The Hekapolis Trilogy. Hypothesis




The Hypothesis: the existence of Magic in the physical world.

Gabrielle I. Bridge, Cal Poly Pomona, 2010.



ABSTRACT



There were little facts about the reality of magic in our world up until now (2010). Most theories suggested that it was all the fruit of superstitious individuals under the influence of drugs or of charlatans looking for making a quick buck from ignorant trusting people. But now we had witnessed, tested, measured and documented the activities of a whole race of individuals indistinguishable from Homo Sapiens that hide in plain sight using their powers for multiple purposes. The results showed that all of them can affect, change and dominate the physical world with a series of words, ingredients and rites. The conclusion is that magic is real.



Dear Sage,

I was going to tell you what happened before my disappearance in the manner of a scientific paper, but I don't think the intensity of my encounter; or the pain, love, lust and loss I felt could be properly expressed that way. As funny as it might sound to you, I'm choosing to tell you my story in the manner of feelings instead of facts, not like proper scientists communicate their discoveries. After you read this, you will understand why.

Above all else, I have always wanted to know the mysteries of the universe. I amused myself thinking that Pandora's Box wouldn't last a second after reaching my hands. Not even a split second, despite warnings of ill portent, I would have opened the lid, condemning myself and the world to the pain of all its woes. The idea that knowledge could damn our entire existence was alien to me. I never bought it.

Until I met him. Pandora’s Box came into my life in the figure of a man.





ALPHA





Maybe because it was the most unreachable goal a woman like me could attain, I decided, the day my father left, that I was going to win the Nobel Prize one day. I elaborated a simple but fool's proof plan and visualized it like a blackboard inside my mind:

  1. Physics degree,

  2. Masters in Astrophysics, 
     
  3. Prestigious professorship, 
     
  4. Graduate work in theoretical physics,

  5. Make a major scientific breakthrough,

  6. Win the Nobel Prize,

At the bottom of this list. Almost as an afterthought.

7. Get a boyfriend.


It seemed simple enough, but for me it was particularly complicated. My deadbeat dad left us scraping bottom, or so my mother said. And all the scholarships I applied for rejected me.

Their loss...”

I had to submit myself to the most shameful act a scientist, or any woman for that matter, could endure to collect the necessary money to enroll at Cal Poly Pomona.

Many women enjoy that kind of...event, you know?”

The rest of the money for my education I was earning honestly with a part time job at a grocery chain. At this point the first item of my list was half way finished.

Sadly, I didn't know how I would pay for my Masters and I had yet to meet any other acceptable ambitious scientists to start working with on research. But then during the second quarter – exactly in the middle of the semester – my perfect guy started to share one of the classes with me.

That particular spring, global warming had decided to play one on us again and made the weather unnaturally hot for the season. It was particularly uncomfortable for me, because I insisted on looking professional at all times. Buttoned up shirts, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and a ponytail: my perpetual self-imposed college uniform.

The truth is that I tried to always look like I could be a teacher. My own way to push my credentials even though I still didn't have them. It worked so well that in fact a few times I got mistaken as one.

I love those moments!”

As you can imagine, all I could think about was for winter to come and make my existence a bit easier. Maybe that’s why I decided to take so many credits that quarter; every time I ducked into the cool, crisp air-conditioning of a classroom; I breathed a sigh of relief. Sometimes I would stay in the car between classes, running the AC for a few minutes just to endure the heat.

Mom, the few times she was sober enough to notice, always tried to convince me of wearing more fresh and sexy clothes to no avail.

This twister of hot weather and too many classes was the moment the three of us clashed together, like the meteor that impacted Tunguska. It changed the landscape and our lives forever.

We shared my fourth period class, Fundamentals of physics. The other subjects were easy and uneventful: General physics, College physics and their respective laboratories. I just glided through the lessons with ease. I only needed to reread the day's subject a few minutes before the class started. I was ready for whatever question or challenge then.

Easy as pie…”

It wasn't the first time I saw any of them. I remember vague annoying sightings of William, but Toby was my “first time” to call it some way. The memory of his touch was always lingering in my mind. It was the one and only time Toby and I were so close. I constantly thought about him ever since.

Pathetic...”

When I realized in the first day of class that Toby was in the same period, I was lost in the idea of us getting together again, hopefully for good.

Even though this subject was a bit challenging, I wasn't doing so bad myself. My enthusiasm and expertise placed me as the third best in the class. But Toby was so far ahead of the rest of us, he could have practically taught the lessons. Consistently number one, he probably knew more than even our instructor, Mr. Robinette.

Admiring him from afar, but unable to find the words to reconnect with him, I came to appreciate him more. Not only was Toby pretty much a genius, but he was also cute: dark brown curly hair, a nice inviting smile with dimples and glasses that I adored. He was simply perfect. Maybe not for my friends Glenda and Tess, but perfect for me. I had a crush the size of the moon on him. That much I could admit to myself.

For a change...”

I couldn't deny that he was part of the reason Fundamentals was my favorite class. His presence, the way he could recite logarithms, his way around thermodynamics, and his total dominance of scleronomous systems ... I imagined that he was talking just to me. And I imagined that I could talk only to him. Two alien civilizations connected by a radio signal only we could understand.

Hopefully we will make contact at some point in this century...”

Sadly, he had no idea about my admiration. It wasn't that I felt that I wasn’t pretty enough to be attractive to him. He already showed that I passed his threshold for a hook-up at least.

I also was very realistic about my looks. I had a nightmare of entangled messy hay in my head that according to the encyclopedia was classified as hair. All I could do with it was tying it and hope it wouldn't come alive and eat my books during one of my classes or something like it. At least I liked the color. Light brown that changed with the seasons: chestnut brown in the winter and dirty blond in the hotter months.

I had a healthy olive skin complexion, according to my mother, a gift from a long lost African-American ancestor. Even though I wore my uniform more baggy that it should be. I wasn’t ill-shaped by any stretch of the imagination. It’s true that I did my darnedest best to get the ugliest, least trendy glasses that I could find, an extra layer of protection against the world. But I was sure a man as smart as Toby wouldn't care about physical appearances. He was not the shallow type. I could tell.

But then, Dad looked like a nice guy too...”

No, I wasn't afraid of rejection about my looks or something nubile like that. The reason he didn’t know about my crush was...

You are a damn coward!”

Being open to rejection was not my thing. Even if Toby seemed single and lonely, his opinion was too important for me. I just couldn’t stand it if he rejected me and things got awkward between us.

No, not awkward ... painful.”

I remembered an occasion when he approached me, looking comfortable and friendly. He wore a plaid shirt with a white round neck T-shirt under it, jeans and some very old-looking tennis shoes.

Hi Gabrielle!” He said. His voice a light tenor.

Hey, Tobias!” I tried to look as uninterested as possible. But it was a miracle I wasn't stuttering.

Toby, please,” he said, then joked, “Tobias makes me feel like a Catholic friar or something.”

I could barely contain my - excitement? Is that right? I think so, it felt right to hear him like this, casual, smooth, and comfortable with me. I liked it better than I probably should.

Like I said, pathetic...”

I laughed as best as I could to show appreciation for the joke. That surely would get me extra points, right?

Not if you laugh like an idiot...”

Okay, Toby, it is.”

Time slowed down, interminably, stretching to forever with just my silence. Me and small talk were not friends. What do I say now? Something witty? Comment on the weather?

.”..Lame”

But before I could think of something, he saved me.

I was wondering if I could borrow your notes? I could barely keep up with the teacher today, but I noticed that you were with him all the way. Very impressive.”

I felt a warm feeling spread throughout my body.

He’d noticed and was impressed.”

Thanks,” I said shyly, but instead of trying to keep him talking or trying to get a meeting. I just took my notebook and passed it to him. He studied it I watched as he got a couple of Post-Its from his backpack and copied a bit of info. He stuck them onto a clean notebook, with similar notes in what it looked like a very well designed schedule.

He is so organized.”

The whole time, I tried to think of something clever or fun to say, but I came up with nothing.

Thanks!” He said with a smile once he finished. “See you next week.” I just nodded and let him go, still a mute.

Of course, the minute he turned around I started to think of all the things I could have asked him; the books I was reading, the music in my CD player, the teachers I was looking forward, and the ones I was not. I felt a bit hungry, maybe tell him that we could eat something now if he was not too busy ... but it was too late. I peered at the door closing behind him.

What a wasted opportunity.”

Maybe next time,” I muttered bitterly to myself.

Next time what...?”

I looked up to see who heard me. The first thing I saw was a ring on a pinky finger. It looked ancient with a willow tree shallowly engraved in it. The trendy clothes gave away who he was.

DB?!”

Short for DumbBill. His real name was William. I admit that “DumbBill” isn’t exactly the nicest thing to call someone. In my defense I never told him to his face and really he was the most obtuse guy in the whole school.

I always had a short temper for bad students. He never got his answers right, and always looked distracted and annoyed. I saw him paying attention, but nothing that ever came out of his mouth was right. Not even close.

So irritating!”

To be absolutely honest, I had no idea why he was even taking the class. If the women who always surrounded him were any indication, then he might as well be making a career as a model or actor.

It's rude to eavesdrop...” I said, snapping. He didn't seem to be offended though. He had a constant amused expression on his face. That, along with his James Dean act, perfectly combed hair stuck with a gallon of gel, tight clothing, and especially that horrible I-own-the-place walk made him stand out among us regular nerds and future scientists. In a bad way.

If it looks like a jerk, walks like a jerk...”

You talk out loud and I'm the one eavesdropping?” He said raising an annoying eyebrow. Clearly amused by my vocal lapse.

What do you want?” I said. He cleared his throat and for a moment looked formal.

Miss Bridge...” He started “I would like, if you would be so kind, to have access to your notes of Fundamentals of physics.”

My jaw was about to fall to the floor. I studied his face, that frankly looked like sculpted by a Renaissance artist. Cheekbones that could cut paper and meaty pink lips slightly wet, like he just finished kissing someone. I was trying to read any sign of mockery on them.

What in the world?!...”

I didn't imagine that he took the class seriously at all. Although the most curious part was the way he addressed me.

Miss Bridge?” I repeated trying to imitate his eyebrow raising. He opened his eyes wide for a moment, but composed in a split of a second.

Where I come from is polite to address acquaintances by last name until they announce it’s okay to call them by their first.” He said. I got curious.

Where do you come from Mr....?” I didn’t remember his last name for some reason.

Wyseman.”

I remember now. The most ironic surname ever.”

Call me William. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world. ”

I'm a special traveling snowflake...”

He was staring me down, probably trying to get me to let him use my first name.

I don't think so...”

I smiled annoyingly at him and passed him the notes.

Would you be fast? I need to go to work.”

He seemed to ignore my rudeness. Took the shirt he had folded in his shoulder, and placed it in the seat next to me, he opened his backpack. It looked like he wanted to show up his abs on the, a size or two, too small black T-Shirt he was wearing under it.

Ugh! So pretentious”

I started to gather the rest of my things to leave as soon as he was done. I had something to say to the girls finally and didn't want to lose time with some reality-star-wannabe. When he opened his backpack, many pieces of paper fell out of it. I noticed there were no books or notebooks in it, aside from the one he took. It was like this was the only class he was taking this day.

That is kind of odd.”

He took the notebook and opened it on my desk. It was all wrinkly black and white, the pages were dirty white. He passed them looking for a clean spot I presumed and finally turned it sideways to take the notes he needed with a pencil full of teeth marks and a half chewed eraser.

What a mess!”

He frowned a couple of times. His intense green eyes seemed to grow greener with the effort. I felt tempted to try to ask him if he needed an explanation. I desisted thinking how long it will take me.

That Harker kid was right...” He said, suddenly handing me the notebook back and taking his shirt from the seat. “You are indeed an impressive scientist, I can see you have a great destiny ahead of you.” He flashed that annoying smile at me. I wasn't particularly flattered by his comment.

Tobias is usually right.” I simply said, trying to cut the conversation short. He laughed and turned around. A brunette girl was at the door waiting for him. He took her waist and led her out of my eyesight.

Odd.” I simply said “I don't think that dumb guy ever talked to us before...” I shook my head.

Deciding not to dwell on it, I went to have some lunch with my friends.

Glenda and Tess were waiting for me. They were a bit fed up with my inability to put on my big girl panties and ask Toby to hang out or just plain telling him to hook up again and see where this crush could go.

What I never mentioned to them was that there was another reason for my cowardice.

I couldn't allow my crush to ruin a budding professional partnership. I overheard that Toby was also getting a Masters in Astrophysics. Over time, I naturally started to covet him as a partner, and not just in the physical sense

He is the man for the job.”

He was the other half I needed. I'm really at my best when I can bounce ideas off other like-minded people. I was sure that we would make an invincible team. We could go far together. Academics papers, research and dare I say it? The Nobel Prize.

If someone can get it, it's us...”

Of course a relationship with a guy should always be secondary to a career, especially one that could land me a place in history,

Or a place far from here”

I knew that it would be completely perfect, like the Curie marriage, which I guess is why I was so nervous. But I had to try, and every day, I slowly gathered more and more courage to suggest a partnership. Hopefully no one else would snag him first. The other guys in the class were not very friendly with him for some reason.

Probably jealous of his superior intellect”

Surely they won't pick him as a partner out of fear of being surpassed. That was the theory at the moment. I really didn't know, or cared that much, to be honest.

I even rehearsed what I would say. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror every morning before my Tuesday and Friday class:

Toby, I think after this class, we should do some projects together. Think about it. You got the highest grades, and I’m not too shabby myself. I'm particularly interested in String Theory we could think of some tests together. I'm sure you have some theories of your own, right? Here are my personal annotations where you can see my first drafts. If you think it’s a good idea, we could discuss this over a cup of coffee.”

I always carried my personal notebook with me just in case I had the chance to actually give it to him.

Yes that sounds right. Professional, to the point, not mushy, no interference.”

And no passion, what the hell is wrong with you?”

There is nothing wrong with her. The goal first, men last”

Or never-”

Of course, in my imagination, I was secure, eloquent and upfront. And, of course, in my imagination, Toby not only agreed to be my partner, but he also kissed me passionately while corny love songs played in the background.

At least there is some fire in her ... more like a matchstick, but better than nothing”

A very silly thought for a scientist, I know. I guessed that all those stupid Hollywood movies, that mom and I watched together damaged my usually sharp, logical brain. Even so I couldn't shake the idea from my head. A warm kiss from his soft, inviting lips and maybe more later...

Now you’re talking. I’m liking this. Feel it, let it flow”

It was already afternoon and I could feel sweat trickling down the back of my neck. I picked up the pace a bit and fantasized about a tall iced latte. Usually, I meet the girls for some coffee and chit chat. Today, I definitely had something to chat about, though...

I don’t know if they’ll want to hear it.

Featuring a huge selection of fast food and various food stalls, the Marketplace served as the usual lunchtime hangout spot. It was always bustling at this time, and by the time I got there, it was already crowded. I found Glenda and Tess sitting next to each other. Glenda looked great as usual with her beautiful dark glowing skin and a deliciously black silky hair that I would kill to have. On the other hand, Tess was plain Caucasian, with big eyes and thin lips that accompanied her full figure. What made her stand out were her tattoos and piercings and the fact that she changed her hair color every month or so. She had been sporting it pink for nearly a month now, so I guess she’ll probably show up soon with an exciting new color. Maybe even some new piercings to add to the collection of six she already had on her face.

I called out to them and they waved at me without looking away from their smartphones. I knew the routine already, so I went to fetch a turkey sandwich and some iced coffee before heading back to the table. I placed my book bag in the seat with their own bags and backpacks. They were starting to close their Twitter and Facebook accounts so we could bond the old fashioned way: talking in person.

I couldn't afford anything more than an outdated clamshell, with a basic plan, without Internet and very few messages monthly. So my good friends had to be willing to bear my real presence or talk to me over the phone when I needed to contact them. The horror according to Tess.

Hi Gaby. You look happy today. Any news?” Glenda said, while sipping her vitamin water. She was always so perceptive of my moods.

Actually, I do. Toby talked to me again.”

It's going to snow today!” Tess said, rolling her eyes. For some reason, she had the most trouble tolerating my high-school-variety crush on Toby.

At this rate, you’ll be talking to him again next year.”

Tess took a bite of her huge hamburger, sipped her vanilla shake, and arched a studded eyebrow at me. Glenda simply continued her line of patient inquiry with me.

So ... anything else? Any future... meetings?”

Not yet ... working that one,”
“You’ve been ‘working on that one’ since we met you,” Tess said, taking another rather pointed sip of her milkshake. “He’s just a guy. Just sleep with him and that’ll take him down from the pedestal you have him on.”

I don't have him on a pedestal!” I said, mid-bite of my own sandwich. “I'm just trying to take things slowly.”

Tess’s only reply was another roll of her eyes. It was her preferred reaction to most things, which might be why she lines her eyes with thick black kohl: it makes the judgment seem that much more severe.

Come on, leave her alone. There’s nothing wrong with being careful,” Glenda said, ever the diplomat. She was always trying to keep Tess's claws away from me.

She’s practically a prude!” Tess shot back. “Lucky she isn’t a virgin or I would just tell her to hang out with the religious freaks or something.”

Being a prude has nothing to do with it. I’m just selective.”

Or scared...”

That kind of comment was the reason they didn't know that I was indeed, technically, still a virgin. I didn't want to have a reputation as a frigid, especially since I’m in the sciences.

How embarrassing that would that be!”

It wasn’t like I was a religious zealot. I’m not one of those repressed women who place a ton of value on their first time, or worse, wait until marriage. It was more of a matter of bad luck and bad timing. The last thing I wanted was to lower my chances of having sex to zero, by having a giant V painted on my chest.

Oh God,” I said, trying to make a show of my disdain for the idea, “I'm slow, not a prude. With some luck, I’ll be sharing stories of my hook up...s with him in no time.”

I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until Glenda smiled at me.

Good, they bought it.”

Don't you worry, Gaby,” Glenda said with a cheeky smile. She touched my hands. “And don't pay attention to Tess. She thinks sex is some sort of Guinness Record-breaking sport or something. Just look at me – I haven't hooked up in a whole month and I'm not dead.”

Yet…” Tess added and we all laughed.

What you need is to live on your own. That’ll spice up your sex life like that!” Glenda snapped her fingers.

She was lucky enough to share a nearby apartment with her very understanding older brother and his wife: another black beauty. Both around ten years her seniors.

I bit my lip.

You know, I wish I could, but for the moment, I need to save every penny. Plus, Mom lives so close. I can sacrifice myself for a few more years .” Glenda was originally from Washington State so she knew that if she had stayed home she might have had my same problem.

Of course the lack of money was the cover story for the pathetic situation of still living with my mom.

The truth is much worse.”

I noticed that Tess opened her phone to text around, as soon as I talked about saving every penny. She doesn't seem to, have ever not been able to afford anything in her life. Having had three stepfathers who still dote on her and a mother that got married to a wealthy fourth, she never was in want of money.

Just as I was thinking about all these differences between us, Glenda’s cell phone rang and she showed me who it was. All the screen said was: HotGuy.

Glenda picked up after a couple of rings. Her voice taking on a sultry quality that made me feel a little jealous. If only I could had sounded like that when Toby asked me for my notes.

You could, if you let me do the talking.

I cringed at that suggestion.

Tess paid all the attention she could to the conversation, and once it was over, they high-fived each other. With a little bit of embarrassment, I did the same.

I wondered when I would be able to join them in this important rite of passage for a young woman.

With that phone call, the intervention was over for the moment. We started chatting more casually about boys and Glenda’s upcoming date. I relaxed until it was time for my next class.

Once I was finished with classes for the day, I sat in my Toyota for a moment before leaving. While feeling the cool breeze of the AC in my face I started to think about what the girls had said. Approaching shy Toby was a priority. Not just because of our possible future and partnership. I really needed to be able to relate to my friends on the same level, be one of the girls and have my complete college experience.

I already set a date that seemed convenient enough. I always read the textbooks as soon as I picked the class. Memorizing the things that were the easiest and making annotations to ask the subjects that were not, and I knew the next exercise will be with a partner.

I should ask Toby before anyone else.



BETA





That morning I wore my lucky Einstein T-shirt, black pants, and black tennis shoes just like the ones that Toby always wears. It was sweltering hot out, so I opted for just a blue button-up shirt over my T-shirt. Lately, the weather had been changing suddenly, so I tucked a coat away in my backpack, just in case.

It never hurts to be prepared.”

I flossed and stole a bit of perfume from my mother's room. I needed all the help I could get. Of course, since I never wear perfume, I sneezed for around five minutes.

How do people wear that stuff every day?”

I took a better look at the offending bottle.

Oh, carnations!”

I was allergic to them, the poor perfume was not to blame.

While I combed my hair, I repeated my speech at least four times while fixing my ponytail. For some reason it just didn't seem straight enough no matter how many times I tied it up.

Great, wasting your time on fashion and hairstyles, huh?”

That annoying military voice of Brie. She had always been the bitchy one. And to say the least, she wasn’t that happy about my fixation on Toby.

I have this way of seeing the world. I don’t see it from one set of eyes, for three other pairs help me see the complete picture of my life.

They are like the sisters I never had and always wanted, but living inside me. Brie is logical and rational. She’s the one that sets the “right” way to do things, which invariably means no frills, all focus, and absolutely no fun.

You weren’t going to forget about me were you?”

I wish I could. She was the temptation. Elle was the yearning for the explosive euphoria of pure emotion and gratification. She was the ying and yang of love and hate. No, I could not ever forget about her. She is always there, deftly thrusting and parrying with my logical self, my stern and severe self.

Then there’s the balance. The circle that encloses them, stuck in the middle. The referee, Gabe, who has the last word of who to listen to in the end.

When I was younger I once kept a dairy in the different voices. It looked like a train wreck of words and sentences without authors. It all made sense to me, though. It wasn’t until middle school, when my diary was read by a nosy friend, that I learned not everyone had these voices. She called me psycho and told some of the girls at school that I was on my way of becoming an axe murderer or something worse.

I burned the diary and never wrote anything about my personal inner life ever again.

No evidence, no witnesses.”

After that I tried to ignore them, thinking they weren't good for me. After several months I realized they weren't bad. They weren’t telling me to do bad deeds or driving me insane. They were just keeping me company.

It’s not like Mom could be there for you.”

For a matter of being accepted by my peers, and to avoid getting locked up in an asylum, I just kept it to myself at school.

Ironically, I decided to trust my mom once with my secret. Although she was pissed off at the girl in question, she told me that she was right about this not being normal.

Great choice of words coming from her.”

She mentioned that maybe all that science was affecting my brain. I guess she thought I was going to end up like her.

I will never let that happen.”

I can't complain about the extra help, though. Listening to them – Brie, especially – has really gotten me far. I got first place in the science fair of two thousand, the first place in the regional science fair in two thousand three, and also in two thousand five and in two thousand eight. The half-scholarship I managed to fetch was more Brie accepting that we had really no choice. We had to take Mom's suggestion seriously, which was an idea that Elle backed up enthusiastically, of course.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Brie, with her short blond hair and severe glasses, always appeared stronger when I was starting to develop crushes in school.

The time when there is more danger to repeat mom's mistakes.”

Elle chimed in, right on cue, when the feelings Toby caused on me were the subject of discussion.

But you had gone overboard! You’re the reason why we only kissed a boy the last year of high school and we only have had one hook up– and this is after two whole years of college!”

I always imagined Elle with jet black hair long, stylized like a movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I could picture her clothes clearly too, a red mini-dress with red lipstick. A champagne glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other – both unhealthy habits I would never indulge in.

There are things more important than men. We’re a perfectly rational human being, not just a naked ape.” Brie said.

You said naked.” Elle snickered.

What I said was,” she continued when Gabe interrupted.

Later, we’ll have plenty of time to find a proper guy who will support us in our goals without distracting us with silly hormonal needs.”

Elle rolled her eyes. I imagined her sitting in a tall chair with her legs, lazily closed. She took a long sip of her drink du jour. Today it was an olive-garnished martini.

You are such a killjoy,” She said, gesturing with the cocktail glass. “The girl has barely any experience with men. No guy will want an inexperienced virgin for anything but work, and not the fun kind.” She said, winking at Brie. Brie mumbled an unintelligible oath.

Gabe, dressed in sporty clothes, hair up in a practical but chic ponytail, was always the voice of reason. Not to mention a comfortable compromise between the femme fatale Id Elle and the Nazi lab rat Superego Brie.

Toby’s nice, smart, and attractive enough.” Gabe said authoritatively, looking both Elle and Brie in the eye. “There’s no harm in letting him in, so you can just knock it off. Plus, we’re going to be late for class if you keep bickering.”

With that, everyone was quiet and it was finally time to go. I touched the cheek of my favorite female scientist, Marie Curie, in the poster hanging behind my bedroom door as a sign of good luck. Not that I believed it, but it was an old habit inherited from mom. Brie and Elle’s quarrel didn’t help calm the butterflies in my stomach, but I had already made up my mind.

The whole drive from Rancho Cucamonga to Cal Poly Pomona was one of the most stressful trips I’d ever had to make. I switched on a special playlist I’d made on my iPod to make me feel as fierce and brave as possible. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, I straightened my glasses more than a dozen times. I kept chewing gum to make sure my breath was fresh, and even though my jaw started aching, I doggedly kept going. I wanted everything to be perfect.

Is it silly to act like I'm going into battle?”

Maybe, but this was important to me.

You are insane! It’s not like you’re going to talk to Bill-what’s-his-face.”

That made me laugh out loud.

DB?!” That guy was the last person on earth I would be nervous around for any reason.

I just rolled my eyes. To me, he just looked like average jock number seventy five.

Oh, come on, the guy is handsome. Even if you are not attracted to him, give him that at least.”

I guess if you like the tall type with chiseled boyish features, strong muscles, perfect silky black hair. A smile that could light up a whole room and the most intense green eyes you could possibly imagine.

I guess it makes sense.”

But to make up for his good looks, I’m sure he had the nastiest personality, and probably treated the people around him like trash. No matter what, he would never be as decent as Toby, who at least wasn’t a superficial idiot.

You surely guess a lot for the little you had talked to him or Toby for that matter. Give me the lotto numbers next, psychic.”

Frankly, if he didn’t keep interrupting the flow of class making silly comments, I wouldn’t even remember he was there.

The full heat of the day hit me like a wall as soon as got out of my Toyota. Hopefully it wasn’t a bad omen, but the only spot I could get was in front of what I personally called the “sad man” building. It was a hideous triangular tower that I’d always hated; it was more of a blight on a campus that was generally beautiful. Fortunately, they were planning to demolish it and build a nice, non-depressing, square building that would be less of an eye-sore. The only good thing about the place was the Japanese garden right next to it. I’d spent so many hours gazing out at the water lilies and lotus blossoms there, and it was my favorite spot to think. Hopefully, they wouldn’t tear it down too.

So long and thanks for the memories, sad man,” I said. Some of the students who were walking in the opposite direction looked at me curiously. I was talking out loud again. I looked down and hurried onward, a bit embarrassed.

I went directly to the engineering building, passing up the refreshment center after deciding not to get two coffees: one for myself, and another for Toby.

No one likes desperation.”

I nodded to myself. I’d wait to see if everything went according to plan before trying anything fancy, so I just got one coffee for me.

Anyway, I was already running a bit late, and I wanted to see if I could snag a seat next to Toby. Talk to him for a few minutes and make the partnership look accidental. Unfortunately, when I got to class, everyone had suddenly decided to become good students or something, and it was already a full house.

Damn!” I muttered, drawing a few more curious looks from people who’d heard me.

You really need to stop doing that.”

Looks like I was stuck in my usual seat next to Luis. He wasn’t the best in class, but he was decent enough.

Better than DB, anyway – not that that’s hard.”

I held in a smile at the quip, and greeted Luis in obviously terrible Spanish.

Buenos dias.”

A tad better than last time,” Luis said amiably, placing his index finger and his thumb together to show how much I had not improved. It was a small joke we had, though in general, we didn't really talk that much. He was one of the dorm kids and usually came in his pajama pants. I would probably do the same if I lived in Campus, so it might have been better that I actually didn't.

We were toward the front of the class, just a bit down the row from Toby. Once I got situated, I glanced at him. He looked particularly attractive today for some reason.

Maybe he has new glasses,” I thought idly, playing with my pencil. My head propped up on one hand.

Maybe I should tell him, so at least he’ll know that I'm paying attention to him. Paying a lot of attention to him in many ways.

I bet you won’t say anything. You will sit and think about it, but do it? No way.”

I imagined Elle sitting with her arms crossed, looking at me skeptically with an expression I’d seen on Tess’s face many times. Gabe and Brie merely shrugged.

I could hardly concentrate during the lecture. Fortunately, I already knew enough about today’s topic to breeze by. It freed up my time to mentally rehearse my speech a few more times – ignoring Elle’s giggling and Brie’s silent disapproval. When I got bored of repeating my speech like a broken record, I started thinking of different ways I could catch Toby’s attention. Maybe if I threw a paper airplane at him? Maybe I should just wave to get him to pay attention.

Why not just take your shirt off, the T-shirt is tight enough to show some assets? That usually works.”

Brie rolled her eyes so hard that I thought she was going to pop them out of her skull.

All the chatter reminded me of a similar crush I had on my senior year of High School. He was similar to Toby.

Do you have a type or what?”

He actually initiated the one and only time I passed notes in class, but he only wanted help with Trig and he was obviously dating one of the cheerleaders.

She was actually really nice.”

I ended up moving him to the friendzone and we all three ended up being good friends. Sadly, they weren't careful and ended up becoming parents right after we ended the year.

Is hard to go to college and pay for daycare.”

I never heard from them again.

He just looked!” I caught Toby’s eyes on me while I was daydreaming.

Okay, now let’s do this right. Sit up straight, stick out your-”

I tried to look natural and smiled back as casually as possible. Toby made a gesture of sleepiness and I couldn't help but snicker. That caught the teacher’s attention, and he frowned a little at me. As the only girl in the class, he knew that the sound had come from me. I tried to pretend that I had just remembered a joke or something. Toby looked at me and mouthed an I'm sorry looking apologetic.

Wow, this might actually work” I hear Elle sounding surprised, and adjusting her bosom in her scanty dress.

We might even be making out soon!”

So Mr. Wyseman, would you please explain to the rest of the class Noether's Theorem?”

He looked toward the very back of the room, where DB was seated. I seemed to recall that he always sat by himself in the classroom, looking cool and unapproachable. Maybe once or twice, one of his “girlfriends” sat with him before class started. I’d noticed them because I was always happy when I found fellow women of science, but his groupies always left right before the class started. It was so disappointing.

DumbBill was trying to hide. Obviously, he didn't knew the answer

..The sky is blue and the water wet...”

He got up, wearing his typical too-tight black T-shirt with jeans held up by a belt. The buckle was bright and featured a design that looked like ancient Roman chains. The way he moved was slow and arrogant, like he owned the room or something. Although destroying his swag was the trail of debris and papers falling behind him. The whole class smiled at him with no small measure of pity.

How can someone who acts so arrogant be so disorganized and absentminded?”

By the window, I saw a couple of female students peering into the room, looking at him with desire. He seemed to notice, because he moved his hand toward his perfectly styled hair, accommodating a small lock that was out of place.

He probably uses a whole can of hair gel every day.”

What a waste of the planet’s resources.”

If he didn’t spend all his time trying to look like the poor man's version of a teen idol, then he might actually have stood a chance of passing the class.

I noticed the ring in the pinky finger of his right hand again. He was one of the few men I had seen in real life wearing a sole ring like that. The others were mob bosses on Mafia movies. I thought he might be one. I could imagine him going in dark alleys, beating poor guys for protection money.

I was obviously trying to distract myself paying that much attention to him since I guessed that right after his intervention we will have the partner's choice. My heart started to beat really fast just thinking about approaching my crush from across the room.

I peered at Toby again and he seemed to be looking at me. I got more nervous so I turned my attention to the door. The girls staring at DumbBill made some giggling noises while looking at him. I threw a look of pity towards then.

As soon as DumbBill opens his mouth, they’ll probably run for the hills.”

The whole class laughed.

Oh, crap. Did I say that out loud?”

I looked around completely embarrassed of myself, the heat burning my face. The teacher looked at me, his disapproving gaze sharpened into a glare.

What did you said, Miss Bridge?”

Nothing,” I muttered, ducking my head and trying to make myself as small as possible.

I could see everyone grinning at me, but the expression that bothered me the most was Dum…William’s. He was staring at me blankly. I could swear he smiled for a fraction of a second, and his lips seemed to move just ever so slightly, like he was whispering something. It was kind of scary.

Are we in kindergarten, Miss Bridge?”

I'm really sorry, Mr. Robinette,” I mumbled. “I was just thinking out loud.”

You shouldn't apologize to me,” Mr. Robinette said, “but to your classmate.”

I felt my cheeks heat up even more, and I looked up. He was completely still, the same quiet expression on his face.

I'm sorry...William.” A DumbBill almost slipped out again.

Don't worry.” He said with an ironic smile and glanced at Mr. Robinette.

I don't think I can explain the theorem, Mr. Robinette. Can I go back to my seat?” He looked down and threw his shoulders back, like his arrogance was just a mask he was forced to wear. Suddenly, I sincerely felt sorry for him. Not to mention, I felt like a total jerk for making fun of the slow kid. The professor transferred his look of disapproval from me to William and said in a stern voice,

Mr. Wyseman, I don't know what’s wrong. We’ve been covering this topic for a while now.”

I swear, I try,” William said. “It just doesn't stick. I'm not normally this dumb.”

As he finished what he was saying, he shot a glance towards me. He was doing it to embarrass me even more!

You deserved it.”

I slouched down in my chair and waited for the ground to open up and mercifully swallow me whole. I could get a Masters in Geology after all.

Mr. Robinette looked at me again, and I swear I saw a downright unholy light entering his eyes. There was a brief moment where his pupils had a strange spark. Brie shook her head thinking I was just imagining it.

Maybe you need a partner,” he said slowly. “Someone who can take one-on-one time to instruct you and show you how this works before the finals. Right, Miss Bridge?”

OH NO!”

I stared at the teacher, dumb with shock. There was no way he was going to stick me with DumbBill! My three voices came to a halt. Even Elle dropped her drink in the floor and let the cigarette slip from her hand.

But.” I started, my voice unsteady. I could hear all my carefully laid plans crumbling into dust, not to mention the awkward silence that had permeated the classroom. I didn’t dare to even glance in Toby’s directions. My hands started shaking, and I tried to compose myself, hoping I didn’t look too desperate as I came up with a fast excuse.

I don't think I'm qualified.”

I think you will do a fine job.” Mr. Robinette said. “You will be Mr. Wyseman’s partner from now on. Maybe once you two get to know each other you’ll stop thinking of a fellow classmate in such a derogatory way. Speaking of which...”

He turned back to speak to the class, completely dismissing me and the mess he had landed me in, “We are going to pick partners for the rest of the quarter. Do the same amongst yourselves.”

I barely heard anything else.

The plan is ruined!” My three girls said at the same time.

I wouldn't get to work with Tobias, and I’d have to deal with the village's idiot. What if I ruined my grades and lost my scholarship? What if I never got to see Toby again because I had to help this Justin Bieber wannabe with his homework all the time?

By the time I recovered from my shock, class was over and most people had already left. Toby gave me a sympathetic look before leaving. I entertained the thought that maybe he had actually wanted to work with me.

Great, then I screwed us both over.”

I felt someone next to my desk and looked up. William was standing there, his hands in his jeans pockets and a smug smile on his face. He looked calmed and aloof, like he owned the whole school plus the surrounding neighborhood. I felt like erasing his satisfied expression with my fist.

A blond girl was standing in the door. She was impatiently looking at us and tapping her foot. He gave her a severe look, and she stopped fidgeting and started to play with her iPhone instead.

I can feel my IQ dropping already”

I have to go now, but let me know when we start…partner.” William chuckled. He reminded me of one of those Bond movie villains. He handed me his silver smartphone.

Write down your number,” He said a little too commandingly for my taste. And, before I could stop him, he grabbed my old LG from the pocket of my backpack.

I’ll give you mine too, so we can coordinate.”

The whole time, he had that same stupid smile on his face. He was enjoying this, almost as though the teacher had done exactly what he wanted. There was something about him that really rubbed me the wrong way.

Gee, what could it be?”

In a small act of rebellion, I deliberately gave him the wrong number. I had to talk to Mr. Robinette. I couldn’t get stuck in a partnership with this pop culture zombie!

If my grades fell, I would lose the scholarship that I’d earned with so much personal sacrifice and shame. I couldn’t just let it slip by on a misunderstanding.

See you soon.” William said, and then nonchalantly walked away like I was nothing. He grabbed the barely dressed blond by the waist and practically dragged her from the room.

I hadn’t noticed before, but my stomach was aching from the torrent of emotion running through me.

Oh, great, now I'm not going to be able to eat for the rest of the day,” I said to myself, then swore half-heartedly when I realized I was talking out loud again.

I feel the anger radiate from the center of my body towards every limb. The kind of feeling that might have reduced another kind of person to tears. But my eyes stayed dry.

I can't cry.”

I noticed at thirteen, the day he left.

I came from school holding yet another prize won and I was going to show him. My mother was sitting there half a bottle of Vodka in the floor, a glass in her hand. It was the first time I saw her drinking during daytime,

The first of many.”

She told me everything, the tears falling down her face. I felt rage, crushing disappointment and frustration. There was a cold feeling in my stomach. The cold of the loneliness I felt.

He didn't even say good bye to me.”

I looked myself in the mirror. My eyes were turning red, the eyelids slightly swollen. A river of memories washed me over: the happy times with my father teaching me science, sharing hobbies and books and I realized it was all a lie and he didn't deserve my tears. That is why they never came.

I washed my face, drowning my itchy eyes with tab water and welcomed this new flaw. No one could make me cry. I was stronger than I thought.

Now all I felt when I was upset was this pain in my stomach. A ball of iron in its pit, the kind that had me developing gastritis at fifteen. If you ask me, it was a fair price to pay in order to never have to show weakness to anyone.

Especially not in front of someone like William Wyseman, who wouldn’t know a day’s worth of struggles, let alone anything like what I’ve gone through.

I barely noticed how late I was for work, and I forced myself to snap out of my thoughts and quickly pack up. Just what I needed after a bitterly disappointing morning: time to fulfill my duties at the local grocery store as a worker drone.

I arrived at the store donning my apron and cap in the parking lot as usual.

The rest of the day was slow and dull, and I spent it completely preoccupied with how to get rid of the dead weight. Even my boss at work noticed that I wasn’t my usual enthusiastic self, probably because I was moving in slow motion.

Halfway through my shift, my cell phone rang. I didn’t bother to check the screen and just absentmindedly went to the break room to take the call.

Hello?” I said, still thinking about how I was going to earn my freedom back.

Did you know your threes look like ones?” The tone and the words made me recognize him instantly.

William?!”

He replied mockingly, “Changing the last number? Really?”

I felt a mix of embarrassment and anger. His cocky voice was more annoying than his funny one.

You surely understand that I really don’t want to be your partner?” I was too annoyed to be polite.

I do understand,” He said calmly. My mouth opened slightly. I couldn't believe he was taking it so well!

Hmmm. Maybe we judged him wrong.”

Oh, thank God,” I said, feeling relief flooding my body. “Then we can both talk to Mr. Robinette to untangle this mess. I...”

I didn't mean that I’d let you off the hook. I only meant that I can understand your reservations,” William paused. Suddenly his voice took in a strange tone. He sounded bitter. “Sadly, for both you and me, I need the help. I can't just let you go.”

Shock again – this time, growing into fury.

We judged him right,” Brie said smugly. Elle just lit up a cigarette and sat, sighing.

Look, William,” I said firmly. “If you need help, I can find you a better partner. I'm sure there are plenty of others who can help you out.”

I wasn't sure, but I would find one even if I had to comb all of Southern California and Hawaii to find it.

I don't,” He replied, sounding like his usual arrogant self again, “and I really don't have time to continue this conversation. We start tomorrow. Your house or mine?”

For a moment, I got distracted by that bit of new information.

Your house? You don't live at the dorms?” He had the frat type down to a T. I assumed that he was in one almost from first sight.

Neither do you.”

How would you know?” My heart accelerated a bit.

What else does he know? “

Your house or mine?” He repeated, sounding bored.

I sighed with frustration. I’m not a violent person, but there was something about William that just threw me off my rails.

Neither,” I said finally. “The library.”

Okay. Be there at ten tomorrow morning. Study room number seven, seven, six.”

But...” He hung up without even waiting to hear my answer.

Unable to actually introduce my fist to his teeth, I settled for glaring at my innocent phone. This day had gone from bad to intolerable.

I finished up what was left of my shift, and after buying some discount bagels, I headed straight home. The whole time that stupid meeting hung over my head like a dark storm cloud, and the pain in my stomach continued to grow like a black hole in my belly.



GAMMA





When I got home my mother was burning the spam mail in the fireplace. It was a habit she’d had since I was thirteen. Today I was thankful that her condition was so severe that she wouldn't notice how sad and stressed I was. At least she could live peacefully in Boozeland while I fixed my life and dealt with my situation. Izzy greeted me by purring between in my legs. I picked her up and petted her on my way to the kitchen. Mom had dinner ready. Nothing big, just some boiled potatoes and sauté chicken. A few times a week she was lucid enough to cook for us. Cooking relaxed her, not as much as drinking, sadly. I sat in the tiny kitchen with my cat in my lap.

How was your day?” She said adding too much salt to her food.

Mom.” I said looking at her hand with the shaker on it.

I know too much salt...blood pressure...blah blah blah.” She let go of it and started eating. She liked salt too much and the doctor told her to cut it down. It was about the only thing she agreed to stop doing once I begged her. The doctor and I naturally told her the same about her drinking, but...

One of two vices trying to control is not that bad, there is still hope.”

Normal day; school, work, nothing interesting.”

Any dates?”

Not yet”

She sighed. We both finished dinner. I was my turn to do the dishes so I cleared out the table and started to load the dishwasher. She took another glass of wine and left for her room. When I finished I took some ranitidine pills and changed into my pajamas. Staying angry all day had worn me out, and I was too tired to think. I went to say goodnight to my mother. Gave her a kiss on the forehead, and then headed back to my room.

I had the nightmare again that night.

The faceless man was so big that he could hold me by the arms. His body was painted with many bright colors. His face had no eyes, ears or nose but it had the mouth. It was a big, scary mouth filling his whole head. It had a mad expression that made me cry, but then he shrieked like it was in pain. His big mouth smiled menacingly. His dark hand took a piece of his body, like he was ripping it apart. It changed from the colorful pattern to what looked like a white sugar package. He forced it down my throat. It was not sweet, but bitter, so bitter. I felt it crawling inside me, tearing apart my guts, blood coming out of my mouth, chocking me with the salty taste...

I woke up in the middle of the night when my mother's hand was touching my forehead.

You had the nightmare again?” She asked patiently. I was probably screaming in my dreams like I did every time I had this oniric ghost visiting me. She always was with me when I had that dream, no matter how sad or drunk.

Yes. It’s been a while.”

Yes.” She only said. I welcomed the affection and kissed her hand

I'm going to be okay, please go back to your room.”

She nodded and left, stumbling as usual.

Her hand smelled like Whiskey.”

The next day I not only woke up with a headache, but also with an effective plan. I’d pick my worst subject and whatever expectations William had of me would surely disappear at my supposed incompetence. It pricked my pride to make him think I was not as smart as I looked, but there was no other way around it.

Preparing to leave for our meeting, I dressed in all black. It was a personal joke about what I was about to do.

The death of our intellect.”

I made sure to leave breakfast for mom. I checked on her before I headed out the door. Just like most nights, she had fallen asleep while watching reality shows. Now the TV was showing a generic white guy wearing a suit and announcing: “I became a food addict for my dog!”

As he said the catch-line, the show flashed to an ecstatic-looking man, kissing a dog on the mouth.

The things people will do.”

I just turned the TV off and covered mom with a blanket. I didn’t wake her up to say goodbye. Izzy was still sleeping on the top of her tower as well. The two of them looked like they were having pleasant dreams.

Time to win the Oscar for: Best representation of the worst partner.”

Unlike yesterday, my playlist du jour was worried.

The library was an enormous building that was filled with students at all hours. It was painted with a huge gold-and-blue line: the school colors. The front wall was a crystal that gave a good view of the electric staircase inside that led to the second floor where you could catch the elevators to the rest of the levels in the building.

It looks more like a mall than a place of learning.

On my way up to my place of torture, I received a text message from Glenda:



HotGuy didn't cuddle.



She appended an unhappy face at the end. Another hookup gone wrong. Glenda has had a string of those lately. Even though she pretended it didn’t bother her, I knew that she was bound to be a little upset. I texted her back that I would call her as soon as I was done dumping Prince William, and then focused on the task at hand.

I got out at the sixth floor and wandered around, dragging my feet until I found the right study room. I saw William through a window wearing another one of those too-tight T-shirts, green this time. I thought he was talking over the phone with a blue tooth. When I moved closer, I noticed a pretty red-headed woman with him. Her skin looked unreal like porcelain recently polished. She was dressed in black from head to toe; it made her skin look even paler.

So... cheating,”

I said to myself and ducked behind the bookshelves. Given that I was early, I didn't want to be witness to something he might need to explain to his blond girlfriend. His sleazy activities were none of my business.

Men with options will use all of them.”

Brie perked up in my head, and I smiled, thinking she was right. Curiosity got the best of me, and I couldn’t help but sneak a peek. Whatever they were discussing, William seemed sad, worried, and dare I say, vulnerable. I don't remember ever seeing him like that. The memory of his bitter tone on the phone came to mind. The redhead kissed him once on the cheek and then held his hand reassuringly.

I wonder if she knows about the other one?” I worried to myself. I also felt a bit embarrassed about the level of intimacy displayed. Brie demonstrated her complete lack of interest by yawning. Elle said nothing, which was odd.

Then again, nowadays, it’s not uncommon to date several people at once.”

Either way, we could always use this against him,” I thought, “if he doesn’t agree to discontinue our study sessions.”

Elle suddenly decided to join the conversation at that point.

Or maybe you’ll just turn him off by being such a joyless prude.”

I ignored her as usual.

Still, I wondered what could be bothering him so much. He always looked so confident and self-assured in class – even when he gave the wrong answer!

The redhead kissed him on the cheek again. She also made a strange gesture, touching her forehead, then her lips and finally her chest. William imitated her. I was so lost in thought that I barely registered that she was heading out of the room. I couldn’t quite avoid eye contact with her from when I was standing. I was abruptly confronted with her friendly freckled face in front of mine.

Hi,” she said. “You must be Gabrielle, my brother's new study partner.”

Brother?”

There goes the blackmailing plan.”

Yes, I'm Margaretta…or Maggie, as everyone calls me.”

She was his sister? I looked at her, but they didn’t look anything alike aside from both of them being outrageously good-looking. Her nose was small and chiseled, and her eyes were a less intense shade of green. Her face was a little plumper than his and a lot friendlier, too. There wasn't enough in her that made me believe that she and William were blood-related. Then again, brothers and sisters don't have to look alike.

She could very possibly be his half-sister, after all.”

Nice to meet you,” I said looking down for a moment. “Sorry, I didn't mean to snoop. I got here early and didn't want to interrupt.”

It's okay. I saw you, but Will didn't. It’ll be our secret.” She winked at me and placed her finger on her lips. I noticed that her nail polish was also black. She also had a ring in her left hand. A simple silver band with violet seven pointed star gem.

She looks too young to be married.”

Maybe is a promise ring?”

Very pretty, though.”

Maggie's expression turned serious.

I wanted to thank you for your help. You have no idea how important it is for us to be able to get through this subject. Will has tried everything. He’s read every book and talked to so many teachers, but nothing sticks.”

The look on her face was dark. The way she spoke almost seemed like it was a matter of life and death. I glanced guiltily away, but not before I noticed a pendant in a long chain around her slender neck. It looked like a peacock feather enclosed in a bronze metal circle, violet and blue with a silver center, like an eye.

Maybe he is on a scholarship too.”

I felt like the lowest human being on the face of Earth. After all, being smart was just good luck for me. It was a gift from my father, since he was the one who had introduced me to science and lent me his genes.

It was about the only good thing he’d ever done in his life.”

William, on the other hand, was unlucky. He could only work desperately to try to learn the things that had been taught to me, practically since the womb. I had only been thinking of myself. I had been reluctant to share my gift just because I wanted recognition too much.

So selfish.”

It wasn’t like I was pledging my life to him and forsaking science to help him achieve his goals.

Does he have a scholarship that he might lose?” I asked.

I wish it were that simple,” she said, avoiding my face.

I wanted to ask why, but then again, she was a stranger. Whatever reasons she had were none of my business. Maggie glanced at my outfit, and smiled.

We match.”

But she sounded sad, like it was a bad thing. I just nodded, not wanting to explain my reasons. She seemed to have her own, though they appeared to be painful ones. Then, shaking off her dark mood, she smiled at me again.

I need to go now,” she said. “Please be patient with my brother, he’s trying his best, I swear.”

Without warning, she kissed me on the cheek, gave me a quick hug and left. Something about the way she walked reminded me of a pixie – light and airy, like she was skipping.

She’s probably a foreigner like William,” Brie suggested to explain away the incongruity.

Could be.” I sighed. There goes my foolproof plan. I decided to teach William to the best of my abilities, even if he did annoy me.

.”..like a rock in the shoe.”

When I entered the study room, William smiled at me as though we were best pals. The room was small. Its walls were painted white and yellow and the only furniture was a table and four seats. On the wall there was a blackboard with markers and an eraser.

You’re early. Thanks for coming.” He stood up until I sat down, and then took his seat in a smooth and graceful motion. How odd, the last time I saw a man standing up for a woman was with my grandfather, and he was senile when he did it. William and his sister definitely must be from another culture. I felt like a jerk again. Maybe all the things that bothered me about him were normal were he came from. I know I can be too judgmental sometimes.

Sometimes?! Understatement of the century.”

Well, I was walking around here first.” I started explaining, and then lamely interrupted myself. “So I guess you want to start right away?”

Yes, please. We don't have much time,” he said immediately. Once again, I noticed a strange edge of urgency to his voice.

You’re right,” I said, doing the mental math. “The midterms are barely a month from now.”

For some reason, he looked like he was just being polite when he nodded in reply. Almost as though he had been talking about something else and gotten caught in a lie. Was I imagining things?

Probably.” said Brie.

While I was dwelling into trying to figure out the thoughts of some out-lander playboy, William cleared his throat and got down to business.

If you don't mind, I brought some notes,” he told me. “I’d rather work with what I don't understand specifically, saving time you know?”

He opened his backpack. Just like in class, an absurd number of loose-leaf paper and sheets of crumpled notes flew out. They fell to the ground, spreading on the floor like a mail-room nightmare. He cursed under his breath, though I didn't recognize the word, and bent to gather them up.

I tried to help by picking up a few sheets that ended up at my feet, idly taking a peek while I was at it. They were teeming with an incredible number of annotations and questions, including basic ones about the constant of gravity and some comments on the different environment of the Moon.

Maybe he wants to do rocket science?”

The scribbles were messy and hard to read, some even looking like an indecipherable language that was probably his mother tongue.

What is all this?” I asked, trying not to look confused. It seemed like he was coming at the material from so many different directions.

William was still looking at the floor, organizing his thoughts. It did feel like he was hoping to learn everything in one day, which was impossible by any standards.

My notes,” he finally said. “I write down everything I don't understand. I tried to get books for that, but they were... confusing. Theoretical physics is very hard for me.” He shrugged.

Then it’ll be a long first day,” I said without thinking, then bit my lip.

You really need to watch what you say out loud.”

Fortunately, he seemed to be on his best behavior, as he pretended not to hear me.

I opened my textbook, marked to the chapter on logarithms, my worst subject. A reminder of my selfishness. I discretely took away the post it and opened the book in lesson one: the history of physics. Maybe if I could find out where we lost in him, I’d have a better idea of what was confusing him.

Surprisingly enough, he was actually quite versed in the matter of how many people contributed to our field through the history of humankind. He even pointed out some mistakes, using his smartphone to look up proof. Somehow, he was right every single time. Despite myself, I was quite impressed.

Maybe he is not completely hopeless after all.”

Maybe you should had gone for a major in history instead,” I said. “It seems to be one of your strengths.”

Maybe. But I desperately need the knowledge physics will give me.” He looked at me and hesitated. It seemed as though there was something he wasn’t supposed to tell me. The word desperately was definitely unusual for something like a major.

Do you feel something is off? Maybe you could ask him more directly...”

No, that would just make it more awkward and...”

Did you say something?” He asked. It caught me from my inner monologue.

Hmm, no, and, what did you say?”

William propped his hands up against each other by the fingertips, making a figure that reminded me of a bridge. He continued quickly, as though he were afraid of what he might say.

Also there’s no merit in learning what comes easy to you, is there?” He said winking at me.

So, he likes challenges.”

Fitting, I guessed. Except I had always pegged him as the troublemaker type. Who knew that instead of riding a motorcycle and tearing up bars he’d be challenging himself mentally?

We ended the personal confessions right there. I tried to explain the basics, using the blackboard to show him the formulas, variables, and values. After demonstrating the theory, I selected some exercises from the book for him to complete.

Total failure.”

No matter how simple a problem was, we would spend a long time on it. He called it a hole in his brain and he was right; he could follow instructions and memorize formulas and procedures, but he couldn’t visualize the solutions.

From my angle, I couldn't see the clock on the wall, but regardless of how long we had been there, I started to feel hungry. I couldn't starve again, knowing what it would do to my stomach.

Can we take a break to eat?” I asked when we reached yet another dead end.

Okay,” he said with a frustrated expression. Leaning back in his chair and stretching his arms behind his head. He sighed, looking almost crossed-eyed at the pile of books in front of us.

I picked up my backpack to leave, thinking I’d hit up the food court.

So, I guess we will see each other in a half an hour, more or less?” That seemed to remind him of something and he sat up straight again.

I brought something to eat.”

He opened his backpack, showing me some wraps with something that looked like ham.

Is forbidden to eat here, you know?” I said.

This guy is really clueless.”

I know,” He said, and promptly handed me a sandwich in a plastic bag.

Oh.” I awkwardly took the offering. “Well, I still need something to drink…”

I didn’t even get to finish the sentence before he was handing me a bottle of apple juice. It was ice cold somehow, even though the air conditioner in the room wasn’t that strong.

Oh,” I said again, “Thanks.” I started to unwrap the sandwich when he interrupted me.

What are you doing?” Some of my old annoyance with him resurfaced.

I thought this was for me?” He smirked at me as though he knew.

I mean, here? We just spent almost four hours in this box. We should eat outside where we can catch a bit of sunshine before we catch the rickets! Also…it’s forbidden to eat here,” He echoed my words with another wink.

I wasn’t reassured by his cavalier attitude, but I was too hungry to protest. He grabbed his backpack along with another sandwich and bottle of juice, not bothering to clean up the mess he’d left on the table. I stared at the pile of paper and books.

What about all this stuff?” He shrugged.

They’ll still be here when we come back. I have the room reserved until they close.”

The whole day?! I didn't know you could reserve a room like that in this library.”

He chuckled, and I felt the twinge of annoyance grow stronger. I hated that it looked like he was mocking me for ignoring something when he was the clueless one.

Let's just say that I can use this room for as long as I need it,” amusement still clear in his emerald eyes. He opened the door for me and gestured for me to go first. All this subtle chauvinism was starting to really bother me.

We didn't study physics just to be treated like a disabled person!”

You know? I can open my own doors.” I glared at him, not moving from the place I was standing.

He narrowed his eyes and sneered,

As you wish.”

Then he stomped out of the room, letting the door almost slam in my face. I was starting to remember why I didn't like this guy. I opened the door and followed him. I guess I was still feeling guilty about how I’d treated him before.

I followed him to the University Activities Center and out to my sad man building. The day was cooler now thanks to a slight breeze in the air. William followed the little bridge into the Japanese garden I liked so much and found a space in the grass in front of the little lake. He promptly sat, placing his backpack to serve as table for the sandwiches and the juice. I did the same, feeling a little calmer as I always did when I was in my favorite spot on campus.

As we ate in silence, I watched him for a moment. He was probably thinking about the unsolvable physics problems that plagued him. I, on the other hand, grudgingly admitted to myself that he was indeed a beautiful man. He had a proud Greek nose, full lips, a strong square jaw and the most perfectly styled hair I had ever seen. But his most remarkable feature was his eyes: an absolutely insanely vibrant green, like the color of tender leaves under the sunrise. He looked like one of those classic movie stars, right up to his perfectly straight teeth and clear skin. If I didn’t know any better, he could totally pass for a drama major, just like most of the other handsome boys on campus.

So why didn’t a handsome man like you became an actor or model?” I asked, curiosity winning over prudence. I didn’t notice until the words left my lips, that I had accidentally complimented him.

Drat.”

William glanced up from his sandwich, half annoyed and half amused.

So the only reason you studied physics is because you’re too ugly to be an actress or a model?” He shot back.

That wasn’t a nice thing to say,”

Rather than apologizing, he arched an eyebrow. “Because you are soooo nice.”

He pierced me with his eyes, and I felt my face turning red, embarrassed at my rudeness.

Sorry, you’re right,” I said. “I'm usually very polite.”

I know.” He seemed confused for a moment, and then sighed.

If you must know, I’m studying physics out of necessity. I have a project and this subject will give me the tools I need.”

That is interesting.”

What kind of project?” He smiled darkly.

I’d have to kill you if I told you.”

He winked at me and finished the last bite of his sandwich. Balling up the now-empty plastic bag, I saw him retrieve an apple from his backpack.

That is odd.”

I swear his backpack was empty in the study room. All his books were in the table.

What’s so funny?” William asked mid-bite.

Nothing,” I said, concentrating on the water plants in the little pond.

Even though this was the place I came to relax, looking at the beautiful lotus flowers actually changed my mood for the worse. I had tried to cultivate some of my own since they were my favorite. For a while they had seemed to be doing alright, but then they’d all died. No matter how much fertilizer, water, or lime I got them – straight from Egypt, too! – Every single one of them withered away a few days after reaching my hands. It was like they just decided to die to escape my horrible care. I thought of the ridiculous TV shows that my mom always watched, and imagined a headline: “Amazing lotus-killer still allowed to roam free!”

What’s wrong?” William asked.

Nothing.”

This’ll get old really fast.” He looked annoyed. “I'm a curious person, and if all I get is, ‘Nothing,’ then I’ll have no choice but to continue asking until you give in or night falls.”

I thought about how rude I’d been to him earlier and decided that I owed him some politeness after all. I pointed at the plants in the lake.

Lotus flowers,” I explained. “I tried to grow some just like that but I always fail. I was just thinking about what I could possibly be doing wrong.”

I can help you with that, if you ever let me visit your house. I have sort of a green thumb.”

He moved his thumbs like he was playing a video game, and I couldn’t help but laugh a bit at the obvious joke.

I can see that. Maybe all I need is a sad man building to shadow it.”

Sad man building?” He looked curious again. I mentally slapped myself for making such comments out loud.

It’s nothing,” I muttered, cramming the rest of the sandwich into my mouth.

Yeah,” He said, crossing his arms and staring me down.

I practically threw my hands up at this point. It had been a long day of trying to teach this guy with a brain full of holes, and anyway, what did I care what he thought of me?

Okay, I’ll show you.”

I threw away the plastic sandwich bag and empty juice bottle in the nearest recycling trashcan. I marched over to the spot that gave the name to the building. William followed me without comment.

I found the angle I was looking for, and signaled for William to stand next to me. I regretted it when some girls who were walking by eyed him with interest and shot me some dirty looks. I felt really self-conscious.

From this angle…” I said, using my most official voice and yet still feeling silly, “the CLA building looks like a sad face.”

For some reason, William seemed to think about this statement seriously. Then he crouched down to my height to try to see the building from my point of view. After a moment, he grinned and said,

You’re right! He does look sad. What a remarkable finding.”

As he stood up again, he briefly touched my waist. I shrugged from the unexpected contact. He moved his hands away as fast as he’d placed them. It was most likely a mere slip of his body since he is so used to doing so with his women. He probably had forgotten for a split second that I wasn’t one of his conquests.

Maybe he’s sad because he’s getting torn down,” he said.

I studied him, to make sure he wasn’t mocking me. He seemed to be sincere, and it was a way to break the awkward moment.

Or maybe he’s sad because it’s taken forever for someone to take him out of his misery,” I said.

He laughed at my harsh expression.

Let me guess. You belong to the majority that hates this building.”

Sure, I do! It’s too impractical, it leaks, and it takes up all the parking.”

Things don't need to be practical and perfect to be loved, you know?'” He gave me a strange look, like he was trying to tell me something else. Something important. I shrugged.

The world would be a better place if that were the case. At least, you recognize that you are in the minority.” Now he looked thoughtful.

I've never being afraid of belonging to a minority, as long as I truly believe in something. Often, the right choices are not popular ones.”

I was shocked that he actually had a whole philosophy. It was clear to me that, although he was completely lost at hard science. He could have been doing really well studying something like history, literature, or philosophy.

You do know that you’re seriously taking the wrong major?”

Oh, I know. Still…” He signaled his wristwatch with a sardonic smile. It was time to continue with our impossible task. I noticed the small ring on his pinky finger again and remembered his comment about a secret project.

Maybe he is from a Mafia after all.”

I kind of liked the ring, actually; it looked like it had a story to tell. I wondered if he would tell me if I asked him.

Maybe you could flirt it out of him.” Elle suggested. Both Gabe and Brie looked at her like she was mad and laughed. I let go of a small chuckle as we started walking back to the library.

You know we can't flirt if our lives depended on it. I will try that if I get tired of teaching him. That surely will scare him away”

What now?” He looked exasperated. I shook my head and he just growled.

Again, every single female in close proximity seemed to be eying him. I tried to keep my distance so that no one would add me to his long list of conquests. Surely, Toby wouldn't appreciate having some jock’s leftovers in more than one sense.

William noticed that I was lagging behind. Probably to amuse himself, he slowed down until we were walking elbow to elbow. He whispered in my ear,

Terrified of being seen with the bad student?” He jokingly tried to wrap an arm around my shoulders, but I shook him off as fast I could. He just laughed a deep, dark laugh, like he couldn't believe me.

I just don't want people to start talking,” I hissed back with a glare. “And really, you shouldn't either. Your reputation will suffer as well if they catch you with an ugly one.”

I smiled back trying to show that I wasn't offended. With that said, I shied away and renewed the distance between us. He rolled his eyes at me, and the sarcasm came out again.

Yeah, right. You’re totally doing this for my benefit.”

He let go of his silver-back like posture and walked brusquely toward the library, out pacing me.

I felt terrible again. It seemed like every other minute I was somehow offending him or being rude. But I didn’t feel bad enough to try to change the way things were. It worked better for me if we just kept our relationship professional, if tense.

I let him take the first elevator and waited for a second one. As I waited, I pondered how I could make it up to him without changing my policy of not hanging out with bad boys.

Only disaster can come of it...”


DELTA





I got back to our study room, half expecting for it to be empty. But William was there. He looked like he was back to concentrating on the exercises he had failed at before. By the look of his scribbles, he still wasn’t too successful.

I was waiting for him to still be hostile, but he welcomed me with a warm smile.

It occurs to me that maybe we should try an even more basic approach,” I said, “Let’s start over and see where exactly you are getting lost.”

That sounds like a plan.”

So, let's start with gravity. I saw in your notes that you don't understand the constant of it.”

I know the theory, but I still think it doesn’t really make that much sense. The apparent effect looks different than what the numbers say.”

Well, you’ve seen the experiments on high school…” I began and saw him freeze. For a second, there was a glimmer of doubt in his face, but it was not about the experiments.

Wait, you HAVE seen the experiments, right?”

He looked at me again more doubt in his face, for a second hesitating, then he breathed.

Not really.”

Oh my Cat! Didn't you go to high school?”

He looked at me with surprise for a moment, but he quickly looked calm again.

I…went to a different school,” He said slowly. Like he was measuring the words he was going to say.

In my... country, the educational system is... more theoretical and there aren’t a lot of experiments... I guess I never noticed it until now, because I wasn't even expecting a difference.”

Was it a religious country or something?”

Does it really matter?”

I guess not.”

I knew he was hiding something. As it was I would rather pay attention to our problem at hand and try to see if I could get him to tell me more later. I decided to try another strategy.

We should get a lab. Maybe if we reproduce the basic experiments, we can find a way for your brain to get the connections needed to understand the rest.”

He nodded, a slight frown still on his face, like he was worried about something.

I can arrange that,” Was all he said before he got up with his books in hand. I was tempted to ask him where we were going, but it was late and I was tired and jaded. I was also sure there wouldn’t be a lab available, so I just followed him, hoping that this just signaled the end to our study session.

We left the room walking side by side. As always, William was a head-turner; all the women at the library couldn’t help but stare at him. Many of them did The Scan on me and frowned like they had just smelled something funny. It was obvious they all thought I was with him for whatever obscure reason.

If Toby ever found out…”

I couldn't help but bite my lip and started to move out of step with him again. I allowed him to lead the way so people wouldn’t think we were together. He turned and looked at me curiously. I shrugged, and he glanced around, seeing some of the women checking him out. They smiled at him, and one of them even blew him a kiss. He then looked back at me and an exasperated look crossed his face. He moved so fast in front of me that I almost had to run behind him.

He left for the street and waited for me once we were close to the parking lot.

You know, we could have done this at my house or yours,” He said when I caught up to him.

Well, we have all the books here…”

If you are embarrassed to be seen with me, I could have checked them out and met you in private.” I was in shock.

That is how he read it?”

I'm not embarrassed of you I...” I was trying to phrase it carefully so he wouldn’t get offended again. ”… just don't want misunderstandings.”

Whatever. I’ll arrange the lab and call you tomorrow. Go home now.” He was clearly mad, and I had no idea why.

He couldn't possibly care that much.”

With all the women who were drooling over him, he surely wouldn't mind an ugly or two not being into him. Then it hit me.

This pretentious piece of meat believes he’s entitled to every woman in the world!”

Brie fed my anger and it started brewing again from my stomach and burning my throat.

You’re just paranoid.” Elle said trying to calm me down.

I have to work tomorrow,” I said

I see. Well, you have my number. Call me or…” He took a pen from his breast pocket and took my hand too fast for me to recoil it. In a swift movement wrote something in it.

”…send me an email.”

By the time I was done reading the email account, he was gone. He was very fast.

Almost unnaturally fast.”

I barely registered if I saw his car leaving or not. I just found my Toyota and went straight to home, blasting the AC to calm myself. My stomach was in a knot, and the pain started to grow. I couldn't let his bruised ego bother me any further, so I decided to think happy thoughts about math, physics, and Toby…

By the time I arrived home, it was late. My mother was sleeping. As usual she was surrounded by empty bottles. She didn't bother to pretend in front of me anymore. This time, she had been reading in the bed when she fell asleep. I could see the trashy magazine filled with the latest news about her favorite celebrities. Claire Clements had gotten married again and then divorced even faster than the last time.

I rolled my eyes, thinking about how much money magazines made out of famous people's bad behavior.

Real or made up to sell it to the morbidly curious...”

I tucked her in, set aside the magazines, and marked the page for her. I knew how much she hated it when she lost her page and had to look for the last article she read.

I guess her memory is suffering already.”

As I put down the magazine, a picture fell from it. I picked it up.

A very handsome, tall and dark skinned man smiled up at me. The picture had a dedication written on it:




To my dear Charlotte, I wish you were here. Te quiero.




It was my mother’s boyfriend in college. She had broken up with him because she fell in love with my father. Very early on in the marriage my dad became an insufferable bastard. Even though she had been willing to endure him for my sake, he nevertheless left us years later, never to contact us again. Thomas ran away with a young hot thing according to her tale.

You have to admit that he was a good actor.”

All I remembered was a loving father. Always buying me all the science books and all the toy labs I wanted, no matter how expensive they were. He came home from work every night to read Scientific American with me until I fell asleep. The day he left I got home from school and couldn’t find him anywhere. His clothes were all gone, and my mother was crying, holding a picture close to her chest.

It was the first time I saw the beloved picture of Osiris Rubirosa Colon. He was standing in a landscape of palms. On a beach with water that looked blue and shiny, with sugar like sand. He appeared as foreign as the gorgeous coast and his colorful clothes in the background.

Mother said he was Dominican and perfect.”

She always claimed that he would have never left us.

In my opinion, all men are the same.”

Unless they are smart and ethical, like Toby surely was. It helped that Toby was too special for many other women to notice him. But not me. Never me. He was just my type and I knew I could build a beneficial relationship with him while also satisfying some biological urges. Of course, the most important part was that we could be partners and make a name in science together.

I took the picture and placed it back in the magazine on the table next to my mother’s bed.

I was craving some chicken and rice, but there was none left. Instead, I heated some leftover lasagna and sat at the computer. Figuring I might as well get some work done, I surfed the Internet for more study material for William. I checked physics websites and forums, as well as an excerpt of physics for Dummies. As I tried to see how I could teach him, I couldn’t be mad at his ego anymore. I just wanted to find a way to help.

Of course, if his problem was lack of practice, then that also means...” Gabe said.

That once he gets back on track, we could easily get rid of him” Brie added. Elle resigned finished the thought.

Duty fulfilled and scandals avoided.”

It was already past one in the morning and I had to get up at seven, but my brain was burning with all the possibilities. That was the way it worked with me – like a nuclear center in my head, the more energy I needed, the more it generated. But I needed to sleep, so I took a pain killer with a sleeping aid added. Soon enough, I was out.

When I woke up, I felt strange. It was one of those mornings that tricks you into thinking the night lasted only a few minutes. I barely felt awake at all. Against my good judgment, I poured myself a huge mug of coffee with as much half and half and sugar as I could get. I showered automatically, slathered some cream cheese on a bagel, and hit the highway.

It was another hot day. During this kind of heat wave, I was actually thankful that I worked in the fridge. I could just get in and forget how hot it really was, just for a few hours.

I was greeted by Susan, who was covering for our boss, Joe. Susan was a few years older than my mom. Strong, gentle hands and a cheerful laugh, she was the perfect hostess. She was always willing to make our customers feel like partners. I’d always liked her. She was motherly and welcoming and the best person to talk to if you had something on your mind.

So what did you did on your day off?” She asked me, accommodating her name tag in her shirt. I shrugged.

Tutor a guy.”

Bo-ring.”I smiled.

Not for me. It was actually interesting.” I answered honestly. I did had some fun after all.

Was he cute?”

Yes.”

Oh…” She winked at me, “then I can see why it was interesting!”

I just laughed it up. Susan always had a bunch of matchmaking ideas. She had tried to set me up with every single guy at the store, as well as two temp workers, all to no avail.

I like the nerdy type, Susan, I keep telling you that.” She rolled her eyes in a friendly way.

Yes, I know. Glasses, smart, messy hair and clothes. The kind of guy who can understand the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek at the very minimum.”

More or less…Actually, I do have a classmate I like. He is all that and more.”

Finally! If you kept up this pattern, I was thinking about setting you up with women next.”

We laughed together, and then she leaned in with interest.

So have you kissed him already?”

Sort of but that means nothing these days.” I said “I don’t think he even knows about my feelings.”

She looked at me and placed her hand on my shoulder, her wrinkled face gentle and soft.

Really, child, you can't spend the rest of your life inside that shell you’ve built for yourself. Get out, live a little and try to tell that guy what you feel. It will make you feel better.”

I couldn’t help but be touched by her concern; it might be just a reflection of an empty nester. She was a widow and her two kids got married and lived overseas. She worked part time as a way to get out of the house. I still felt that she was just thinking the best for me.

I'm working on it. I promise I will when I'm ready.” She sighed and left to see to other parts of the store.

I stocked the rest of the drinks, made sure the inventory was complete, and took a break. I had brought my laptop today. The store had Wi-Fi so I started looking again for tutorial ideas while I was eating some spaghetti and ice cream. Suddenly, I knew the perfect place to take William to help him understand. The Eureka moment helped me to get over all my aches, head and stomach. I found some light at the end of the tunnel.

The rest of the day was quiet. There was a spill in aisle seven and some cups of yogurt that were past their expiration date to get rid of. As I worked, I thought about sending him an email with my idea after work. While I was inspecting the iced tea, my cell phone rang. Since they didn’t let us use our phones in the floor, I ran to the back room to take the call.

Hello?”

Am I not in your list of contacts?” I recognized the voice immediately.

William. It didn't occur to me…I usually only add people who call me constantly.”

The two of them who did, anyway.

Ah...I thought you were going to call me today?”

That is odd.”

I told you I had to work. I was going to send you an email now that you mention it. I have an idea.” He paused for a moment. It looked like he was expecting me to continue.

What is it?” I was starting to get nervous about taking too much time from my working schedule.

I don’t have time to explain. I'm at work right now. I’ll email you as soon as I can.”

I don't have a lot of time for my project. I’d rather know now.”

Really, William, I could get fired…”

Customers ask you where the food is located, right?”

All the time, why?... William? William!” He hung up on me.

What a temper,” I muttered to myself and put my cell phone on silence so he wouldn't bother me again.

I got back outside and started stocking the different brands of orange juice. I was making sure the first that entered was also the first to go and that all the labels were facing out. My concentration was broken when I suddenly heard:

Miss, could you tell me where to find the cottage cheese?”

I almost dropped my armful of bottles to the floor.

William?!” William put his finger to his lips and smiled.

Shhh I'm a customer. I even have my basket.”

He winked at me and waved the basket in his hand.

How did you get here so fast? And how do you know where I work?!”

The little hairs on the back of my neck were standing on, like trees in a forest… a scary forest.

Your ID for the store was on your backpack. I took a peek when you weren't looking.” He said matter of factly. I crossed my arms.

You know that’s sort of creepy, right?”

I know...I'm sorry. All I can say is that if you were in my position, you would be doing the same.”

He looked at me, and somehow, I really believed him. Maybe because a handsome man like him surely had better things to do than stalk nerdy girls in stores. Whatever was bothering him must be huge. I felt the pity taking me over once again.

We have to help him.”

But Brie worried for reasons beyond my comprehension. She still wanted to make sure our boundaries were respected.

Fine. For the moment, I’ll hold out on the restraining order. But I swear, if you do something like this again, I won't hesitate.”

Fair enough, so… your idea?”

Oh, that.” I switched gears to all business again. “We need to show you how to do science like people who are new at it themselves, right?”

It seems so...”

You’re going to high school again! We’re going to reproduce all the basics experiments. We’ll drop balls, explode balloons, use bathtubs... ” I explained. “It will give your brain a chance to respond to the concepts.”

William's eyes lit up. It was like a flame inside his mind finally ignited.

You’re a genius!” He said and made a movement like he was going to hug me. I took a step back.

Oh, I'm sorry,” he said, still excited. “I just...can't believe it.”

Well, we need to try it first. It might not work.”

I'm sure it will...it has to.” For a moment, a strange look that I couldn't comprehend passed upon his face.

When do we start?”

How about tomorrow? Griffith Observatory, around nine in the morning. I'm working the night shift.”

It’s a date.” He smiled at me. I was going to object to that when his expression changed.

Thank you, Miss,” he said formally. “I know now where the ham is…”

I guessed that my boss was probably right behind me. I have seen too many movies to not pick on that one. William moved quickly to the delicatessen. My boss passed right behind me, looking at the beverages without paying much attention.

I could still see William and he waved good-bye at me before disappearing into aisle ten.



EPSILON





The Griffith Observatory is located twenty five miles away from Los Angeles on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood. It is a modern building with a central dome and two small similar structures at its sides. The front lawn is decorated with a big fountain that makes the whole terrain look like a palace. Its architecture, modern and imposing, has been used to film various movies and documentaries. As I was driving up the road with the scenery of the city growing slowly smaller and passing the surrounding forests, I could see downtown Hollywood and, of course, the Pacific Ocean.

The observatory was usually full of people on the weekends and today was not an exception. I tried to get there early, but as I drove in I saw William standing in the parkway, looking at the sky. I parked in the last free spot I found. It was a cloudy and cool day – the perfect day for a hike. I saw a lot of campers and hikers on my way to him. It occurred to me that I had never seen his car, and I was suddenly curious.

Probably something very fancy to impress the girls...not that he needs it.”

I saw many of them staring at him as usual, one of them even getting close and attempting to chat him up. I started to walk slower, giving him time to work his magic on her. When she left, I hurried up before any other girl engaged him. I didn't want to spend all day here. I had work and laundry to do.

Hi,” I caught his attention, “You’re here early…again.”

I'm always the first in class. Haven't you noticed?”

I tried to remember, but I really only paid attention to Toby who was usually adorkably late. It gave me the chance to see him come in without looking suspicious.

Sorry, I haven't.”

He smiled briefly, and then gestured for me to lead the way.

So where do we start?”

In the beginning,” I said, taking the lead. The stairs had some drops of water on them. It seemed that it rained a little bit before we arrived. I slipped, but William caught me instantly, grabbing my arms with his big hands. I was a bit startled and embarrassed.

I'm normally not this clumsy.”

I know,” He said helping me to get back on my feet. I continued on and entered the booth. Before he could do anything, I got two tickets and handed him one. He looked at me with a twenty dollar bill in his hand.

I owed you a sandwich,” I said, leaving him with that strange expression on his face.

The foyer had a big round ceiling with paintings of different astronomical figures and scientists at the top. The Pleiads, Copernicus, Newton…

I love this place!”

In the center there was a bright hole with a Foucault Pendulum in it. The exhibit was to show how the pendulum knocks over long lines of pegs every once in a while the proof that...

And yet it moves...”

I signaled William to get close and look.

Do you know what this measures?”

He leaned down next to me. His face glowed with the light of the pit.

Earth's rotation?”

Exactly! How does it work?”

He hesitated; thinking in silence for a moment, then began slowly, “The plane is fixed in space while the Earth rotates under the pendulum?”

Good,” I encouraged him. “Now can you picture it? In your mind?” I said pointing at my forehead with my index finger.

He closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them again, he looked at the pendulum. He watched it knocking the next peg.

“…Yes, I can!” He was grinning, his eyes lit up.

He finally got it!” It was like witnessing a miracle.

Show me more,” He said, holding my hand after a pause.

I didn't remove it right away. His “Eureka moment” took me back to when I had my first one.

I was nine. My teacher had shown us a bunch of mathematical symbols and how to tell one from another. She asked to guess the next symbols following the sequence of the examples she gave. There was silence in the classroom and as I stared at the blackboard, my brain made the connection. I timidly raised my hand, not sure if what I guessed was right, but no one else was volunteering. The teacher looked at me confidently; it looked like she knew I got it. I took the chalk and walked slowly to the blackboard. I barely marked the symbol as I understood it must be.

I was right. My teacher stood up clapping and then the whole class joined her. I felt a surge of love, pride and warmness in my body as I discovered something for the first time on my own.

I felt like the universe was opening up to me.”

Nothing was ever the same after that.

I took his hand and walked through the rest of the observatory: the Tesla Box and the brief explanation with a guy in a suit shouting.

The word is projecting, not shouting, Glenda taught us that.”

We moved on to the pictures of the sun; the interplanetary movies in the Auditorium; and the documentary about how the Griffith came to be. It was very interesting seeing him respond to everything. Like a child who just got his favorite toy as Christmas's present.

At the end of our visit, we decided to get some lunch. He hurried up to the food court.

Portobello melt sandwich, please.”

Sorry sir, we are out.” He said, but William, without missing a beat signaled on the back.

I think you might have one left.” The employee looked annoyed.

I-know-your-kitchen-more-than-you...much?”

I thought I would pretend that I didn't know him with this attitude. To my surprise, when the guy turned around he opened his eyes wide and got a sandwich from the tray.

I swear I thought we sold the last one an hour ago. In fact, I didn't think there was a sandwich left.” He looked really embarrassed.

I worked in a similar establishment before, and it used to happen to us all the time. Don't feel bad. Gabrielle, what do you need?”

He turned and asked me I was still surprised by his affirmation.

Food service worker?!” I couldn't picture him in a kitchen or working for a living. He had the same air of not needing money that Tess possessed. When I snapped out of it I asked for a soup and a salad with a soda.

He paid for everything before I could even object, and picked a table outside for us to sit. It was getting a bit too cold and, of course, I had left my coat in the car thinking that it was going to be hot all day. Seeing me shiver, he offered me his jacket. It was too cold to deny the offer. I took it and put it on top of my shoulders without getting my arms inside it. I planned to give it back as soon as I got warm enough to endure the walk to my car. It had an interesting smell. I couldn't place what it was though. Probably an expensive cologne.

While eating, I looked at the mountains and the city down in the cliff. My mind wondered what Toby might be up to on the weekend and cursed under my breath for not having his phone number. I needed to fix that…or not.

You will just call and hang up... The big coward you are.” Elle said chuckling darkly.

And caller ID would give you away, anyway.” Brie added. The embarrassment was not worth the endeavor.

I was eating in silence and for a moment I forgot William was there. Distracted, I took the plastic spoon I used to add some sugar to my drink, dried it up with a napkin, and placed it in one of the pockets of my backpack.

You are a very strange woman, did you knew that?” He said. That brought me back to Earth.

Like I hadn’t heard that one before...” Elle laughed. It was still an odd comment to make.

Because of the spoon? I try to use them more than once, saving the planet you know?” I tried to defend myself. I did have a collection of plastic spoons acquired in food establishments. Compared to hearing voices this seemed like an innocent enough habit.

That is actually quite a cute hobby.” He smiled, and again I had the nagging feeling that I was missing a private joke. “I meant the way you act in general.”

How so?”

He stirred his soda with the straw. Covering one of the ends, he took it out of the glass and a drop of the liquid fell on his tongue.

I was waiting for you to call me all day yesterday…” He insisted on that, how odd.

Why? We didn't have any agreement. I told you that already.” I think he was the odd man out in this part.

He smiled like I had just said the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.

I meant calling me to hang out…you know, hook up?” He was so matter-of-fact, eating his sandwich like he had just mentioned the weather.

I stopped chewing and stared at him, trying to gauge whether or not he was joking. My stomach started to hurt.

Why would I do that?!” This time, he just looked at me seriously.

Unbelievable…” He took some fries, soaking them in ketchup and eating them at once. I stayed silent.

He can't possibly be serious.”

You really are odd. I called you ugly yesterday. Most women would try to prove me wrong and win my affections after that.”

What?!” All of my voices said at the same time with me.

You’re crazy. That doesn't sound like anyone I know, let alone women,” I said skeptically and, frankly, a bit offended. He seemed to be lumping women into one big group of idiots. All yearning for men's approval, his approval.

He must’ve come from ancient England or the Dark Ages.”

You need to get out more,” I snapped at him.

No, YOU need to get out more.” He crossed his arms and glared at me. “Are you a lesbian or something?”

Where the heck, did that came from?!”

Because unless you’ve tried to hook up with women, you probably have no idea how they operate.”

I'm not, but I'm a woman, so of course I know.” He shook his head in disbelief.

Women like a guy who shows confidence and is not impressed by their assets.” He said staring at me, like he was trying to teach me something important. I laughed out loud at that.

I never heard a more sexist sentence in my life!”

And we watched The Flintstones!”

You are so out of line that there is no line,” I said. “I guess your pretty face is what keeps women around you. Your mouth probably drives them away the moment you spout your nonsense.”

He looked a bit offended, but more amused than anything. He leaned close, his chin resting on his fist.

Do you feel like probing it, Miss Science?”

I was intrigued by the possibility of knocking down his ego a notch or two. I decided to imitate his “smolder” and rest my chin in my hand as well.

What do you have in mind, Mister poor man's Casanova?”

Well…” He looked at his cell phone and started to play with the keys. “There’s a party tonight at the Alpha Omega house. It starts around nine, so we should get there by ten. I will show you how I pick women up with less than what I said to you the other day.”

I felt my cell phone vibrating. He’d just texted me with the directions to the house.

A party...? But I have chores to do and I might be tired after work.”

So…too busy to do some science or are you just too chicken?” He goaded me with that irritating funny expression I despised with a fire of two thousand suns.

I don't have to stay and see you make out with women, do I?” I said, placing my index finger in my mouth. He rolled his eyes then winked at me.

It will take me an hour to pick up at least three…maybe more.” I lifted my finger in front of him, considering a trap on his part. He might have some female friends, playing along just to annoy me.

But I get to pick the girls in question?”

As you wish.”

I had finished eating so I stood up, throwing out the trash and returning his coat. There was nothing in the world that could make me keep it. I didn't feel like even saying goodbye to Mr. I-know-women-better-than-they-know-themselves, so I just left for my car. I noticed him following me and glared at him.

What are you doing?”

Escorting you. I want to make sure you get to your car safely.”

I'm capable of getting to my own car, thank you very much,” I said walking faster. Unfortunately, he kept pace with me. I sped up even more.

You are ridiculous.”

I'm polite,” He said and continued walking in silence, behind me.

Still ignoring him, I got into the car and started the engine. I couldn't wait to leave so his intense eyes were as far away from me as possible. His sole presence bothered me as much his smug smile did. And of course, the engine didn't start.

Typical.”

As I struggled with the ignition, he signaled for me to roll down my window.

What?!” The engine failing put me in an even worse mood than our conversation did.

Put on something decent for the party, would you?” He smirked at me. “I don't want you standing out like a sore thumb.”

I was going to tell him the rude reply he deserved, but the car came alive again at that very moment. By the time I looked up, he had disappeared.

In short time I arrived home and I changed quickly for work. I wondered if I should go to the party or not. A frat house was not somewhere I would be comfortable, but the idea of laughing at William's attempts to pick up women was too tempting. I could hold this over his head for as long as I was tutoring him.

It will be…different.” Brie said.

Elle was actually excited at the idea of going to a party. It had been a while. Aside from the one at the dorms when we meet Toby, I think last time was the High School graduation party. One of the few friends I still kept around from back then threw one and was polite enough to invite me. Sadly, mom volunteered as chaperone and ended up drinking from a flask she had on her purse. She ended up passing out in one of the main rooms. I had to sneak her around pretending she was sick and drive her home. I tried to talk to her about her problem the day after, thinking that she had reached a new low. She refused to address the issue with me. I hid the liquor at home from her and tried to control the grocery shopping but she had a lot of hiding places and enablers from the nearby stores. It was impossible to stop her. One day, I begged her on my knees, telling her that she was my only family and didn't want to lose her. Her answer was slurred; she looked at me with glass in her eyes.

It’s either drinking alcohol or arsenic.”

It was the last time I got in the way of her drinking.

The drive to work was relaxing, as the traffic was light and the weather was cooler than it had been recently. I could see the mountains, still with a bit of white on them from the winter snow. I took the time to admire the sight. It probably wouldn’t last much longer. The heat will melt it which was actually good since some part of our water supply came from it.

I considered what kind of girls I had seen ignoring William, but it wasn’t like I had been taking notes. I decided to wait and see what was available. My thoughts turned to Toby and what he would think of me if word got out that I was at a frat house.

Well, it’s not like anyone will know who you are.” Gabe said.

I agreed. ‘Nerdy girl’ could describe anyone, and Toby isn’t exactly friends with William or anyone for that matter.

Who would tell him?”

That satisfied me and I stopped worrying. I worked normally, the night shift in the middle of the week was really slow. Barely anything to do but the store had to fulfill their schedule. Around nine we closed and since I was done for the day I left before the cashiers finished up counting the day's earnings.

When I got home, I fed Izzy and started getting ready. She sat on my bed and dozed while I showered and looked over my wardrobe. She always enjoyed keeping me company. She at best ignored mom, who was not a cat person and Izzy, like most cats, was not very social. She seemed to think of me as her mom. She always got up as soon as she heard the alarm and followed me around to make my coffee and start my day. I usually fed her breakfast at the same time that I ate it.

All the clothes I had in my closet for use could hardly be described as party-ready.

What about the Chest of Shame?”

Elle chimed in, talking with a shy, small voice she barely ever used before.

Well, yes, she was right. The Chest of Shame had some nice things. But I only kept those dresses in the case of an emergency and because I spent too much money on them and I didn't have the heart to give them away, cheap as I was.

But this was not an emergency worthy of humiliation, especially if William was going to see me in a dress.

Finally, I decided on the only pair of jeans I owned and a pair of my new black flats to match.

I picked one of my best dress shirts, blue with gold buttons. I combed my hair in my usual ponytail and decided for a bit of lip gloss, more to moisten my lips than to look “decent” as William had suggested. I looked at myself in the mirror and judged the outfit to be a success. I remembered seeing some girls dressed like this going to parties. Surely I could blend in to see this experiment through to the end.

Surprisingly, Gabe seemed to be very excited to be going to the party. She was no doubt thinking of all the new information my brain would absorb.

And we get to laugh at William from here to the eternity.“ Elle reminded me.

Just when I was finishing up by putting on my glasses, my mother appeared out of nowhere. She stared at me, then at the clock on my night table, and back at me again, her face lighting up.

Oh, a party?!” She exclaimed, “You must have met someone really handsome indeed if he made you sort of dress up...and go out.”

Her eyes were red and her hair was in a messy bun. As always, she was wearing a beige robe with small blue flowers and blue edges and her usual beige slippers.

It’s for science, Mom,” I said, feeling a bit embarrassed. “Go to sleep and I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

She smiled and kissed me on the cheek.

Tequila this time.”

Have fun, dear.

She stumbled a bit then and almost fell down, knocking some of the items on my dresser with her.

I’ll pick them up,” I said, but she barely registered the incident.

She left for her room on the first floor. That was supposed to be my room, but after a few falls and the fact that I had a lot more stuff, we decided that it was safer for me to take the master bedroom and she the small one.

I took my keys from the bowl next to the door, took a brief look at the mail next to it.

Spam and bills.”

I looked up while stepping out and wondered where Toby could be on a pretty night like this.





ZETA





Following William’s directions, I got on the two ten and took my time finding the frat house. I figured I was in no rush, since it was still nine forty five and I was already in the vicinity. Sadly, that didn't turn out to be a good plan. The place was so packed that I had to park several blocks away.

Now I know what our classmates do on their days off.”

It was pitch black, so as I walked, I used the mini-flashlight on my key chain.

Hello!”

I jumped back, letting out a scream of shock. When I swung my flashlight up to the figure’s face, it was William.

You want to give me a heart attack?!” I exclaimed, throwing a punch at his shoulder. He avoided it easily in spite that the light was still on his face.

You’re a scared little girl, are you?” I just glared at his stupid smug smile and thought about all the ways I could wipe it off his face.

Especially ways involving medieval torture.”

You really are a creep!” I said. “You’d be lucky to get anything more than a restraining order tonight!”

He laughed hard. It took like a minute before he stopped himself and settled for just looking at me in disbelief.

You’re funny, I’ll give you that much.” He flicked on his own flashlight and let it scan up and down over my body.

Was this the best you could dress for a party? I was thinking that maybe you could hook up with a guy or something. You know, get a funny story to share tomorrow. But showing up like this…” He pretended to think for a moment. “Oh well, lots of the guys get pretty drunk, so who knows. I’ve seen worse.”

His insults didn't seem to bother me at all. It was like I didn't even believe them. Then again,

Paying attention to a pretty man's words has never been a hobby of mine.”

Yeah, yeah, whatever,” I said, sounding bored. “You want to go in alone? Make sure no one knows we might be together? I mean, I could ruin your reputation, right?”

I joined my hands and batted my eyelashes at him. William just stared at me, his jaw dropping slightly.

Ha! You didn't expect that, did you?” I couldn’t believe that he was actually trying to get a rise out of me. I was totally besting him, showing him that women were not as easy to manipulate like he thought. He seemed confused.

Don't be ridiculous.”

He walked ahead of me, and I purposely kept my distance. I took my time, watching his angry walk with amusement. When he finally noticed that I’d been lagging behind, he grabbed me by the arm, practically dragging me along. I gave him an innocent look.

This is funny!” Brie said, giggling for the first time ever.

Getting on his nerves and breaking his calm facade was a lot better than reacting to his attempts to shame me. My three girls inside me high-fived me for keeping my ground. He finally let me go in front of the house and gestured mockingly at the door.

After you.”

For a moment, I had a flashback to every single teenager movie I had seen. The whole party stops when the nerdy girl enters the room. Not wanting to show any fear, I grabbed the door knob and opened it. I took a deep breath and went in.

Pretty much everyone continued dancing, drinking, and talking. Aside from some girls eying William, my presence didn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever.

Damn! That never fails in Hollywood,” I muttered to myself.

For once, William didn't seem to hear me. Once we stepped inside, he made a beeline toward the table with the drinks. He took one of the red plastic cups carelessly arranged on the table. They were next to a keg and an ice box full of cans of beer, soda, and other beverages. He served himself some beer and began drinking. I was half expecting that he would serve me one too, but he just stood there and looked around.

Wow, you behave normally in front of other people. I’ll have to remember that,” I said to him and began looking for a drink for myself. He just took a sip of his beer and ignored me.

I never drank alcohol, given my family story that would be really stupid. I just found a soda for myself, orange flavored. I poured a whole cup, drank it all, and poured some more. I was completely parched.

What now?” I asked, a bit impatient as I thought about all the homework and laundry I had to do.

Pick a girl,” was all William said. “Anyone.”

Mmm...” I looked around the room. There was a dark-skinned girl who was tall, and dressed to the nines. She was so pretty that she looked like she could be a model.

There is no way she will fall for William's gimmicks.”

Her. White mini skirt,” I said, looking her way while trying to be inconspicuous. William looked at her and just frowned.

Her?!” He looked at me. “Are you sure?”

Are you afraid?” I said, smiling back, and taking another sip of soda. He just snickered.

Okay, fine. Walk behind me and try not to look obvious, please. Stay close so you can hear.”

I obeyed, counting on a good laugh coming out of this. I followed him, keeping some distance between us.

When she throws her drink in his face, I don’t want to spill it on our good shirt.”

He did The Scan up and down, and then he opened his big stupid pretty mouth.

Nice nails...are they real?”

I tried my best not to laugh so she would hear me and get offended. I held my breath and counted to three, waiting for the sound of a drink splashing in his face...

Nothing.”

Of course they are!” She said in a slightly nasal voice that sounded like a shriek.

They sure don't look like it, but it’s okay, they look good,” William said.

I swear they are,” She simpered, holding out her hand. “Here, touch them.”

Un-freaking-believable.” Brie said through gritted teeth.

She’s actually trying to prove him wrong? Gabe added, clearly confused.

What’s up with her?” Elle said, pulling her hair. I couldn't agree more.

Oh, I see…” William said, taking the girl’s proffered hand, “but what about the hair?”

The lighting in the house wasn’t that good, but even in the shadows. I could see him reach out and touch her hair.

The girl is not creeped out at all!”

I saw the flash of her teeth as she smiled at him. They continued talking about inane topics, and she kept laughing and smiling at him. She was telling him pretty much everything he wanted to hear. He kept teasing her and slightly insulting her. She didn't seem to want to leave, but after a couple of lame jokes, he asked her to bring him a drink and she dutifully obeyed. He took a moment to whisper to me.

See? As soon as she comes back, I’ll kiss her and she’ll love it.”

I want to puke.”

She’s probably drunk or has the self-esteem of a shoe” I said, unconvinced of his charms. I saw his lips tighten into a fine line, his eyes narrowed.

Okay…pick any other girl.”

Wait, you’re going to flirt with another girl right now?! Isn’t that other girl coming back? Are you freaking serious?!”

Just pick,” he said, smiling.

I picked a blond this time, prettier than the last girl. Surely two pretty women were used to totally different treatment and wouldn’t fall for cheap tricks.

Let alone in stereo.”

Fine. Follow me.” He just left without even thinking about waiting for the first girl to come back. Reeling with disbelief, I followed him after a moment. I got there just in time to hear his pick-up line:

Is true that blonds are dumb?”

Now this was the moment for a drink to be thrown into his face.”

You tell me,” The girl said, smiling at him.

You don't seem that dumb.”

I was valedictorian at my school.” He grinned at her.

I was the worst student, still smarter than any blond there...”

Another failure.”

I just couldn’t believe it. She kept talking to this moron, giggling and playing with her hair.

You must be picking the wrong girls,” Brie said. Elle and Gabe just shrugged.

The first girl actually found us and gave him his drink while glaring at the blond newcomer the whole time.

Brie said that she was getting prepared to watch Bill showered with beer any moment now, but I wasn't sure anymore.

She then moved close to William and he took her by the waist – all while still chatting with the blond. None of them were leaving or showing any less interest in the whole interaction.

I have a bad feeling about this...”

I lost all my scientific curiosity in the situation. I didn't wanted to be there anymore to witness what was starting to look like a threesome. When I saw an opportunity, I snuck away and slipped out of the house.

I got the keys out of my purse, switched on my little key chain flashlight and tried to head back to my car. There was a line of college students making out in the cars. Some of them were leaning on the hoods, some of them inside, and some of them just on the sidewalk. I suddenly saw a pair of glasses that were hard not to recognize.

Toby?!...” I whispered in shock.

He was holding hands with a girl who had mid-length straight hair. She had on a very nice dress that looked brown in the shadows. He leaned in to kiss her and she responded.

I could feel my stomach turning into a cold piece of ice and falling to my feet. I turned my face, pretending to look at the stars to make sure he wouldn't see me and recognize me.

Elle sighed with longing.

He has a girlfriend,”

“…at least we found out sooner rather than later.” Gabe added.

I could feel her disappointment. It was eclipsed only by my own.

After passing them, I turned a moment just to see with more detail what they were doing. It was my worst fear. They were still kissing: his hand under her blouse. She held him close by his shoulders. I closed my eyes and turned around – promptly smashing myself into a flesh-and-blood wall.

So he is the guy you’re crushing on? I should have guessed it.” William again. He had seen everything.

I don't know what you are talking about,” I said, hurrying for the car, wanting to run like the wind, to disappear, fly…but he could keep up with me with ease.

It’s okay, I won't tell anyone,” He was saying. A hint of sweetness on his voice “I just wanted to make sure that you don’t end up eaten by coyotes or something. I need you, remember?”

Yes...thank you, I'm sorry I was just...” I gave up trying to make sense and just shook my head. Letting it hang down while I fiddled with my keys.

Are you going to cry?” It might have been my imagination, but he sounded…concerned.

I can't cry,” I simply said, looking deep into his eyes. The same sympathetic look crossed his face for a second. His hand almost reached for my face, but he decided against it at the last moment.

..so don't worry, I won't smear you with my feelings,” I said, punching him slightly on the shoulder, this time he stayed in the same place.

That’s very sad. Crying is very purifying.” He looked serious, but then, suddenly remembering something, he added jokingly, “And tears have many useful applications.”

He placed a hand on my shoulder. This time, I didn't flinch away. I needed the comfort.

I can imagine...”

I decided to continue on to my car. He walked next to me in silence, his hand still on my shoulder. I was too upset to care about his chauvinism.

I could rip him a new one tomorrow or any other day.”

For now, it was nice to not be alone.

Wait, I forgot,” He said suddenly and stopped walking.

It seems that somehow I didn’t notice that he was carrying something in his hand. It was a small box, about half the size of a shoe box. I was strange that I missed something so big. But it was probably just because I was trying to avoid his eyes, embarrassed at his discovery.

What is that?” I asked. He handed me the box.

Open it.”

My first instinct was to give it back.

Who knows what it had inside?”

It was probably some dirty prank, but then again, I was too curious and he did look serious.

When I opened it, I saw the most beautiful lotus flower I have ever seen. It was rosy and small with delicate petals floating in a small crystal sphere half filled with water. There was a small root peeking down at the very bottom of it.

Oh My Cat! What…?”

It’s a pygmy lotus. It doesn't need too much care so you won't kill it…probably, anyway.”

I was going to address the jab but the flower was so pretty I couldn’t help but just stare at it. It seemed to glow under the dim lights of the night. My three girls were all fascinated with it as well.

But how could you find this so soon?”

I told you I had a green thumb.”

I looked at him directly, trying to get a real answer.

Let's just say that I had it hanging around my backyard and decided to give it to you.” He smiled at me.

I suddenly wanted to have some of our study sessions in his house if only to see more of his pretty flowers.

Smell it,” He urged. I brought the small vase up to my nose. It had a nice smell similar to the way his jacket smelled.

That explains it.” The scent was peaceful and soothing.

What is it?”

It doesn't have a name. It’s a unique scent for this particular type of lotus.”

So this is new plant?”

The breed of many generations. It took around a century to get it this size and two more to make it resistant to…‘city-girlishness’” He laughed at his own joke. I laughed a bit, but at this point, I was more concerned about the fact that it was obviously an expensive gift.

I'm sorry, I can't take it,” I said, my heart breaking as I handed it back to him. He looked confused.

What?! Why not?”

It’s obviously too expensive.” He looked at me curiously, like he didn't saw a problem with that. Probably due to his culture wherever he came from.

I couldn’t possibly give you anything of this value ever. It makes me feel uncomfortable.” I explained.

His expression changed. He practically yanked it out of my hands as he took it back, turning and walking. I could hardly keep up. His sudden fury shocked me like a heat wave.

Yes, because a man like me would expect you to repay me,” He said with sharp sarcasm. “It’s not like I can be nice for the heck of it. There has to be a catch. Ungrateful b—” He stopped the word short and walked faster.

I realized we were heading towards my car. Even angry, he wasn’t leaving me alone, still wanting to see me safe.

You are an idiot,”

Elle said softly in the back of my head. Neither Brie nor Gabe disagreed with her. I ran after him, almost breathless.

Wait! I'm sorry, William.”

When he didn’t respond, I ran faster and touched him on the arm. He finally paused and turned towards me, looking down at my hand on his arm. I put one of my hands on the side of his face to make him look at me. His skin was very soft, I guess this is what the call baby like soft skin. I never touched a baby so I wouldn't know for sure. I looked him in the eye.

I'm sorry, William. For real, that was unnecessary on my part. I would be honored to try not to kill your pygmy lotus.” I extended my hands to take the box again.

He seemed to smile at my little joke and he handed it back to me. He didn't say anything, and I was preoccupied with just gazing at it again.

It’s so pretty…How do I take care of it?”

Just leave it where it can get indirect sunlight. Make sure it gets a full night of moonlight at least once a month. Change the water when it’s dirty and talk to it once in a while.”

That sounds more like.... New Age crap than gardening…” He rolled his eyes at me.

But if you say so, I’ll do it…no questions asked,” I added with a smile, for his benefit.

He stared at me for a moment, looking satisfied that I was going to try to follow his advice. We kept walking in silence, now at a more reasonable pace. Then, it hit me.

Did you leave your girls?” It was hard enough that I couldn't hook up with anyone. I didn’t want to become contagious as well.

Oh well,” He shrugged, “they’ll be at the party when I get back. No rush.”

I thought for a moment. What I had seen still turned my stomach, but I had to admit grudgingly that I had been wrong.

Your method seems to work, so I won't say anything.”

So you believe me?”

More or less. It must be a college thing.”

He looked at me, completely bewildered.

You are dead wrong ...but then, I wonder why it doesn't work on you?”

My brain doesn't work properly,” I explained. “I'm too literal. I don't even get sarcasm. If you told me that my nails looked fake, I would have wondered why you said that and then spent minutes looking at them in detail. Then I’d probably ask around to see if there was a consensus on the matter. Check the Internet for pictures of fake nails…leaving you hanging alone with your opening line.” He smiled.

Weird girl indeed.”

That strange way to look at me was on his face again. A way I haven't noticed on other girls he looked at before. I tried to decipher what it meant when he became serious.

So... we can use the lab tomorrow after class. There are old machines there we can try more basic science experiments.”

I nodded. I was distracted again. Going back to thinking about Toby and that girl, trying to find in my memory if I saw her before. Maybe she had taken her chance before I could.

The story of our lives....” Elle said.

I barely noticed entering the car. William helped me in, closing the door and placing the lotus on the dashboard. Then he gestured for me to lower the window. This time, he got so close that I could smell his breath. It was a nice smell, though odd…it reminded me of the same scent that the flower had.

He surely doesn't eat flowers.”

I don't think you should worry about that girl,” He said. “She hooks up a lot with different guys. I don't think they’re going to be official any time soon.”

Then with another smile, he briefly brushed his hand against my hair. He removed a leaf that had probably fallen on me while we were walking.

Thanks…” I said. I really didn't have a lot to say. I wanted to go home and sulk and think and obsess and yell at myself for being such a coward.

He let me go. I could see through the rear window that he didn't leave until I was out of his view.

I drove home, trying to not think about my...

Nonexistent, arid, completely dead social life...”

And how my plans might not work either, I didn't know any other scientist I could work with. Hopefully, William was right and it was one-night thing only. But then again, what did that make of Toby? He wouldn’t be the shy guy I though he was if he was making out randomly around wouldn't he? That sounded judgmental and prude so I suppressed the idea for the moment.

When I got home, I placed my flower on the table closest to the window in the living room. The plan was to let it sit there and then find a place for it in the garden in the morning before I went out. Moping about Toby on the drive home had drained my excitement about the lotus.

I can be happy about it tomorrow.”

For now, I was nothing but down, feeling sorry for myself.

I didn't feel like eating, so I drank some pear juice and went straight to bed.

It was a terrible night, and sleep kept eluding me as I thought about Toby and that girl.

But Brie kept walking into my subconscious. In the strange realm between dream and consciousness.

Come on, it’s just a boy,” Brie said, brushing it aside like it was nothing. “Sure, he’s the smartest one you ever met, but there is plenty of fish as they say. Soon any other will take his place.”

Elle was more reluctant. “Yeah, right. The last time you were this attracted to a guy, you were seventeen. I think you shouldn’t let go of this chance. Who knows how long it will take for another one to show up!” She added: “Frankly, I’m suffocated. I need some affection, too. We all do.”

William said that it was not a big deal,” Gabe reasoned. “He should know. He clearly knows how to treat women…Sadly enough.” I grudgingly agree with her, but couldn’t help my doubts. “What if he lied…out of pity?”

Heh, why would he do that? You’ve been helpful but less than nice. I think he told you the truth.”

That made me feel better. William had no reason to lie, so I should trust his judgment of the situation, at least for the moment or I would drive myself insane. I couldn't afford losing my sanity without at least graduating first, so I settled for that.

I finally fell asleep, but the night was restless and full of shadows and fear. I felt like I was looking for something, feeling lost as though I would never find it. I tossed and turned until morning, which was obvious by how sore I was.

I’m usually a heavy sleeper. My mother told me that once I slept through a whole house getting demolished in the street out front. I only believed her because the house was effectively a hole in the ground the morning after. This lack of rest made it more than clear that I cared about Toby more than I wanted to admit. I could hear Elle laughing at how naive I had been.



ETA





When I got up, the first thing I did was check on my lotus. To my shock and horror it was on the floor. The vase was broken and empty, and the tiles of the floor were dry. It seemed like the accident had happened early last night. There was a slipper next to the shards of crystal, so I could only assume that my mother stumbled upon it and tossed it on the floor.

Too drunk to notice or care.”

William is going to kill me!” I said to myself. Brie, Gabe and Elle agreed.

I took it and cleaned it a bit with tab water, then grabbed a Florence flask from my old chemist set and added some fresh water to it. I carefully slipped the tiny lotus inside, hoping that it wouldn’t die. I held my breath and began preparing apologies for William once he asked me about his flower.

To my surprise, the flower landed in the water and cheerfully opened its petals. It looked exactly the same way it did when William gave it to me. Not a leaf or a petal was damaged and it looked fresh and alive.

Maybe it’s really that resistant!” Elle said. I sighed with relief.

I didn’t have to work that day, so I decided to call William to meet him early in the lab. Staying busy would distract me a bit from sulking too much about Toby. He’d probably stayed at the frat party last night, so I figured I would not call him until noon just to make sure I didn’t interrupt anything. Maybe the girl or the girls would still be with him.

Maybe I should find something else to do.” My mother was, as usual, out of this world so doing something with her was out of the question.

I missed the moments when we used to just sit down and watch movies together. She loved high school and college settings and always complimented the cute actors. She also used to hint at the predictable transformation of the nerdy girl into a bombshell as something I should do to my everyday look.

You are a lot prettier than her.” She used to say. That is the whole reason I found out an alternative way to get the money I needed to study science. Much to her satisfaction and my eternal shame.

I decided to read a book, something about theoretical physics aimed toward the masses. It might be helpful the next time I helped William. I climbed on my stationary bike and started pedaling as I read.

Mens sana, in corpore sano”

Around ten thirty, I got a call from him. I had added him to my contacts by now, and I noticed with embarrassment that I had actually saved it as DumbBill.

Freudian slip,” whispered Brie, very amused.

Remember to change it before he sees it.” Gabe said.

Up so early?” I picked up the phone and tried to sound happy. I didn't want him to feel sorry for me again.

I always get up at dawn,” He replied. “I was just waiting for you to wake up and have some breakfast. Maybe it’s not clear to you, but the matter of my... education is very urgent. The only reason I don’t spent every single moment studying is because I don’t think that would be good for me and you.”

The me part was a bit strange. I took it to mean that his reputation would suffer. Also he probably guessed that I was not going to make a fool of myself by allowing our classmates to think this was something more than a forced partnership.

In that case, he is right. Distance is the best for both of us.”

So you want to meet today, I guess?”

Yes…unless you have plans?” I couldn't tell if he was mocking me or if he was seriously asking.

Ha ha ha…” I laughed humorlessly. “I was thinking about going to the lab and practicing some basics. Unless you have plans?”

I just wanted to throw his words back at him, although I was a bit curious about his answer. Were any of the girls still there with him?
“Ha ha ha,” He mimicked my sarcastic tone. “I actually have some things to do, but we can meet at midnight. Sleep well; we are pulling an all-nighter.” He attempted to hang on but I wouldn't let him.

Wait, what?! Midnight?!”

Well, that’s all the time I have to spare for this, Gabrielle. Plus, you said it yourself. You don't have plans.”

Still, that’s excessive and totally inconsiderate. I don’t think you have the authority to decide when we’re done.”

Normally, I would take into account your circumstances, but you have no boyfriend who might throw a jealous rant. And according to my sources, your mother is in no position of making you do anything that you don't want to…”

I felt a cold pain in my stomach and my throat seized up in a knot.

What did he know?!” My girls and I said at the same time, the fear creeping in our bones.

You know what…I quit. Mr. Robinette can fail me, I don't care but you are acting way too creepy. You have no right to invade my privacy. I might get that restraining order after all!”

Pardon me, Gabrielle. I'm not threatening you. I'm merely being practical. One day I will explain it all and everything will make sense, I promise.”

I couldn’t believe he was trying to calm me down. It only made me angrier, and I spat back, “Your words mean nothing to me. We’re done. I don't care if you lose your scholarship, your money, or your life. You crossed a line, William!”

I was so mad that I was half hoping to scare him away and half hoping he would actually threaten me. I could just call the police and they could deal with him. I though on hanging up the phone, but something compelled me to finish this conversation. I needed to know what was going with him. He paused for a moment.

I see. Maybe this would make you stop freaking out. I’m really thankful for your help and I plan to pay you back, giving you the only thing you seem to want that I could give…Toby.”

My heart started beating faster.

He is so manipulative!” Elle said, shrieking a little.

And how could he promise something like that anyway?” Gabe reasoned, walking up and down.

It’s not like Toby is an object to give away.” Brie said trying to end the pondering.

Yet, even though it made no sense, I was tempted. I felt my rage melting under the weight of my curiosity and my longing for Toby.

I think you overestimate yourself,” I said carefully. “Toby isn’t one of your girls.”

But he is a man, like me. And you know he is – you saw him. I don’t deny that you seem to have... traits that he might find attractive, but…”

He let it hang there, setting the bait. I wish I was strong enough to resist, but I took it. I needed to know. I’d always been too curious for my own good. Just like that…my rage was gone.

But…?”

He laughed, knowing that I was the one to break the silence.

He is enjoying this.”

You need to spice things up a bit, show him that you can give more to him than just your amazing analytical mind. You need to show him that you are willing…and I can help you with that.”

You’re just making empty promises to avoid ending up in jail,” I said, my heart quickening again. I really wanted to believe that he was saying the truth and that I could have his help.

Well, women work better when they are happy. I’m sure you’d try twice as hard if you were not distracted by the absence of the object of your affections. Plus…sex is pretty relaxing.” He laughed at that. But something in his voice made him sound empty, like there was something in the last sentence he was hiding.

You are a terrible person, you know that?”

Yes,” he simply said. “Are you too good of a person to reject this sincere offer of help?”

More silence. It gave me the chance to think, wonder, plan…and be tempted. My Eve's apple.

I…”

In my rushing mind, Elle was wrestling with both Brie and Gabe, demanding some attention. I had to admit that being a virgin at the old age of nineteen was weighing me down. Neither Glenda nor Tess knew, but I do remember how they treated Crystal about her virginity. They teased her mercilessly and made all sorts of assumptions about her.

Things got so bad that she stopped hanging out with them and eventually me, even though I didn't tease her. I lied and said that I had sex with a high school friend and then some other boy – “Nothing serious,” I remember saying. After that, she knew she couldn't trust me.

I always wondered if she suspected the truth and felt betrayed. I really liked Toby and I really needed to get this last experience by the end of college. The idea of still being a virgin after graduation was horrifying. I knew that William was successful in a field where I wasn’t even playing.

What could you lose? It’s not like Toby has made any move himself.” Elle said.

You should be empowered enough to go after what you want, right?” Gabe added, much to my and Brie’s surprise.

There was also the lingering, stupid, irrational need of having someone. A man to call or call me and hang out on a more or less regular basis. Having him doing nice things for me, like making me a mixed CD with my favorite songs or remembering my birthday.

No one remembers my birthday...” Not even my mother at this point. I wanted someone to whom I could gift a Mystery Science Theater 3000 T-shirt. I wanted someone who would get the reference and laugh with me. That’s what this was really about: finding someone with whom I could finally share all the little things.

It’s like you are confessing a murder. The rational scientist wants to be in love, wants to be in a relationship. Next you’ll want to be a stay at home mother of ten or one hundred babies ...”

Brie said, spitting in the floor. But I already decided what I will do.

..am not.”

After the words got out, I felt relieved. I was acting human for the first time in a while. I was still wary of William, but he was indeed offering me something I wanted.

I guess we could do an exchange. I teach you science and you teach me…social interactions with the opposite gender.”

It’s the only fair thing to do.”

We stayed silent for a few moments. Not having anything else to say to the other I guess. I could hear his breathing in the other line as I sure he could hear mine.

So until tonight,” I said.

Midnight,” He repeated and hung up.

I actually felt very calm after this. I even almost forgot his first words about my mother. Maybe he meant something else or he was just fishing for information. I mean all he needed to do was to ask about my family and the lack of answers would probably tip him off on some sort of secret.

He had warned us that he was curious...”

I let it go for the moment.

I tried to call Glenda or Tess to see if they wanted to do anything, but neither of them picked up their phones. I figured they were sleeping off a night of partying. Or maybe they had dates.

To keep myself from thinking too hard about my decision to continue helping William, I ran errands and took care of some homework during the rest of the day leading to midnight. The whole time I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I hated not being ready for whatever might come. Toby was on my mind, though, and I told myself

Sometimes you had to take risks to get what you want...”

Around eleven at night, I slowly got ready, dragging my feet as I packed my backpack. All my earlier enthusiasm to tutor William had faded, and I was left with the thought that this was work after all. I still felt a bit intimidated, and despite the fact that everyone knew that William and I were working on a project, I wrote a note to my mother before leaving. 
 

I’m at the lab in building 1701 with my classmate William Wyseman. His cell phone is 555-198-1966. He said we are going to work all night. Call me at least at twelve thirty, and if I don’t pick up or call you Glenda, you will know something is wrong.

Call the police immediately.

 
I stuck the note on the fridge and took the pocket knife I bought when I started to take night classes and put it on my backpack.

You can’t be too prepared.”

Thankfully, at least the drive to campus was very pleasant and quick. I entered University and Temple and parked in the back. It looked like there was no one else there. I spotted a lonely old red Volkswagen Beetle.

It has to be his...”

As I finally noticed that he was always early to our meetings. The rear windows looked odd. Maybe William liked to modify his cars. I might ask him later…

If he doesn’t strangle us to death first, that is.”

I entered the building, my right hand tucked inside my backpack and gripping my pocket knife. The whole building looked deserted. I heard some tinkering sounds and I saw a light under the door to the lab. I entered slowly and found William, dressed in a lab coat and wearing some protective goggles. He was balancing a set of weights and holding a clipboard, taking notes.

When he noticed me, he smiled and took the goggles off.

Hi, Gabrielle! This is amazing. I was measuring the gravity acceleration, and you know what?” He looked like a kid on a candy store.

What?”

It’s constant! The formula finally makes sense!” He said with the biggest grim I had seen in his face since I paid attention to it.

He looks so goofy...kind of cute actually.”

As happy as it made me to see him getting it, I was very surprised. How did he know so little and actually made it to college? My quizzical look must have scared him.

I…I was home schooled, too. I guess there were things I missed…” He turned away as soon as he said the words.

That explains it!” Brie said.

Somehow, I didn't think a serial killer would be this focused on weights and measures. That still didn’t explained how he knew so much about me, including my family. I got close to him and decided to leave my pocket knife in the front of the backpack where I could still reach it easily.

Just in case-”

It’s okay. If you really like science, the rest will fall into place.” I touched his shoulder, and he caught my hand and squeezed it. He looked at me gratefully, and I suddenly felt very good about myself. I was helping him for real, regardless of Toby or his scholarship.

It was rare to see your work growing in front of you. Even rarer to be able to change someone’s life like this. I decided, for the moment, to leave my questions unanswered. After all, William had shown me moments of kindness in the past. I shouldn't feel threatened by him.

I was about the get a lab coat and some goggles myself when the door burst open in a cracking sound, smashing itself against the wall. The sound tore through me like lightning, and I couldn’t help but scream. William moved faster that I had ever seen anyone move, and he was suddenly in front of me. I couldn’t see much, just black shadows moving all around us. They looked like people with static faces. Dressed in long coats and hoods that were colorful and bright with impossible lights reflected in them.

I couldn’t logically describe why, but a shiver down my spine made me feel that whatever they were, they weren’t humans. I dismissed this as madness and tried to tell myself that they must’ve been some sort of gang. All of them had on similar attire and they all looked like they were waiting for someone to speak. I had seen enough movies to guess they were organized and dangerous.

I’m sorry,” William said, a strange sorrow in his voice. “Please stay quiet. I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.”

He was holding his hand out. Palm open in a strange gesture like he was holding a weapon, even though there was nothing there.

What if he’s a terrorist? His project, his secrecy...” Brie was covering her mouth in horror.

My backpack was three steps away from me. I could reach for it and make sure I could take one down with me if necessary. Brie cried a bit, thinking about becoming worm food before any of our goals were reached.

The gang formed half a circle around us. I saw a big man dressed in a long black tunic and a cape enter through the door. He was tall with dark hair and a very pale face. His eyes were two black holes. I felt goose bumps all over and my heart started beating out of control as my fly or fight response took over my bloodstream. My first instinct was to hold on to William – I guess his big frame made me feel protected. He responded by holding his arm around me, his other hand still outstretched in that weird way. He understood that I was scared and offered me comfort. Once in his warm embrace, I realized something.

He knows what was happening and who these people are.”

Sekeem…please, this is not the place,” William said. “There are humans everywhere.”

Humans! That scared me even more. My first impression was right: These people weren't humans. But what could they be?

Robots?”

Science is not advanced enough...”

Aliens?”

Contacting a small university of Southern California...?!”

I would have chosen Caltech...” Brie said. The other girls threw a puzzled look at her.

I thought that William might even be one of them, still I didn't let go of him.

Whatever he is, he is going to protect you.” Elle said, sure of his embrace.

Lacking any other information, I was compelled to listen to my gut feeling for the moment.

Wilhelm, my boy,” The large man replied, with a thick accent that sounded German to me. He was raising his arms with affection, yet his voice was full of malice.

It’s been a while. I’ve looked for you for almost a century in every single sacred place on Earth. I can’t imagine what you could want in this sterile place.”

He looked around, gesturing and wrinkling his nose like he was smelling something unpleasant. Then he looked at me. His deep black eyes were like tar lakes that could easily draw you in and drown you. They were like William's in intensity, but colder, empty. I had to look down because his gaze was making me nauseous.

Mmm…a human girl? Why am I not surprised? Sam will take care of her...”

William tightened his grip on me and I held on to him even harder.

Sekeem, she’s just a classmate,” William said. He didn’t seem to be afraid of looking at the large man.

There’s nothing to fear. Leave her out of this. I can erase her memory and she won’t remember anything.”

As soon as he said that, fear raced through my veins. What kind of chemicals would he use on me? Or worse, was he talking about lobotomy? I’d rather die than live without my full brain.

Sekeem reached for something inside his robe. It looked like a cane with some kind, of bird, a falcon or eagle, maybe a snake on the top.

I think you deserve another lesson,” He said. “You clearly care for her…like you cared for all the others. Until you join us, you will keep losing them – all of them. You know that you cannot hide or resist us. This madness will end when you and your... sister, surrender.”

The way he said the word sister was strange.

Maggie is involved too.”

The man moved, slow and calm. His voice was velvet and soft, but I could hear behind it sadness and darkness. Ancient and filled with rust.

Never!” William said, holding me so hard that I almost lost feeling in my arms. His right hand was still in the air.

I could feel the room getting hotter, like some source of energy was feeding the concrete of the walls and the tiles of the floor. Upon closer examination, the people all around us each now had something in their hands: a glass ball, some cards, some strange stones. All the objects looked ancient. I suddenly thought of some soothsayers at a circus I once visited as a child. I paid attention to their faces two Caucasians, two Asians and someone that looked African American but the details were hard to make out. I was misty eyed maybe out of all the electricity in the room.

I saw the one called Sekeem, obviously the leader, lifting his cane before smashing it against the floor with great force. Dozens, maybe hundreds of rays of brownish light appeared from the bottom, filling the whole room. My eyes were absorbing all this, but my brain was shut in disbelief, trying to rationalize what I was watching.

There must be some energy source inside it. Like the Tesla coil...” Brie muttered trying to hold into logic as usual.

Elle was, strangely enough, absorbing the information without freaking out. The energy source felt natural and familiar somehow, like a dream. Nothing made any sense, so all I could do was observe.

The rays of light crept throughout the room. Then, against all reason, I saw a red light coming from William's fingers. His body warming under the lab coat like he suddenly had a fever. He drew the rays of light with his glowing hands. The rays soon surrounded us in what it looked like a bubble of red energy, growing all around us.

The man smiled. Some of his followers started to react to what I was seeing. The one with the crystal ball rubbed it and it shone between his hands. The other with a deck of cards, picked one card, and held it high in the air like it was a knife.

I saw another figure who held a small wand which sprouted with tiny flowers and leaves. The flowers and leaves seemed to snake out of his sleeve, and there were roots in his shoes and leaves in his hair. There were other objects I couldn’t make out, but all of them were glowing in different colors: orange, blue, and yellow. The people smiled darkly.

We are surrounded!”

I couldn’t process the logic of what was happening. Brie was practically in a catatonic state, incapable of taking the fantastical situation any longer. Gabe was about to do the same, but then Elle took her hand. That made her and me stay strong enough to handle the marvel we were witnessing.

You need to keep your eyes and ears open.” Was all Elle said to Gabe.

William was sweating, holding me as tight as possible. The bubble grew smaller around us. He looked around at every person in the room. I noticed him looking up for a millisecond, a small smile on his lips.

I could hear him saying something in a strange language, the sound harsh and strong. I could just make out the last word, which sounded like pyro.

From all around the bubble, great flames appeared, making our assailants jump. Some of the slower ones dropped their objects. The rest tried to attack the bubble: light of different colors struck our bubble. The orange one looked like a whip smashing itself in it. The blue ray surrounded the bubble like a net. I could see it shrinking trying to crush it with its force. The yellow light was like knives falling in the red surface like trying to prick it. None of them worked. The flames triggered the sprinkler and set off the fire alarm. Sekeem looked around and roared in fury, sending out another burst of light with his cane.

Between the water and the bright explosion, I was afraid that we would get electrocuted. Then, I felt lifted off the ground. I looked down and realized that William and I were still in the bubble but both of us were now in the air. I didn’t know what his plan was, but then I felt the bubble shrinking around us and it started to float up toward the skylight.

Our enemy guessed our escape and smashed his cane against the floor once more. Somehow, the walls of the lab stretched like rubber and blocked off the skylight. William cursed under his breath. I realized that he was not fighting in order to protect me. I heard him saying more strange words, but before I could try to puzzle out what he was saying, I heard sirens outside.

Sekeem let out a furious growl. No matter how powerful he was, it looked like he didn’t want to deal with police officers or other humans. The people below started to vanish into thin air. Soon he alone remained, staring William directly in the eye. A wicked smile formed on his face.

I wasn’t sure if out of the surprise or if William did it on purpose, we landed still surrounded by the bubble.

Then a green light blinded us. Out of the corner of my eye, a woman suddenly appeared. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had long straight jet black hair with bangs, clear blue eyes that looked like a spring and perfect snow white skin, just like Cleopatra in an old movie. She smiled at William, gently like she was greeting him.

Samantha!” He gasped. Some sorrow on his voice.

In her hand, she held a fan. With a single graceful movement, a green light came out of it, making the bubble around us break like a fragile crystal. All that was left were little pieces like diamond dust. A sound like chimes shimmered in the air before the pieces of our protective field faded like mist.

She moved her fan with another graceful movement of her wrist and vanished. She left only her smile behind, hanging in space for a mere second. I felt the drops of water falling on us.

My hair!” Stupid instinct to have considering the circumstances

William growled and moved his hand, probably trying to create another force field. Sekeem took his chance to point his cane toward William, chanting a few words in the same strange language.

I was wrong, though. He hadn’t been pointing at William...

He is pointing at me!”

William shoved me out of the way. I felt a bump on my head and something soft, wet and warm in my chest. The last thing I heard was William crying out.

Gabrielle! No!”

But by then, it was a small whisper in the back of my mind. Everything went black.

I don’t think I slept for a long time. When I opened my eyes, everything looked the same: no police or the sound of sirens, and the lights in the lab were still on. There was a small amount of water on the floor from the sprinklers, although they were not pouring anymore.

I stayed still, making sure it was safe to get up. I had seen in movies how the dumb comic relief kept moving and received more shots from the bad guys. I carefully looked around, but then I saw William, and I knew it was safe.

He was gesturing with his hands, and everything was moving at his command. The chairs were re-assembling themselves, the broken glass was becoming whole again. He was violating the entropy principle right in front of my eyes. I almost gasped, but then I could hear his small sobs.

He is crying.”

In that moment, the craziness of the events, the fear, the pain, and the questions all disappeared. All I could think was that he might have gotten hurt while I was unconscious. I felt a sudden rush of compassion, compelling me to get up as fast as I could. I reached for him, wanting to stop his tears.

Are you okay, William?” I said, reaching for his face, touching the salty water falling from his eyes. My voice sounded small, probably from the emotion I was feeling.

William jumped to his feet and turned toward me in complete shock. His eyes wide, his mouth open, his arms falling to his sides, he became pale as a vampire.

You’re alive!” He yelled. His tears still running down his face. The emotion overwhelming him.

What?” I said, looking around me. I was puzzled.

Of course I’m alive. What would make you think otherwise?”

He looked at me, still in disbelief. Without a word, he pointed at my chest. Confused, holding his sight. I placed my hands at the center of my bust. My beating heart started to pound even faster. There was a hole in my shirt the size of a fist. The hole was singed, but my skin was perfect: not a scratch or even a burn. I felt a cold draft on my back, and I reached back. There, I touched another hole, like a ray had blasted through me. But somehow, I was intact.

I can’t believe it!” William said.

I was still processing it all. Whatever Sekeem sent towards me, it didn't work. I felt a cold wind coming from behind me. It was a strong one, like I was outside. William was still speechless with a strange expression of shock, relief and understanding. When I turned to see what was blowing, I saw a hole bigger than me that had trespassed through the walls of the whole building and left it exposed to the air of the night. The hole left from the ray Sekeem sent towards me.

I couldn’t take the shock anymore. Not even Elle was strong enough to protect me this time. My brain shut down again, I felt my body losing strength. I fell to the ground, but I didn’t hit it. This time, I felt warm, strong hands holding my body before I lost myself again in the darkness...



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