Monday, March 26, 2012
On the same day for the last six years, I have skipped class to sneak into a private lecture for the historian interns. I had the procedure perfected now. By the time the morning’s cleaning staff finished their last sweep of the castle, I was already crouched in the frosty shadows by the stone steps outside the east entrance. They all left in a big group through the front entrance at exactly seven o’clock.
I counted to thirty, their chatter fading into the distance, then hurried inside. A warm draft from the fires in the main halls curled around me. Slipping down the hall to the left, I yanked off my mittens and drew down my turtleneck. This was getting too easy, really.
The familiar creak of the lecture hall’s double doors brought a smile to my face. One more year I wouldn’t have to try using one of the excused I’d penned on my hand in case I was caught. After I slipped into the dark auditorium, I shut the door behind me. Motion sensors set gears clicking into place until sparks ignited the Blaugas lighting. I surveyed the auditorium empty seating and the stage set with just a lectern. Only shadows stared back.
I bit off the last chunk of my apple and threw the core into the compost bin hidden by the velvet drapery on the walls. The same two stairs as last year squeaked under my feet. My fingers slid over the smooth finish on the tables in the third row as I moved to the fourth section. No one ever sat over here. I sank into the last armchair and stilled. After a minute, the lights shut off to conserve the gas.
Now I just had to wait. Thirty minutes was nothing compared to the year I’d already waited to see Dad again. Or the year I’d have to wait after today. My hands clutched the lion heads at the ends of the armrests. This would be easy.
Suddenly, the door creaked. I shot under the table as the Blaugas lit again. My hand clasped my shirt over my heart as a soft, low hum filled the auditorium. Footsteps climbed down the stairs to the front of the room. Casual, comfortable.
The professor who taught this class the last five years had allowed me to watch as long as I’d remained hidden, but he’d been one of Dad’s colleagues. Sympathy had been on my side. All I had to do afterward was hack the system and change my attendance for the day. My professors never knew the difference. I was too good of a student to distrust.
This year a transfer from our university’s affiliate was teaching, Professor Tassitis. I’d only met him once. If he caught me, he could give me the two demerits I deserved. One for sneaking in to a private lecture. The other for skipping my own class. Both I wouldn’t be able to hack my way out of. I’d be put on probation, and then so much for graduating and goodbye potential internship. Who wanted to be stuck on secondary education an extra year? Hang that.
I could not be caught.
When the footsteps finished down the stairs, I peeked around the corner of the table. White hair puffed on the top of a head like a cloud. It was Professor Tassitis as I’d thought. He shuffled to the stage in full academic robes. His knees cracked, and the sound echoed through the room.
“I guess that’s what I get for refusing those joint replacements last year!” he said to himself. He grinned his way to the lectern on the left side of the stage. His hands opened its cabinet door and started fiddling with the projector’s settings.
I released my shirt and ducked back under the table. He had no idea I was here. All I had to do was keep it that way. My entire body loosened, and I resettled myself under the desk. Closed my eyes. Started my mental countdown.
Professor Tassitis wasn’t the only one who’d refused to trade out their arthritic joints last year. Premier Castol had, too—and every year beforehand. That old man even wore glasses. He was the only person I knew who did. He insisted he didn’t need prosthetics to be healthy. Most of the professors who’d been born at the end of the war were like that.
The door opened again. Much too soon.
“Aren’t you rather early, Eques?” Professor Tassitis asked.
I choked. I’d forgotten Gavriel would be attending the lecture this year, since he’d become an intern. But he was probably here for class, not to tattle.
We had been still best friends when I’d told him my plan to sneak in to see Dad’s only lecture. That was five years ago. He wouldn’t remember something stupid like that, right? Didn’t matter either way, though. If he was going to betray me, I would hack into the system and fail him in every single one of his classes.
Gavriel’s soft chuckle resounded through the room. It pinched the nerves all the way down my spine. “I can leave and come back later if you’d prefer?” he said and padded down the stairs anyway.
“No, no,” the professor said, “that won’t be necessary. I do enjoy the company of a good, youthful mind from time to time. Perhaps you’d like to help me set up for our lecture this morning?”
“With pleasure.” His boots met the hollow stage with muffled thumps.
The door opened again, but this time the room filled with the chatter of several students. My legs had fallen asleep by the time Professor Tassitis finished his rambling introduction of the day’s lecture and stepped off stage. I didn’t need it. I knew exactly what today’s topic was.
The room darkened. Under the blanket of shadows, I crawled from beneath the desk and sat on the carpeted stairs. Hidden from the interns with roaming eyes, I was alone in my own little corner. Finally, the projector hummed and golden wisps of light stuttered to life.
On the stage, the holograms of nine dead historians lounged in oversized armchairs. They went down the line with intros, and then it was his turn.
“Hello, interns,” the last historian said with a bright smile. The same as always. “My name is Dr. Evander Clemens.”
“Hi, Dad.” I wrapped my arms around one of the table’s legs. My eyes burned with tears. I didn’t hold them back. But it was fine since no one could see me.
“You will be stuck with me for twenty minutes,” he continued, “while I attempt to entice you to consider the History of the Universe your specialty.” It wasn’t as if he could hear me. What was on stage was just an image. Dad could never come back. “Mostly I’ll just obsess over it until your ears bleed.”
He sat, then the first historian stood again and started his pre-programmed lecture. I watched Dad’s frozen form stare into the aisles as each historian took turns. I tried to commit every angle of his face to memory all over again. His slicked back blond hair, clean-shaven face, sturdy jaw, and sharp nose. After an hour and forty-five minutes, Dad cleared his throat and rose to his feet. My wet cheek rested against the cold wood leg.
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