Thankfully, I didn’t see the crazy man after that, nor did I think of him much. I was far too busy with finals.
As I walked out of my last final of the quarter and the school year, the overwhelming sense of relief and freedom washed over me.
I was done with my junior year. Only one year left until graduation.
Liana was supposed to meet me in front of her car at the north parking lot so we could go celebrate. Since it would take at least fifteen minutes to make the hike across campus, I decided to call my mom. I hadn’t called her for a week because of finals, and most likely she probably wanted to know when I was coming home.
When she answered, her voice sounded high-pitched and flustered. “Caren, honey, guess what?”
She hadn’t even bothered to ask me how I did on finals, but I wasn’t about to start that conversation. “What happened? Did that little sister of mine get in trouble again?”
My sister, Cathy, always got into scrapes with her best friend, Daisy. Those two girls were a lot more adventurous than I was. Once we’d gone on a camping trip, and they’d gotten lost for two days before we finally found them hiding in an abandoned cabin rumored to be haunted. They’d wanted to find out if the ghost really did exist. My parents had grounded Cathy for two weeks, while Daisy’s parents, who were a lot stricter, grounded her for two months. In my opinion, it hadn’t been quite fair, especially since I was sure Cathy had been the leader.
“No,” my mother said. “It’s not Cathy.” She sounded breathless, and too eager to wait for my second guess, her next words came out in a tumble. “Your father won a vacation at work for us to tour the entire Asian continent this summer! It’s a two and a half month tour. Can you believe it?”
Well, that certainly was good news. Even though I was Chinese, I’d never actually been to China. Or Hong Kong. Or Taiwan. In fact, I’d never been to Asia at all. A family vacation would be fun.
“But Caren, there’s just one little problem.” My mother’s voice deepened with regret. “There are only two tickets. I don’t feel comfortable leaving Cathy by herself the entire summer, so we’re buying a ticket for her. If you’d like, we can buy you a ticket, but the trip isn’t cheap.”
She didn’t need to continue for me to hear the reluctance in her voice. I knew my parents didn’t want me tagging along, but I couldn’t be angry with them. Money was a little scarce these days, and they were already paying for my tuition. Plus, Cathy was going to college in a few years. They needed to save all the money they could.
“Your father and I were thinking maybe you’d like to stay in San Diego with your friends for the summer, maybe take a few extra classes instead. What do you think?”
The thought of Darryl jumped into my head. He was staying for the summer, and so were Liana and my other apartment mates. It was perfect. “I guess I’ll stay here then,” I told my mother. “Everyone’s staying for the summer anyway, and this means I won’t have to bother finding someone to sublet.”
“All right then.” I could tell my mother sounded relieved that she didn’t have to spend the extra money on me. “I’ll tell you more details soon—emergency phone numbers, that sort of thing.”
She went on to tell me how excited she was as well as what she and the rest of the family had done the past week. And then, she abruptly changed subjects. “How were your finals?”
Ah, the dreaded question at last. It was a good thing they really had not been too bad this time. “I think I did pretty well actually, but we’ll see.”
“I’m sure you did fine,” Mom said. “Okay dear, I’ll call again in a few days.”
I hung up the phone and realized that it was perfect timing as I had just reached the parking lot. Liana was waiting for me at the north parking shuttle stop. She jumped up and waved.
“Let’s go eat!” she exclaimed. “And then we’ll shop.”
She drove us to a sushi bar, and as we munched on spicy tuna rolls and edamame, I told her about my phone call with my mom.
“It’s too bad that you can’t go on that dream vacation,” she said. “But now you get to spend summer with me. We’ll have lots of fun. What classes are you thinking of taking?”
I hadn’t given much thought to that yet. “Well, I want a break from science, that’s for sure.” Besides, I wouldn’t be able to sign up for them anyway. By now, those classes were probably all full, with a waitlist hundreds of miles long.
Liana clapped her hands together. “Why don’t you take World Mythology with me? It’s being taught by some new, young guy they just hired—Doctor something Japanese-sounding. He probably doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he’ll be an easy grader. Plus, I’ve heard he’s really hot.” She sounded more excited by the professor’s rumored hotness than that the class would be easy. “We’ll just stare at him all summer long and learn absolutely nothing. It’ll be great!”
“A lit class?” I was doubtful. It was true that I loved to write, but I had been hoping to fulfill some graduation requirements.
Liana read my mind. “It does fulfill that writing class requirement we have. And it’ll be interesting. You love legends from all around the world. This class is all about finding the similarities and differences between them and linking them to their cultures.” Then she narrowed her eyes, casting a knowing look. “Besides, it’s about time you do something you like for a change.”
She was right. This class sounded like something I’d like, but I knew my parents would not likely approve. Not that they’d know, since they’d be on the other side of the world.
Plus, I was tired of not following my own passion. I wanted to write, and I wanted to read literature. And when I thought about that psycho who’d told me my writing sucked, something just snapped.
I was annoyed. Annoyed that all my life, I’d let others dictate what I should do. I’d had it with my parents and crazy punk rockers who thought they were literary geniuses. It was time for me to get out of the backseat and push everyone else out of the driver’s seat of the car called my life.
“I’ll sign up. But do you think I’ll get in?” My only obstacle, now that I’d made my decision to take the class, was that it was a little late to be signing up for summer classes, and most classes were already full. There was no use deciding to take literature classes if there was no chance I’d get in.
“No waiting list,” Liana promised, soothing my doubt. “It’s only about half filled. I guess nobody trusts new professors.”
Forget that tour around the entire Asia continent. A science-less summer filled with classes I wanted to take and lots of time to hang out with my friends. Now that was my idea of a vacation.
It was the morning of the first day of summer school. I hadn’t realized this, but Liana had also convinced my two other apartment mates to sign up for that World Myths class. It was both convenient and inconvenient. Convenient in that we could carpool to school together and save on gas.
But inconvenient in that all four of us had to get ready in the morning at the same time. Thankfully, however, I always woke up earlier than everyone else in the apartment, so being the first to use the bathroom, I took my time in the shower. I got dressed in simple jeans and a white button-down shirt before heading to the kitchen to make breakfast for everyone. Only then did I hear three alarm clocks going off simultaneously.
I observed in amusement as Liana, who shared my bathroom, simply waltzed in to wash up, while Stacy and Nia, who shared the other bathroom, hustled and bustled about, arguing over who would use it first.
I watched them all, slowly sipping my milk and taking small nibbles out of my toast. Liana was, to me, the nicest and the prettiest of all my roommates, but I was biased, since we’d been best friends for fifteen years. But I liked my other two roommates a lot. We had met during welcome week of freshman year and had hit it off just like that. I couldn’t imagine sharing an apartment with anyone but them.
Nia was a beautiful Filipino girl, who could carry a conversation non-stop. When she and Liana were in the same room, no one else would ever get the chance to talk. She was a history major and loved to prattle on about her favorite century ever, the 19th century. But she was loyal to her friends to a fault, and would verbally blast anyone who showed any signs of being racist, sexist, or just plain disrespectful.
Stacy, an economics major, was a lot quieter, and she was probably the most hard-working girl I had ever encountered. When she wasn’t at school, she was working as a waitress at The Cheshire Café. She was trying to support herself through college, since her parents had moved out of the country after she’d graduated from high school. She was also a halfling, like Liana, only Stacy was half Korean and half African-American. It was a very cool combination that I’d never before encountered, but it left Stacy with all the right genes, making me thoroughly jealous of her good looks.
So we were left with a very international apartment, and it made life interesting.
By the time all the morning commotion had ceased, and everyone had eaten their fill of scrambled eggs and toast, we had fifteen minutes to drive to school and walk to our class. I was a bit grumpy by this, since I usually liked to arrive in class early. Now it seemed that we would be at least five minutes late.
But as we walked into the classroom, Professor Inari had not arrived yet. I wondered if he had hit traffic.
“Hi there, lab buddy.” The familiar voice ignited a spark that set my heart to beat faster.
“Darryl, you’re in this class too?”
“Yup. Only taking it to fulfill a grad requirement, probably the same reason why everyone else is taking this piece of cake class.” He grinned, his brilliant smile blinding. “So I guess this means you’re staying for the summer. Now you can take me up on my offer to hang out.”
I smiled back, about to reply, but the class had quieted, which meant the professor had just come through the door. I curiously gazed at the tall man approaching the front of the room, and my stomach lurched in horror. It couldn’t possibly be. I couldn’t have such bad luck.
But that bleached hair of a punk rocker was unmistakable. Only he was now dressed deceivingly in professional attire—gray trousers, dress shirt, and striped tie.
My smile faded as my jaw hit the desk.
It couldn’t be, I kept repeating in my head, hoping if I silently chanted it over and over, it wouldn’t be true.
The man was entirely too young to be a professor. Besides, Professor Inari was supposed to be Japanese. But this man who’d stalked me just a few weeks ago and was now impeccably dressed as a professor could pass as Caucasian. Then it occurred to me that he was probably hapa, like Liana. This was not a joke; nightmares could indeed be brought to life.
Oh no! A thousand expletives ran through my head.
By the hushed whispers echoing throughout the room, I knew I wasn’t the only one shocked by the professor’s appearance.
“I told you he was young,” Liana whispered to me. “Very distinctly handsome too.” She had always been attracted to the rocker guys for some reason.
She noticed my horrified expression. “What’s wrong Caren? You look like you want to throw up your breakfast.”
“Remember the bleached hair weirdo that was stalking me?”
She nodded, and she glanced at the professor again. Then her expression mirrored my horrified one as she made the connection. “No way! Him?”
We couldn’t talk anymore as the professor had finished preparing his notes and was now starting to talk. “Sorry I’m late. I ran into…traffic.”
I sunk further into my seat, hoping he wouldn’t see me. That hope was denied.
His eyes ran across the lecture hall and stopped on me. He gave a little smirk I knew was meant for me alone. “I see I’m acquainted with some of you already. We’ll have fun this summer.”
His smile died and was replaced with business-like indifference. “I’m curious. Raise your hand if you’re in this class to fulfill a general education requirement.”
Ninety percent of the class raised their hands. I did not. All I wanted to do was disappear. His gaze never left my face. “Miss Caren Chang, why did you sign up for my class?”
Without waiting for my answer, he continued. “Most likely you only wanted to fulfill your requirement as well.”
The rude man had no desire to hear me out. “Well, Miss Caren, if that is the case, I suggest you drop the class now. Contrary to what most of you may think, the study of literature is no joke. My class will not be easy, so do not expect me to hand out free A’s.”
The class had gone entirely quiet. The man in front of us was proving himself to be very unlike his appearance. He looked like a rocker and was only a few years older than us, but he sounded like he had tenure.
And I was humiliated. Professor Inari had obviously singled me out because of our previous confrontation. He wasn’t finished humiliating me either. “So Caren, I hope you’ve already previewed our textbook. You should be able to tell me one fairy tale that appears in most cultures in the world.”
The entire class waited for my response, and my mind went blank. I should have known this. And then to my relief, an answer came to me. “I’m sure that Cinderella tales appear around the world.”
“Give us examples.”
“Umm…” I wasn’t prepared for this. I had never been one to be able to blurt out smart-sounding answers spontaneously. “Well, there’s the obvious Grimm’s fairy tale we all know. And I think I heard a Chinese Cinderella story. Was it about a girl being turned into a fish by her stepmother?”
“You don’t sound sure of yourself,” the horrid man sneered. “I don’t call that being very prepared for class.” Now he addressed the whole class. “Let that be a lesson to all of you. Don’t even bother coming to class if you aren’t prepared to answer simple questions. It will be so much easier to just fail you all.”
For the next two hours, nobody dared to make eye contact with the professor, for fear that they would be his next victim. They needn’t have worried because those two hours were my own private hell. Every time the professor asked a question, he called on me.
I was relieved when the slowest two hours in my entire life ended. Outside the class, Darryl, Liana, Stacy, and Nia all tried to comfort me.
“What a jerk!” Liana exclaimed angrily. “He should be fired. It was so obvious the way he targeted you today.”
“I don’t think he can be fired,” Stacy said. “I read an article in the school newspaper about him. He holds the record for being the youngest professor to receive tenure, and he got it as soon as he was hired. He’s supposed to be a genius or something. He finished medical school at 22 before he decided he’d rather study literature than perform surgery. Then he went back to school for a PhD in English and published several papers of literary criticism. Not to mention, he’s also very rich. Apparently, he donated a lot of money to our school.”
Darryl scoffed. “That’s outright bribery. Besides, there’s nothing special about a man who purposely humiliates an innocent girl.”
“Shh!” Nia whispered. “He’s walking towards us.”
Sure enough, the evil man was heading straight towards none other than me. “Caren, I need to talk to you…privately.”
Darryl immediately took a defensive step in my direction. I thought it was kind of cute, but I didn’t need anyone to defend me at the moment. “It’s all right,” I said. I had things to say to the evil man too.
Although my friends were waiting for me across the hallway, they were not within range to hear what Dr. Evil and I were saying.
“Caren,” he started. “I meant what I said. I think it would be best if you dropped the class.”
I gave him the most scathing smile I could muster. “And admit defeat? Not in this lifetime. I know what you’re trying to do, and you might as well give up. I don’t know why you’re so determined to discourage me from writing stories, but just know this. There is no way I’ll ever back down. So just try and stop me from taking your class. Even if you fail me, I’ll never drop out or stop writing.”
And that was all I had to say on the subject. I spun around and marched away to join my friends.