Saturday, February 10, 2018

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 1





The bright sunlight sliced through the room at a definite angle, stiff and cold in its precision. Nearly half of the room fixed on what the instructor at the front of the room said, noting down the various algorithms and key points. Among the others, a few pretended to take notes while secretly smashing everything from gems to bugs and cookies under their fingertips. A pair of serious faces tapped away at their netbooks, but only those flanking them knew that the text on the screen had nothing to do with the current lecture, or even with chemical applications whatsoever.

Priscilla
As for me? I like to sit in the third row, two seats from the end. Not committed enough to be on the very edge of the row, but still close enough to the front to catch what the instructor is saying, without being in his or her direct line of sight. Also, being close to the front ensured that I would always be sitting among the more serious students, rather than the ones who apparently didn’t give a flying fig for this class.

“Which brings us to the question,” the professor at the front of the room ceased fussing with the unresponsive projector remote and moved straight into his wrap-up, “What is the significance of this gap in the geological strata?” he gestured back to the last slide, a cut-away of a cliff in Africa, revealing many kinds of fossils embedded across and within each layer save one wide swath of rock that barely contained any. “Use what we’ve learned to prepare a paragraph hypothesis as your writing assignment this week. Dismissed!”
The mad shuffle of papers and textbooks sliding into backpacks and bags commenced, and students vied for space as they headed out the door and split off toward different destinations. I took my time. I had ten minutes to get to my next lesson. I didn’t need to rush off. Besides, I was wearing my nice grey suede booties today, and I didn’t see any sense in getting them scuffed. As the number of students dwindled, a gap opened, and I seized it.

Tony
I hardly paid attention to the pressure on the crook of my arm until I had cleared the crowd, and it didn’t let up. I turned to see who it was at the same time the person asked, “Hey, can I borrow your notes from last week?”
I rolled my eyes. “Really, Tony? And the reason you couldn’t review, replay, and re-read all the material to get your own notes is...”
“Come on, Pris!” Tony tried his cool and casual smirk, “don’t be that way. I was sick on Thursday, that’s why I missed those notes.”
I smirked right back. “Are you sure it isn’t because you tend to zone out during these lectures?”
Tony huffed through closed lips. “Hey, it’s not like half the class isn’t doing the same thing.” He smiled. “We can’t all be history nuts like some people!”
I pouted and pretended to be all offended, when really I was proud of that very thing. Getting lost in another time period was a constant fantasy of mine. “Somebody’s gotta preserve the past; the more it disappears, the more we risk repeating the mistakes of our predecessors.”
“Speaking of repeating...” Tony capitalized on another opportunity. “Can I borrow your notes? I promise I’ll give them back!”
I checked my watch. Ten minutes had warped into five. I hadn’t even started across the quad yet. I was going to be late!
But...
I studied my friend’s face. Tony and I had a friendship that went all the way back to grade school. He’d had my back then, when I was a scared little newcomer with no clue how this “school” thing was supposed to work. Tony wasn’t much older than I was, but he looked out for me, waiting for me to get off the bus, coaching me through the intricacies of my day, and fending off those who would try to take advantage of me.
Compared to that, what was a little note sharing now and then?
“Okay, here,” I acquiesced, handing over the requisite pages. “Just get them back to me before the end of the day. I need them before class tomorrow, so I can be ready for the quiz next Friday.”
“Sure thing,” Tony responded, keeping the stack neat and tidy, exactly the way I handed it to him. “I can have it back to you before Calculus tonight.”

I shrugged. “You’d better, I need those.” I fumbled with the strap on my satchel to close it. “On that note, I need to head to Ancient Civ class. We just reached the first century CE, and I’m supposed to be discussing the generational gap between the switch in time reckoning.”
Tony nodded absently. “Hey, a bunch of us from Econ are going out to Giordano’s tomorrow night; want to come?”
I could feel my thoughts spinning as soon as he asked. “Saturday? Well, I—“
A rolling murmur and a flurry of paper exploded just before the icy breeze swept through at just the right angle to slide across the space between us. We both gasped and curled up against the cold. As hard as it blew, the breeze died quick enough to leave shivering people and scattered documents in its wake. My skin tingled as I felt the air heat up several degrees, even though the sky remained just as clear as ever.
Tony relaxed the grimace on his face, as the wind blew his stiff hair into his eyes. “Ow, that hurt,” he grunted.
“I’ve gotta go,” I muttered, sighing and walking toward the building on the south side. “I’ll let you know about Saturday, okay?”
Tony waved. “Sounds good. See you later, Pris.”

I gave a little sigh of relief as I sank into a seat near the front of the room and hauled out her notes binder. My mood lifted as I reviewed the notes from the last session, the colors and the streaks of highlighter splashed over the page. Out of all the classes this semester, I enjoyed Ancient Civilizations the most. The close inspection of the lives of early societies gave me a thrill I just couldn’t find elsewhere. Being able to look back at the early records to decode a person’s search for meaning in their life provided a much-needed distraction from the disappointment and apathy I felt about life in the present.

Not to mention, the instructor, Gina Heathers, had proved uniquely qualified to handle the material in a way that made it memorable.

“All right, everyone!” she finished taking attendance and stood from her desk. I always admired the woman’s style, usually consisting of a small-print shirtdress with a chunky sweater layered over it, complementing her wavy auburn hair. “Let’s get started. We’ve been working on piecing together the lives of certain people groups in the Mediterranean region during the time period spanning the turn of the time reckoning, or as I like to call it, ‘Decoding Year Zero.’ Mikayla, you were looking at the differences in architecture,” she pointed to the girl with the frizzy hair slumped at a table near the door.
Mikayla raised and eyebrow and nodded mutely.
Ms. Heathers displayed all five names on the board, with checkboxes. “David, you covered the arts,” she checked the box next to Mikayla’s name and moved the cursor down the list. “I saw your DQ’s on the iBoard, nice work!” She checked the box as a young man near the middle of the room grinned at the praise.
The cursor moved to the next name, and the redhead sitting next to me promptly dumped her whole backpack onto the table in front of her.
Ms. Heathers tilted her head down to peer over her glasses. “Is everything all right, Cassie?”
Cassie swore, and I couldn’t help but stare askance at the mass of crumpled papers, random article pages, and general disorder sprawling next to her. “Fine! I just… I’m looking—“
The patient professor pursed her lips. “Do you have your assignment on the social ramifications of the generation gap, Cassie?”
The words hit me like that rogue breeze earlier. I stiffened in a mild panic as I read that very title across the top of my own notes. As Cassie continued to freak out and dig through various papers, I raised my hand.
“Yes?” Ms. Heathers gave me her full attention.
I held up the sheaf of papers. “Um, I wrote the notes for that topic this week.”
Ms. Heathers frowned. “You did?” She checked the list of assigned topics. “I wondered why your questions seemed a little off; I think you were supposed to look up the government structures and political hierarchy. Hmm…” she glanced over her notes. “I must have switched those when I gave out the assignments. Oh well,” she shrugged and moved on to the “Featured Presentations” slide. “I guess we can just go with what we have!”

The rest of the hour-long class trudged by, in spite of the lively discussion and thought-provoking questions Ms. Heathers would ask; how could I have gotten the assignment wrong? Ms. Heathers praised my work, and much was made of the fact that Cassie had not completed her work at all, claiming her projects in other classes as an excuse, but Ms. Heathers shook her head.
“Cassie, if you’re going to take the course, you’re going to need to do the assignments I give.”
The redhead crossed her arms and glared at the instructor as if it had been her fault instead of Cassie’s own.
“All right people,” Ms. Heathers addressed her class, “your next assignment will be to read Unit 3, Chapter 4, and complete the State of The World packet. Remember that I am checking my inbox every day, if you have any questions,” her eyes shifted to both Cassie and me in particular, “please, please do not hesitate to ask me!”
Everyone stood and packed their things. I slipped my binder back into the satchel, while Cassie shoved and stuffed loose papers back into her backpack. 

By the time I reached the main courtyard, the sun of the afternoon had disappeared, replaced by a grey, gloomy layer of clouds. Many of the students swarmed out of the lecture halls and toward the nearest dining commons, while others headed for the parking lot or bus stop.
I glanced back toward the tech lab, thinking of Tony tinkering away with circuit boards and wires, but I headed north, toward the towering roofs and pristine streets of the Hyde Park neighborhood. Tucked away in the very heart of the area, I took the road that curved around to a gate between two houses, with a sign proclaiming, “PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING.”

The strap of my satchel was beginning to dig into my shoulder. I shifted its position as I entered the code that prompted the automatic gate to roll aside.
“Hold the gate!” a voice yelled behind me.

Patrick
I looked over my shoulder, even though I knew exactly who it was. Only one person I knew had that booming voice that carried over crowds. Only one person looked big enough to take up professional wrestling as a hobby, and yet those who knew him knew that his personality more closely resembled a teddy bear. Only one person was rich enough to buy the largest lot in the neighborhood, yet at the same time completely comfortable walking past stately mansions, his shoulder-length ombre hair twisted in a messy man-bun, wearing nothing but a wetsuit. Even his feet were bare.

That person was Patrick Thiele, the man who adopted me.

“Hi, Dad,” I muttered to him as we walked through the gate together.
His arm curled around me, and he hugged me so close the smell of algae and lake water transferred from his wetsuit to my skin.
“Hey Nosy,” he still used his pet name, from when we first met and I was absolutely curious about everything around me. “Glad I caught you before it closed. How were classes today?”
I huffed. He’d slowed down to walk alongside me, but I was still taking twice as many paces as he was. “Oh, fine,” I gave the standard answer at first, amending with, “Except the part when I turned in the wrong assignment for Ancient Civ class.”
He threw back his head and laughed, prompting a chorus of protests from nearby pigeons in the trees lining the lane. Reaching up, he pulled out the hair tie holding his bun in place. A puff of sand accompanied it, falling over my shoulder as he shook his streaky hair loose. “So all that time you spent studying… all those discussions we had—“
“Yep, worthless,” I agreed. “Well, not quite; actually, the person who was supposed to discuss the turn of the millennia hadn’t done the assignment at all, so it wasn’t like I was being redundant, fortunately.”
“Yes, very fortunate!” Dad broke away as we came up to the house. Built on a slope, the back of the house faced the sun, so there were a lot of windows and a wide balcony for perfect views of both the sunrise on one side, and the sunset on the other. The front of the house had a lot of decorative stonework across the fa├žade, giving the illusion of a stately medieval manor.
“What about you?” I asked, nodding at the wetsuit. “How was sailing?” Dad owned a thirty-foot catamaran he would take out on Lake Michigan almost every day.
“Fantastic! The lake was in one of her moods today—but it’s more exciting that way, you know? It beats just taking the catamaran out for a skim when it’s calm,” he shrugged his burly shoulders.
The wind seemed to pick up again, and I remembered the freak breeze that had swept through the quad at school. I shook my head as Dad opened the massive front door.
“Honey?” he called. “We’re home!”

Aurelia
My mom—Patrick’s wife—came out of her office in the back on the east side of the house. Where Patrick tended to be tousled, laid back, and gregarious, she was more sleek, refined, and subtle. Aurelia DelVento was the youngest daughter of an oil baron, and the money she earned from oil fields all around the world went straight into supporting various charities and social funds. I knew she was also on the board of directors at the Smart Museum, and it was kind of her job to oversee the acquisition of antiquities, at least some of them, anyway.
She typically wore slacks and a formal top, even while working from home, but today she was dressed in a floor-length fire-red gown, and she’d had her hair professionally styled.

Dad let out a wolf-whistle, but Mom nailed him with a look that said Do not touch me.
“Patrick,” she cooed in her smooth, exotic accent. “What was our rule about you entering the house after you’ve been sailing?” She sounded like he was in trouble, but they smiled at each other. She gestured back toward the front of the house. “Use the mudroom shower, please. I’ll bring your suit down for you.”
Dad winked at me and responded with an eye roll, “Yes dear.” He clomped off to clean up.
Mom smiled at me, massaging my shoulders in a no-touch hug like she often did when she was dressed up and I wasn’t.
“How was school, Priscilla?”
“For the most part, it went well,” I answered, letting my satchel slide off my shoulder as I hopped up on one of the padded stools at the floating bar leading to the kitchen. “I’m really liking the classes I’m taking this semester.”
She nodded. “That’s good. You’d better get ready, too, if you’re going with us tonight.”
I frowned. “Going with? Where are we going?”
Mom blinked. “Priscilla, it’s April fourth—the fundraiser gala for your adoption agency, remember?”
April fourth; this time next week would be my “Got’Ya Day,” the day Patrick and Aurelia officially adopted me. Normally I was totally fine doing these things with them—they were my parents, after all, and the best ones I’d ever had.
Tonight, though, the urge to just change into my pj’s and not do anything was strong within me.
I shrugged. “Can’t, sorry, I have—“
“You said last week that your Linguistics class was canceled for the next couple weeks because your instructor had an emergency medical procedure, so you’d be taking it online until he was able to return.”
Snap, she had a point; my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I peeked at the screen to see a text from Tony asking if we would be fine meeting in front of the Regenstein Library. I looked back at my mother to find her face a picture of bland disapproval. “You’re thinking of meeting somebody?”
“Not for dinner,” I assured her. “It’s just Tony; he borrowed some of my notes today and wants to give them back.”
Aurelia pinched her lips. She was funny about house rules, one of which was that I shouldn’t be out walking late at night when she and Patrick weren’t home.
“Can you get them when you go to school tomorrow?”
“I need them for Study Hall first thing in the morning,” I objected, pulling away from her and flopping on the puffy leather couch. “It’s just to college and back—almost as if I still had that Linguistics class.” Why was this such a problem?
Mom glanced out the window. “It’s going to storm tonight, Priscilla; you know—“
“Then I’ll bring an umbrella!” Was she bound and determined to make me feel miserable no matter what I chose? “It’s not like I’m going to melt, I’m not made of sugar.”
“That’s not what—“

“Aurelia!” Patrick boomed, thumping into the room dressed in a jet-black tux. His long, wild locks had been somewhat tamed, smoothed back into a discreet braid and rolled at the nape of his neck, and he was just fastening his cufflinks. “I’m ready. Is Priscilla coming?” He stopped when he saw me sprawled on the couch.
Mom set her face, but her eyes spoke the disapproval. “No she isn’t; we still have an hour before our reservation.”
Dad’s disappointment held more sympathy than Mom’s did. “Aw, that’s too bad. Well, we’ll just have to plan something extra-special for next week to make up for it.” He wagged a finger at me, grinning behind his huge beard. “And no more excuses, young lady!”
Mom stepped into the hall closet to grab her coat and purse. She glanced back at me again.
“Umbrella, and you go straight there and come straight back, promise?”
I groaned; why did she have to treat me like I was seven? “Mom, I’m an adult—“
“Promise!”
“Fine! It’s not like anything is going to happen, anyway!” I folded my arms and settled further into the couch so I wouldn’t see them leave.
“Don’t have too much fun without us!” Dad had a way of soothing my disagreements with mom by softening her warnings with a joke.
I took a deep breath. “I won’t!” I called over the back of the couch.

Once they left, I ordered dinner by delivery. After it arrived, I texted Tony to say I would be on my way soon. The weather had darkened considerably, and the threat of rain still hung in the air, but the musty humidity made it feel warm and gusty as opposed to cold. I grabbed an umbrella off the mudroom rack and headed back down toward the university.

Sure enough, I had just reached the edge of the campus when the deluge hit my umbrella with such fury it almost jumped out of my hands. I clung to it with both hands to keep it steady, even as the water ran over the pavement and plashed onto my shoes. When I turned down the street in front of the museum, a massive gust of wind whistled around the glass dome at the edge of the square and hit my umbrella square on. The force of it popped the canopy inside out, and briefly, I cringed as the rain pelted down and soaked through my sweater.
The icy wind slammed into me again, and it almost seemed like the raindrops immediately in front of me froze in place. My eyes registered something like a face in the air before me, but I wrestled the umbrella in front of me, using the wind to pop it back into place. The moment ended, but I was now soaked by the rain in spite of my umbrella, and marginally shaken by what I saw—or I thought I saw. I scurried under the eaves of the Regenstein and focused on finding Tony as soon as possible so that I could return home quickly.
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