The beige veneer on the big oval table is peeling, revealing the tacky black glue underneath. The room is close and musty; maroon carpet tiles, greying plastic chairs. As Miles folds his arms, his leather jacket creaks and the students around the table turn to look at him. “Sorry,” he says, even though he is not. He likes his jacket; he doesn't care what the kids think. 

“Nice shoes, Old School,” says a young man in a tank top five sizes too big for him, headphones around his neck as if they are an accessory.

"Thanks, Fez," Miles says, grinning, looking down at his weathered hiking boots. He knows he doesn’t fit in but it doesn't bother him. His hair is long, curling over the collar of his lumberjack shirt. His jeans are faded with time, not acid, and he has no piercings or tattoos, not even one. He has a phone but during lectures he takes notes with a pen and an actual pad of paper, just as everyone used to do when he was first a student here fifteen years ago. Yup, he is old school for sure. 

“Stupid tutor’s always late,” grumbles a girl with purple hair and a tattoo of a snake around her wrist. “I’ve got better things to do than wait around for Miss PHD.” She gets up, slings her bag onto her shoulder and leaves, followed by two more who say nothing as they exit. Miles is one of only five now, two jocks (at least they would have been called jocks when he was their age, who knows what they would call themselves now), a girl with cropped reddish hair who looks about sixteen, a quiet girl in a headscarf and glasses and of course the guy in the tank top. Miles sits patiently, arms still folded, zip-up folder on the table in front of him. Yeah, the tutor is late. But he won’t be walking out in a huff.

“So sorry, guys!” She arrives in a fluster, long blonde hair and stringy green scarf flying, slapping down a pile of papers onto the table as she shuts the door behind her. She should tie that up, he thinks, then changes his mind. It’s cute when she flicks her head to get it out of her eyes. She looks around, pushing her trendy glasses up her nose. “Student issues … hard to be available all the time you know …” Her excuses fade away as she hands out papers. “No Hannah?” she asks, peering at the few left in her hand. “Jules and Ashley?”

“They left, Shannon,” says the red-haired girl, her chin resting on her hand. She has already looked at her grade and has turned her paper upside down on the table. “They got tired of waiting.”

The tutor flushes bright red, stares at the girl and then shakes her head. “Pity,” she says. “Hannah is … really was quite remarkable … but you all did well. All improved, I think. Short stories … sounds easy but ...” She looks up, smiling awkwardly. 

“Maybe we can get on with today’s tutorial,” Miles says, trying to help. He likes Shannon, even if the kids don't respect her. 

Tuts, old man,” says Fez. The two jocks snicker. "Not tutorials."

“All right. Tuts. Thanks, man.” Miles smiles good-naturedly. He's pleased with his grade and the long comment Shannon has written on his paper. He worked hard on his story, but he agrees with her that his opening is weak and his protagonist unrelatable. No problem. He's learning, he is writing, and he's not short on inspiration when he sits down to do his assignments. He appreciates input, and hers is always helpful.

He catches Shannon's eye across the table and lifts the paper up slightly, smiling to let her know he's cool with it. There's something like relief on her face, and the irony isn't lost on him. She's the teacher; he is the student, but she's stressing over what he might think of her comments. 

Later, he is at the cafeteria about to walk off with his coffee when he sees her sitting at a table, self-consciously mopping up spilt tea from next to her open laptop. She is flushed and cross, trying not to be conspicuous about her little accident but he can see she is mad as hell with herself. He takes a second or two to appreciate the opportunity before him, to smile to himself before he takes a wad of napkins from the counter and goes over to her. 

"Here," he says. "Looks as if you could do with these." She flushes deeper as she looks up at him but takes the napkins gratefully. 

"I'm such a klutz," she says, dabbing at her front. "I'm just glad I didn't get it on the laptop." 

"That would not be good," he agrees. He wants to sit down and join her but he waits until she pulls out the chair next to her and gestures to it, gathering the napkins into a soggy brown pile. He picks them up, walks the few steps to the bin then returns, sitting down and placing his coffee on the table. 

"Thanks," she says. "That was kind of you, Miles."

"Can I get you more tea?" 

"Oh no." Her flush has not subsided. "I have some left."

He grins at her, enjoying her discomfort perhaps a little more than he ought. In that tut room she has power over him, but it's all flipped around now. 

She takes a deep breath and a sip of her remaining tea. "So, um, you said you were a student here years ago?"

"Fifteen years ago." He folds his arms and watches her face. "I never finished my degree, obviously."

She doesn't respond, just sips at her tea again.  

"Do you want to know why?" 

"Sure." She shrugs, but he can see she's interested. 

"I partied too much and fell asleep in the lectures I bothered to attend. I scraped through first year but failed second on my ear."

"Oh." She smiles awkwardly. "What did you do then?”

"Put aside my dream of running a newspaper and writing a best-selling thriller and got a job in my uncle’s software company. I didn't have a choice really; my parents refused to pay for another year. But I always regretted not finishing."

"How have you …" She wants to finish the question but he can see she doesn't know how to ask it. "Are you still working?" 

He shakes his head slowly. "I'm taking a few years off." He barely knows her. He's not going to start explaining about his dad dying, the bike accident, his successful start-up, the dreadful break-up ... Not yet. 

“I admire it," she says. “Your coming back to finish. I think it takes guts." 

He doesn't answer for a while, just long enough to make her wonder how he has taken that. "I'm not sure it takes guts," he says. "This is a picnic compared to working."

"Well, all these students … these young students … " For someone working on a PHD in English she's surprisingly short on words. 

"You know what the biggest difference is, between then and now?" he asks, leaning forward on the table. "The opinion of my peers used to mean everything to me. Now I can decide whose approval is important and whose is not. I know I stick out like a toad in a rock pool but it doesn't bother me at all. Walking around this place takes no guts at all." 

"A toad in a rock pool," she laughs. "Nice simile. But you don't look anything like a toad."

He leans back and takes a sip of his coffee, feeling very encouraged. A comment on his appearance – that has to be a good sign. “I like watching these kids," he says. “They amuse me."

She laughs, spitting out some of her tea as she does and covering her mouth. "I should try seeing them as an amusement."

"You should," he says. “Don't let them get to you. You've achieved far more than they have.” 

“Oh, I haven't achieved anything,” she says, shaking her head. “I'm just a student too.” 

“I read your book.” 

More blushes. The tally is rising. She picks up her tea again but there’s nothing left now. 

“I think it's great. Honestly.” 

“No you don't,” she says. “It's a teen romance. I don't think I believe you that you read it.”

“Oh, I did. Hayley at her sixteenth birthday party, the cousin embarrasses her when he throws up on her crush–” 

“Stop!” She says, holding up her hand. “Okay, I believe you. It's just a silly thing I slapped up on Amazon. Barely anyone has even read it.” 

“You need to market,” he says. “And your cover sucks. Maybe I can help you with that. Hayley deserves better.”

This time she doesn't flush, at least not very much. She flicks her hair back and smiles, her eyes telling him what he needs to know. 

Where did he find it? he wonders as he walks away, her number safely stored in his contacts with her work email that he had all along. He wonders how he found himself, how he turned from that dumb dropout into who he is today. Fifteen years ago he thought girls would be impressed if he drank himself stupid and surfed on top of busses. He probably wouldn’t even have noticed mousy Shannon, never mind come to appreciate her kindness and endearing wholesomeness. He's still thinking when he gets home, still thinking as he finds something to eat then takes his dog for a long walk around the common. He's still thinking as he makes a fire in his fireplace and settles down in front of it with a beer to work on an essay for Sociology. But he can't focus at all, and after a while he gives up and opens a new document. His poetry assignment for Shan's class is only due next week but it turns out it's going to be done early. 

By the time he is done, by the time the words have sung themselves right and have figured out where they belong on the page, the fire has died out and he has barely noticed. 

Same spot at the peeling table, same grey chairs and musty plastic smell. But Shan is on time today, her glasses on straight and her folder not spewing papers. She is trying her best not to look at him, as if the kids will somehow know that they went for a drink the night before and have plans for the weekend. Purple-hair girl reads a five-line poem that he thinks she probably wrote in five minutes on the shuttle. It's dark and depressing and hopelessly clichéd. One jock has come up with something half decent about his little brother growing up, even if the meter is off and he's gone and rhymed "love" with "above". Fez reads out something that he assumes is in English but is spoken so fast that Miles can barely understand it. And then it’s his turn. He sits back, a single page on the desk in front of him, glances quickly at Shan’s expectant face, and begins to read:

“Like an arrow, the boy blazes upwards

In victorious ascent

Unaware of his path

Oblivious of his latent inertia

He is on fire

He is immortal, glowing,

Selfish as hell

Another week, another chance

Another failure, another excuse

Now slowing, descending

Powerless he falls 

Amongst the ashes of his arrogance

But there is mercy in the fallout

In the bitter taste of humiliation

Another Monday, another hand up

Another attempt, another small triumph

Emergence is painful

Growth hurts

Work, he understands, can heal 

Struggle can shape

He stares at his hands

Then looks up to the light

There is strength in the scars 

in the marks of years

He has mellowed

And there is, after all, still

The quiet, steady heat

Of embers."

August 13, 2020 15:28

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Avery G.
15:41 Aug 13, 2020

Wow, this was beautiful! I really liked the poem at the end! Great job!


Show 0 replies
17:34 Aug 16, 2020

Very good story, I loved the poem about his personal growth, it was beautiful.


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.