Cold air blasts me when I try to exit Hart Hall. “Damn!” I shut the door, drop my books on the radiator and zip up my jacket. Shoving my books under my arm, I yank at the door again, dart through, and jam my hands into my pockets. Once outside, I shrug. Not so cold. Kinda like going swimming. Better just to plunge in and keep moving.
What the hell was that professor talking about this morning? And where the hell was my brain when I signed up for Early English Lit? Geoffrey Chaucer, for Christ’s sake. I shake my head. Too late to transfer. Guess I’ll just continue pretending like I’m getting everything that’s going on—just watch everybody and smile my way through. Always been good at that. I yawn. Coffee. I need coffee.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice red, yellow, and brown dripping all over the place. Really like it—trees and autumn and all. And Mount Allison campus. It’s peaceful here, like in the park back home. From small town to small university. Good choice, especially after Mom and Dad died. I shudder and throw my eyes out of focus, making the colors of the leaves blur together. Instantly think of that impressionist guy—Monet or was it Manet? Whatever. Anyway, I remember that watercolor I saw in Fine Arts 101 last year and I smirk. At least I learned something in that course. Skipped so many classes I damn near failed it. The wind blasts again, snaking under my jacket, biting my skin, forcing me to walk faster. Okay, so it is cold. Damn near freezing. Coffee.
There’s a pile of leaves near the bottom of the steps to the Student Center. A quick glance around proves that the area is clear of groundskeepers, so I give the leaves a kick. They fly into the air and rain down on someone going by.
I cringe. “Jesus! I’m so sorry!”
A grey-haired man—a professor maybe—brushes leaves from the shoulders of his camel overcoat and then stares at me, his face vacillating between accusation and dismissal.
“I really didn’t see you there.” My heart speeds up. “Are you okay . . . sir?” I lean forward, waiting for his reply.
He shrugs and smiles. “No harm done, young man.” As he goes on his way, I let out a relieved sigh.
Got to pay more attention, Wentworth. I barrel up the steps to the Student Center. I can smell the coffee now. Love that smell. I inhale deeper, head into the cafeteria and approach the service counter. As usual, Sally is there.
“Mornin’, Justin,” she says. "Managed to get out of bed in time for class this morning, did ya?” She grins and a series of vertical lines pop out on her face. They intersect the horizontal lines that time has already put there, and the result is a crosshatch pattern.
Tic-tac-toe. I really want to say that but don’t dare. “You don’t miss a thing, do you, Sally?”
Sally chuckles and tucks a strand of grey hair underneath her hairnet. “See all, know all—that’s me. The usual?”
“Well, have a seat and I’ll give a shout when it’s ready.”
“Thanks.” I go to my regular spot next to the counter, put my books on the table, remove my jacket, toss it on a chair, and sit. I like sitting here, alone. Don’t understand why some people hate eating or going to movies by themselves. I don’t get that at all.
I glance at my watch. Lots of time before my next class. I reach for my binder and flip to the notes from English Lit. The door wheezes open, prompting me to look up. A young, very young, blonde girl comes in. I raise one eyebrow and then chastise myself for feeling even a twinge of interest. She can’t be more than thirteen. A girl from town, maybe. High school kid. What is she doing on campus? She heads toward the far end of the room.
“Order’s ready,” calls Sally. I turn, pull a five dollar bill from the pocket of my jeans and go to the counter.
“Thanks, Sally. Keep the change.”
Sally rings in the sale and pockets the change. “Thank you, Justin.” She beams.
With a plate of cinnamon toast in one hand and coffee in the other, I go back to my table. As I sit, I hear Sally chatting with another waitress.
“Lovely young fellow, isn’t he, Mary? So polite.”
My lips curve into a wide grin. Time to eavesdrop.
“You know he lost his parents, don’t you?” Sally continues.
Ouch. The grin disappears and I gulp. Maybe I should move to another table.
“Yeah. I heard. Such a shame. But you’d never know he’s been through a thing like that. Every time I see him, he has a smile on his face.”
I squirm, grab my jacket, and slide to the edge of my chair. Hold on a sec, Wentworth. They’ll shut up soon enough. I wait.
“Yep. Charm the socks off Satan, that one. Life just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Well, anyway, his folks must have left him with a bundle: he always gives me a tip. Can you imagine?”
“That’s so nice of him, Sally. Most of the kids are broke. Them that have a few bucks don’t even say thank you, never mind leave a tip.” She giggles. “Here’s an idea: maybe I should serve him tomorrow!”
Sally laughs outright. “Sure. In the meantime, how about serving the one at the counter?”
Footsteps scurry. Conversation’s over.
Relieved, I drop my jacket and slide back in my seat. I nod, pleased that they like me, that I made them laugh. But still, don’t think I’ll be eavesdropping again anytime soon. I turn and scan the room. Don’t see the blonde anywhere, so I figure she left. I shrug. Too young anyway.
I wrap both hands around my coffee cup until I feel its warmth in my fingers. Scan some notes as I sip my coffee. Then I reach for a triangle of cinnamon toast, shake a dusting of sugar from it, and take a bite. When I look up again, the young, very young, blonde is standing in front of me. With her is Nathan—a short guy with big eyes and a nervous laugh—who lives on my floor in Truman House.
“Hey, Justin. This here’s Sarah. She’s in my Psych class.” Nathan deposits his books on the table. “Coffee, Sarah?” he asks as he heads to the counter.
“Sure. Black, please.” With a wave of her hand, Sarah flicks back her long hair. She smiles at me and her eyes flash deep blue. Sapphire blue.
“Have a seat, Sarah.” I notice her chipped front tooth. “How was Psych class?”
“Not bad, I guess. Elective. Have to take it. English Lit is my major. I’m a sophomore.” The plastic chair across from me scrapes the floor as Sarah pulls it out. She plops into it. “What about you?”
“European History. Soph.”
“Cool. You planning to teach?”
“Haven’t really given it much thought. How about you?”
“Teaching?” She scrunches up her nose. Damn cute. "Maybe. But I think that what I really want is to work in a library. I love books . . . could spend hours in the Bell Library just staring at the stacks. Reading is the best. Yeah, you read a good book and you've got a friend for life.” She clamps her lips together and nods as if she has just figured that out.
I open my mouth to speak but she is still talking.
“Right now, I'm happy just being a sophomore. Yeah, being a sophomore is pretty good. Now, last year . . . ” she points a nail-bitten finger in my direction . . . “that was a completely different matter. Frosh week—the whole initiation thing—scared me half to death.” She plunks her elbows on the table, rests her head in her hands, and locks her eyes with mine.
I sit still and hold my breath, certain that she is about to reveal some deep, dark secret.
“Decided to hide out for the second half of it.” Her voice is whispered, as soft as brushed velvet. Makes my skin shiver. A good feeling.
“I figured some annoying sophomore would come and drag me out of the dorm and paint my face green or something,” she says. A grin creeps across her lips and sparks of silver dance in her eyes. Without warning, she leans back, throws her hands up and then claps them together.
I drop my toast.
“Turns out it didn’t matter; no one even noticed I was missing,” she says airily.
I laugh and the sound bounces across the table. She echoes my laughter, just like Mom did with Dad. My eyes widen and I inhale sharply. We stare, wordless.
White noise—shuffling feet, chattering voices, clattering cutlery—closes around us like rushing water. I can’t move. Don’t want to. Want to sit here forever, eyes riveted to hers . . . .
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