I was at the whiteboard, acting scribe as for our study group. Since the resident smart people were debating the finer points of ecology facts and the others were chatting, I was free to yawn and observe the details of the library. It was almost eleven thirty, the night before the first wave of finals. There was not yet an ominous cloud hanging over us, only the simple camaraderie that comes of being in the trenches together.
We were in a semi-circle around the board—a sort of makeshift study room composed of some couches and various chairs that had been dragged over. I had again forgotten to reserve an actual room. No one complained of my incompetence specifically, but I knew I wasn’t on Mark’s good list.
He was one of the resident smart people, a good kid in his own way, with a stick for a body and a big clump of curly hair as a cap. He looked a little like an umbrella, as if his hair could shelter the rest of him in the event of a storm.
The rest of us were scattered about on the floor on or the furniture—to college kids it makes no difference. Jem, a petite Indo-Asian and Esther, with her favourite Doctor Who hoodie were to my left. Daniel and he who I privately refer to as “the Leech” to my other side. The Leech—whose actual name is Scott—had earned this nickname for his habit of using others to further his own lazy academic career. Ryan (the short Ryan, not the tall one) was patiently explaining something to someone who came in late. Others filled in the other spaces. It was pleasant, somehow, though we were all exhausted. We had grown into a family over the past weeks, between the lab work and various study sessions.
“Ah-CHOO!” came a stranger’s explosive sneeze from a few feet away, outside the circle. He was, like most of the other inhabitants of the library, in his twenties and probably fancied himself a hipster. I hadn’t noticed him before his nasal outburst. He was neither attractive, nor particularly repulsive.
“Bl—bless you,” I stuttered. The impediment to my speech was not a natural one. It was as if my friendly spirit was speaking against my will, my shy mouth trying to prevent the words from coming out. The stranger’s head began to turn. In a moment of inexplicable childish panic, I ducked behind the whiteboard into the midst of my classmates—as if the sneezer couldn’t see my jeans and utilitarian sneakers where the board stopped.
“Thank you?” I heard him answer confusedly, to no one in particular.
A few of my classmates looked at me quizzically and I began to laugh. I don’t think they had noticed the interaction, just my startled movement. Mark rallied the troops to try another word problem and they moved on. I was still reflecting on my own absurdity. Given how socially awkward I am, it was nice to have a group to duck back into.