After Math

By: Denise Grover Swank
Chapter One

I’m late.

I stand outside the doorway of my Western civ class, caught in a dilemma. Either go in and have thirty pairs of eyes stare at me or leave, which means missing my test. The decision is already made. I only need to open the door and walk in.

I suck oxygen into my lungs, past my tightened airway, as I try to calm down and turn the doorknob.

My professor is standing at the white board, writing Ancient Greece in a big scrawl with a blue marker that is running out of ink. He barely pauses as he lifts his eyes at the sound of the door hinges before returning to his task, yet my heart still pounds in my chest. My breath still catches.

I can’t do this.

In spite of the surety that I will flunk the test and ruin my 4.0 GPA, I choose to leave. I spin around and slam into something hard. When I stumble backward, strong hands grab my arms and right me.

“I know I make girls swoon, but this is a first,” a deep voice drawls.

I instantly know whom this voice belongs to. Tucker Price. Southern University’s soccer team superstar and resident man-whore. He sits in the end row, second seat.

I jerk out of his hold and confusion flickers in his eyes before he grins. “You’re not the first girl to fall for me.”

It has to be one of the worst lines ever, but it doesn’t stop half the class from laughing.

I’m about to combust from embarrassment.

Dr. Eggleston looks up this time and puts a hand on his hip. One bushy gray eyebrow hitches as he stares. “Are you two going to stand there for the rest of the class or take a seat?”

My face is on fire. I force my eyes to focus in the empty seat in the middle aisle, middle row—my usual seat—and I take purposeful steps toward it. If I sit down without attracting any more attention, this moment will pass, and I will be alone with my mortification.

With shaky fingers, I dig my Scantron sheet and pencil from my bag as Dr. Eggleston begins to pass out booklets. “When you have completed the test, turn it in at my desk, and you are free to leave.”

The guy in the seat in front of me hands me a test, and I set it down on the desk, smoothing the sheet with my hand as I try to get a grip on my emotions. Arriving late to class is no big deal. Sure, it’s slightly embarrassing, but people like Tucker Price thrive on the attention. People like me want to curl up and die.

Lightheaded from my humiliation, I try to read the questions swimming on the page in front of me. I know this information backward and forward. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve found Ancient Greece fascinating since I first studied the Greek gods in fourth grade. Nevertheless, my heart still beats furiously and blood whooshes in my ears, making it difficult to focus. I might know everything under the sun about the Spartans and Athenians, but it doesn’t do me any good if I don’t answer the questions.

I hear the rustle of paper and look up. People are already moving onto the second page of the test, and I haven’t even read the first question. A quick glance up at the clock tells me I’ve wasted ten minutes.

Sucking in a deep breath, I close my eyes, holding oxygen in my lungs until I’m sure they will burst. When I release the breath, I imagine pushing all my anxiety out with it. After a couple of rounds, I settle enough to start. Fourteen months of free campus counseling boiled down into a simple breathing exercise.

Forty minutes later, I rise from my chair, my completed test and essay in my hand. Most of the class has finished, but two girls still huddle over their essays, their hands flying as they hurry to finish. In the second row, Tucker stares out the window, his pencil hovering over his composition book. For someone who is about to run out of time, he looks remarkably relaxed.

I should be more like Tucker Price. The thought burns itself in my head, and I want a gallon of bleach to purge the errant idea from my brain. Never in a million years would I want to be like Tucker Price.

Unfocused. Irresponsible. Dangerous.

Tucker Price’s reputation is well earned, and if the university rumor factory is correct, Tucker is well on his way to losing his soccer scholarship after his latest DUI.

I turn in my test and grab a quick lunch in the student union   before I report for my shift in the math lab. My friend Tina sits next to me, plopping her tray on the table as her backpack slips down her arm. Tina is a sophomore I met last semester. There are few female math majors at Southern, and we tend to hang out together. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we both have forty-five minutes between our last class and our shift in the lab so we usually meet for lunch.

“My friend Kyle is having a party on Friday night,” Tina says before she takes a bite of her sandwich. Her eyes lift to me to gauge my reaction.

Tina is not the typical math student. She straddles both the demanding academic world and a social life. Parties included. For some reason she seems intent on dragging me from my comfortable hovel.

“Tina, we’ve discussed this before—”

“You don’t date. You don’t go to parties. Yeah, I know, I know,” she grumbles.

I frown. “You don’t ask anyone else from the math department to go. Why me?”

“Don’t you see that you have so much more potential than spending all of your time studying?”

“But I—”

Her face lowers close to mine. “Look, Scarlett. Everyone knows you’re a brilliant mathematics student. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun. Just once.” Her eyes plead with mine. “You don’t have to say yes or no. Just think about it. Okay?” She gives me an exaggerated pouty face.