Home > Just One Year

Just One Year
Author: Penelope Ward



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Ever have one of those days where everything seems to go wrong from the moment you wake up? Like someone up above just decided this was going to be a crappy day for you, and no matter where you go or what you do, you can’t seem to avoid trouble? Today had been that kind of day for me. It was sophomore orientation day at Northern University, and everything that could go wrong today had.

First, I was informed that I didn’t get into the chemistry class I’d wanted. They’d overbooked it and needed to oust the last few people who’d signed up. Instead, I’d have to suffer through physics, which I found boring and easy, because it was the only thing that fit into my schedule.

Then I found out Maura’s request to have an international student live with us for the year had been accepted. The university had a housing shortage and gave stipends to people who lived nearby that were willing to house some of the students. My stepmother had specifically requested an international student because she wanted to teach my little sister about a foreign culture. We’d be welcoming a guy from China. Finding out we were about to have a stranger living with us put another damper on my afternoon. I really didn’t feel like having to be “on” in my own house.

But that news was nothing compared to the worst part of my day: my current situation as I ran in search of a bathroom. I’d gotten my period unexpectedly while touring one of the newly constructed school buildings. As I rushed away from the science lab, the sound of my shoes hitting the ground echoed in the halls.

When I finally found a ladies’ room, a sign on the door read: OUT OF ORDER.

Of course!

Since I couldn’t afford to waste time searching for another bathroom, I made the hasty decision to use the adjacent men’s room. Putting my ear to the door, I didn’t hear any activity inside. Thankfully, it was actually empty when I went in.

There were two urinals on one wall and two stalls on the other. The first stall I entered looked like the toilet was about to overflow, so I opened the second one. The most horrid stench I’d ever smelled in my life emanated from it, but it did appear to at least be working. And I now had no choice but to use it. Holding my nose, I attempted to fish a tampon out of my purse with my remaining hand. Bending without touching the toilet seat, I took care of business as fast as I possibly could—but not before someone entered.

The door creaked as it opened. Great. Just great.

“Hang on!” I said from behind the stall door as I rushed to pull my shorts up. “Don’t take your pants off yet. I’m coming out.”

Don’t take your pants off yet? I cringed at my choice of words.

“I’m sorry?” a voice said.

I busted out of the stall. “The ladies’ room is out of order, and I really needed to use the bathroom.”

He sniffed. “Evidently.”

Shit! He thinks I’m responsible for the smell.

Don’t do it. Acknowledging will make you look guilty.

But I couldn’t help myself.

“I just want you to know—the smell…it wasn’t me. It was like that when I walked in.”

To make matters worse, this guy was pretty amazing looking, not the ideal person to have caught me in the men’s room. Was there actually an ideal person?

My heart beat faster as I washed my hands.

“Hmm…curious, if you ask me,” he muttered in his British accent.

“Curious? What does that mean?”

He smirked. “The whole thing is curious. You’re not supposed to be in here. You seem guilty. And it smells like someone died. Suspicious. But it’s none of my business.”

I shook off my hands and grabbed a piece of paper towel, ripping it harshly. “You can’t be serious.”

He looked me up and down. “It’s surprising a little thing like you could have created such a stench.”

My heart raced. “It wasn’t me.”

I knew the more I denied it, the worse it made me look. I needed to get out of here.

He chuckled. “Relax. I’m kidding.”

Is he? I rushed past him. “Have a good day.”

“Smell you later, love,” he called from behind me.

I headed through that door and down the hall like a bat out of hell.




My family lived about ten minutes from Northern’s main Boston campus in the town of Brookline. Our house was a large, old Victorian with dark wood fixtures and a winding staircase. Vintage was the best way to describe it—bright purple on the outside with a red door. It looked like something that belonged in a children’s book.

As beautiful as the bedrooms were, when I’d turned eighteen last year, my dad had allowed me to move downstairs. The basement had its own smaller bedroom and an adjacent bathroom. On my birthday, instead of partying or going out to redeem my complimentary Starbucks drink, I’d spent the entire day moving my belongings. My room now had its own door that led out to the yard. That made it easy to escape when I needed to. I liked being able to come and go as I pleased without having to talk to my father, Maura, or my twelve-year-old half-sister, Shelley. It wasn’t that I hated being around them; I just needed my space. But it didn’t make sense to pay for housing at the university when we lived so close. So the basement was my compromise.

Because we had so much room and lived so close to the college, Maura often offered one of our bedrooms to various people traveling through town or students needing to rent a room. Having strangers in my house had never bothered me when I was younger. But now that I’d be attending school with this latest international student, it was going to be weird having him around.

“You’re back late,” my stepmother said as I entered the kitchen that afternoon.

“Yeah. Orientation was stressful. I watched a movie after I left school to get my mind off things.”

Syd’s Theater, the small, independent movie house in my town, was practically empty during the weekdays. My stepmother was convinced the wrong kind of people lurked in there during slow times—like the middle of the day—but that was exactly when I liked going, when I was alone or nearly alone in the place.

She frowned. “I told you to stop going there.”

“It’s fine. No one’s ever bothered me. In fact, I was the only one in there today. No one can bother you if you’re alone. Aside from the floors being sticky, it’s harmless.”

“God knows what’s on that floor that’s making it sticky. And you were all alone? That’s exactly what I mean. You’re an easy target. I have a bad feeling about that place.”

I changed the subject because I didn’t need to have this dumb discussion again. “Did the exchange student arrive?”

Banging a metal spoon against the pot she was stirring, she said, “There’s been a change in plans. Bo Cheng from China is no longer going to be living with us.”

“Why not?”

“Turns out he’s highly allergic to cats. He showed up earlier with all of his stuff and couldn’t stop sneezing. He went back to the school and requested a reassignment.”

My hopes were up. “So, no one’s moving in?”

“They were able to find another student willing to switch with Bo. So now he’s coming instead. He’s supposed to be arriving tonight. I guess he’s packing up his stuff.”

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