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paracosm

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Dana has always been good with change. It comes with the territory of being a Navy brat. As a kid, she attended four different elementary schools, two middle schools, and she graduated high school with a class she’d only known for less than a year.

But there is a difference between moving with her family—keeping, if nothing else, the familiarity of her siblings, her parents, the old worn quilt on her old twin bed—and moving alone to the other side of the country, starting college (an exciting but daunting task on its own) nearly 3,000 miles away from everything and everyone she’s ever known.

Granted, she’s handling it better than some—better, for instance, than the girl who lives across the hall and cries on the phone to her parents every night, or the boy in her math class who comes only every third day and reeks of alcohol and pot when he does. Dana, at least, is making an effort.

She has gone to a few welcome mixers, to an underwhelming movie night hosted by her RAs, to a panel discussion on monoclonal antibodies with an audience of serious-looking grad students and old men in sweaters. She leaves her door open while she studies, just in case somebody should like to pop in. On two different weekends, she has allowed her roommate to take her out to parties filled with people who, even if they are new like her, seem to have known each other their whole lives. She has even formed a tentative working friendship with her bio lab partner, and she is frequently invited to have dinner in the dining hall with some of the girls on her floor (although, after a few nights of awkward small talk over rubbery pizza, she has stopped accepting).

But still. Despite the built-in camaraderie of the freshman experience, of being one of many sharing the same anxieties, excitements, and first-time hangovers, she feels…foreign. A little out of her depth.

She tells herself it doesn’t matter. College is, after all, simply a means to an end. But when she calls her parents on Sunday afternoons and her mother asks if she’s making friends, having fun, having the all-American college experience—the one she herself, married and pregnant right out of high school, was denied—well. Dana’s never enjoyed lying.

So she’s glad for the library. She may not know the difference between all the fraternities or where to find the best pizza in town or what a Jägerbomb tastes like, but she has the Dewey Decimal System down pat. She knows all the nicest reading nooks—even the ones the other freshman haven’t found yet—and she gets a startlingly large amount of satisfaction out of booting couples who think they’re sly enough to make out in the fifth-floor economics section. (In the three and a half weeks she’s been working here, she’s kicked out four couples. A rush, every time.)

She likes being the one who, at least for a few hours a day, gets to ask how can I help you? She likes that she has the answers. And she likes—perhaps better than anything—that here, it is perfectly fine to be alone. She doesn’t feel self-conscious behind the circulation desk the way she sometimes does sitting alone at a table meant for four in the student union. There’s nothing sad about it. There’s no pressure to socialize.

Or: there didn’t used to be.

Because now there’s a boy. A persistent boy. A persistent, irritating boy who is tall and lanky with a flop of dark hair and a collection of wrinkled t-shirts, who goes by his last name even though (in Dana’s opinion) his first is actually kind of nice, who, for some unknown reason, has set his sights on her and has made it his life’s mission to not give her a moment’s peace, who has decided that any day she is here, he will be too, hanging all over her desk, following her from floor to floor like a lost puppy, forcing her to listen to his questions and his stories and his inappropriate flirtations which, despite her best efforts, turn her pink as a cherry blossom, damn her Irish heritage.

Even when she tells him to get out—Mulder, I need to work—he will only grin and lean closer like he was never taught about personal space and say something completely disarming like, Dana, has anyone ever told you that you have Cassiopeia right…here? And then he will touch her little constellation of freckles so gently with the tip of his finger, like he’s really not touching her at all, and she will lose track of her filing or her faxing or whatever it was she was doing before he sauntered up, so cool and composed, to lean across her desk in the first place.

It would be easier, she thinks, if he wasn’t so nice. And clever. And handsome. If he was a dumb, ugly jerk, she would have no problem throwing him out (and she’d probably take an even greater amount of satisfaction in it than with the horny couples).

Because she’s not stupid. She knows that pretty, older boys with low, rumbly voices and plush, pink lips don’t seek out girls like her. Not with good intentions, at least. Boys—men, she corrects, because, god, he’s twenty-one—like him go for a different sort of girl. Taller. Older. Louder, funnier, sexier.

So there has to be some ulterior motive, has to, and it’s only a matter of time before his sweet exterior cracks to reveal whatever is really lurking beneath those puppy dog eyes and big smile and soft, gentle hands.

She hopes he just leaves her alone before then. It will be easier, really, for everyone involved.

It is a quarter past ten, and Dana lies curled on her lumpy twin bed, her phone cradled in both hands, her back to the wall. The cinderblocks are cool through her thin pajama top.

“He came in again today,” she says, low, like a secret.

“And?” Her sister’s voice is tinny and amused, two thousand-odd miles and a phone line away.

“He said I was beautiful,” she says. “He said I was going to win the Nobel Prize.”

Missy hmms. “For being beautiful?”

Dana shakes her head even though there’s nobody here to see it. Her roommate has been gone for three nights in a row.

“For curing cancer.”

Melissa snorts. “And what’d you say?”

Dana bites the inside of her cheek, the sore patch she’s nibbled raw.

“Nothing.” She draws the blankets tighter around herself. “I told him to leave.”

A pause. Dana thinks her sister might laugh at her, but Missy only sighs.

“Dana.”

“Yeah?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Don’t do that. This guy likes you. Why are you—”

“No, he doesn’t,” Dana says. She scrunches the phone cord between her fingers and releases it. Scrunches. Releases.

Melissa does laugh now. “Excuse me, what?

“He doesn’t like me, Missy. He’s just…playing.”

“Just playing.” Melissa doesn’t sound convinced.

“The way guys do. You know. When they don’t mean it.”

“Oh, my god, Dane.” Melissa laughs again. “‘Just playing’ is calling you after midnight to ask what you’re wearing. It’s…it’s buying you a few drinks, taking you home, and not calling you the next day. This boy is not ‘just playing.’”

When Dana doesn’t say anything, Melissa continues: “Babe,” she says. “Do you honestly believe this guy would be spending that much time in the library if he was ‘just playing?’ Last week, you told me he was there until eleven o’clock on a Friday. Trust me. No guy is spending his Friday night in a library for a girl if he’s just playing.”

Dana bites her cheek again, licks her bottom lip. She thinks about last Friday. He’d shown up a little after eight, fresh from a shower, his hair still damp. She’d been in the fourth floor biology section, pulling books on tree frogs to fill a hold request, and he’d materialized behind her, smiling, with a cup of coffee and a packet of peanut M&Ms. The flip in her stomach had almost knocked her over.

“Hey,” he said. “I was looking for you. Here. Sustenance.”

And he’d thrust the coffee and the candy out at her with a dip of his chin, almost shy. She’d had a lab at eight that morning, and she’d been exhausted. The coffee smelled heavenly—rich and creamy. Exactly what she hadn’t even known she’d needed.

But instead of taking it, she’d folded the books about tree frogs to her chest, lifted her brow, and said, “Mulder, no. You can’t be doing this.”

“Why not?” He seemed genuinely curious. Concerned, maybe, that he was breaking some food-and-drink policy.

She tightened her grip on the books and said, “I don’t need it. I’m working. I need to focus.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Caffeine. Sugar. I only have your best interests at heart.”

Her cheeks flamed and she turned away, trying to seem like she was looking for the next book on her list even though all the titles blurred together.

“C’mon, Dana,” he said. “I come in peace.”

“I’m busy.” She didn’t turn around even as he came up behind her, so close she could feel the heat of him, could smell his foresty, manly soap.

“What are you looking for?”

And she’d relented. Something about his closeness, about the way he leaned over her just a little bit, made her weak. She’d shown him the list, and she’d accepted his help.

But she hadn’t accepted the coffee or the candy. Not even when he’d followed her back to the circulation desk and spent the next two hours shifting his weight from one foot to the other, asking her about class, her day, the best book she read that week, her last name, her phone number, and would she like to have dinner one night—any night—he was free any time?

“Good night, Mulder,” she said about ten times before he finally left—not without a few glances over his shoulder—so she could close up.

He’d left the coffee (cold) and the candy (unopened) on the desk. The coffee she poured out in the women’s room. The M&Ms… The M&Ms she ate later, one by one, while she called Melissa, sucking the candy coating off to make them last.

“Dana,” Melissa says now, breaking the silence. “You know he’s not going to wait forever, right?”

Dana frowns against the receiver. “What do you mean?”

“I mean this guy is clearly crazy about you. But if you keep playing hard to get—”

“I’m not!”

“—then he’s going to get bored, okay? It’s fun for a little while, but then it’s like…like running your head into a brick wall, over and over and over again. Eventually, if you keep telling him to get out, he will. And he won’t come back.”

“Good,” Dana says, even though the unexpected ache in her chest doesn’t necessarily agree. “That’s what I want.”

“Hmm.” On the other end of the line, Dana hears the flick of a lighter. “Well. If you really don’t want him, tell him you’ve got a sister in California who would be more than happy to entertain him.”

An image—brief, but not brief enough—flashes through her mind and her stomach clenches.

“I have to go, Missy,” she says. “Good night.”

She recradles the phone on her bedside table and turns out the light. She imagines walking into the library tomorrow, no Mulder. And the day after that, no Mulder. And next week, no Mulder.

She imagines that today was the last day. She imagines him never coming back to lean over the circulation desk and waggle his eyebrows at her, or stand too close to her in the stacks, or surprise her with a little treat ever again.

Maybe she’d spot him on the green one day and he’d point her out to his buddies and laugh. Hey, that’s the girl I messed with last semester. You know, the dumb one who really thought I liked her? Maybe he’d be too busy making puppy dog eyes at some other girl—some tall, willowy, interesting girl—to even notice her.

It would be for the best. This past week has just been a sort of…temporary universal insanity. A paracosm. A Dickensian glimpse into what her life could be if, perhaps, she lived in some alternate reality (which, let the record show, she does not believe in—but hypothetically).

Here, Missy’s voice interrupts, echoing in her head. This guy is clearly crazy about you. She frowns into the darkness. It sounds so simple when her sister says it, so reasonable.

And then there’s Mulder’s voice, too, low and intimate, asking her to coffee, to dinner, to a movie, to anything, really, anything at all. And not just one day. Every day. Several times a day, again and again and again, no matter how many times she says no, says Mulder, please, says I have work to do.

Dana tosses and turns and draws the covers up over her head, curling herself tight against the seductive pull of fantasy. She has always been the level-headed one, never a daydreamer, never impractical. She resents the idea that some boy who will no doubt be gone in another week’s time can ruffle her so much.

Huffing, she hugs a pillow tight to her chest and resolves to put Fox Mulder from her mind. It works, like most nights, only until she begins to dream.