My dad always told me to follow my gut.
“It knows better than you do, Wes,” he’d say, “and it will never lead you down a path you shouldn’t be on.” For the most part, I trusted him, since he always had some obscure example from his life and had never told me the same story twice. So I had always listened to those little thoughts in the back of my head and the tug in my stomach that told me I should do something, and Lucas Hawthorne had always been right.
But I’m pretty sure my gut had lost its mind.
I was already late for my first class of the semester, but a little scrap of paper on a job board in the student center had caught my eye for no logical reason, and I’d been staring at it for the last ten minutes. It was for a writing internship. A chance to write the biography of one of the country’s top venture capitalists and get paid for it, which was the biggest draw. I was lucky and had school paid for through scholarships, but beyond that I had nothing.
Funny, considering my family was one of the wealthiest in New York.
Shelving books in the NYU library only paid so well, and with only a year left of school, I really needed to figure out what I was going to do once I graduated.
The opportunity was why the internship ad stopped me. The in-person interview process was what kept me frozen in place. I could make myself sound amazing on a written application, but as soon as someone asked me to open my mouth… Well, let’s just say I wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
My watch buzzed the hour to tell me I was officially late to class, and I scanned the QR code on the ad before rushing off. I got one of the last seats in the classroom as well as a look of disappointment from the professor, who had taught a couple of my previous classes, and I chided myself for getting distracted. I only had two semesters left before I had my degree in hand, and I couldn’t afford to lose focus when all my classes were important upper division English courses to help me move forward into a career.
For the first time ever, I couldn’t pay attention to what the professor was saying. My eyes remained fixed on my phone, with the link to sign up for an interview taunting me on the unlocked screen. My gut had told me to stop for a reason, but my brain wasn’t nearly as thrilled.
You’ll bomb the interview anyway, my brain told my gut. Why should you even try?
You want to be a famous writer, my gut argued. How are you going to do that when no one knows who you are?
You’re Wes Hawthorne. Your name alone will get you wherever you want to go.
Dad never wanted our name to define us.
Dad didn’t want to die before he reached sixty, either.
Why’d you have to bring that up?
“Mind if I sit here?”
The whisper to my right made me jump, and I looked over as a girl slid into the only empty seat in the room. Why would she ask when she couldn’t have gone anywhere else? Did she think I would actually tell her no?
She smiled as she started digging through her massive messenger bag, pulling out several notebooks and a pen that had definitely come from this year’s freshman orientation, even though she was too old to be a freshman. “Did I miss any—oops!” She grabbed her coffee cup after knocking it over with her books, barely catching it in time to keep from spilling all over the back of the student in front of her.
She had literally shown up fifteen minutes late with Starbucks, and I fought to hide my smile. She was cuter than most of the girls in my year, even if she was a mess, and I eyed her wild red hair with interest. Like me, all of my siblings had black hair, courtesy of my dad, and there was something fascinating about the way her red curls had a life of their own. I wondered if her hair matched her personality—I had a feeling she was as wild as her hair—but I was definitely spending way too much time looking at her.
Stop being creepy, Wes.
Even though I didn’t say anything, she gave me a quick smile, then shot her hand up into the air.
The professor stuttered to a halt, as he usually didn’t permit questions until the end of his lecture. “Yes?”
“I’m just wondering about this literature analysis in the syllabus,” the girl said, though she didn’t have the syllabus from what I could tell. “You skipped right over it a second ago when you were talking about the major assignments for the semester, and this one counts for a quarter of our grade.”
I glanced at my laptop screen, which was open to that very part of the syllabus. I’d seen it days ago, and I’d been planning to email the professor about it if he didn’t cover it in class today. It looked like I wasn’t the only one, and several people seemed to breathe sighs of relief as they listened to the professor explain the assignment in better detail.
It happened again halfway through our first discussion of the summer reading. My neighbor raised her hand in the middle of a sentence and asked if we were going to cover any books that weren’t written by white men, or if this was one of those male, Eurocentric courses that revealed how backwards most of the world was.
Several people chuckled at that one, especially when the professor turned rather red.
I’d always liked this professor, but as my neighbor continued to ask question after question that challenged his entire course plan, my focus started to drift back to my phone. What could I learn from studying “classic” literature, anyway, when I wanted to write about the modern world? This class, as well as a couple others on my schedule, was only going to delve into one certain way of thinking.
I wanted to shake things up, the way my dad had when he stepped into the world of over-wealthy business owners and showed them it was possible to still have a heart underneath all his money.
I didn’t have many big plans for my life, but I did want to be like my dad. To be more.
Before I could think myself out of it, I pulled up the site listed on the internship ad and signed up for an interview, my fingers shaking the whole time. Maybe I was going to utterly fail the interview process, but at least I would be able to say I tried.
This was my literal nightmare. And that wasn’t an exaggeration. When I showed up for my internship interview three days after signing up, I suddenly found myself in a room with a dozen chairs lined up in a circle. Six people already sat in the circle, all of them dressed to the nines and looking at me like they thought I was in the wrong place.
They were probably right, but I sat down anyway as the blood started to pump through my veins with increasing speed, pounding in my ears until it drowned out the muted conversations buzzing around me. A group interview? Seriously? It couldn’t be one-on-one, which was bad enough, but it had to be my fear compounded twelve times. I’d literally had nightmares about this kind of thing, where my life was in danger and the only way to save myself was to open my mouth and speak.
I usually ended up waking in a cold sweat at the moment I dream-died.
More people filtered in over the next couple of minutes, including an older woman in a flowing floral dress and a sun hat who started making the rounds and asking people what their names were. I figured she was the one holding the interview, though she didn’t look like the kind of person who would work for one of the richest women in the country. With her gray hair pulled into a thick braid, she looked like the kind of person who would drive cross country in an RV and take blurry selfies in front of Mount Rushmore.
“And who are you?” she asked when she got to me.
It’s just your name, Wes. You know your name.
I took a deep breath, putting all of my focus into getting the words out. “Wes,” I breathed. Not bad, not great. “Hawthorne.” That one came out even quieter.
The woman smiled wide, lingering on me a little longer than she had most people. “Nice to meet you, Wes Hawthorne.”
And that was that. She moved on to the next person until she sat down with only one other chair left. The one next to me, since most of the people in the room had been in the same classes as me for the last three years and knew I wasn’t good for casual conversation. Or any conversation, for that matter.
“Well,” the woman said after a moment, and all talking died down. “We might as well get started; I don’t believe in wasting time on things that don’t matter. You can all call me Bobby, and we’re just going to jump right into things. Why do you want this internship?”
She’d asked that question while her eyes swept the room, so none of us knew who she was talking to. Everyone glanced at each other, trying to decide who was supposed to answer. With the way Bobby narrowed her eyes in the ensuing silence, I had a feeling this was exactly how she wanted us to feel.
“Sorry I’m late!” someone said, and we all turned to the door as the redhead from my literature class flew into the room and dropped her stack of notebooks over the head of the person closest to the door. “Oops, sorry! I got lost on my way here, and I…” She paused, her eyes going wide as she realized how many people were in the same room. “Am I in the right place?”
Bobby lifted one corner of her mouth in a sinister smile. “That depends.”
The girl tugged a piece of paper from the notebook stack the guy handed her with a scowl. “Um, I’m late for an interview for an internship with Roberta Jenkins. Is this…?” She sank into the chair next to me anyway and leaned over until our shoulders nearly touched. “I’m in the right place, right?” she asked me.
I nodded, putting a little more space between us in case she actually did try to touch me.
“Are they taking us to a different room individually, or…?”
I had no easy way to answer that question silently, so I did my best, muttering, “Group interview.”
“Seriously?” She spoke so loudly that a few people jumped, though she didn’t get embarrassed like I would have. “Sorry, I didn’t mean… I’m just wondering why this kind of thing would be a group interview. Wouldn’t it make more sense to do it individually so you can get a sense of our style and voice?”
Bobby’s smile grew. “Oh, I think this method works pretty well, actually, and I can weed out the unlikelies a lot faster. What’s your name?”
The girl blushed, her energy dimming as if she was realizing she was probably one of the unlikelies. “Sammy Faraday,” she mumbled.
I felt bad for her. A little. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about her being competition, but I still had ten others to compete against. And not a single one of them had ever had a problem voicing their opinions in class. I knew this well, and so did they.
“I’ll ask again,” Bobby said, her eyes sweeping the room again. “Why do you want this internship?”
While a few people raised their hands, several people spoke at once, collectively realizing that the only way to give an answer was to speak it without invitation.
Literal. Nightmare. How was I supposed to be heard over all of these people when I couldn’t even get my own name out clearly? That didn’t stop me from trying every time Bobby asked a new question, though I only got half a word in each time before my voice caught in my throat, leaving me completely mute.
My brain had been right. My gut thought I could do this, but my past would always get in my way. If only my dad were still here. I’d never had a problem talking to him.
I shut my mouth after a couple of minutes. It wasn’t doing me any good anyway, and I might as well ride this thing out and get back to normal life. This internship may have been exactly what I was hoping for, but I should have known I would never be good enough to follow my dream.
To be like Dad.
“Hey!” Sammy suddenly jumped to her feet, her red curls bouncing as she did so. “How are you supposed to get to know someone like Eric here if you can’t even hear him over all this nonsense?”
Wait, she’d just gestured to me. “My name isn’t Eric,” I said without thinking.
Her lips quirked up in a smile. “Yeah, well, you look like him. From The Little Mermaid?” Then her gaze slid over me from head to toe, making me squirm until her growing smile brought blazing heat to my face.
I dropped my own gaze to the floor immediately. Even if she thought I was attractive—which probably wasn’t the case and I was being uncharacteristically egotistical—it wasn’t like we would ever talk after today.
“Hmm.” Bobby sounded like she appreciated Sammy’s outburst. “You make a fair point,” she said after a moment. “How about this? I’ll give each of you one sentence to prove you’re right for the project. One. We’ll start with you.”
She pointed to the guy on Sammy’s other side, who went completely pale and fumbled for something to say. What came out of his mouth was the most convoluted run-on sentence I’d ever heard as he tried to fit as many qualifications as he could into one line. The girl next to him did the same thing, though with a little more finesse. As we went around the circle, everyone talked about how amazing they were and how well they would write the biography, and Bobby took each answer with a nod but nothing else.
What was she hoping to hear? I had no idea, but I knew it wouldn’t do me any good to say what I thought she might want me to say. If I was going to say anything—jury was still out on whether I’d be able to—it had to be me. I had to say what I thought was the right answer.
When it came to my turn, I cleared my throat and ignored the several people who sat forward in interest; most of them had never heard me say a word and probably thought they were about to witness a miracle. This felt like my dreams—a matter of life or death—and I would not let my stupid hang-ups be the death of me now that my future might be at stake. I needed this internship.
“It doesn’t matter who writes the book,” I said slowly, “because it’s about the person whose story we’re telling and the life she’s lived.”
By some miracle, my words came out clear and strong, though it felt like all of my energy had come out with them. If nothing else, I could call that an accomplishment.
It was Sammy’s turn, and she was back to being bright and bubbly as she said, “A project like this isn’t about skill or training, and even the best writer can get the story wrong if they’re not willing to be true to the spirit of what they’re writing.”
Either she was really good at coming up with things to say on the fly, or she’d been planning to say almost the same thing I had, and I couldn’t help but stare at her for a moment. Sure, she was probably always late and disorganized, but she seemed intelligent and thoughtful. And she was exceptionally pretty, though I wasn’t sure why I added that classification. Besides, she was the only reason I’d gotten the chance to say anything in the first place.
Bobby said something I didn’t really hear, distracted as I was by the girl next to me, and then everyone started gathering up their things and shuffling from the room. I took my time closing up my backpack, hoping to get a moment alone with Sammy, who was having a hard time stuffing all of her things into her bag.
Maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to freak her out by lingering with her in the room alone, so I grabbed my bag and went out into the hall so I could wait there. Bobby gave me a curious—and oddly thorough—look as she passed, but that was the only interaction we had until she disappeared down the hall.
It would be our last.
When Sammy finally came out, she saw me and stopped with her eyebrows pulled together.
I only had one shot at this before I was too cowardly to try again, and I really hoped I wasn’t going to waste this moment. “Thanks,” I told her.
And then I ran.