Provided for your enjoyment and interest is a full chapter of Mya. Chapter 3, in fact. which contains some character beats and just tweaks the bigger themes.
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“It’s not there? What do you mean it’s not there?” Cassie said, making no attempt to conceal her irritation. Sitting in the chair next to her, Colin noticed her knuckles were white as she gripped her armrests.
Cassie and Colin met in high school when he still played football. She was smart, strong, and spirited. She was very responsible—and at first, she inspired responsible decisions from Colin. Even if the two weren’t demonstratively romantic once several years had passed, they nonetheless enjoyed a reasonable measure of contentment. It was the sort of comfort that could have stretched like elastic over a lifetime.
There were problems, however, even before they reached college. If Colin couldn’t blame fate, he could only blame himself. When he hurt himself, many of their mutual plans and dreams were driven into their 6’ x 6’ x 6’ plots in the ground. Colin became self-destructive, unable to swim or to navigate when his water and his air were so obscured. Cassie tried—she really did. There was simply no buoyancy in Colin anymore, and in that ocean, they had started to drift apart. Colin sometimes wanted her to get angry—to yell at him, to throw things at him—so that if he decided to throw the anchor, it would feel less like he had been the one to push.
“It’s not here, miss,” the student loan officer replied. “I don’t know what else to tell you from here. You’re going to have to call the number on the form.” The loan officer was a balding, mustachioed man, and sweat was starting to drip down his puffy face despite the heavy air conditioning. He was extremely fat. Colin could see the man’s stomach wrapping over the edge of the desk. Regrettably, the man glanced at Colin just as he was staring. The fat man pushed his chair back roughly and continued, the anger growing in his voice: “my guess is he didn’t fill out both forms. Otherwise, I’d have it here. So, call the—”
Although the conversation was about him, Colin began to zone out. He felt like he did when he was a kid before his dad left. He would be in his room, playing video games, trying not to listen while he waited out an argument between his parents. This practice allowed him to successfully jettison the present squabble into the background.
Colin scanned the office. The Student’s Union Building was old and dingy, full of muted greens and greys. It looked like a police station set from a movie based in the 70s. This impression was reinforced by rotary phones that actually ‘rang’, and the constant up-and-down hum of personal conversations carried in and out of earshot. Colin scanned the faces in the room, then focused on the various flyers that wallpapered the wall in ugly tones of fluorescent purple and green. There were also the standard office inspirational posters touting teamwork, motivation, and success—none of which were actually apparent in the room.
Colin continued to scan the grim, grey faces in the room. Then he saw Mya and his eyes stopped. The black hole colour of her clothes and the white of her alabaster skin was a vivid contrast. Colin wondered how he had missed her before. She was on the other side of the office, waiting in a lineup of some sort, vacantly slapping a rolled-up paper against the leg of her skirt. Her black hair had a shining halo under the office’s garish white light, and she was absently fingering the ends with her other hand. Colin continued to stare at her absently. She was certainly the only interesting part of the room. She seemed entirely oblivious to Colin—and the rest of the room for that matter.
Suddenly she looked directly at him. She had a small crooked smile on her lips. She hadn’t been skimming the faces in the office; she simply looked right at him. She must have seen him and Cassie enter, Colin surmised—or more likely, the commotion Cassie was nursing had attracted Mya’s attention, along with everyone else’s in the room. Still looking at Mya, Colin felt his face flush. He wondered if he should look away, though he didn’t want to.
Through the overwhelming swell of tired and angry people, Mya looked like an oasis of calm. Or maybe it was just indifference—either would be refreshing seeing as Cassie was vibrating with frustration and tension. Considering the barely-restrained resentment Mya had seemed to show him in class, Colin was surprised and charmed by her small smile. It wasn’t sincere, perhaps, and he suspected she was deriding his situation with Cassie. Nevertheless, Mya’s composure was somehow comforting in the office’s chaos. They looked at each other for what seemed like a long time. Finally, Colin up-nodded to her. She smiled but turned away.
* * * * * *
Mya would certainly have been pleased to know how calm she looked. She felt nothing but utter loathing every time she was forced into that office. She was waiting to talk to a very specific type of advisor. Before she had chosen a college in which to enroll, she learned about an obscure program that assisted certain students with subsidized housing, books, and a few other student essentials. There were some specific hoops to jump through though. To remain eligible, she needed a note from her psychiatrist, and had to participate in group therapy once a week for the entire year. Her psychiatrist, a close friend of hers from back home, confirmed in writing that Mya was a multi-phobic sexual addict with a horrific history of physical and sexual abuse. This was their ruse, and the only reason Mya had picked that specific learning institution.
Although the group with which she waited outside the advisor’s office were presumably documented and damaged individuals, everyone in the building that day seemed sad and lonely to Mya. The Students Union Building was where students came to beg for money, essentially, which all students do unless they had a trust fund or a work ethic so intense Mya would see it as an undesirable idiosyncrasy.
As Colin had suspected, it was Cassie and her ostentatious crusade that caught Mya’s attention. The blonde girl seemed like a cheerleader stereotype, which made Mya’s lip curl. She was arguing with what may have been her polar opposite—the fat, balding, dead-behind-the-eyes loan officer. From Mya’s perspective, Cassie was too well-dressed and too proper to fit with the rest of the office, and her harangue was loud and overly abusive, no matter what the issue was.
When Mya’s eyes met Colin’s, it took her a moment to realize he was the oaf from her building and her Art History class. When she did, she couldn’t help but smile. He was hunched down in his chair, obviously embarrassed by what was occurring with his girlfriend. So, this is his story, she thought as they stared at each other. She didn’t realize she had been twisting her hair around he fingers the whole time. It was a nervous affectation she’d had since childhood. It served her well in the therapy sessions. And with men.
It did make her a bit anxious that Colin kept looking back at her. At first, she wondered if he knew about the groups that took place in that office. His little “bro” up-nod made it unlikely he knew anything at all. Mya breathed a sigh of relief. She turned away and smiled.
* * * * * *
“How can you be so incompetent,” Cassie’s shrill accusation echoed throughout the office. It also pierced the quixotic cloud Colin was enjoying when he saw Mya. “This is his education, his life! How is he supposed to live?” Colin realized he hadn’t missed much, but he could tell that a coup d’état was coming. “Or should he just give up, and get a job like yours?” Cassie was a small girl, almost a foot shorter than Colin. Her height had plateaued in Grade 10, while Colin continued to grow. She was pretty, though, with long, wavy blonde hair. She was dainty and slender, always well-dressed and made up—she even did some modest catalogue modeling back home. And she was just the sort of person who could make a man like the obese loan officer feel terrible.
Colin looked away again. He wished he didn’t feel like an accomplice to Cassie’s barrage toward the fat, balding man. Instead, he looked back to Mya, though she gave him no more return looks. Eventually, her line started moving and she disappeared behind the frosted windows of an office adjoining the main area.
“Just call the goddamn number! Get out. Next!” The big man bellowed at Cassie, which brought Colin’s attention back once more to the conversation. Under the full scrutiny of everyone in the office, Cassie stood up slowly, scowled at the man, then stepped away without acknowledging him further. Colin followed after her, murmuring a quiet thank you he knew wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be accepted. The man was so angry, his face was red and he was sweating profusely. Colin felt bad for him. The man hadn’t lost Colin’s form, nor was he incompetent. To be honest, Colin couldn’t specifically remember filling out two separate forms, so it seemed possible it was Colin’s own fault. Sometimes Cassie was sweet and compassionate with people, but she had trouble separating an individual from the system in which they were only a cog. The fat man wasn’t a person to her, he was the face of the department that was interfering with her boyfriend.
“What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you stick up for yourself?” Cassie said as soon as Colin found her in the stairwell. After her haughty and deliberate leave-taking, she had exited at a brisk walk.
“I have to call that number, that 1-800 number.”
“Oh come on.” She took several steps down the stairs. “He was completely unhelpful.”
“Cassie,” Colin responded as he followed. “Unless he could conjure the completed form out of thin air, it seemed to me like he did pretty much what he could.”
“But you didn’t say anything. You didn’t even ask any questions. Don’t you care about the sort of position this puts you in?”
“You know, you were so much more assertive with Michael around.” Cassie shook her head, then added under her breath, “He should have been the one here with you.”
“I know he tried.”
“Right. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised he’s not here. He was always such a screw up,” she paused, ignoring Colin’s scowl. “So what was he planning on doing then?”
“I don’t know.” Colin said quietly. “He was working. And trying out for reality shows.” Cassie was ignoring his response, and they spent the next several flights of stairs in silence except for the swishing of Cassie’s long blue jacket.
“Okay. Okay. It’s okay. Here’s what we’ll do,” Cassie paused before the exit at the bottom of the stairwell. “There’s places we can find you work. And my parents can lend me some money to pay your rent. School is taken care of, that’s the important part.”
“Well, okay then.” Colin was not going to be borrowing money from her parents, but all he wanted at that moment was for Cassie to cool down. “So, why were you yelling at that man then?”
“Colin, you can’t just let the system take advantage of you and push you around like that. Why didn’t you speak up for yourself?”
“’Cause it seemed pretty clear I have to call that number.”
“For Christ’s sake, Colin, I—” they stepped outside the stairwell doors and Cassie’s sentence was choked by a dainty cough. “My god, is that smoke?” Colin detected something a little off, as well. It was slightly cool, and nearly dark already by the time they exited the building. The heavy fog from that morning still hung in the air. It looked like a snowy winter evening, a grey pall through which everything appeared like a ghost of itself. The pathway lamps hung unfettered in the air, and quickly disappeared into the distance. It felt vaguely foreboding.
“I don’t smell anything,” Colin said. As they walked down the sidewalk away from the building, they spent the next few minutes in a tense silence.
“How are your classes anyway?” Cassie finally asked.
“Fine, fine. We haven’t actually started anything yet. Except in Art History. Dr. Grey got going almost as soon as he hit the stage.”
“I was being sarcastic, Colin,” she rolled her eyes. “Can you try again to explain to me your ludicrous course choices? Psychology? Philosophy? Art History, for god’s sakes?”
“That’s what they call General Studies, Cassie. I have the chance to see what I want to focus on.”
“I know that, but why not some practical choices, too? Like business? Economics?” Cassie threw her hands up. “Are you going to be an Art Historian?” Colin didn’t answer.
He thought back. Didn’t Cassie used to be sweet and compassionate and open-minded? Back then, Colin was still playing football. Although it was a small high school, Colin would have had scholarships lined up. Colin had agreed that Cassie should join him at one of the colleges that offered him a full ride. The injury dashed those hopes—no more paid-for apartment, free registration and course selection, not to mention tuition. All of it disappeared with the scholarships. The resulting stress on their relationship revealed the fractures.
“Seriously, Colin. It’s like you didn’t even put any thought into it when you filled out the forms—if you filled out your forms, huh?” She shook her head. “Philosophy, Art History. . .” she continued muttering under her breath.
“What are you implying?” Colin responded, her sarcastic tone starting to bite.
“I’m not implying anything. I was quite clear.”
“Fine. How about your classes?” Colin looked at her. She was holding the corner of her jacket up over her nose. “What the hell are you doing? There’s no smoke, Cassie.”
“Don’t change the topic—I just want to know your plan?”
“The plan. . . I don’t know what the plan is. Does there have to be one yet? It’s General Studies.”
“Colin…” Cassie started to say, which turned into a cough. “Good lord, what’s happening to everything. Could this really be from that little fire?”
“I don’t know, I told you I don’t really smell anything.”
When they reached the restaurant, Cassie ran the last few steps to the door. The restaurant had fancy décor and a French name Colin couldn’t pronounce. They were met inside the door by the hostess, a young brunette Colin recognized from one of his classes. Though he couldn’t remember which class, he accurately remembered her name was Lena. She, too, showed a glimmer of recognition, and a wide, friendly smile when she saw him. He suspected, and was almost glad, that this would irritate Cassie.
“Good evening! Colin, right? I’m Lena. I think you’re in my Philosophy class.” That was the one.
“I am.” Colin eagerly shook the hand that was offered, which was soft and warm. “Nice to officially meet you.” For a moment, they smiled at each other and Colin nodded awkwardly. Lena’s uniform was very tight and low cut. “Oh! This is Cassie.”
“Nice to meet you, Cassie.” Lena extended her hand. Cassie just looked at her hand then back up to her face.
“We have a reservation, please.” Cassie said simply.
“Of course, follow me.” Lena responded, her wide smile returned to Colin. He was impressed at how unaffected she was by Cassie’s obvious unfriendliness.
“’Oh, this is Cassie?’” Cassie mimicked quietly and irritably to Colin as they followed at a distance behind Lena. “Wear some more make-up, Lena.” Cassie continued acerbically.
“Shh. C’mon, she’ll hear you.” Once they were seated and the waiter had filled their water glasses, Colin opened the menu. He scanned it up and down, then immediately put it back on the table and stood up.
“Time to leave.”
“Wait! No, Colin, stay!” Cassie grabbed his arm as he passed, but he remained standing.
“Even after what we just went through, we come here? You know I can’t afford this place.”
“No, you’re not. We’re leaving.”
“Colin…” Her blue eyes were wide and sad, and her voice was a whisper. “Please sit.” Colin hesitated, understanding she was being manipulative, but he eventually sat back down. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he felt guilty, or maybe he was just hungry.
“You know I want to help,” Cassie said softly. “Why do you make it difficult for me? Remember last year when my parents cut me off? You paid for everything for, like, a month. Why was that okay? We’ll have years of—” She was interrupted as the waiter arrived at the side of the table and introduced himself and the specials. Cassie shut down, the tenderness from a moment ago disappeared from her eyes like a light-switch. Was it ever there at all?
“Gin and tonic, please—double, tall.” Colin ordered.
“Seriously?” Cassie said angrily and loudly, despite the presence of the waiter. “In front of me like this, that’s what you’re going to order after everything we went through last winter?” The waiter backed away, stammering that he would return in a bit.
“Yup.” Colin replied, watching the waiter to see if he would place his order at the bar.
“Why would you do this to me? What are you even doing here with me? Maybe you should be with Michael. You seem so. . . like it’s someone completely different in your skin. You used to be so driven, remember? I watched you work hard every single day. Why can’t you put that into anything else? Will you only ever care about football?”
“I’m trying to care about a lot of different things, but you keep making fun of it.” Colin responded. “And I couldn’t care less about football.” He really didn’t. But she was right. Colin was once full of determination when there was a prize was dangling in front of him: but what was the prize? Money? Fame? Now he could barely remember what the prize was supposed to be. “I’m not even sure I’d play if I could, if I’m being honest.” Colin continued. “I don’t know what I want. At the moment, I don’t think I want anything.” Colin’s drink arrived and Cassie’s face hardened. “I never really did anything other than football. Now when I think about it, even that seems like an illusion. Like, I don’t know why I worked so hard for that. How long would that have lasted, even if I hadn’t hurt myself? Was I really going to be able to go pro? It had an expiry date, maybe a short one.” He paused. “I guess everything does.” Colin was fingering his glass while he spoke. Finally, he picked it up and took a long drink, taking a moment to savour it and track the warmth down his throat and into his stomach. “I don’t know. When I really think about it, it all just sort of unravels.” Colin drank again, this time until he finished the drink. There was a long delay from Cassie, and her mouth opened and shut several times while she fumbled for a response.
“I’m not sure what to say.” Cassie said quietly. “I mean, what does that even mean? Let me help you. Maybe we could. . .” The waiter returned.
“I don’t need your help.”
“You guys ready to order?” Colin and the waiter spoke simultaneously.
“’Nother one of these, please.” Colin shook the empty glass at him. Cassie immediately got up. As she did, she threw her napkin at Colin. She was nearly to the door when she stopped. She turned back, shaking her head as she dipped into her purse. She dropped a few bills on the table, then exited the restaurant. Colin and the waiter shared an uncomfortable look before Colin spoke again.
“That enough for another?” he asked, motioning toward the money Cassie left.
Two hazy hours elapsed after Cassie left and Colin moved to the restaurant’s bar. When he finally decided to walk back to his apartment, it had something of a stumble to it. Cassie had left more money behind than she likely intended. Colin vaguely tried to put the argument in context, and as usual, he started to think up his apology. Then he thought of Lena. What was the context of her smile? With a quick stream-of-consciousness, a revenge fantasy started to form where he seduced Lena. However, it fizzled like a match that wouldn’t strike, his thoughts still bouncing around, overlapping. Then he found himself thinking of Mya and her quick smile in the Students Union Building. It was sweet and unpredictable.
Nearly to his building, Colin turned a corner and stopped underneath a streetlamp, his dopey smile disappearing under the yellow cone of light that shone around him like a dim spotlight. The column of smoke in the distance had grown, at least twice as wide as it was the night before. Less like the tail of a great beast and more like the trunk of an enormous black tree, its branches disappearing into the cloud above—like its leaves—which Colin noted was also blacker and wider than before. His gaze blurry but unwavering, he staggered over his own feet until he found himself leaning against the lamppost.
Colin definitely smelled smoke.