It wasn't supposed to be like this. An empty feeling ate at me as my life took some twists and turns. I was forced to change my path. After all, I had intended on going into the local state college during the upcoming Fall semester, but my uncle's death made my life shift. A frozen phone call that came late one night -- and then I took a flight up to San Francisco for one of the most horrid funerals ever ... just hearing my youngest cousin sob because he now knew what death was. He hadn't understood what death truly meant when we buried his oldest brother a few years before, but this time it was brought home with clarity and tears. Eleven year olds shouldn't have to bury their siblings or fathers. I finished with my godfather's funeral, stayed over a few days with my cousins and aunt, and then I headed back home, hollowed out and edgy. My college friends didn't know how to deal with my silent grief. I wasn't fun or entertaining. I walked about woodenly and uncaring. They seemed to misunderstand my depth of feelings for my uncle and made snide, clever comments that rubbed me wrong. Impulsively I looked into transferring from the small local community college where I'd got my AA degree a scant month before and jumped rather abruptly into the state college system. Boy, it went so fast and easy it was like I had planned it for years not days.
The university was sprawling, with huge scattered buildings that housed classroom after classroom in an endless jumble of new and old mixed with the growing college. The codes and lettering for my course schedule read like Russian to me. But I thought it a nice touch that when they laid out the campus there were various gardens and pretty pathways that deluded students into thinking college was fun. If you didn't realize you were on a college campus it would be easy to mistake it for a park or pricey estate. I wasn't smiling as I shouldered my black leather backpack, worn and tattered, and tried to figure out what building was what. The massive parking structures and lots with vague letters such as Parking Lot A and Parking Lot Z (at the base of a massive set of stairs that ran up the side of a mountain) had been as horridly over-filled as promised; cars waited in line to follow a student back to their car. So I ended up parking out in the dirt a few blocks away. Not a freshman, I didn't merit any help from anyone. Not that I was good at accepting any, but a clue or two would have been nice. I barely made my first class and looked around at the hundred or so students and shook my head. I didn't want to be anywhere but mourning my uncle in a dark spot far from the spring sunlit classroom. The teacher looked fifteen and acted twelve. Nice, just what everybody wanted -- cheerleader/teacher Barbie. Seemed like I was the only one not finding her scintillating and amusing. The hour seemed to drag and my mind drifted darker and darker.
I had a gap of a few hours in my schedule and worked my way slowly back to the opposite side of campus for my next class. I used the map given with the class schedules to find the building where I was supposed to be introduced to Botany. Wandering slowly towards the elusive structure I saw that the buildings were markedly older and more shadowed. The plaster and trim work had still that off pink hue of the historical Southern California missions and homes. Yet at the university it wasn't perky and bright. The age was worn into the buildings and the gardeners seemed to miss the bits of cobwebs and dust at the corners of the buildings. There were dark framed windows shuttered and closed with little light going in or coming out. That gave me a measure of comfort. I felt like at least something wasn't trying to make me smile and be a cheerleader. Too much of the 'college experience' was cotton candy for me. Light and fluffy with limited nutritious value.
One of the shadows detached from the lathe and plaster ivy stained walls and whispered, "Hello, little girl."
I wasn't stupid and I wasn't a 'little girl' anymore. I didn't slow my steady steps. Botany was calling me. My hiking boots were as worn as my backpack and I wasn't eighteen. I felt aged and above such petty pick up lines.
"Now, now, sweet thing, don't go rushing off yet. You and I have a date." There was a sibilant sound to the word sweet that hissed through to me. The other classes for that time period had already started and I saw that there weren't any other students lingering in the shade between the buildings. A cloud covered the sun and I shuddered at the creepy feeling flowing over me. This wasn't some hung-over frat boy trying to get between my thighs.
"We aren't dating. Hell, I don't even know you." I had slowed down. It was like my feet wanted me to stay. I knew it was a bad idea even if my feet weren't convinced.
A laugh rolled from his lips with a small puff of smoke. I blinked and tried to focus on the man. He certainly wasn't a boy. His gray slacks were custom fit and his shirt a soft cream-colored fine linen. Leather shoes and silk socks rounded out the attire. Definitely not the usual college jeans and t-shirt outfit sported in the winter. Pale face with sunken light colored eyes, he wasn't a surfer that was for sure. His lips were thin and he had a tan colored smoke between them. A drag and he sucked in an inch of the stick easily and deeply. Like Bogart in an old film he cupped the cigarette workingman's style from his lips and blew out the smoke in a steady stream downwards while looking up at me. He grinned. With his other hand he tugged me towards him and roughly grabbed my face with the lit cigarette inches from my face. I considered struggling but the cherry from his cigarette was poised over my right eye. The bells began to chime the hour above our heads. Nobody would hear my screams or care.
And just like that I figured it out.
Death smoked clove cigarettes in the shadow of old historical California classrooms.
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