16 May 2018

The Fire Pit

Prompt:  Distinctive Markings | Word Count: 1199 | Genre:  Fiction

Janie adjusted the bangs on her wig, pulling small segments between her thumbs and forefingers.  Frowning at her image, she tousled the bangs.  She had not had bangs before the accident.  She turned a bit, to view herself from a slightly different angle, and adjusted the collar of her blouse.  Nothing helped.  The scars still showed.  Again, she began to work on the wig, attempting to better cover what she didn’t want seen.

“Ok, sis, ready?” Tim appeared reflected in the mirror.  He tossed and caught his keys, grinning.  “First day of high school.  My baby sis, so grown up.  If you hurry, we’ll stop at the Donut Shoppe.  My treat.”  

Again Janie frowned.  Her eyes darted to the basket of makeup on the vanity.  Even when all her friends in junior high had experimented with so much makeup, Janie had only ever used mascara.  She didn’t like how makeup felt.  And yet now, it seemed as necessary as armor for battle.

“Nope, no time.  Gotta go.” Tim sighed.  “No amount of makeup will help.  We gotta be realistic.”

“Jerk,” she whispered, pummeling him gently with her fists.  She was smiling a little bit.  The fact that he was teasing her was a reminder of how far she’d come; that he didn’t feel like he needed to be so gentle anymore.

Tim grabbed her hands.  “We’ve been through this.  Everyone knows about the accident.  You don’t need to hide it.”

Janie turned back toward the mirror.  She knew her brother was right.  Centerville Heights was a small town.  Everyone knew about everything, including her accident at the fire pit. Shoot, lots of kids from school had witnessed it.  She and Mary Catherine weren’t even supposed to be at the fire pit.  It was really only for high school kids, but they’d begged Tim until he relented.  She’d told Dad that she was spending the night at Mary Catherine’s; Mary Catherine had told her parents she was staying at Janie’s.  But she could recall nothing of the incident itself.  She remembered it had been a really cold February evening. That one basketball player had been there, the really handsome one.  She remembered seeing him across the fire pit.  She remembered saying to Mary Catherine that she wouldn’t have minded being one with the fire, a bit of hyperbole, a vocabulary word they’d learned that week in English. Janie’s next memory was waking up in Holy Family. Somehow, by then, it was the end of April.

Her lower face was unaffected.  It was the hair, forehead, and her left ear that had been damaged the most, but the burns extended down along her neck to her left shoulder and upper arm.  And then there were the scars from where the doctors had grafted her own skin.  

What she missed most was her hair.  She’d had beautiful wavy hair before, her father calling her his auburn beauty, claiming Janie’s hair even more lovely than her late mother’s.  She knew no one else who had hair that color. All that was left was a tiny patch at her nape, which had been buzz cut short.  The wig she hated, but it was necessary.  She hadn’t worn it much, and not once outside of the house yet.  Her dad had cried and left the hospital room when the doctor said that Janie’s hair growing back was impossible.  And now Dad worked so much, trying to pay the bills. She couldn’t help but wonder if he couldn’t face seeing her, if that was why he was working so many shifts.

Janie felt her eyes welling with tears.  

“Nope, nope. No.”  Tim’s voice was firm.  “Girls never cry in Tim’s truck.  You’re gonna have to find another hitch if that dam spills over.”  He was holding her gently in his arms now, rocking her a bit. Somehow he knew where the nerves were tender, where it was distressing to have pressure, and he avoided those areas. Even the nurses in the hospital sometimes bumped against areas that were too tender for touch.  

“I don’t think I’m ready.”  Janie whispered.

Tim exhaled.  “But if you go today, you’ll get it over with.  What you’re dreading.”  

“I can’t believe Dad isn’t here.”

“You know he needed to take that shift.  You know he’s thinking of you.”  A pause.  “Did you eat?”

Janie shook her head.

“Ok, then, we’d better go.  I need donuts.”

She felt a little better than she expected once she got in the truck, but she insisted the windows all be rolled up.  She didn’t want to risk even one hair moving out of place.  Once they turned from the neighborhood onto the main street, though, Janie was hit by a barrage of memories.  She hadn’t left the house over summer except for doctor’s appointments and therapy.  But now, heading the away from the hospital, she saw places she used to go before, she recalled memories of before, and thought of people she hadn’t seen since before. A flood from before washed over her. She’d spent so much time just concentrating on each present moment, trying to get through the pain and trying to manage the difficulties of her involuntary transformation.  She’d had no time, had no energy to focus much on the past, much less on the future.

Mary Catherine had been away at summer camp, her first year working as a counselor. Janie had a vague recollection of Mary Catherine visiting at the hospital.  But they hadn’t really seen each other since the accident.  Realizing this made her realize how absent Mary Catherine had been.  They’d been friends forever, all through junior high without much drama.  Did they have an unbreakable bond or not?

Tim pulled into the Donut Shoppe.  “You coming in?”

She shook her head, and as his door closed, she checked her wig in the rearview. She could feel herself turning into one of those women who checks her compact multiple times an hour and she did not want to be like that.  But she couldn’t bear not checking, not knowing how badly her scars were showing, what people would see when they looked at her.  

She couldn’t help it, though, and checked the mirror again, compulsively adjusting the wig, pulling and pushing strands of hair this way and that.  As she sat back, she noticed high school students were surrounding the truck.  Some she recognized from her grade and others were friends of her brother.  At the front of the truck, each of them holding a box of donuts, stood Tim and Mary Catherine.  Everyone was smiling and waving to her.

She rolled the window down but couldn’t speak.

“We’re here to welcome you back,” a familiar voice said.  

And Mary Catherine was there, at the door, opening it.  “Tim and I didn’t want you to walk in to school without us.”

Janie stepped from the car and found herself enveloped in a warm gathering of friends, each of them calling out to her.

“We missed you, Janie.”

“So good to see you.”

Tears fell as Tim and Mary Catherine stood on either side of her.

“Now you know why I told you not to wear make-up,” he whispered.  

18 April 2018

Not for Sale

Prompt:  Buy or sell |  Word count:  755 words |  Genre:  Fiction

“Senator!  A word?”

The Senator turned toward the sound of the voice in the shadowy parking garage. He peered at the source, trying to identify whoever had called to him.  A young man stepped out from the dusk, his face vaguely unfamiliar, the dark suit generic.

“I’m in a bit of a hurry,” the Senator turned and continued.

“Perfect,” said the young man.  “Me too. I’ll walk with you.”

“Keep up.”

“What would it take to secure your lack of support for the bill they’re reading tomorrow morning?”

Now the Senator stopped and turned, really exploring the face of the young man in the suit.

“What would it take?” the young man asked again, his face earnest and bright.

“Are hoping to bribe me?”

“Oh gosh,” the man in the suit actually blushed.

The Senator turned and began walking again, this time at a faster clip.

“But sir!  Senator!” The man in the suit leapt ahead to engage with the Senator again.  

“Who do you represent?”  the Senator asked, leaning into the man’s face.  “I’m not that kind of Senator.”

“Oh, I’m not so sure you’re not.” He gripped the Senator’s arm just above the elbow.

Wincing, the Senator rotated his arm to release.  The man’s hold was like an iron band.  “Leave me alone.”

Backing away, the man smiled.  “See you later.”

The Senator stumbled a bit as he resumed his walk, rubbing his arm.

*** 

 “They’re trailing me.  This guy in the parking garage!  On Wednesday, I was followed here!”  The Senator picked up the highball glass his aide had just set down. He exhaled and then brought the glass to his lips, finishing the contents in one fluid motion.

“Sir, we can make sure it won’t happen again.”

The Senator held up his hand.  “Can you get – oh what’s his name?  Jimmy? Can he be here by the end of the meeting? To get me home and back.”

“I’m on it.”  The aide’s phone was to his ear before he’d even exited the office.

The Senator crossed his arms and sat brooding over the lights of the city beyond the window.  A sharp knock, then the door opened.

“Sir,” Marla entered, pencil tapping on the clipboard in her hands. “Jimmy will be here to escort you home, no later than 8:45.  Your 7:30 is here.”

“Thank you, Marla.”  The Senator did not turn from the window as Marla left.

The man entering adjusted his tie and smiled.  “Senator.  We meet again.”

The Senator stood, his chair rolling into the credenza behind it. “You?  From the parking garage?”  The Senator’s hand shot out to buzz security on his intercom, but the man in the suit intercepted his wrist.  

“Let’s talk.  The two of us.  No need to involve anyone else.”

The Senator twisted his arm to release the man’s grip.  The man raised both arms as if to surrender.  

“May I?”  The man gestured to the upholstered chair behind him.  He sat, looking quite comfortable, while the Senator remained upright.

“Well?”  The Senator prompted.

The man smiled, his gaze down.  As he looked up, “Are we ready then?”

The Senator said nothing.

“I don’t need to tell you who I work for.  But I do want to say that we can develop a mutually beneficial relationship.”

“Get to the point.”  The Senator spoke through his teeth.

“Don’t let the bill come to the floor.  You have the power to stop it.”

“I need to know-“

“No.”  The man stood now.  “No, you don’t.  But if you stop that bill, you will be rewarded.  If not…” He shook his head.  “Well, you don’t want to know, do you?”

The Senator shook his head in fury.  “You don’t understand who I –“

“It’s you who lacks understanding.  The bill will not come to the floor.  It will not.”

The man walked around the desk and held out a hand to shake.  He took both of the Senator’s hands in his.  Smiling broadly, he said, “This bill.  Will not.  Come to the floor.”

The Senator was twisting and crumpling.  The man released the Senator’s hands and walked toward the door. The Senator cradled his hands as best he could.  The man turned as he placed his hand on the knob.  

“Are we clear?”

The Senator emitted a small yelp.

“Wonderful.”  The man opened the door.  “I’ll be in touch.”  He exited. 

The Senator struggled to find his way across his office, his hands swelling and becoming purple even as he did so.

“Help,” he cried.  “Help.”


21 March 2018

Happy Birthday to Me

Prompt:  A Celebration  |  Word count:  2501 words  |  Genre:  Fiction

Julie dropped the invitations in the blue postal box.  It was gratifying to hear the low groan of metal as she released the handle of the little door.  Twenty invitations would find their way to the homes of people she used to work with, used to live with, or once knew.  Briefly, she wondered if they’d remember her, and then she felt a moment of panic:  what if no one showed up at the requested time and date?  But she shoved those doubts aside.  This was the time for action, not mulling.

In exactly twenty-eight days her party would take place.  Now, today, she had an appointment with the caterer, she needed to return the DJ’s call, and she needed to decide on decorations.  Did people still use twisted crepe paper ribbons?  She’d bought a few strands of battery-powered lights and some vases to make centerpieces like she’d seen on Pinterest.  This would definitely be her greatest triumph, if she could pull it off.

***
A couple of days later, Rob unlocked and opened his door, picking up the small pile of mail that had been dropped through the slot.  A couple fliers, a water bill, and a small handwritten envelope.  Tossing the others aside on the kitchen counter, he loosened his collar and tore open the invitation.  Julie’s fortieth?  Julie?  He scanned the envelope for a return address and last name.  Nothing.  Julie… Wait.  Julie?  The intern?  The one he’d dated briefly?  Two or three months, tops, it had lasted. But jeez, that had to have been twenty years ago.  Twenty at least.  Why was she resurfacing in his life?  Why now? 

Rob let a pleasant memory surface.  It must have been their second or third date, before he’d realized how bat shit crazy she was.  They’d cooked dinner together, a complicated Italian dish that another, previous intern had taught him.  For a moment, he let himself be distracted by that other intern, Maria-Theresa, who had the slightest accent from growing up in a Rome suburb, luscious, wavy hair, and the repressed fury of a devout Catholic.  Oh, how fun it had been to seduce her!  It had taken months and months, but the challenge had made him feel like a man, a real, virile man.

But Julie, not Maria-Theresa, had sent this invitation, requesting his presence at her birthday party.  It had been more than a decade and a half since he’d last had contact with her, a job recommendation of some sort.  Strange to receive this invitation now.  He surmised that she’d Googled his current address.

***

Julie continued making plans.  The caterer was a dream to work with, ready to listen to every idea and then somehow upgrade it so that it was a notch above Julie’s expectations.  Sure, it was going to be expensive, but she was worth it.  It had taken her decades to realize that:  her worth.  That she had inherent value, even.

The meal, though, would be exquisite.  Three courses.  The first, figs stuffed with brie and wrapped in prosciutto, then the purest, lightest consommé with a dollop of crème fraîche and butternut squash tortellini.  And then dessert:  a lemon bar drizzled with lavender-infused honey.  All accompanied by some special wines from Paso Robles.  And everything tiny and nearly bite-sized, but so lovely on the plates.  It made her mouth water just thinking of it.

Still, though, a sense of unease lingered.  What was the point?  How was she going to pull this off?

***

Elisa, even though she was running a bit late, re-opened the envelope, her curiosity again unable to stop positing theories. 

Her husband, Jack, hearing the paper slide out of the envelope, folded the newspaper down and looked at her over his new reading glasses.  “Really, Elisa?”  He looked so annoyed.

“I just don’t get it,”  her brow wrinkling.  “She was my roommate seventeen years ago.  We got along great at first, but then when I got promoted and then got the corner office, well… She gave me the cold shoulder.  We were barely speaking when I moved out.  And I even let her keep the couch.  The couch that I bought!”  She shook her head.

“So don’t go,” Jack said, disappearing again behind the newspaper.

“But it’s all so curious.”  Elisa slid the invitation back inside the envelope.  “I can hardly stand the mystery of it all.”

Jack rustled the newspaper as if in response.

“I’m going,” Elisa said.  “You don’t have to.  I mean, I guess, technically, you aren’t even invited.”

***

Julie’s last task before the party was to figure out what she was going to wear.  She didn’t really like to shop; she never had.  It was always a challenge and nothing ever fit right.  But she armed herself with confidence and drove to the department store.

A dress, she thought.  Perhaps even a little black dress.  She’d never bought one before but it seemed the perfect attire for a fortieth birthday.  At the store there were more options than she’d thought would be available.  Oh, how she hated shopping.  How much easier this might be if she had a friend to offer advice.  Maybe one of the shop clerks could fill that role today.

Yet, as she scanned the racks, it seemed they were all busy behind the cash register.  No one seemed to care if she took even a dozen dresses to try on to the fitting room. 

Under the hum of the fluorescent lights, Julie undressed and began trying on the dresses.  As she expected, some issue claimed each one and the pile of discards grew.  One was too tight in the hips, another gaped at the bust.  A third had confusing cut-outs near the armholes.  Just where did her appendages go?  The strapless one was just too strange and slinky, more like lingerie than a dress.

And then, with only two to go, one fit.  It flattered.  It emphasized all her assets without drawing attention to her deficits.  She looked pretty, or perhaps even classy.  It was perfect.

Shoes, evening bag, a bracelet that was probably too expensive, given the total of everything else she was spending on the party.  But it was all going according to plan.  Everything was falling into place.

***

The invitation perplexed Celia.  Tenderly, she rubbed the barely visible scar on her cheek.  She hadn’t spoken with Julie since the dog bite incident, and shortly after that her family had moved back to New Jersey.  She couldn’t recall all the details because it had all happened so long ago.  How old had they been, eleven?  They supposed themselves friends, but as Celia looked back at that time, she recognized that they’d had little in common but their age, gender, and the street they’d lived on.

On the afternoon in question, Celia had been at Julie’s house.  They’d been teasing the dog all afternoon, holding their snacks up high and encouraging Bruce to jump for it.  How he’d jump and land so awkwardly!  They’d laugh and Celia remembered how her cat Annabelle seemed the exact opposite of Bruce.  Julie and Celia didn’t tire of this activity.  It was one they did regularly because Bruce was just an old, dumb dog, and never seemed to learn.  It was always hilarious.

This part, though, Celia recalled with a clarity that eluded most other childhood memories.  Julie tossed Celia a cube of cheese.  Celia caught it and held it up, not as high as usual, just near her face.  She was certain that Bruce wouldn’t get it.  He was too old and growing tired of this game.  And then suddenly, Bruce’s hot, smelly breath was in her face, his jaws clamping not only her hand with the cheese, but also her cheek.  Impaled by a jagged canine, probably one that had chipped last week when they’d thrown rocks for dumb Bruce to catch and fetch.  When Celia pushed Bruce away, the tooth pulled, ripping a ragged gap just below her cheekbone that would later require plastic surgery to hide.  Celia and Julie had both been so shocked by the amount of blood that neither could explain to the adults what had happened.
Later, in the emergency room, Celia’s parents forbid her from ever associating with Julie again.  On the phone in the hospital, Celia overheard her father calling Animal Control and insisting that Bruce be put down.  He had a contact at the mayor’s office, damn it.  After her face had been stitched, her cheeks and mouth numb, the nurse insisted on cleaning the superficial wounds on her hand.  Celia opened her palm, and there was the cheese, soft and grimy.

But now, she looked at the invitation and knew she would attend Julie’s party.  Everything had ended so abruptly.  Celia owed it to her old friend to help celebrate this milestone.

***

The day of the event arrived.  Julie made phone calls, finalizing the details and confirming the particulars.  When she arrived at the venue a few hours early, the caterer’s team was finishing the table decorations.  It was all so beautiful that she gasped.  She went from table to table, noting the layout, the flowers, the lights.  It all seemed such a waste.

In a small alcove off the main room, a table was ready to be wheeled into the party on Julie’s command.  Atop it, in matching gift-wrapped boxes, were identical party favors, each addressed to a guest and meant to be opened upon their return home.  Julie touched each box, her fingers tracing the names that had brought her such grief.  Soon, she told herself.  Soon.  She had anticipated for so long the release that would come with each of her guests learning the many ways in which they’d each disappointed her.  It wasn’t so much that she wanted revenge; it was more like justice.

She left to have her hair and nails done, confident that it would all be ready for her entrance after the guests arrived.

***

After the spa treatments, Julie considered stopping by once more, just to check that all was in place.  But that was silly.  There was no need; everything had been going so well and she would just appear neurotic if she stopped by again.  And this new decade, this new leaf she was turning – she was saying goodbye to that neurotic Julie and hello to the self-confidence she’d always sought.

Although she’d planned for it, she was still surprised that she had so much time to kill before her grand entrance at the party.  She needed to get dressed, but everything else was ready.  And yet, here she had more than an hour to kill.  And so she did drive back to the venue, popping in to double, triple check.  No one suspected anything; no one noticed. 

Finally, back at home, it was time to get dressed.  She did so slowly, with intention, reveling in the look she’d managed to capture on this important day.  Sliding her feet into the beautiful shoes she’d found, she was ready. 

Driving to the party, she had to pull over twice to let fire engines to fly past her.  It was happening.  Her heart leapt to see those same fire trucks blocking the entrance and smoke billowing from the roof.  There wasn’t even anyone directing traffic yet.  The events were still unfolding.  Carefully, slowly, she drove around the block, searching for a parking space while keeping her eyes on the black smoke.  Ash began raining down as she slid into a space and parked the car.

She exited the vehicle, unaware that flakes of ash were settling on her hair and shoulders, disarming the sense of put-together style she’d worked so hard to achieve.  In her teetering manner, she wandered to the front of the building where she cut between the manicured and pruned elements of the landscaping.  A police officer was now directing traffic, his car blocking two lanes of traffic to keep the onlookers further away from the scene.

Julie walked near the entrance, where at least a half-dozen firefighters stood, some having recently emerged from the building.  They all gazed at the flaming roof, some leaning toward one another to communicate. 

Extracting a handkerchief from her matching clutch, Julie unfurled it, holding it over her mouth to help filter the smoke from her lungs.  The firefighters hadn’t noticed her.  No one had.  Her ability to fade into the background, she finally realized, was an asset.  An ambulance whizzed behind her, leaving the premises, its lights flashing silently.  She watched it reach the road and the police officer held the traffic with his arms outstretched in both directions.  Only when the ambulance had zipped by him did the siren begin to wail. 

Aside from the crackle of the firefighter radios and the fire, there was no other sound.  Julie held her breath as a firefighter emerged from the building, leading the caterer who had been so kind and creative.  Another firefighter appeared, helping the woman to the ground and administering oxygen.  Another uniformed person appeared.  He spoke words that Julie could not hear.  The caterer shook her head several times, then the man led the caterer away.

The firefighters began to move closer to the building, spreading out along the perimeter, and now Julie noticed that another group of firefighters was pulling a large hose from behind a fire truck.  The man at the front adjusted something and a powerful spray of water shot out while those behind him struggled to maintain control of the hose.  Later, the roof collapsed, the firefighters pulled back, and still Julie watched, unable to turn away.  The smoke was thick, now mixed with dust.  A layer of ash coated everything, then the brusk wind would shift, lifting it and laying it down elsewhere.  Gradually, imperceptibly, the urgency of the situation, too, lifted.  Those working the fire did so with less speed.  The sirens moaned into the distance and quieted.

By now she’d forgotten her party, forgotten the cost of it all.  Her make up was melting and the ash in her hair gave her the air of a woman twice her age.  Her fancy shoes were drenched with the grey water sheeting across the cement. 

A firefighter appeared, holding a two-way radio up to his overly large helmet.  Lowering it, he approached where Julie stood. 

“Excuse me,” she asked, her voice higher than she intended.  “Was anyone hurt?” 

He shook his head, leaning in and removing the helmet.  “What’s that?”

“Was anyone hurt?  In the fire?”

“No, not badly.  A few were taken to the hospital as precaution.  Everyone was evacuated – some kind of party,” he sized her up a moment.  “You a reporter?”

“No, no.  It’s just,” she stuttered.  “It’s my birthday.”

“Well, then.  Happy birthday!”  He strode off and Julie was left alone. 

She surveyed the ruined building before her.  She’d done it.  And the next one would be even better.  Yes, she thought, smiling broadly.  Happy birthday.  Happy birthday to me.



21 February 2018

The Test


Price kept one test from the stack passed to him and sent the rest on to the students to his right in the auditorium.  His stomach turned a bit sour as he read the first question on the midterm test on the US Civil War.  How could he keep all those battles straight, how many were killed and how many wounded.  He flipped through the pages – Oh Jesus, a map. 

Price exhaled an audible groan.  Students glanced his way and then returned to their tests.  Price looked at the instructor and the graduate assistants, all of whom were glaring at him, including one walking up the aisle closest to his seat.  Quickly he looked again at the test, his eyes searching for words with meaning.

This was a survey class, American History, 100-level.  It was supposed to be easy, and yet, his stomach churned with sour bile, sweat beaded just about everywhere, his mouth was dry, his hands had gone clammy.  The syllabus stated this test was 30% of the course grade. 

These professors!  Always nitpicking the smallest details!  The war was the North against the South. It was simple!  Price understood the importance of learning the names of the major battles, the generals, even.  But why so many details?  Why the exact locations of each battlefield? 

He set his pencil down on the tiny, hinged piece of Formica that served as a desk, and wiped his hands on his jeans.
           
“Focus!” he whispered.

“Sshhh!” hissed the response of the graduate student monitoring the end of his row.

Price rolled his eyes and reached for his pencil, which careened off the Formica and onto the slightly sloped floor of the auditorium.  It rolled toward the stage.
           
Price stood, and the graduate student glared.  “Sit!” he hissed, a bubble of spittle flying.

“I need my pencil,” Price stood.  From all around came more “sssshhh” requests.  Despite them, Price clambered over knees extending into the narrow row.  He needed that pencil.          The graduate student handed him one, which he might have appreciated if it had an eraser and fewer teeth marks.  Regardless, the clock was ticking, and Price had not marked a single response.  He sat, his thoughts swirling like the bile in his stomach.  Most of them had nothing to do with American history.  He tried to focus, closing his eyes.  He tapped the pencil against his temple, tap… tap… tap…. Slowly, his mind began to quiet itself.  He became conscious of a steady scratching noise, at regular intervals, from his left. 

He opened his eyes and looked for the sound’s source:  the steady scratching of a #2 pencil.  The student to his left was prepared.  She was blonde and chubby, in a way that he liked because it meant a larger cup size of bra.  She was fairly attractive and answered question after question, barely hesitating.  Although he couldn’t see her face, she seemed familiar.  What he could see, though, was her scantron.  She was a lefty and didn’t block his view of her answers.
           
Squinting a bit, he tried to see them.  It wasn’t cheating exactly, not like some of his frat brothers did – crib sheets or memorizing tests from the boxes in the attic.  It was a glance, an opportunity – like when girls bent forward and you could see their glorious cleavage.  Yes, he decided.  It wasn’t cheating exactly.  He was simply taking advantage of an opportunity. 

The pesky graduate student who had given him the pencil was focused on students elsewhere.  It was now or never.  Price noted the first five answers with light ticks on his scantron.  He could go back later and bubble them in, but he needed to get all the responses he could before this blonde finished. 

He squinted again at her test.  Would it kill her to move her arm a bit?  Ah, a few more answers.  Swiftly he marked those and looked up for more.  The blonde flipped through the pages of the test booklet, then finding the front page, placed it on top of the scantron.

“No!” Price was positive he hadn’t said it aloud, but the proctor had heard it.

“Sssshhh!” he spat.

The blonde raised her hand, then stood, handing the test to the proctor.  Price felt himself deflating as student after student followed her lead.

“Five minutes!”  the proctor announced. 

Price bubbled in the answers he’d ticked, making them dark and complete.  He had 43 more to go.  Without referencing the test booklet, he began bubbling a random pattern.  He wiped his sweaty hand on his jeans, then continued bubbling.  It had to work, right?  Some of the answers were bound to be correct. 

A student jostled him, trying to get by.  It disturbed his train of thought.  He lifted his elbow to mop his brow and became conscious of a strong odor from his armpit.  He’d shower as soon as he got home, but hadn’t he put on deodorant that morning?

“One minute!”  the proctor announced, staring at Price. 

There were only two other students in the auditorium, and one was standing up now.  Price frantically marked answers, each a little more malformed that the previous.

“Hand it over.”  This was a different graduate student. 

“But I’m not done.”  Price continued bubbling.

“Time’s up.”

“Let me fin----“

But the graduate student had hold of the scantron.  Price’s pencil made a line down the length of it as his struggle to keep control of the paper was lost.

“But----“ Price called out as the proctor walked away with the unfinished scantron.  His hand clenched the chewed pencil, and then before he realized what he was doing, the pencil was flung, clocking the graduate student right where a small bald spot was forming on the top of his head.  Without waiting for the reaction, Price vaulted over row after row of seating, until he reached the aisle and could run.  Winded, he made it to the door, his breath coming in short rasps.  It was over.