Damaged

By: H.M. Ward

CHAPTER 8



The next morning I show up at Peter’s office a few minutes early. I’m wearing a pair of jeans and a thick cream colored sweater. A steaming cup of coffee is in my hand. Trudging up the stairs to the second floor offices, I take a sip. The building is quiet this early. Hardly anyone is here. My pulse pounds harder with every step I take. I feel humiliated and it doesn’t mesh well with my mood.

I’m going to act like Peter doesn’t affect me. That’s the plan. It’s not stellar, but it’s the best I can manage on short notice and scrambled brains. I tossed and turned all night. Sleep finally came around time to get up. Nights are hard enough. Add Peter the next morning, Tadwick’s empty office, and I might cry for no apparent reason. Awesome.

I push through the double doors to the offices and see Marshal sitting inside. I breathe a sigh of relief. Thank God. I won’t be alone with Peter.

Marshal looks at me. He’s dressed like Bert from Sesame Street, with a striped shirt and turtleneck. He tops the look off with a pair of jeans and white sneakers. He looks like a six-year-old. “It’s about time,” he scolds me.

“It’s not even 7:00 yet, you neurotic bundle of nerves. Chill out.” I sip my coffee and set my book bag down on a table before settling into a chair. I lean back and relax. As long as Marshal is here, I can handle this. Confidence washes over me and my rapid pulse slows to normal. “Where is the geezer anyway?”

“Behind you,” Peter says, walking by with his arms filled with papers and books. “Get up, Colleli, and bring Marshal with you.” He backs into his office door and tries to get a key into the lock while balancing everything in his arms. It doesn’t work. Papers start to slide and a book falls to the floor.

Marshal is oblivious. I wait for him to help with the door, but when he doesn’t I get up and walk over to Peter. “I’ll do it.” I take the keys from his hand and our fingers brush. A jolt of electricity shots through me and swirls in my stomach. Damn him.

Peter backs away, apparently unaffected. “Thanks, Sidney.”

I hold the door open and gesture for him to enter. Peter manages to get to his desk before everything falls out of his arms. Papers and books go everywhere. I kneel and start picking them up and putting them on his desk. “What is all this stuff?” They’re the papers that were due a few weeks ago.

Marshal enters and stands there watching us with my coffee in one hand and my book bag in the other. “You forgot this.”

“Thanks, Marshal.” He sets my bag down inside the door and puts the cup on an empty shelf. Then, he stands there and watches us stooping, but doesn’t help. Marshal just watches with his hands clutched in front of him. I glance up at him. “You might want to help.”

“Oh no, I think you’ve got it.” Marshal steps over us and sits in Peter’s chair.

Peter gives me a look that says, Is he serious?

“Choose your battles wisely is all I’m going to say. If he wasn’t an asset, they wouldn’t have given him the job.” Peter’s eyes meet mine and he nods. He holds my gaze a beat too long, and I glance away.

We finally get everything picked up and onto the table when Peter tells us what’s going on. “When Tadwick died, he had papers in his office and at his house. His wife gave these to me last night so the students wouldn’t have to redo them. There are research papers, tests, and all sorts of things here that need to be graded and returned. Dr. Tadwick did some of them, but he didn’t get a chance to finish. We need to figure out which papers go with which class and grade them. Today.”

“What?” Marshal whines. “Why is this so last minute?”

“Marshal,” I warn, but he doesn’t listen.

“No, it’s not fair. Why should I spend my morning sorting this mess? I’m not the one who dropped it, besides, it’s not a part of my job description.” He folds his arms over his chest.

Peter doesn’t react the way I expect him to. He walks over to Marshal, and turns the chair so that they face each other. Peter braces his arm on the back of the chair and lowers his face toward Marshal’s. “Do you like your job? Do you want to keep it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then do what I ask you to do. Take that stack to Tadwick’s office and sort them. When you’re done, take the graduate papers you find and grade them, then give them to me to look over. Understand?” Peter speaks in a low stern voice. I can tell this isn’t optional. Hell, even Marshal can tell he is getting scolded.

Marshal’s eyes dart to the floor and he says, “Yes sir.”

Peter stands up and tosses a pile of papers in Marshal’s lap. “Get going. The door is open.” Marshal takes the papers and leaves without looking back. Peter glances at me before sitting in his chair. “Is he always like that? I thought he was just out of it yesterday.”

A lopsided smile forms on my face. “Pretty much. They say he makes up for in brains what he lacks in tact.”

“Who says that?”

“I don’t know, his mother?” Peter smiles and shakes his head. I didn’t mean to be nice to him. I want to be cold and distant, but for some reason I can’t. I glance at the doorway, wondering how difficult it is for Marshal. “I’m sure Marshal was shaken up yesterday. He’s acting a little more nuts than usual.” I sit down and start sorting the papers. Most of the class wrote their course number somewhere, so it isn’t too hard, just time consuming.

Peter watches me for a second and nods before starting on the next pile. “I thought that it would help everyone to have these back as soon as possible, in light of what’s happened. It’s good to move forward.”

I nod, not saying anything. I wonder if that’s what he thinks about us too. Don’t look back.

We sit in silence, sorting and stacking. Peter glances up at me from time to time, but he doesn’t say much. When the silence is deafeningly loud, I say, “Start talking or I’ll go crazy.”

Peter glances at me from the corner of his eye. “Talk about what?”

“Anything, just say something. You’ve been all tense and quiet since I saw you yesterday. I thought nothing happened. Let’s act like it.” I’m such a liar. I just want something else to think about because right now my mind is filled with Peter’s hands, Peter’s eyes, Peter’s breath.

He stills and looks at me as I speak. I don’t look up. I keep sorting. He clears his throat. “I didn’t say nothing happened. I said we did nothing wrong.” Peter goes back to his pile and moves the papers into the stacks on his desk.

“Same difference.” I take a deep breath and decide to just say it. “Listen, I don’t really get along with that many people and I enjoyed talking to you the other day. Talking isn’t against university policy, is it?” I tease.

Peter gives me a hesitant smile. “No, it’s not. Okay, tell me something about yourself. How’d you end up here?”

I pause. Damn it. Out of everything to ask, he asks that. I hedge. “College.”

“I know that,” he says, looking up at me. “I mean what made you chose this college? Why leave and come here. This town is a hell hole and the people are a little weird, in case you didn’t notice.” He smiles at me.

I keep working as I speak. I might as well tell him. It’s not like it’ll change anything. “I traded one hell for another, I guess. I wanted to get as far away from my family as possible. Something happened during my senior year. They blamed me. I thought they should have defended me.” I feel my heart pounding in my chest as the memory rushes forward in my mind. A chill wraps around my throat and chokes me. I swallow hard, forcing the feeling away. “Anyway, I came here because the university offered me a way to pay for college by myself. I wanted to start over. So here I am.”

Peter’s quiet. It’s not the normal why I went to college story. I don’t care what he thinks of me; at least I don’t want to. He finally asks, “Was it worth it? I mean, cutting everyone off. Did it fix things?”

I feel his eyes on my face. I don’t look up. I can’t meet his gaze. Why did I tell him this? This conversation feels too intimate to be having with him. I expected Peter to gloss over it, as if he stepped in something icky, but he didn’t. I smile weakly, trying to hold my mask in place, trying to push away the memories that haunt me. “I’m not sure that it’s something that can be fixed. There are things like that, ya know? They change you and you can’t be who you were before. It doesn’t matter if it’s fixed or not.”

Peter surprises me and says, “I know what you mean.” He doesn’t elaborate. His eyes have the same vacant stare from the other night, as though he’s remembering something he wants to forget. He blinks and says, “I didn’t see you at Dr. Tadwick’s funeral yesterday.”

“I didn’t go.”

“Obviously. What I meant was that I’m surprised you didn’t go.”

“I couldn’t.” I’m staring at the paper in my hands, not seeing the words on the page. I hold it too long. “I couldn’t bear to see his kids. I’m weak.” The thought of Tadwick’s daughters gathered around his casket with tears in their eyes was too much. I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams most days as it is. That would have unraveled me completely.

“No, you’re not.” Peter puts another paper onto a pile.

Shaking my head, I say, “You don’t even know me. How can you possibly say that?” I stare at him, daring him to answer.

Peter lifts his head and our gazes lock. It’s like the other night. The feelings rush back. Something inside me stirs. My body responds to him as if I’m made for him. The hollow spot in my chest tingles and feels full. Something inside tugs me toward him and I can’t escape. I lose myself in his eyes. The bookcases and papers fade from sight and the only thing that I can see is Peter. His beautiful pink lips part, like he’s going to whisper something to me, but Marshal enters the room. Peter straightens and turns away from me.

Marshal is oblivious to relationship stuff. He never notices anything, otherwise it would worry me. He walks into the room and shoves two stacks of papers into the bookcase. “These are the two graduate classes that I teach. The rest are yours. I have to go get the other stacks. Be right back.” Marshal turns and leaves, not realizing that he interrupted anything.

I glance at the clock. It’s close to 8:00am. “I better get downstairs.”

“Go ahead,” Peter says, his voice too soft. “I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”

I nod and grab my bag. I leave the room as quickly as possible. I don’t look back at Peter, but I feel his eyes on me as I walk away. Thoughts tumble through my brain like they’re falling down a flight of stairs. They just keep coming and I can’t make them stop. There’s no way I can deny how I feel about Peter, but there’s no way in hell I’m ever going to say anything. Getting rejected once is enough for me.

I walk down to the classroom, and then turn on the computers and other technology that is needed for the lesson. Everything comes online and flares to life, except for the microphone at the podium. I tap it, but it’s dead. Damn it. There’s a wire that runs through the bottom of the wood and goes into a port in the floor. I lie on my side and try to tuck my head under the podium into the tiny space between the wood and the floor. I wiggle my head under and see the socket. Reaching underneath, I fish my hand through cobwebs and dust hoping to God that a mutant rat from the science lab doesn’t suddenly appear and gnaw off my arm.

“You okay?” I hear Peter ask from above me. I didn’t realize he was standing there.

I don’t pull my head out to look at him. My fingers are so close to the wire. “I’m fine. The mic is out. I’m fixing the wire. One second.” I’m at an award angle, but I manage to get my fingers on the plug and push it back into the socket. The speakers make a hideous, deafeningly loud noise, and I hear everyone in the room moan in response. When I wiggle back out, Peter is standing above me with his hands over his ears.

“Weenie,” I say to him. I know he’s too close to the mic to say anything back.

Peter offers his hand and pulls me up. I dust myself off, trying to ignore how much I like the feel of his hands. A nervous jolt of excitement fills my body. Peter’s gaze rests on my figure as I walk back to my seat. I don’t turn back. It’s everything I can do to act as though I don’t know and don’t care that he’s looking.

It’s then that one of the guys in the first row starts clapping. He woos! and says, “Let’s hear it for the techie TA!” He claps loudly and everyone follows his lead. A crooked grin forms on my lips as I lean forward and look at him like he’s crazy. The guy holds his hands up and claps louder and gestures for me to stand. Shaking my head, I stand and bow, smiling as I wave to the class.

The guy—Mark—watches me until I sit down. I nod at him and he smiles back, beaming. He’s a year younger than me, and relationships are usually so far from my mind that I never noticed him before. Between the two, I suppose it was difficult for him to catch my attention. Mark’s grin is contagious. I lean back in my seat, smiling, and look up at the podium, when I see Peter’s face. His eyes are hard and the usual easy-going smile isn’t visible. The look slips away before I can blink. Mark didn’t notice. Hell, I’m not sure if I noticed it. What the hell was that?

Peter starts his lesson, and by the end of it, everyone is back in the groove of things. I wonder how long it will take for them to transition from Dr. Tadwick to Peter. They have different styles of teaching. I know from not only sitting in here, but because Peter is the professor in my once a week night class. , The thought makes me feel all twisted inside. When I reign in my drifting mind, Peter is dismissing the class. I stand and gather my things.

Peter walks over to me. “Thanks for taking care of the microphone. You saved me from a very sore throat. Talking loud enough for the entire room to hear all day would have severely sucked.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for, to save the world from suckage.” I give him a half smile and start to walk toward the side door.

“Can you do 7:00am for one more day? After that, we should be caught up.” Peter’s eyes slip over my face as he asks, more gently this time than yesterday.

I nod, acting as though I don’t care, acting like it’s a job and nothing more. “Sure. See you then.

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