Vanessa’s panic attack, as Dr. Saunder explained it, turned out to be an isolated occurrence. In five years, she had not had another case of feeling like time had stopped and the air was no longer responding to attempts to breathe or move it, and this was so much for the better.
Boys didn’t tend to look Vanessa’s way at Saint Francis and Mary High School. Despite the progressive dress code, many of her classmates were still wearing long skirts and dresses, and many of them seemed to have no trouble attracting attention. Sometimes her friend Sarah-Maybeline would confide in her that she received too much attention. This was despite the fact that Sarah-Maybeline’s mother made sure her dress consistently covered her ankles. Vanessa restrained herself from telling her friend what a wonderful problem that was to have.
With eighteen years under her belt, Vanessa was much wiser than she had been. She now understood that it was not her mother’s dubious fashion dogma that kept the boys at bay, it was something fundamentally and deeply wrong at the core of her being that would guarantee a life without affection no matter what remedy she might seek to take. “Comforting” was not the word she would use to describe this new understanding, but it did free her to spend more time on her studies.
Vanessa’s academic performance had skyrocketed over the past five years. Her parents marveled at the way she could read a whole book for English in under two hours and then complete her math homework in fifteen minutes. To her it didn’t feel like two hours or fifteen minutes. She could have sworn she’d been struggling over her math for half an hour and she would look at her grandfather clock in the corner of her room and see only five minutes had passed. Dr. Saunder called this stretching of time the gift of concentration, and when Vanessa suggested that people often thought less time had passed when in deep concentration, not more time, he was not moved. Vanessa didn’t wear her Schaffhausen watch anymore, as despite her local watchmaker’s assurance that it was top of the line and in excellent condition, it ran alarmingly fast, sometimes as many as twelve times faster than the other clocks around her.
Vanessa awoke at six in the morning. No matter when she went to bed, when she awoke it was always six in the morning and she always felt well-rested. She did not tend to be inclined to abuse this phenomenon, as by the time ten at night rolled around, she tended to be thoroughly exhausted from a day that felt twice or three times as long as it should have been. She got out of bed and brushed her teeth, then washed and changed into her school dress.
Vanessa enjoyed the wooded part of her walk to school. A blue jay flew past, reaching out its wings and pushing them down to propel itself forward. “one…. two…” Vanessa counted the beats of the wings as it floated by. She approached a little brown rabbit that didn’t seem to notice her until she was upon it. She wondered sometimes about the slow reactions of animals in this forest. She bent down and touched its soft fur as it tensed its legs to bound away.
At lunch, Vanessa studied with Sarah-Maybeline at the outdoor lunch tables. She was beginning to reconsider this tradition, as more and more it had become Vanessa trying to study while Sarah-Maybeline pretended not to revel in the parade of boys desperately trying to get her attention. Today John “don’t call me Jack” Sprat, the captain of the football team sidled up to them while Vanessa tried to wrap her head around her calculus homework.
“One divided by zero is undefined,” Vanessa told Sarah-Maybeline, following the text slowly with her finger as to move too quickly carried the risk of starting a fire. “But the limit of one divided by x as x approaches zero is infinity.”
“Ha ha ha,” Sarah-Maybeline giggled tossing her auburn curls, “get rid of that stupid ball, dork.”
“The question is what is the limit of one divided by x as x approaches zero from the other direction?”
John flipped the ball in the air. “This ball is most of this school’s funding. A lot of rich Christians want to send their kids to a school that dominates on the field without compromising its traditional values. That money rests on these two shoulders.”
“Mm, broad shoulders. But I don’t care. I don’t need a star football team.”
Vanessa looked up, “Get out of here, John. We’re studying, you know, to get real jobs?”
Sarah-Maybeline fluttered her eyelashes, “Yeah, John, go make out with your stupid ten million dollar ball while you stretch your school-carrying shoulders. They must be so sore.”
John grinned and leaned in closer. Now his football was in the way, so he turned around and pitched it to one of the bigger guys a few tables away. “Heads up!” The burly guy turned his head surprisingly far for his absence of a visible neck and in one fluid motion reached up and snatched the ball from the air. John turned back and put his face right to Sarah-Maybeline’s “They are so sore. I think I need somebody to give them a massage. It would do wonders for the school’s bottom line.
Vanessa spoke up, “That’s a great idea to take to the principle, John,” she suggested, then she adopted a faux masculine voice, “Principle Carpenter, with a small investment of $100 a week for me to have a personal masseuse, I can increase donations to this school by upwards of 10%!”
Sarah-Maybeline giggled devilishly and pushed John away. He stumbled back and was still blinking and trying to understand what had just happened to him when Vanessa looked back down to her textbook. “So if we have a very small denominator, then we get a large number. If we have a very small negative denominator…” there was another shout, “Heads-up!”
Vanessa heard a grunt, and then a sharp intake of breath followed by Sarah-Maybeline’s voice. “Vvvvvvvaaaaaannneeesssssaaaaaa…”
Vanessa shook her head. The hubbub around her had stopped. With a sudden pit in her stomach, she thought she couldn’t breathe, but it wasn’t the case. She could breathe and she could move. John was floating in the air, his arms outstretched towards nothing. Sarah-Maybeline’s eyes were wide and her mouth gaped open in a shout.
Vanessa looked up and saw a football inches from her forehead. She reached up and plucked it out of the air. Everything returned.
“a!” Sarah-Maybeline finished. Then she did a double-take. “Good catch!”
John turned around and for the first time looked directly at Vanessa, all thought of Sarah-Maybeline out of his mind. “Vanessa, right?”
Vanessa furrowed her brow. “Yes… and you’re Jack Sprat.”
John gritted his teeth, but let it pass. “Did you just catch that ball? Did you even know it was coming?”
“I – yes, I clearly caught it, Jack. It was in the air, now it’s in my hand.” She brandished the ball as evidence.
John nodded quickly, “Have you ever played football?”
“What’s a football?” Vanessa sneered.
John nodded and pursed his lips, then he raised a finger, “I’m going to go have a chat with the coach.” He spun around and started away. After a moment, he broke into a sprint.
“You forgot whatever this thing is,” Vanessa shouted after him, throwing it overhand. It slipped out of her hand and bounced on the table and into Sarah-Maybeline’s side.
“Vanessa, ouch!” Sarah-Maybeline whined, putting her hand to her ribs.
“Sorry,” Vanessa shrunk and returned to her calculus. Negative infinity. Once you got it it made perfect sense. There was something satisfying about the order of math.