“…don’t forget the problem set and assigned reading, and I’ll see you guys next time.” My seven p.m. class over, I rolled my shoulders and tapped the stack of quizzes on the desk to neaten them before tucking them into my bag. It had been a long day—three sections of class, office hours, and a faculty meeting. At least Birdie would be at home when I got there. Maybe I could talk her into a massage.
A grin touched my mouth. For her or me, didn’t much matter.
Slinging the bag across my shoulders, I thumbed open my cell phone to send her a quick message.
Me: beer and pizza night?
The reply came as soon as I reached the top of the risers in the amphitheater-style classroom. I paused to read it before turning out the door and continuing down the hall to my office.
Birdie: one of those days, huh?
Me: If by that you mean hell, then yes. Got a stop to make at my office then be on the way.
I tucked my phone in my back pocket and looked up, blowing out a breath in aggravation when I saw the girl waiting for me beside my office door.
“Miss Hansen. How may I help you?” I forced a neutral tone as I unlocked the door and hustled in. Sooner I could get this over with the better. Serena Hansen was a menace, daughter of the assistant dean and full of her own authority. She had no business being in the upper level courses of the mathematics program. She was a lazy scholar at best and of inferior intelligence at worst. But what Serena wanted; Serena got.
Right now, I was aware that Serena Hansen wanted me. Why, I didn’t know. Maybe she wanted the thrill of screwing a professor so she could later shove her misdeeds in daddy’s face. If that was the case, there were plenty who’d be willing to accommodate her. I didn’t really care. Even if I hadn’t been with Birdie, I wouldn’t have been interested. She was too obvious. Too desperate.
Regardless, she had somehow managed to maneuver herself into a position as my TA. This put her in far too close a proximity for my own comfort, as she attended several lectures and made herself comfortable in my office whenever she had the chance. She refused to recognize the boundaries I kept establishing, but so far, I hadn’t managed to find a way to get rid of her without putting my own job at risk.
She strolled in behind me, pushing the door closed behind her. “Open the door, please.” She ignored me. I put my desk squarely between us and tossed my bag down, raking a hand through my hair.
"I need some help with that one formula,” she murmured, sidling up to the desk. She placed her book on its surface and leaned forward to flip through its pages, giving me a perfect presentation of plump breasts in the vee of her shirt if I was inclined to look.
“Which formula would that be?”
“You know the one…it was really…hard.” She did something funky with her lips that was intended to be sexy and I snorted, turning around to find the book I needed from my shelves. I had a new lesson to prepare for my ten a.m. class tomorrow and was missing a key piece of information I felt my students would find helpful.
“A for effort, Miss Hansen. I’ve told you before, though. I am not interested. Not now, not ever.”
“Methinks the professor doth protest too much.” She was behind me suddenly, pressing her body against mine. I startled, dropping the book I’d just plucked from the shelf. Shit. I should have known better than to turn my back on her.
“It’s okay,” she said, winding her arms around my waist as I turned and placed my hands on her shoulders to push her away. “I like this little game we play.”
“This is no game, Miss Hansen! Get the hell off me.”
“Get you off?” Her lips twisted in feline satisfaction and I could practically feel her purring against me. “I’d love to. How do you want me, on my knees or—”
With a garbled groan, I thrust her powerfully away from me. She landed on her back on my desk and hitched herself up on her elbows, laughing softly as she looked at me. “Ooh, yeah, baby. You’re so strong. I love it when you manhandle me like that—”
It was at that moment the door opened slowly and time stood still. Birdie stood there, disbelief freezing her expression. For a second that stretched into years we were all a tableau, unspeaking, unmoving. Then Serena scrambled up from the desk, straightening her skirt and smoothing her hair before walking past Birdie with a soft apology.
The insincerity of it plucked at my already taut nerves, but I had more important things to worry about. The betrayal in Birdie’s eyes was a gaping wound. I rubbed the back of my neck and uttered the most meaningless, trite expression in the history of relationships. “Mini, this is not what it looks like—”
Birdie’s chin trembled and she pressed her lips firmly together, quelling it. Tugging at the ring on her left hand — the one that had been my grandmother’s — she pulled it off and threw it. It pinged against the wood floor in the silence of the room between us. Without a word, she turned and fled.
“Damnit! Fuck!” Turning, I grabbed my coat from the back of my chair and the book from the floor, shoving it carelessly in my bag. I wasted precious seconds hunting for the ring before giving up. I’d find it later. I ran after her, hearing her footsteps pounding on the floor ahead of me. “Birdie, wait!”
I saw her as I blew through the heavy double doors of the weathered brick building. She was already at her car and swinging the door open. Rain was sheeting down, cold pellets stinging my face as I ran after her to the parking lot.
“Birdie!” The wind caught my words and held them hostage, but she heard something, anyway. She turned and flashed a bitter look in my direction and climbed into her car. By the time I reached my own truck and climbed in, her taillights were rounding the corner of the lot and disappearing, far too fast, down College Avenue. I cursed under my breath and followed.
From a distance, I watched as she blew through the stoplight that paused college traffic before it let out on the main drag. There was no one coming, thank God. I had to wait for the same light and punched the steering wheel once, twice, eliciting a startled look from the driver to my right.
I watched as the counter-light turned yellow and counted down the seconds before mine turned green, peeling out with a squeal of my tires against the pavement. Although the speed limit on this road was forty-five, I pushed it to just past sixty as I drove past the series of fast food places, the Kroger, and the Wal-Mart, eyes flicking everywhere as I searched for her car.
I finally caught up with her a couple of miles down the road. We were nearing the exit for the route that would take us to the farm and I started to slow. At least she was headed home. We could talk this out there.
Only she didn’t turn, instead, driving steadily past the exit. I followed, wondering where the hell she was going. The business end of the highway was in the opposite direction and this section of road led nowhere but the next town over.
Her speed and lane position grew erratic, the speed fluctuating a good ten miles per hour and ranging into the seventies. Her old Ford Mustang drifted back and forth, into the center turning lane and then sharply back to the right shoulder. Thankfully, this section of road had little traffic to contend with. Still, she was making me damn nervous. She was probably crying and couldn’t half see. Birdie was a crier, especially when she was angry.
Picking up my cell phone from the cup holder, I hit speaker and called. “Of course, you don’t answer. Damnit, Birdie.” I called again, and she ignored the call again. On my third attempt she answered.
“Fuck off,” she hissed, and disconnected.
My patience wearing thin, I dialed one last time. She answered and I started to speak, but fear closed my throat almost immediately as her car fishtailed wildly in front of me, tires catching on standing water and hydroplaning. It couldn’t have been more than a matter of seconds, and yet it was like a slow motion movie sequence. Frame one: taillights flash, accompanied by the sound of her scream as it shreds her angry greeting. Frame two: car jerks to the right, over-corrects to the left, and right again. Frame three: front right tire catches on shoulder, back tires skew wildly. Frame four: car bounces once and is airborne, then disappears over the roadside embankment.
Revert to regular speed.
Heart in throat, I wrestled my own vehicle to a stop on the side of the road and threw open the door. I was running before my feet hit the pavement, stumbling and falling in the mud that lined the highway, chanting a prayer that she was okay. “Ohgodpleasegoddeargod—”
My words sputtered to a stop as I took in the Mustang, its front end wrapped around a tree at the base of the embankment, the engine still and sizzling in the cold. I dropped to my knees in the mud, my legs refusing to take me any further. That—no one could survive that—
“Hey. Hey, man. Are you hurt?”
A man squatted down beside me as I knelt at the top of the hill, huge and hulking in some kind of slick black suit I’d seen bikers wear in the rain. He had a leather vest over it, confirming my theory when he turned and I saw it clearly: Archangel’s Warriors MC, Dublin Falls, TN. His appearance galvanized me, and I scrambled up, the man rising with me. I was tall, just over six feet, but I still had to look up at him. “I’m fine. We have to help my girlfriend. She—” I paused, swallowed hard, and gave up on words, instead sliding down the decline to the car.
The guy slid down with me, a hand on my shoulder, forestalling me from continuing. “I’ve already called for EMS. Why don’t you let me check on your girlfriend? I’m a paramedic. Used to be a Navy corpsman. What’s her name?” My throat closed as I comprehended his actions. If Birdie was hurt…really, really hurt…he didn’t want me to see that.
He had a long black braid that snaked out from the rain gear he was wearing. I fixated on it, thinking idly that my little sister would be jealous. She was always complaining about her hair. “Who are you?” I asked him, pushing the question past the knot in my throat. I clutched as his arm as he started toward the car.
“I’m Ghost. I’m going to help you.”
“Ghost,” I repeated, consigning it to memory. “Her name is Birdie. Help her?”
He gave me a clipped nod and hurried to the driver’s side door, giving it a sharp tug after peering inside. I couldn’t see past his bulk as he bent forward into the car, but I could imagine him pressing his fingers against the pulse in Birdie’s neck, that pulse I loved to find with my mouth when we made love.
God, it’s my fault.
The thought nearly dropped me to my knees again. If I hadn’t been calling her over and over, dividing her attention…if I hadn’t been behind her…maybe she would have slowed down. Been calmer.
In the distance I heard sirens. Ghost turned and looked at me and through the rain sluicing down my face I made out the words on his lips. “She’s alive.”
This time I did fall to my knees, dropping forward until my hands gripped handfuls of mud and gravel and the tears on my face mingled with the rain.
She was alive.