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180 Seconds
Author: Jessica Park

CHAPTER 1

 

LITTLE BIRD

Junior year of college starts now, which means I have two years left until I am free. Every day is a reminder of how completely different I am from my peers, a constant sense of my inability to be social and happy and emotionally unchained. It can be a challenge to isolate myself here, but I do what I can.

It takes Simon twenty minutes of circling Andrews College’s campus to find a place to park. Arrival day is always utter chaos, with students spilling from cars, arms laden with boxes and bags; cars double-parked up and down the streets; and tearful parents milling around and clogging the sidewalks. The drive from Boston to northern Maine has taken almost five hours, and this early September day feels more like August than it does the start of fall. Welcome to New England. I am sweaty from the lack of good air-conditioning, but I try to subtly fan my shirt when I step out of the car, relishing the faint breeze.

“Sorry about the AC,” Simon says apologetically. “This car’s an oldie but a goody.” From his spot outside the driver’s side, he looks over the car at me and half smiles as he taps the hood and looks unreasonably fresh, given the heat. “Bad timing for it to go out, I know. We could consider it some kind of fashionable spa detox. I’m sure Volvo would approve.”

I smile and nod. “Sure. Junior year should start with a cleanse of some sort.”

“Right? Before you do all sorts of college things to pollute your system. Parties, cafeteria food . . .” He waves a hand around, and I know he’s hoping I will continue with the joke.

Simon tries very hard, and I routinely fail him. I know this, but it’s all I can manage. It’s not his fault; it’s mine. He’s a very nice man. Too nice, probably. Too giving and too understanding.

Simon, I silently remind myself, is also my father. It’s embarrassing how often I have to remind myself of this, because I’ve seen the adoption papers. I was there, for God’s sake, when they were signed and when I officially—and finally—left the foster care system at the ripe old age of sixteen and a half.

I catch my reflection in the window of the car. My long dark hair is pulled into a ponytail, the weight leaden on my back, my thick bangs stuck to my forehead with sweat, my cheeks flushed.

My reaction is not from the heat, though. This is anxiety building.

I need water.

Not only do I have to meet a new roommate, but I’ll have to part ways with Simon. I’ll hate putting him through an awkward good-bye, so I resolve to perk up and do a better job. I’m just not very good at being a daughter, but I want to try. I care about him so much, but I still struggle with how to show him that.

I plaster on a smile and round the car to the trunk. “Think we can make it in one trip?” I ask. “If we do, I’ll buy you lunch.”

“At your nasty student union? That’s no incentive.” Simon retrieves a box from the trunk. He’s trying to hide it, but I can see him grin. “I’ll carry one shoe in at a time if that’ll save me.”

“Actually, I was thinking about the Greek place down the street.” The suitcase I pull out doesn’t weigh much. I’m a minimalist, and so I travel light.

Simon stands up and tips his head to the side, raising an eyebrow, no longer concealing his happiness. “Greek place? With gyros? And hummus?”

I nod. “And baba ghanoush.”

He shifts the box to rest on his hip, freeing up a hand. His voice elevates. “Grab everything you can and run! Only take what you need! Run like the wind!” He yanks a small duffel from the car and dashes to the sidewalk, calling out over his shoulder, “Come on, Allison! There’s no time to waste!”

I laugh and take the only other bag I have from the back of the car and then slam the trunk. Simon is teasing me, because the truth is that his car is now empty of what I’ve brought to school. My adoptive father is trying to make light of my inability to plant real roots anywhere, how I allow myself a fraction of the things other students stuff in their small dorm rooms, and I’m reminded of how sweet and understanding he is when it comes to my personality flaws. While most students take hours to unload cars and retrieve boxes from campus storage, we’ve unloaded the car in five seconds.

It takes scrambling to catch up with Simon—who has raced so far ahead that I’m chagrined by my inability to keep up with him—and my suitcase bumps up steps and over a good deal of grassy lawn as I shortcut between dorm buildings to reach mine. I’m breathless when I reach Kirk Hall, where he is sitting on the box, looking all sorts of casual and relaxed.

“Really, Simon?” I gasp. “How . . . how did you even know where you were going?” I pant.

“I studied the campus map last week. And perhaps yesterday. And again this morning before we left.” Simon manages to look as cool and handsome as ever, with no hint of a sweat stain on his button-down red linen shirt. The hair that is always stylishly whooshed back from his forehead is still in place. His effortless ability to always look so poised, even when not warranted, is admirable. Aviator sunglasses turn toward me. “I’ve only been up here a few times before, and I can’t look like the average bumbling family member, following blindly while their child leads the way. I want to look like I know what I’m doing.”

I feel bad for not inviting him up to visit more often over the past two years. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe this year I will be able to let him in. I’d like that.

My heart rate is returning to normal, but I’m sweating again. “So, you thought you’d scamper wildly across campus like a lunatic?”

He grins. “Yes. Now, let’s go see your room.”

It was my hope that I’d land a good room-lottery number last spring and snatch up a coveted single room, but, unsurprisingly, I’d been at the bottom of the barrel. I’d waited hours in line to choose my room from a poorly drawn map, only to find that all the singles were gone. The fact the dorm-room selection couldn’t be done online was beyond belief, and I cursed the archaic system as I ran through the remaining room choices. The student in charge asked repeatedly if I had a friend I could room with, and I tried brushing him off five times before I practically had to holler, “No, okay? No, I don’t have anyone to room with! That’s why I want a single room!”

Some might say I created a bit of a scene, but I was too busy panicking to care. I finally chose half of a two-person suite that at least afforded me a private bedroom, along with a common room. I’d have to come in and out through that small shared common area, but I could probably keep to myself easily enough. In more positive moments, part of me dared to hope that this mystery roommate and I might hit it off. Wonders could happen. Still, today I am anxious about meeting her.

It only takes a few minutes to sign in at the dorm and get my key. Then, with significant trepidation, I enter my basement suite.

Simon laughs when I audibly exhale. “Relieved she’s not here yet?”

I roll my suitcase into one of the barren bedrooms and then plunk down on the rock-hard, hideous orange sofa in the lounge. Simon takes a swivel chair from my room and slides it in front of me, where he then plants himself. “Why are you so worried?”

I cross my arms and look around the concrete room. “I’m not worried at all. She’s probably very nice. I’m sure we’ll become soul mates, and she’ll braid my hair, and we’ll have pillow fights while scantily clad and fall into a deep lesbian love affair.” I squint my eyes at a cobweb and assume there are spider eggs preparing to hatch and invade the room.

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