The books were heavy in her palm. The evidence of an almost broken promise. She could put them in her backpack and walk away from the professors’ offices and go straight to graduation rehearsal. No one would ever know she had been there. No one would guess she was stealing books from a dead man. The weight on her chest compelled her forward as if the ghost of the dead professor was dragging a string that needed to be tied off and finished. That would only happen if she returned the books he loaned her.
The bottom of her shoes barely lifted off the carpet, making light scraping sounds alerting the professors that she was there. They glanced at her with swollen eyes. They had been rubbing them too furiously to clean themselves up for the hooding ceremony in an hour. Dr. Ada rushed to her. “Jane? Is something wrong?”
“No— well, yes. Dr. Suiks loaned me these books. I meant to return them.” Jane closed her mouth and tried to gulp down the stones in her throat.
Dr. Ada patted Jane’s arm. “It’s alright. I’ll take them. Thank you.” She turned to walk back to the other silent, pondering professors, but quickly rested her hand on Janes shoulder to say, “It’s hard for all of us.”
Professor Trymdan coughed and asked, “We’ll see you at the hooding ceremony?”
She was already backing out of the door, nodding her head, “Yes.”
When she was sure no one was looking, Jane turned and ran to the furthest corner of the floor. Broken chairs were stacked on broken desks in front of the elevator used to transport cadavers. Tucked safely into a corner, Jane wept. As large drops of tears spilled over her eyes, she was forced to gasp for air by the pebbles piling up higher in her throat. She pinched the edge of her cardigan sleeve and dragged it across her running nose.
How perfectly red her eyes would also be for the hooding ceremony. Her family would know she had been crying. They would ask questions and tell her answers they were being unreasonable. But she shouldn’t cry alone. She shouldn’t have to endure this pain and anxiety in her chest alone.
“This is pathetic,” she hiccuped. “I’m used to death. This is normal. Why am I crying?” Her snot stained sleeve rubbed the tears from her cheek.
None of the names on her phone seemed right to bring into this mess. And then there was one.
With several crying emojis scattered throughout the message, she sent, “Ope. And here come the tears. Wow. And I have a ceremony to attend in about an hour.”
It was long until he replied, “What? Why are you crying?”
“Oh, you know. Graduation stress. Family stress. A beloved professor passed away and I just returned the books I borrowed from him stress.”
“Should I come?” He wanted her to say yes. She wanted to say yes.
“No.” Come anyway, she hoped.
“See you tonight for pizza then. Have fun at the ceremony.”
He wasn’t going to come. She could breathe easier, but now tears, a bit more pathetic than before, fought to spill over. Graduation stress. Family stress. Dead professor stress. Lucas stress. As the phone threatened to slip from her hand she gripped it tighter forcing her knuckles to turn white. Grabbing the edge of the broken desk, Jane pulled herself to her feet and rushed to the bathroom. The cold water she splashed on her face washed down her neck and dripped onto her dress. The dark spots blossomed clearly in the mirror. “They’ll dry,” she told herself. This will pass.
After a whir of tears and mournful dedications to the late Professor Suiks, Jane was seated at a table squeezed between Lucas and her best friend, Livia. Pressed as she was between them, they could have been a thousand miles away. Her family was laughing and enjoying themselves. Lucas made some math joke, she should laugh at, but there were still pebbles inside her, and laughing might only bring them up.
Gingerly, she sipped her rum flavored with pineapple syrup, a sweet concoction to help the stress. It didn’t help enough because everything came to her in sudden clarity. It was too loud and too pressed and there was too much flavor. Talk, she urged. Talk now. Allow your own voice to blur the lines of sanity.
The sensory overload didn’t fade until she was sitting in Lucas’ car. He was outside telling her parents he would drop her off at the AirBnB. “Tomorrow,” she whispered. “Tomorrow, and I’ll be home. Away.”
Lucas slid into the driver’s seat. He looked at Jane, but didn’t speak, and while they were driving, he still didn’t speak. Jane watched his hands rest on the wheel relaxed and assured. He was like that. Stable and predictable. He didn’t push things. Lucas trusted so faithfully that things would always work out for the good. She smiled and turned to look out the window, reading the billboards stationed along the highway.
“Uh! Snake,” Jane said happily towards a billboard. She didn’t read it, but the green coiled snake caught her attention. Lucas laughed a little, pulling a smile to Jane’s lips.
She turned in her seat to face towards him. “I’m going to miss you.” The breath it took to say that stopped just short of its full release.
“We’ll miss you too.”
“Who is we?” After mourning there was anger. Always. She could count on that trusty emotion. It carried her through every situation, providing her with steal skin. And there it was, pressing against her tongue. “I’m not talking about all of our friends. I’m talking about you.”
“We’ll see you again soon. I’m sure.”
He was assuring himself and any emotion he might have felt toward her that he would see her soon, but there would be no soon or later. By tomorrow, when she would be on her way home, all of this, him, it would be over.
Like death, she thought. I’m used to it.