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Rusty Smiles

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Emma swore under her breath. It wasn’t her fault that some idiot decided to bump into her, causing her to drop her assignment into a filthy puddle. It couldn’t be helped that she had to run back in order to print it off again, only to return and find that the biology lecture had already ended.

A swarm of students flooded out of the doors. She shoved her way through them, only to find that the room was empty. Great.

Suddenly, something pushed against her back causing her to reel forwards and drop the papers in her hands.


She heard someone stammer an apology behind her. She faced him angrily.

“Twice in a day? Really?”

The guy blushed and quickly picked up her cursed assignment. Emma just grumbled and stormed away.

“Not even a thank you?” The man called after her.

Emma sighed, clasped her hands together, and faced him again.

“Oh, I’m sorry. It must have slipped my mind to thank the guy who literally just slammed into my back and made me drop my assignment - which I worked very hard on for once! And you know what? You’re not even the first dude to do this today. So bravo! Congratulations on being a douche.”

Emma made her way towards the door, before once again changing her mind and turning back to the man who just stood there with his jaw hanging comically.

“If you’re gonna just gawk here for the next hour you might as well be useful and tell me where the Professor’s office is.”

The guy didn’t move.

“Professor Hidgens? Mr “World’s-gonna-end-just-let-me-finish-my-monologue”?”

“O-Oh, he’s somewhere on the fifth floor.”

Satisfied with the information, Emma exited the room one last time.

“Thanks for nothing.” She said, flashing her middle finger at him without giving him a second glance.

Emma was very confused. She had climbed the stairs with determination, but she was faced with a problem. She was on the fourth floor of the science block, and there were no more stairs.

“Fucking idiot!” She yelled, slamming her hand against the wall. Why did she listen to that stupid man? She had climbed all of those stairs for nothing, and she still hadn’t handed in her assignment.

Refusing to give up hope, she dragged herself along the fourth floor, just in case she bumped into her tall professor. She didn’t, but she did find a small door with no label.

Bubbling with curiosity, Emma opened the door and laughed lightly with relief. A narrow flight of white stairs. She ascended them with a newfound energy, and sure enough she found another door with a shiny, silver plaque next to it.

Prof. Henry Hidgens

Somehow, Emma wasn’t surprised that his office would be the most isolated and hardest to find the entire campus. His office was the only thing on the fifth floor. He was almost like a dragon, hiding in his cave of wonders.

She knocked nervously.

“Who’s there?” A deep, muffled voice called from inside.

“Uh, it’s me, Emma. I missed the lecture and wanted to hand in my assignment.”

Immediately, the Professor replied “Oh, Emma, come in! The door’s unlocked.”

Emma reached for the handle and cautiously opened the door.

She didn’t know what she was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t this.

As she climbed the three steps leading up to the office, she realised it wasn’t really an office at all.

It was quite a large room, dimly lit with a few yellow bulbs. Fairy lights lined the dark walls. On one side they were shaped like test tubes. On the other, they were music notes. There was also a collection of posters of various movies and shows over the years. The floor was black, with a red rug rolled up in a corner. It oddly reminded Emma of a stage. There was a wooden desk opposite from where she had entered.

In front of the table, sitting on his wheely chair, was Professor Hidgens. He faced her, smiling warmly. As Emma walked closer to him, she noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the way his weary smile twitched slightly. She felt sorry for him.

Scratch the dragon description, he was like a Prince locked away in his tower.

Emma handed him her paper. “Here. I worked hard on it this time, just like I promised.”

“Small victories, Emma.” Said the Professor as he spun around to face his desk, put down the assignment and reached for a pen.

Emma watched anxiously. “Wait, you’re gonna mark it now?” She asked.

Professor Hidgens turned back to her. “Will that be a problem?”

She shook her head reluctantly and he chuckled. “Time is very precious Emma, especially these days when it’s difficult to say exactly how much time we have left.”

Emma didn’t comment, hoping to avoid another apocalypse speech.

Now focusing on her work, the Professor gestured (vaguely yet dramatically) towards the rest of the room and said “There’ll be a chair in here somewhere.”

Sure enough, tucked away in the corner was a small wooden chair. As she carried it towards the desk, she admired the posters in more detail. Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, Macbeth, Beauty And The Beast, and a sparkling new poster for Wicked were just a few examples of the mighty collection.

Emma couldn’t help but absently wonder if the Professor had a life.

She placed the chair next to him and shuffled awkwardly in her seat as he examined her work. She thought she’d do some examining of her own.

Despite the rest of the “office”, the desk was pretty normal. There was a computer on it, as well as a variety of papers, mugs, pens and photo frames. That was what surprised her. She knew that the Professor lived alone because she’d delivered groceries to his house (or, army bunker) once. So she had naturally assumed that he didn’t have a wife or family.

As she looked closer at the pictures, she noticed that they were all of the same seven people. Seven boys, no older than herself, all in various poses. The photographs were old, barely in colour, but even with the faded, rusty hue their smiles could all be seen perfectly. Whoever they were, they all seemed truly happy.

She noticed one of the boys in particular seemed familiar. Upon closer inspection she recognised the tall, slender figure and soft jawline. Henry Hidgens from his youth. Except the Henry in the picture was different. His innocent eyes held hopes and dreams, both of which seemed to be missing in the present.

“Very good, Emma.”

Emma snapped out of her thoughts to see that the Professor was handing back her assignment.

“You could have described the effects of Flucloxacillin in a little bit more detail-“ he mimed a pinch for emphasis- “but on the whole this is a huge improvement.”

Emma couldn’t help but blush. It was very rare that her (lack of) efforts were rewarded.

Professor Hidgens turned back to his work, and Emma decided to take a chance.

“Professor, who’re the people in those photos?”

The Professor sighed, and Emma immediately regretted asking. However, he smiled softly and looked at said photographs.

“My best friends- Nay, family. We went to college together.” He gave a ghost of a smile. “It was the best time of my life.”

“Oh,” replied Emma, not really sure how to react, “You must’ve been pretty close.”

Professor Hidgens laughed heartily. “As close as it gets.”

“I’m sure they miss you too.” Emma said almost reassuringly, very confused what to do in this situation.

He snorted unexpectedly. “If they can miss me from their graves.”

They sat there awkwardly in silence for a few minutes while the Professor was clearly in some kind of reminiscent trance.

Out of nowhere, he said “I think I might retire soon.”

Unsure of whether he was talking to her or himself, Emma replied cautiously “Why? You’re doing a great job and honestly I learn more from you than any other professor.”

He gave a small smile before looking her in the eyes. “I’m getting old, Emma.”

Emma opened her mouth to object, but the Professor held up his finger to stop her.

“I’m getting old and everyone thinks I’m crazy. They make fun of me behind my back. The mad Professor who pretends that the world is ending for attention. Tell me Emma, am I wrong?”

Emma felt a stab of guilt because that is exactly what she thought. She had been so invested in her own problems that she had never stopped to think about her Professor’s own mental health, which now she realised did need attention. Everyone had given up on him, but Emma was going to make a change. Well, if she had enough time after her exams.

“Hah,” he continued “you can’t can you?”

His eyes sparkled with tears, and Emma felt like she was intruding on a private moment.

“Uh, Professor? I’d better go.”

Shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck, the Professor replied “Ah, yes, of course.”

He stood up and walked her to the door.

“Thank you for the visit, Emma.” He said, shutting the door behind her.

She slowly made her way back downstairs, thinking how the hell dropping off her assignment had turned into an existential crisis. She made a mental note to visit her Professor more often.

Had she lingered a moment longer, she would’ve heard the stifled sobs coming from inside.