Eloise Stine dropped the crinkled paper to her desk, a bright red letter ‘D’ across the top. Fingernails chewed raw ground tight into her palm. Heat pulsed up her neck, across her cheeks, as she glanced at the professor who insisted on giving his lesson, even though her world had just come to a stand still.
How would she explain this to her mom?
It had been difficult enough to convince the divorced woman of five to allow her to live off campus for her sophomore year. But to bring home a grade like this? There was zero chance her mother would help pay her bills now, not when it was obvious said daughter wasn’t concerned with education.
Another round of bile crept up her throat and she shifted in her seat. If only her mom knew… that she did try to study, she did want to do well in class. But things had been confusing with Drew over the past few days.
Drew. The perfect boy with the perfect jaw and hopelessly perfect romantic side. The guy every girl wanted, but a girl like Eloise would never get. But he’d chosen her. Her chest ballooned like it might explode, a sick nob of something stuck in the back of her throat.
Except that he didn’t choose her anymore. Four months of dating thrown down the drain. What had she done wrong? Why didn’t he want her anymore?
The remainder of the lesson was gone. Eloise couldn’t recall even one thing the man with the nasal voice and dress coat one-size-too-big, had said. What did it matter? She was going to fail anyway.
Students chattered and laughed as she packed her books on top of one another, slipped them inside her tattered backpack. No one bothered to say ‘boo’ to her, her walk to the bus stop the same as every other day. The sun, unusually bright overhead, fried the back of her neck while she waited, her favorite t-shirt now properly soaked.
Home. She needed to get home. Well, back to her apartment, at least. Home was a good two-hour drive, and without a car, she was definitely at the mercy of her mother. And her mother’s schedule.
“Second Ave!” the driver yelled over his shoulder.
Eloise blew out a heavy breath but stood quickly, her belly a notch less sick than it had been a minute before. She stumbled down the stairs, a prayer whispered under her breath that the hot guy in the front seat hadn’t seen. Really?
Her apartment building smelled the way it always did when she first yanked the door open: like sardines and old socks, and something else that might have once been alive but now slept forever under the stairs. She held the air in her lungs until she made it to the top. Another trip on the last step, her right foot quick to catch her fall, one more jump to her heart that wasn’t needed on a day like today.
She fished the key from her pocket, had it wedged in the lock and ready to pop when the door next to her fell open. Miss Emily. Fantastic.
Her elderly neighbor was kind. But the woman’s optimism could give a person a headache, if they hung around long enough.
“Good afternoon, Eloise. Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Erm, sure. Yeah. Great.” Eloise actually made an attempt to make her voice cheery, or at least somewhat presentable. Fail.
The door pushed open and she raced inside to hide. Her body found the sofa. Thank God. Three minutes passed and she didn’t budge an inch. Could she stay in this position forever with no one to notice? Maybe. But her stomach told her she would notice.
Her pack clunked from her shoulders as she wrestled her way up, the promise of something chocolate and sweet hidden in one of the cabinets. Or not. As soon as she pulled the cabinets open, she saw that her stash of goodness was gone, shared with an ex-boyfriend who hadn’t bothered to return a call in days. It had been on her list of things to get at the store, but she’d chosen to stay up late and study for the test she’d bombed. Right.
A sigh and a heave and she was back on the sofa. Ok, maybe she could stay in that spot forever. Until she stopped paying her rent and the landlord showed up to evict her. Ugh. She sunk deeper into the cushions, a pillow now over her face.
Time passed. Ten minutes? Twenty? Or maybe it was just one minute and her universe had collapsed to the point that she now lived within a Dr. Who episode and a Tardis would appear in her living room at any moment.
Eloise cracked one eye open, a hopeful glance up to see if she was right. Becoming The Doctor’s partner wouldn’t be such a bad thing, actually…
She jumped as her cell chirped inside her pocket. The screen read ‘Mom’, a few lines of text scrolled across the top of her phone.
Good news! Aiden got his first choice for college. Bad news – you’ll need to get a second job to help cover the cost of your apartment. Sorry hon. Things are tight. We need every penny. Call me once you’re done class!
This followed by a handful of hearty-eye and kissy emojis. She tossed the phone across the room and scrubbed her hands through her hair. That’s it! She needed out of this dimension. Like, now.
Eloise stomped across the room, yanked the front door open, lifted a foot to step away from her life and –
Wait. A plate of cookies? How had she missed this?
She closed the door softly, then settled in at the kitchen counter, the plastic wrap already ripped open, satisfying goo of the fresh baked cookie on her tongue.
Eyes closed, the room disappeared. Test grades and ex-boyfriends and new jobs on the horizon, all drifted away. Melted. Like all those little chocolate chips that waited to be eaten.
And then a click next door. Miss Emily!
One more time, she was at her door. But now it was in anticipation, not defeat.
“Oh, hey, Miss Emily,” Eloise said. “Sorry about my bad mood earlier. Didn’t mean to take it out on you.” A shift; a pause. “Thanks for the cookies, too. I really appreciated it.”
Miss Emily smiled. “It was my pleasure, dear heart. Say, would you like some afternoon tea? I’ve got the time, if you’d like to talk.”
The girl’s cheeks pinked. “I’d like that.”
© Laura L. Zimmerman 2016