THEY’D KILLED ME, but I survived. While lying on the hotel floor, my long black hair saturated with blood, I’d thought my life was over, except it wasn’t.
I had woken up in a hospital, alone, without my best friend, Sydney, and without my parents. Their sacrifice had begun first, and so their murders had been more thorough. When it was time for mine, our killers had been too drunk and too high to be careful—at least, that was what the police report had said.
But I knew the truth.
Five months after losing Sydney and my parents, I'd left for the quaint college town of Helena, Indiana, four states away. I'd gone from a murder victim to a freshman at Kempton Institute of Technology.
Standing in front of my dorm room mirror, naked, I raked back my too-long black bangs. Most girls gained a freshman fifteen. I’d been steadily losing weight for two years. It was hard to feel or taste or hurt after I’d died. There was nothing to celebrate anymore, so eating seemed more like a chore than anything else.
A ratty white towel lay underneath my feet, ready to catch the dark locks that I began shearing away from above one ear and then the other. I had thick and shiny hair that my father had said could have only come from my mother.
The scissors cut away all but four or five inches on top. I ran my fingers over what was left. It felt so good. The sides and a bit of the back were shaved, and the hair left on top nearly grazed my jawline. It was appalling. It was liberating.
I loved it.
Not that many people at KIT noticed me anyway, but if they had, they definitely wouldn’t recognize me now. Seventeen inches of shiny black hair that, minutes ago, had brushed the middle of my back were now lying on the floor. Every strand I’d sheared away had once been wet with my blood. Every time I saw my hair in the mirror or touched it, it was a reminder. No amount of shampoo would be enough to wash that night away.
To make sure I wasn’t just being impulsive, I had waited, but I couldn’t wait any longer.
After showering to wash the scratchy bits of hair from my skin, I stepped out and looked at my new reflection. It was a bit startling but exponentially less repugnant. I zipped up my favorite black hoodie over a worn Kurt Cobain tee, fought with my gray skinny jeans, and then gave the small diamond piercing in the right side of my nose one full turn before grabbing my backpack. I looked back at the mirror, admiring the absence of my tainted hair, and letting the somber thought soak in that, had she been alive, my mother would have died all over again at the sight.
Class one of week one of my junior year at KIT was Geobiology and Astrobiology with renowned astrobiologist, Dr. A. Byron Zorba. Dr. Zorba was what he was called by students, but because he had been my father’s mentor when Dad was a student here and later a family friend, I always called the professor Dr. Z.
For reasons unknown to me, Dad and Dr. Z had kept in touch over the years, and my father had consulted with the professor often. When Dr. Z visited, I’d relished hearing about his expeditions and research stories over dinner. The daughter of two idealistic scientists, I not only didn’t fit in with other children, but I also had no interest in conformity. When most children were pretending to be firemen or superheroes, I was working toward the Nobel Prize in my cardboard lab. Barbies and boys bored me, and I was sure I bored them. I could monopolize a conversation about the Keck Telescope before most kids knew how to write their names, and Dr. Byron Zorba was my hero.
After my parents’ funeral, Dr. Z told me I was going to Kempton whether I wanted to or not, and he practically filled out my college application. He also made sure that my inheritance was funneled properly and swiftly into a college fund.
Just before my first spring semester, Dr. Z offered me a position as his research assistant. Living on scientists’ salaries, my parents had struggled to pay the bills, and so a work-study program plus a research assistant scholarship would help subsidize my skimpy trust fund and provide for the day-to-day expenses that a college fund didn’t cover.
Freshly back from his most recent summer exploration trip to Antarctica, Dr. Z was still on a high from his find—a twelve-inch-by-fifteen-inch, twenty-seven-pound rock. I would be in charge of recording data. Admittedly, the rock didn’t exactly impress me, so Dr. Z’s enthusiasm was baffling.
I walked into the classroom, immediately squinting from the morning sunshine pouring in from the numerous long windows that lined the opposite wall. Dr. Z’s small and messy desk was at the bottom of a steep incline, center stage to dozens of tiny desks attached to uncomfortable chairs.
I joined the line of students making their way to whatever seat they chose, my feet shuffling slowly forward.
“Hey!” a familiar voice said right into my ear.
I leaned away, recognized the face, and began climbing the stairs that hugged the windowless wall. For reasons completely unknown to me, Benji Reynolds had hunted me like a bluetick coonhound since freshman orientation. I had hoped the new do would scare him away. He was clearly a mama’s boy and far too attractive and happy to appeal to me.
“Did you have a good summer?” he asked with a huge grin.
I was sure he did. With his golden tan, I imagined him lying by a pool from May to August or running along the beach next to the multimillion-dollar beach home his parents likely owned.
“Did you even try?”
“No.” I was beginning to get annoyed with the stream of students ahead of me who were taking far too much time to choose a seat.
“Hi, Benji,” Stephanie Becker lilted from her seat. She was short but had stunning curves, and she twirled a piece of her long blonde hair while staring at him with the most ridiculous look on her face. Her head was tilted, and her eyes clouded over when Benji looked for the source of his spoken name.
“Hi,” he said, giving her only a moment of his time before turning back to me. “I was hoping you’d be in this class.” His brown eyes brightened.
Even if he did have a strong jawline and a sweet disposition, I still couldn’t see him as anything but…well, Benji.
Finally at the tenth row, I sidestepped halfway down the aisle to the same desk I’d sat in the year before. I'd been in that classroom with a different professor the semester before, and I had a strange attachment to that desk.
Benji sat next to me, and I glared at him.
“It’s okay if I sit here, right?” he asked.
He laughed. His teeth were too straight, and his posture was too perfect. “You’re so funny. Your hair is…wow,” he said, trying to find the best inoffensive adjective.