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TAWL: Chapter 1

“Miranda Reynolds?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This way please.” I followed the plump, gray-haired secretary from the reception area to the department chair’s office. She tapped on the door as she turned the doorknob, and introduced me.

“Miss Miranda Reynolds, Mr. Wilfred Torres.” She smirked and left me standing in the small office, closing the door behind her.

Before me stood the oldest man to ever remain living in the history of humanity. His bones had curled in on themselves, his skin was making a fast retreat from the top of his body, and I could see every vein that ran across his skull. He came just shy of shoulder height on my five-foot-eight muscular runner’s frame.

I shook my long auburn ponytail and straightened my spine, my finding-my-courage posture. I stepped to the desk and stuck out my hand.

“Mr. Torres.”

He looked blankly at my hand, and then my mostly flat chest. “What?”

“Um, Mr. Torres, I have an appointment to see you about setting up my graduate course load. You’re my academic advisor.” I dropped my hand and forced myself to not shove it in my jeans pocket. My first day on campus, and I was already making a bad impression.

“No.” He shook his liver-spotted head and pointed a bony finger at the door. “Go on down the hall. I don’t waste time on silly little girls. The commie can have you.”

“Excuse me?” I was floored.

“You hard of hearing, too? I don’t want you in my department. Go on down the hall. Get out of my office before I have you thrown out!” He was working himself into an asthma attack, yelling and waving his arms around like a mad man. I turned on a heel and raced from the room, slamming the door behind me. The dumpy little secretary was cackling, head thrown back, hands holding the stitch in her side.

“You people are nuts-o,” I heard myself panting. I ran from the office before more people could come out of their offices and see my embarrassing predicament. I clutched my paperwork to my chest, hiked my purse higher onto my shoulder, and hurried out of the building. I hit the courtyard at a power-walk, and collapsed onto a little bench set at the edge of the courtyard.

Graham University, formerly Graham College, formerly Graham School for Wayward Boys, was currently a seven building campus: three colleges each resided in a building of their own, two dormitories, one student services building that housed the cafeteria and laundry facilities, and the administration building. A large wooded courtyard filled the middle between the circle of buildings. Paved sidewalks snaked between the trees, connecting the buildings.

The College of Social Sciences building that I sat in front of was identical to every other building: perfectly rectangle, five stories, red brick, tall narrow windows. The exception was the administration building, which was the last remaining survivor of the original school. It was Monticello in all but name: stout red brick winged mansion, narrow portico in front ringed with tall white columns, narrow portico in back that lead to the courtyard.

The admin building was the southernmost of the campus. To the west was the College of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and the undergraduate dormitory. To the north was the student services building and the Language and Literature building. To the east was the faculty and graduate student dormitory, and the College of Social Sciences building.

I had arrived on campus that morning fresh from the middle of an Iowa cornfield. The population of my hometown was less than half the student population at Graham. I had my bachelor’s degree in history from Taylor College in Taylor, Iowa, a town only marginally bigger than where I grew up. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement, but since I was a history major and not a language major, I didn’t know a word for over- overwhelmed.

I sat on the bench in the sunshine tried to control my breathing. The campus was plopped in the middle of a pine forest, and the August heat wasn’t oppressive under the shade of the trees. I looked down at the paperwork I held tight to my chest, and eased my grip. My transcript, admission papers, and tentative degree plan were curled from the sweat and death-grip of my fingers. I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, but I didn’t let them fall. I don’t cry often, but I was determined to keep it together until I could get to the confines of a bathroom stall.

“Excuse me.”

I looked up into the brilliant green eyes of the boy standing before me. He had the sandy blonde hair that every male in California wished for, and the youthful face most people had to buy. I placed his age anywhere between twelve and forty, despite the light pink knit polo and blue denim jeans that all but screamed fraternity.

“Yes?”

“I hate to interrupt, but it looks like you could use some help.” He stood just far enough away to be unobtrusive, close enough to talk without raising his voice. The kindness in his voice tipped my crying-in-public meter from never to gusher.

“Well, s***.” He sat next to me and curled an arm around my shoulders. I lost all my remaining dignity and wept on his shoulder. He held me to him and rubbed my back, letting me choke out great wracking sobs.

“I’m s-s-so sorr-r-ry.” I sniffed and swiped the snot with the back of my hand.

“Okay. First, gross. Here,” he handed me a tissue from his jeans pocket. “Second, what the h***, honey?” He held my shoulder at arms length so he could look at my splotchy face.

“I just got here and they assigned me to Mr. Torres and he hates me and told me to go down the hall to the commie and I don’t know what that means and I ran out here and I was trying not to cry but…”

“Yeah, that worked out well for you.” He handed me another tissue, and I saw a crinkle of a smile in his eyes. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Miranda. Miranda Reynolds.”

“Well, Miranda Miranda Reynolds, I’m Stuart. If you’ll stop crying, I’ll help you get this figured out. Can you do that?”

I nodded and wiped my face dry with the tissue.

“Okay. Now, what were you assigned to Mr. Torres for?”

“He’s my academic advisor.”

“Oh my muffin you’re a grad student.” He sat back, shock and surprise dancing across his face.

“Yeah. History major.”

He looked at me with a blank face for a beat, then erupted with laughter. “But you’re ten, twelve at most.”

“I’m twenty-three. Besides, look who’s talking.” I crossed my arms across my chest and tried to look indignant.

“True,” he shrugged playfully. “Let’s start over, shall we?” He stuck out a hand for me to shake.

“Okay,” I said warily, taking his hand.

“Hello Miranda. I’m Stuart Greene.”

“Hello.” His toothy grin was infectious, and I smiled despite myself.

“Let’s get you back to the admin building and see if we can get this straightened out.” He started to get up.

“But they’re the ones that sent me to that evil little man Torres.”

He thought for a minute. “Okay, we’ll go talk to my favorite advisor. He should be able to help us, or at least put you on the right track. Come on.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me back into the building.

Each college was divided into departments; each department had a chair. The department chair answered to the college dean, who in turn answered to the university president and the board of regents. All department offices were on the first floor of the building, with classrooms, lecture halls, and faculty offices on the upper floors.

Stuart by-passed the history department offices and headed for the political science department.

“Hello there, Mrs. Carson,” Stuart greeted the woman behind the reception desk with a wiggle of his eyebrows. She was irritatingly beautiful, thirty-five and holding with perfectly styled waves of ginger hair, soft brown eyes, and porcelain complexion. She was so nice you couldn’t hate her for being so pretty.

“Mr. Greene. To what do I owe the pleasure?” She flashed a perfectly straight, brilliantly white, refreshingly genuine smile.

“I was hoping Mr. Ionescu had a minute. There seems to be a mix-up with Miss Reynolds’ academic advisor.” He gestured to me, and I held out a hand.

She grasped it in a firm handshake. “Nancy Carson.”

“Miranda Reynolds. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you as well. Unfortunately, Mr. Ionescu is in a meeting right now. Do you want to wait, or come back by in a half-hour or so?” She and Stuart looked expectantly at me.

“Um,” was all I managed to get out before I blushed and bit my lip.

“Do you have your dorm sorted out yet?” Stuart to the rescue.

“I haven’t made it that far yet, no.”

“Perfect. Let’s get that taken care of, and then we’ll come back.” He smiled at Mrs. Carson, who nodded in agreement.

“I’ll let him know to expect you when he gets back.” She jotted a note on a notepad.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“No problem.” She smiled and waved as the phone started ringing.

Stuart had me by the hand pulling me back down the hall and out of the building. He spoke over his shoulder, never breaking stride.

“I’m guessing the admissions office gave you a dorm assignment and key card, right?”

“Room assignment, yes. Card, no.”

He stopped short and I nearly crashed into him. “Seriously? They are honestly the biggest bunch of dumba**es…” He kept grumbling under his breath, and pulled me back the way we had come, up the portico, and into the admin building.

We stopped at a counter marked as the Identification Office. Not really an office, but a ledge, desk, cheap chair, and a mousy-looking brunette who stared up at us like we might try to bite her.

“Alicia, darling. This is Miranda.”

“Hi,” she squeaked.

“Hello,” I answered, looking from Stuart to the girl like they were Martians.

“Miranda needs a key card for her dorm room. Can you do that for her?”

“Nope,” she shook her mullet. “Sorry Stuart, but without Mr. Wheeler here, I’m not authorized.”

“Where’s Mr. Wheeler?”

“Neptune.”

We stared at her with the same open-mouthed, dumbfounded expression.

I found my voice first. “When will he be back? I need to get in my room.”

“That sucks. Sorry.” She slid out of her chair to the floor and disappeared under the desk.

Stuart and I backed away, escaping out the door and across the portico before we burst with laughter.

“Was she serious? Or is she on some kind of controlled substance?”

“I really have no idea. People here are strange. Let’s go see the resident advisor for your floor. What’s your room number?”

“315B.”

A wicked, mischievous smile spread across Stuart’s face. “No f***ing way.”

“What? Did someone die there or something? Is it haunted, or full of bugs?”

“No, sweetness, and we don’t have to worry about getting you a key card right away, either.”

“We don’t? Why?”

“Because I’m in 315A. I’m your next door neighbor.”

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