Read Compliments Online

Authors: Mari K. Cicero

Compliments

ComplimentS

by

Mari K. Cicero

To Deirdre. For in the times I was without a friend, she came and became one.

Compliments

Mari K. Cicero

Copyright ©2014 by Mary K. Cicero

All Rights Reserved. Except as specified by U.S. Copyright Law, no part of this publication may be  reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or media or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without prior written permission of the author.

This work represents a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

√1

When Prof. Ferris tells me the details of my first assignment, I’m certain I’ve misunderstood.

“I’m … what?”

She looks at me with concern, perhaps doubting that I am really the gifted, capable student my GRE scores and recommendations suggest. Maybe she’s questioning, as do I, if I’m really qualified to be a degree candidate in this university at all. As I’m lucky to be. As I’m only
able
to be because this job will help me pay my not-insignificant tuition.

She stares down her nose through a pair of green-rimmed glasses and repeats what is, in fact, very simple information. “You’ll be giving your first presentation tomorrow morning, to our community education Remedial Algebra class. They meet at eight o’clock. The departmental secretary will email you the building and room number.”

When I was hired by the Mathematics Outreach Program, I envisioned myself giving life-altering talks in front of wide-eyed primary school kids, maybe even a few middle school classes. I’ve prepared my presentations assuming I’d be working with the preteen crowd. Next to the desk in my office, round tubes filled with rainbow-colored, whimsical posters mock me. I’m quite certain the legally-able-to-vote crowd won’t think much of my bug-eyed number people or the caricatures of mathematical operators I spent hours drawing over the last month.

Prof. Ferris fixes her expectant gaze on me. As a new student, I’ll be required to find a faculty member to serve as my advisor by the end of the first term. Making a good impression on Prof. Ferris will hopefully inspire her to pass a glowing recommendation onto Prof. Lamertus, my target faculty.

Allowing a smile to crack across my face, I simmer before answering. “Of course. Remedial Algebra at the community education center. Looking forward to it.”

Before I started my position-slash-student life at Manderson University, a thick manila envelope arrived, filled with guidance on how to prepare presentation materials. Scanning my memory of those inserts, I try to remember if anything specifically suggested a chance of working with adults. I do recall phrases like “bright primary colors” and “brief, non-technical words,” and fret if I’ll serve as an example of why one shouldn’t “assume.” Regardless, I can’t dwell. As things stand, I now have less than a day to retool my materials for the new audience, not to mention all of the work assigned during the first week of classes waiting on the desk. I’ll be up till midnight as it is.

An hour later, I grab a cup of coffee from the cafeteria as I haul a bag of supplies bought hastily from the campus bookstore. My officemate, a mousy brunette and sweat-pants devotee named Betsy Wade, snickers at me as she heads out for the night.

“You’re never going to prepare a whole presentation in one night,” she says.

With her wire-rimmed glasses and nasally tone, she defines every cliché of female book nerd ever concocted, right down to the haughty, know-it-all tone and snorting laugh. The second year student and I barely speak, thank God. Though I don’t like judging people until I’ve had a chance to know them, two weeks have been enough for me to conclude that Betsy is what my grandmother would have called a “lemon-sucking sourpuss.”

“It took me four days to do all of my materials when I prepared them last year,” she snarls out. “And you’re definitely not me.”

I perform a mental inventory of everything I have on hand. “You don’t know me well, Betsy. I work best under pressure and against the wire. I can, and will, make this happen.”

For the next several hours, I alternate for thirty minutes at a time between crafting and doing my course work. By the time I finish my assignments and have some adult-friendly visual aids, the sun’s already set. I groan as I realize the bus route that passes my apartment stopped operating a half hour ago. I can still bike home, but there’s no way I’ll be able to carry the poster boards that I’m barely managing safely now. I’ll have to come back to campus early with my car to pick up everything for the morning, which annoys me to no end. Finding parking available to students anywhere near Yang Hall is like trying to find a single flea among a pride of lions. As I ride down the elevator and try to think of solutions, the obvious occurs to me.

Stumbling out at the first floor, I know I look comical trying to balance my lunch box, my laptop bag, and everything else. Thankfully at this late hour, the only other people in the building are hardcore grad students who couldn’t be pried away from their computer screens with a crowbar. I’ve never actually been in the shipping and receiving room during the two weeks I’ve been on campus, but I’m delighted when I reach the corner of the building and the door I’ve passed many times without a second glance. It’s unlocked.

Expecting the lights to be out, I’m surprised instead when a fluorescent glow spills over me as I crack the door. I push it with my hip, not realizing how the rug just inside of the room wedges … until my foot hooks on it. Before I can get my bearings, I’m lose my balance and the floor is coming up fast to meet me. A wave of pain hits, and whatever made its way down with me bends beneath me. Expletives dance a fiery tango in the air. I’m assessing the damage before trying to rise, making sure not to destroy my hard work anymore than I already have, when I see a hand out of the corner of my eye.

“You okay?”

Unnaturally blue eyes survey me through a spray of ash-blond hair, concern and amusement mixed in his expression. At first, I’m convinced that I’ve actually hit my head during my fall, because I’ve never seen a boy … a
man,
who looked this good rush across a room to offer me assistance. Then again, I haven’t fallen flat on my face so epically since I was eight and my ballet class performed a number from Swan Lake. I wonder if there’s actually something to the klutz strategy of flirting.

My eyes meet his, but I’m still not moving. “I think so.” A 180-degree survey tells me the crash zone isn’t as widespread as I first feared, confirming that the nudging sensations on my chest and hip must be my laptop bag and lunch box. With a sigh, I give a spot-on impression of downward-facing dog and rock back on my feet. He pulls back his hand and instead wraps an arm around my hips, tugging me up.

“Easy there,” he says. “That was a nasty fall. Move slowly. Did you break anything?”

With an exasperated sigh, I look at the crushed cylinder still on the floor. “I don’t think so. I’m fine, but I can’t say the same for my posters.”

He withdraws his supportive arm and leans over to fetch the tube. The end cap has already popped off and is laying under a table a few feet away. He holds it out like a telescope and examines the contents.

“I don’t think anything’s creased. Just a dent in the cardboard on the outside.” With a sly grin, he crosses the tube over his front and balances it on his left forearm, like a knight presenting a sword to his liege. “Your poster is safe, milady.”

“Thanks.” Realizing what a goof I probably look like in front of this Adonis, I blush a beet-red. Which makes me wonder what someone with model good looks is doing in the shipping and receiving room of my university building at this hour. He’s dressed in a dark work suit with the arms cut off. Vibrant hues of blue, green, and black are inked across his prominent left bicep, painted in a crisscross pattern that is both foreign and familiar. His dirty blond hair is longer in the front than the back, so that a few pieces cover his eyes as he moves.
This is what David Beckham looked like when he was twenty-two,
I think, and dare myself not to remember a picture of the famous footballer in his underwear.

He catches me staring and my eyes flash back up to meet his, though I can’t find any words to trail the move.

He reaches out his hand again, this time in greeting. “I’m Hawk Stephens,” he says, then distancing his gaze, before adding, “You’ve probably heard of me.”

“Ummm … no. Not that I can recall. Should I have?”

Delight dots the corners of his mouth. “I just thought everyone knew me at this point.”

I’m not sure which of us is meant to feel embarrassed at the other’s loss. I rub the back of my neck. “I just moved to Manderson the week before last, and this is my first week coming to campus. Plus, I’m not exactly what they call, you know, ‘social’.” I add finger quotes to accentuate the point.

“Oh, right, one of the new students. Well, I’m the night custodian here, amongst other things. And as a new student, let me assure you, there’s no need to feel embarrassed. That rug catches everyone the first time. Consider yourself an official member of the department now.”

The way he stretches out the last word makes me think I’m missing something. It takes me a moment to realize what he’s after, adding another notch on my pocket protector’s scorecard of my social gaffes.

“Robin,” I say, wrapping my hand around his and trying to ignore how firm his grip is. I remind myself that I actually have no interest in dating anyone, and that if I did, someone boasting the title of “night janitor” wouldn’t be on the list of candidates.

His eyebrow quirks. “Robin Lewis? Room 359? Likes Greek yogurt, originally from some posh suburb in Southern California, and recently graduated from the University of Colorado?”

All of these things are true, and I wonder for a moment if I should be weirded out or amazed. “Excuse me?”

His eyes shy away. “Sorry, it’s just … a thing. I have an excellent memory, and the names are on all of the office doors. You share an office with Betsy Wade, and I know her desk is the one by the door. I come by each night to get the garbage, and …” His voice trails off, leaving me to connect the pieces.

“Okay.” I draw out the word like taffy. “I guess that’s a more comfortable explanation than you being some creepy stalker janitor who keeps mementoes of all the young coed’s trash reconstructed to look like a real girl in the building.”

“Her name is Lacy. She’s in the basement next to the boiler room.”

Silence hangs between us before we both break out in smiles. Laughter feels so good I probably overdo it a bit. Since I’ve arrived on campus, though, it’s been non-stop studying, orientations, and meetings.

“Hawk?” I ask as I start to reassemble my materials. “That’s really your name?”

“Afraid so.” He reloads another poster tube in to my grip. “I would say my parents were hippies, but actually they just have a very peculiar obsession with astrophysics.”

I don’t make the connection, and he must see it in my expression. A moment later, he continues. “Hawk Stephen, and they gave me
Nathan
as a middle name so all my records would read as—”

“Stephen, Hawk N.,” I say out loud, giggling. “Clever.”

“Yeah,” he acknowledges while blowing a lock of his bangs from his eyes. “Stephen, Hawk N., night custodian at Manderson University.”

A shared smile disintegrates into awkward silence. He clears his throat.

“Did you need something, or were you looking for a place to hide?”

The items in my hand jostle about as much as my words. “Um … I was going to … I mean, I’m hoping to … That is, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to …” Pushing my arms together, I hold up my poster tubes like a child at show-and-tell. “I need these in the morning, but I can’t carry them all the way home on my bike and the buses have already stopped running. I’ll be by early, so I was hoping I could leave them here. That way, I can just park curbside and run in real quick in the morning to fetch them.”

Hawk examines the items in my hands, and although I know he’s looking at the poster tubes, the fact that they’re right in front of my chest doesn’t allude me. My cheeks flush knowing where his eyes have settled, but luckily he doesn’t seem to notice.

“That shouldn’t be a problem. The doors are locked at night, but they reopen at six a.m. But you’re not planning to bike home alone at this hour, are you?”

I shrug. “It’s not that far really.”

“Where do you live?”

Of course I know my address, but I’m still not familiar enough with the city to know the names of neighborhoods or major landmarks off campus. “Over by the skateboard park, I think.”

“The one over on Fillmore?” He shoves his hands into his pockets and rolls on the balls of his feet. “You’d have to go through a part of town that’s not really that safe this time of day.” His head swivels toward a clock on the far wall. “Tell you what, I was just about to take my lunch break. My car’s not too far away. How about I give you a ride?”

“That sounds a little creepy coming from a man who knows what kind of yogurt I eat,” I joke.

He’s already turning to the work bench at the other side of the room where I see a set of keys. They jingle as he slides them into his hand. “I promise I won’t go through your dumpster at home.”

I’m able to walk with some semblance of grace as Hawk takes the poster tubes back from me, letting me just worry about my computer bag and lunch box. I follow him out the door and across from Yang Hall to the employee parking lot. The RAV-4 he leads us to is mud-strewn and wears a few dings, but it’s clean enough and in good shape on the inside. A hint of musky cologne rises from the fabric as I sit, making me wonder if it’s Hawk’s, and if the smell lingers in the car because he’s recently been on a date. It’s such a ludicrous thought that I quickly push it aside, reaching behind me for my seat belt as he gets in.

“You really should be more careful about staying late if you’re going to live off campus,” he suggests as he turns over the engine and backs out. “Either that or go get your car in the late afternoon and drive back in. Even on campus, being out after dark isn’t always safe.”

“You’ve never seen me on a bike. I’m in danger pretty much any time of the day. Balance and I don’t always break bread.”

“No need to tell me. Remember that I saw you kiss the floor just ten minutes ago,” he reminds me with a smile. “Seriously, though, there’s some scuzzy types on campus.”

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