Reed listened to his professor lecture about behaviors and drug effects. He enjoyed most aspects of his psychology degree, but the biology of the brain was less interesting. It didn’t help matters that his thoughts were dominated by Kate, and the direction of their relationship.
He scribbled notes and then returned to the stupor shared by the other students in the class. Dr. Caldin spoke in a near monotone, a voice soft and dry, an invitation to fall asleep in the amphitheater classroom. Some had already succumbed. With the lights off, the glow of the projector could not compete with the pull of slumber. One student had been so audacious as to bring a pillow.
“Reed,” a girl hissed from nearby.
He surreptitiously looked her way, but his caution was unnecessary. Dr. Caldin was staring rapturously at his slide, expounding the infinite complexities of the brain like they were the flavors of a savory meal.
“What do you need?” he asked, vaguely recalling the girl’s name was Anna.
“Are you already taking someone out on Friday?”
He shook his head. “Why?” he whispered back.
“My roommate hasn’t been out in months,” she said. “I heard what you do and thought you’d like to take her out.”
It was a request he’d heard a hundred times, sometimes by a girl wanting the invite for themselves. His response was now habitual, to inform them that he liked to meet and ask the girl out for himself, and a reminder of his rules. But as he opened his mouth the words lodged in his throat.
Since starting the dating challenge with Kate, his desire to date other girls had waned. Even though he avoided physical contact and intimacy, it still felt like a betrayal. But how could it feel like that if he was not dating Kate exclusively?
Anna was still waiting for the answer, but Dr. Caldin turned and surveyed the room, giving Reed a chance to further ponder his response. But all too soon the professor turned back to his slides and Anna glanced his way.
“I wish I could,” he said, smiling in a self-deprecating manner, “but finals are next week and I’m grossly underprepared.”
The girl nodded in understanding, but her eyes betrayed a flicker of disappointment. Guilt welled within him and he almost reached out to her. But although he sent the order to his arm, the limb did not respond.
Yet again, he considered if he was even capable of ending things with Kate. After their canceled date a week ago, when Kate had gone out with Jason, he’d sensed a shift in the tone of their conversations. They now texted and called almost daily, and he looked forward to such opportunities like a starving man did a piece of bacon.
Did he want to date her exclusively? Was he ready to abandon his other dates and devote his time to Kate? His heart warmed at the prospect, thumping in his chest and bringing a smile to his face. Jason was out of the picture, taking with him the lingering anchor he’d left in Kate’s heart.
But even as Reed’s heart warmed, a pit formed in his stomach. He’d made a promise to Aura and it remained unfulfilled. To date Kate as he wanted would mean abandoning his promise. The questions once again returned him to the impasse.
“Mr. Hansen?” a voice called his name.
He blinked and his vision focused on Dr. Caldin, who was staring at him, waiting expectantly. Several of the students were staring at Reed with amused expressions, revealing the professor had called on him more than once.
“Sorry, Dr. Caldin,” he said, irritated that the kid on a pillow had not been called on. “My cerebral chemicals must have stopped.”
The old man cracked a rare smile. “It happens to all of us,” he said, and then called on another student.
The girl answered correctly, and the brief excitement diminished back to the previous stupor. Reed frowned, annoyed that he’d let his conflict impede his studies. He was usually very attentive in class, so the lapse came as a surprise to him and his friends, who cast him quizzical looks.
The clock ticked on the hour and Dr. Caldin dismissed the class. “Mr. Hansen?” he called amid the rush of papers and conversation. “May I speak to you for a moment?”
Reed stuffed his notebook into his laptop case and then shouldered the bag. Threading his way against the flow of escaping students, he reached the base of the classroom as Dr. Caldin turned off the projector.
“You seem distracted,” Dr. Caldin said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “just thinking about my thesis.”
“Still planning on graduating in December?”
Reed nodded. “Just summer classes and then I’ll finish my thesis in the fall.”
Dr. Caldin peered over his glasses. “Are you certain there is nothing else? Your clever response in class aside, I suspect your thoughts are not on your coursework.”
Reed cracked a smile at the observation. “It might have to do with a girl.”
“It always does,” he replied. “And if it’s intruding on your coursework, I suspect this particular girl is remarkable.”
“She is,” he said.
“Then don’t let her go,” Dr. Caldin said with a definitive nod. “Regret is the most abhorrent emotion.”
“Is that going to be on the exam?” Reed asked.
Dr. Caldin regarded him with a knowing smile. “Not my exam, but grades in life matter more than in my class.”
“Can I quote you?”
“I’ll deny it,” he replied, picking up his own laptop. “I’ll see you next week, Mr. Hansen.”
Reed watched him go with a faint smile. Most considered Dr. Caldin the quintessentially boring professor—which he was, in class—but Reed had gotten to know him during a semester as his teacher’s assistant. The man harbored a dry sense of humor and wit that rarely manifested in front of a class. Privately, Reed suspected the man enjoyed putting his class to sleep and then calling on drowsy students, a game that provided amusement in the perpetually repetitive professor life.
Now alone, Reed ascended the classroom steps and stepped outside, blinking at the brilliance. The doors opened onto a large grassy area between buildings, the towering trees casting shade on the green expanse. Pockets of students sat beneath the trees, seeking to escape the afternoon heat as they prepared for upcoming finals. Groups were common, but a small crowd stood on the lawn outside the psychology building.
The group of forty turned to face him, swiveling as Reed appeared. All wore masks and carried water guns, the odd combination drawing attention from the scattered students. They drifted closer to the brewing conflict, pointing and smiling as they held up their phones to record. Reed spotted Dr. Caldin standing a short distance away, a slight smile on his face, as if he’d intentionally held him after class.
“Dr. Caldin?” he called. “I assume she got to you?”
“I admit nothing,” he replied. “But you might want to leave your laptop behind.”
Taking his advice, Reed removed his bag. By then the army of water gun toting students had arrayed themselves into a gauntlet, with another masked figure at the end. Most of the masks were from Halloween, with a pair of wolfmen, a few zombies, and even a Darth Vader. The one waiting at the end wore a horned masquerade mask, but he recognized Kate’s figure. She smiled and pulled a massive, four-foot envelope into view.
Fashioned from cardboard and painted to look like a letter, the envelope was clearly addressed to him. The implication was clear, that he had to run the gauntlet of water guns to get the message.
He grinned and removed his phone, tucking it into his laptop case to protect it. The act drew a round of laughter from those surveying the exchange and he noticed more with their phones out, clearly wanting to video the watery carnage.
“I suppose I have to run the gauntlet to get the invite?” he called.
The one in the masquerade mask smiled and nodded, and those with guns began pumping the handles, pressurizing their weapons. Reed began to laugh and readied himself for a sprint. Then he surged forward and forty masked attackers pulled the trigger, engulfing him in water.