by: Staci Stallings
Those ugly posters are everywhere. Heather Nolan pushed her rounded, black glasses back up the narrow bridge of her nose. She bent from her shoulders and sipped her drink for a moment. However, in a breath, her gaze traveled back up to the poster hanging over the ledge above her. Who really cared that the Jaguars were “Unstoppable” this year? In the whole general scheme of things, how important was it to be able to dribble a little ball down a court and put it through a hoop? It was just so unthinkable to her that anyone would put any effort into that endeavor at all—much less pay money for it.
With a jerk she twisted her fingers through the tangle of wavy, mouse-brown hair and flipped it from her shoulder onto her back. Money. That was the issue that she kept bumping up against. There was never enough of it, and yet the college just threw it away by the handful on sports. Where was the justice in that? It seemed like every other day they were cutting programs and scholarships for students like her who wanted the education, but when it came to sports, there was always more than enough money for whatever new program that came along. It made her sick just thinking about it.
“Heather. Hello. Earth to Heather,” Jennifer Flynn, the one person on the whole campus who bothered to talk to her on a semi-regular basis, said, waving her hand in front of Heather’s face.
Heather snapped back from the melancholy thoughts. “Oh. Hi. Sorry.” Only a moment to acknowledge Jennifer’s presence, and then she went back to her drink and the depressing thoughts.
“He’s really good looking, isn’t he?” Jennifer asked as she laid her books on a chair and pulled up another to sit on.
“Who?” Heather asked, not really caring about cute guys at the moment.
“Anthony Russell.” Jennifer hooked her thumb over her shoulder at the poster behind her. “The point guard for the Jaguars. I mean, he’s black and everything, but he’s still really—uh, easy on the eyes.”
Heather yanked the anger back to her as she went back to her drink. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah right. You were staring at that poster so hard, I thought you might burn holes through it.”
“Oh, yeah, the Unstoppable Jaguars.” Heather pushed the other side of her thick wavy fall of hair over her shoulder and scowled. “How wonderful they are. The college gods. Oh-wow. They’re so cool. I don’t know why they don’t just bronze them and put them up in every classroom to remind us all why we are really here.”
Jennifer’s light-copper eyebrows reached for the ceiling. “Whoa. A little on the edgy side today, aren’t we? What’s got you so riled up?”
“It’s just been one of those days.” Heather sighed. “Tuition is due, dorm fees are due, I’ve still got two books to buy for classes, and my bank account reads a big fat zero.”
Concern drained onto Jennifer’s face. “But I thought you had that work-study thing lined up for this semester.”
“Yeah. So did I. Until I got this this morning.” Heather held up a cream-colored envelope and then dropped it back to the table next to her. “‘Dear Ms. Nolan, We regret to inform you that the work-study program you were signed up for has been cut due to insufficient funding.’ Insufficient funding my foot. They just need more money to pay their stars up there on that poster.”
There was a long pause, and Heather knew Jenn well enough to know her brain was spiraling to find any positive thing it could to say.
“So what are you going to do?” Jennifer finally asked.
“I don’t know.” Heather shook her head and exhaled slowly. “I’ve thought about it all day, and I just…I don’t know. All the decent jobs in town have been taken, and I’m not going to go back and ask Mom and Dad for more money now. They practically gave me the third degree the last time.” She shook her head again and punched back at the tears rising in her throat. “I don’t know. It just makes no sense to me why the real students in this university get the shaft while guys like Anthony Russell, who wouldn’t know a noun if it walked up and introduced itself, get to live like kings.”
“Yeah.” Jennifer corkscrewed her mouth. “I see what you mean, but who knows, maybe things will turn around. You never know.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, please, tell that to anyone up there that might happen to be listening. ‘Cause right now without some serious cash, I’ll be enrolling in Hanson Junior College before the end of the term.”
Jennifer nodded. “I’ll be sure to put in a request for you.”
“I’d appreciate that.” With no energy Heather picked up her backpack, swiped her hair out of the way, and righted the pack onto her shoulder as she stood. “Well, I’ve got to get to English. I might as well learn all I can before they kick me out. You know?”
“Well, good luck,” Jennifer said as Heather started for the door. “And hey, chin up!”
“Yeah, chin up,” Heather replied with all of the enthusiasm of a wet noodle. “See ya later, Jenn.”
Not even the unseasonably warm weather outside could brighten Heather’s spirits as she kicked her booted feet past the flowing print skirt that hung nearly to her ankles. What was the point of even going to classes anymore? All those long hours studying, making the Dean’s list every semester and even the President’s list once just so she could go back and be a waitress in some dive back home? It wasn’t an exciting thought.
At the Language Building, she yanked the heavy door open and trudged inside. She glanced up as she entered the stairwell and once again saw the scowl of the Unstoppable Jaguars staring down at her. Fury rose in her gut until she could barely keep herself from ripping the poster down and tearing it into tiny red, white, blue, and black shreds. It wouldn’t help her situation, but it sure would feel good.
English classes had always been her favorite. The papers that everyone else groaned and moaned about seemed to her to be personal challenges from the professors, and she loved it. Now she wondered, taking her seat for Professor Mather’s Dramatic Plays class, how much longer that love affair would last. She had already had Mather for two other classes, and he seemed to like her work. In fact her perfect A record in his class seemed to not even be in question this semester—provided that she could scrounge up enough money to make it through this semester. She pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind even as she twisted the hair that hung nearly to the middle of her back into a knot at her neck and held it there with the hand that wasn’t preparing to take notes.
They were discussing “Hedda Gabler,” and when class started, for once that day Heather forgot about even the money situation. This was her arena. Here she could be the star, and it was exhilarating. The hour flew by, and before she knew it, she was stuffing books back in her backpack.
“Ms. Nolan?” Professor Mather said over the noise of the departing students.
The book in her hand stopped in mid-stuff. “Yes, sir?”
“Could I see you in my office for a moment?”
“Oh.” Heather quickly deposited the rest of her books in her backpack and swung it to her shoulder. “Sure.”
What in the world was this about? They had just taken a test, and she thought she had done well on it. Today, however, it wouldn’t surprise her to find out she had bombed it too. The questions flowed through her brain at ever-increasing speeds as she followed the short, balding professor down the hall to his tiny office. The room reminded her of her dorm room—books stacked everywhere trying desperately to seem organized in a space too cramped to organize anything.
“Ms. Nolan.” Professor Mather sat down in the cracked leather chair behind the desk and folded his hands on the stack of paper in the center of it.
“Yes, Sir?” she asked, standing awkwardly, unsure of whether to sit or stand.
Professor Mather waved her into the chair on the other side of his desk that wasn’t stacked with books. “Oh, please, have a seat.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Fighting the nerves, she sat on the edge of the chair and swung her backpack down next to her feet.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you here, so I’ll get right to the point.” Professor Mather leaned across the desk. “Would you be interested in becoming a tutor?”
“A tutor, Sir?” Heather asked, stumbling across the words.
“Yes. I have a student in my Great Works of Literature class who’s really struggling, and quite frankly I don’t think he’s going to make it without some help.”
What registered on her face, she couldn’t be sure, but her heart registered only utter confusion.
“You were my first choice,” Professor Mather continued, “but of course if you are not interested, I could always find someone else.”
“Oh, no. I’m interested. I just…umm, I wasn’t prepared for this, that’s all.”
“Good. Now before we go any further, I need to tell you this is no ordinary student, and the English department would like to keep his being tutored as low-profile as possible.”
Confidential tutoring? What was he, the King of Oahu? “I understand,” she said, sounding less than sure.
“Good.” His countenance relaxed. “Of course, we’re prepared to pay you for your services. How does $200 a week sound?”
“Two hundred dollars?” Heather asked in undisguised shock. “Are you serious?”
“That sounds…umm.” Heather tried to regain her composure. “That sounds just fine, Sir.”
“Great, so we have a deal then?”
She willed a smile to her face. “Yeah, okay. We have a deal.”
“Well, I appreciate your willingness to help out a fellow student in need,” Professor Mather said. “I’ll just give Coach Winton a call right now.”
“Coach…Winton?” Heather’s head throbbed to life as Professor Mather picked up the phone and began dialing. “Umm, Sir, you never actually told me who it is that I’ll be tutoring.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry about that. His name is Anthony Russell. He’s the…”
“…point guard for the Unstoppable Jaguars,” Heather finished in a daze as the chair back caught her shoulders.
But Professor Mather was already speaking to someone on the other end of the line. Everything started moving in slow motion as the realization hit her like a left hook—she would be tutoring him. The snarling face, her nemesis from the posters. This couldn’t be happening. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. He was the reason she was in this mess in the first place! She couldn’t help him. No, she wouldn’t help him!
“Okay,” Professor Mather said. “If Tuesday doesn’t work for her, I’ll have her give you a call. Great. See ya, Bill.” He hung up the phone. “It’s all set. Anthony will meet you in the lobby of the English Department Conference Rooms on Tuesday at four o’clock. Bill…uh…Coach Winton said if that isn’t convenient for you, you could call and set up another time. You can use the small conference room in the Department. I’ll reserve it for Tuesdays and Thursdays four ‘til six—if that’s all right with you, of course. Now, if you decide you need to schedule another time, just contact me. That will be no problem.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to do this, Ms. Nolan.” Professor Mather stood. “You’ve saved me a good amount of sleep I’m sure.”
Somehow she stood, but she couldn’t really tell how.
He led her the two paces to the door. “Oh, and here is a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. That’s what we’re reading now. If you need anything else, feel free to ask. Thank you so much.”
And she was out in the hallway wondering where her voice and sanity had gone. She had meant to tell him no when he got off the phone. She could have said that Tuesdays wouldn’t work for her, lied that she had a class or something, but she just sat there like an idiot. Now what was she supposed to do?
Standing on the other side and looking at the bleach-tan door, she weighed her options. She could always knock on that door right now and tell him no. Yes, that’s what she should do. She forced her hand up to knock, but something stopped her.
Two hundred dollars a week. Her chest constricted around the amount. Two hundred dollars! This was the answer she had been hoping for, praying for—right here, so close she could almost touch it, and she was going to turn it down? For what? Because basketball was stupid? Because she should be the one getting special treatment not Anthony Russell, poster guy for the academically challenged?
No, she decided, letting her hand fall back to the soft material at her thigh, this was her chance to make it—her chance to control her own destiny. And Anthony Russell or no Anthony Russell, she wasn’t going to let it slip through her fingers. Besides, she reasoned as she straightened her shoulders, she didn’t really have to try all that hard to help him.
Four hours a week. She looked down at the well-worn novel in her hand. Resolutely she turned to leave the office. It’s only four hours a week. I can do this. Besides it’s for the best cause there is—me!
“Look out Unstoppable Jaguars,” she said to the empty hallway, “here comes Heather Nolan.”
Love the first chapter?