Kiley took a breath. “Well, this is it, isn’t it?” she wondered. “In ten minutes, one of us will be here next semester. The other will be out on the street, fighting rats for garbage to eat and sleeping in a new hotel room every night.” She shrugged. “Well, let’s hope the first night is at a Hampton Inn.”
From over the rims of her glasses, Melanie glared at her. “Knock that off,” she ordered, her voice suddenly stern. “You know none of that ain’t true.”
“I’m sorry — it must be so easy to know you’ll have work ten months out of the year.” Kiley retorted.
Melanie rolled her eyes. “Y’all be fine. Ya’ll probably get hired on for the Fall semester again.”
“You know this for sure?”
“Well, no, but–”
“I didn’t think so.”
Amanda said nothing and continued to stare at her hands. She tried not to jiggle her legs, as her knees banged against the underside of her desk when they did, and Melanie looked annoyed enough. The tip of her right index finger wiggled slightly, tracing an invisible circle on the surface of her desk.
When Maynard opened his door, both Kiley and Amanda looked up.
“Amanda,” he said, his voice solemn. “Can we talk with you first?”
It didn’t hurt as badly as she had thought it would. As Kiley gave a relieved sigh, Amanda rose to her feet. As she passed, Kiley grabbed her wrist. I’m sorry, she mouthed. I’m so, so sorry.
She wasn’t, but Amanda wasn’t angry with her.
The steps from their desk clump to Alan Maynard’s office were quick; Amanda did not want to waste anyone’s time. Dr. Williams was in the office too, leaning against Maynard’s desk. She smiled at Amanda and gestured to the empty chair. Amanda fell into it as Maynard closed the blinds behind her.
“This wasn’t an easy decision, Amanda,” Lorraine Williams began.
“I know,” she replied. “Budget issues. You have to hire a lecturer for accreditation reasons. There’s no money to keep on so many adjuncts. I understand.” She nodded. Hard. The more she nodded, the easier it was to take.
“It wasn’t easy,” Maynard insisted. “This wasn’t fun for us, either.”
She looked at the floor.
“You and Kiley each have different teaching methods. Your students have different things to say about you both. It’s good we’re not basing our decision on student opinion, though.” Williams chuckled.
“Will you hire me again in the Fall?” Amanda asked, suddenly breathless.
“That’s a bit far ahead in the future,” Maynard replied. “But it’s a possibility.”
“What we need to know right now, though,” Williams went on, “is your opinion about Kiley.”
“Kiley? She’s a good instructor. You just said that.”
“No, I mean — what’s she like outside of that?”
“We really don’t hang out outside of work.” Amanda blinked. “Wait…why…?”
“Is it your opinion that Kiley comes to work hungover? Or under the influence of other substances?” Maynard lifted his pen. Amanda hadn’t noticed that he had even started writing.
“Has she shouted at her students in the department office before? Has she cancelled classes for no reason?” Dr. Williams crossed her arms and furrowed her brow.
“I don’t understand,” Amanda asked, a slow panic building in her chest. Her hands, gripping the arms of the chair, were moist. “Why are you asking me this?” It was a stupid question; she had already figured it out.
“Amanda,” Dr. Williams said, relaxing her arms. “We’ve seen how Kiley behaves in front of her students. We’ve also heard her admit to coming to class hungover. She doesn’t turn in her grades on time and she harasses her colleagues. She won’t be coming back next semester.”
“We’re keeping you,” Alan Maynard said. For some reason, he was grinning. “And we’re giving you her classes.”
“You and Raj,” Dr. Williams clarified. “You will get one and he’ll get the other.”
“At $1500 a semester.”
Amanda shut her eyes for a long moment.
“Amanda? Are you alright?” Dr. Williams was frowning when she opened them again. Maynard, writing again, was less concerned. “Alan said you wanted a raise, but this is the best we can do.”
“You’ll have to sign the contract before you leave today,” he said, not looking up. “But don’t feel pressured if you don’t want it.”
“Kiley is going to be upset.”
“She’ll be fine.” It was a familiar refrain, just then. Maynard gave her a small, sympathetic smile. He pushed a document and his pen across his desk, giving it a forceful tap. “It’s up to you though.”
Amanda leaned forward and took the pen. It felt cool in her sweaty hands. When she signed her name, she left a trembling squiggle on the tail of her third ‘A.’ After signing, Dr. Williams took the pen and signed her name just beneath Amanda’s signature. Maynard signed his last.
“And there we go,” he said, dusting off his hands. “Could you please call Kiley in? I don’t think she’ll want to hear the bad news from you.”
Amanda stood, though it wasn’t easy on knees made of jelly. She left the room the same when she came in — with blood rushing in her ears and her heart in her stomach.
Three heads turned toward her when she emerged. Amanda forced herself to look at the carpeting beneath her shoes in fear that her expression of shock and astonishment. Somehow she made it back to her desk and fell into her swivel chair. Reaching to steady herself, she accidentally caught Kiley’s eye.
With her eyebrow raised, she prodded for an answer.
“Well?” she asked. “What happened?”
Amanda took a breath. “Kiley…”
Behind her, Maynard opened his office door again. Amanda didn’t even realize she had closed it. He cleared his throat.
“C’mon in, Kiley,” he said. His voice cast a grave shadow across the whole office.
Amanda lifted her eyes.
“Oh.” Kiley’s jaw snapped shut. “Oh…fuck the both of you!”
Amanda sat back, startled. “I’m so sorry, Kiley,” she pleaded. “I thought they were –”
“The fuck you did!” Kiley was on her feet now, leaning on her palms. “You’ve known this all along! Yes the fuck you did! That’s why you asked me to lunch the other day!”
“No! No, I didn’t! I didn’t–”
“Shut up!” Kiley pointed her finger over Amanda’s head, at Maynard standing in the doorway. “You little fucking prick! You’ve got some balls, you know that?”
“That’s enough,” he told her. Amanda couldn’t see him, but she heard him stuff his hands in his pockets. Casually. Like this was nothing new or eventful.
“I need this job! You know I need this fucking job!”
“Stop it.” Dr. Williams was there now. “We know you’re angry, Kiley, but this isn’t the way to react.”
“Don’t tell me how to react, you uppity cunt,” Kiley screamed. “You have a fucking job — you have a real paycheck!”
“I said, enough.” Maynard’s voice was rising. “Leave. Right now. You can come get your things on Monday.”
“And I said, fuck you.”
“Get out. Right now!”
Kiley shoved her keyboard off her desk. Amanda jumped back at the noise, only slightly stifling a squeak of surprise. With her purse slung over her shoulder, Kiley marched toward the office doors. Once there, she stopped and turned on her heel.
Amanda thought she was going to say something else, something twice as vile. But she didn’t. In one quick swoop, she grabbed a paperweight off Mya’s desk and heaved it.
Melanie screamed. The rest of them ducked. Amanda heard the sound of glass shattering and Alan Maynard cursing behind her.
“Call security!” he ordered, his hands suddenly on Amanda’s back. “Are you ok?”
She rose and nodded. Speaking wasn’t an option.
The next half-an-hour went by in a gelatinous blur. Amanda, Melanie, Mya, and the remaining staff stood by, giving trembling statements to campus security. Amanda kept her statement brief — “She was angry and swearing, and then she threw it,” — though neither camp-cop pressed her for more information. They seemed more interested in talking about insurance claims and telling them all to keep away from the “site.” Amanda, her eyes wide and glassy, stared at the tiny shards of broken glass on the carpet. The blinds were torn and sagging on their hinges as well. She also watched Maynard rub the sole of his shoe into the remains of his office window. What once was a fortress that walled himself off from the rest of the world was now glittering dust.
At ten thirty, her phone rang.
“If that’s her,” Dr. Williams instructed, “tell her to stay as far away from this campus as she can get.”
Amanda considered not answering. But the phone went on ringing.
She picked it up. “Amanda Keefe speaking.”
There was a pause, and Amanda knew it wasn’t Kiley.
“I mean, Amanda. Keefe, right? Who works as an ESL adjunct in the International Department of Battle Creek State University?”
Amanda shook her head, and the others staring at her relaxed.
“I’m sorry this had to happen, Amanda. But you wouldn’t talk to me the other ways.”
Realizing she should say something, Amanda parted her lips.
“Easy. You have a faculty parking decal on your car. The Civic. Your school’s website has pictures of almost every staff member. That’s how I found your real name. Oh, did you like the pictures? I’m not much of a photographer, but at least I had a decent subject.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think this is the appropriate time to discuss this.”
Melanie looked up at her.
“No? Well, perhaps we can talk about it at your house then. You live at 225 South Franklin Avenue, right? Your mother’s name is Janice. She’s a very nice lady.”
Amanda shut her eyes. “The house next door…”
“Don’t ask me how I found that bit of information.” George laughed. “That’s my secret.”
She rubbed the bridge of her nose. Melanie raised an eyebrow at her, wondering what the problem was. Amanda tried to smile, but her lips cracked. Instead, she turned away from her and whispered into the receiver, “What do you want from me?”
“I want to see you. This evening. Come alone.” He paused, as if to mull that over. “There’s a bus stop near your building. Meet me there at five o’clock.”
“I’ve got to work…”
“Not past five on the day of commencements,” he snapped. “I’m not stupid.”
Amanda felt another pair of eyes on her, and loudly she said, “Ok, Ma — but I’m going to be late tonight. I’ll tell you about it later.”
“I’m sorry. Am I interrupting work?” He snickered. “Goodbye, Lily. I mean Amanda. Don’t be late.”
He hung up. A moment later, Amanda did too.
“Everything ok at home?” Melanie asked. “Something happen?”
“N-no,” she stammered, her throat dry. “My mother…she wanted me to pick up some milk on the way home. For dinner.” She reached for the cup of shared pencils on Kiley’s abandoned desk and withdrew one, unsharpened and useless. She tapped its eraser on her mousepad.
“That all?” Melanie’s ever-present skepticism cut through Amanda’s bullshit.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m just really shaken up. About…that.” A nod gestured to the mess across the room.
That admission got Melanie off her back. She gave her a sympathetic smile. “It’s ok,” she said. “No one was hurt. And that’s what’s important.”
Amanda forced herself to smile.
The camp-cops left not long afterward. Both Maynard and Williams begrudgingly slipped into their blazers and coats to go to commencements. “We still have to go,” Maynard told them, giving another sad look at his office. “Graduation doesn’t stop because some nut-case throws a paperweight through my window.”
“If she comes back,” Lorraine Williams warned again, “call the police. Don’t engage her, just leave. She’ll most likely want her belongings back on Monday, but if she steps one foot into this building we’re arresting her.”
They left and the room fell silent.
“That was certainly the most interesting thing that’s happened around here in a while,” Mya remarked, surveying the wreckage. “I’ll call a custodian and have him put up some paper. And…vacuum, I guess.”
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Amanda told no one, absently staring out into the hallway. She went unnoticed, even as she stooped to tie the bow on her show and slip a large sliver of glass into the palm of her hand. When she went out to the hallway, she cradled it like an expensive gemstone.
Glass, unlike Xacto knives, left deep, jagged licks in her upper thighs. Desperately, she dabbed at the blood with a wad of toilet paper. She held the makeshift bandage against her new wounds for a full minute before it stopped bleeding. A small stain seeped through her gray dress slacks.
It hurt to walk after that.
Hours passed like decades. Amanda divided her time between the office and the bathroom, rewarding herself with a new cut at noon and a very brief destressing at one. Between the former and the latter, a custodian came to clean up the glass and tape a giant white length of waxy paper over the broken window. It took less than five minutes, and by then the remaining office workers treated it as an afterthought.
There was no work for Amanda to do. Her grades were in. She had only come to work to get fired. Now, she sat contemplating her life while staring at the clock above reception (1:17). Maynard and Williams did not return after commencements, and, having nothing else to do the rest of the day, Melanie and Mya left early. Mya went home shortly before Amanda returned from her destressing; Melanie shortly thereafter.
“You wanna get a bite to eat?” she suggested, climbing into her parka. “Or see a movie? Do something to get your mind off today?”
“Mm — no. Thank you.” Amanda shook her head. “My brother’s picking me up.”
“He goes here? What’s he study?”
“Ah.” Melanie searched for something to say. “Y’know, Amanda — you shouldn’t feel guilty.” Amanda blinked, and she went on. “If that’s what you’re feeling, I mean. Kiley wasn’t a great adjunct. They made the right choice to keep you.”
“She hates me now.”
“You’ll never have to see her again.” Melanie tossed her scarf around her neck. “She’s not the type to turn into a stalker, neither.”
With a final encouraging grin, Melanie left her.
Amanda sat alone at her desk for a very long time.
Darkness had swallowed the sky by four o’clock. Amanda anxiously looked out the window behind Mya’s desk to see the parking lot. Three cars were there — hers, a white Mustang, and a brown Buick right between them. Her fingers tremored when she realized she had seen the Buick several times in the past two weeks. She couldn’t see from that distance and couldn’t be sure no one was in it. The Mustang looked empty, too.
She pulled her phone out of her purse and typed a single message. To Colin, she wrote: i’m going to be late.
By four thirty, he still hadn’t responded.
Amanda put her phone in her coat pocket and removed her car keys. Everything else she left in her purse and shoved her purse under her desk. She wouldn’t need it.
At five o’clock, she left the building. The parking lot was still. The semester had ended; no one was there. Despite this, Amanda thought she heard footsteps behind her as she crossed the pavement, unconvinced that it was her own.
In her pocket, she squeezed her car keys between her fingers. They slid against her yarn-spun mitten, threatening to slip right out of her hand if she held too tightly. The shakes returned to her knees, holding her legs hostage with each step.
A single car drove down University Avenue when she reached the sidewalk. Her eyes, cold-stung and damp, followed as it passed her. She watched it pass her, knowing she missed an opportunity to cry out for help.
A figure sat at the bus stop bench halfway down the block, bathed in the streetlight. With his back to her, he couldn’t see her approaching — hand at her side, clutching her keys, and limping on her cut leg. Her nose started running, but she refused to sniffle and tip him off to her position.
Fifteen feet or fewer away from him, she held her arms straight out, keys pointed.
He didn’t move, so she cleared her throat.
George looked over his shoulder. “Aman–whoa! Hey!”
“Stay away from me!” she screeched, her shrill voice puncturing the cold, abrasive air. “Don’t come any closer, you pervert!”
“Calm down!” He stood, facing her, his hands up. He took a single step to the side. “I’m not going to hurt you! Put…whatever you have in your hands down!”
“You are stalking me!” Her arms, legs, and fingers were violently trembling. If he took another step in any direction she felt as though she might drop her weapon and run away. “I will call the police! I swear to God, if you don’t leave me alone–” She sought for words. Big, intimidating words. “I will fucking stab you!”
George was aghast. He squinted through his glasses, trying to size her up. “You’ll stab me?” he repeated. “With your car keys?”
Amanda looked at her useless means of protection. As she saw her hands struggle to hold onto them, she got a horrible image of herself. For the second time in her life, she was outside her body, this time watching a little girl threaten a middle-aged man with a house key and her Civic’s keyfob.
Because it was too hard to laugh, she burst into sobs — heavy, head-aching sobs.
She stood there, buckled forward — her face filthy with tears and snot and her hair in matted knots under her stocking cap. At the bench, George gaped — his hands lowering until they flopped down at his sides. Amanda continued to cry for half a minute before he took a step toward her.
Instantly, the keys were back up and arms were trembling.
“Please don’t hurt me…” she whimpered.
“I won’t!” He spread his arms. “I swear!” Under his breath, he muttered an exasperated blasphemy. He took another step forward. “Are you alright?”
“No!” she shouted. “I am not alright!”
“Ok, ok!” Deftly, he took a large sidestep to his right until he stood at the farthest end of the bench. “Here. Sit down.”
“It’s ok. I’ll sit –” He dropped down. “Right here. Ok? I won’t come any closer than this.” He patted the bench. “Sit down, stop crying.”
She paused, still sniveling. She looked from the empty spot on the bench and back to George, calculating how long it would take for her to knee him in the groin and run away if he tried to touch her again. For once, she was glad she had on flat shoes. Defeatedly, she sulked over to the bench and sat down at the opposite end from him. Then, she slid her keys back into her coat pocket.
Neither of them said anything for a moment.
But it was George who broke the silence. “You weren’t returning my emails. I just wanted to know why.” She didn’t respond. “And I wanted to apologize for the other night. I never did anything like that before, and I was nervous so…well, I’m sure you know.”
She looked at him. His expression seemed genuinely apologetic. Ashamed even. “Know what?” she asked.
“I’m sure you’ve had guys get performance anxiety around you before.” She blinked. “That’s never happened before? No?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“You…” He recoiled. “Oh shit. You weren’t a virgin were you?”
Amanda turned, ready to snarl something at him. Instead she burst into laughter. “Oh my God!” she cried, calming down slightly. “Couldn’t you tell?” Bewildered, George shrugged. “I’ve never done anything like that before either, but I wasn’t a virgin.”
“Fine. I believe you, I guess.” He studied her for a second, taking her in. His gaze came to rest on her legs. Before staring too long and making her more uncomfortable, he asked, “How long have you been self-harming?”
The bloodstain on her pant leg was fresh again. Modestly, Amanda flattened the tail of her coat over it.
“Since I was seventeen years old.”
The words came out so easily, so unencumbered, that it shocked her. She looked at him, expecting him to start berating her. Or, at the very least, snicker.
He did neither. In fact, he did nothing at all — except nod.
Time stretched on, and Amanda kept her head down and her feet still. The frigid temperature became an afterthought.
“My wife left a few months ago,” he told her. “She took our son, Sean. He’s three. I haven’t seen him since they left. She won’t let me. She says I disgust her.” She listened, but refused to look at him. “It hasn’t interfered with my work yet. My boss did see a few Asian girl-on-girl sites I forgot to delete from my browser history. I told him it was malware and he believed me.” He said, “Your boss know about your little problem?”
“No. No one does. Well, except one person.”
“Jesus. What happened? Did he walk in on you?”
“Oh shit, are you two–”
“No.” She wrinkled her nose. “God, no. Nothing like that.” She took a breath. “My boss,” she went on, “probably doesn’t think about me the minute he steps out of his office for the night.”
“I find that hard to believe. You’re cute.” She made another face. “No, seriously. You’ve got this mousy librarian thing going. He hasn’t made a go at you yet?”
“That’s terrible. No, he hasn’t. I’m just…” She sighed. “I’m just a dumb adjunct.”
“He doesn’t suspect anything, how often you have to get up to use the bathroom a day?”
“No. No one expects the good Catholic girl to be anything less than perfect.”
“My mother was Catholic,” George supplied. “She caught me when I was nine or ten. Spanked my ass raw, then brought me before the priest. ‘Idle hands,’ he said. After that, whenever she expected that I was doing it, she’d beat my hands with a wooden spoon. Or hold them under hot water. See? I still have scars.”
He held his hands out to her. Amanda looked at them: gnarled knuckles, dry skin, and chewed-on cuticles. They were the hands of a worked man.
“I thought I’d be cured when I got married,” he went on, sliding his hands back into his gloves. Then I thought I would be cured when my son was born. Then I thought I’d be cured when my mother died. But I wasn’t. I think it got worse. I thought I would have all these outlets, but…” He sighed. “It didn’t work. And now I have to wonder if there is any cure at all. Or maybe I’m…we’re curing another behavior that we don’t know about. Something we don’t know yet.”
“That’s horrible,” she said, “if that’s true.”
“The cure is worse than the disease,” he spat. “It’s only masturbation. Why should I be cured? I’m not hurting anyone.”
Amanda tensed. “I don’t like to think of it as…that,” she said. “And don’t you think it’s a sin?”
“My mother was Catholic. I didn’t say I was. Furthermore, call it what you want, sweetness; it doesn’t change what it is.” He made a rude gesture. Then another. She raised her shoulder.
“I hate it,” she muttered. “I do. I hate it but I still do it. I can’t stop. But it’s better than the alternative.”
“What’s that? Sex in public bathrooms with strangers you meet on the internet?” He smirked at her.
“Intimacy,” she corrected, ignoring him.
“If you hate it so much, why did you do it?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Uh-huh,” he remarked, crossing his leg and tossing his arm over the back of the bench. “Try me.”
She let her eyes travel up his body until they met his eyes.
“I had an itch I couldn’t scratch.”
His face changed then — from near amusement to near sympathy. He closed his eyes to think, and Amanda felt herself slumping on the bench. When he opened his eyes again, his posture, too, changed. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, head down.
Snowflakes floated down around them. Amanda opened her mitten and caught the first few.
“I can’t be fixed. I think I’m well past that stage. I will be jerking off the rest of my life. We have that in common.” She gave him a cross look, but he went on. “It’s lonely though. I miss my son. And my wife, too. She’s probably filling his head with terrible things about me. ‘Daddy is a monster! Daddy is a pervert!’ Shit, even if there was a cure, I don’t think she’d let me forget what I freak I was.”
“You’re not a freak, George,” she told him. “You’re just…a pervert.”
She felt her phone buzz in her other pocket, and did not have to open it to realize she had forgotten — completely — about Raj. The meeting, the paper weight, her confrontation — nothing had left room enough for him. She checked, and he had sent her a single text message: where are you? i ordered you some water.
“Boyfriend?” George asked, noticing.
“No.” She snapped the phone closed and slipped it back into her pocket. “It’s cold. Do you want to get some coffee?”
Surprised, he shook his head. “I don’t have any money.”
“I’ll make some in the office.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
Disgusted, she stood up. “Just coffee.”
“Oh. Ok. Sure.”
George wandered around the office while Amanda brewed coffee in the office kitchenette. He paced around her desk clump, looking at the paper covering on Maynard’s office but never touching anything. Amanda watched him circle around the whole office before she emerged with two freshly-rinsed mugs of black coffee. She held his out to him, and he looked at it with disappointment.
“We were out of cream,” she explained.
“How do you take yours?” He took a sip and winced.
“However it’s available.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.” He placed the mug on Melanie’s desk and sat down on her swivel chair. For a moment, Amanda considered yelling at him to get away from her friend’s things.
“Aren’t you going to sit down?” George asked, gesturing to her own desk.
Reluctantly, Amanda took a seat, but at Kiley’s empty desk. Her belongings had been tossed into an old cardboard box and given to security. Her chair felt awkward to sit on — it was too high and had been molded to another person’s body. Uncomfortable, Amanda crossed her legs.
Absently, George sipped his bitter coffee. “Is that your boss’s office?” he asked, nodding toward Maynard’s window. “The department Chair?”
“Mmhmm. Of the whole International Department.”
“Must of pissed someone off,” he remarked. “Who did that?”
Glancing down at the desk, Amanda said, “An angry co-worker.”
“He fire him?”
“Her. Yeah. Or, chose not to renew her contract.”
George nodded. “Crazy.”
“No, he deserved it.” She added. “Kind of.” George gave her a strange look, so she continued. “He’s a jerk, and I’m pretty sure he sleeps with his students.”
“Quite a lofty accusation. Why do you think that?”
“I just know,” she snapped, unhappy with the conversation. “But he is a jerk. He led me to believe I was getting fired, and then he tricked me into talking bad about Kiley — and she threw a paper weight through his window.” She took another sip of coffee. “Kiley was the only one of us who could do something like that.”
“And you couldn’t?” She shook her head. “You’re capable of all sorts of strange behaviors, Amanda — throwing something into a glass window isn’t uncreative.”
Glaring at him, she said, “I can’t hurt people.”
Thoughtful, George stared at the broken window and drummed his fingers on his coffee cup. After a moment, he stood up and walked toward Maynard’s office.
“What are you doing?” Amanda demanded, getting to her feet. “Hey!”
He paused, holding a peeled corner of the paper covering. “I’m doing you a favor.”
“Do you care to come in and watch?” He gave her a dirty grin.
“What…?” She blushed and covered her gaping mouth. “Oh my God…”
George snickered and disappeared under the covering, into the office. “If you really don’t want to punish your jerk of a boss, you’ll stop me.” He opened Maynard’s desk door.
A second later, she heard the sound of George unzipping his pants. She prayed that the next sound would be would be of him urinating.
Amanda sank back into Kiley’s chair, listening with both horror and fascination. She kept her eyes low and her head down, waiting for it to end. Unlike the night they first met, several minutes ticked by with excruciating clarity. Amanda looked up only once to take a final slurp of coffee — it was still hot and it burned the roof of her mouth. Undaunted, she pushed the half-empty mug away.
George finished with an exaggerated grunt. With a vile chuckle, he shut the desk drawer. He stepped out from under the covering, wiping his hands on the sides of his pants.
“There,” he said, triumphant. “Now you’ve lived vicariously through two people.”
She stood again. “I want to go home now.”
They walked side-by-side out to the parking lot. Snow, falling at a steady pace, accumulated on the roofs, hoods, and trunks of their cars. Amanda kept her hands in her coat pockets, her keyfob pressed against her palm and between her fingers. George sighed, and a wispy puff of his breath formed in the frigid air. He turned to smile at her. Snowflakes clung to the lenses of his glasses.
“Well,” he announced. “Here we are.”
“Do you need a ride?”
“I drove here.”
“Oh. Yeah. That’s right.” He fanned the toe of his shoe into the snow. “So. What now?”
“What do you mean?”
“With us.” She looked perplexed, and he went on. “I feel like this shouldn’t be it. And thank you, by the way. For the coffee. And conversation. And–”
“You’re welcome, George,” she interrupted.
Another awkward moment passed before he asked, “When are we going to see each other again?”
She shook her head, astonished. “You were stalking me!”
He didn’t reply at first. He just stared at her, studying her. She looked away, uncomfortable. With his hands in his pockets and his expression stern, he looked like an angry school principal ready to lecture her.
“You do know this isn’t over, right?” He sucked on his inner cheek. She felt so small. “Things like this never just end.”
“Please just go home,” she pleaded, her hand squeezing her keyfob. “I’ve had a really rough day.”
“I know. I’ll leave you alone.” He stepped off the curb and walked toward his Buick. “Like I said, I never meant to scare you. And I don’t want to harm you. But keep me in mind.” He paused to turn around and give her a wry look. “Next time you have an itch you can’t scratch.”
He took another few steps before stopping again, remembering something. “Oh, and some advice? Do the insides of your thighs. Not the outsides. No one will notice that way.”
Amanda stared after him, perched on that curb, while he got into his car. It took a long minute before he backed out of his parking spot. He cruised past her, waving a slow goodbye, and pulled out into the street. She waited for the sound of his squealing engine to fade before she made a mad dash to her car.
Her hands were shaking so hard she couldn’t fit the key into the ignition.
The house was still when she came in.
Amanda could hear her father’s snores from the front door, and inside he lay asleep on the recliner. His mouth was gaping open, his head lolling to the side. The television was on, set to a low volume, and her mother sat on the couch knitting. Janice Keefe glanced up and beamed as Amanda kicked off her shoes.
“Everything go ok today, sweetie?” she whispered, even though all out warfare couldn’t wake Norman Keefe up.
“They’re keeping me,” she said, and her mother put her hand to her chest. “But only for another semester. I might have to find another job by May.”
“That’s all right. It’s not like you’re getting paid a lot,” she said, setting her knitting needles to the side. “Was the rest of your day good?”
Amanda slung her scarf over the coat hook. “Yeah,” she told her. “It was fine.”
She was trying not to think about Jason as she got undressed for bed. Trying, but failing.
She slid out of her pants and examined her licks — a short, jagged little sliver of crimson smeared on her upper thigh. She pressed on it, but the thoughts persisted.
Her ritual brought her no comfort. The towel smelled like dried blood. The latch on her pencil box was slipping. When she withdrew an Xacto blade, it slipped out of her hands and dropped to the carpet below. She had to pull her feet out of the way, just in time, before it landed blade-first into the floor.
Amanda lay back on the bed and brought her knee outward. The cool blade snuggled against her inner thigh.
In her thoughts, she pushed Jason away. She fought with him, pounded at his chest with her fists. But each time, he bested her — wrestled her to the floor, wiped her bangs away from her face to kiss her forehead. Even in her fantasies she couldn’t get away from him — she could fight, but she couldn’t win. Realizing that, she replaced him. And the only person she could think to replace him was George. And so, with her eyes blankly looking up at the ceiling, she imagined George holding her hand, whispering sweetly into her ear, clutching her pinky-finger with his own.
And when she heard Jason’s voice out of George’s lips, she drew the knife upward with a sudden flick of her wrist.