The skull smashed to the ground like a Ming Dynasty funerary urn under a barbarian invader’s foot. Every head in the hallway swiveled towards the sound in an inverse ripple effect. A black robed sea all focused on the hapless freshman who could not carry a skull from one class to another. Percy dropped to his knees and started collecting the lamb skull shards before they got crunched beyond repair. The added bonus of hiding his scarlet face was negated when another student knelt down on the flagstones to assist in capturing the errant skull fragments.
The lack of hidden laughter caused Percy to look up as he took the fragments. He got a glimpse at her sleeve and swallowed his tongue. Well he would have if it was anatomically possible, and it wasn’t, not with living tissue with all the reflexes engaged. He stared at the frizzy blonde hair and curious grey eyes behind wire rimmed spectacles. He double checked her sleeve. Four red bands. Senior. He was toast.
“What were you doing with a skull?” Steph asked. She checked for anymore fragments and stood up. Percy followed much more slowly. It dimly occurred to him that the senior had asked him a question. It would probably be a good idea to respond. No use making enemies and looking stupid.
“I know freshman don’t usually get to work with actual specimens, but I placed into Secondary Articulation.” He shifted his books to keep his hands free.
“Let’s get you a bag for that,” Steph said waving a thin hand at the fragments. She started walking slowly; she figured if she bustled the poor boy would get lost.
He vaguely reminded her of the Saint Bernard puppy her neighbors had back home. Feet too large, shaggy brown hair falling down over his eyes, and the potential to become one very big dog. “I wouldn’t worry about the skull, Professor Moroe is pretty understanding.”
Percy blinked at her. “It’s not the skull.”
Steph tilted her head in a way that made Percy think of a cockatiel. “Then why the Kool-Aid face?”
“Kool-Aid?” Did seniors’ brains function differently, or was it just this one?
“You know, long and red.” Steph didn’t need to count the archways in the gothic architecture of the hall to find the one she wanted. She put a hand on Percy’s elbow and steered him through the third arch on the left.
“This is the second mistake I’ve made. Bad things come in threes and threes are always the worst.” Percy declared with such vehemence that Steph turned around and started walking backward so she could see his face.
“Real class work hasn’t even started yet. I mean, it’s still orientation really. Speaking of which, I’m Steph.”
“Percy.” He responded automatically. Steph paused and opened one of the iron banded wood doors into a break room as Percy continued his thought, “That means the third thing will be my first day in class. Something horrible on the first day of actual classes. The universe hates me. I will become infamous as a shade of tomato.”
Steph found a large Ziploc in the drawer under the counter and opened it for Percy to put the fragments inside. She pressed the air out, pressed it closed, and held it out to him. “Get a cactus,” she said.
Percy hesitated before taking the bag. “What?”
“Get a cactus,” she repeated.
“They’re hard to kill.”
It was Percy’s turn to tilt his head at a severe angle, his brown hair falling into his eyes. “We’re learning necromancy. Why…..” he could not articulate the questions in his head.
“If it starts to die, get it a friend. Some cacti seem to need a friend.” Steph couldn’t help but smile as she watched Percy decide she was insane.
He’d give her one last chance before he wrote Steph the Senior off entirely. “How does getting a cactus directly relate to the fact that a third horror is rushing inevitably into my life and embarrassing me in front of my peers?”
Steph found his careful articulation amusing. “Because even if something horrible happens, the cactus will still be there proving life goes on. We’re necromancers. You get a cactus because it doesn’t need you. Not really. And it’s hard to screw up a cactus, short of dumping acid on it or something. I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting with my thesis adviser.” She walked to the door of the break room and opened it.
“Thanks for the help.” Percy held up the bag of skull fragments and smiled.
“No problem.” She smiled and disappeared out the door.
Percy walked to his rooms, wrote a note to Professor Moroe apologizing and asking for a replacement lamb skull, then went to see a man about a cactus.