guide to the Fairchild Ave. Bridge Project. 

The problem with any Department of Campus Aesthetics is they never know what they want. I know the job, sure, but I may be the only one. Sunday made me feel sick in the stomach and I had to revisit the gargantuan lady at CVS — she remembered me quick. 

“This all?” she asked. 

“Yes.” 

She had on a new shirt. I recognized the design as a tamarack tree and then decided I shouldn’t mention it; she wasn’t one for games. She was a thick trunk of girl and I knew she wouldn’t forgive me if I corrected her. 

There was a note slid under my red door when I returned to the Inn. The envelope was white with no address, which meant whoever sent it brought it straight to my room in person. I suspected Dolores. Although, after I tried to imagine the secretary from the “Library of Maps” shifting up the stairwell all coy-like a salamander, I couldn’t quite get it straight in my head. Had McGilvrey brought it himself? No. I shook the idea like a bee. 

After ripping through the sealed envelope, I was confronted with professional stationary and the lugubrious, weighted scrawl that could only have been McGilvrey’s. I saw his nose. The note said, “9 p.m.” and underneath that, “In 1995, Kent received national attention when the city's water was named "Best Tasting Municipality Water" at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting.” I was confused, to say the least. It was a rib. He was toying with me. 

I decided to re-assess my own slant on the position, and maybe that’d bring me around to some material. 

As an operative, you’ve got to be simultaneously visual and calculated. You’ve got to see the things people don’t say out-loud, and then be able to explain at the snap of some abstract fingers exactly why they don’t say it out-loud. You’ve got to bring pessimists out of the swamp; drag them, if you can. Swipe at the bags under their eyes and reaffirm some kind of confidence in proximity. This is the job of an operative working for the Department of Campus Aesthetics. This is my job. I’ve never met another operative, but, then again, no one’s ever met me. 

There are local commuters to any campus, and these are the most un-ripe of the bunch. What’s wrong with the college you’re attending, and then why are you attending that college in the first place? But you can’t ask them. Ask the students that come from across the country, international students. Graduate students. Is it a diagnosis based on this perpetual need of our generation to be in distaste? Sarcastic, they say it’s contagious. But I’ve got something worse; through well-articulated examination of environs and community, of social mores on a micro-cosmic level, they hire someone in like me to really shock the place new. Kent State University is a public university with eight campuses covering the northeast Ohio region. I couldn’t say the same about Nightmare College. This was more than I afforded on account of a bar-fight. 

Towner's Woods is a great place to relax and have fun. The extensive trail system is great for hiking and nature observation.

“Can’t read, can’t write, Kent State.” 

I’d heard a soliloquizing young man who, after bending to tie his shoe mentioned the remark as a response to his cohort’s complaint. Something about a proverbial wind tunnel on campus, which sounded a lot to me like a rumor. The Student Center, was it really designed as a wind tunnel? Probably not. I wrote it down.

Then the man, who still donned his letterman’s jacket scoffed, “Can’t read, can’t write, Kent State.” 

I thought about starting another bar-fight, right there on the Esplanade. Better wait and come at it from a different angle. McGilvrey would hear from me, alright. I was boiling. 

I sat at the counter in the kitchen and ate a handful of peanuts, crunching out my brain and listening more to the swing and sway of my own jaw than getting all anxious and skipping. The clock said eight-thirty. It was time to check-in. I tied my bluchers. 


Part 5


       I knew that was coming. I shifted my eyes and gave Dolores a real nice grimace, to show her that I was sorry, even if I wasn't. But I noticed she gave my briefcase a glance and saw that I had Samuel balled up like a handkerchief over the back of my right hand, and she giggled. She said I had a nice smile, and generally seemed to act like I was supposed to know what to do next, which I really didn't, and I suspected that she might not even remember who I was. She had a glazed pale over her face that was unsettling, apart from her wrapping paper dress, which was surprisingly floral in contrast. For a moment, while she looked at me, I thought she might be asleep. There was something biotic and altogether conflicting in her demeanor.

           "He's expecting you."

           So she was not asleep. I gave McGilvrey's office door a forceful thump, but not too forceful. Just enough so as he would hear me there and be surprised. He told me to come in, which I did, even though I wanted him to open the door for me. Psychology: I always had an interest but never figured out how to formulate a disconnect to cover any ground. If someone wanted me to do something, and they were all but straight-forward about it, I tended to do it, and think about it later. Tricks, maybe. Mind tricks, like me opening the door myself so McGilvrey could look important. 
           He looked important, though. The office was different, I could tell that when I walked in. It was like when you wake up and you think you're facing one way but you're really facing the other. I think it was the desk, but I couldn't be sure. 

           "Roll-top. Had it installed just yesterday." McGilvrey saw me giving the thing a long eye. 

           His nose was a downturned thumb. He was glaring again. I knew I had to show him some words, or else he was going to get angry. There was distance between us, so I decided to walk over to the desk and touch it, and pull at the hood of the desk to show that it was a keen buy. The guy watched me do it, but he didn't say anything. He coughed. 

           "Well, I didn't call you in here to play with it."

           "I know, sir." I laughed. "It's just, it's a helluva nice desk. Bet you wouldn't find a nicer desk in a church. Antique?" 
           "No." 

           I was confused. They don't make roll-top desks like this anymore, at least ones this sturdy. Maybe he found it in the university, I thought, buried in the corner of a building. Another library, maybe. 

           "It's brand new. Had them fit it for this space, here, see? So it fits in the center and doesn't run past these tile lines."

           McGilvrey was pointing at the floor, and I saw what he meant. The behemoth roll-top desk sat like a fat ship in the exact middle of the office on the back wall, plum underneath a black-framed picture. When I met him the first time, he was facing the door. But this time, his seat was turned away from the desk because the desk was facing the opposite direction. 

           "You're precise," I said, hoping to compliment him. 

           "I am. A gentleman cannot afford otherwise."

           I laughed. 

           "Is there something funny?"

           "No, sir." 

           "You got a report?"

           "No, sir."

           He looked at the calendar that rested atop the desk, which was curled up around the edges. This meant he had a habit of flipping the calendar into the future to look at dates, and I thought that was a little funny too. But I held the laugh in. He didn't look as mean as I thought he'd be. His grey hair was combed to a perfect part and puffed at the left side in unison with the comb which emanated an air of hygiene. I was getting a little anxious about my own hair. 
           "Well, what do you think of the city, then?" He asked. 

           "It's nice."

           He was wearing the gold tie: "There's your first problem. Short language. That's not what you're here for..." 

           "Yes, sir."

           "...Don't interrupt me, you know?"

           "Sorry, sir."

           I was watching the wrinkle in the shoulder of his suit.

           "Elaborate, kid. You've got the badge, and the badge's got you. Now you've got to communicate with the thing. You'll excuse me for talking now for quite some time and you won't interrupt me."

           "Yes, sir."

           A glare. 

           "Look, I've been through a number of operatives and they never seem to stick. They shuffle in from who-knows-where and shut off and don't report, and I get these transcripts and contracts from around the globe that require me to house an operative during their off-season. It's like a hotel I'm running here, and I'm tired of it. If the board wants to write off Kent State and make it a summer home, that's alright with me. But what I'm working on here, you've just got to help out."

           He straightened in his chair and I started to pace, looking real cool in my suit and squinting my brow so as to appear interested. I was interested, but I often don't look it. 

           "Do you understand what this means? I haven't had any kind of reputable staff for years, let alone an operative worth his stuffing. And I've never had an operative request transfer to Kent. I figure, if a man's got an idea to move here, he must be clued in. Secede from the organization? It's a secret anyways, right? You stay on and give me some heavy elbow grease, and I'll make it worth your while. Heck, Kent will make it worth your while. We're our own Department of Campus Aesthetics, at least if we can make a go. You study this town and give me something real, and well turn this whole organization inside out. You get me, kid?"

           McGilvrey was talking awful heated and getting all red and bothered about the face, and I saw when his hair shook out of the part that he meant it. And he got me kind of riled up too, when I thought about it. I'd never seen this kind of act in Nightmare. He had a passion and a fury that worked like twin muses on his person, McGilvrey did. And so I got my face straight on his and said:

           "Let's get moving."