Firstling Chapter Five: Strange Girl

I drove to school on Monday and at precisely eight o’clock, I went to Dr. Bratsin’s office.  Dr. Bratsin, my physiology professor, was a nice man, very eager to help.  In fact, I went to his office hours and even bothered him when he wasn’t having office hours, like now.  He didn’t mind and even encouraged it.  I actually learned more from him in his office than in lecture.  He seemed more animated and less nervous when talking to students personally than when addressing an entire lecture hall of three hundred.  It was probably because he had some serious social problems.  He stuttered, never looked anyone in the eye, and he had a crazy nervous tick—his entire head jerked forward at random moments, as though he couldn’t control it.  His dark hair was tinted with gray, and he dressed like he was about fifty, even though he was probably only a couple years older than Khit.

Dr. Bratsin answered my questions graciously, although as soon as a few of the questions popped from my mouth, I couldn’t help but feel like an idiot.  They were questions I probably could have answered had I studied a little more.  But the professor only smiled at me politely, patiently explaining the concepts.

“U-understand now?”

I nodded.  “I think so.”

“You t-think, or you do?  Because I c-can explain it again.”

“No, I got it,” I said.  “Just need to memorize it.”

His shrewd eyes peeped at me from behind his glasses.  “You won’t n-need to memorize if you understand the concept.”

Starting to feel a little uncomfortable, I wriggled in my seat.  Usually, all I did was memorize.  If I only had photographic memory, like Khit, life would be so much easier.  “I’m sure I’ll understand it once I memorize it,” I said.

He sat back in his chair, regarding me for a moment.  “All right, i-if you need more help, just ask.”

I smiled and nodded, rising to go.  “W-wait Caren.”  As I turned my head questioningly, he cleared his throat awkwardly.  “H-how was your weekend?”

That was slightly out of character.  Dr. Bratsin usually never talked about personal things with anyone.  “Actually, it was great.  Thanks.”  I was about to ask him how his weekend was, but he interrupted.

“I-I heard you got engaged.”

“How did you—”

“Dr. I-inari is very popular among the staff,” he said quickly.

“But he’s in the literature department, and you’re in—”

“Yes, but he’s known throughout the s-school.”  A slight flush rose on his cheeks, but he looked more guilty than embarrassed.  “Anyway,” he made a low, nervous sound in his throat again, “did you like the g-grunion?”

My mouth fell open.  It was a little disconcerting that my physiology professor of all people knew the details of how my fiancé had proposed. 

“Gossip and a-all that,” he muttered, not looking at my eyes.  “It was grunion, right?  Never mind, you d-don’t have to ans—”

“Yes,” I broke in, flashing a smile.  “It was grunion.  And it was beautiful.”  I didn’t know why, but it seemed Dr. Bratsin really cared about my answer.  It was weird, but at the same time, it was oddly endearing.  Nice, awkward man.  Briefly, I wondered if he and Khit knew each other personally.  They might end up being great friends if they met.

 

My schedule for the day was fixed.  Physiology lecture at ten, followed by lab until one.  Then I would take a break to shove a sandwich and an orange in my mouth and plant myself in the library until nightfall. 

As I walked to the lecture hall, I started to get a weird feeling, like someone was watching me.  Maybe it was just paranoia from a summer filled with yaojing, but I looked around anyway.  Campus was on the quiet side, as it was still a little on the early side.  A guy with ear buds stuck in his head walked past, minding his own business.  His music was on way too loud, and I could hear the words to some angry rap song very clearly.  It made me frown, as the song was about doing something entirely disrespectful to the artist’s girlfriend. 

Two girls also walked by, cramming bagels and coffee down their throats, as they scurried off to class.  Judging by the pajamas they still wore, I could tell they were freshmen who’d just got out of bed.  How anyone could walk around in pajamas was beyond me.  I had to give them credit though.  They had to be very comfortable with themselves to do so. 

Other than that, the only person around was a girl sitting on a bench, reading.  My eyes zoomed in on the book in her hand—a visitor’s guide to San Diego.  That was strange, but the girl seemed innocent enough, not the type to spy on people. 

Feeling a little relieved, I was about to continue on my way, until I saw that same girl peer up at me from behind the visitor’s guide.  She immediately glanced down again when she realized I was staring back. 

Something told me she’d been doing this for awhile, so I continued to walk, testing what she might do.  Just as suspected, she picked herself up and followed.  I pretended not to notice and stopped again.  She slipped into another bench and continued her pretense of reading.  When this continued several times, I decided to confront her.  As late as I was for class, I couldn’t let this go, in case she was some stalker sent by the yaojing. 

Walking up to the girl, I said hello.  “I’ve noticed that you seem to be following me.”  I smiled innocently.  “Are you lost?  Maybe I can help.”

“This book says it’s a visitor’s guide, but it won’t tell me where I’m supposed to go,” she said. 

The girl spoke with a peculiar accent, one I couldn’t quite place.  It sounded like a blend of Spanish and Australian.  She had pitch black hair, the color of the ocean at night.  It was held up in a bun, decorated by a beaded comb.  The features of her heart-shaped face were soft and even—a narrow nose, thin eyebrows, and a mouth that always held an inquisitive lilt.  Her clear, blue eyes widened, and color rose to her cheeks, as though she were excited to meet me.

“Well, where do you want to go?”

She shrugged and grinned.  “Wherever the map leads me.”

Okay…I had no idea what to do with that answer.  “What I mean is, there must be a place you need to be.”  And I needed to be in class…now.

“Oh,” she said.  “I’m supposed to be in class.”

A class?  This girl had me stumped.  “Why are you looking at a map of San Diego then?  What you should look at is a map of the campus.”

She scratched her head, looking entirely confused.  “You mean there’s a different book for that?  Why would there be two books?  We’re in San Diego, so everything should be located on one map.”

“Never mind maps,” I said, starting to feel irritated.  There was no way this girl could be so dumb.  She had to be acting.  “I’ll point you in the direction of the building you need to find.”

She looked around her, brows furled in a disoriented expression.  She pointed to the building closest to us, the building I was supposed to be in for class.  “I need to find that building.”

I stared at her, dumbfounded.  “If you already knew where your building was, why did you say you were lost?  Why did you ask for my help?”

Blankly, she stared back at me.  “I didn’t ask, you offered.  And I’m not lost at the moment.  I’m lost in the future.”

Exasperated now, I turned away.  That girl was probably on drugs or something.  I heard footsteps clambering after me.

“Please don’t be upset,” she cried.  “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

I faced her, about to deliver a scathing reply, but the words died on the tip of my tongue as I saw the tears pouring down her cheeks.  She looked genuinely distressed at the realization that she had made me angry.  And there was something else there.  Fear, loneliness.  That came from the soul, and I believed it couldn’t be an act.  Maybe she’d come from some third world country and didn’t know how our world worked.

Sighing, I withdrew a pack of tissue from my backpack and handed it to her.  She looked at it as though it were some new technological gadget she had no idea how to operate.  I opened the pack and took out a tissue.  “Dry your tears,” I said, motioning to her wet cheeks.

She did so, rather awkwardly, treating the tissue as though it were silk, running it softly across her face. 

“So you aren’t angry with me anymore?” she asked hesitantly.

I shook my head and forced a smile.  “No.  But we both should be getting to wherever we need to go.”  I waved goodbye and entered the building, then walked through the doors of the lecture hall, where everyone was already either busily scribbling notes or falling asleep. 

Quietly, I took out a pen and my notebook, quickly trying to jot down the notes on the board.  Hushed footsteps came towards me, and I looked up to see the same lost girl, staring at me with eager eyes.

“Can I sit there?” she gestured to the empty seat next to mine.  I scrunched my legs back, making room for her to get through.  As soon as she was seated, she stared straightforward at the board and Dr. Bratsin, completely focused and studious, yet never taking out paper to record any notes. 

This girl continued to baffle me.  Had she been in this lecture all along?  It wasn’t possible that she had just enrolled, since school had been in session for two weeks already.  So she must have been here, and I just hadn’t seen her.  Then why had she been lost?  She should know the campus by now.  But then again, she had admitted she hadn’t really been lost, her words being she wasn’t lost at the moment, just lost in the future. 

Strange girl. 

I returned my attention to the lecture, determined not to think about that girl anymore.  For the next half hour, my mind was filled only with information on nerves and the brain.  Dr. Bratsin, however nice he was, could put an entire den of lions to sleep with his monotone lecture voice, but everything he talked about was too important to miss.  Just as my hand started to cramp from writing, class was over, and it was time to head to lab. 

As I walked up the hill, I could sense that the girl was still following me.  What did she intend to do—come with me to lab?  She definitely could not do that.  There were fewer people in my lab, and I knew for certain I had never seen her there before.  And if she tried to join the class, the TA wouldn’t let her, since it was already after the enrollment period.  Now I could find out if she was stalking me. 

Sure enough, she walked into lab right after me, sitting in the only empty chair left in the class, a table down from me.  She grinned at the other students around her, pretending she was part of the class.  I wondered what she would do when we actually started lab.  For sure, she wouldn’t be allowed to stay.  My lab partner, Holly, walked in and paused at our table when she spotted the new girl smiling at her. 

For two seconds, I thought Holly was going to ask what the girl was doing in our class.  But to my shock, Holly waved to the girl like they were old pals. 

“You know her?” I asked.

Holly gave me a strange look as though I were the weird one.  “Of course I know Roslyn.  She sits right at the next table.”

“No she doesn’t,” I protested, feeling like this was an episode of the Twilight Zone.  “I’ve never seen her before.”

But Holly just laughed.  “Oh Caren, you need to pay attention to your surroundings.”

Just then, our TA started the class. 

Good, I thought.  The TA would know that this Roslyn didn’t belong in our class, especially when she had no idea what experiment we were doing.  Holly and I put on our goggles and safety classes and proceeded to prepare our lab equipment.  Meanwhile, Roslyn just sat there.

I paused for a moment when I saw the TA head her way.  “Roslyn,” she called.  “What’s wrong?”

How the heck did the TA know her name?

“I don’t have a partner,” Roslyn said.

The TA scrunched her brow, puzzled.  “I don’t remember who your partner was.”

“Sam Jenkins.”

Walking back to her desk, our TA pulled out a roster.  “His name isn’t on the list.  That’s so weird.”

“Well, he mentioned something about dropping the class last week,” Roslyn supplied helpfully. 

“But that’s not allowed for lab,” the TA said with a sigh.  “Oh well, maybe he got special permission.”  She turned back to Roslyn.  “I guess we’ll have to form a group of three.”

“We’ll take her,” Holly offered, despite my negative hand gestures. 

But seeing Roslyn’s exultant face, kind of like a child at a toy store, I gave in.  Maybe I was wrong.  If everyone else knew her, she had to have been here all along.  Holly was right.  I had to start paying more attention to people around me. 

At the end of lab, my stomach started to rumble hungrily.  As I walked to the food court, I heard someone following me yet again.  Without turning, I knew who it was. 

“Roslyn?”

Like an eager puppy dog, she came running to my side.  I sighed, trying not to look aggravated.  Maybe she didn’t have many friends or something.  “Would you like to have lunch with me?”

Of course, she nodded.  As we walked along together, she said, “You don’t have to call me Roslyn.  My family calls me Rina.”

Rina?  “How do you get Rina from Roslyn?” I asked curiously. 

“My full name is Roslyn Katarina Calder,” she said.  “Rina’s taken from my middle name.”

We sat at a table in the quad, under the partial shade of a slender tree.  Around us, people had just finished their lunch, as the lunch hour was almost over.  Crows and seagulls were already swooping in with the hope of scoring some goodies left behind on the floor and in the trash. 

I’d bought a simple ham and cheese sandwich from the coffee shop, which I planned to accompany the shiny apple I’d brought with me from home.  Rina had gotten a fish fillet sandwich and a bottle of water, no sides, no soda.

“So Rina,” I said, attempting to make pleasant conversation.  “Do you live far from campus?”

“Yes,” she sighed, a wistful longing taking hold of her eyes.  “I’m afraid I live fathoms and fathoms away.  It would take a week to swim across the ocean to get here.”

She really was a strange girl.  “I meant, where do you live now?”

“Now, I definitely don’t live there anymore,” she replied in a tone that made me feel like I was the one not making sense.  “Imagine having to swim a week within a day to get here.  It’s impossible since that’s longer than a day.”

Oh wow.  I found myself completely speechless at that, but I tried to be patient.  “So right now, where are you staying?  At an apartment somewhere?”

She shook her head, smiling.  She gestured around her with both hands. 

“You’re living on campus?”  For a second, I wondered how she had gotten a space on campus, since the dorms were reserved for freshmen and sophomores.  She couldn’t be in her first or second year, since she was taking an upper division lab with me. 

“Oh,” I said, realizing the logical explanation.  “You must be in the apartments for international students.”

She nodded her head eagerly and finally volunteered some information on her own.  “I’m international.  My mother and grandmother live in Peru now.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“Not really.  I’m from all over the world.  My family never stays in one place.  We’ve lived in Spain, South Africa, Australia, the coast of China, and Japan.”

That certainly explained her peculiar mixed accent.  “What about you Caren?”

“I’ve only lived in two places my whole life.  My hometown, Marino, up north, and now here.”

There was a short pause, in which I tried to think of another topic of conversation.  “So what do you like to do for fun?”

She thought about this for a second.  “I like to observe people from afar.  People are very interesting creatures.”

She spoke as though she were a separate entity from the human race, which made me almost laugh because sometimes I felt that way.  I liked to observe people too.  I was just about to mention this, when she spoke again, saying something completely random that I was taken off guard.

“I wonder what cows think about when they chew on their cud.” 

Blinking, I tried to think of how to respond to that.  Rina looked up from poking at her fish sandwich and saw my dazed expression.  She smiled apologetically.  “Sorry, sometimes I say very random things.”

Only sometimes? 

“I was going to tell you that I’m pescatarian.” 

As in she only ate fish and vegetables, no other meat.  I nodded.  “And your train of thought suddenly jumped to cows?”

“Well, I was thinking of how I eat fish, and then I was going to ask you if you knew any pescatarians, but I thought about this movie I saw about why people become vegetarians, and it showed these cows, and they always seemed to be chewing, so I wondered if they think about anything.”

She grinned, laughing at herself, and as she did so, a breeze blew by, tossing our hair indelicately.  A tuft of her bun-swept black locks fell into her eyes, and she blew at it distastefully.  She removed the comb that held up the rest of her hair, and waves of it fell down her back, almost hitting the floor.  It surprised me just how much hair she had been able to keep bound just by one comb.

Then she set the comb on the table, and my eyes shifted their attention to its dazzling beauty.  Beaded pearls of all colors decorated the top, and strands of translucent crystals came cascading down the front.  The crystals shone like glistening fresh dew drops in the morning sun. 

Rina saw my admiration, as she redid her hair into a bun.  “Grandmother would kill me if I lost it,” she said.  “That’s why I have to keep it in my hair, even though it’s not very efficient at its job.”

“That expensive?” I winced.

“The teeth are made from tortoise shell,” she said, before adding quickly, “Not from live tortoises, of course.  We get an elderly tortoise’s permission before he or she passes away.  This allows their wisdom to be imparted to the owner of the comb.”  She ran her finger across the pearls before picking up the comb and adjusting it into her hair.  “Those are real pearls.  Each one represents the good qualities of a lady.  And the crystals are the tears of generations past, in remembrance of…” She trailed off, leaving me curious, and it seemed that she had forgotten where she was.

“Remembrance of what?”

“In remembrance of my purpose,” she said finally.  Something in her tone spoke of sadness.  Then she suddenly perked up.  “So if I lost it, I’d be dead.”

“They would be that angry with you?” I asked in wonder.  It boggled my mind that parents would disown their daughter over a piece of jewelry, no matter how expensive.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said.  “I don’t plan on losing it.”

Rina finished fiddling with her hair and let out a satisfied sigh.  “Well then, I think I should get going.  Don’t want to be the third wheel when your boyfriend comes.”

My boyfriend?  I never told Rina about Khit.  “Wait a second…”  But Rina was already waving goodbye, and she skipped away, humming to herself.

About five seconds later, I heard my name being called.  “There you are,” Khit said, coming to the table.  “I tried calling, but you didn’t answer, so I figured you’d be around here for lunch…” He paused at my bewildered expression.  “What’s wrong?”

“N-nothing,” I said, but in my head, I was wondering the obvious.  How in the world had Rina known that Khit was about to come?  Maybe she’d just seen him in the distance.  But that didn’t make sense because she had never met him. 

“Actually,” I said, correcting myself.  “There is something.  Have you ever met a weird girl named Roslyn Katarina Calder?  She goes by Rina.”

“Does she have black hair that she ties in a bun?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.  “You do know her then.”

“Actually I don’t.”  He shrugged.  “She was eating lunch with you just now and left right when I got here.  And you’re staring at her retreating form even now.”

I realized that I was.  Rina had reached the end of the stairway that led away from the food court and to the path towards the library.  “So who is she?” Khit asked, observing Rina’s figure as it grew smaller. 

“This is gonna sound crazy,” I told him, “But I want to know what you think.”  I proceeded to tell him about my morning with Rina and how she was in my classes even though I’d never seen her before.  “So do you think she’s a yaojing?” I ended by asking.

Khit slowly shook his head.  “It sounds like maybe she has some psychic abilities to control everyone’s minds so they believed she’d been in class all along.  But none of the seven yaojing animals have that amount of psychic talent.”  He frowned, two worried creases forming in his brow.  “But there might be one other explanation.  She could be a shi’an.”

My eyes widened as I remembered the story Khit once told me.  “You mean the enemy of the yaojing, like in the story of the shi’an girl who fell in love with a yaojing boy.”

Khit nodded gravely.  “The shi’an consider themselves to be the protectors of humans.  They make it their duty to guard humans from the yaojing.  It could be that they’ve found out about us.  To them, the marriage of a human to a yaojing is just a fragment of a centimeter better than the marriage of a shi’an to a yaojing.”

I gasped at the implications of that.  “So they want to prevent us from being together.  Rina might be a spy, scoping us out.”  I clung to Khit, suddenly feeling vulnerable.  “I don’t want to end up like that poor couple from the legend.  I don’t want to be separated from you forever.”

“I won’t let them,” Khit vowed, patting my back comfortingly.

“But she can’t be bad,” I said.  “She was weird, but she seemed nice.  And why wasn’t I fooled into believing that she’d always been in my class?  The only reason I doubted was because everyone else believed otherwise.  So why wouldn’t I have been affected by her powers?”

“I can’t explain that one,” Khit said.  “But shi’an or not, we’ll keep an eye on her.  Next time you see her, call me so I can meet her.  Then I can gauge her qi levels and determine what she is.  In the meantime, don’t go anywhere alone.”

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