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Friday, September 4, 2015

Group Work by Meradeth Houston

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Some homework will push you over the edge.

***
Classes began three days ago. There was already homework. And not just the “read chapters 2-8” in your textbook kind. Not here. Some of the students seemed excited about this. It wasn’t as if the assignments were boring. Far from it. But it was also difficult. Tedious. And left him feeling drained.

Hah. Drained. He’d have to remember that.

Tonight’s work involved something that made him distinctly uncomfortable. His professor, the older one with nose hair that needed trimming, had squawked about “the eternal need to belong, to integrate.” So tonight, they were supposed to do just that. Find a group, and using what they’d learned over the past two lectures, figure out how best to infiltrate the group.

The girl sitting next to him, the one who took copious notes and who wouldn’t even look at him, even when he dropped a pen—on purpose—under her chair, smiled as she made a large note in her planner. That was probable what got their teacher to keep assigning things like this, decade after decade. Girls like her. Who liked this kind of thing.

Weirdo.

He hadn’t been the only one to wonder about the assignment, listening in on other students as they filtered from the classroom. Quite a few were already bemoaning the assignment. Several were attempting to figure out a way to lie and pretend they’d done the work. Not that they’d succeed. Not here.

He’d heard stories of students who’d tried to cheat. Someone said there was a plaque with their ears stapled to it somewhere in the office. Urban legend, for certain.

But now, with evening darkening the windows and every other possible task for the next two days of class completed, there was no other choice but to figure out how to best complete the assignment.

Grabbing his wallet, and ensuring he wasn’t wearing anything that might give him away, he made his way out of the dormitories. Campus was mostly dark between the ivy-coated buildings (“Oh, it’s so nice! Very collegiate,” his mother had said when they’d toured the campus when he’d been dropped off last week. His dad had given him a half-hearted shrug. It was his fault he was here, anyhow.). The gates opened to the street, and after some time exploring the internet, he’d found several coffee shops nearby.

Chances were that most of those had already been staked out by his classmates.

Staked out. Hah. Another one to remember.

He figured he’d head a little further away. Google said it would take fifteen minutes to get there, but after two wrong turns, it took more like a half hour.

The restaurant/bar had advertised live music tonight, with the promise of no cover and a good time. Hopefully enough people would be present to try out his skills. That was all he had to do, right? Try? Or would his grade be based on how well he managed to Infiltrate? Why hadn’t he thought to ask that before?

The front of the little place lit up the sidewalk and posters plastered the glass. The thrum of music sounded from inside. Outside, enough smokers congregated to ensure there would be people inside.

His lungs constricted in the cloud outside the door and he decided against his first thought to try and work them. Nope, no smokers. He couldn’t imagine asking for a cigarette anyhow—it would be such a poser move.

Okay, so this whole exercise was about being a poser. But still. It was different.

Inside, he looked around, sizing up the sea of faces, the band on the small stage on the back left. They were belting out something that at least had a decent beat. The woman singing, well, he’d heard worse.

Infiltrate. Infiltrate. How was he supposed to do this again? The lectures over the past few days had covered finding common ground with someone. Starting a basic conversation.

It had all seemed so simple in principle. Now the detailes felt hazy and the purpose even more ridiculous.

Then his stomach rumbled. A hand over it, almost by instinct. No, not ridiculous. Necessary.

Okay, so, pick a group. He went off to one side and when a perky waitress stopped by his table, he ordered a coke. No way could he do this with alcohol in his system. Not even with the fake ID in his pocket—standard issue from school.

A large group of people around his own age laughed and caroused near the dance floor, too loud and too drunk to be appealing. A couple of tables over, two girls were deep in conversation. Some more people played pool near the door.

And the dance floor itself was occupied by a group weaving to the music.

No one sat alone. If that wasn’t motivation, he didn’t know what was. Once his drink arrived, he drank too much, almost choked on his ice, and felt his ears grow warm.

Maybe he should just go back to him room. Spare himself this embarrassment and take the failed grade. There had to be other ways to do this.

The table next to him, empty, attracted the next group to come through the door. Several girls, two guys. They all knew each other, clearly, which wouldn’t make this easier.

Or would it?

From watching them out of the corner of his eye, it was obvious there were two couples and one third wheel in the group. She was cheerfully chatting with the two couples, the five of them friends. And as they drew nearer, her eyes flickered to him.

And he smiled. The careful, shy smile that didn’t feel fake. The kind that was safe, not weird.

Or so he hoped.

And the girl, she smiled back. Ducking her head a moment, like she couldn’t believe she’d done that.

How to capitalize on that?

Either by luck, or orchestration he hadn’t witnessed, the girl ended up seated near him. She continued her chatter with the group, but even though he bobbed his head to the beat and attempted to look interested in the music, he could see her continue to glance his way.

It took fifteen minutes of this, sweat gathering along the base of his neck, before she walked by, on her way back from the bar.

And then it was so simple.

Not planned, just instinct.

Her purse strap caught on his chair. An “accident” obviously.

And he laughed and freed it. Meeting her eyes, his stomach rumbled, too low to be heard over the music.

“Liking the music?” he asked.

“I love this band!” she gushed. “I come see them here every time they play.”

And with that, it was easy. A few small lies about how much he enjoyed the music. A small compliment on her dress (to be fair, she did look good in it). And a few minutes later, he’d been invited to join their table.

Introductions all around. And he felt the rising wave of elation. He’d done it! Figured out the whole Infiltration thing. Maybe he’d actually pass that impossible class. Impress his dad. Graduate.

The girl, she watched him, laughed with him, and they joked and he couldn’t help wondering if anyone who looked over thought three couples sat at the table.

The singer at the microphone announced a “slow one” to ease them off for the evening. The other couples disappeared onto the dance floor. And the room felt too warm, like the spotlight had eased onto him without his noticing.

He glanced at the girl, while she avoided his gaze. What was the protocol in this sort of situation? They hadn’t gotten this far in lecture.

“Would you like to,” he motioned toward the dancers.

She seemed to size him up for a long moment. Her blue eyes scanned him as surely as an X-ray. But then she smiled. Nodded. Let him take her hand and lead her into the sea of humans slowly circling.

And words failed him. It was all he could manage to keep his hands on her hips, the slow swaying circle, in time to the earthy tones the singer crooned. Would his teacher know if he failed at this step? Would it matter?

He didn’t really care. Because right now, he really did want to know more about her. Curiosity about her life, her school, her lips. Was that the whole point of this assignment?

If it were, that was impressive on the part of the professor.

And, really, he didn’t care. It was enough to enjoy the dance. And when the song finally came to a close, he was almost surprised to see the look on her face, peering up at him.

“Do you think we both get to count this toward our grade?” she asked, a small smirk giving her petite features an impish look.

The implication of what she said took a moment to process, like the cogs and wheels in his brain couldn’t turn fast enough to work out what she meant. And then the gears caught and his mouth dropped open.

“You’re in…” he trailed off, unable to finish that thought. Heat, burning and almost painful, seared up his face and concentrated in his ears.

She leaned in, conspiratorially. “There weren’t any rules against working as a team. And I think we managed pretty well together.”

He let her lead him back to their table, where the others laughed and joked and said their goodbyes. Exchanged numbers to hang out again. And as they stepped out into the night, the fresh air breathing life into him, she grabbed his hand.

“Come on. We’ll work out the details on the walk back to the dorms.”

***

Meradeth's never been a big fan of talking about herself, but if you really want to know, here are some random tidbits about her:

>She's a Northern California girl and now braves the cold winters in Montana.

>When she's not writing, she's sequencing dead people's DNA.

>She’s also an anthropology professor and loves getting people interested in studying humans.

>If she could have a super-power, it would totally be flying. Which is a little strange, because she's terrified of heights.

Find Meradeth Houston online at:www.MeradethHouston.comFacebookTwitterInstagramTumblrAmazonGoodreads, and of course her blog!