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This short story is a lesbian romance written for the Valentine's Day Story Contest 2023 as well as the Pink Orchid 2023 for Women-Centric Erotica Challenge.
It is a slow, slow burn and deals with some heavy subject matter, but it is, in the end, a sappy romance. It is also a work of fiction, and the characters are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
I hope you enjoy this story!
I first met Autumn at the start of the spring semester of my freshman year of college. I didn't know it at the time, but it was an event that would dramatically alter the course of my life.
She arrived ten minutes late for the first lecture.
The door in the back of the lecture hall creaked open, letting a little bit of pale silver sunlight into the dimly lit room. Professor Adams hadn't noticed the latecomer. He was busy reading through the syllabus in as flat a voice as humanly possible, his mind obviously on autopilot.
She crept over and slid into the vacant seat next to me.
My first impression of Autumn was that she was a perplexing oddity. There was a curious gravity about her, the reason for which you quite couldn't put a finger on. She carried a playful demeanor somewhere between a tomboy prankster and the girl next door. Her eyes were maple brown. Her smile was cute, and so were the thousands of freckles that speckled her soft cheeks, and she wore a floppy grey beanie that came down to her eyebrows. She may not be the most objectively attractive girl in any given room, but one that will always turn heads. I knew immediately I was going to crush hard on her.
"Did I miss anything good?" She whispered. She spoke to me like we've always known each other.
"Not at all," I whispered back.
I handed her an extra copy of the syllabus. She squinted her eyes as she gave it a cursory scan, tossed it into her bag, then gave me a smile. A smile that made my chest flutter like a flock of swallows. A smile that made my toes curl up in my sneakers.
Noticing my blushing, she held in a giggle by pursing her lips. My sudden cupid-struck reaction to her presence must have been as noticeable as a lighthouse beacon.
"I'm Autumn," she said.
"Joanna. But you can call me Joey," I replied.
"Nice to meet you, Joey. I like your name."
"I like yours," I whispered back.
I liked how she smelled even more (like lemon drops) and how her nose scrunched up, and her constellation of freckles bunched up when she smiled.
We had a hushed conversation as the professor rambled monotonously through his syllabus.
"Where are you from?" She asked.
"You declare a major yet?"
"What dorm are you in?"
We got so lost in our conversation that we had not noticed how loud we were until the professor spoke up. He gave a throat clear then,
"Sounds like an interesting topic of discussion back there, ladies. You care to share it with the rest of the class?"
I tightened up into an embarrassed ball, but Autumn responded unhesitatingly.
"Sure, professor. I was a little late to class, so just asking some questions to get caught up to speed."
The professor crossed his arms. Smugly, he replied,
"Is that so? Perhaps others have the same questions. So, please, ask away."
Autumn crossed her arms right back at him as if to accept a challenge to a duel and replied in an equally smug tone,
"Ok, sure. I was just asking Joey if she thought the professor was cute."
Laughter rolled through the lecture hall. The professor flinched. I covered my face with my hands. I wanted to sink into the floor. I despised rocking the boat. I melted under spotlights. Fortunately, he didn't entertain Autumn's brash response. Thankfully, he ignored it and, instead, put us all on a fifteen-minute break. The lecture was a double period (three hours instead of the normal one-and-a-half), so we normally would have a break soon anyways.
Autumn caught up to me in the quad during the break. I had just stormed out of the lecture hall. Laughing and oblivious to my humiliation, she said,
"Did you see the look on his face!? Don't think I'd ever be able to live that one down."
I shot her a glare, causing her grin to vanish. Her arms fell to her sides.
"What's that look for?"
"I don't appreciate you putting me on the spot like that!" I snapped.
She gave an exasperated chuckle. She shot back, "I was just having some fun! Take a chill pill, dude!"
"Next time you have fun, please leave me out of it, alright?"
"Um, ok. Sure. Sorry about that."
Autumn's shoulders slumped. She scratched the top of her beanie, frowned, then said,
"Well, I gotta go to the restroom. See you in class, I guess."
As that tightly wound spring inside my chest began to unwind, I realized that maybe she was right. Maybe I had overreacted. Maybe I needed to take a chill pill. I usually do. I'm painfully shy, and I hated the idea of a teacher thinking of me as a troublemaker, and I always get really flustered when I'm put on the spot. That still didn't give me the right to be snappy at her.
Returning to my seat as our fifteen-minute break ended, I decided I would apologize to Autumn for my little freakout. I was still eager to be her friend.
She came in through the door a moment later. Our eyes met momentarily. I gave her a smile, but she averted hers without smiling back. Instead, she found someone else she recognized, waved at him, and went to sit in the free seat next to him. My heart sank.
The professor recommenced the lecture with an explanation of how the brightness of a star is measured, describing how the usage of magnitude scales evolved from practices by the Ancient Greeks. He scratched a reverse log equation on the chalkboard. Dutifully, I captured everything he said in my college-ruled notebook. But it all went in one ear and out the other. My conscious mind was fixated on Autumn. Pangs of jealousy shot through me every time I glanced over to see her having similar hushed conversations with the objectively very cute guy sitting next to her. Unfortunately for me, they seemed to get along very well. I guessed I wouldn't ever have another conversation with her for the rest of the semester.
But the story didn't end there (if it did, then you wouldn't be reading this right now). Serendipity provided another opportunity, and as hard as it was to build up the nerves for me to take it, I took it.
Professor Adams used the last few minutes of class to discuss our lab projects.
"This wouldn't be an observational astronomy lab if I didn't get you all to do some observational astronomy. You might be happy to know that instead of a midterm exam, you will all be doing a project. In your syllabus is a list of possible projects you may choose from, for which you'll also need a partner. I'll give you the remaining ten minutes of class to choose your partners and discuss your project options. Send me an e-mail by the end of the week with your partner and the project. Individual work isnot allowed."
One of my worst nightmares was finding a partner in a class full of strangers. I might as well be looking for my soul mate. I turned to my left and my right and found people pairing up with each other. Pairing up like they already knew who they would be with, filtering out of the lecture hall when they found their partner. Desperately I tried to catch the eyes of anyone who still needed to partner up but couldn't catch any.
Then I saw her. Fluorescent light on the ceiling above shone down on her like a divine sign. I had assumed she'd partner up with the guy sitting with her, so I chalked her off immediately, but he was nowhere to be seen, and she was just chilling there, slunk in her chair, tapping away at her phone. Partnerless and seemingly uninterested in the task at hand. This was it. This was my chance to rekindle all possibilities with her. My stomach went up in my throat. My heart pounded like a kick drum.
I stood. I put my backpack on, then curled my hands around the backpack straps like it was a parachute pack, and I was about to jump out of an airplane, certain that it would fall off if I weren't holding on to it for dear life. One deep breath, and I jumped. Metaphorically, of course.
I walked over to her. She glanced up from her phone to look at me. Thinned her lips as she waited for the intensely awkward girl that hovered over her to say something.
Finally, I said, "Autumn, I was wondering if you'd like to partner with me."
I spoke with a heavy pronouncement like I was proposing marriage. My face blushed red.
She raised an eyebrow. Crossed her arms. Then a small smile curled on the edge of her lips.
"Sure. Why the hell not?"
We left the lecture hall together. Outside, the bright late morning sun burned the blue sky. The quad had filled up with students having their lunches or tossing frisbees. The morning chill lingered, but the sun was a pleasant bite that made the chill bearable.
"Hey, you have time to grab lunch and pick a project?" Autumn asked.
I was more than happy to grab lunch and pick a project. I was elated, in fact. After grabbing food from a cafeteria, we found a free picnic table nearby. I got the turkey wrap. Autumn got a salad bowl. I pulled out the syllabus and looked at the possible options for our project.
"Ok, so, looks like there are quite a few things we can do. We can observe and calculate the apparent magnitude of an iridium flare, measure the height of a mountain on the moon using remote sensing techniques, conduct a full spectrum analysis of the sun, or observe and calculate the orbital period of Jupiter's moons using Kepler's law..."
"Or...," Autumn swiveled around her laptop to show me the screen. On it was a photograph of what appeared to be a bright jade-green comet darting across a field of stars.
"Wow, that's pretty. Is that a comet?"
"Yep! It's the C/2018 Y1 Iwamoto comet. Well, an artistic rendering of it as it hadn't heated up yet. Named after the dude that discovered it just last month. It'll reach perihelion on February the seventh, and its closest point of approach to Earth will happen on February thirteenth. That's when it'll be the brightest. There's a good chance it'll even be bright enough to see with the naked eye! Then it won't be back for seventeen hundred years."
"It sounds like you actually know a lot about this stuff."
Autumn nodded. "I want to be an astronomer."
"Oh, perfect. Now I feel very lucky to have you as a partner."
Autumn snickered. It was a comically adorable snicker that came out in a series of wheezes, like how that dog Muttley from Wacky Races snickers.
"So, for our project, I thought it'd be cool to take a photo of it as it passes."
"Um, that sounds great and all, but that's not on our project list."
She flicked her hand as if to brush off the notion.
"The project list is for scrubs. We can do our own thing. Don't you think it'd be cool to do the comet thing? We can go camping in Joshua Tree! I know the perfect south-facing spot there to catch a view of the comet."
Ah, and there it is. Somehow, I knew she would be trouble.
"We won't get credit for doing something not on the project list," I said emphatically. "I'm not saying you can't do it on your own time, but wehave to do one of the projects Professor Adams prescribed for us. And I'm not going all the way out to Joshua Tree for an elective class. Sorry, I just don't have the time."
"Aw, come on, Joey, those projects are lame."
"And? So, what if they are? There's a reason he picked those projects for us. It's real astronomy."
"And observing a comet is not?"
I huffed out of frustration and took a vexed bite out of my turkey wrap. I chewed while I thought up a good retort, and after I swallowed the morsel, I responded with more snark than I intended,
"The point of the class is the calculations. Anyone can go gawk at a comet."
Autumn's face went flat. She snapped her laptop shut and stuffed it in her bag. I thought she was about to snap back with a, "have fun with your real astronomy. I'm gonna go gawk at a comet," then storm off or something along those lines. But she didn't do that. Instead, she replied, "ok, you're right. Just a silly idea. How about the Jupiter thing? That one sounds interesting."
That look of defeat on her face -- guilt spidered through my core like I had just stepped on a puppy's paw. For a moment, I wanted to take back what I said and tell her that I had changed my mind, that she was right, it was a good idea, and I was happy to go talk to the professor about doing it. But I held back. To do something like that seemed like more trouble than it was worth. The professor would probably make us write up a proposal for the project in a way that would make it actually applicable to the syllabus. I had so many other classes. My goal was pre-med, so I was loaded up on all these chemistry and biology classes -- classes that mattered -- so I couldn't waste any more time than required by me on an elective. An elective, by the way, that I only took because I was required to pick one, and this class was the only one that fit into my tight schedule. I had zero actual interest in astronomy. So, to remain realistically expedient to my demanding schedule, between my classes and studying for the MCAT, I chose not to extend that olive branch to her. I did not even make an attempt to compromise. Instead, I did the thing that I was most comfortable doing. I replied,
"Yeah, let's do the Jupiter thing."
And I took out a yellow highlighter and drew a neat highlight through the Jupiter project on the list.
Autumn gave a weak smile and nodded. "Ok, great."
"Great," I replied. "Professor Adams posted the procedure for the project on the class website, so we should figure out a time to go over it. The sooner we knock this out, the better."
I try to be kind to others, and I try to be outgoing. But I often get so fixated on the things that are important to me in my life, like getting perfect grades or passing the MCAT, that I tend to be oblivious to the lives of the people around me. I'm not suggesting I don't like socializing with others or that I'm uncaring. I do care about people. At least, I like to think I do. It's just that I tend to get in my own way regarding friendship. Autumn was going to challenge that about me.
At this time of year and at our latitude, Jupiter, along with its moons, arced high in the sky at night. Our assignment wasn't a particularly hard one. We just needed a few pieces of equipment: a telescope, a tripod, a digital camera, and an adapter to connect the camera to the telescope. We could have rented the equipment from the astronomy club, but Autumn surprised me by saying she had everything we needed.
That meant then that the only thing we needed to do was coordinate times to meet up and snap photos of Jupiter. The varying orbital periods of the moons is a complicating factor. It takes Io forty-two hours to orbit Jupiter. Europa, eighty-five hours. Ganymede, one hundred and seventy-two. And Callisto 17 days. All of these values can, of course, be found with a simple google search, but our task was to take a series of photos of Jupiter over the next few weeks, then use the moon's positions and, given Jupiter's diameter, to derive their orbital radius, their orbital period, and then finally calculate the mass of the moons using Kepler's law. Luckily, Jupiter and its moons were bright enough that we didn't need to go anywhere special to escape the light pollution. We could even take the photos from a clear spot on a hill near my dormitory. Jupiter is one of those rare celestial objects that can shine through the perennially creamy Los Angeles night.
Our first night of photo-snapping was that Friday. Jupiter would be high enough above the horizon and dark enough to catch some decent photos.
I waited there on the hill on a blanket with a thermos of hot chocolate, listening to the cheerful crickets chirping, taking in the wonderful fresh fragrance of the Eucalyptus trees that rustled their leaves in the breeze, while I waited for Autumn to come with her equipment. Despite our rocky start, I was eager to hang out with Autumn. Despite the tense air between us, I still had a bit of a crush on her.
After ten minutes of waiting, I started getting impatient. After fifteen, I texted her, asking where she might be. I received no response. I tried calling. Straight to voicemail. After half an hour and needing to pee, I gave up and went back to my dorm room, incredibly annoyed that she had stood me up.
It wasn't until the following morning that I received a text from her.
I'm so, so sorry, Joey! I completely spaced out and forgot about the project last night 🙁 Can we try again tonight??
The timestamp for the text was four in the morning. She must have gone out partying all night in lieu of our assignment. That was the thing that made the most sense to me. What else would a college freshman do on a Friday night?
I wanted to text back something petty. Something to make clear my anger with her for ditching me. I was really spun up about getting ditched, especially thinking about how eager I was about the possibility of hanging out with her. I wrote a quick and venomous text, but before sending it, I deleted it. It wasn't in my nature to be petty. So, I took a deep breath and instead texted,
No worries. Maybe Friday night wasn't a good idea, haha.
At first, I wrote to propose Saturday night, but I didn't want to sound like I didn't have a life, so I deleted that and instead texted her that I was busy Saturday night and asked if she was free to do it Monday night instead. I got an immediate text back from her.
Sure! Monday night works for me! Have a good weekend!
I hated myself for not calling her out for ditching me without warning. I wished I could stick up for myself. I wished I was more assertive.
Saturday night rolled around, and contrary to what I had told Autumn, I didn't have any plans.
Besides studying for the MCAT, my other big hobby was gaming. In high school, I really got into World of Warcraft (my main character was a night elf priestess). Much of my socializing happened through that game. It was a great way to keep in touch with my friends (my guildmates) after we had all gone our separate ways for college. We used to play a lot on Saturday nights. We'd play for hours and hours, sometimes until the sun came up. But these days, none of my guildmates were on that much anymore. Tonight was much the same. My guild's 'Discord' channel -- our method of online communication -- was as empty as a ghost town. Feeling a bit bummed about playing a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG all alone on a Saturday night, I decided to go out for a walk around campus instead.
The campus was lively. People hung out in gaggles, drinking beverages from hidden containers, producing the strong, ropey smell of a certain smokable plant.
I went down a lonely path beneath the rows of lamp posts with their quiet, slanting lights, along rows of lavender and golden poppies that had just started to bloom. Then I went out to the soccer pitch and strolled along the bleachers. The tall bright flood lamps were still on, saturating the field with their bright lights despite the game finishing over an hour ago. Moths and beetles swarmed around each light in frenzied balls like there was only so much light to go around, and it was each bug for themselves. They made little dinking sounds whenever they bumped into the lights.