His Pet Chapters 1-2


CHAPTER 1
Mara

     “But he’s so dreamy,” a student said. She tossed her hair behind her back. “I’ve heard he’s single too.”
     I took a seat behind the group of students, trying hard not to listen, but being unable to avoid it. Undergraduates at the university were notoriously loud. I clutched the stack of books to my chest; Dad’s old shoulder-bag was already full, and I could only stuff so much into that thing before I risked ruining another strap. I glanced at my phone, reading the schedule information: Fear, Loathing, and  Las Vegas Literature, General Education Credit: Humanities. The things you could take as an undergrad were a cakewalk compared to the courses you had to take as a doctoral student. You would think that a class on Las Vegas, in the exact city most of these students had grown up in, would lead to an empty lecture hall, but no—almost every seat was taken. Nearly one hundred and sixty of us.
     Not that I was supposed to be there.
     “Dreamy? How?” another asked.
     “The older man sort of vibe. You know. Salt and pepper hair. Silver foxed daddy vibe. I want to jump his bones,” she said with an obvious wink in her tone.
     “Does he have gray hair?”
     “Well, no. A few here and there.”
     “Then that’s not a silver fox.”
     “Whatever. You didn’t check the department website?”
     It was then that I realized why the lecture hall was full. Very few men were in the class. Most of the class was full of students. Female students.
     Ugh. It was aggravating.
     “He’s a billionaire. Billionaires have side babes. Don’t believe everything you hear,” a man sitting next to them said. “He isn’t single. Not in a million years.”
     “Billionaire? But I thought professors were broke?”
     “Stock market investments back in the early two-thousands. The professorial thing is more like a hobby.”
     “Why the hell do you know so much about him?”
     “Yeah. That’s kind of weird.”
     “I don’t know,” the man shrugged. “He’s my life goal.”
     I opened a book for a different class, pretending to read it, but it was hard to do anything when they were so damn loud. And I’ll admit it; I kind of wanted to listen. I was asking him for a favor once the class was over; knowing more information about him would help.
     “Isn’t he an asshole? Judge My Prof says that he never gives an A. Like ever.”
     “That doesn’t make him an asshole. That makes him a hard grader,” another woman down the aisle said.
     At least someone had sense.
     “I heard he’s always disproving anything and everything his students say. To prove a point. That there is no right answer. Ever.”
     “That’s because this is the arts. And arts are always subjective.”
     “No, I mean, to the extreme. Not even to teach anything.”
     “Graduate classes, maybe. Smaller. More room for discussion.”
     “You mean argument.”
     I found my earbuds, turning it to a rock playlist, loud enough to drown out their conversation. Now I could think straight. Dr. Evans was the only available professor left in our department for the Crossing Collaborations Contest, which meant that even though this was my first year in the doctoral program, and even though I had never spoken to this professor, if I wanted to win the contest and get my peers to take me seriously, I had to get him to agree to work with me.
     One of the students turned around and tapped the back of her seat, looking at me. I pulled out the earbuds.
     “Hey,” she asked. “Do you know if we can use this class to fulfill the arts requirement too?”
     I shook my head. “I didn’t go to undergrad here.”
     “Wait. Didn’t go?” She looked me up and down, scrutinizing me. “You mean you’re not a freshman?”
     I grit my teeth. “No,” I said.
     “Are you a grad student then?”
     “I’m a doctoral student.” I knew what was coming next. I braced myself.
     “But you look so young,” she said. “You look like you’re not even eighteen yet.”
     I had recently turned twenty-one, so if anything, I should’ve looked like an upperclassman. But I have my mother’s round face and puffy cheeks, her circular eyes. Mom and Dad used to call me their ‘little cherub,’ until at ten years old, I demanded that they give me a new nickname.
     I wasn’t going to admit how old I was. That I was their age.
     “Nope. Doctoral student,” I said again.
     “Are you the TA?”
     Why did they have so many questions? “Nope.”
     “Oh. Are you his girlfriend?” This time, it was the woman who had called Dr. Evans dreamy. I could give them credit for being an inquisitive bunch.
     The door to the lecture hall slammed open, and out came the so-called dream god himself. A professor. Supposed billionaire. The eligible bachelor. The man out to prove that everyone else was wrong.
     None of that mattered to me. All I needed was for him to work with me in the contest.
     “I’m Dr. Evans,” his voice called out, deep and reverberating in the hall. He went down the stairs to the pit, setting up at the table. All one hundred and sixty students pulled out pens and paper and snapped open their laptops. “This is Fear, Loathing, and Literature of Las Vegas. If you aren’t in the right class, then get the fuck out.”
     A chuckle murmured through the room. I had noticed that professors used profanity to get a rise out of the students, to make sure that they were paying attention. I’m not like your high school teacher, I’m a cool professor. After years of studying for my bachelor’s and master’s, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
     Dr. Evans handed out the syllabus and the reading list. After a few minutes of lecturing on the depravity and power dynamics lingering in a city that survived on sex and gambling, he dismissed the students. Everyone shuffled out, but I stayed in my seat, waiting for the aisles to clear. A few eager students lined up to talk to him, including He’s-So-Dreamy. In the midst of the rush, I recognized a fellow graduate student waiting down below. Dark brown hair and an oval face, dressed to perfection in a stylish retro outfit, Jessica was in her second year of the doctoral program. I had seen her at the meet-and-greet during orientation week. She waved to me. I could use a friendly face.
     But as I walked towards her, Dr. Evans made his way towards the staircase leading up to the ground floor, briefcase in hand.
     “Dr. Evans,” I said.
     He hurled his shoulders in a complete circle, catching me off guard.
     “What?” he asked.
     Dr. Evans stared at me, his light blue eyes piercing, like a double-edged sword. His shoulders were strong, broad, taking up space, commanding with his presence. A sweater vest pulled tight over his solid chest, a tie tucked beneath it. If clothing told a story, maybe he was a billionaire. Dr. Evans’s clothing looked new and of expensive quality, better than the tattered clothing I was used to seeing professors wear. That I wore myself. Not that I cared. But there was something different about the way he held himself, the dominant stance, as if he were the sole ruler, and Las Vegas University was his empire. And yet his eyes were completely on me, as if we were the only ones in the room.
     Self-assured with a touch of asshole. And something else.
     “Dr. Evans,” I said, focusing myself, “My name is Mara Slate. I’m a first-year student in the Ph.D. in Humanities Program, and I—”
     He held up a hand. “I have office hours for discussions like this.” He swiftly strode up the stairs, exiting through the door and into the afternoon light. I stared up at the doors, watching them swing shut.
     What had just happened?
     “I wouldn’t take that seriously,” Jessica said. She patted me on the shoulder. “Dr. Evans is kind of like that. Always ready to say no. To disagree. To decline.” She shrugged. “It’s kind of his thing.”
     “How can that be someone’s thing?” I asked. The students that were left, including the two of us, filtered up the stairs. “How does that get him anywhere? Especially as a teacher?”
     “Don’t know,” she said, lifting her brows, “But he’s up for tenure this year. We’ll see how that goes.”
     “Do you like being his TA?”
     “God no,” she said. “I was supposed to be Dr. Smith’s TA, but something got screwed up in the registar, and here I am, with the all-mighty Dr. Evans himself.”
     I could relate. “They put my work-study in the library,” I said.
     “Not bad. Could be worse.” She opened the door, holding it for me. I went through. “Could be janitorial work.”
     “They wouldn’t do that.” I paused, “Would they?”
     She laughed and shoved my shoulder. “Of course not. But they will stick you in the food court, which, believe me, is way worse than organizing by the Dewey Decimal System.”
     The sun was bright, beaming down from a clear sky. My mother had moved here a year ago, which was why I had applied to Las Vegas University, or LVU, in the first place. While I welcomed the change from the snow in Tehachapi, it only took seconds before it felt like my skin was tanning into leather here. We sat down at a park bench and table under a tree. I grabbed my water from my shoulder-bag, and Jessica eyed the strange designs on the bag with the scrutiny of a scientist.
     “Is that—”
     “My dad’s old bag,” I explained. I quickly latched the buckle and shoved it away before she could say anything. “Good luck charm. Gotta keep it in the family.”
     She raised her eyebrows. “I remember you saying that in the Meet and Greet,” she said. “Anyway, a lot of us like to meet at the Ego Trip on Fremont Street. Maybe go to the casino afterward. You should come next time.”
     Legal drinking was something that I could only officially do in between orientation and the start of the semester. To avoid the banter I knew would come from bartenders and bouncers and servers alike, for the ultimate birthday in Las Vegas, I had declined the first invitation to go out with the graduate students. They already thought I didn’t belong in the group. I didn’t need them to know that I had literally turned twenty-one that day.
     But this time, I could go.
     “Maybe,” I said. Many of the doctoral students were in their thirties and didn’t have the time to get to know me, nor cared to, unless it was part of an outing with the rest of the cohort. And I wanted to be accepted. “Yes,” I corrected.
     “Cool,” she said. “We’ve been wanting to get to know this mysterious student from the mountains.”
     She said it like Tehachapi was some unknown entity, when it was only a couple hundred miles away.
     “It didn’t seem like anyone cared,” I said. During orientation, I had been asked if I was in the wrong room by multiple incoming graduate students, and when I said I was in the doctoral program, their jaws dropped. One professor had even laughed at me.
     Which was why I needed to win the Crossing Collaborations Contest. It meant more than getting my name published next to a professor’s. It meant proving to everyone that I was meant to be there. It meant proving to Dad that I could do this, like he always wanted to.
     “It’s a lot of talk,” she said, “Who knows who. Who has been published where. Who is sucking who to get an extra class. In the end, you just need to get published in a place you respect. Getting hired where you want to be hired. Not what anyone else thinks.”
     The hiring season seemed like a faraway fantasy, but publication? Oasis, LVU’s newly established academic journal, was good. Enough. Respectable, I guessed. Whoever won the Crossing Collaborations Contest would have their article published in the journal. I didn’t really care about the journal, but I was doing the contest to prove that I was supposed to be in the program with everyone else.
     Because honestly? It always felt like no one took me seriously. Only Dad, and he wasn’t taking classes with me anymore.
     “The Crossing Collaborations Contest,” I asked. “Are you submitting?”
     “Of course,” Jessica said. “Dr. Smith promised to work with me last year. We have a meeting on it soon. Are you asking Dr. Evans to team up?”
     “That’s the idea.” I stroked my shoulder bag’s strap, the original synthetic band sewn to a seat belt by Mom years ago, then both straps sewn to a piece of leather by me last year. “He’s the only one left in the department.”
     “He’s the only one who doesn’t participate.” She leaned on the table. Her gaze drifted, and I followed it: the undergrads falling off of the slackline between a set of nearby trees.
     “But you said he’s up for tenure,” I said. She turned towards me. “Maybe he’ll have to do it this year. You know. Seal the deal.”
     “That’s a good point,” she said. “I would bring that up when you go to his office hours.”
     Damn. I realized I hadn’t taken a syllabus with me when we were in the class. There was no need to take the handout if I wasn’t his TA. “Do you know when his office hours are scheduled?” I asked.
     “Like now.”
     I jumped up from the seat, swinging my bag into my grip. “Thanks for the chat. Gotta run!”
     I darted across the patchy grass, in and out of the concrete, making my way towards the Department of Humanities, stuck in the Liberal Arts and Culture Building. It was a structure with harsh lines, like an old vision of the future, smashing together the humanities, social sciences, art studio, art history, cultural studies, and literature department.  Our floor was the fourth, though some graduate students had to share offices on the third.
     When I stepped into the entrance lobby, the taps of my shoes were the only noises. I slowed my steps, easing my gait, going past the mini café, making my way to the elevator.
     The elevator shook as it lifted me, and my stomach ached. Why did I feel nervous? There was nothing to be nervous about. He was only a professor. I had met with many professors one on one before.
     I searched at the directory and found Nathan Evans, Assistant Professor, 442. Assistant, huh? Not an associate. I could use that information to my advantage.
     The hallway was empty, except for one student sitting on the ground outside of an open office. As I came closer, I realized she was sitting by Dr. Evans’s room. She looked like she might be my age, give or take a year, with shoulder-length white-blond hair, the barest hint of roots showing, and blue-green eyes.
     “Someone is already in there,” she said.
     I leaned against the wall and sighed, then slid down to sit next to her. “I just want to get this over with,” I mumbled. I was full of energy, but the longer it took to get out, the less likely I would actually use it.
     “I get it,” the woman said. Undergrad or grad student? I couldn’t tell. She held out her hand.              “Hazel.”
    “Mara.” I shook her hand. “Are you in his Fear and Loathing class?”
    She pointed at the room. “He’s tutoring me,” Hazel said. “Or he’s supposed to be tutoring me.”
    A quiet murmur, gaining intensity, sounded from the open door. Why did he already have students coming to his office hours? Tutoring made sense. Requesting his partnership in a contest, made sense. But did the hot-for-teacher obsession stretch to his office hours, even on the very first day?
    “Do you know anything about him?” I asked.
    “He’s my sister’s fiancé’s friend, I guess?” She tilted her head. “No. Not really. I saw him at Club Hades once or twice, but we never talked. He’s an acquaintance.”
    “Club Hades?”
    She raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never heard of Club Hades?”
    “No.”
    “Or the Afterglow?” I shook my head. “Are you new around here?”
    “That one.”
    “Ah. Figures.” She smiled. “It’s an s&m club. Not sure if that’s your thing.”
    An s&m club? “Like sadomasochism?”
    “Like I would mean anything else,” she said. “Don’t get too excited now.”
    The truth was that I had read about it in books—Story of O, Justine, Venus in Furs, almost everything in theory by Florence Berkley, though it was up for debate if she was talking about power in general, or sexual power—but I had only read about it.
    “I’m not judging,” Hazel said. “Like I said, I was there too. It’s a fun place.”
    Fun isn’t what I would call sadomasochism, but what would I know? A tingling sensation crawled through my fingers, making me even more nervous. This wasn’t like me. I was calm and confident around professors. Fake it until you make it, like Dad taught me. But I was desperate to know what I should prepare for.
    “What’s he like?” I asked.
    “He’s not the nicest person, but,” she paused, looking around, “He’s tutoring me for free. As a favor. So he can’t be totally bad.”
    The door opened, and He’s-So-Dreamy came out, sniffling her nose, her lip quivering. She scowled as we gawked at her. What the hell had happened?
    Hazel and I looked at each other blankly.
    “You go first,” Hazel said.
    “But you were here first,” I said. I was being polite. I wasn’t afraid to go in. Was I?
    “Yeah, but we’re doing a tutoring session. You’re here for whatever.” She gestured forward. “Go on.”
    “Thanks,” I said, begrudgingly, but meaning it. I stood up, wiped the dust off of my palms, then stretched my shoulders.
    He was a professor. Nothing more.
    He gazed out of the window on the back wall. From around his frame, I could see a view of the courtyard between our building and the registrar. A few students were sitting at a bench. Another was asleep in the grass. Dr. Evans gazed out at the scenery as if he could control the pieces in a puzzle.
    “Mara, is it?” he said.
    I clenched the strap of my bag. Take a deep breath, I thought. It’s only a contest. If he says no, then screw him. There’s always next year. I can always ask for another professor’s partnership a year early, like Jessica…
    But how did he know it was me? He hadn’t even seen me walk in.
    Despite the sunlight leaking through the window, it was dark in his office, more shadows than light. Two small framed pieces of art hung on the sidewalls, a full bookshelf next to the window. Waiting for me to answer, he turned to the side, and his strong nose was silhouetted by the window.
    “Dr. Evans,” I began, “It’s the Crossing Collaborations Contest. I wanted to ask you, because you’ve been influential in the power dynamics in literature, and—”
    “Please,” he said sarcastically. He faced me. His dark hair was flecked with subtle grays, and the lines around his eyes were haunting, scowling at me. Fiercely blue, demanding everything I had to say. I shrank under those eyes. “I’m your only option. Save the bullshit for someone who will fall for it.”
    What the hell was I supposed to say to that? But Dad had taught me not to take no for an answer when it came to what I wanted.
    “Okay. Fine,” I said. “You’re the only one left. Everyone else, everyone I would rather work with, is already taken. And as I’m sure you know, there is a one-to-one limit with how many students can work with a professor in the contest.”
    “I’m aware.”
    He glared at me, waiting for me to finish. My neck and arms felt hot under that stare, like he could melt me into a sloshy pile of stammering embarrassment. Save me now.
    Say it, I thought. Demand it. It’s what I came here for, right?
    “Be my collaborator,” I blurted out.
    The smallest hint of a smile crossed his lips, then vanished almost instantly. “That wasn’t a request. That was a command, Mara, and I don’t take lightly to being told what to do.”
    But he was pressuring me to make a move, wasn’t he?
    “Please be my collaborator, Dr. Evans, sir,” I said. “I need this.”
    He sneered. “I’ve never done the contest before, and I don’t intend to start now.”
    “But why?” I shot back. “The contest encourages collaboration, which is integral to the humanities, and let’s be honest, Dr. Evans. You need this as much as I do.”
    A coldness crossed his face, chilling the room around us. His brows furrowed.
    “Excuse me?” he asked.
    “You’re an assistant professor,” I said, emphasizing the word ‘assistant.’ “You’re going up for tenure this year, right? You need to do the contest. Even if it’s not with me.” I gestured at the room around him. “Or you can kiss this office goodbye.”
    “You say that as if I need the income, Mara.”
    Oh, right. Billionaire-whatever-man. Give me a break.
    “I don’t need anything this place has to offer me,” he said, staring me down, shrinking me in place. “Including you.”
    My cheeks were prickly with rage, embarrassment, frustration? I don’t know. But I clenched my fists and walked to the door. Fine, Dr. Asshole. Be that way.
    When I turned to leave, he was still watching me from behind his desk with cruel fire in his eyes.
    “Fine. Don’t take me as your collaborator. But take someone else,” I said, rummaging the best defiance I could muster, “Either way, you should consider the contest. For your own sake. If you’ve been here long enough to be up for tenure, being here, having this job, it must mean something to you.”
    A few seconds went by. I didn’t move. I stared back. But he was melting me, right there. I was losing, wasn’t I?
    “The answer is still no, Mara,” he said.
    I sucked in a breath and shoved the door wide open. I had a shift at the library in an hour, and I needed to eat and read for my next class before I started. I didn’t have the time to argue with an unbearable jerk. I waved to Hazel and left.
    Something she had said clung to me. Dr. Evans went to Club Hades. I would find him there. My credibility in the program depended on it.
    If he was hell-bent on telling me no, he would have to say it there, too.

CHAPTER 2
Nate
    Mara left the office like fire rampaging through an open door. The scent of blood orange and orchids still lingered in the room, the taste of her frustration beneath it. That round face—as innocent as it made her appear—hid an existence that was so much more than she let out. I had spotted her in the lecture hall earlier, her defiant gaze provoking me. She had shown that she was full of passion and knew exactly what she wanted, and she wasn’t afraid to go after it. To hang what was at stake in front of me, the lure taunting, an open challenge. She wasn’t the first student to use a harsh tone with me, but she was the first that made me stop. Made me think. Made me consider her proposal. Consider her. I could appreciate that.
    There was something different about Mara. It wasn’t simply the lack of flattery. At first, she had tried to butter me into the contest like her graduate peers had done in the past, but once I called her on it, she dropped the facade. Nor was it the fact that she had not tried to trick me into a date, like the student before her. There was something else. Something deeper.
    But Mara was only another student. There had been hundreds before her. There would be hundreds more.
    A sharp woman’s voice cut through the open doorway, talking to another student outside. “It’ll only take a minute,” she said. Dr. Smith, a fellow assistant professor, let herself in. “Dr. Evans. You are here.”
    Dr. Smith took the seat in front of the desk. Her haircut was angular, her broad chest thrust forward. Dr. Smith was always ready to saunter her academic clout. It wasn’t my style, but I understood why she was vocal.
    “You do know there’s a student out there, right?” she asked.
    I had seen her sit down. Hazel, Zaid’s soon-to-be sister-in-law. Grant’s current assignment as a protector.
    “She can wait,” I said.
    “You want me to come back some other time?”
    It was best to get this, whatever it was, over with now. “What do you want, Smith?”
    Dr. Smith glanced around, as if searching for a particular item. Her chin darted back and forth, dancing around the subject. Dr. Smith was the one who had initiated this meeting, not the other way around. I looked at the notes in front of me, then turned on the desktop.
    “By the way,” she said, as if the non-existent conversation had magically led into the current discussion, “how are your stocks?”
    My investments were better than ever. But Dr. Smith never asked anything without reason.
    “Why?” I asked.
    “It’s not like you need this job.” She flicked her finger towards the wall. “Some of us wonder why you’re even working when you have that kind of money.”
    None of their fucking business.
    “My investments help pay for your Annual Lakehouse Retreat.”
    “About that.” She sat up. Here it was. “I was thinking we could go back to Tahoe this year, fly the students out. It might be more secluded. Give them a break from the city life.”
    We had done the trip at my lakehouse in Tahoe the year before. But since then, I had ordered renovations there to be completed in the spring. It was out of the question.
    “Lake Mead is adequate,” I said.
    “Lake Mead is hardly a step out of their backyard,” Dr. Smith moaned. She meant her backyard. She had created the Annual Lakehouse Retreat as a draw for highly-sought-after potential students, but in reality, it had been so that Dr. Smith could get a free vacation in the name of academia. The department didn’t see the appeal and refused to fund it, but I didn’t mind providing that experience for the students.
    But sometimes, I regretted the decision. Being around pompous professors irritated me, especially Dr. Smith.
    “Lake Mead,” I said.
    “And it’s still two students maximum, correct? For you, Neil, Chris, and me?”
    With twelve of us at the lakehouse, it would be more than substantial for a retreat. I nodded. A look crossed her face, one that I knew. A prying, conniving expression, venomous. What Dr. Smith had been searching for, what I would not give.
    “That woman,” she said. I waited, staring back at her. For a moment, my mind crossed to Mara. That woman. But I knew she wasn’t who Dr. Smith was referring to. “Why did that poor woman come to your office years ago?”
    The image of Lisa flashed through my mind: hair wrecked, her mascara caked on her cheeks, a purple and red bruise, shaped like the Milky Way, stretching across her back, covering her ass, still wearing the same slave outfit Eric had assigned her. Years ago. Lisa had been my accomplice in infiltrating Eric’s organization, but he was dead now. Lisa had managed to survive.
    But a woman looking like that, wandering through the humanities department, demanding me, screaming my name, it was a memory many tried to politely forget. But Dr. Smith, on the other hand? She had different intentions, to use it against me.
    “She was no one,” I said. And that was the truth. What I felt for Lisa was not romantic, but allyship, and guilt. A painful remorse for what we had agreed to do, what I had done to her. Dr. Smith tilted her head, beckoning further explanation, but I gave no response.
    Besides, I had someone else on my mind. A different woman.
    “I’ll figure it out one of these days,” she said. “Just you wait.”
    I ignored the empty threat. “You were at orientation,” I said. “Tell me about Mara Slate.”
    “Mara,” Dr. Smith said, glancing at the ceiling. “Mara, Mara. She’s young. Very young. My guess is that she’ll drop out after the first semester.”
    Mara had said she was in the doctoral program, which likely meant that this wasn’t her first experience with graduate school. There was a good chance that she had her master’s degree already, and yet Dr. Smith doubted her.
    “You have little faith in her,” I said.
    “I believe she will do well, but not now. Someone as young as that? She’s still figuring out who she is. She could get through half of the curriculum and realize that she never wanted to study the humanities in the first place.”
    There was some truth to that. It had taken me years to find my place, and even now, I sometimes doubted it. At moments like this. Talking with pretentious professors like Dr. Smith. She was more tolerable than most, and yet, she still made me wonder why I had chosen this career, this university.
Dr. Smith added, “She asked me to work with her for the Crossing Collaborations Contest.” I leaned in closer. A curious expression came over Dr. Smith’s face at my change in stature. “I said no, of course. I already agreed to work with Jessica. Jessica and I will write something better than any duo in this hell hole.”
    I didn’t doubt that Jessica was intelligent. But I did question Dr. Smith’s judgment on Mara. Dr. Smith declining Mara’s request, only made doing the contest with Mara more appealing. To shut Dr. Smith down for a while, to show her that Mara, the young woman she doubted, was far better than she could have expected. Dr. Smith hadn’t seen the fervor resonating through Mara’s words. Her raw ambition. Her angry vehemence. What we rarely truly came across in our daily interactions.
    “The contest is about working together,” Dr. Smith said. “It’s not about going against your student. It’s about crossing boundaries, making connections, sharing intrigue.”
    “Get to the point,” I said.
    “In the Crossing Collaborations Contest, you can’t use these poor students to steal their ideas. You have to forge and create with them.”
    She was referring to the fact that since we had both started teaching at Las Vegas University, I had published countless opposing articles to my students. Students I was supposed to help, to push towards success. And I did, though in my own way. Publishing opposition papers to prove to them where their arguments were flawed was a tactic that I used frequently, a tactic that some professors criticized, while others applauded. It made it so that my reputation was one that many students tried to avoid.
    Nonetheless, I found it invigorating to prove others wrong.
    Still, I knew what Dr. Smith was getting at. “It’s you against me,” I said. “Professors against professors.”
    “I never thought it’d be us,” she said, “Well, you, anyway. Since you’re not the best with students.”
    What Dr. Smith failed to realize was that it wasn’t about having the best rapport with students. It was about getting them to think critically, to think harder, deeper, to push themselves beyond their limits. It was one of the reasons I was drawn to the career; you always found a new object, a new text, a new pet to destroy.
    “You’re too ruthless with them,” she said.
    With the graduate students, I was cold, calculating, always making sure they knew how frivolous this path was. A career in academia was extremely hard to obtain. I was never one for pep talks, and I planned on never giving one. Some students appreciated that.
    “The staff can’t deny that I push the students to greatness,” I said.
    “You’re right,” she said. “But let’s get back to the contest.” She leaned back in the seat. “This contest could make or break us both. Don’t quit on me because you have to write that opposing paper. You wouldn’t want to let me win, would you?”
    It was unlikely that we would both be offered tenure, and amusing that Dr. Smith saw the contest as a challenge between us.
    But another challenge crossed my mind.
    Let’s be honest, Dr. Evans. You need this as much as I do, Mara’s voice coursed through my head. That blazing desire, hungry for the fight, wanting desperately to capture what could be hers, if only I would give her the chance. For your own sake. Or you can kiss this office goodbye.
    It must mean something to you.
    Mara was right about that. My position as professor, being offered tenure, would mean that I had reached my goal, to prove that I knew better than I once did. I could not be deceived again, not by humanistic arguments, not by vain hesitations, not by misleading gestures. Achieving tenure would mean I could read it all: human, art, lover, enemy. What difference did it make?
    Besides, working with a student, someone like Mara, was the reason I found academia exciting. Finding faults in the reasoning of others. Showing them how to stay focused on the lack of truth.
    I stood, giving her the signal to leave. “Competition is always welcome,” I said.
    “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for the Lakehouse Retreat,” she said.
I walked her to the door, as much to make sure she left, as to greet Hazel. I held out a hand to help Hazel stand up.
    “Hazel Maben?” I asked.
    “Guilty as charged,” she said. She hoisted herself up, declining my hand. “My abductor—I mean, my sister’s fiancé, must have told you about me.”
    Hazel had been one of Eric’s plants, an unknowing victim in a crime ring larger than she could have imagined. I had been fortunate to play the middle role. Hazel had been lucky to survive both sides.
    “Grant told me,” I said. She blushed, then shrugged.
    After I grabbed my briefcase and locked the office, we headed for the staircase. I stopped outside of the corridor, searching the room index. Where had Mara been placed?
Jessica King, Carl Lowe, Michael Packer, and Mara Slate, Room 454. Around the corner from my office.
    “I need to check something,” I said, and headed towards the room. It was unlikely that Mara would be there, but if she was, I would push her again, see if she still had that fire.
Their joint office was unlocked. I held the door open; three of the desks full of gadgets and books, school computers crammed with post-it notes, and finally, the last desk. A single copy of Florence Berkley’s The Rising Illusion placed in the middle, the purple and black cover pristine.
    It made sense that Mara would be drawn to Berkley. They had the same unnerving momentum. The inability to give up, despite the power dynamics.
    “You’re checking out that girl, huh?” Hazel asked. “Mara?”
    I shook my head. “Just seeing where the new students are.”
    At the entrance lobby café, we took a seat at a circular table. It was my preferred place of one-on-one tutoring with anyone from the Afterglow. In the open lobby, it was much easier to see other ears and eyes approaching, should the conversation turn to indecent topics.
    My instincts told me it had been Mara’s copy of The Rising Illusion. With Berkley as her only necessity in the office, what topics of dominance, submission, and debasement would Mara discuss?
    Hazel cleared her throat. I turned towards her.
    “We’re studying for the GED?” I asked.
    “I have my diploma, thanks. But no. I just need to pass that stupid essay exam so I don’t have to take the writing course.”
    I started to think of what we needed to cover in that first tutoring session, and yet my mind still wandered to Mara. If Mara was seen as too young to be in the doctoral program, that meant she may have taken similar exams, like Hazel, in order to expedite the undergraduate process. But Hazel didn’t seem interested in the subject. Mara, on the other hand, simply went after what she wanted.
I gave Hazel a sample timed essay, our diagnostic to decide the course for the coming weeks. As I waited, I thought about my home on Lake Mead. Tonight, I was hosting a party for the members of the Afterglow. The lakehouse was a prime entertaining space, which was one of the many reasons I had purchased it. By now, the cleaning service should have already left, and the concierge would have left the kitchen stocked with nutritional and drinking needs. That left one task for me: moving the dungeon furniture into the appropriate spaces. In all honesty, I didn’t care about the party. I was more interested in going to Club Hades that weekend; I was holding a spanking demo, able to show off my instruments, even the ones I hadn’t used in ages. Perhaps I would use the spiked paddle. It had been ages.
    No, I would avoid that one. It wasn’t time yet. There was no one I trusted myself with that object.
    After Hazel finished the essay, I glanced at it; it wasn’t long enough, barely more than a few sentences per paragraph, but it seemed to have decent structure.
    I wanted to be kind to her. “The Afterglow is having a party at my lakehouse tonight,” I said. She needed it. “You and Grant should come.”
    “Please. That guy could barely let me step foot in this building without him, let alone go to a party.” She shuddered at the thought. “But thanks for the invitation.”
    “Most of us have stories like yours, more than you realize,” I offered.
    “That’s why I agreed to tutoring with you. I knew you couldn’t hate me.”
    But what Hazel didn’t understand was that a person could change in a moment’s notice. I had been Eric’s supposed friend, and yet I gave every piece of information I had on him to Zaid, his enemy. Lisa and I had made a pact, for the greater good, to do what it took to get close to Eric. And when it came down to it, I had turned on her, in order to save our lives. But not without ruining her first. Similarly, I could turn on Hazel, and feed her to her enemies. But I had no need to.
    And if I agreed to the contest with Mara, I could turn on her too. I could write the opposing essay like I always did, and publish it. I could prove that nothing was ever the way she thought it was. That the world was a dark and cruel place, even in the confines of an essay.
    And Mara could turn on me.
    Hazel and I stood, and we made plans to meet every week at the same place, at the same time.
But as for the contest, and Mara? I would wait to decide.

HIS PET coming in June 2020!