Forever Innocent

By Deanna Roy

You are not forgotten.


Chapter 1: Corabelle

I had finally arrived at the first day of the rest of my life, and I was late.

Clumps of students broke apart as I ran along the sidewalk. I had memorized the campus map since I was too old to be wandering around like a lost freshman, but I hadn’t considered how long it might take to find a parking spot on the first day.

The counselor who reviewed my transfer records warned me that some classes dropped no-shows to make room for other students, so I could not miss roll call. I’d waited so long. I couldn’t screw up now.

I turned by the glass library built in honor of Dr. Seuss and barreled toward Warren Mall. Faces and colors blurred past me. I noticed with some satisfaction that I wasn’t the only one in a hurry. A young couple also ran across the grass, hands grasped between them.

My heart made a tiny pang, but I was used to that. Relationships weren’t anything I let myself have time for, not even in the last year, when I had little else to do but serve coffee and wait until I qualified for in-state benefits at UC San Diego. One day, I told myself. But not now. My refusal to date had earned me the nickname Frozen Latte at work, but I wouldn’t crack, even if the hottest man in San Diego sauntered up to the counter at Cool Beans and asked for chai with a side of Corabelle.

Not worth it. I knew that better than anyone.

I pushed past several leisurely walkers and burst into the engineering hall. The door to the stairwell required a hard yank, but once inside, I took the steps two and three at a time. I needed this class to make up some credits I lost when I left New Mexico. An expensive loss, now that all my scholarships had been forfeited, but I’d been saving. I’d squeak by like everyone else, working crap jobs and racking up student loans. I was lucky admissions took one look at my status as a National Merit Scholar and asked no questions about my sudden departure from my last school.

Or my arrest record.

I paused in the hallway to catch my breath and get my bearings. The room was dead ahead. I jerked open the door. The professor looked up in a smallish lecture hall with about one hundred seats. He shuffled the papers on his podium and resumed calling out names. “Study Group Two will work with Amy Powers.” He pointed at a blond woman in jeans and a UCSD T-shirt. “She’ll be your TA for the duration of the course. Last names G through P will check in with her when we break.”

I flattened myself against the wall, looking for Jenny, a girl I worked with at Cool Beans who had convinced me to take astronomy. “The star parties rock!” she said. The class was apparently fun and easy. I could use a little of that, especially since my lit courses were serious and doused with lengthy writing assignments.

I spotted her hot-pink ponytail in the center of the back row. She waved me over, lifting a backpack from the seat beside her. As I moved that way, the professor pointed out another TA, a scrawny boy who looked like a ’90s throwback in lumberjack plaid and ripped jeans.

“I was getting worried!” Jenny hissed.

“Did they take roll?” I yanked my iPad out of my backpack and breathed deeply, trying to get my heart to slow down.

“No, the TAs are going to do it.” She pointed at the lumberjack. “He’s cute, and he’s yours.”

I appraised ’90s boy a second time but still didn’t feel it. Jenny had been leading the charge to get me to lose my nickname and date somebody, anybody. She read online profiles to me like an auctioneer might extoll the virtues of a 1920s cigarette case.

“I don’t think so,” I whispered.

Jenny rolled her eyes. “You’re forgetting the second most important reason to go to college — da boyz.”

“I’m just going to graduate in a year and move on. No point starting something now.”

“Yeah, you said the same thing when I met you six months ago.” Jenny chewed on the end of her pen. “I think I’ve gone through four relationships since then.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Relationships?”

Jenny jabbed the pen at her notebook. “Okay, bang-fests. It’s all semantics.”

The professor laser-pointed at a book title on the projector screen as I surveyed the room. Lots of freshmen, judging by their expressions, which varied from panic to bravado. I’d probably be the oldest one here at twenty-two.

“Students, let’s break so you can meet your TA, and they can talk about the study groups and external labs. We will have six meetings outside of class hours for measuring celestial occurrences.”

Celestial occurrences. My favorite poem came to mind — When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, a comparison between the scientific and romantic views of the heavens. I often felt the two extremes at war within me — the stargazer and the pragmatist. This class should satisfy both, and maybe one day when I stood in a lecture hall to talk about what inspired literature, I would have a brilliant example.

The room got noisy as students gathered their things to move.

“I got the straitlaced blond chick,” Jenny said. “Just my luck.”

I stuck my iPad in my pack. “You between boyfriends again?”

“Nah. I’m just always on the lookout for my next ex.” Jenny shoved her bag on her shoulder. “If you’re not interested in lumberjack boy, send him my way!”

I shook my head as I headed toward the scrawny guy. The room segmented and clustered around the three TAs. I felt another pang as I thought about how, if life had gone normally last year, that would be me right now, a new grad student rather than twenty credit hours away from my bachelor’s degree. I hung back at the rear of the group.

“I’m Robert,” the TA said. “Our group will be stargazing every other Thursday. If you miss one, you can make it up with another study group.” He passed out a stack of papers. “On this list, you’ll get your spectrum lab assignments. Five of you will work together and be graded together for those.”

A girl passed a page back. I scanned for my name but caught something else. I gripped the strap of my bag, not believing it. Impossible. Gavin couldn’t be here. He hadn’t even graduated high school. Just took off without telling anybody where he was going.

I searched the cluster of students until I saw him, holding the paper to his face, also not believing. He looked up, no doubt to find me.

His face was partially obscured by a ball cap, but he pulled it off as he scanned the cluster of students. Then he saw me and our gazes clashed.

The rest of the room dissolved. I had forgotten everything — his hard jaw lined with stubble, his fierce expression. Shock splintered through us both. I could see it in those unsettled blue eyes, the drawing together of his brows. He swallowed and I could only stare at his neck and chest and arms, the places where I once felt completely safe.

“Corabelle,” he said, and then, as if he’d been expecting me all along, “you came to the school by the sea.”

My head whipped around to the door as if I could x-ray all the way through the walls, across campus, and down the short path to the Pacific. Our school by the ocean. The pictures we had drawn when we played teacher as children. Of course.

How had I not realized the real reason why I had come here? And how had I not known he would too? 

Chapter 2: Corabelle

I couldn’t do this.

Screw this elective, screw getting dropped. Hell, maybe screw this school. I turned and dashed for the door.

“Wait! Who are you?” the TA called out. “I need to check roll.”

“She’s Corabelle Rotheford,” Gavin said. “And I’m Gavin Mays. Don’t drop us.” His voice had an edge to it, like he was not to be messed with. The Gavin I knew never talked that way, but I had no time to think about it.

I wrenched open the door and hurtled into the hall. He’d follow me, and I had to lose him, had to think. I darted down the corridor and flung myself through the exit to the stairwell.

I slipped on the third step and began sliding, but managed to clutch the rail before I hit the ground. I pulled my backpack around to avoid crunching anything I couldn’t afford to replace. This was crazy. I had to pull myself together.

My sneakers found a solid step, and I wriggled back to standing. The door blew open above me, no doubt Gavin. I sat down. If he wanted to talk, we would talk. It wouldn’t kill me. Hell, he was the one who deserted me on the worst day of my life.

I heard his footfalls on the stairs and sensed him sitting beside me even though I looked away, down the hole of the stairwell.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said. “Did you come for me?”

I whipped around at that. “Is that what you think?”

He frowned. “I just assumed you found out.”

“If I had known you were here, I never would have come.”

His jaw tightened. “Right. Makes sense. Stupid kid thing, us wanting to teach by the sea.”

I could see he’d changed, was jaded inside. I couldn’t blame him. I fought the urge every day to hate everyone and everything, to hate life.

The air grew stuffier, hotter, as if we brought too much emotion inside the concrete walls. My chest hurt from holding it all in, the anger threatening to dissolve into grief.

Stay mad, I warned myself, but all the things I wanted to forget came back, moments I’d shoved into the back of my brain. Impulsively, I touched my stomach, still bearing stretch marks, tiny white rivers like lightning bolts from my hips to my navel. And without wanting to, I saw that little face, his sweet cheeks and nubby nose, the tiniest perfect fingers.