An excerpt from Darwin's Selection: Blinded by Love
Getting into a routine had taken a little bit of time, but I was starting to get it down. My morning class went pretty smoothly. It was the history class that I had made such a terrible impression in the first day. Clive was sitting near me now, which helped me because he was able to grasp the flow of history better than I could. I was able to get to class a little bit early so the professor had less reason to hate me. My walks along the campus still allowed me to find more and more Intruders in various places and of various kinds. The problem was that I was still not able to identify most of them. There had been no real time for me to do any studying yet, so if any of the Intruders were going to try and get their energy by killing, maiming, or otherwise ruining my day, I had no way of warning myself or others. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I had accepted it because there was nothing that I could do about it yet. That was another conversation that I would have to have with Clive or Dr. Wharton. Maybe Marshall, although he still spooked me a little.
After class, I went straight down to the basement of my dorm building. It was a little bit spooky down there because you were below ground, so there was no real natural lighting, but it wasn’t too bad. The laundry machines were all down there, as well as a television, a pool table, a piano, and an area of open floor space. That is where I found Melissa. She was wearing spandex workout clothes and was stretching. I almost turned around and left right then. Not only could she wear that outfit without it frightening people away as I would have, but she was proving to be a lot more flexible than I could hope to ever be. I really don’t try to compare myself to others, but if she was going to be the one to help me get into shape, I was worried that she might have unrealistic expectations of what I could and couldn’t do. She looked up and noticed me just before I was going to turn to leave. “Winnie! There you are. Is that what you are going to work out in?”
I looked down at my outfit. A blouse and a pair of jeans. It was the first thing that I had found to wear that morning, and I hadn’t even considered changing out of it. “Should I run upstairs and see if I have anything else?”
Melissa waved her hand impatiently. “We’ll never get started if I let you start running around. Just make sure that you get some good workout clothes and change into them next time. Come on over here.”
I walked over next to where Melissa was standing. She had her laptop computer open and sitting on a small table about five feet in front of her.
“Before we do anything, you need to stretch. Start with simple toe touches.” Melissa straightened her legs, put her hands over her head, and then bent forward. I looked down and noticed that she had placed her palms flat on the ground.
I knew that Melissa had done gymnastics and cheerleading in high school, but I never expected her to be quite that flexible. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to compare to her. The whole idea was for me to just get better. I straightened my legs, raised my arms just as she had, and bent forward. I didn’t manage to touch my toes. In fact, I barely managed to touch my knees. Not only did my muscles burn as they stretched, but my jeans didn’t want to allow me to bend very far. I was determined to do better, so I pushed myself harder. Tears welled up in my eyes from the burning. I thought that I felt a few stitches begin to pop in my jeans.
“Don’t bounce, Winnie,” I heard from beside me. “You’ll injure yourself that way.”
I definitely felt something pop. I was hoping that it was a stitch and not a tendon. “I’m pretty sure that I’ll injure myself this way,” I grunted between clenched teeth.
Melissa stood up and stepped in front of me. “I’m going to guide you through these warmups this time. I don’t want to have to carry you to the hospital.” The next ten minutes consisted of her walking me through a series of stretches. She would guide my hands and legs to where they needed to be. She would provide just a little bit of pressure to stretch me out, but not so much that I was in the pain that I had put myself through already. The stretches certainly helped my muscles, but they didn’t help my wardrobe. I understood quickly why I should have worn better clothes. No matter what stitches popped or how much I moaned about stretching, Melissa never stopped encouraging me. It kept me from complaining as much as I might have. She was being so determined and motivational that I didn’t want to let her down.
After the last of the lunges, Melissa moved back beside me and said, “Good, now the workout can begin.”
I had to suppress a groan. I was ready to crawl back to the room and sleep for a day, but the workout hadn’t even begun yet.
“You mentioned the idea of taking some martial arts, and I realized that would be a great workout. I know that nothing can replace a good and proper teacher, but I think that we can get good exercise and pick up some useful skills between the two of us.”
I was really glad to hear her idea. I knew that the Advisor wanted me to train to fight, and now I would be able to do just that while getting into better shape at the same time.
“I’ve found several online video courses that I figured we could watch and use as the basis for our workouts. You ready?”
I will admit that the workout went better for me than the stretching. A lot of the first part of the video courses were concerned with the most basic of basics. Several minutes of learning how to stand didn’t give me confidence that I would be getting much of a workout. Things picked up after that. Learning some of the basic kicks and punches reminded me once again about the workout clothes issue, but it also provided me with a lot more exercise. You wouldn’t think that just kicking or punching at air would wear you out, but both Melissa and I had broken a sweat after just a few minutes. I looked over and saw that she was smiling like a kid at a birthday party. Exercise was something that she obviously enjoyed. After watching Melissa while doing my own kicks, I had to admit that I was smiling, too. The reason was different. I was smiling because even though my jeans were preventing me from kicking as high as Melissa, my movements were as smooth as hers and even more properly executed. Here I was, the science nerd, and I was keeping up with Miss Congeniality, the world-class gymnast. It did wonders for my self-esteem.
Melissa and I had just begun working on a series of punches and blocks against each other when we heard the door to the basement open and close. I looked up and saw a reflection of the newcomer in the old television screen. He was of Asian heritage, in good shape, probably in his mid-twenties, wearing a maintenance uniform and carrying a hammer. He was really rocking the whole “working man” look. I saw Melissa look over and give him a glance as well. I could see that she approved of his looks but she was still pretty wary of his presence. I turned around as well and had to suppress a scream. I should be used to seeing Intruders by now, but seeing one that looked so different from their reflection still caught me off guard. The Intruder was still about the same size, still well built, and still wearing the maintenance uniform shirt. However, he was hopping on one oversized leg located in the center of his torso and his face looked like it was an oriental drawing of a demon. The skin on the face was red where it was raised around the eyes, cheeks, and the lips. The skin that was sunken was as white as porcelain. When he spoke, I noted that he had a long, sharp canines on both his upper and lower teeth.
“I’m sorry for intruding,” he said politely, although my ears picked up a slightly disturbing hiss to his voice. “Someone said that there was a washing machine that wasn’t working correctly. I can come back.”
I looked over at Melissa and shrugged. I didn’t want to judge this Intruder just on his looks, even if they were somewhat disturbing. Melissa turned to him and said, “Go ahead and do what you need to do. Don’t let us keep you from your job.”
The Intruder bowed his head politely and went over to the laundry machines. Melissa and I returned to our workout. We were doing our best to imitate the moves of the instructors on the video, but even while we were moving in slow motion, something wasn’t working quite right. Every time, we would make it through the lower blocks, but the middle block seemed to be something I couldn’t quite get right.
“I think that my timing is wrong,” I suggested.
“Actually,” chimed in the Intruder, “your position is wrong, not your timing.” He got up and walked/hopped to where we were standing. He looked at Melissa and motioned for her to step aside. “May I?”
Melissa backed up, but she stood right behind him. I could tell that she was ready to jump in if he tried anything funny.
“The purpose of the move isn’t to block the punch, but to redirect it,” he explained. “You keep trying to catch the punch on your arm like a boxer does with his glove. The block you are using is supposed to push the punch out of the way with your arm. Let me show you. Punch at me.”
I started to do a slow-motion punch like Melissa and I had been using.
“No, ma’am. Punch at me full speed. It is the only way to really learn this.”
I punched at him more quickly, but he caught my fist in his left hand.
“Miss, I’m sure that isn’t how you would really punch. Act like I am a threat and punch me.”
I looked at the Intruder’s demonic face. Even though he was being polite, it didn’t take much imagination for me to picture him as a threat. Imagining that my safety was in danger from him, I swung at his face with all of the speed and strength that I could muster. He brought his left arm up and swung it across in front of his face. The move swept my punch to the side. I completely missed his face and found myself off balance. He reached over with his right arm and tried to catch me, but his arm couldn’t seem to support my weight and I fell to the ground.
Melissa was immediately at my side. “Are you all right, Winnie? Are you hurt?”
I pushed myself up to a sitting position. “Just my pride.”
The Intruder crouched down beside me. “I’m sorry, Miss. I tried to catch you.” It was very difficult to read his facial expressions, so I couldn’t be certain about his sincerity. He and Melissa helped me up and he suggested that Melissa and I should try it now at full speed.
The instruction the Intruder had provided was very valuable. Melissa attempted her punch several times, and I was able to block it every time. I was honestly pretty proud of myself for it. The Intruder seemed pleased as well. Next, it was Melissa’s turn to block.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
She just held herself in a fighting stance and tried to give me an intimidating glare. It didn’t work. I laughed. When I did throw my punch, Melissa’s timing was off. She didn’t manage to block me. Even though I was pulling my punch, I made contact with the tip of her nose. She immediately put her hands over her face and gave a little squeal.
“Oh no! Are you okay, Melissa?”
I was right by her side and so was the Intruder. We could hear her taking some deep breaths. Then we heard her saying into her hands. “I’m okay. It’s no big deal. I’m okay.” Melissa picked her head back up, blinked away a few tears, and then moved her hands away from her face. There was a trickle of blood coming out of her nose.
The response from the Intruder was immediate and dramatic. He recoiled as though he had been bitten by a snake, crashing into a chair in the process. He managed to catch the chair and almost threw it back into its original place. “Uh, look, I had better go. There are some electrical problems in one of the other dorm buildings. Good luck to you two. Just…uh…yeah.” He grabbed his hammer and ran/hopped out of the basement.
“What’s his problem?” Melissa asked.
I gestured under my nose. Melissa wiped under her nose and looked at the blood on her finger. She seemed unconcerned. “It’s not broken, so no big deal.” She looked at the blood again and then looked over at the doorway that the Intruder had ran out of. “Wow. I guess some guys really can’t deal with the sight of blood.” She chuckled. “If that’s how he reacts to a nosebleed, imagine what he must have been like in health class.”
I remembered some of the more unpleasant videos I had seen in health class and laughed. I guess that some things aren’t just universal, they are inter-universal.
When I had the opportunity, I described the encounter to Clive. He asked me for a lot of details about the Intruder that had interrupted my workout. “So it only had one leg, and you think that it looked like some kind of oriental drawing of a demon?”
“Yeah,” I answered in between bites of lunch. I needed to eat quickly so that I could get to my next class. “If you see pictures of some of the traditional oriental celebrations with the dragon costumes and the like, you sometimes see people wearing an oversized mask that looks a lot like this guy.”
Clive took out a small notebook and started writing down some of the information I was giving him. “Was there anything else that you noticed about him?”
I ran the entire encounter through my mind. “I’m not sure, but I think that he might be afraid of blood.” I described the situation with the bloody nose.
Rather than disgust, Clive displayed almost frantic concern. “Was Melissa okay? I assume that you didn’t do it on purpose. Was her nose broken? I know how badly that can hurt.”
I placed my hands on both sides of his face. “Melissa is fine. She didn’t break her nose. She told me that she had suffered much worse as a cheerleader. Calm down.”
Clive looked a little ashamed at his outburst and went back to writing details into his notebook. Finally, when he knew that he had control of his emotions, he looked up and asked, “So why do you want to know about this Intruder? You see dozens of Intruders a day and have never wondered about them. Why him?”
I had not even considered that question. Clive was right. I did see dozens of Intruders around campus and I had never tried to research who they were or what they did. What about this particular Intruder had me curious? “I think that I want to know why he freaked out on me and Melissa. I’m not saying that I was totally comfortable around him, but he did try to help us out. I want to make sure I didn’t offend him or something.” That explanation made as much sense to me as anything. I didn’t want to make any enemies that I didn’t have to. Something told me that being Protector might require all of the friends I could get. “The problem is, I am not sure when I will be able to go and study at the GRR house. Rumor has it that there will be a pop quiz any day in biology and I have to do well on it.”
Of course, I knew that Clive had classes as well. I’m not sure why I was being whiny about a quiz when I’m sure that he had just as many problems, and he had no reason to even be involved in this whole situation to begin with. But if Clive was too busy, he never let on. “ Can you check with Dr. Wharton and see if I would be allowed in the library?”
“Sure. I’m not entirely certain what she will think about it, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Thanks a lot, Clive.”
I got up to leave the cafeteria.
Clive rose as well. “It’s not a problem. I’d love to get a look at some of these original legends. Maybe I can even do something to help modernize the library a bit. Make it more accessible. Let me know what you hear.”
I thanked Clive and ran off to my next class. I realized partway there that I was actually jogging and didn’t feel nearly as worn out as I usually did. The workouts were already paying off. Of course, when you are at rock bottom, you can go nowhere but up.
I was almost to the building that my next class was in when I saw Dr. Wharton walking along the sidewalk. I changed direction and intercepted her before she could get to her class. “Dr. Wharton, can I speak to you?”
She seemed genuinely surprised that I was asking to speak to her instead of her begging me to stop and listen and take her advice.
“I was wondering if there was any way that someone else could have access to the library?”
Like a bad spy movie, the Advisor looked around to make certain that no one else was listening. “Not so loud, Darwin. To answer your question, no. The existence of GRR is kept from the general public. We certainly can’t have them waltzing in and out whenever they want.”
“But this person already knows about GRR and the Intruders.”
Dr. Wharton continued to shake her head. “Marshall may be a trustworthy and useful young man, but we cannot allow any Intruder into the house. There are still some secrets that we keep even from him.”
I was beginning to get annoyed with the older lady’s obsession with denying my request. “I wasn’t thinking about Marshall. I still don’t trust him myself. I was talking about Clive.”
The mention of Clive seemed to bring an abrupt change in the Advisor’s demeanor. “Clive? He wants to come to the house? What does Clive want with the contents of the library?”
“He wants to help me research,” I said in a reasonable tone. The urge to get a little snarky at the shift in attitude was almost overwhelming, but I didn’t want a retraction of what little progress I was making. “I’m having trouble managing my time between classes and training and learning what it means to be Protector, so he’s basically volunteered to be my study buddy.”
Whatever it was about Clive that rattled Dr. Wharton had a pretty good grip on her. She was pacing two steps in one direction and then two steps in the other as she discussed the situation with herself. “We’ve never let another person into the house. Certainly not a young man. I don’t know what Athena will think about the idea. She has never given permission for anyone else to come. Certainly she could make an exception in Clive’s case. Maybe she would even like the idea. Just one extra set of eyes shouldn’t be a problem. Like an archivist. That’s how I’ll word it. I’ll say he should be the archivist.” The still-nervous professor turned back toward me as if she had been speaking with me all along and said, “I’ll bring the idea up to Athena. I think that it has merit, and I will use all of my powers of persuasion to try and convince her.”
I couldn’t keep the concerned look off of my face or out of my voice. “Are you ok, Professor?”
“Of course I am,” she replied. “Why shouldn’t I be. I’m just expressing support for your idea.”
I wished for a moment that I had been wearing a video camera so that I could rewind it and show her how she had been acting, but something told me that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. “Professor Wharton, while I really like him and can appreciate all that he has done for me, I can’t help but wonder what is so special about Clive. Why is he such a unique case to you?”
The Advisor started to look nervous again. “I’ll have to talk to you about that some other time. I am about to be late to class and so are you.” She began to walk away quickly. She looked back at me and said, “I’ll talk to Athena tonight about your idea. I’ll do my best.”
“Bring a Hershey bar with you,” I suggested. The professor looked confused for a moment and then understood the suggestion. She gave me an approving smile and rushed off. I wasn’t sure what to make of the entire exchange. It seemed awkward that for a few minutes, I was having to advise the Advisor.