Crowley’s first two classes had been painfully boring. So much for finishing his bachelor’s degree if it continued on this way. Going back to school had been a spur of the moment decision after his plant shop burned down a few months back. Not that he’d had much business anyways. People were always wandering in and out in a haze of confusion when they realized there were no flowers for sale in the store.
“That’s why it’s called a plant shop,” Crowley would grumble to their retreating backs.
The insurance money had provided the means for a fresh start, and Crowley didn’t want to miss the opportunity to finish something he’d started a few decades ago. Attain a BA and become a botanist. He’d dropped out of school in his mid-twenties after realizing how cripplingly dull some professors could be...so far, they were proving him right all over again.
He sighed and sank down in a hard blue plastic chair. A couple of girls were giggling next to him. Practically children compared to him.
“I think they’re blue,” one was arguing. “Or...grey?”
“They’re green,” the other asserted. “But they change in the light. At any rate he’s gorgeous.”
“And at least twenty-five years older than you, perve,” the first girl teased.
“What can I say, Anathema?” her friend laughed. “I’ve got a kink for older men.” The girls eyes slid off of her companion and settled on Crowley who twitched and shifted his gaze to the ceiling.
The girl called Anathema pinched her friend as a man walked up to the front of the room. “There's your boyfriend, Quin,” she giggled.
Crowley pulled out his notebook and sighed again in anticipation of another boring, humdrum, waste of --- His brain shut down. The man, their professor apparently, was smiling, and it was like the world had been set on fire with its light. Slightly plump and decked out in a beige suit, the man looked around the room affably and nodded to a few students as he went.
“Excellent!” he proclaimed merrily. “Young scholars, I dare say.”
He looked like he forgot what he was going to do next until he sprang over to the chalkboard and wrote down his name. Azira Phale. Crowley bit his lower lip and practiced the name in his mind. Was that Middle Eastern? The pale, shocked-white haired man hardly looked foreign, even if Crowley had never seen another comparable person.
“My name is Azira,” the professor beamed, each smile competing to outdo the last. “Allow me to welcome you to Creative Writing. I’ve sent out the syllabus so we won’t need to review it. No such thing as syllabus day in this course! Nope, right to work I always say.”
The professor continued to speak but Crowley found it harder and harder to focus on his words. Every gesture, every expression made his stomach drop. He looked down at his hand and found it trembling slightly. A girlish sigh beside him drew his attention to the zygote named Quin who had professed her crush earlier. Her eyes were two moons like a cat in the dark. He could almost imagine a long tail twitching behind her as she stalked her prey. He hoped he didn’t look quite as ridiculous as all that.
Clearing his throat, Crowley sat up straight and tried to listen attentively as Mr. Phale went over the fundamental elements of writing. Suddenly, the professor turned on his heel and stood right in front of Crowley.
“What is the most essential faculty a writer must cultivate to be successful?” Mr. Phale asked the class. His eyes tripped over the blank and skittish faces of his pupils until they landed on the one before him.
“Ah,” the professor smiled warmly, “Perhaps you can help us out, Mr…?”
“C-Crowley,” was the stumbling reply. A shaking hand reached into dark red hair and scratched thoughtfully. “I suppose...I would say….imagination?”
Mr. Phale’s face could have melted the sun. “Tip top!” he cheered. “Imagination, indeed!” With a clap of his hands the professor returned to the board and began scribbling messily.
Crowley wasn’t sure how the next hour passed due to his crush-induced comatic state, but at last the professor called for dismissal and the students stood to leave. Crowley numbly began to follow until he heard his name ring out from the podium. Mr. Phale was shuffling papers into a satchel and looking at him expectantly.
“Mr. Crowley,” he began. “You’re a bit more experienced than my other students, I dare say.”
Crowley walked toward him in a dazed half-saunter. “You mean...older,” he supplied, a wry grin on his face.
Mr. Phale’s cheeks flushed and Crowley nearly fell apart all over again. He looked like a cherub in tweed and tartan.
“Forgive me if I caused any offense,” Mr. Phale proclaimed. “I was just thinking it might do to have you sit in on the students' writing group. You could offer advice and encouragement...”
Crowley tilted his head in confusion. “Er...how do you know I’m even a good writer?” he asked. “I could be bullocks.”
The professor turned a few shades redder at the curse and something else as well. “I...well that is, I always ask for a copy of my incoming students’ writing samples. From the application process, of course. When you told me your name I remembered your paper right away.”
Crowley’s tongue slipped out to trace his upper lip as he tried to recall the paper. It had been a rush job just like the rest of his application. He glanced back to the professor whose eyes had gone a bit hazy. Was he looking at his mouth? Mr. Phale’s eyes snapped back to Crowley’s and he smiled genuinely.
“It was a most peculiar story,” he said fondly. “Something about driving a burning car through the Apocalypse, I believe.”
“Oh!” Crowley laughed. “I like to write stories like that as a diversion, or I mean, I did when I was waiting for customers at my shop. Burned down, though. That’s why I’m here now.”
Mr. Phale’s eyes misted and his face formed the perfect picture of grief and solace. “Dreadfully sorry to hear that,” he said. “But...maybe you’re here for a reason. One, perhaps, may be to inspire these students while you’re at it.”
Crowley grimaced. “Me? I don’t know anything about millennials. I’m sure you’ve got the inspiration thing down pat. It’s obvious that they all adore you.”
Mr. Phale did a cheeky eye roll while Crowley flushed. Did ‘all’ implicate himself as well?
“Perhaps, perhaps,” the professor was saying. “But I’d still really like for you to join us. Would you? We meet in the library every Wednesday to share pages and chat. Do say you’ll come!”
Crowley stared into the professor’s eyes and knew in that moment, he could never, and would never deny this man anything.
“Sure, Mr. Phale,” he agreed.
The professor practically bounced on his heels. “Excellent!” he replied. “And just Azira will do.” he added, wrinkling his nose adorably.
Crowley’s teeth clenched inside his mouth. Azira. He nodded quickly.
“Perfect,” Azira said as he walked toward the door. “See you then...Crowley.”
“Anthony,” Crowley managed weakly, but he didn’t think he’d been heard.
The door shut with a slight rattle and Crowley collapsed into the nearest chair. He hoped the janitor had a mop because he was fairly sure he’d have to be wiped up off the floor after that exchange.