Paint by Numbers

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Paint by Numbers

Kassandra sighed. Another math problem, and not a particularly pretty one at all, it reflected browns and grays. She glanced at the blank canvas on her easel with longing. Not now, her mother had said; finish the assignment and then you can paint.

A twinge of pain stabbed between her eyebrows. Planting her elbows on each side of the homework paper, she massaged her temples, making a teepee over the equation. A Laplace transform stared back at her. So tedious. Why was she doing differential equations when all her friends were struggling with calculus?

You have a gift, her mother's cold voice replied in her mind. Her mother acted so tense about mathematics all the time. Kassie wondered why--a full math scholarship to the local university was all but assured. Mom's aura used to be a soothing blue, but now a bright red flamed around her that seared into Kassie's eyes.

Kassie's gaze slid back to the canvas waiting in the corner of her bedroom near the double windows. Her paintings hung on every inch of wall space, they were piled on the floor and stacked on her dresser--only her twin bed and desk remained clear. Okay, so maybe she was a bit obsessed. But the potential of that white space called to her. It was her headache release. The only time the pain stopped was when she surrendered to the colors and painted.

With effort, she refocused on the math problem. She grabbed a pencil and wrote all the steps to the answer. Heaven forbid if she skipped steps. She gasped with mock horror. How would Mom ever know if she really did the work and didn't just Google it?

Her mood improved as she worked through the calculations. The problem became prettier as she moved through it. There were lots of twos. Twos were aquamarine, and the solution promised more color. Taking a break, Kassie stared absently at the easel. She wouldn't have time to paint tonight. Then a compromise jumped into her mind. Perhaps she could do both.

Excited by the idea, Kassie went to her computer and activated her color software. She placed a clean palette under the dispenser. The dispenser was made of a ring of thin metal tubes with rubber nipples on the ends. Each tube contained a specific color of paint, and, when guided by the computer, the nipple spat out a measured portion onto the palette.

The dispenser had been a gift from her father when his laboratory had updated to the latest model. He needed the newest equipment, since he was a well-known fertility expert with an unprecedented ninety percent of conception rate. A surge of pride warmed her chest. Without his skills with in vitro fertilization, she wouldn't have been born. And he was famous enough to have distracters. Other fertility doctors claimed his work was immoral, yet her dad has never been investigated. Funny how jealousy and back-stabbing wasn't confined to high school.

Despite her mother's chagrin, Kassie had been thrilled over the dispenser. Her father knew how she hated to mix colors with a paintbrush, how hard it was to precisely match them. Once programmed, the dispenser consistently solved this problem, mixing the exact colors she needed for her paintings.

She punched the math equation into the computer. The dispenser spun and doled out quarter-sized gobs of paint. When the palette was full, Kassie painted the math problem on her canvas. Back and forth from canvas to computer, Kassie worked on the Laplace transform, painting the colors of the numbers and symbols. Colors only she could see.

Kassie was so engrossed in her painting that she didn't hear her bedroom door open.

"Kassandra Reed," her mother said. Her voice was as tight as last year's fashions. "Is your homework done?"

"Almost," Kassie said. She bit the end of her paintbrush as her mother walked to the desk.

"You've barely started." Her mother's expression hardened.

The danger signs were there: tense muscles, hands glued to hips, pressed lips, and spine as straight as a highway in Kansas. Kassie chose her words with as much care as she chose her paintbrushes. "I'm painting the math problem. See?" She pointed to the canvas. Only one line left to paint and it would be complete. To Kassie it was clear. She walked over to the desk and wrote the answer in pencil. "A compromise."

"You did what?" Confusion bunched her mother's eyebrows together. They hovered over her small brown eyes.

Kassie tried to explain. But as storm clouds thickened around her mother's head, she knew she was in for a full gale. A reminder--as if she could forget--of how much her mother disliked the fact that she saw colored numbers, how she believed it flawed Kassie's gift. This painting was throwing it into her mother's face.

"What's the matter?" Kassie's father asked from the doorway.

Thank infinity! Her dad stepped into the room, completely oblivious to Mom's four hundred-degree glare. Kassie showed him the painting, and demonstrated how it resolved the problem by filling in the last line.

"Clever," her father said. "Now what do you do with the picture?"

Kassie stepped back, considering. Despite the jumble of colors, there was a pattern. Using burnt sienna first then cobalt blue, she laced lines across the canvas.

"Two women?" her father asked. "No, wait, it's the same lady. A mirror image. That's great."

"No, it isn't," her mother said, freezing the smile on her dad's face. "She's supposed to be doing her homework."

"But--" Kassie tried.

Thrusting the math paper into her hands, her mother said, "Do it the right way, now. And you're grounded for a week for this little stunt."

"Fine," Kassie said, slamming the paper down on her desk. "I won't make any difference to me. I've been technically grounded for the last seventeen years because you won't let me have a job, drive, or go out with my friends. All you let me do is math." She spat the words at her mother.

"In that case, no painting for a week."

Stunned Kassie gaped at her.

"I thought that would shut your smart mouth." Her mother left the room.

Kassie turned to her father, but he clicked into helpless henpecked mode and followed Mom. Frustrated anger consumed her and she stabbed the pencil into the painting. It broke and her hand smeared the still wet picture. She tried three more pencils before her temper fizzled and her headache returned with a vengeance. Signing, she washed her hands in her bathroom--adding more colored flecks to the once-white basin.

Back at her desk, she worked on the math problem. An hour later, a strange warmth brushed her skin, interrupting her concentration. The air in the room thickened with the heavy scent of smoke. The light in her bedroom dimmed as the furniture blurred and spun. A migraine induced delusion? Kassie no longer sat at her computer desk. Instead she was at an old rolled-top desk. Candlelight shone on a leather journal spread open in front of her. The thick pages were filled with complex mathematical equations. An open bottle of black ink was on the right side with one of those strange metal pens lying next to it.

Kassie froze, taking in a few deep breaths to steady her out-of-control heart. The oily aroma of melted wax filled her nose as the smoke stung her eyes. Her bedroom had transformed into some old-fashioned nightmare. Was that an abacus? And a protractor? They replaced her computer and cellphone. The candles lined the top of the desk.

This had to be an illusion. Kassie touched a flame. She jerked her hand back as the heat singed her fingers. The pain jolted her from the vision and her bedroom solidified around her.

Sucking on her fingers, Kassie scanned the room. Everything remained the same. No creepy desk. But what about her red skin? The candle had stood where her desk light was, she must have burnt her fingers on the bulb.

It had to be stress. Right? She was exhausted and emotionally drained. Was that a psychotic break? Do teenagers get them? Afraid the strange vision would return, Kassie finished her homework in record time and crawled into bed.

That night her sleep was troubled by dreams of an endless parade of kaleidoscopic numbers. They marched by in wave after wave. When she woke up in a cold sweat at three a.m., she choked back tears. She couldn't escape the pressure even in her dreams.


The next day, Kassie couldn't focus on Professor Millen's lecture. She was preoccupied by the black-haired, Herculean god named Zeckland, who sat one row down and two seats over from her. The best part of having to sit through a college math class, was the college men. They were not like the boys at her high school at all.

After attending her high school classes in the morning, she rode the public bus downtown to Longshore University. She'd arrived early just so she could listen to Zeckland and his friends gossip and boast while she pretended to study her textbook. They ignored her as usual as they draped themselves on the desks near her seat. She imagined taking Zeckland to her senior prom. Every girl in her school would drool with envy.

"A perfect paper as always, Miss Reed." Professor Millen's comment jerked her from her daydream as he handed her the latest test.

The other students stared at her. Fire spread across her cheeks as the desire to slide under her desk pulsed in her chest. She wished the Professor would stop commenting on her scores each time. If he was trying to shame the other students into doing better, it wasn't working. Most of the glances were laced with poison; she had blown the curve again.

After class, Kassie waited for her mother to pick her up at the student union café. Normally, she would retreat to the library, but today she had no desire to surround herself with quiet. Instead, she found an empty table in the back corner. When she finished her differential equations homework, she pulled out her sketchbook. No painting didn't mean no drawing. Besides, the avid faces of the students grouped together around the café inspired her. They glowed with life and passion as they talked.

She drew portraits and compared them to her own features. Her straight nose matched her poker straight hair, which hung down her back. With blond hair and blue eyes, Kassie didn't resemble either her mother or father, who both had brown hair and eyes. She actually resembled her great-great-grandmother of all people. Her father had shown her an old photograph of a woman with the same oval face and high cheekbones as Kassie's.

One particularly noisy group grabbed her attention. It was Zeckland and his friends. They caught her staring. Mortified, she ducked her head behind her sketchbook.

After a minute, she peeked out. The guys were headed straight for her. Panicked, she stuffed the sketchbook into her backpack, and concentrated on her homework, trying to appear calm despite the fact that her arms and legs had just gone numb.

"Hey, it's Miss Perfect Paper Reed," Zeckland said.

Kassie glanced up into his blue eyes. A smile softened his words. He wore jeans, black cowboy boots with silver accents, black T-shirt, a silver necklace with a cross, and a black leather jacket. And he was surrounded by a purple aura. In other words, he was perfection incarnated.

She forced sound through her tight throat. "It's Kass."

He introduced himself and his two friends, Levi and Riley. Levi's aura was a midnight blue, and Riley's was brown flecked with copper. Without invitation, Zeckland sat across from her as the others dragged chairs from nearby tables. Kassie kept forgetting to breathe as Zeckland ordered her a coffee. Sleek confidence oozed from his every gesture.

"Finished already?" he asked, pulling her homework toward him.

She nodded, unable to talk for fear of embarrassing herself.

"Man." He shook his head. "This is a tough one and you managed to complete it in..." He looked at his cellphone. "Half an hour."

Levi and Riley whistled in appreciation. Sudden feeling returned to her limbs as hot fire raced along her skin. They removed their differential equation textbooks and paper from their backpacks.

"We're having a hard time with this class. Perhaps you could help us?" Zeckland asked.

Kassie stared at him for a moment in shock. "Sure."

"Dr. Millen the villain," Levi said as he wrote the homework problem on his sheet. "Ancient, dinosaur guy, won't let us use our laptops. I haven't used a pencil in years."

"The pointy end goes down," Riley teased.

The coffee arrived and, as the guys worked on the math, Kassie took a tentative sip. The strong bitter taste flooded her mouth. When she looked around the café, everything had a maroon tinge to it as if she had just donned a pair of red sunglasses. It was kinda cool and strange at the same time.

Then another vision descended. The café turned into a large classroom with chalkboards on stands. Equations covered the boards. She sat with a number of men dressed in strange formal suits. They occupied a wooden conference table, drinking coffee and discussing mathematics.

Before she panicked, Kassie gulped her drink. The hot liquid seared her throat and restored her to the present.

Zeckland and his friends were concentrating on their books. If they noticed any odd behavior from her, they didn't show it. Relieved, she leaned back. Occasionally, they stopped to ask Kassie a question, or to look at her paper for guidance. She also noticed they were easily distracted by anyone that entered or left the café.

Their auras flickered and dulled at times. Usually Kassie liked to study auras. By the way the light moved and flashed around someone, Kassie could determine quite a bit about that person's personality. But after that crazy vision, she was quite distracted.

"Hey, Zeck," Riley said. "Don't forget the Hex Girls are playing tonight at the Gaff."

"Happy hour starts at six. If we don't go early we'll never get a table," Levi said.

Zeckland glanced at his phone. "There's plenty of time, unless you guys need dates, then there isn't enough time in the world."

"At least we're not secretly in love with the Hex Girls' drummer," Riley said. "Oh, Veruke," he continued in a high-pitched voice. "You're the heartbeat of the band, your drumsticks fly like the wind."

Riley and Levi laughed while Zeckland shook his head.

"Children," Zeckland said disdainfully to Kassie. "I'd ask you to come along, but you're the youngest looking freshman I've seen. Unless you got a killer fake ID, there's no way the bouncers will let you in."

"That's okay, I already have plans." Delighted that he believed she was a college freshman, she tried to sound sophisticated and worldly even though her plans included being grounded and alone in her bedroom.

"Maybe next time," Zeckland said.

And it was the possibility of next time that had Kassie's full attention as the guys finished their papers, packed up and said goodbye. The possibility of next time made her late meeting her mother and allowed her to blissfully ignore her mother's griping on the way home.

Except when Mom declared, "I'm signing you up for two college classes next semester."

Startled from her happy place, she asked, "Which ones?"

"Differential equations 201, and Physics 104, they're both late afternoon classes, so you won't miss any school."

How about missing her life? "Can I take an art class instead of physics?" She tried just for the sake of trying.

"No. You don't need art classes."

"But I want to take art. Doesn't that matter? Perhaps I'll meet someone else who sees colors."

"That's enough, Kassandra. This art thing is just a hobby. I won't have this...this...synesthesia..." Her mom said the word like she was pulling a hair from her mouth. "Interfering with your math studies."

Well, that was progress. Her mother had actually spoken the name of Kassie's neurological phenomena aloud. Synesthesia. "But--"

"No more. How can you whine when you have been given this gift? I would have killed for your talents. Everything I ever did in my life was average. No matter what I tried or how hard I practiced or studied the results were always the same. Average." Kassie's mother gripped the steering wheel hard, staring straight ahead. "You were doing long division at age four. You're destined to become a great mathematician. How can you waste your gift by wanting to paint?" Her mother pulled the car into the garage.

Kassie jerked the car door open. "It's not a gift. It's a curse." She slammed the door and ran to her room.


Kassie was working on her homework when her father brought her dinner and a present.

"What's this?" Kassie asked as she opened the bag. She pulled out a CD, and turned it over in her hands. She didn't recognize the name on the label. "Michael Torke?"

"He's a New York composer. His compositions were inspired by his synesthesia. See the names?"

Kassie read the song titles. Bright Blue Music. Yellow Page.

"I thought you might like it. You know, a kindred spirit."

"Thanks," she said without much enthusiasm.

Her father sighed and studied her for a while. He eventually left, but he startled her when he returned with his medical bag.

"I'm fine," she insisted.

For once he was stern. "You're jumpy and irritable," he said.

He performed a quick check of her vitals. "Any problems? Headaches? Stomach pains? Dizziness? Trouble sleeping?"

Kassie answered no to all of them even though her head pounded and she had nightmares. Not to mention those strange visions. If she admitted that, her mother would get involved. And that would give Mom another thing to nag her about. Did you take your pills? How did you sleep? And on and on.

"You look tired, Sweets. Promise me you'll go to bed early the next couple of nights?"

"I promise, Daddy."

When her father left, Kassie changed into her Dr. Who pajamas. Determined to keep her promise, she hoped it would help ease the guilt over lying to her father. Kassie slid her new CD into her computer and turned the speaker volume low. Perhaps the music would help soothe her dreams. It worked for a while. Colored bubbles drifted in her mind. Then equations grew inside the bubbles, expanding the soapy spheres until they popped, numbers rained down on her.

As she raced to solve the equations, monstrous dogs with sharp silver teeth pursued her. If she slowed down, they would consume her.


Professor Millen's class was more enjoyable now that Zeckland, Levi and Riley sat next to Kassie. Instead of having to eavesdrop on their conversations, she was now included in them. For several weeks, Kassie and her new friends sat together for class, then ambled over to the café for coffee and to work on their homework. And best of all, no more creepy visions.

She had painted a portrait of Zeckland using the colors of the letters in his name. The first letter of any word tended to taint the following letters. Since Kassie saw Z as black with gold flecks, the other letters leaned toward the jewel tones. The portrait rendered his image with gold-flecked black hair, sapphire eyes, ruby lips, and amber skin.

Studying Zeckland at the café, Kassie thought her painting had captured his inner essence and it was her favorite project to date.

For the first time in a long while Kassie enjoyed math. Math had been fun until her mother had turned into the mathematics police. Mom never discussed anything else with her. Kassie couldn't understand why. It wasn't like she was preparing for the Olympics or that there was a deadline. Why couldn't she learn differential equations when she was actually in college? Far away from her mother.

When Professor Millen handed out their third test paper with his usual comments, instead of receiving hostile stares, she received broad smiles from her friends. Zeckland was in good spirits as Kassie's tutoring had paid off. He and his buddies had gotten high scores on their tests, but their auras flickered as if something wasn't quite right. They were probably just worried about the next test.

Two thirds of the way into the semester, Professor Millen surprised the class. "I know the syllabus said there will be four tests and a final, but in lieu of the fourth test I want you to write a paper on a mathematician. Call it a mini-biography. I want ten to twelve pages, double-spaced. And no researching on the Internet, I want you to have actual book references. Here." He emailed the class the details of the assignment.

The students groaned audibly.

"What does he think he's doing?" Levi whispered. "Math professors don't assign term papers."

"Especially not when the semester's almost over," Riley said.

"Someone should complain to the dean. Millen's not thinking with all his primary numbers," Levi said.

"Quiet, guys," Zeckland ordered. "It'll be easy. A break from solving problems and none of the hassle of studying for a test."

After class, Riley and Levi complained all the way to the library, but Zeckland seemed upbeat.

"Did you have a mathematician in mind?" Kassie asked Zeckland.

"I was thinking about Laplace. You know, the transform guy? Except that's all I know about him."

"Marquis Pierre Simon de Laplace, French mathematician and astronomer, 1749 to 1827."

"Friend of yours?" Zeckland teased.

"Distant cousin," she said.

As Zeckland laughed, Kassie watched his purple aura brighten around him. When the four of them entered the library, the guys gawked like tourists.

"Don't tell me," Kassie said. "You've never been to the library?"

Three identical guilty looks flashed her way. She groaned.

"It's too quiet," Levi said.

"Too serious." Riley agreed.

"And they don't serve drinks," Zeckland said. "If you want me to frequent a place, it's gotta have a menu."

They giggled like children as Kassie led them to a hidden nook on the third floor. It was her favorite spot, since it was surrounded on three sides by bookcases.

To Kassie, the library was one giant stained glass window. Brilliant colors gleamed from all directions and when no one was looking, she liked to turn a circle and watch the colors change and blend. It was just like being in the middle of a kaleidoscope.

Resisting the urge to spin, she searched for books on mathematicians. Computers had infiltrated every aspect of life, but the book still persevered. There was no comparison to the sensation of holding a physical book in hand, the clean smell of ink, and the smooth feel of the pages.

When she returned with a stack of biographies, Levi and Riley had no idea who they wanted to research so they let her pick. Choosing mathematicians for them was easy, but she had a harder time finding someone that interested her until she found a book on women mathematicians. Happy with her search, she headed back to the table.

As the guys read through their books, Kassie flipped through the pages of her volume. It was unbelievable how many women had pursued math. Even back in the 1800's, there were some that had gotten a Ph.D. Not quite sure what she was looking for, Kassie scanned the pages.

An image flew off the page like an exploding rainbow. Strange since the old photo was faded and grainy. Underneath the picture was: Cora Bennel, 1886 to 1916. Kassie read through Cora's biography. Cora Bennel had gotten her Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1912. And she had been a painter. Perfect.

Over the next week Kassie researched Cora. During that time, a strong feeling of familiarity nagged at her. All of Kassie's extended family either lived far away or were dead. But maybe, just maybe Cora was related to her. Poor Cora was thirty years old when she died in a fire, but she could have had a child. Perhaps she was a three times removed cousin or very distant aunt--one could hope. It would explain why Kassie had a gift for numbers. And just be really cool.

At dinner a couple of nights before the paper was due, she asked her parents about the old photograph of her great-great-grandmother her dad had shown her when she was little.

Her mother frowned. A forkful of mashed potatoes frozen in mid-air. "Why do you need it?"

Only one answer would appease her mother. "It's for school."

Glancing at her father, Mom asked, "Do you still have all those old photos?"

"Yes, but what's it for?" her father asked.

"We're learning genetics in science. You know, dominate and recessive genes. Stuff like that." Kassie shrugged, downplaying her interest.

"What about us?" He pointed his knife at Mom. "We're closer."

"Mr. Schaffer said to bring a photo from our oldest relative."

He looked at Kassie with his thoughtful face, but Mom didn't seem bothered by the request. A role reversal. But he finally agreed. After dinner she trailed him to his office.

"I hope you know that I can answer any questions you might have about genetics." He gave her a self-deprecating smile. "I am the expert."

She paused at the entrance to the room. "You're not going to try to explain the birds and bees to me again...are you?" Kassie pressed her hands to her chest in mock horror.

"I'm never going to live that down am I?" he asked.

"Nope." Kassie wove her way through the messy piles of books and papers on the floor. How did he find anything? Colors popped and flowed around her feet. The room smelled of his cologne--Old Spice. She flopped on the leather armchair in front of his desk. "I did learn one thing from that talk, tho."

"Really?" Her father rummaged in the closet.

"Yeah. I learned the definition of unmitigated disaster." Her mother had used that phrase quite a few times while laughing on the phone with her friends.

"Funny." His dry tone indicated he was not amused. He sat behind his desk and passed her a wooden box. "This is her keepsake box. It's all I have so please be careful."

Kassie kept her expression neutral, but her heart tapped against her chest like an impatient toddler wanting attention. A flora design had been etched into the wood along with initials. C.B.R.

Her pulse sped up as she traced them. "What's her full name?"

"Catherine Benton Reed, my grandfather's mother. Benton was her maiden name."

Kassie wilted. So close. Oh well. She had known the odds weren't in her favor, but a girl could hope.

Her father's cell phone rang. He glanced at the display. "Sorry, it's a client. Dr. Reed speaking."

No wanting to hear about some lady's fertility problems, Kassie took the box to her bedroom. Sitting at her desk, she opened the lid. The photograph of Catherine rested on top. It was the one she remembered. Dressed in an old-fashioned ruffled gown, her hair was pulled up into one of those puffy buns that resemble a hat. Her great-great-grandmother looked to be about twenty or so, but it was hard to tell--everyone in those old photos appeared to be older due to their dour expressions. No doubt Kassie was related to the woman, they had the same cheekbones, pointy chin and forehead. Actually, Kassie looked more like Catherine now than when she was little.

A musty smell laced with wood smoke floated up when she removed the photo for a closer look. Underneath was a collection of tarnished jewelry, a few coins, a silver comb and a hairbrush with a couple blond strands still coiled around the bristles. At the bottom was a leather book. The journal was familiar. She searched her memories and remembered her first strange vision--the old-fashioned office with the book on the roll-top desk.

The room spun and the scent of wax threatened to dominate her senses. Determined not to have another hallucination, Kassie opened the journal. Equations lined the pages just like in the vision. Candlelight flickered on the edge of her vision.

No. Kassie concentrated on the numbers, recognizing the proofs and theorems. Was this Catherine's book or her husbands? At least someone else in the family enjoyed math. Calmer, Kassie flipped through the pages until the numbers ended and the colors began. Page after page of splotches of paint.

Another vision? Her cellphone remained in its charger. Whew. But as she stared at the colors, Kassie recognized the pattern. It was very similar to her Laplace transform painting. And if she concentrated...she could turn those colors into numbers.

Kassie pushed back from her desk. Did her great-great-grandmother have synesthesia as well as high cheek bones, an oval face, blond hair, and a love of math? That would be...too much of a coincidence.

She fingered the brittle blond strands on the hairbrush. A sick uneasy feeling swirled in her stomach. Kassie grabbed her backpack and pulled out her research book. The one with Cora Bennel's picture. Opening to Cora's section, Kassie studied the photograph, comparing it to Catherine's. Oval face, light-colored hair, high cheekbones. Kassie's gaze returned to the hair wound around the bristles. How long did DNA last? Her father would know. She gasped as a horrible, awful thought filled her head.

An unwelcome image of Kassie's father digging up a casket to retrieve DNA samples shuddered in her mind. Dr. Reed the famous fertility doctor with mud splattered on his lab coat. Mrs. Reed the average woman nagging for a special child. Dr. Reed risking his medical license and potential jail time for a math genius extraordinaire. Was Kassie a clone?

Was she only alive to serve her parent's goals? She wasn't an original work of art, but wearing borrowed skin, and remembering borrowed memories. Cora/Catherine's memories. At least that explained the visions.

Unable to sleep, she tossed and turned all night. Were her parents planning to tell her? Probably not. Should she confront her father? Would it change anything? They would still push her into math, and they would load more guilt onto her. It was obvious that if Cora/Catherine lived longer she could have been a famous mathematician. But that didn't mean Kassie had to be one as well. Cora earned her Ph.D. in a time when women didn't attend college. She didn't follow the expected path, but pursued her passion.

Kassie sat up in bed. The immense pressure on chest eased with a flash of insight. She hadn't realized how much pressure she was under until the weight was lifted and she was buoyant again.


The next day she entered Dr. Millen's classroom and marched up to Zeckland and his friends with determination.

"What's wrong, Kass?" Zeckland asked.

The three guys were staring at her in concern.

"I would like you guys to stop copying off me," she said.

Their aura's flashed and sparked for three mouth drying breaths.

"Sure," Levi said.

"No problem," Riley said.

Zeckland remained quiet for a while. Finally, he said, "Sorry, Kass. Still friends?"


"How can I make it up to you?" Zeckland asked.

"Will you go to my senior prom with me?"

Zeckland's purple aura colored toward red. "Senior? As in high school senior?"

"Yes. I was afraid to tell you before, but since we' honest..." Heat flushed up her neck.

"When is it?" he asked.

"May ninth."

Zeckland removed his laptop, typed, and then showed her his updated calendar. "Looking forward to it."

Kassie smiled. At least she had one thing planned for her new future.


That night at the dinner table, Kassie upset her mother like a terrorist attack when she announced her decision not to take any additional college-level classes.

"I'm stressed out, can't sleep, and I've had a headache since the first day of school." She cut off her father's outrage at being lied to, "Sorry, Dad, I thought I could handle it and I didn't want to worry you."

Her father's green aura stayed steady and Kassie knew he was an ally. Unfortunately, by the nuclear glow coming from her mother, she knew the battle wasn't over.

Before her mother could form a response, Kassie said, "Go ahead and ground me until I'm eighteen, Mom. You can sign me up for college classes, but I won't attend. I'm not changing my mind."

She left the dinner table and returned to her room to finish her research paper for Dr. Millen. Cora was fascinating. When Cora was promoted to full professor, she was one of just four women at Indiana University to hold that rank and a few of her paintings still hang in the university's art gallery.

That night her father came to tuck her into bed.

"Dad, I'm seventeen," she said, trying to sound annoyed.

"Sweets, I don't care how old you are, you're still my little girl."

The truth of his words burned deep down inside her. She always knew she owed her life to him, but that didn't mean she had to live it his way.

He pushed her bangs to the side. "Your mother is having a meltdown, but I explained to her the dangers of putting too much stress on you, and she reluctantly agreed to ease up. What do you want to do now?"

"I want to be a teenager and not some math genius. I want to paint. I want a job."

Her father laughed. "I'll pay you to mow the lawn."

"No. I want to work in the bookstore."


"The colors are amazing. It would be like working in a ninety-six count box of crayons."

"Okay, Sweets. Anything for you." He kissed her forehead and pulled the covers up to her chin.

"Dad?" she asked. "If I don't grow up to be a famous mathematician and solve Hilbert's last two problems, will you still love me?" Cora had been working on them before she had died. Of the twenty-three problems he proposed back in 1900, only two remained unsolved.

Ripples shot through his aura, but he maintained his composure. "Of course. I will love you regardless." His voice was weak and he left her room quickly.

After a few minutes, Kassie hopped out of bed and cracked her door open an inch. Her parents' frantic whispering drifted up from the living room. She smiled. Let them whisper.

I hoped you enjoyed this story! You can read sixteen more stories in UP TO THE CHALLENGE, my new collection of short stories that is available in both print and eBook editions. You can find worldwide order links HERE:


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