Chapter 1: The beginning

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(Photo from pastottawa.com)

Gray. Gray, gray, gray. The sky is gray, the clouds are gray, the streets are gray, the snow is gray.

Ottawa in the winter is a dreary gray place to be.

And yet, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. That was probably because it was the only place I’d ever lived, but still, it was home. I knew it inside out and backwards.

These were the kinds of thoughts that occupied my mind as I trudged from Rideau Street towards campus. I was a student at the University of Ottawa, and I’d just spent some of my break between classes doing some window shopping for things I couldn’t afford and didn’t even want that much. But still, it was time spent outdoors — for once this month, the temperature was a bit warmer, and I could stand to be outside for longer than five minutes, and I was taking full advantage of that fact.

It was January, the start of a new year, and a new semester. I was a week into my current slate of classes, and I was already bored. It was my final year of my degree, and all I wanted to do was finish and get out of school. Get my degree and get out into the real world. Not that I had a clue what I wanted to do with myself and my paper, but I was just tired of being a student. I was tired of always feeling behind on my reading, of looming deadlines, and of professors that seemed to think you were only taking their class, so of course having papers due every week wouldn’t present a problem whatsoever.

I was also tired of handing over large chunks of my meager savings to the university every week.

Looking back, it’s hilarious how easy I had things and I just didn’t know. But that’s the mindset of youth, I guess — self-absorbed as hell and ready to whine about it to anyone who’d listen.

So after four years of wandering Rideau Street and Rideau Centre in my downtime, I had my routines down pretty pat. On Mondays I’d usually go check out whatever new books were in stock at Chapters, on Tuesdays I’d look at the new video games in EB Games, on Wednesdays I’d window shop along Rideau, and on Thursdays and Fridays I just worked. I’d finally realized after first year that since I set my own schedule, I could arrange things so I didn’t have classes on Friday, which worked out well for setting up my work schedule, too.

I worked as a receptionist for the CHUM building in the Byward Market, and while I did shorter shifts in the evenings during the week, on Thursdays and Fridays I got to do a proper 8-hour shift. It was easy work, and it was indoors, so those were days I didn’t really mind if the weather was bad. There was also a restaurant in the building, so sometimes I’d treat myself to food that someone else cooked for a change — the food on campus was limited to muffins, granola bars, and coffee in a lot of the buildings, and unless I wanted to go from the freshman fifteen to the senior sixty, I couldn’t indulge too often.

But where was I? Right, trudging along through piles of slush to the sprawling Ottawa U campus. I usually took Dalhousie Street across and then over along the Transitway since it was a pretty direct route and the lights changed fairly frequently, but today I’d been further down Rideau than usual, and decided I was too lazy to walk that far up. So instead I took the closest side street, and didn’t even pay attention to which one it was. I knew where they all came out, so I wasn’t too concerned — it wasn’t like the campus could hide from me or something.

As was my usual habit, I had my headphones in and was listening to the latest episode of Stop Podcasting Yourself, a podcast from two Vancouver comedians I really enjoyed. I was blocking out the world, trying to ignore the cold creeping in under my jacket that was desperately in need of replacing, and just focusing on getting over to campus as quickly as I could. The promise of a warm building I could hang out in for at least an hour or two was beckoning, and as much as I had no interest in my upcoming class, I still wanted to get there.

The storefronts along the street were the usual fare for downtown Ottawa; a poutine place, a smoke shop, a dusty store that had no obvious signage, and a store whose wares I didn’t recognize, but who offered passport photos quickly. But it was a small, hand-lettered sign in the window of the dusty store that caught my eye: “Hero needed — inquire within.”

I chuckled to myself as I passed by, figuring it was someone’s idea of a joke and appreciating it accordingly. The nerd community was really starting to take hold in Ottawa; we’ve had several Comic Cons and Pop Expos, there are board game cafes around downtown, and a video game lounge above the Escape Manor was a beautiful place to grab a drink and retro game.

I assumed at the time that the storefront was someplace where people perhaps gathered to play Magic, like my ex-boyfriend did, or to LAN game, like my friends and I used to do when there was a space for that above Fandom II. The language of the sign actually made me think it was something to do with Dungeons and Dragons — bards, barbarians, priests and paladins are stock in trade characters for D&D campaigns, and while a hero wasn’t someone I’d usually heard associated with the game, I have to admit I wasn’t a frequent enough player to rule the possibility out entirely.

All of that to say, I spotted the sign, I chuckled at the sign, and I moved on with my day. I actually forgot about it entirely after that moment, if we’re being completely honest. After all, I had classes to attend, papers to write, and piles of reading to ignore in favour of anything else. I really wasn’t the greatest student — I’d never had to try very hard in elementary or high school, and it paid off for me in terrible study habits.

I can’t say I remember what we discussed in class that day. I had my interpersonal communication class, and I usually daydreamed and wrote notes to myself instead of focusing on the material any more than I had to. The class was a second-year course requirement I was taking and it was so theoretical that I had a hard time focusing on the discussions. Instead I people-watched and tried not to let my irritation with some of my classmates show on my face. There was Kiri, the girl who could be counted on to speak for five minutes straight and somehow not say anything of relevance; Luke, whose body odour had caused me to open the windows in sub-zero temperatures on more than one occasion; and Harold, who I was actually drawn to in a way I couldn’t explain. This wasn’t the first class he and I had together; I’m not sure if we were doing the same degree or if we just had a lot of similar interests for our extracurriculars, but I’d first noticed him in my first-year Intro to Communications class, and we’d shared at least one class a semester since.

He was rather unremarkable in appearance: tall and lanky with curly black hair, he usually sat in the seat closest to the door and didn’t say much during class. He took copious notes in a leather-bound notebook, but the one time I’d asked if I could get a copy of them, he said he hadn’t written any of the lecture material down. His chin was pointy and his lips were full, and I’ll admit I’d spent more than a few spare moments wondering what it would be like to kiss him.

He was different than anyone I’d dated in the past; I’ve usually gone for more outgoing and muscled guys, but for some reason I just couldn’t help but watch this one whenever he was around. I’d attempted to speak to him a few times in the past about the course work, the professors, even the weather, and had never gotten more than a polite sentence or two out of him. I was pretty sure he was single since I’d never heard him mention a significant other, but at the same time I’d really not heard him speak much at all, so that wasn’t the most fair assumption either.

The longest interaction I’d had with him was the day I wore my Firefly shirt. It featured a schematic of the Firefly ship, and unless you were a fan of the show it wouldn’t necessarily have had significance to you. Our interaction that day consisted of him saying, “Nice shirt. I really liked the show, too.” Earthshaking stuff.

That day in class followed the patterns that were set the first day. Kiri asked the professor a question about her relationship with her girlfriend, which caught my ear only because it was the first time she’d mentioned that she was in a relationship. I spent some time imagining the type of person who could tolerate Kiri’s rambling anecdotes and pointless questions and concluded the poor woman must be a saint of some kind. The thought crossed my mind that maybe she was deaf, or didn’t understand English, and the idea caused me to laugh to myself a little in reaction.

I must’ve moved or reacted larger than I thought, because I noticed when I looked around the room that Harold was looking in my direction. His usually neutral face had a slightly puzzled look to it, like something was happening with me that he couldn’t figure out. I shot him a quizzical look in return, and he shook his head ever so slightly as f to clear it and started writing furiously in his notebook.

That was odd, I thought, and turned my attention back to class. Kiri was almost done asking her question, and I was tempted to try to rescue our poor professor by trying to answer it.

Professor Dewin was a wizened little man, with a slightly stooped back and a habit of taking long pauses before he spoke. Even standing up straight he barely reached my height, which at 5 feet and change wasn’t particularly significant. He had great big white tufts of hair that stuck out sideways from the sides of his head, and his completely bald skull reflected the lights of the classroom. He wore tiny little glasses with wire frames that he often pushed to the top of his head when he wanted to make a point. But it was his eyes that I found were the strangest thing about him. Most people his age had rheumy or milky eyes, and they often looked unfocused, but his eyes would have been better suited to someone in his 20s; they were clear as day and a piercing blue. When he was looking at you, you had no doubt that he was paying attention to what you were saying, and you had the feeling very quickly that you had better be saying something worth his time.

And yet somehow Kiri was simply too powerful in her obliviousness.

“Kiri, I think Professor Dewin was talking more about the social exchange theory as it applies to friends and colleagues than how it applies to personal relationships like with someone you’re dating. I’m not sure that he’s well-positioned to be able to weigh in on your relationship with Ika, especially as you’ve said, you’ve only had a few dates so far,” I said, hoping that would be enough to satisfy her and we could get back to discussing the course materials.

I wasn’t sure, but it looked as though Professor Dewin might’ve shot me a grateful look. “Yes, thank you, Olive,” he said. “As charmed as I am that you consider me a reliable source to be able to weigh in on your personal relationship, I don’t feel I’m qualified to act as a relationship counsellor for you and your girlfriend, especially as I’ve never met her.”

Kiri looked a bit disappointed by his comment, but seemed otherwise mollified. “You’re right Professor, I apologize. I’ll give her a call after class and try to sort this out.”

I felt a quick surge of pity for poor Ika, but I assumed she had a sense of who Kiri was by now, and after that it was none of my business. Instead I tried to turn my focus to Harold, but he was once again scribbling in his notebook. He looked up and caught me looking at him, which made me blush and turn my attention back to my own notebook, which was embarrassingly blank. Today was going to be one of those unproductive days, it would seem.

I sighed and turned my attention instead to Professor Dewin’s lecture, and tried to put Harold out of my mind.

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