Fog blanketed the bustling, jam-packed campus of Pine State University. Whispers of students returning for the fall semester filled the crisp August air.
Marlon Woods approached the school with all eyes focused on him. Each group of students stopped what they were doing and stared at him as he trudged past. His dark jeans and ill-fitting T-shirt lay wrinkled on his hunched, lanky body.
In front of him, Laura Carpenter swatted her friend’s arm, almost knocking the books out of her hands. “Oh my god. It’s Marlon.” Her quivering finger pointed at the shuffling figure. “I can’t believe he’s back.”
Marlon glared as he passed the women and shoved through the entrance, inadvertently slamming into a female student.
Her glossy textbook and off-white coffee cup crashed to the ground. “Hey, asshole, watch where the hell you’re walking!” she shouted.
Chills ran down Marlon’s spine. It was Anna Moody.
“Marlon?” Anna’s fingers touched her parted lips, and she gasped.
Marlon didn’t respond. Instead, he stared at the ground, expecting she would take the hint and disappear. When she didn’t, he glanced back up at her.
“I missed you so much.” She hugged him, causing him to stagger backward.
She was almost unrecognizable, with her jet-black hair dyed a blazing shade of red and one of her pale arms covered in a colorful galaxy tattoo. He studied her, taking in her drastically changed appearance.
“Hey,” Marlon said with a forced halfhearted smile.
Her grin melted into a frown. “I tried to reach you all summer. Where have you been?”
Marlon’s cognac-colored eyes locked on the floor, and his ears reddened. “Ohio.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I-I needed to get away.”
Her shoulders sank. “I’m so sorry about—”
“I’m late,” Marlon said, his skin itching with anticipation. He couldn’t handle talking to her about it. Not there, not then. He pulled her in for a quick hug. “I better get to class. See you around.”
Anna smiled at Marlon, and her hazel eyes flickered. “Okay, let’s hang out soon and catch up. Like the old days.”
Marlon nodded, peered down at his smartwatch, and raced to Room 127 for his speech class.
His trembling hand twisted the classroom door handle. A wave of bright light flooded out into the hallway, halting Marlon in his tracks.
He stepped into the room and locked eyes with the professor. Since he was late, the only empty seat was at the front of the class. He walked through the aisles and sat in the chair without making eye contact with the other students. If he didn’t look at them, maybe he wouldn’t feel so awkward.
“Enough about the curriculum. We’ll talk more about that another day. I’m so glad to be your professor this semester. My name is Dr. Shelly Watson, and I’ve been teaching at Pine State University now for, let’s see, twenty-three years. My goodness, the time flies by, doesn’t it? Now, I want to start with a fun experiment I try every year.”
Marlon hunched in his chair. An experiment? This couldn’t be good.
“Let’s go around the room and have everyone stand and introduce themselves.”
Marlon groaned, catching the attention of a few strangers sitting next to him. One of them cleared her throat to shut him up. His cheeks flushed, and he bit his lower lip.
“Doesn’t that sound like fun? Now, I’d like you to state your first and last name, as well as something interesting about yourself. It should be a fact most people don’t know. No secrets in Dr. Watson’s class, you hear me?” Her eyes widened as she looked around and giggled. “Who wants to be my first victim?”
A man sitting two seats away from Marlon raised his hand. “I’ll go.”
He rose out of his seat. “Uh, my name is Frankie Baxter. I guess a fact most people don’t know about me is I was in a diaper commercial as a baby.”
“Great job, Frankie. That is interesting. Who’s next?” Dr. Watson squinted toward the back. “You? Go on.”
“Thanks. Name’s Michael Donahue, but my friends call me Don.”
“Yes, Don,” Dr. Watson said. “What would you like to share about yourself?”
“Back in high school, I ranked number one in my wrestling division. Still got the trophies and everything. Cool, huh?”
Dr. Watson smiled. “Definitely. Thanks for sharing. Who wants to go next?”
“I would love to,” a piercing voice said.
Marlon gulped and sank further into his seat. How did he not notice her when he walked in?
“My name is Courtney DuPont, and I … Excuse me, Dr. Watson? Can I do this up there?”
“Great idea, Courtney,” Dr. Watson said.
Courtney strutted from the back of the classroom in a short plaid-printed skirt and a white blouse baring her midriff. When she passed Marlon, she paused and glared at him. That was his first time seeing her since the night of the party, but Courtney wouldn’t dare say anything to him in class.
“Okay, so, I’m pretty much an open book.”
Marlon’s stomach ached. He wanted to stand and shout, “Nobody cares,” but he knew he couldn’t.
She ran her fingers through her flowing, golden-blonde hair, twirling a section of it as she spoke. “So, anyone who knows me knows I love shoes. I own, like, seventy-seven pairs. Nine pairs of Louboutin, seven pairs of Miu Miu, five pairs of Valentino, two pairs of Balmain, and two pairs of McQueen. Oh, and my absolute favorite—a pair of red suede Giuseppe Zanotti heels.”
“Thank you, Courtney. I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone here when I say I enjoyed hearing about your shoe collection. I bet it’s beautiful,” Dr. Watson said.
“Thanks.” Courtney pranced back to her seat.
Marlon’s flesh burned at the reality of sharing a classroom with one of his biggest enemies. He ignored the subsequent students’ introductions. This meant he would have to see her face every week. It was only a matter of time before she had something to say to him.
After wallowing in his negative thoughts, the professor’s voice recaptured Marlon’s attention. “Since we had several brave souls volunteer to go first, I’ll pick the next few. When I call your name, please stand and introduce yourself to the class.”
Dr. Watson lowered her glasses at the group and dragged a finger over a clipboard. “Charlotte Knapp.”
A loud sigh rang out from behind Marlon, prompting him to spin around in his seat.
Charlotte rose from her seat two rows back. “Dang. Okay, I guess I can go. I’m Charlotte Knapp, and I’ve been to eighteen countries.”
Several classmates gasped.
A smile beamed across Charlotte’s sun-kissed face. “Cool, right? My parents go on mission trips all the time, and I got to tag along for a few of them.”
Dr. Watson nodded. “Impressive, Charlotte. Thank you for sharing. The next student will be …” At that moment, her eyes locked with his. “Marlon Woods.”
Marlon’s heart sank right out of his body. There was no way he could stand in front of everyone and talk about himself. Everyone already knew his story—or at least what they thought they knew. Why would he need to say anything?
Hoping for a “gotcha” moment, Marlon blinked at Dr. Watson multiple times. But she didn’t budge. As he tried to rise, his knees shook. He couldn’t collapse because he’d become even more of a laughingstock if he did.
“My … my name … I’m Marlon.”
The professor leaned in, pressing her hand to her ear. “I’m sorry, speak up. We can’t hear you.”
What was he supposed to talk about? What was an interesting fact he could share? Hi, I’m Marlon, and I’m sure you’ve seen my face all over the news. Nice to meet you, and yes, the rumors are true. No, he couldn’t talk about it, let alone acknowledge its existence. His mind raced, scrambling to find a useless fact to share about himself.
“I’m Marlon Woods, and I collect vinyl records,” he said, the words flying out of his mouth at lightning speed. He didn’t think it was fascinating in the slightest bit, but at least he gave something.
Dr. Watson’s short, brown hair bobbed as she rocked her head back and forth like a character in a stoner movie. “Far out, man.”
After an awkward silence, she chuckled. “I’m kidding. I love records. They sound so much better than the digital stuff most people listen to these days. You can feel the music more with vinyl.”
A nervous smile formed on Marlon’s face. “Yeah, true.” He shot back down in his seat.
Dr. Watson looked at her wristwatch. “Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Good job, guys. We’ll pick back up on the introductions next time. Thanks for listening to me ramble earlier.”
Students filed out of the room. Some stared at their phones in a zombie-like state, while others fumbled with their class timetables to figure out where they needed to go.
Marlon played it safe by allowing everyone else to leave the classroom before him so he wouldn’t risk an awkward encounter. Once it was only him and Dr. Watson, he peered around and strolled to the door.
“May I talk to you before you go, Marlon?” the professor asked, shooting him an inquisitive look.
Marlon’s shoulders slumped. “S-sure. What’s up?” he asked, his voice weak and hoarse.
She scanned his face, her eyes piercing through his soul. “How are you holding up? What you must be going through is unimaginable.”
Marlon’s thumping heart almost deafened him. Oh, she went there. “I’m okay. Yeah, I’ve been doing better.”
Was that the right thing to say? Was it what she wanted to hear? Why wasn’t her face changing?
Her brows snapped together, and her lips pressed flat. “I’m not supposed to be talking to you about this, but I want you to know people support you. A lot of us do. Don’t forget that. I’m proud of you for coming back.”
Marlon breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t expect any of the college faculty to side with him. After all, Pine State University was partially responsible for what happened.
“Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome. You’d better run to your next class. I don’t want to make you late. Keep your head up, kid.”
Chilly morning rain dampened Marlon’s clothing as he exited his car. He paused inside the entrance of Noir Coffee to brush the beads of water off his oversized hoodie, which swallowed his body. An overwhelming aroma of fresh coffee smacked him in the face, intensifying his migraine.
“Good morning,” a beaming redhead said from behind the register. “What can I get started for you?”
His eyes met the barista’s and then the ground. “Um, hi. Could I have a medium pumpkin latte with extra spice and a vanilla scone?”
Once he finished paying for his order, he stood to the side of the counter and waited. The familiarity and ambiance of the coffee shop helped ease his mind.
Several people entered the shop and were engaged in an intense conversation with one another.
A raven-haired woman slapped her friend’s arm. “Ew, gross. I would never.”
Marlon turned to face them and locked eyes with one of the young women. Why were they so damn loud?
“Is that Marlon Woods?” the woman asked, squinting.
He gulped and shifted away from her as the barista handed over his order. How did she recognize him? “Thanks. Have a good one.”
By the time he twisted around, the strange woman had appeared beside him. “You guys, it is him.”
He glared at her, and her eyes were unmistakable. It was Madison Benét, one of Courtney’s best friends. Marlon clenched the hot cup tighter and walked past her toward the door.
Madison cackled. “The asshole is afraid of us.”
One of the other women stepped in front of the door when he reached for it. “Not so fast.”
He sighed and lowered his head. “What do you want?”
Madison walked up behind him, her voice drawing nearer with each step. “You owe Courtney an apology.”
Madison’s mouth hung open. “Because you lied about her boyfriend. You need to drop the charges. This has gone on long enough.”
“Hey, leave him alone,” the barista shouted. “If you don’t stop, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
That was his chance to run. The distraction caught the women’s attention, allowing him to push past them. He bumped the girl away from the door and jumped in his car. Steering wheel leather squeaked beneath his tightening grip, and his eyes fixated on the café door, expecting the girls to run out and confront him again. But they didn’t.