Higher Education

Reading Period

by Adele


The basement wasn't silent. No old house or building is ever really silent, but at 2:00 in the morning during Reading Period the basement of Winthrop House was as close to silent as it got. The only sounds were unidentifiable creaks and whooshes of air and the quiet pad of Jane's bare feet down the steps from entryway E. The lights were off, but it was Jane's second year in the dorm and she was more than familiar enough with the house to easily find the switches by touch. This was by no means her first late night trip downstairs. It wasn't even the first time this Reading Period, the two weeks between the last classes and Finals that were intended to be used for writing final papers and studying. It still amazed Jane just how quickly the lack of classes or any scheduled place to be led to her staying up all night and then sleeping until two or three in the afternoon, but she accepted it as her body's natural rhythm.

The north wing of the Winthrop House basement was a series of connected cavernous rooms running under entries C, D, E, F, and G. Jane appreciated that the basement was not the maze of tiny rooms and tunnel-like hallways that some of the dorms had, even if one of them supposedly had a swimming pool hidden down there somewhere. In the middle of the center basement room, Winthrop House had her one non- negotiable dorm entertainment requirement: a pool table.

Jane laid her cue case across the foot of the table and snapped open the clasps. Her cue was a 20 oz, two-piece, Huebler with a solid steel joint, a wine-colored linen wrap and crimson inlayed points. It was a beautiful, exquisitely balanced stick and Jane loved it. Her parents had given it to her for her sixteenth birthday.

Jane set up a line of five balls down the middle of the table and began to sink them one after another in the side pocket working on using draw to position the cue ball for the next shot. When she was warmed up she switched to a follow exercise. This was harder. She could make the cue ball roll forward easily enough, but she couldn't control how far it went. More often than not she ended up at the far end of the table with no viable shot. Sometimes she even scratched. She was concentrating hard and fumbled her stroke missing the object ball entirely when an amused voice behind her asked, "Trying to avoid getting stomped the next time we play, Jane?"

Jane gave the only possible response, "You wish," before she even straightened up and turned to see Kirk's grinning face. Kirk lived in entry C. He almost always dressed in shades of black, gray, and olive green and tonight was no exception. Being inside, he wasn't wearing his signature knee-length, duster-style jacket, but he did have on his other signature piece: a conch shell necklace on a black leather cord. Kirk was from Chicago and may have never even seen the ocean before coming to college, but the necklace had been part of his "uniform" since his roommate, Wade, had given it to him at the end of Freshman year. Kirk was cocky and smart and a very good pool player. Jane didn't even have to ask. She just racked up the balls for 9-ball.

They played. And played. Game after game after game. Neither wore a watch and it was nearly impossible to judge the passage of time in the empty, windowless basement. Jane stopped keeping track of the game score somewhere around 5 to 4. She was ahead though, she was confident of that. They didn't talk much except to rib each other. Kirk explored his options for a shot on the three. Could he cut it into the side pocket?

"You're going to kiss the seven," Jane insisted.

"No, I can squeeze by."

"Not and sink the ball. Look at the angle!'

"There's room."

"There's not!"

"I can make it!"

"She's right. You don't have room."

Kirk and Jane both looked up in surprise at a new voice joining the argument. Wade walked casually into the circle of light illuminating the pool table. He was also barefoot and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. He was from Iowa and his look fit the farm boy stereotype quite well. He had worked for two years between high school and college and the experience had given him added maturity that seemed out of proportion to the time spent. Or maybe he was just a mature, responsible type by nature. First impressions made him seem to be Kirk's polar opposite. Many Winthrop House residents were amazed that the two got along at all, much less were best friends and roommates. Jane liked and got along with both of them though, so she never considered their relationship that surprising.

"Watch me!" Kirk took the shot arrogantly, almost recklessly. Sure enough, the cue ball kissed the seven and went careening away from the three for a table scratch. Jane was not above a gloating, "told you so," as she took the ball in hand and lined up a combination. She easily knocked the three into the nine and the nine into the corner pocket to win the game.

"Nice shot," said Wade.

"Play a game with us Wade," begged Jane. Wade was not the pool shark Jane and Kirk liked to pretend to be, but he was a careful, deliberate player with amazing spatial reasoning skills, and he could more than hold his own.

"Yeah, we can play Cutthroat," Kirk chimed in.

"No way. Do you guys know what time it is?"

"Who cares? It's not like we have to get up in the morning," Kirk argued while Jane input a simple, "plllleeeease."

"You've got a paper due Friday, Kirk, and a ton of studying to do. You're never going to get it done if you play pool all night and sleep all day."

Jane realized she and Kirk were standing shoulder to shoulder facing Wade and whining like a couple of kids trying to get Dad to let them stay up five more minutes before bedtime. This struck her as very funny, but Wade did not look amused. Kirk also seemed to realize they were not going to get Wade to change his mind.

Kirk turned back to the table and started to rack the balls saying, "All right, Wade, but Jane, you've got to play one more game so I can tie it up." Jane was about to challenge Kirk's recollection of the game score, but before she could say anything, Wade growled, "Kirk". Just one word, not even shouted, but there was a frightening intensity to his voice that made Kirk freeze with a pool ball in each hand.

"Come here." These words sounded friendly and ordinary again, but Jane was watching Wade and could see the effort he was expending to make them come out that way. Kirk slowly set the one and five on the felt, turned, and approached Wade. As soon as Kirk was within reach, Wade put a hand on the back of Kirk's neck and drew him close. Wade murmured something in Kirk's ear. Jane could not make out the words, but whatever Wade said made Kirk jerk violently away from him. Or at least he tried to. Wade tightened his grip on Kirk enough to cause a little pain and wouldn't let him go.

"Two minutes," Wade snapped. Then he gave Kirk a little shake and released him. Wade pivoted and strode off toward entry C, pausing only to look over his shoulder at Jane and declare, "You should be in bed too."

Jane and Kirk just stared at each other for a second or two until they heard the sound of the door opening and closing at the top of the stairs. Then Kirk mumbled, "You know, I think I'm going to call it a night."

Jane considered how to respond to that. She could tease Kirk, try to wheedle him into playing another game, or simply ask, "What the hell just happened?" The trouble with all those options was they might end up with Kirk not being upstairs in his room in two minutes. And if that happened, Wade might decide to come back down. Jane thought she didn't particularly need to see Wade again that night. So she said, "Yeah, me too."

"See you tomorrow."

"Later today."

"Whatever."

Kirk followed after Wade. Kirk certainly wasn't running, but he wasn't exactly strolling either.

Jane broke down her pool cue and replaced the halves in their slots in the case. She snapped shut the clasps and headed off to her own room. Just because she was going back to her room didn't mean she had to go to sleep, of course. She could try to beat her high score on Bejeweled Blitz, for example. Just one game. Or maybe two. Three at the most.


~ Adele

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