The hallway in which Callie sat, her bag propped at her feet, was entirely familiar. She couldn’t count the number of times she had walked (or sometimes stomped, depending on the day/class) over this aging linoleum. It had been a couple of years since she’d been in this building, but the decor was, sadly, unchanged and in dire need of a facelift. Callie slumped lower in the back-numbing wooden chair and gazed surreptitiously at her competition lining the walls in similar chairs. She was trying to appear uninterested, but she quickly realized her lazy posture showed something else—something she shouldn’t be portraying at this critical moment. Sighing, she directed her stare back to the spot in front of her own two feet and sat up straighter.
She mulled over the other people she’d observed before she’d forced herself to sit up and look away. Three young women, two definitely younger than she was, and two young men—both of whom looked to be in their early twenties. Callie bit the inside of her lip. She wasn’t expecting this many contenders, so to speak, and her stomach twisted in anxiety. This was only the screening interview, she reminded herself, so not all six of the candidates would move forward toward her coveted spot. Math was definitely not her strong suit, and despite what Courtney had told her, Callie was starting to feel the stress of her odds for moving past the screening.
Before Callie had time to obsess too much, a harried-looking young woman flew out of the conference room, a clipboard smashed against her chest. She paused to clear her throat dramatically, then cast a stoic smile at the candidates in the hallway.
“Hello, everyone. I apologize for the delay…there was a…miscommunication.” The woman paused again. Callie glanced at the young woman sitting across from her, who wrinkled her nose in confusion at Callie. Callie bit back a smile. At least she wasn’t the only candidate who seemed utterly perplexed by this person she’d never seen before—and here Callie thought she knew the entire English Department at Pennbrook University.
“We are now ready to begin,” the woman continued, glancing at her clipboard. “We’ll start with Callie Looze.”
Callie scoffed under her breath, hoping the woman was too flustered to catch her. “It’s Lew-es.”
Callie gestured to the clipboard, then back to herself as she stood and lifted her messenger bag over her shoulder. “I’m Callie. Callie Lewes. Like Lewis with an i, just with an e instead.”
The look the woman gave Callie in response to her brief lesson in pronunciation wasn’t quite at the stage of withering but close to it. Callie smiled in return and motioned toward the closed door in front of them. “Shall we?”
“We shall,” came the clipped response. She banged the door open, leaving Callie to follow her while dodging the door on its return swing.
* * *
As soon as Callie entered the conference room, her little twist of anxiety from the hallway edged out. She was confident: she knew she had a certain charm that won people over whether or not she was actually trying to win them over. Beyond that, she was obsessed with reading, writing, literature, theory, analysis…she’d been studying—correction: She had studied—literature for six straight years during her undergraduate and graduate terms before leaving it behind to enter the corporate world because she didn’t know what else to do. Because of the lapse, she might be a little rusty, but all things English were her passion, so she figured she couldn’t really be too out of shape, linguistically speaking.
You got this, she reminded herself, catching Dr. Courtney Wincheck-Rodriguez’s eye with a small nod as she sat down in the chair she was directed to.
“Our first candidate is Callie LOOZE,” began the hallway woman, and Callie tensed immediately. Was she serious? What kind of game was this? “Callie has—”
“I apologize for interrupting,” Callie said calmly. While she was tempted to throw her own withering glare at this obnoxious human specimen, she resisted the temptation and aimed for professionalism instead. With a kind smile, she explained again the pronunciation of her last name, throwing in an anecdote about how Lewes is actually the simpler version of her historically Welsh last name. The room was quiet for a moment, no one certain as to who should speak next. Behind her, she had no doubt, Hallway Girl was glowering.
Finally, someone on the panel spoke. “Audrey, aren’t you originally from Delaware?”
Grateful the focus had been taken off her for a moment and hoping her gentle correction didn’t turn around and bite her in the ass, Callie looked more closely at the four professors seated in front of her.
Courtney was on the end, her long legs stretched out under the table, carefully manicured hands folded casually in front of her, and an amused smile resting on her lips. Per usual, her brown hair was pulled back in a tight, no-nonsense bun.
Next to her was Dr. Darkler, one of Callie’s least favorite professors from her graduate experience. It wasn’t that she didn’t like him, it was just that he wasn’t exactly progressive in his studies or his teachings. She hadn’t been able to fully jibe with his love for the classics during the course she’d taken with him years ago.
Dr. Renee Lawler was leaning forward, her chin resting on her fist as she took in the scene unfolding before her. Callie had always sensed Dr. Lawler liked her, especially during her undergrad years, but they didn’t know each other well and now, despite being a little older and more than a little wiser, she still found the chair of the department fairly intimidating. She could rock a power suit and disarmingly high heels like nobody’s business and today was no exception. Her tanned skin shone against the bold turquoise fabric of her silky shirt and Callie was certain that a matching pair of heels was hidden under the table.
Finally, her eyes drifted to the last person sitting there, the one professor she didn’t know. Coincidentally, she was also the person who had asked Audrey about Delaware. Callie searched her memory for any recollection of her, but she came up empty. She studied her, hoping for something to click. Below a slightly wavy crop of dark brown hair, unblinking hazel eyes were fixed on a spot just behind Callie, which she knew must be Audrey. Her skin was a touch darker than pale, and she was dressed modestly in cropped black pants, a white top, and a nicely fitting black blazer. A pair of thin black wire-rimmed glasses sat next to her open laptop.
As Callie struggled to put her finger on something, anything, about this woman, she heard Hallway Girl—Audrey, apparently—stutter behind her. “Well, y-yes. Yes, I’m from Delaware, Dr. Jory. I don’t quite know why—”
“Audrey, I’m fairly certain you have a picture on your desk that you pointed out to me and Dr. Wincheck-Rodriguez just last week, and that picture was taken on Rehoboth Beach, wasn’t it?”
Callie knew from the moment the woman said Delaware exactly where this slow burn was going, and now she struggled not to laugh out loud. She avoided looking over at Courtney, knowing that she’d lose it if she did. Instead, she turned her eyes over toward Dr. Jory, happy to have a name for the stranger.
“Yes! My college friends and I love Rehoboth!”
“Right, and didn’t you mention a boutique that you go to in the nearby town?”
Audrey nodded, her pale blond curls bouncing in tempo. “Shelly’s. Yes, it’s right in downtown Lewes.”
One of the professors exhaled loudly. Callie was tempted to follow suit. A flicker of shocked irritation flitted across Dr. Jory’s face before she settled back into an impassive stare. Callie wasn’t sure if it was hot or intimidating. When Dr. Jory looked directly into her eyes, however, she felt her own slow burn well up from somewhere deep inside of her, finishing on her flushed cheeks. After she held Callie’s stare for what seemed like five minutes but was probably more like two seconds, Callie saw a roguish smile play on Dr. Jory’s mouth. Through her maddening blush, Callie returned the smile. Yes, she was in on the joke.
Dr. Jory exchanged a glance with Dr. Lawler, who looked like she could burst out laughing at any moment. She turned back to Audrey. “You know what, let’s chat about geography another time. We’re already running behind, and Dr. Lawler has appointments this afternoon that she can’t miss.”
Dr. Lawler nodded immediately, regaining her composure. “You may leave now, Audrey. We’ll send Ms. Lewes out when she’s finished.”
With a huff, Audrey took her exit. When she was sure she was gone, Dr. Lawler let out a laugh and put her shaking head in her hands. Courtney rolled her eyes before raising her eyebrows at Callie, as if to say, “Can you seriously believe that girl?” Even Dr. Darkler had to take a moment to compose himself.
“I don’t want to be the one to say it, but…”
Dr. Lawler cut Dr. Jory off with a literal chopping motion.
“Don’t. We’re all at fault. It was a unanimous decision to hire her.”
“Some of us voted more strongly than others,” Courtney said in a singsong voice, always one to add fuel to the fire.
“Courtney, I don’t want to hear it. I was waiting for you to jump in and help the poor girl!” Dr. Jory leaned forward and shot a glare down the table.
“Ha! I wasn’t about to. Frankly, I’m surprised Callie here didn’t save her.”
Three pairs of eyes suddenly swung back to Callie, as though they were surprised to see she was still there. This time, however, only Dr. Darkler and Dr. Jory worked to regain their professorial posture. Both Courtney and Dr. Lawler were looking at Callie in amusement.
“Yes, Callie, what if that was part of your screening today? Someone mark that down. ‘Callie did not help Audrey with basic Delaware knowledge that correlates directly to the pronunciation of Callie’s last name.’”
At Dr. Lawler’s statement, Dr. Jory began typing on her laptop. The department chair physically reached over and stopped her typing. “Kate, I was kidding.”
The look that Dr. Jory (Kate, Callie mused) gave Dr. Lawler could melt steel, but soon the two women were leaning forward, laughing. Callie took the opportunity to shoot a questioning look at Courtney, who discreetly tapped on her cell phone. Okay, Callie thought. Courtney would text later and explain.
“Okay, we’ve kept Callie waiting long enough.” Dr. Lawler turned her attention to Callie, who straightened up in her chair and self-consciously tucked an escaped piece of hair behind her ear. “Callie, welcome to the screening interview, the first step toward becoming a graduate teaching assistant. Why don’t you tell us about your education thus far?”
With a deep breath, Callie thanked the professors for having her and launched into her post-high school education history, which, of course, was all based at the very university in which they sat. The more she talked about her experiences there, the more relaxed she felt and her confidence returned quickly.
Maybe it was just like Courtney had told her: She had it in the bag.
* * *
Pushing through her apartment door, Callie paused to listen for the telltale signs of her roommates. Sure enough, a quiet voice filtered down the hallway. Probably Nikki, since her girlfriend, Maya, wasn’t known for doing anything quietly.
She stopped to grab a glass of water before heading into her bedroom to change. She sighed contentedly as she tugged off the constricting business-casual clothing that she truly hated wearing. She had to admit, it was definitely one of the reasons she’d recently quit her professional, business-casual clothing job and decided to go back to school, yet again, for her PhD. She. Hated. Wearing. Fancy. Clothes.
More comfortably clad in worn-in jeans and an equally worn-in Brandi Carlile concert T-shirt, she went back into the living room and flopped down onto the sofa. She absently scrolled on her phone, half-waiting for Courtney to call. There were things to discuss, and she was getting antsy with too much time in her head to mull over the interview, the other candidates, and that slightly unsettling newbie, Dr. Kate Jory.
Callie knew she hadn’t seen Dr. Jory before, which was confusing because even though she’d finished her master’s degree almost ten years ago, Callie wasn’t a stranger to Pennbrook’s campus. She went to a lot of basketball games with Courtney (and therefore had become accustomed to their team losing every single game) and even popped into Courtney’s office in Berringer Hall every so often. Besides those logistics, there was the small-town vibe of Pennbrook. Nearly everyone who attended and worked there lived within a five-mile radius of the school. Chestnut Hill, the city that housed Pennbrook, was not large, but its downtown area had a lot to offer, and Callie was forever running into college staff while she was out and about. Never had she crossed paths with this new professor and, weirdly, that was bothering her.
A brief knock sounded at the door. Before Callie could respond, the door opened and her best friend, Sadie, poked her head in. “Oh, you’re home,” she said as she came all the way in. “I wasn’t sure.”
Callie lived in an old, converted Victorian house. Sadie had been living in the third-floor studio apartment for as long as Callie had known her, which was since they’d met during Callie’s sophomore year. Callie, Maya, and Nikki shared the large second-floor apartment. The first floor was split into two smaller apartments. Tim, an adjunct professor in the Math Department, and his girlfriend, Jenny, who worked in the Admissions Office, lived in the front apartment. Wylie, a local musician, lived in the smaller apartment at the back.
Sadie sat down in her favorite chair, the overstuffed armchair across from the sofa, and looked at Callie expectantly. “So? How was it?”
Callie dropped her phone beside her. “Honestly? Kind of weird, but overall good. I think.”
“Weird? How so?”
Callie replayed the screening interview for Sadie, trying her best to be factual and keep her emotions out of it. Sadie was an excellent barometer and could often pick up on the subtleties that Callie missed.
When she finished, Sadie was nodding to herself. “You were pretty thrown by the new prof, huh?”
“Yeah. I was. I guess I figured Wincheck would have given me a head’s up or something.”
“Cal, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I know, I know. You’ve been out of the academic game for a decade—”
“Wow, thanks for that,” Callie interjected before throwing a pillow at Sadie. She was a little sensitive about her time away, mostly because she felt kind of old to be taking on a GTA position at the age of 34…especially when the other candidates were clearly a lot younger than she was.
“Well, it’s true. But it gave you life experience and all that extra shit that people love to hear about in a candidate.” Sadie paused, running her hands through her thick copper-colored hair. “Do you honestly think one new person could prevent you from getting this position?”
Callie considered the naked truth of Sadie’s question. No, of course that’s not what she thought—it was just an irrational fear, one of many she loved to mull over. “Nah. And even if she has reservations about my academic abilities, I’m sure I won her over with my dashing good looks.”
“Good lord,” Sadie said with a roll of her eyes. “You don’t know anything about this woman.”
“I don’t, but a vibe is a vibe, Sade.”
“You somehow neglected to mention that you got a ‘vibe,’”—she air-quoted for emphasis—“when you gave me the rundown.”
“I don’t know…” Callie trailed off, remembering the completely impassive look on Dr. Kate Jory’s face. “There’s something about her that I can’t put my finger on.”
“Yeah, well, you literally just met her, so your fingers shouldn’t be touching any part of her.”
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything about wanting to put my fingers on her, thank you very much.”
Sadie didn’t dignify that with a response, which Callie was used to. The two women had known each other for long enough to recognize each other’s bullshit the very moment it came tumbling out of their mouths. Callie didn’t even know if she thought Dr. Jory was attractive, but Sadie already had Callie wanting to put her hands—sorry, fingers—on her. Maybe she was too hooked on Dr. Jory’s presence to pass it off as simple concern over one new person tipping the scales out of her favor.
“We still on for dinner?” Callie asked, abruptly and happily changing the subject.
Sadie was looking at her phone, a mild look of annoyance stretching across her freckled face. “We were until I got a text saying my new hire is too sick to come in for her shift tonight.”
Callie bit her tongue, refraining from reminding Sadie that hiring college students, especially undergrads, was a sure way to suffer many texts about being “sick” that were really code for being hungover and/or preferring to party than work a shift at an indie bookstore. They’d had that conversation too many times. If Sadie didn’t want to listen to her sage wisdom, then that was on her. Then again: They did live in a college town, ripe with undergrads wanting a relatively easy job to pick up some extra cash…to spend on the partying that then prohibited them from working consistent shifts.
“This is a pain in my ass,” Sadie muttered, caught up in juggling multiple texts as she tried to cover the shift.
“I have an idea.”
“Go on,” Sadie said, not looking up from her phone.
“I’ll help you in the store tonight…”
Sadie looked up then, her dark green eyes glowing with relief and happiness. “You’re my favorite person.”
“There’s an if.”
“Of course there is, you ungenerous prick.”
Callie gasped and went full Southern belle as she covered her gaping mouth in horror. “Well, I never!”
“But you have. Because you are, at times, an ungenerous prick. And don’t forget,” Sadie continued, pointing straight at Callie’s torso, “you’re still on my payroll, so your if better be within the terms of your employment.”
Callie vaulted off the sofa, and, though Sadie saw it coming, she didn’t have time to ward her off. She launched a full assault on Sadie’s highly ticklish ribs, their heads knocking together as Sadie screeched and vainly tried to push a taller and stronger Callie off her.
“Stop! Okay! Whatever you want, it’s yours! Just stop!” Sadie wiggled uncontrollably under Callie’s unrelenting attack.
Callie abruptly pulled her hands away, then placed them on the arms of the armchair and leaned in close to Sadie’s face. They stared each other down, each breathless, waiting for the next ball to drop.
Sadie straightened up, giving Callie a solid push to put some space between them. “When are you going to grow up?”
Hearing the tension in Sadie’s voice, Callie pulled further away, gently kicking her bare foot into Sadie’s shin to keep the mood light. “Probably never. Anyway, my condition for coming in to work is that you feed me. Preferably pad thai, but I’ll allow an Italian sub from the deli if you’d prefer that.”
Sadie pushed her hair off her shoulders, not meeting Callie’s eyes. “I could go for Thai.”
“Great. All problems solved.”
Sadie nodded, a smile on her face that looked, if Callie had to guess, a little forced. She consulted her phone once more, then finally met Callie’s eyes.
“I’m gonna go change and head into the store. We should be good for a couple hours, so can you come in around five?”
“You got it.”
Sadie slipped out of the apartment a couple minutes later, and Callie dropped back onto the sofa, wondering what was taking Courtney so long to text her.
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