Damaged

By: H.M. Ward

CHAPTER 5



Every inch of my skin is covered in goose bumps. A shiver of ice runs down my spine and mingles with the lust still brimming inside of me from last night. Standing frozen on the stairs, I gape at him. Peter looks up at me with those gorgeous eyes. His mouth is paused midsentence as he stares back with his head titled to the side. Peter blinks at me, as if I’ll fade away—like this is a bad dream and a single blink will set me free.

I have no idea what he’s thinking. The expression on his face is so annoyingly neutral. Horror slowly drips through me like acid, burning away every other emotion. Although I can’t feel them at the moment, I know they are still there, pushed back behind the floodgate that’s ready to burst open.

Realization comes to me as I take in his clothing –that polished suit that fits his beautiful body perfectly. He’s standing in front of the lectern. He is (or was) answering the student. Awh, damn.

Peter’s the replacement professor.

Peter’s a teacher.

Peter’s my boss.

My heart feels brittle, like glass, like I’ll shatter if I breathe. There’s too much pressure even though nothing is touching me. I feel its force crushing against my body, against my battered soul. Too many things have gone wrong today. I feel the fracture lines splinter me into pieces.

I react. I don’t mean to, but I do. Gasping, I cover my mouth and press my lips together so tightly that they hurt. Part of my mind is telling my legs to move, be quiet, and go sit down, but I can’t. I’m frozen on the stairs and falling apart. Peter watches me with those striking eyes. He doesn’t look away from me. He stands frozen, as if I’m the biggest shock he could have expected.

The student who was talking before, Lily, speaks up. I see her hand go up out of the corner of my eye. She asks, “Excuse me, Dr. Granz?”

Peter flinches and his head turns back toward Lily. There’s a full smile on his face, as if nothing’s happened. Like I don’t matter. The students around me glance at my frozen form, still standing on the stair case. Peter’s rich voice fills the room. It echoes through the speaker so clearly that I can’t stand it. My legs are telling me to haul ass out of there, but I can’t.

I drop my hand from my face and walk down to my normal seat at the front of the room. Peter doesn’t look at me again. The rest of the class continues and I do my job, taking attendance and posting his questions to the interactive computer thingy the school purchased last year. The students use an iTouch to respond, and the teacher can see their answers. It helps the teacher and the students, but most of the teachers can’t use it, which is why each class has a TA or GA to help.

Over the course of the hour, I’ve gone numb. I can’t handle this. Too much has happened too fast. It’s bad enough being here, in Tadwick’s room, knowing I’ll never see him again. Add to that the Peter complication and I can’t do it. I can’t handle seeing him every day, having him tell me what to do, sitting with him for hours and grading papers. My stomach twists and turns, growing more acidic by the second. I feel so sick. By the end of class, I’ve shrunk back into my chair so that my head barely hits the top of the seat.

Peter dismisses the class. He turns and looks at the lectern for a moment, while I gather my things to leave. As I stand and start walking up the stairs, I hear my name. “Sidney Colleli, please come see me before you go.” I hear the rustling of paper behind me as Peter picks up his notes.

Turning slowly, I look back at him. The lump in my throat is now the size of my head. I can’t swallow. I’m coming apart at the seams. I can feel it. Talking to him is a very bad idea, but there are a few students lingering. I can’t blow him off.

As it is, people noticed something was weird when I saw Peter. Dating a prof is against university policy, so is dating the boss. Peter is both. We’ll both get fired if anyone knows what happened between us. There is no room for stuff of this sort in academia. The rules were made crystal clear when we signed on the line to be a TA. At the time, the thought of sleeping with a prof sounded gross, but now—shit, shit, shit. My brain is in panic mode. I try to lock it down as I walk toward Peter.

I grin at him, as if he has no effect on me, and fold my arms over my chest. “So, Doctor Granz, is it?”

Peter looks at me from under his brow. He stacks papers and shoves them into his satchel. “Yes, I completed my doctoral work last semester. The title is new. It takes some getting used to.”

I nod. “Mmm, I suppose that’s why you forgot to mention it.”

Peter gives me a look that says I shouldn’t be talking about this now. His eyes burn a hole into mine, like he’s daring me to blurt it out. I break the death-stare first and look away. I don’t have it in me right now. Peter clears his throat and says, “Please meet me in my office at 3:00pm. There are some things we need to go over right away.” He grabs another stack of papers from his bag as he speaks. He pulls them out and puts them on the podium.

I don’t answer him at first. I just look at my shoes, my tired old All Stars. Then, my gaze drifts to his black dress shoe. It’s a saddle shoe, vintage, and one of my favorite styles. It reminds me of dancing and laughing, things that seem so foreign at the moment.

I open my mouth as if I’m going to say something and decide that it’s not worth it. I need this job. I worked my ass off to get here and I’m not letting Peter mess it up. I nod and turn away. I don’t look back at him. I walk up the stairs.

A plan forms in my head. I need to put space between us. I need to get a different professor to work for. I need to find Strictland and ask her to assign me to someone else.

As I reach the upper landing, I see Marshal walk through the door. He gives me a look and tilts his head at Peter. “So, how is he?”

I glance back, watching him write on the dry-erase board with his back to me. When I turn to Marshal, I snap, “Why would I know?”

Marshal gives me a weird look. I push past him, banging into his shoulder because he doesn’t move and I don’t want to stay around to chat.

I need to find Strictland. Now.

_____

When I reach the offices, things appear to be back to normal. Student workers are at their desks, professors are hurrying through the space—coffee in one hand, papers in the other—on their way to teach.

I walk over to Tadwick’s office and stand in the open door way. I spent hours in there. Leaning my head to the side, I rest it against the doorjamb. My eyes scan the room looking at all Tadwick’s books, his favorite poems and literature. My gaze drifts to his pictures and some small clay thing that looks like a squashed cat. One of his girls made that for him. I remember him bringing it in and proudly showing off his future artist. He was beaming that day.

Blinking rapidly, I try to fight off the stinging that’s building behind my eyes. Life is short. I know that, but I can’t believe he’s gone. I can’t believe I won’t see him again. It feels unreal. My mind wrestles with it and doesn’t want to accept that it’s a fact—Dr. Tadwick is dead.

A hand lands on my shoulder and I nearly jump out of my skin. I round on the person swiftly, trying hard not to punch the crazy person. Sneaking up on me is normally a bad idea, but today, it’s a super bad idea. I’m angry. I’m shocked. I’m a million things and nothing. I want to hit something. The pain that would shoot through my hand would make it so I’d feel something familiar, something I know how to handle.

I don’t know how to handle this.

Before I smash in her face, I see Dr. Strictland. She doesn’t step back or lower her hand when I turn. She has that smile on her face, the one that isn’t really a smile. It’s a way to hide pain, a mask. “Are you all right, Sidney? I know you and Marshal must be in shock as well.”

“I’m okay,” I say, trying to force my voice to sound normal.

That’s my go-to response. I’m fine. I’m okay. Everything’s great. But nothing’s great. Everything sucks. My fake smile slips from my face. “Okay, I’m lying. I’m not okay. I didn’t expect this. I’m not sure what to do.”

Strictland looks at me with such compassion that it’s hard to maintain her gaze and not cry. “Come with me.” Lowering her hand, she turns away, and I follow her back to her office.

When I was first in here, I thought she was a deranged cat lady. There are kitty cat statues and pictures everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Little plastic kittens hang playfully from the lights, ceramic orange cats sit on her shelves, there are cross-stitched kitties on the chairs, and on her desk cat frames surround more pictures of real housecats. Seriously. It’s scary. Eventually, I found out that she had been the victim of a prank and left the cat theme in place when she realized it scared the crap out of people. She has an interesting sense of humor.

I lower myself onto a stitched kitty and lean back into the chair. Strictland walks behind her desk and sits down. “Sidney, I know today was hard for you. Have you lost anyone before, dear?”

I nod and keep my hands folded tightly in my lap. “Yes.”

She nods slowly, waiting for me to elaborate, but I don’t. There are things I won’t say, secrets I won’t tell. I can’t talk about it. Not now, not ever. “Well, you can talk to a counselor about it and work through the stages of grief. It’s better that you’re not alone in this. We’re all going to miss him.” I nod. “How was the freshmen class this morning?”

I glance up at her. “They were all right. Dr. Granz continued with the lesson.” I pause and decide to just blurt it out. “Is there any way that I could get transferred to another professor?”

Strictland looks surprised. She leans forward and places her hands on top of her desk. “Why? Is something wrong? Did Dr. Granz—”

“No,” I say, quickly backtracking. “It’s just that I don’t think that I can manage to sit in Tadwick’s office every day. It’d be so much better if I could work for someone else.” I’m lying. Sort of. I don’t want to sit there with Peter every day. I don’t want to look up at him and remember his hands on me, and I sure as hell don’t want to remember him throwing me out.

Dr. Tadwick shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Sidney, but all the TA jobs have been assigned for months now. There are no other positions. You’ll have to figure out how to deal with this loss, and I’m sure Dr. Granz will be happy to help you, unless you’re resigning?” Her eyes widen as she looks at me. The last thing she wants to do is hire and train a new TA in the middle of the year.

“No, I’m not resigning. I need this job.” I look at my hands, at the way the nail polish that was so neat last night has been chipped away. Images from the previous evening flash across my mind. I see Peter’s eyes and hear his voice echo inside my head. The sensation of his hands searing my skin and his teasing kiss rushes back. I press my lips together and shut the memory out. I’m going to have to suck it up. Peter is a part of my life now, whether I want him there or not.

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