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Suspense Inspirational Urban Fantasy

She roamed the halls at night, they said. Haunted the select student or two. It was that time of the year when everything had pumpkin in it and the ghostly and macabre was embraced by popular culture. Those who told the stories swore by them. Even the most prestigious schools filled with the world’s brightest were not free from superstition and other idiocy, thought Liss as she sipped on her Pumpkin Spice Latte. There was nothing particularly interesting about adding fake pumpkin flavored sugar syrup to coffee, but it was just one of those things that we went along with society on. Being a freshperson on campus, she did not want to create too many waves.

She hopped along and tuned into the gossip about ghosts on campus. Of particular interest to the students was the ghost of Marlena. She would select a handful of kids each year. Always the smart ones who despite their intellect would not be the favorites. The underdogs. They would complain of seeing Marlena as they walked the halls, attended their classes, even when they slept in their dorms. They would always be on edge, on the verge of losing their sanity. Or perhaps the world’s most competitive school just got to them. The pressure burnt them out and drove them mad. Most of them had eventually graduated but were never hooked into the community or alumni networks. Then for years to come, students would talk about them. Liss hated this culture, and tried to stay as far away as she could this futile gossip. She would much rather listen to an album or read a book or go for a run than engage with her roommates and classmates.

One evening, there was even an unofficial list that was doing the rounds on social media. People were idiots and this was an awful place, Liss concluded. She shook her head to herself when her roommates wouldn't stop talking about the list and the stories of Marlena. They huddled on the floor of her room sipping cheap Vodka that someone had snuck in. “Oh look it's him, he is on here!” squealed a very excited Jen. Jen was everything Liss was not. Jen lived for attention. She would die for a one up over the next person. She had utterly generic taste in everything for someone at the school. Really nothing was interesting about her other than the ability to somehow attract other basic besties, of which there were too many to count. “It’s Brandon, the Math TA. The cute nerd who genuinely believes statistics would save us all. He is on the list.” Exclaimed Jen. One of the besties added, “Well umm, I guess that is not a surprise. I mean he is kinda nuts right. Haha what is the probability that he is just generally bonkers?” Another bestie chimed in, “I would say the mean probability is about 100%!” They all laughed. Liss took a big sip of the Vodka and muttered under her breath, “Kill me now!”

Bestie 2 heard her, “You saying something babe?” Liss replied bluntly, “What is mean probability? And 100 percent, really? You do realize that implies every single measure would be 100%, and then it is more of a certainty than a probability anyway.” They looked puzzled and annoyed. “What’s the matter Liss, got a crush on our little TA?” Jen asked. The besties laughed. “Maybe I do. At least we would have a bit more stimulating conversation.” Liss got up and started to make her way to her bed. She could not wait for next year when she did not have to share a dorm room. “Maybe Marlena will pick you this year!” Jen added. Bestie 1 had an idea, “Let’s put her  name in the comments and see how many loves we get!” They all agreed and Jen hit the post button. “FML!” Muttered Liss to herself as she pulled the comforter over her head and plugged in her airpods. She hit the follow button on Brandon. He was kind of cute.

It turned out that Jen was incredibly popular indeed, as was her post. Pretty soon people were voting for their favorite Marlena victims. Even elite schools accurately represented the rather sadistic society that existed these days. Brandon memes were thrown in with her too, a few people had noticed Liss attended his office hours. This was the case one afternoon and as she was talking to him, he noticed a notification light up on her phone on the table. “Don’t think too much about it.” He said. “Huh, about what?” Liss pretended he couldn’t read her mind. “About that garbage on social media. It is just a blend of insecurity and sadism.” He seemed calm and unfazed. “Why do they say all that junk about you Brandon? I mean there are plenty of nerdy, I mean intellectual types here. Why do they pick on you?” Liss asked. “Because it is true.” He replied. “I saw the ghost of Marlena, still do in fact. And that is fine. I do not talk to myself in the hallways, I talk to her. I have to, you see. They won’t understand, perhaps you won’t either. That is ok though.” He just laughed, “ So you also think there is a 100% mean probability that I am cray cray.” She felt embarrassed, blushed but decided to be bold, “Umm no, but you gotta admit saying this stuff doesn’t help your case. For what it’s worth, I think your intellect is appealing and you are actually kinda cute.” He smiled, “Why thank you, that is sweet. And I don’t say stuff. I just opened up about my experience a few years ago and now only state the facts when asked.” She smiled back in the most politically correct manner she could, “Alright! I’m not judging. And thank you so much for helping me with this. I really do like statistics.”

As she made her way back to the dorm, Liss realized it was later than usual. Winter was approaching and the set had set hours ago. She wondered if hanging out with her TA, drinking illegally after hours was a good idea. At least he was into her, she rationalized to herself. “Don’t think so much Liss” said someone that sounded awfully a lot like a bestie of Jen, “He isn’t cray cray, and you two are cute. I know you really dig him. He was actually telling the truth you know.” Liss turned around and replied rudely, “Alright Jen Minion, thank you for your pep talk.” No bestie was seen on the unlit pathway to the dorm. “Jen Minion? Ouch! How dare you equate me with someone who has a one hundred percent mean probability of being a basic baboon?” Liss couldn't tell where the voice was coming from. She was a little scared though, and just abruptly turned and started to stride faster towards her dorm. “Never drinking cheap liquor again!” she muttered under her breath. “Of Course you will though, you love getting drunk Liss.” This was getting really scary now. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. On the contrary, I am here to help you realize your potential. I’m Marlena by the way." Liss shook her head in disbelief, took a gulp from her water bottle and mused nervously, “I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell. Heard that song? I’m just drunk, girl.“

Marlena continued to talk to her all the way home. “Really, I help the people I pick. I pick people with potential. I help them realize that potential. I picked Brandon. It is natural that you are attracted to each other. You have similar potential.” Liss couldn’t believe she was having this conversation, evidently with herself as there was nobody else there. “My potential? Ha Ha Ha. How exactly will you help me Marlena?” she asked. “I’ll tell you what to study, give you tips and ideas, debate research with you. I’ll even help you in your exams. Give you pointers and inspiration. Just like Brandon and all the others, if you keep talking to me, you will excel in academics and life in general. You will break free from the claws of society and the Jens and besties of the world, and be a natural leader. A misfit, which you are already, but a leader.”

Liss wondered if she had seen too many TED talks on visionaries or if Brandon had something that was not alcohol in that drink. Maybe she was getting burnt out by the pressure of studies and society. Perhaps she needed therapy. However, she felt oddly optimistic, and less cynical than her usual self. She decided to test herself, or Marlena. “How did you help Brandon realize his potential. The guy is a social media meme. That potential for you?” Marlena replied with a laugh, “Yes it is. Didn’t your TED talks and documentaries talk about the Crazy Ones and all, Steve Jobs, John Lennon, Gandhi and the like?” Liss persisted, “So Brandon is crazy?” She wondered if this was just her subconscious trying to guard her from a potentially painful relationship that was budding. “In a sense, yes. He is working on research that could literally be the next phenomenon since Page and Brin came up with the Page Rank Algorithm. His work will be to Artificial Intelligence, what those two did to the internet.” This made her smile. Brandon had no published record of working on AI. All his papers were pure statistics and such. “Doing anything interesting with AI lately, Brandon?” her text said. The phone beeped, “So Marlena told you. Yes, it could really be something revolutionary. I’d like you to join me in the research. Marlena will guide you. Good night Liss.” Somehow she felt sober now, as she reached the dorm. One of the besties smirked at her in the hallway. She didn’t care. She was somehow happy. It was not the alcohol. That had worn off. It was the company on her walk. Optimistic as ever, she opened her laptop as she sat on her bed, and started to google, “Introduction to AI.” For the first time, she truly felt that she belonged in this elite institution.

October 24, 2020 03:37

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1 comment

Sam W
01:04 Oct 29, 2020

Adopted by the ghost of nerds!! Awesome story, Art, with great potential. I’d love to know where this would go next. I’d tone it down with Liss’s hatred of the others, or ramp up the other’s stupidity instead. She comes off a bit antisocial.


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