Happy Monday! Hopefully this post works out so I can bring you your Monday sample chapter even while I am out in Colorado climbing around on the mountains. 🙂
Runey woke up with Juleia still cocooned in his arms; last night had been madness he knew. It was unprofessional at best to not hold true to his assigned break up with Juleia, but something about the immediacy of her had sloughed away all his common sense. And holding her now, he still didn’t want to let her go—especially when he contrasted this moment to the painful emptiness of his bed the previous morning. However, the voice that he had successfully drowned out last night was back this morning in full force, you need to get her OUT of here Runey, you can’t do this again! Think about it a little—you aren’t going to back out of the assignment, but you are never going to be successful at it if you are carrying on with Juleia on the side. Your heart will never be fully in the operation, and Mara isn’t the type of girl whose carefully constructed walls will be torn down by some half-ass effort! Runey knew all this was true; he could feel the common sense side of his mind once again taking over. He could feel the twining pull of the challenge to succeed in his mission coming back, the tendrils wrapping their way back around the parts of his mind they’d lost hold of last night.
Then he had a keen sense of the biggest wrong of all he had committed—he had led Juleia on. With each touch and caress in the dark the night before, even with the weight of his arms around her now, he was committing a falsehood to her; giving her a reassurance that everything was fine, that everything would go back to normal. Hot moisture burned behind Runey’s eyes as he thought of all the pain he had already caused Jules, and now he knew he had caused even more—maybe even a worse blow than the first time. Runey understood Juleia well enough to know she had probably been nurturing a wellspring of false hope throughout the day yesterday, which had been—in her mind—validated by the events of last night. The very worst part, Runey realized, was that she would repeat the whole process again; a dreamer and a romantic, Juleia would not simply let the two of them fall apart—she believed they were destined for each other. Runey knew life did not work like that; people stayed together or fell apart through conscious effort. And he was not making that effort—not by a long shot. Last night was sloppy, he thought, I need to do better. I need to focus.
Runey had not realized what a difficult task maintaining focus would be; he had lived his whole life with the ease of one who is both intelligent and personable—problems simply seemed to smooth themselves out, and no task seemed too daunting. However, he was now faced with the sobering realization that what the Professor had assigned him to do was going to be harder than Runey had expected when he first saw Mara’s face on the projection screen in the conference room. Runey’s phone buzzed and emitted a soft chime; slowly, carefully extracting his arms from around Juleia who sighed sleepily but did not wake up, Runey reached down and fumbled in the pocket of his jeans which were pooled by the bed and extracted his cell phone. He tapped the screen, and shot straight up in bed upon reading—“7 Missed Calls, 4 New Messages,” was displayed on his home screen. Runey cursed grimly. The missed calls were all from the Professor, all occurring after 9:30, when he had met Juleia in the hallway outside his room. He scrolled through to the messages and read,
“Runey, just checking in to see how today played out. Let me know. –P.”
“Check back in, I need a report. –P.”
“Call me back. Now. –P.”
“Report in the morning to The Underground. Room 6. I’ll be waiting. –P.”
Runey’s stomach sank; the Professor definitely knew something was up. It was possible he knew the entire story of what had happened last night. The College of Design housed a larger number of students who were involved in the Restorationists than any other college; it would be easy for the Professor to have eyes and ears everywhere—not to mention the presence of the cameras at each end of the hallway on every floor. The cameras would have been able to see Juleia leaving her dorm room, entering Runey’s floor, and Runey pulling her into his room. He winced internally. It would take all his skills of persuasion to get the Professor to let him stay on this assignment; after all, he had only been on it one day and already he had shown a massive lack of character and dedication. Runey knew he would be banking on the Professor’s personal faith in him.
He realized he needed to start correcting his errors immediately, if he was to seem truly sorry for his lapse and ready to go forward with full-force. He checked the time on his phone and quietly cursed when he saw it was already after eight o’clock; in a perfect world, he would have already been down in the Underground, preferably even arriving there ahead of the Professor. Focus, Runey, he thought, narrowing his thoughts into a task list. First task was to send the message to Mara as he had planned last night. Scrolling through to messages, he typed, “Hey, Mara. I know we didn’t get much of a chance to talk yesterday. How about we meet up this evening? –R.” That done, he opened a blank message and addressed it to the Professor, “I know we need to talk. I’m on my way. See you in Room 6. –R.” The final task was the hardest one; sliding out of bed, Runey quietly slunk into the same green t-shirt and worn jeans he had donned the day before, then crept slowly out the door, easing it closed to prevent it from slamming and waking Juleia.
Luckily, Juleia was a deep sleeper, so it was easy to sneak away. Runey hated leaving her without talking first, or without at least leaving a note or message saying where he was going, but he knew this way would send the clearest message to her about his intent to continue their break up—that things would not go on as they used to. Usually, in the mornings, the two would lie together in bed quietly talking sometimes up until the very last minute before class, at which they would scurry into their clothes and dash off to their studios looking disheveled and full of happy secrets. This morning, he knew, she would feel his absence just as deeply as he had felt hers the morning before. He sighed; focus…his mind once again insisted. Stopping at the lobby bathroom, Runey washed his face and ran a hand through his hair in attempts to smooth it into a semblance of order. Checking his phone as he walked down the front steps of the dorms, he saw that Mara had not responded to his message yet; this disheartened him, and he hoped she would give him a—preferably favorable!—response before he got to the Underground so he would have some positive material to present to the Professor.
Getting to the Underground was something Runey had never done in broad daylight, and it made him even more worried about the meeting since the Professor had felt it necessary to risk a breach of security by calling him down in the light of day. Turning back in the direction of Design Block A, Runey was glad that it was a another warm fall day—thus, many classes would be taking their lessons outside on the green by the lake. As he rounded the bend to Block A, he saw his assumption was correct as groups of students with easels or sketchpads were clustered and sprawled on the grassy banks. Runey walked up the familiar concrete steps to Block A, and into the lobby where rainbow chunks of light fell across the worn purple sofas where he had supped and napped the night before. Making his way back down the same rubber treaded stairs as yesterday, he wondered if the Professor or others in the Restorationists had purposefully placed his and Mara’s first meeting place so close to the entrance to the Underground. Perhaps they had held so much faith in Runey’s sway that they thought maybe he would bring her down into the Underground right then and there? Runey laughed wryly to himself and thought, well if they had that much faith in me then, they almost certainly don’t anymore!
He strolled past the familiar Studio 76 to the far end of the hall where there was a door marked “Studio 4b.” The numbering system of studios in the Design blocks always made Runey smirk—the numbering made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Legend had it that the designer of the building had done the numbering that way as an added quirk. Runey’s private theory was that the designer had chosen that way as an added obstacle to first year students. It had taken Runey weeks of using his mapping device on his phone to get to class before he finally untangled the messily numbered routes in his mind. Thus, Studio 4b was in the basement, just like as Studio 76. 4b was sometimes used for overflow classes, but only under dire circumstances as the room had been subject to extensive water damage—the floor adjacent to the foundation wall had an unpleasantly spongy feel to it, and the air in the entire room had a moldy musk as it was drawn into the nostrils. In the far back corner of the room was a supply closet; Runey strode across the floor (and over the spongy spots) to the supply closet and withdrew a tiny, very old key from his pocket. To most students who tried to get into the supply closet, the old, weary door appeared to be immovably jammed into its frame—stuck beyond attempt to get it open. However, Design students who were members of the Restorationists knew that this was not the case. The door was simply locked, and when the small key was twisted in the rusty lock, the door swung open and closed with surprising smoothness and ease.
Runey turned the lock, opened the old door, stepped inside and then quickly shut himself in. He didn’t think anyone had seen him; all the classrooms on this level had appeared to be empty when he walked down the hall. He locked himself into the closet with a click, and, with a practiced hand, pulled a string dangling from the ceiling near his ear. A lone bulb cast a gritty light over the small space which was lined with decaying particle board shelves crammed with dusty boxes, jars of used paintbrushes with stiffly splayed bristles, and broken easel stands. With Runey’s tall frame, it was easy to reach the top shelf and move aside a box so covered with dust and old water spots that most wouldn’t desire to look at it, let alone touch it. However, Runey nonchalantly pulled the box forward and over to the side, revealing a slight impression in the wall that could only be seen by the most careful of observers. He pressed a corner of the small area, and a tiny door, camouflaged to look like the surrounding wall popped open, revealing a small, gray keypad.
Runey typed in the familiar key code and stepped back as the entire back wall of the closet slid slowly and smoothly into the floor. In front of him now was the entry point of a flight of narrow, steep stairs, irregularly lit—the same stairs he and Juleia had walked down holding hands barely a day ago. That moment seemed much longer ago to Runey as he stepped through the door into the stairwell. The air instantly became cooler, and his eyes struggled to adjust to the very dim light as the wall behind him rolled back up and locked itself in its original position. Runey checked his phone once again as he trotted down the stairs; still no response from Mara. Ominously, there had been no reply from the Professor either; Runey quickened his pace down the stairs. He arrived at the lighted tunnel and the metal door much more expeditiously than he had with Juleia. Scanning his palm hurriedly, he strode purposefully through the metal doors as soon as they had spread wide enough for him to move through, and moved briskly down the hall.
Room 6 was one of the many nondescript doors which lined the hallway of the Underground—the secret space underneath the campus where the Restorationists met. Runey knocked on the plain white door. “Come in,” he heard from within. The interior of Room 6 was no more remarkable than the exterior hallway—a utilitarian metal desk, rough concrete floors, bare cinderblock walls, harsh fluorescent lighting. The Professor was seated behind the desk, scrolling through something on his slim silver laptop; he looked up upon Runey’s entrance, and the dark brown eyes held nothing of their usual warmth. Runey still didn’t know how much exactly the Professor knew, so he decided to start the conversation on the defensive, “Look, Prof, you can’t expect me to do it all in one day,” he said compromisingly, leaning forward and gripping the back of one of the folding chairs in front of the desk.
“No, of course I never expected you to accomplish your mission in the span of one solitary day,” the Professor motioned for Runey to sit down, “However, I did expect you to adhere to the assigned task,” he continued, his voice taking on a rare cold edge, his usually smiling mouth set in a grim line. Runey remained silent, knowing it was tantamount to wait and let the Professor reveal his hand of cards first. It didn’t take him long to oblige, “Runey, I will get right to the point; when you didn’t respond to my message last night regarding your status, I inquired about you to some of the other students in our organization. They told me that you were last seen with Juleia. Quite frankly, I could not believe what I was hearing, so I was forced to go to the dormitory security footage where, indeed, I saw you encounter Juleia. Not only that, but took her into your room! The video makes it quite clear that was your own initiative.” He turned the laptop around to face Runey and a high resolution video of Runey taking Juleia’s arm and pulling her into his room played in a continuous loop.
Ok, now I know what you know; the next step is contrition and reconciliation, the voice in Runey’s head sounded confident, but Runey wasn’t so sure. His deep, friendly connection to the Professor was, he knew, his only shot to stay on this assignment. “Ok, Prof, I made a mistake; I know it. I should have known it last night, but I know it now,” he allowed his head to fall into his hand in what he hoped was a humbling gesture, “I will admit, yesterday morning was tough—without Juleia, knowing she was gone—but then as I was walking to the Campus Green, my mind started to latch onto the challenge of it all. When I finally met Mara, I thought I had a foolproof line of attack, but she is different, she is challenging. Infuriating, but challenging. It wasn’t until long after the meeting was over that I realized she is an extremely interesting person. When I realized that, I realized I could start replacing thoughts of Juleia with thoughts of her; and I was surprised at how easy that was for me to do. My mind was really conforming to the new assignment—until I came back to my dorm. When I saw Juleia in the hallway, all my focus went out the window; when she is around, all I can think of is her and I. It’s just so easy to fall back into it, like coming back home…”
“Or sliding down a slippery slope,” the Professor said archly, having remained silent up until that point. However, Runey thought he could see the man softening in a slight warming of his eyes, an almost imperceptible loosening of the jaw muscle.
“I just truly regret last night—it reflected badly on me, it showed lack of commitment to the mission, and, above all, it was really unfair to Juleia…” It was not hard for Runey to summon a real note of sorrow as he listed out his failures, and when he spoke of Juleia, his voice cracked with emotion. He was not acting, but the scene had the desired effect on the Professor, whose face now softened considerably.
“That’s right, Runey, it was terribly unfair to Juleia. She cannot be led to believe that you take this mission anything less than one hundred percent seriously. Because that is where your mind is at, correct? I won’t have anything less than total dedication,” The Professor said, and Runey knew he had rounded the bend, and was out of danger.
“Yes. Absolutely. I am already back on course. I messaged Mara this morning to arrange a meeting,” Runey said seriously.
“And what did she say?” the Professor asked, his eyes keen with interest.
“Well, she hasn’t responded yet,” Runey admitted, willing his phone to vibrate in his pocket and salvage the situation.
The Professor’s eyes narrowed, but, surprisingly, he simply said, “Well that’s fine; she is undoubtedly very busy. Hopefully you will soon uncover whatever it is she is busy on! Keep me apprised of any communication you have with her regarding setting up a meeting. If she continues to ignore you, larger measures may have to be taken.”
“I understand, Prof. I suppose if she doesn’t answer, I will have to go find her up in Science,” Runey thought out loud.
“Quite right. I’m sure you will be able to track her down. Now, Runey, I want us to be back on our traditional good terms, but there is something you must understand. Earlier in our chat, you mentioned a sentiment that you felt badly for exacerbating Juleia’s pain. On that note, you should desist any further contact with her, or her situation will become exponentially worse. And I am not just talking about the deterioration of her emotional state! Let me, once again, be quite frank; if Juleia continues to interfere in your mission, we will remove her—off the University, to another Restorationist unit in a different sector where she can be of assistance. Do I make myself clear?” The Professor said in a flat, business-like tone of voice which was more menacing than if he had raised his voice.
“Abundantly,” Runey replied. Already, his mind was spinning in a thousand different directions, and for the first time he found himself questioning the word of the Professor—Juleia’s “removal” he feared could quite possibly be more sinister than going to another sector. The cold menace was not far from the Professor’s voice, and Runey was reminded that he was involved in a high-stakes organization, willed to take down the current establishment no matter what the risks—or incidental casualties along the way.
“Now, I need to get on with my day; I’ve already had to cancel all my morning sessions for this meeting. Although I wish I could stay and discuss things with you more; I am fascinated to know more of your impressions of Mara,” he said with a warm grin.
Runey, the master of human interaction, detected this intentional shift in mood and altered himself to match, standing up to shake the Professor’s hand on his way out, “Look for a message from me, hopefully soon! I will be in touch,” he said with a smile as the Professor walked towards the door. “Hey wait, Prof, you forgot your laptop!” he said, picking up the device and holding it out.
The Professor turned back from the door, buttoning his tweed jacket, “No, Runey that stays here, and I suggest you do too until you see that Juleia has left your room.” Then the Professor smiled at him once again and left the room, letting the door bang close behind him. Runey immediately sat down and studied the laptop; indeed, while the two had been talking, the camera feed had turned back live and was now showing a view of Runey’s dorm hall. He could see his room, 906, quite clearly. He cursed under his breath. Why had Juleia been so stupid to come to his room in the first place? Getting up from his chair, he opted instead for the cheap rolling chair with slightly more padding which the Professor had been occupying behind the desk—he needed a comfortable seat, because, knowing Juleia, he was going to be here awhile.
Runey smirked sardonically to himself; he could catalog the series of emotions and actions Juleia would go through in his mind as if he was right there in the room with her. After years of study, he knew how the girl operated. She would wake—she probably already had by now—and notice he was gone; slowly, then all at once, rage would set in. Most people would walk out the door immediately after the snub of waking up alone in a bed they had shared the night before with another person, but not Juleia; she would want to mete out her wrath on him personally whenever he came back to the room (and a small part of her would wait in hopes it was a mistake, that he was simply out getting breakfast or coffee). Eventually anger would give way to sadness; she would lie in his bed and sob. Finally, she would resolve herself to leave, but wanting to have the last word, he could see her almost clear as day sitting at his small wooden desk writing him a note, not liking the first two or three attempts and crumpling them into the trash can. When she was satisfied with the note, then she would finally see no other choice but to leave. Sighing, Runey knew he had until early afternoon in the small, plain Room 6 of the Underground; it was now very clear that the Professor would know if he left too soon—he couldn’t decide if he was unsettled or impressed by the Professor’s level of surveillance. Putting the thought in the back of his mind for further review later, he pulled out his phone. There was still no message from Mara, so he leaned back and trained his eyes on the space outside room 906.