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Chapter Twenty-one

Something's not right.

 

To say that she felt guilty was an understatement.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go with Scotch; she just wasn’t sure if she should. After hearing more things from the other students and witnessing his tension-filled encounter with Jackson a second time, Cleo was positive that she wanted to know what was going on first. The problem was that Scotch still didn’t seem to want to open up.

Cleo deflated in her seat, stumped by her decision to decline him. Going with him had been her chance to ask about the rumors, but she wasn’t nearly brave enough. Eating waffles at the park without bringing up the subject would have given him the wrong idea and fooled them both into thinking that everything was fine. Bottom line, she didn’t want to start anything unless things were absolutely good. She probably wouldn’t take it if their romance went south, breaking even their friendship.

“Miss Hilard?” Professor Claravera’s voice cut through Cleo’s depressed thoughts. “Miss Hilard. I’ve called your name three times now.”

Cleo perked up, embarrassed that her mind had wandered elsewhere. The professor stood before her, his face austere and his rotund body blocking most of her view. His bushy brows and thick mustache, both graying, would have looked comical if not for the serious set of his mouth and glass-framed eyes. She could feel her other classmates looking at her, and the sensation painted her cheeks red. This was the first time she’d been caught listlessly staring at the wall, and it was a bit embarrassing.

“Sorry, Professor. What was it?”

“I was asking about your homework,” the professor said, one of his eyebrows raised.

A sigh escaped her lips. She was relieved that the old man hadn’t been asking about their lesson. Because her thoughts had been preoccupied with Scotch Wilkins, she blanked out for the majority of his lecture.

However, it was odd that Claravera would bring up things like homework during a time when he was most focused on teaching them a new topic. “Was there anything wrong with it, Sir?”

“You’re assuming that I managed to receive your essay along with the rest of the class,” he sternly stated. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find it among the pile.”

"But I did pass it, Professor. Yesterday afternoon, at your office. You weren't there, so I slid it into the ingoing shelf on your desk," Cleo argued, recounting the events of the day and feeling her cheeks warm. 

“This isn’t the first time a student has given me that excuse, Miss Hilard.” Professor Claravera barely flinched.

“I honestly don’t know where my homework could’ve gone,” she replied, aware that sweat was starting to bead on her brow. While she didn’t always have the most stellar scores when it came to schoolwork, she was constantly the most diligent at it. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before, not even in high school. “I assure you, Sir, I did it in advance and submitted it like I usually do. I wrote that essay in this very lecture hall.”

The professor considered her statement, ever impartial when it came to his students. “Were any of your classmates present to attest that they saw you writing it?”

Maggie had been there, but she had been nowhere near close enough to peek at the essay. She would never be able to confirm that Cleo had done it in advance. However, there was one other student who would be able to say so.

“N-no, but there’s this one student from your former class. His name is Scotch Wilkins, and he caught me just as I finished dropping off my homework.”

That got quite a reaction from the rest of the class, with most responses being playful, teasing hums. If possible, her cheeks burned even hotter. Her only saving grace was that Professor Claravera cared little for whatever romantic pairing his students came up with.

“If what you say is true, then I hope you don’t mind if I call Mister Wilkins to my cubicle later this afternoon.” The professor adjusted his glasses so that they didn’t fall from his stout nose. “In the meantime, your homework will be considered late until proven otherwise, and that means a ten-percent point deduction per day until the seventh day, Miss Hilard.”

Cleo gulped, aware that she would have to pass a second essay as soon as possible to get a passing score. “I understand, Professor, but I’m certain Scotch will tell you I’m not lying.”

The old professor nodded before going back to the podium and giving the class his final instructions for the day. He finally dismissed them and took off, leaving the students to await their next lecturer. This gave her classmates ample time to ask Cleo about what just happened. The only response she could manage was that she didn’t know. She only hoped that Scotch would remember the incident and pull through.

Her faith in him was all that motivated her to get through the day.

When afternoon rolled around, she got to the parking area and his bike before he did. It only meant that he’d indeed been called, thus his delay. Cleo could only stand there and wait for him, her entire body tense.

It felt like everyone who passed by and looked at her knew what had happened during Claravera’s lecture. She was being a little paranoid, but the situation seemed to warrant it. It didn’t help that by the end of the day, Scotch would be aware of her predicament as well.

Finally, he raced onto the parking lot, hailing her with one hand. “Hey, Freshie, I’m not sure if you know this, but Claravera had me called to his office. Something about homework and stuff?”

Cleo was glad he had the presence of mind to speak with as little detail as possible. For the most part, his sentence was just cryptic enough that anybody passing by wouldn’t notice anything odd. Luckily, the surrounding area was empty at five-thirty PM.

“He believed you, right? You were there.” Cleo stepped aside so Scotch could set up their ride. Up close, he looked just as confused and perhaps even annoyed on her behalf. His brow was scrunched, and his movements were a bit stilted. “You saw me. I even mentioned it on the phone.”

“He said he was going to ‘take my words into consideration,’ whatever that means.” Scotch paused to lean onto the bike and really talk with her. “Maybe you got the cubicles wrong? Those tiny spaces look similar from the outside.”

Cleo shook her head. This wasn’t the first essay she’d submitted to the professor’s desk. Enough weeks had gone by that she was familiar with every nook and cranny of the university. “I’m sure I slipped it on top of my other classmates’ papers. The plaque on the table even had his name on it.”

“That freaking building needs security cameras. Footage of you passing your paper would’ve solved all this in a snap,” Scotch commented.

It was a sentiment Cleo readily agreed to. The administration really needed to address the more dated areas of the university. She had no doubt that CCTV would have proven her innocence instantly.

Cleo felt the stress starting to build up. If Claravera didn’t manage to find her homework, there was no other option but to do it all over again. The very thought of restarting made her want to cry. “It’s so unfair.”

“Will a big part of your grades come from that homework?” Scotch asked.

That was all it took for the dam to burst.

“It doesn’t matter how much of my grades come from that stupid homework, Scotch!” Cleo lashed out, the events of the day catching up to her. “Can’t you see?! I worked so hard on that thing! I spent three whole afternoons trying to get every word of every sentence right, and this happens! And now I’m crying! And you’re gonna think I’m some crazy, overemotional idiot!”

She certainly felt like an idiot for falling apart in front of him, brushing away the tears streaming down her cheeks. Hiccups came out of her mouth as she worried about what her parents would say if they found out. She also had to deal with the possibility that someone would leak the incident outside of class, causing her further embarrassment.

Before she could completely lose it and run away crying, Scotch drew her into his arms. He shushed her gently as he ran a soothing hand over her back. He felt warm and safe, and Cleo was more than relieved to have somebody holding her while she was distraught. She clung to him, completely vulnerable, as a few more tears escaped. They splattered on his shirt, but he didn’t make any move to pull away.

“I’m the idiot,” Scotch murmured into her ear as one of his hands brushed through the silky strands of her hair. “I know how much your work means to you, Cleo. I shouldn’t have said something so dumb, and I’m sorry.”

It was a while before her breath evened out. In the meantime, Scotch remained wrapped around her, waiting until she could pull herself together. Cleo sniffed, a little more composed after having all the fear and frustration wrung out of her. “I’m sorry for the yelling and the crying.”

“Hey,” Scotch said, raising his head and resting his cheek on her crown. “Don’t ever be afraid to cry in front of me, okay? You can even use my shirt to wipe up.”

Cleo laughed despite the miserable state of her eyes. He knew just what to say to make her feel better. His hands clasped together behind her back, circling her and making her feel protected. “Thanks, Scotch.”

“I know of something that’ll put a smile back on your face,” he said, dipping his head again so that their noses were mere inches apart. “Do you wanna come with?”

This time, Cleo didn’t have the heart to deny him. He was being so good to her, so he deserved a fair chance. Besides, after having seen her meltdown, there was no reason for her to be afraid of asking him about his story. “Okay.”

~


Submitted: December 06, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Ann Sepino. All rights reserved.

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