Under the onslaught of a flurry of mismatched papers the worn plastic seams of the blue sack strained and Tony muffled a sigh. He could have straightened the papers, of course, but that would have meant admitting defeat. Instead, he reached into the sack to clear away stray items at the bottom, carefully nudging pens, keys, and an avalanche of accumulated paperclips. “Ha!” he exclaimed when the papers at last slid into place. Yet, the victory was short-lived. As he withdrew his hand it grazed the sharp edge of a thick piece of card-stock, long forgotten at the bottom of the sack, sending a sharp stab of pain through his thumb. Bringing it to eye-level he inspected his wound and watched with incredulity as blood welled up. He put the edge of his thumb between his lips to staunch the bleeding and considered absently how such a seemingly small thing could result in such agony.
Shaking his head slightly and relinquishing his injured digit he returned to the present and saw three pinched faces looking right at him.
They’ve been watching this whole time, Tony.
“You’re still here,” he told them blankly.
“Are you ok, Professor Hill?” whispered the tiny brunette on the right, clutching his stack of notepads too tightly for comfort.
“Yes!” he said, too brightly, brandishing his no-longer-bleeding thumb. “Totally fine. No lasting damage. Hazard of the job. Student papers mean sharply increased risk of papercuts.” The words tumbled out in an absent torrent, although he knew he’d been bitten by a different beast.
Biting her lip slightly in hesitation, the stocky lacrosse player in the center of the group nonetheless spoke up, “Have you ever considered a satchel? Probably better for the environment, and easier on the hands.”
Really, Tony! Are we the kind of man with a lawn to mow, 2.5 children, and a wife who slips love notes into a leather satchel before we head off to the office?
Tony cleared his throat with a gravely rasp, as if physically clearing away the thought. “Right you are,” he said. “I’m not one for shopping, though. Never get around it to it. Perhaps the man in the red suit will drop one down my chimney next week.”
“You never know,” she said, pinched face melting into a smile.
“Not that I don’t enjoy your company, but was there something you lot needed from me before the holiday break?” Shaking the sack lightly he added, “Now that I have your final papers in hand you’re almost free of me, save for the grades.”
“Oh!” said the third member of the trio, shaking her head and sending her cascade of braids shimmering. “We just wanted to say,” she paused, and looked at the other two for reassurance. They nodded, and she took a breath, then turned back to Tony. “We really loved your class.”
“Are you sure?” He blurted, then made an abortive gesture with his hand, as if to snatch the words back.
“Definitely!” she continued. “The material isn’t for everyone.” He laughed dryly, thinking of the number of early withdrawls from the course, but she continued, unfazed. “But we really loved how you connected the academic literature to your own applied work at the hospital and with the police. We wanted to ask … we know that you’re not teaching next semester, but do you have space for interns?”
Are they kidding?
“Really?” he sputtered?
“We’re all planning to apply for graduate school and an internship with you would be great experience,” whispered the young man still white-knuckling his notebooks.
Is he afraid of us, or afraid you’ll say no?
“Well,” Tony said weakly, taking a long sigh to give himself time to catch up. “Well,” he continued, “I’ll have to check with the university and my liaisons at the hospital and the station. I imagine it would be easier at the hospital – although there is health data, and privacy, but less danger, though that depends on your understanding of danger.” As he rambled his knee ached pointedly with a reminder that the hospital was not always safe. “Right!” he said sharply, cutting into his own train of thought. “If you leave me your names and contact information, I’ll look into it and get back to you after winter break.”
The three friends visibly perked up in relief. As they left the classroom they called back, “Thanks, Professor Hill!” “Have fun over the holidays, Professor Hill!”
Are you going to have a fun holiday, Tony? Going to spend it with family trimming the tree, eating Christmas cake, and reminiscing about good times? Where is your invitation from Vanessa, asking her boy to come home?
Tony very deliberately lifted the plastic sack and thought of the hours of grading that lay ahead of him, then of the stack of unopened journals on the side-table near his coziest chair, and the new edition of Laura Croft sitting snuggled beside a thick woolen blanket on his couch.
“I have a very nice holiday planned, thanks very much,” he muttered to himself, but he could swear that he could hear the bloodied card laughing at him from the depths of the plastic sack as he left the empty classroom and headed home.
In the warm dark of his home, free from prying eyes, Tony withdrew the card and slipped it from its envelope. The little RSVP form fell to the floor, unsent. In bright red and green letters the card shouted “You’re Invited!” but Tony knew that “You” was meant for a police officer. Everywhere we went in the department, he could still feel suspicious eyes on his back, still hear disdainful whispers echoed down the halls.
Yet, even as he began to imagine it, the picture shifted to the boozy, brassey atmosphere of a department do. In his mind’s eye the whispers were drowned out by Sinatra putting a shining star on the highest bough, and Paula’s giggles as she snogged her girlfriend not quite out of view after one mug of mulled wine too many.
There was Kevin, still looking sheepish and embarrassed even after redeeming himself in everyone’s esteem a thousand times over. He would join Kev in the corner over a beer and even though Kev would tell him straight out that he was talking like an alien nerd king, Kev would still listen to every word and let him gently tell him that it was high time he forgive himself, since everyone else had, long past. Kev would shake it off but smile and thump his shoulder.
And there would be Carol, all sharp edges, protective glares, and professional smiles. Carol would hover at the edges, clinking glasses with the brass and the plods, making sure to acknowledge everyone before the drink made things too fuzzy around the edges to keep track. He would watch her, circulating around the room, and see the exact moment when she saw Paula half-hiding behind the tree and her professional mask dissolved into fondness. When Carol saw him she would send that fond smile to him as well. They would stand, then slouch, then sit on the floor next to the tree, talking late into the evening on a warm cushion of mulled wine. Carol would wish him a happy new year filled with more happiness than he was capable of imagining, and just for a little while, he would believe her.
Pulling himself from his musings, Tony reached out and turned on the light. Thinking once more of his blanket and the scholarly and virtual worlds waiting mere steps away, he nonetheless picked up a pen and retrieved the RSVP postcard from the floor, checking “attending.” This year, he had something better than family he was obliged to share the holiday with, he had a family he chose, and who chose him in return.