[?]

The nervous “um”s started after Carla left and he was left all alone at that table with the uncomfortably pushy girl. She had dropped in on their study session halfway through his and Carla’s own homework run-through, and aggressively inserted herself into a space that no longer existed. She had squashed it out, along with all the extra atmosphere around that library desk and what little confidence he had had coming into this postbacc program. Not to mention Carla, who couldn’t breathe and left, her voice trailing off about her pet turtle she had to feed back at her apartment even though they were only three-fourths of the way finished with the assignment due tomorrow.

A pet turtle.

So for the past two hours he had been calling her Aggressive Anna, and had effectively forgotten her real name, though he was pretty sure it started with an M. Or an S. 

“Uh… you do… Hmm I can just give you the answer if you want.”

And so it went, for the rest of the suffocating afternoon, as she barreled her way through her review worksheet he had stopped working on the moment she arrived, going as fast as he could give her the answers. He had seen how she harassed the girl at the Help Desk about getting her student ID to work at the public computers, and wasn’t about to go there. The program had only begun last Tuesday and he wasn’t looking to make enemies. Especially not with this one.

As she laughed at her own jokes and peppered their conversation with frequent “shut up”s when he tried to participate. He sneezed at the nose-pricking clouds building up around them, and couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be the rest of his life in this program. 

Maybe it was the lackluster ventilation system in this half-basement library, but the little fingers of his asthma started to tickle in his lungs and his head was starting to feel light and floaty before he noticed that he was holding his breath. 

“Um, yeah so you have to calculate the molar mass of the, um” 

“Um, so for that one you need volume and”

“Um,” he asked, the unwritten question mark pulling up at the corner of the word and broadcasting distress signals to the rest of the library, though only the Help Desk girl noticed, and looked down in empathetic embarrassment. He was a lone beacon of SOS blips on an unwatched radar, a fading lighthouse in a forgotten corner of the ocean, flicker, flickering ever fainter. But he kept asking. Not with any hope of rescue, but because it was a knee-jerk reaction to the asthma and the Anna, both closing in on his organs for breathing. Or maybe they were the same — her pepper breath firing into his lungs in swirly concert with those clutchy fingers, on just the day he had forgotten his inhaler.

Um? 

Um?

Um?

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